Holy Head-Hopping!

2009.06.08.treefrogMy name is Lois and I am a head-hopper. Admitting that I am afflicted with this ‘disease of the pen’ is the only way I can begin the healing process.

The truth is, there is quite a bit about the craft of writing that I don’t know. I was not a creative writing major in college. While in college I filled blue book after blue book in English and French, analyzing politics and the literature of others. Point of View was a concept as foreign to me as the book Plunkett of Tammany Hall may be to you.

Before I go any further I would like to reference an excellent post here written by IU author Chris James. When I read it the first time, and the second and third time, I tried very hard to understand all of it. Unfortunately, the way that I learn is by doing. I need to practice something over and over again until I get it right. For example, my second book was an experiment in every sense of the word. First person POV seemed to fit the story line best and that is how I wrote it. I enjoyed the challenge of creating this way, but it was limiting to observe through the perspective of one character.

For my third book I decided to write in third person. Third person provides two choices, limited or omniscient. This is the difficult part for me. I want to be able to show what most of the characters in the book are thinking and feeling. I am like any other author and become very attached to my characters, even when they are naughty. While working on my manuscript the editor correctly made notations each time I changed POV, and when I saw the comments initially I wanted to hit myself over the head. Was I really that much of a mess? I read through the comments carefully, and before I changed anything I did some research. Significant research. The editorial comments would involve a major rewrite and I had to understand how to attack it.

The really important question is why does it matter if I change POV within a paragraph or a chapter? The best answer seems to be that the reader must not be confused as to who is  thinking, feeling, et cetera. We want the reader to clearly understand what is happening, and if we go inside a character’s head we must make it clear to the reader whose POV we are describing. That is what we want to accomplish, and I took that as my starting point as I began to sift through the manuscript.

Below is an example of a paragraph before and after my rewrites.


Bianca, Katherine, and Marysol stood to clear the soup bowls. Patti Jill, determined to be helpful, popped out of her seat and grabbed Timothy Lester’s bowl, nearly upsetting his water glass. Adam ran his thumb across his lower lip as he watched her clumsiness from across the long table, his expression inscrutable. Eden didn’t move a muscle toward servitude. She always hired extra help to deal with the clean up, and if Bianca was cheap that wasn’t her problem. Maria, her housekeeper, did the bulk of Eden’s daily scouring and scrubbing, and was easy to convince to help with entertaining.


Bianca, Katherine, and Marysol stood to clear the soup bowls. Patti Jill, determined to be helpful, popped out of her seat and grabbed Timothy’s bowl, nearly upsetting his water glass. She looked across the table nervously. Adam watched her possessively, and knowingly ran his thumb across his lower lip. She knew he was watching her every move, especially when she talked to the other men. He raised his eyebrows, their private sign that she had made an error. At least she was trying to help! Eden didn’t move a muscle toward servitude. She always hired extra help to deal with the clean up, and she had told Patti Jill that Bianca was cheap. Bianca didn’t seem cheap, and Patti Jill suspected that Eden was jealous of her chef skills. The petty jealousies didn’t matter, really, because Eden rarely cooked. Maria, her housekeeper, did the bulk of Eden’s daily scouring and scrubbing, and was easy to convince to help with entertaining. Maria was the secret cook behind the fare Eden brought to these elegant parties.

While I was rewriting the manuscript it became apparent to me that what I seem to be evolving toward, and what seems most natural to me, is third person omniscient. It suits my purpose, but is not easy to do. The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway is one of the best examples of third person omniscient I have studied. I read it specifically for that purpose. When you read it you are seeing the scene and understanding the motivation and feelings of the character. You are immersed in it, following the action like a movie camera panning a scene, and you are not distracted or confused.

Of course, there are only a couple of characters in The Old Man and The Sea. An even more exciting example of third person omniscient mixed with a first person narrator is The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It is a brilliantly written book. The POV is clear in illuminating the feelings and motivations of the quirky characters. The author pops into the story here and there to add his humorous or bittersweet observations to Morgenstern’s story. Reading this book is worth your time, both for the story and for the unique style the author employs.

