The Harrowing Head-Hop

Awhile ago, I said I’d do both an article and a Twitter thread on what I called pseudo-omniscient perspective, also known as; head-hopping. This is half of that promise fulfilled.

First, let’s define what pseudo-omniscient is, and is not.

Point of View

There are three main points of views, or POVs that everything, including pseudo-omniscient, fall under.

  • First Person: the narrator is a character within the story, typically the protagonist. This provides a sense of immediacy, but limits what you can show since the reader can only see what the character sees.
  • Second Person: the protagonist is you, the reader. If done well, can provide a greater sense of immersion. Great for shorter works, hard to sustain for longer ones.
  • Third Person: most common POV type. The narrator doesn’t exist in the story and the protagonist is a normal character. Can be tailored to be as close or as distant as you want it to be.

Pseudo-omniscient falls squarely within the Third Person category.

Most books written in third person fall in one of two categories: close-third and omniscient. Think of pseudo-omniscient as being between those two. At the risk of veering off-topic, I’d like to talk about both of those types so we can see what pseudo-omniscient really is.

Close-Third

Think of close-third as the sort-of default perspective. It’s been used for every genre and sub-genre. It follows one specific character, typically the protagonist, and has access to their thoughts and feelings. Essentially, it functions as a first-person story without needing to be written in the main character’s voice. In fact, close-third typically has very little voice. When writers talk about “window pane” writing, close-third is usually what they’re talking about as it’s a perspective that allows the writing to get out of the way and tell the story in the simplest way possible. The most famous example of close-third is the Harry Potter series:

And without a backward glance at Harry, Filch ran flat-footed from the office, Mrs. Norris streaking alongside him.

Peeves was the school poltergeist, a grinning, airborne menace who lived to cause havoc and distress. Harry didn’t much like Peeves, but couldn’t help feeling grateful for his timing. Hopefully, whatever Peeves had done (and it sounded as though he’d wrecked something very big this time) would distract Filch from Harry.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J. K. Rowling

As you can see, the narrator has access to Harry’s thoughts, and only Harry’s thoughts. Everything is filtered through his perception, but he’s not the one telling the story. It also has a very neutral voice. That’s what people are talking about with “window pane” writing. The book doesn’t have to rely on Harry’s voice. It simply tells the story, filtering everything through Harry’s thoughts, but never letting him take control of the narration.

Omniscient

Omniscient is basically the opposite of close-third. With omniscient, your narrator knows all and will dispense information as they see fit. This includes the thoughts of any character as well as information none of the characters could have. Once upon a time, this used to be the most prevalent POV but it’s since fallen out of favor. These days, the only way it works with readers is in a very voice-heavy way. The two most famous books written in omniscient are; The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.

Mr. Prosser wanted to be at point D. Point D wasn’t anywhere in particular, it was just any convenient point a very long way from points A, B and C. He would have a nice little cottage at point D, with axes over the door, and spend a pleasant amount of time at point E, which would be the nearest pub to point D. His wife of course wanted climbing roses, but he wanted axes. He didn’t know why—he just liked axes. He flushed hotly under the derisive grins of the bulldozer drivers.

He shifted his weight from foot to foot, but it was equally uncomfortable on each. Obviously somebody had been appallingly incompetent and he hoped to God it wasn’t him.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

As you can see, the voice here is much more pronounced than it was in Harry Potter. This isn’t Window Pane writing. You’re supposed to notice it. That’s part of why it’s so beloved. Also, you’ll note, we have access to Mr. Prosser’s thoughts as well as random extra information that Mr. Prosser wouldn’t have ever thought. If we had a few extra paragraphs, we would have had Arthur Dent’s thoughts too.

Pseudo-Omniscient

So wait, if you have access to everyone’s thoughts with omniscient, what makes pseudo-omniscient so different? Why isn’t omniscient called head-hopping?

The main difference is that pseudo-omniscient doesn’t have all the information that fully-omniscient has. pseudo-omniscient is written more like close-third with multiple people’s thoughts featuring in a single scene. Typically, this means filtering the writing through a specific character’s perspective, thoughts spread throughout, until another is used, then back again, giving it the term “head-hopping”. This is directly opposed to omniscient where there is no character perspective the writing is being filtered through and the thoughts aren’t present unless the narrator specifically uses them.

I don’t have a good real-world example of it but it looks a little like this:

Erica was suspicious. She knew she shouldn’t have been. Sarah was her friend, she’d never steered her wrong before, had she? No, at least not as far as she could remember. And this really wasn’t that big of a deal. It was just dinner. But still, something didn’t feel right.

“I don’t know,” she said. She hoped Sarah didn’t hear the fear in her voice.

“Please?” Sarah pleaded. She heard the fear in Erica’s voice but chose to ignore it. “I already promised!” If Erica didn’t go, she didn’t know what she’d do. She needed this. It had been so long.

“Fine,” Erica relented. “I’ll go.” She could tell that Sarah really wanted this. Besides, she had never steered her wrong before.

Just Now- Me

It’s hard to get a sense of head-hopping from just a few paragraphs, but do you see how it sits in Erica’s thoughts, much like Harry Potter sat in Harry’s? Then, without warning, it’s in Sarah’s thoughts the same way. There’s no outside narrator to bridge the two thought sections, it just switched from close-third, Erica to close-third, Sarah. That is what I’m talking about when I say pseudo-omniscient.

Head-Hopping and You

So, why are we talking about this? Well, the main reason is that I’ve been seeing it a lot lately, especially from indie and self-published authors. Every time I’ve come across it, it’s been jarring and has made otherwise great works harder to read.

Now, of course, I don’t speak for everybody. And I have always maintained that all writing rules can, and should, be broken. That being said, this is one of the harder rules to break well, so you really have to set out to break it from the beginning if you want to have a shot at it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice on how to do pseudo-omniscient well, as I’ve never attempted it myself.

I do; however, have some ideas on how you can avoid accidentally writing in pseudo-omniscient.

  1. If you set out to write in close-third and find yourself using other perspectives than the main character’s, consider whether you really need that perspective for the story to work. If the answer is yes; try moving that perspective to a new scene or, ideally, a whole new chapter.
  2. Check which perspective you’re really writing in. Maybe you set out to write omniscient, but the words coming out look more like close-third. Remember that omniscient isn’t told from anybody’s point of view so if you find yourself filtering scenes through your main character’s point of view and then another character’s, you’ve wandered into pseudo-omniscient.
  3. Like with every other aspect of your writing, beta-readers and editors are a godsend. It really can’t be overstated how much better they’ll make your writing. Ask them about perspective awkwardness.

Like every other aspect of writing, it’s about making sure you have control of your own story. Breaking rules on purpose can result in amazing stories. Breaking them on accident will rarely result in anything good.

That’s the end! Hopefully we all learned a little something. If you like my writing talks and want to see if I follow my own advice, you can buy my book. If you’d just like me to post more of these, you can hit that Ko-Fi button on this page and throw a few dollars toward this work. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s