For Whom the Bell Tolls is about an American ex-patriot named Robert Jordan who fights in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It’s Hemingway’s longest novel at 270,000 words. I purchased my copy two years ago in Manhattan during a three-week meandering that took me through South Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, the U.S. Open in Queens, Western Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The book didn’t feel like it was nearly 500 pages. I read it on planes and on the couches of friends and relatives and finished it in four days.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, was Hemingway’s first novel written in third-person limited omniscience. In our earlier post, we talked about The Old Man and the Sea, in which the narrator has full omniscience, meaning it can “see” into characters’ thoughts at any point during the narrative.

3rd person limited

Visualization of Third-Person Limited Omniscience. Please excuse my terrible drawing!

However, in For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway’s narrator is limited to “seeing” into one character’s head per scene. Since there seemed to be some confusion about head hopping and third-person limited perspective, I thought we’d cover it again today.

Switching Viewpoints Mid-Scene

In third-person limited, the narrator is still able to switch to a new characters’ viewpoint and “see” into his or her thoughts. However, when the narrator switches characters, she must first create a PAGE BREAK like

 

this. See that gap between one paragraph and another? One scene would end at the PAGE BREAK and another would begin.

This page break tells the reader a shift is coming. Here’s how Hemingway does it in For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Maria held the saddle with both hands and pressed her cropped head hard against it and cried. She heard the deep voice shouting again and she turned from the saddle and shouted, choking, “Yes! Thanks you!” Then, choking again, “Thank you! Thank you very much!”

 

When they heard the planes they all looked up and the planes were coming from Segovia very high in the sky, silvery in the high sky, their drumming rising over all the other sounds.

During that page break, we shift from Maria’s viewpoint back to Robert Jordan’s, the protagonist. The page break tells us this shift is coming. If there were no page break, it would be considered head hopping.

Switching Viewpoints After a Chapter

Alternatively, you can switch viewpoints after a CHAPTER BREAK. One reader asked if what George R.R. Martin does is head hopping. After every chapter, Martin shifts to a different characters’ viewpoint.

However, this does not count as head hopping. Martin writes in third-person limited, but he is not head hopping because his viewpoint shifts occur between chapters. Chapter breaks, like page breaks, warn the reader there could be a shift in viewpoint coming.

Does that make sense?

To recap, you can shift perspective to a new character in third-person limited as long as you do it at a PAGE BREAK or CHAPTER BREAK. Otherwise, change your point of view to third-person omniscient or get rid of your viewpoint shifts because you’re head hopping!

PRACTICE

Write about two characters on either side of a battlefield.

For eight minutes, describe the battle from one character’s perspective. Then, shift viewpoints to another character, writing for another seven minutes.

Post your practice in the comments when you’re finished.

And don’t forget those page breaks!

 

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let’s Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).