What’s the Point (of View) Problem with Head hopping?
Geoff from Barnsley says: I want to write my novel using omniscient point of view, but the friends who have read a few chapters say they can’t follow what’s going on. I want all the characters’ emotions and thoughts to come to the fore, so that my readers know what everyone is feeling. Can you help me to write using this technique? I really don’t want to use limited point of view.
First and foremost, you have to give due to consideration to why you want to use omniscient point of view. Only by knowing why can you decide how and when to use it.
The structure in a novel using this technique is vitally important – even more so than when using third or first person point of view. This is because it is so easy to confuse and/or alienate the reader. You have to know when and where to use it and what effect you are aiming to achieve.
If you have information to impart that is vital to a scene, you need to open that scene in omniscient, so that readers know immediately they are being narrated to by someone who is not one of the characters in the book. If the omniscient narrator is a character, readers need to know that too, so that they can accept this voice intruding from time to time, or filling them in on details the other characters don’t know.
Don’t open with a character’s actions or dialogue, because readers will believe they are in that person’s perspective, which is then thrown off balance when an absent narrator, or one of the other characters, lets us in on their thoughts and feelings within the same scene.
If you want to use omniscient so that you can tell the reader about a period in time and its history, or a new world and future technology, it is fine to use an absent narrator, but you have to use it in the right way. You cannot drop an omniscient voice into the middle of a scene and expect the reader to know that is what you are doing. Open scenes with it and even close scenes in the same voice, but when actually in the scene itself, pick one point of view and stick with it.
Whether you have finished the novel or not, I feel you need to draw up a complete outline of the story. When using omniscient point of view, you have to bring your reader up to speed on the vital aspects, but leave out any details that are not important for the reader to know. There will be masses of information that you (as author) need to know, but that doesn’t mean your reader has to be informed of every tiny detail. You are there to entertain, not to lecture.
You still have to develop your characters or your readers won’t care about them or what happens to them. The reader has to identify with the characters, not the absent narrator. For each scene, pick one main character to follow. Don’t head hop around the minor characters.
Omniscient point of view does not mean giving all the characters the same importance in the story. It means using the unseen narrator’s voice wisely to impart knowledge that you cannot otherwise let the reader in on.
Read Joseph Conrad. He was brilliant at limited omniscient point of view.
Limited omniscient means you limit yourself to being in one character’s head at a time. If you really feel you simply have to change point of view within a scene, do so by showing the reader you have moved to a new point of view.
In a romantic scene, for example, you could open from the girl’s point of view. We see and hear what she sees and hears. We are her as she looks at the love of her life who she feels has betrayed her.
Then the boyfriend could reach out and take her hand, while telling her he has been faithful. In the next sentence you can move into his head as he observes her reaction. The rest of the scene can then be shown from his perspective.
However, once you’ve made the switch, don’t be tempted to move back into the girl’s head. Stay with the boyfriend until you move to a new scene.
True omniscient viewpoint (where we know everything the author knows) is extremely difficult for readers to follow and is almost impossible for authors to get right. Even experienced and much published writers struggle with it. By using limited omniscient you’ll find the challenge less stressful, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
If you have a question, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer's ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.
Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, will be published in the USA on 2nd April 2014.
Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of the crime/thriller series featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes and Call It Pretending.