Is Head Hopping a Myth?

by Joe Bunting | 25 comments

SNOBS by Julian FellowesAbout a month ago, we talked about head hopping, POV, and how to manage third person limited point of view. After I posted the article on one of my social networks, one poor writer said something like, “I want to scream! First they tell us one thing and then someone comes up with a new rule and we're all expected to go along with it!”

I feel a lot of sympathy for her. I certainly struggle with point of view. For example, just yesterday I was reading Julian Fellowes' 2005 novel, Snobs, and noticed a sharp shift in POV. See if you can't spot it:

[Edith] need not have been downcast. She did not know Charles and had misinterpreted his reticence. Because he was generally seen as a prize, she thought he must share this image of himself but this was not so. He felt that it was he, not Edith, on whom the responsibility for the evening lay. He was shy (not rude-shy, really shy) and so, while he could not quite express it, he was very pleased that she had appeared to have enjoyed being with him.

Did you notice where the shift occurs?

We go from reading Edith's downcast mind to hearing about Charles' inexpressible emotions. Isn't this head hopping, a shift in perspective in the middle of a scene? Should he be using a line break or chapter break to mark this surprising shift in perspective?

Or is head hopping really just a myth, invented by stodgy editors and kept alive by bloggers to make all of our lives more difficult?

What Head Hopping Is and Is Not

After I talked about head hopping last month, one person commented that she had recently read a novel where the author switched views multiple times in the same paragraph.

All this leads to the conclusion, Head Hopping is a myth. Editors don't actually care about it, and publishers certainly don't care about it.

However, let's remember one very important thing about head hopping:

It only applies to third-person limited omniscient.

Let me say that again for emphasis because I think this is where most of the confusion is coming from. You are only breaking the rules if you head hop within third-person limited omniscient.

The Case For Snobs

Julian Fellowes' Snobs, though, is not in third-person limited omniscient. Snobs, in fact, is in first-person omniscient, which is a surprising and unique narrative mode we don't see very often.

Basically, the unnamed narrator is posing as someone who knows the details of the story so intimately he can speak of, or at least infer, the thoughts and emotions of all of the characters. In other words, he's not actually reading anyone's mind. He's telling us a story from his vast range of experience—even though, of course, most of this knowledge would be impossible to possess.

And so, no one can accuse him of head hopping because he isn't actually in anyone's head. He remains in his own head through the whole narrative.

Why Not Write In Omniscient Mode All the Time?

Our star reader, Marianne Vest mentioned in a comment, “A close third person is like having someone who's watched a movie tell about it. It's much more immediate than a distant omnipotent narrator, so we feel ‘included.' It also doesn't lend itself to pat endings, and preachy stories, or fables, like the more distant omnipotent narrator can.”

And she's right. Snobs, with its first-person omniscient narrator feels like a modern fable. There is a touch of preachiness to it which might turn off some readers (though not me—I love it). That's why so many people prefer to write in third-person limited, despite the difficulty it poses. It feels more “real.”

PRACTICE

Let's practice using first-person omniscient narrative.

Here's the story: John likes Veronica. Veronica, however, likes Edmund. Ruth likes John, but unfortunately, no one likes Ruth.

Choose one of those characters to be the narrator, and tell the story about their perspective.

Write for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments.

And if you post, make sure to comment on a few others.

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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25 Comments

  1. KM Huber

    Excellent, excellent post! Perhaps your previous post on this subject didn’t mention when head hopping applies yet your explanation in both posts is quite clear and much appreciated.
    Karen

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Great. I hoped this would help clear things up.

    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks 🙂

  2. MarianneVest

    I try very hard to keep to the fifteen minute rule, but this took much longer about twenty minutes longer. The prompt was just too complicated for me to cover all of four people in that short amount of time. Anyway I hope it’s not too long to read.

    Veronica Vaughn was having a dinner party. She decided to buy flowers at the city market. On her way to the market, Veronica thought about the seating arrangements for her party. “I’ll put John next to Ruth,” she thought. Veronica was tired of John Simmons bumbling advances toward her. “The only way I’ll ever be rid of him will be if he falls in love with someone else”.

