Jennifer Dinsmore Editorial
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How to Avoid "Head Hopping": Third-Person Point of View

It’s been a few weeks, so as a quick recap, point of view refers to the way in which an author tells a story. It dictates how they present the characters, settings, and events of a novel or story, as well as establishes the narrator’s position. (And if you missed my first two posts, catch up on the ins and outs of first-person and second-person point of view.)

Sounds simple, but knowing and putting into practice are different beasts. In fact, one of the most common mistakes I see writers make is confusing point of view.

There are a few point of view options available, each with unique opportunities—and limitations—for creativity. There are rules you need to follow when writing in a specific point of view.

Why? Because confusion in point of view will cause confusion in your readers. They’ll lose the thread of the story, and will very likely discard your work for something else. And who wants that?!

It is worth taking time to consider the best point of view for your story, as it lays the foundation for the ever-so-important voice of the work. Let’s dive in!

THE BASICS

Third person point of view is by far the most common in fiction. As in first-person narration, authors invite readers inside the head of the main character, yet third-person pronouns are used when describing the action: he, she, it, they*, them.

(*There is a steady increase in the singular they, in which the traditionally third-person pronoun is used as a first-person pronoun. In this sense, “they” stands in place of he/his and she/hers. This is especially important in nonfiction, as some people may not identify as male or female and prefer alternate pronouns.)

The third-person point of view feels omniscient, but there is still information to which only the narrator—and thus readers—are privy. Generally, there are two types of third-person narrators:

LIMITED

As with first-person, the limited perspective only allows for relating what the point-of-view character knows, senses, or experiences. Other point-of-view characters may be included, changing in specific scenes or chapters. Yet when within that specific perspective the reader’s view remains limited to that one character’s experiences.

Contrasting views may help flesh out your novel and create tension and conflict, but consider how many are needed to tell the story. Each voice should be distinct so as not to cause confusion.

Examples: Harry Potter series by JK Rowling; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer; Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King; and many others!

OBJECTIVE

This viewpoint is also referred to as Third-Person Cinematic. Why? Because the author reveals no insight into any character’s thoughts and relays the story as though it were being recorded. This viewpoint takes some work to get right, as it is rather easy to fall into narrating your characters thoughts.

Instead, put yourself in the director’s chair and pretend you know nothing but what you can “see” before you.

Examples: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, “Report from the Near Future: Crystallization” by David Gerrold.

OMNISCIENT

With the omniscient point of view there is very little (if any) information to which the reader is not privy. The author may choose this perspective when the story requires an unimpeded insight and can enter the head of any character at will. That’s right! Head-hopping is required with this point of view as, by its nature, you can change perspective at will so all characters’ thoughts are on display at once. There can also be one separate narrator who is telling this story to the reader, and may even add their own personal comments. 

Examples: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and A Widow for One Year by John Irving, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.

ADVANTAGES

Third-person point of view offers writers multiple options for creativity. The ability to have more than one specific narrator allows for deep exploration of a story’s themes as the author can address it from many different perspectives. This can also create some great moments of tension and conflict!

DISADVANTAGES

Multiple viewpoints can easily cause confusion if the author does not make each voice distinct or does not make clear when they are switching perspectives. It can also get annoying if the narrator switches too often, not allowing the reader to get to know each character. (Think of this as flipping through channels; you may get a small sense of the program, but you can’t truly know what it’s about without watching for at least a few minutes.)

WHERE IT ALL GOES WRONG

I sometimes see authors begin to narrate the story as they themselves see it, and not necessarily their characters. Of course, you may have very similar views, but strive to create unique characters who may have a slightly different perspective.

Yet the most common error I see is authors forgetting about the “limited” view, particularly with one narrator. As a quick example, think of Harry Potter, on the train to Hogwarts for the first time, talking to Ron. The series is written in third-person limited, so we see this interaction only through the eyes of Harry. Rowling would have “head hopped”, however, if she suddenly interjected something like “Ron knew then they would be the best of friends.”

But … Head-hopping is not a problem with the Omniscient point of view, and is necessary to successfully write in this perspective! Therefore, the above "error" would be perfectly okay.

TRY IT OUT!

I’m willing to bet that whatever you’re working on is written in the third-person … so get to it! (And keep the above points in mind.)

Happy Writing,

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