Did I change every POV pop my editor highlighted? No, I did not. There were a few times when I wanted the reader to feel the dramatic shift in POV, and a few times when I liked the omniscient narrator for a broad-brush effect. The point is, I thought about a specific aspect of writing that I had never worried about before. After weeks of working on the rewrites I feel confident that the reader will be carried away by the story, and not distracted by awkward POV. The project was a tremendous learning experience, and I thank my editor for pointing out the bumpy writing. The book is infinitely stronger, and I have moved forward in my development as a writer. And now back to the crazy vampires…


Author: L. A. Lewandowski

Lois Lewandowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and French Literature. A passion for life lived well is reflected in her novels, Born to Die-The Montauk Murders, A Gourmet Demise, and My Gentleman Vampire, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the beau monde. Lois lives in Tampa, Florida. Learn more at her lifestyle blog, and her Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “Holy Head-Hopping!”

  1. Lois: The absolute best author use of third person omniscient is in C. S.
    Forester’s The African Queen. The reader doesn’t even catch that is is third person omniscient until a second or third read because the story has such an immediacy. I own two early 35 cent copies and they are in tatters because I read the book not less than twice a year. I love third person omniscient done right. I loath third person omniscience such as: Little did Darcy know she would be dead in less than an hour. Better is: On the last day of her life, Darcy… However, I don’t have the skill set to write third person omniscient. Would that I did.

    1. Hi Jackie,
      I have not read The African Queen. I am always looking for great examples of third person omniscient and will add it to my TBR list.
      I agree that “On the last day of her life, Darcy… ” is stronger. It makes the reader stand up and take notice.
      I honestly don’t think most readers, except for we writers, notice or care about these things. It is like a ballet – you notice when the dancer stumbles. When they glide effortlessly across the stage we are swept up in the choreography and are unaware of the work involved in making it all look so easy.
      Thank you for your comments.

  2. Everyone should write a novel in the first person to learn how to experience the five senses through one character’s POV, and how to “perceive” what other characters are thinking or feeling through dialogue, body language, etc. When writing a story in multiple viewpoint, it’s less confusing for the reader if we are in only one character’s mind at a time in a single part. When we move to the next third-person viewpoint, it should be marked with a double space.

    In strictly omniscient viewpoint, there seems to be a disembodied narrator that is “all knowing.” Sometimes, this technique might be necessary to the plot; most of the time, it can be accomplished in a more effective way. Omniscient viewpoint was quite popular in the past–but since it involves “playing God,” it’s not the best way to spin a yarn. Keep in mind: If your characters don’t know it yet, then neither should the reader!

    1. Hi Linda,
      I think you are right – the exercise of writing my second novel in first person POV was a great learning experience. It seemed to suit the story best, and made me concentrate on the dialogue as a vehicle to convey the opinions and feelings of the other characters.
      Thanks for your comments. 🙂

  3. Great article Lois! I suffer from the same POV affliction. I read The Princess Bride years ago, before the movie and before I knew what POV was. I may have to revisit it just for the third person omniscient (now that I know what it is). Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi CM.
      I have not seen the movie and have been told it is delightful.
      While I was reading The Princess Bride I paid close attention to the style the author used. It was almost distracting at first because the characters are quirky. I had to relax into the tale the same way Golden did as a child when his father read it to him. His first person POV interruptions and explanations throughout the story were so clever. I think a reread would be worth your time.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Firstly, you are right, Lois, you do have to experiment; and secondly, you are right about the right point of view for the right story; thirdly, you are also right that good editorial advice is tremendous, however sometimes you have to go with your intuitive, knowing, creative self.

    Excellent post, Lois, thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi TD,
      There are so many ways to approach a story. It is not about right or wrong, but more often about… point of view. What if The Old Man and The Sea was written from the POV of the sharks that chased the boat? I read a book called Ahab’s Wife, a different take on Moby Dick. I like when authors take a classic and twist it for the readers enjoyment. It shows skill.
      Thanks for you comments and for saying hello. 🙂

  5. Great post Lois. Clearly as long as the writer understands and thinks about the POV used, in the end what you choose it is the right decision. Years ago writing style was so different, Today the term head hopping seems to be over used, often by some who don’t understand all the uses of POV options and the accepted format of each. In the end, as long as the reader is not confused, and the reader is immersed in the story, then all is well. Thank you for this post.

