If a writing fairy popped out of an old typewriter and granted me the ability to fix one craft problem in all the unpublished manuscripts across the realm I would probably terrify it by how quickly I’d shout, “PERSPECTIVES! For the love of Melville fix the broken perspectives!!”
You probably know there are three main perspectives to choose from in a novel: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
(We’ll pretend second person doesn’t exist, as it probably shouldn’t. Unless you’re Ocean Vuong).
Here’s the thing: If you’ve chosen one of the third person perspectives, you may not realize that you’re going about it all wrong.
That’s because people often confuse an omniscient perspective with the very common and extremely wicked gremlin of writing craft: awkward head jumping.
In this post I’m going to show you how to spot the difference between third person omniscient, third person limited, and head jumping, and give you tips on writing with a cohesive perspective instead of completely disorienting the reader.
First, let’s start with some definitions.
What is third person omniscient?
A third person omniscient perspective is often compared to a god’s-eye view because the narrative voice is able to show anything it wants the reader to see. An omniscient voice knows what’s happening in all places and can divine what every single character is thinking.
There are no limits to what can be shown by an omniscient narrator. We can zoom around to various locales and we can dip into characters’ heads as needed.
But while an omniscient perspective can see all thoughts, it is typically a consistent, unified voice, almost as if there’s an unnamed character (or sometimes even a named one) who is narrating the action and guiding the reader through the scene.
What is third person limited?
As the name implies, third person limited is more, well, limited. It’s typically tied to one character at a time. Even though it’s written in third person, there’s an anchoring character and we only see the events through their perspective.
This means that we only know what the anchoring character is thinking and only see what the anchoring character is seeing. Any other character’s thoughts have to be inferred through actions, gestures, or dialogue.
There can be multiple third person limited perspectives in a novel, but typically these are wholly contained within a chapter or section before the perspective shifts in a new chapter or section.
What is head jumping in a novel?
Here’s where the problems start. Sometimes people try to create an omniscient perspective through an assemblage of third person limited perspectives.
We see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking. The reader is bopped around the scene willy-nilly as we bounce from character to character.
Often writers will even shift the perspective within the same paragraph or even the same sentence. There isn’t a unified single voice, but rather more like a cacaphony of voices.
Third person pop quiz
Okay class, it’s time to sharpen those #2 pencils. I’m going to write a scene using each of the above perspectives. See if you can spot which one is which.
Nathan sits at his apartment in Brooklyn on a bright Monday morning. The Manhattan skyline sparkles in the distance. Two hawks swoop around a radio antenna perched atop an old brick high school.
He hits “publish” on his latest blog post and sits back and says to no one in particular, “No typos this time! No siree.”
He takes a sip of coffee. “Nailed it,” he whsipers.
In a small town in California, Nathan’s mother Diane sits on a patio chair near a pair of green hummingbirds flitting around a feeder. She hears a notification from her cell phone and begins reading Nathan’s latest post.
“Oops!” she shouts to the hummingbirds. “Two typos this time.”
Diane texts Nathan, “I think there are two typos in this one, check the subject line and first paragraph.”
Nathan lounges on his couch. He reads Diane’s text message and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again. “Just…how,” he says.
Nathan sits at his apartment in Brooklyn on a bright Monday morning. The Manhattan skyline sparkles in the distance and he watches two hawks swoop around a radio antenna perched atop an old brick high school.
He hits “publish” on his latest blog post and believes this time he’s finally published one without a typo. “No typos this time!” he says. “No siree.”
He takes a sip of coffee. Its richness is a fine reward for another perfect blog post in the bank. “Nailed it,” he whispers.
Nathan lounges on the couch and reflects on how good he’s gotten at spotting typos. His cell phone flickers and he opens a text message. His mom has spotted two typos.
He cringes and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again. “Just…how,” he says.
Nathan sits at his apartment in Brooklyn looking at the Manhattan skyline while Diane sits on a patio in rural California. Her son sees two hawks just as his mother sees two hummingbirds.
Nathan hits “publish” on his latest blog post and believes this time he’s finally published one without a typo. “No typos this time!” Diane’s son says. “No siree.”
He takes a sip of coffee and thinks it’s delicious. “Nailed it,” he whispers.
Nathan’s mother hears a notification on her cell phone and begins reading her son’s latest post and wonders if there’s a typo in this one. There is, oops! Diane texts him, “I think there are two typos in this one, check the subject line and first paragraph.”
Diane’s son cringes when he reads his mother’s text message and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again. “Just…how,” he says.
The answers, of course, are:
- Entry A: Third person omniscient
- Entry B: Third person limited
- Entry C: Head jumping
You hopefully already knew that. But what’s more useful is to think about why Entry C reads so awkwardly so you can avoid the head jumping trap in more subtle ways.
Why head jumping is bad
In order to understand what makes head jumping so bad, we need to first talk for a second about what perspective in a novel is in the first place.
