Tag Archives: omniscient POV

Then What Is Head-Hopping?

In last week’s article, “Omniscient Point Of View,” I made the point that this seldom-used POV should not be confused with poor technique referred to as “head-hopping.” To solidify the point, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the poor technique in contrast to proper omniscient point of view.

Head-hopping, unlike the omniscient point of view, has no unifying, overarching voice that tells the story. Hence, each character vies for center stage, and the result is often confusion. Here’s a sample.

The six men piled their gear onto the boat. Jeff was careful to put his backpack near the center. No sense in leaving it where everything could get wet.

Ted dropped to the deck and sprawled out, his head resting on the closest pack he could find — Frank’s probably, by the look of his scowl. The guy was insufferable.

“Do you mind?” Frank reached for his pack, not wanting his extra pair of glasses or his tablet to take an unnecessary beating. Ted was oblivious to the damage his three hundred pounds could do. In fact, he was oblivious to most things.

“Now, now, guys,” chimed in Javier. “Let’s not start our trip with sharp words.” Above all else, he wanted this trip to work. He’d told his father-in-law, Marcus, that this group of guys from his church were the best. Now he just needed to be sure they acted like it.

“Everyone set?” Tim pointed to a rope anchoring the boat to the dock. “Let’s go ahead and cast off.” Time to figure out which of these guys he could count on to get the work done. Ted had already made it clear he had no intention of moving from his spot. Frank was too worried about his bag. Jeff was guarding his, too, like it held gold, not supplies for a day trip to Catalina. “How about you, Marcus, you want to lend a hand?”

Marcus rolled his eyes. Did he look like somebody’s servant boy? If these guys were as great as Javier claimed, why didn’t they respect his age? Why weren’t they trying to make him feel like he belonged instead of pushing their unwanted jobs on him. This was going to be a long day.

In this scenario, who’s the main character? What’s the unifying perspective? What tone has been set? What voice does the reader hear? The truth is, there is no omniscient view, just six different individuals dumped onto the reader all in one scene. This qualifies as head-hopping.

The omniscient POV, in contrast, describes a story rather than simply relating events. The narrator, whether a storyteller or one of the characters or even an objective “camera-eye,” takes a certain perspective and sticks with it.

An omniscient narrator may love or hate his characters, but he is rarely neutral. The pathos or ridicule or humor in a story lies in the way the omniscient narrator chooses to describe events. The tone may be casual or formal, humorous or grave, admiring or condescending. These perspectives are revealed through such innocent devices as adjectives, verbs, adverbs, syntax, even punctuation. (Excerpt from Description by Monica Wood, p. 107)

Here’s that same scene, in part, written from an omniscient point of view.

Here they were, six guys who thought they could all get along, boarding a yacht to disaster. They went to church together, didn’t they — all except Marcus, but he was OK because he was family. Javier’s family to be exact, but that was good enough for the others. Little did they know that church affiliation wasn’t going to get them through this casual-day-trip-to-Catalina-turned-tragedy. They’d need more. Much more. Tim, the yacht owner, at least knew enough to bring up boating safety. He even handed out life jackets. Not that all the men put them on properly. Ted, lazing on the deck shortly after boarding, used his as a pillow after Frank yanked his pack out from under him. Jeff, the sharp dressing, uber-careful business type put his on at once, but Javier was most conscientious. Not with his own life preserver — with Marcus’s. And that probably saved his life.

Hopefully the contrast is evident. In this last sample there is a unifying voice, a clear perspective — that of an omniscient narrator who knows the end of these events and is painting the picture of a disaster even before the boat gets underway. There is also a protagonist emerging. The six men don’t all have equal footing, so the reader has more of a focus.

Yes, omniscient POV done properly gives the reader a focused view. It also gives a definite, consistent tone, and a clear perspective. The point of view might be called omniscient, but stories utilizing it have the feel of control and direction — a distinct difference from the regurgitation of all thoughts and feelings of all characters in the story. The latter is head-hopping and should definitely be avoided.

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Omniscient Point Of View

I’ve resisted writing about point of view because it’s been done so often. It seems like every writing book I own has a chapter on the subject. The problem is, few of these have much to say about the omniscient voice. Around the web, too often I’m finding misinformation on the subject. It seems some writers equate this legitimate point of view with poor technique often referred to as “head hopping.”

Please help me get the word out: the omniscient point of view is not the same as head hopping. It is true that the omniscient voice has been in disfavor with contemporary writers. Hence writing instructors more often than not warn new writers away from exploring what actually is a more complex option than the others.

First a quick — very quick — point of view (POV) summary.

    • First person POV – I tell the story.

    • Second person POV – you tell the story.

    • Third person POV – he or she (or it) tells the story.

Where is omniscient in that? It’s an option of the third person POV.

The he, she, or it telling the story can be one or more of the protagonists. The story, then, is told from the limited view of one character or several at a time. The latter is called multiple third person POV.

The omniscient storyteller, however, is not limited. This is not to suggest, however, that the omniscient POV must have a god-like narrator. That’s only one kind of omniscient POV story.

It’s a good one, too. Many of the stories I grew up with had that kind of narrator. It’s the type of story that starts with something like, “Come gather around, children, and let me tell you a story.”

There might even be narrator intrusions from time to time, such as, “Now those of you who are afraid of the dark should not read this next part late at night, or when you’re home alone.” In other words, at certain points in the story, the narrator talks directly to the reader.

Throughout the rest of the story, the narrator manages the information, internal and external, from his own perspective. When he says the obnoxious little boy, the reader understands this is how the narrator views the character, and the narrator is right.

The movie The Princess Bride employed the omniscient narrator in the fantasy part of the story — the grandfather who was reading the story taking that role.

C. S. Lewis used the omniscient narrator in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here’s one example:

“We met one another in there, in the wood. Go on, Edmund; tell them all about it.”

“What’s all this about, Ed?” said Peter.

And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn’t made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down. (Emphasis added)

Notice how the narrator includes himself by using the pronoun “we.” The entire third paragraph tells his impressions and opinions, but the reader is confident he is right about what he’s saying.

There are other kinds of omniscient POV stories however. One of the characters in the story may be telling it after the fact. He’s lived the events and is looking back. Because of hindsight, then, he knows what the other characters did even though he may not have been present during the action. He even can know their motives and can speculate on what might have changed if this or that had been different.

A third kind of omniscience is more distant. It’s a camera-eye view that gives a more objective report of the events without tapping into the characters’ thoughts.

A fourth type is focused omniscience. The omniscient voice describes things the character couldn’t see or know — what’s happening behind him, for instance — but does so only for the focus character and no one else.

No writer should decide on omniscient voice because it is easy. In reality, it’s quite demanding. It allows for description the narrator wishes to make and is not limited by the character’s voice or opinion. But it must be consistent throughout the story. Because it doesn’t allow the reader the intimacy with the characters that first or limited third allows, the narrator descriptions carry more weight. That can be a challenge — one some writers relish. Others — not so much.

See also “Then What Is Head-Hopping?”

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