    It was a sunny June day and the market was alive with people milling about in the warm air. As she parked her Lexus, she saw John’s Prius parked three spaces down. She frowned. She didn’t want to run into John.

    Unfortunately for Veronica, John, was already at the flower vendors. He was thinking of the beautiful smile that would light Veronica’s face when he presented her with a huge bunch of flowers at the dinner party later that evening. As he considered what to say as he handed them to her, he gazed at a man who was unloading cantaloupes from a truck . Then, beyond the man, in the parking lot, who should he see but Veronica herself. She really is perfect he thought, just perfect.

    She was coming toward him. He wondered if he shouldn’t just give her the flowers right then. He choose Festiva Maxima peonies, fragrant white flowers with flecks of red on the frilly petals. He paid and looked toward the parking lot. She was talking to a tall redheaded man. It must be his old classmate Edmund Hightower, whom John had gone to VMI with.

    Edmund had come to the market only to be out on the bright blue day. He was thinking of buying some Amish honey. As he looked over the various sorts of honey, wondering what the difference was, Veronica Vaughn tapped him on the back. They talked about the party that she was having that evening.

    “What can I bring?” he asked.
    “Nothing but yourself,” she said and to her dismay she heard a stupid giggle come out with the words.

    As the chatted, she thought “I’ll seat him beside me. He really is one of the most attractive men I’ve met, witty, intelligent, and a war hero. I’ll sit him to my right.”

    As Veronica and Edmund talked, John watched. He could see that Veronica was flirting with Edmund. The sunny day seemed dimmer. He thought how handsome they looked together, Veronica tossing her hair in the sun, and Edmund bending down to hear what she was saying.

    Ruth, who had come to the market to buy flowers for her mother, touched John’s arm.

    “Are you taking those to the dinner party?” she asked, gesturing to the peonies.

    She knew they weren’t for her, but Ruth imagined John giving her with the fancy white flowers that he was holding. Ruth had fantasized about John handing her flowers before, a corsage, a dozen roses. She had a crush on John but she stood there not knowing what to say, looking at John who was looking at Veronica.

    Veronica glanced toward the flower vendors and saw Ruth and John standing together. “Yes, I’ll seat her by John,” she thought.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      It’s interesting that this whole scene is imagined. It definitely works in the practice but I can’t envision it in any larger work. I like it though.
      Katie

    • MarianneVest

      Thanks Katie. I definitely wouldn’t do it in a longer work. It was hard for me to keep up with who was looking at who doing what. Thanks for reading it.

    • Joe Bunting

      Hey Marianne. This is fun! Almost like a merry-go-round of characters, and you definitely explored omniscient narrative well. But where’s the first person narrator? I do apologize greatly for the difficulty of the prompt. I should have come up with something simpler. So sorry about that!

    • MarianneVest

      Oh well. I didn’t read it correctly. I just had an “outside” narrator. I’ll try to do it the other way (just to improve my skills – not to post here). It was kind of hard to get into writing like that. I felt so far away from the characters even though I was saying what they were thinking. Very odd.

    • Oddznns

      Well done!

    • Marianne

      Thanks

    • NolaLola

      I agree, Marianne. Reminds me of Mrs. Dalloway.

  3. Sherrey Meyer

    Joe, thanks for a timely and interesting post today. In a recent online course I participated in, POV was a serious topic. However, it was never so clearly explained when it came to the third person limited omniscient view. BTW, I went back and read your referenced post on Hemingway and head hopping and enjoyed it as well. Continuing thanks for your constant sharing of knowledge.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      I’m so glad this helps, Sherrey. It’s certainly a confusing issue.

  4. Steph

    Question: is a first-person narrative in which an old person tells the stories of their youth an omnicient first-person POV? (Follow that?)

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      It depends on whether they can “see” into the heads of the other characters. It might just be regular first person. Of course, really they’re the same thing. I’m not sure there IS such thing as 1st person omniscient, technically, since it would require mind reading, whereas Fellowes’ narrator presumably just infers. Still, it might be helpful to look at it as sort of the same thing. Does that answer your question at all?

    • Steph

      Thanks, it does. I recently finished the last book of a series in which all were written in this fashion. Since the narrator knows how it all ends, he drops little clues and teasers along the way about things like the folly of his own choices or the motivations of the other characters. It isn’t so much mind-reading as knowing the outcome and dangling as much, in different forms, in front of the reader from time to time.

