Third person omniscient vs. limited vs. head jumping

From Nathan Bransford:

If a writing fairy popped out of an old typewriter and granted me the ability to fix one craft problem in all the unpublished manuscripts across the realm I would probably terrify it by how quickly I’d shout, “PERSPECTIVES!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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

5 thoughts on “Third person omniscient vs. limited vs. head jumping”

  1. One of the best authors of recent times, Mary Renault, head hops when it suits the scene. At other times she sticks to Nathan’s options. So I think he’s being too rigid.

    And what about books that mix first and third person narratives? Dickens did this in Bleak House. I’ve done it twice, the latest in my new novel The Last Enforcer. And I can tell you that if you do it well, readers don’t even notice.

  2. As with everything, if you do it well, readers won’t notice. I just read a book from the 1940s by Elizabeth Goudge. It was probably in omniscent; tended to have extended sections in one POV, then a pull out, and zoom in to someone else. Sometimes, though it switched in a very short space of sentences. It all worked, because Goudge knew what she was doing. I only noticed because I hang out in ‘net spaces where writers talk.

    I sometimes think people are too critical about some things writers do. I recall – back when I read Usenet – someone critiquing a sample of.. LM Bujold, IIRC, and rated anything like “Don’t worry about it,” said Miles, seated beside him in the driver’s compartment. “” as doing an infodump. With some people you just can’t win and have to satisfy yourself, not them.

    • Ever notice how most of these rules start with the word, “Don’t?”
      The people who do it, and do it well, don’t much care about the Don’t Brigade.

    • Agreed. I hate writing advice that says “Don’t do X,” when everyone has seen X done well.

      Don’t use prologues? Nope, prologues have a purpose, just study the good ones. Don’t use omniscient / head hop? Ignore, those can be done well.

      Allegedly some of these “don’ts” are intended for noobs who don’t know how to use a given technique. But that’s a side effect of being a noob: they’ll do anything badly, even the stuff you’re supposed to do. Teach what “well done” looks like.

      I just hate writing “rules” that have more to do with pet peeves rather than with genuine problems that actually anger, confuse, or trip up a reader.

  3. Dune head-hops like crazy within scenes and I don’t think it’s hurt Frank Herbert’s popularity any. 😀

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