Perspective is the frame an author uses to situate a reader’s consciousness within a novel.
This means that in third person limited narratives, the reader settles in by seeing the events filtered through the perspective of a single character framing the events for us. In third person omniscient narratives, the reader sees everything through an omniscient narrator’s “eyes” as the voice guides us through a scene.
This frame is crucial because it helps us contextualize everything that’s being described. We imagine where we are in a scene and whose head we’re in. When the reader refers to someone with a pronoun, it’s far easier for us to understand who the writer is referring to.
Head jumping means that the writer forces the reader to constantly re-evaluate their “place” within a scene. We settle into one head and when we are jarred out of that head we have to figure out where we are again and how to contextualize the perspective and relationships.
Even though my scene above only has two characters with a very straightforward relationship, I’m guessing at some point in Entry C you were disoriented and were like, “Wait.. who?”
That’s because I was jerking you between Diane’s and Nathan’s perspectives, even in the same sentence: “Her son sees two hawks just as his mother sees two hummingbirds.”
- “Her son” = Diane’s perspective.
- “His mother” = Nathan’s perspective.
If this were an omniscient perspective, they would probably be largely referred to as “Diane” and “Nathan” and their relationship would be separately noted, as in Entry A. Even in an action involving Nathan in A, she’s still “Diane” rather than “his mother.” For instance: “Nathan lounges on his couch. He reads Diane’s text message and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again.”
Bet you didn’t even notice that she’s “Diane” in that sentence, but it’s clearer, right? That’s because the omniscient voice thinks of Diane as “Diane,” so that’s how she’s referred to, even if it’s technically true she’s “his mother.”
If this were a third person limited narrative, the characters would be referred to from the anchoring character’s perspective as in Entry B.
Head jumping splits the difference and it’s confusing because the reader has to constantly reevaluate their place in a scene.
Now, a big caveat and note of caution here: Old novels head jump a ton. Crack open a fantasy novel written before 1990 and it’s probably a disorienting mishmash of a perspective. And you might well love those novels! But the current vogue is very tight, clear, crisp storytelling. Readers now expect it.
Tips for avoiding head jumping
If you’re writing third person limited, avoiding head jumping is relatively simple and straightforward: just be vigilant about only showing one character’s thoughts and always refer to other characters from the anchoring character’s perspective.
If you’re writing omniscient, head jumping can be a bit trickier and the edges between a seamless perspective and head jumping are a tad blurry.
Here are some tips:
- Cohesive, cohesive, cohesive. The most important thing to get right is that the voice should be consistent and cohesive. It might even help to brainstorm the “character” who is omnisciently narrating, even if they’re never named. Think about this narrator’s relationship with the characters and tell the story through their eyes, even if they have the ability to read everyone’s thoughts.
- Refer to characters as consistently as possible. If you’re constantly referring to characters in different ways, it’s likely a sign that you’re head jumping because you’re probably re-framing characters from another character’s POV. Like “Diane’s son” instead of just “Nathan.” Don’t worry about repeating character names and pronouns!
- It helps to “reset” the scene before you delve into a new character’s thoughts. If you look closely at Entry A, I actually delve into both Nathan’s and Diane’s thoughts/perspective. But rather than sticking to a strictly linear second-by-second timeline I start with objective scene-setting in Nathan’s apartment, then delve a bit into Nathan’s head. Then I “reset” the scene by moving to Diane’s physical location. Before I get back to Nathan’s thoughts I “reset” again by showing Nathan on the couch. If you re-establish the physical setting with the character whose head you’re about to jump into it feels more seamless. And don’t be beholden to a strictly orderly “tick tock” of time unfolding.
- Be judicious about whose head you jump into and why. Just because you can jump into everyone’s head with an omniscient perspective doesn’t mean that you have to or that you necessarily should. Typically a third person omniscient voice is a bit more objective, meaning we see more facts and observations rather than thoughts, and third person limited is a bit more subjective, meaning we see more thoughts. (Compare Entry A to Entry B here). If you’re going to dive into a head in third person omniscient perspective there should be a clear story objective you’re trying to accomplish rather than just trying to account for everyone in the room.
- Remember: the third person voice is telling a story. Above all, the third person omniscient voice is a storyteller who guides the reader through a scene. Think of an omniscient voice as someone who grabs the reader’s hand and gently guides through around a scene, helping them understand and contextualize what they’re seeing and providing judicious exposition as needed.
- If it works it works. There are no hard and fast rules here. Some successful authors head jump. But if you know the above principles you can be more judicious about how and why you do it.
I seriously can’t emphasize enough how crucial this skill is to your success as a writer. If you feel like you need individualized help getting it right, reach out to me for editing or book a consultation!
Do you have any tips for avoiding head jumping? Any novels you think handle this especially well? Take to the comments!
Now if I can just find a fairy in an old typewriter…
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Art: Hércules lucha con la hidra de Lerna by Francisco de Zurbarán