    1. Hi Elisabeth,
      You are right about the huge changes in writing style. Last year I read Dracula and I was blown away by the pages of description. Many readers today would be overwhelmed by this, but that is why the book remains the Bible of vampire lore.
      In the end I feel it is always about what makes the story clear for the reader. Clear, that is, without being boring. A noble goal.
      Thanks for your comments.

  6. Lois, great post. I struggle with this as well. I loved seeing your before and after. We need more of that type of thing, it is so helpful to see the process right before your eyes.

    Thanks for sharing that!

    1. Thanks, Jim
      It is difficult to take apart a paragraph that is so intricate. I wanted to capture the interplay and undercurrents at work at the dinner party. Deciding who was the character to carry the action was the important decision. From there it was a little easier, and the rewrites were less torture. 🙂

  7. Dear Lois,

    Your post is interesting, but it does not cover the main reason for sticking to one POV: empathy with the character. Your example shows us a book with a whole bunch of people, and if you jump back and forth between them all, we may never get enough time with any one of them to form the serious attachment that every author wants to create with readers.
    I prefer a one-person viewpoint, whether 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

    1. Hi Gordon,
      I could never have told the story of “A Gourmet Demise” from one character’s POV. In fact, it would have been unfair to the reader.
      It has been pointed out to me that my books are character driven. This book is about a group of friends and their social interaction, their life in high society. They are not always together. They come together and separate like musical notes, or perhaps like the themes that run through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Sometimes you hear one instrument more than the others, suddenly one theme carries you away. To have written from the perspective of only one character would have been like hearing only one violin in Winter.
      Thank you for your comment and for stopping by. 🙂

      1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Lois. When done right, multiple viewpoint can elucidate character, intensify conflict, and advance the plot. It also provides readers with different perspectives, spicing up the story.

  8. I kind of recommend to people that the term “head hopping” is BS and should be ignored, better yet not even made a part of your vocabulary.
    For one thing, it’s an indefinite quantity. Obviously “never change POV” is not right. And changing every sentence will probably be confusing. To you, if nobody else. So… what’s the magic number?
    There isn’t one. Not each chapter, each scene, each paragraph… it’s your call, how it feels to you. Nobody else knows if you are “confusing the reader”. You are betting your butt on the fact that the way you feel like writing it will work. You are either capable of pulling it off, or you aren’t. You might end up taking a closer look and deciding to tighten things up, but it’s your call.
    Third person omniscient is pretty much the “default” for novels, actually. When most people tell a story, they either tell it in first person or in a third person that takes in anything that any character views. Laying a bunch of adjectives on a POV does not make things any clearer. By the time you get to Third Person Limited Objective or whatever, you’ve confused YOURSELF.
    A VERY important thing to realize about this stuff is that these are not terms developed for writers to create with. They are critical terms designed to DISCUSS work that was already written by people who write things instead of discussing them. I think if you read back through the responses here you might come to the same conclusion I do… the entire use and application of these POV terms does absolutely nothing to help you write a story.
    Use as many POV’s as you want, change them as many times as you feel like, according to what you can pull off without losing the sense of things.
    It’s just that simple.

    1. Volumes have been written on viewpoint and how to convey characterization. Learning the various techniques and styles is paramount to becoming an author and gaining control of your craft. How you use those skills to tell a story is up to you and what your plot demands. Still, it’s useful to have a set of guidelines first.

  9. I have been thinking about your comments, and I agree with – both of you.
    It is logical to assume that to break the rules you need to know what they are. Very rare is the artist who flourishes without understanding the basic skills of their craft. Once you know the guidelines, and can implement them if asked to do so, it is important to be able to take a risk and break them. Breaking the rules is what artists do, and that is what keeps art alive.
    The greatest artists are always those who have “found their art”, to quote Picasso.
    Ballet is a particularly unforgiving art form. Positions are either right or wrong. Bob Fosse was classically trained but had body problems that inhibited him from a career in ballet. Instead of becoming a plumber he invented a new style of dance, capitalizing on the quirks and unique aspects of his body. He broke the rules he knew well.
    As I said in the beginning of my post, I decided to look at the comments of my editor as an opportunity. The time that she took to point out POV pops was greatly appreciated because I learned from it. I can move forward to the next project knowing that I understand the rules. In the end, I can do whatever I want as long as my writing is clear to the reader.
    Thank you, Lin and Linda, for your comments.

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