      I think it adds tremendously to the first person POV in this case because it melds the experience and voice of an old man with the adventures of a young man who is growing and changing throughout the story. He would not have as much insight and humor as a real-time narrator, especially early on. But I am thinking it is a technique that could go very wrong if not used well.

      Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. I didn’t do the exercise, but it did make me think about POV.

    • Joe Bunting

      You’re right, I don’t think this perspective is very easy to achieve. The book you’re talking about sounds like a great example of this kind of pov, though. The dangling of clues is one of the main advantages of the mode.

  5. Nancy

    This is a question not a practice.
    First, thanks for pursuing this thread. I need to learn as much as possible.
    Second, what would you call the point of view on TV shows like The Office and Modern Family, where the characters take time out to talk to the camera? AS a viewer, do you assume that that particular camera guy is always watching? Just curious on how that private interview affects point of view.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Great question, Nancy. While of course TV and movies don’t have a direct equivalent to pov, to me, it would be a mix of first and third person. The interviews would be like first person. Or, it could be considered a type of third person limited, where we’re able to see inside people’s heads at certain points.

    • quietriver

      That’s called ‘breaking the fourth wall.”

  6. Beck Gambill

    Aaaah, all the different perspectives overwhelms me. I tend to flake out and write from a first person perspective. I struggle with keeping my grammar appropriate to the perspective I’ve chosen, if it’s not first person, I just naturally slip into personal references. Then I have to go back and fix what I’ve written. I also struggle with maintaining continuity in tenses which is a whole other topic…

    Reply
  7. Unisse Chua

    I’m starting go get lost with all the first-person and third-person and omniscient and non-omniscient perspectives. I need to start reading and learning more.

    Reply
  8. Sandra D

    We are in a group together. It is a cozy bunch, kind of crazy though. I’ll start with Veronica.

    Veronica is beautiful. There is no way to get around it. It may be her curves. It’s hard to say what it is. But unfortunately what can a man do when she is tied in with another. Edmund. What does she see in him that I don’t have? Maybe it is because he’s classier. Maybe I could take a lesson from him? Yep all together. All of us. And then there’s Ruth. She is a nerd who does her own work. She insists that everyone is doing it wrong and then proceeds to tell us how to run our jobs. It should be apparent that no one likes her. But don’t feel bad for her because at least she doesn’t seem to like anyone back.

    You know how I know Veronica likes Edmund? Well we were in the rec room the other day and I ask for to eat with me. I was planning to give her some flowers I had hid under the table. But she looked so upset about something I had to ask what’s up. Then she tells me about this love she’s had for Edmund since her first day here. Her first day and I was already doomed.

    She was trembling so i had to be a man and so i put my arms around her and told her it would be alright. Then she says, really? Do you think there is some chance he likes me?

    I am shuffling around and twitching, not at all comfortable with this question.

    “Yeah sure, I don’t know. You never know,” I tell her. I look into her amazing hazlenut shaded eyes, so sweet looking and her hair smells of shampoo and I just want to run my fingers through it. She is right there and I am patting her back. But she says thanks and she gets up slowly, majestic is an old oak, and breathes in slow and sure, “I won’t give up, Thanks.” And she leaves. I hardly said anything. Definitely not a full on pepe talk. I mean I said the bare minimum of cheering and she got cheered. And it’s because she heard only what she wanted from me. How could she have no idea of how I feel about her? I have only been a muttering fool around her since the beginning. And if she did know, then why did she bring Edmund up to him? It just seemed so heartless. And now she was cheered and ready to go on a never ending love quest sraight for Edmund. I can only watch from my safe new friend distance. Someone can shoot me.

    So what does Edmund think, does he know? And if he did would he go for her? And the truth is I am torn. Part of me wants him to not want her so she will be mine someday, but another part doesn’t want to see her torn up and crying. I just saw her crying and it didn’t feel so good.

    Reply
  9. Joe Lyon Layden

    What makes it 1st person omniscient as opposed to 3rd person omniscient? Is it the intro? Is the voice actually a character in the story?

    Reply

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