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Most of my writing experience has been with first person, nonfiction stories. Now I want to try some fiction. I'm working in third person, but I'm a little bit confused about how to pull something off.

Okay, say I'm telling the story from character A's POV and he's talking to character B, suddenly character A says something where I think it might be interesting if the reader were to know exactly what it is that character B is thinking and or feeling at that very moment in time that Character A said whatever he said.

Can I not just write a new sentence saying whatever it is I want the reader to know? Can I not just change the POV from sentence to sentence by simply indicating to the reader that Character A felt this. And then Character B felt this. And so on and so forth?

Is this not the purpose of the omniscient narrator?

I've been told I've got it wrong. I've heard the term "head popping." I guess my question is what is head popping. Is it a bad thing to do? If so, why is it bad? And by that I mean: How does it hurt the story?

Can anyone think of a good example of a popular book that uses this type of effect?

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    Oh thank GOD this is a question about narrative perspective and not pimples. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Sep 19 '12 at 1:04
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    It's where you squeeze someone so hard their head pops off – writingaddict Sep 19 '12 at 3:57
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    I've pointed this problem out to writers before, but never had a name for it; but I'm not sure I would want to tell a client they're guilty of "head popping". – Goodbye Stack Exchange Sep 20 '12 at 18:22
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    Head popping is a silly name, but changing POV doesn't actually describe the problem I'm seeking help with. For example, you can change POV without running into the "head popping" problems described in the answers to this question. – Tim Elhajj Sep 22 '12 at 8:12
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    Hey, you are the king, the god of your story. Do what you want. Write it the way you want and get an audience to read it. Invite people to read it. Don't get stuck to old paradigms of writing if you feel you can develop an interesting one. Always compromise your principles/techniques in favour of readers' comprehension. – Blessed Geek Sep 23 '12 at 22:43
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I would find it annoying, or annoyingly convenient, to be switching POVs repeatedly, particularly just for one sentence.

I think even when you have an omniscient narrator, you need to stick with one person per scene, or per beat. When you read a story, you are kind of sitting on the shoulder of whoever is the focus of a scene, and if the POV jumps from A to B repeatedly, as the reader you don't know who you're supposed to be traveling with.

If you want the reader to know what Character B is thinking at that moment, either Character B has to display it (expression, body language), say it out loud, or communicate it somehow (write it down, sign it, text it). Otherwise you have to wait for the next scene or the next beat for the focus to switch to Character B.

The purpose of the omniscient narrator may be to give us access to the thoughts of all the characters... but not necessarily all at once.

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    Hey, how could you then pull of, in a written form, something similar to Death Note "thinking/strategy stream of thoughts" where Light and L Lawliet battle each other mentally. Example: youtube.com/watch?v=B7Jq9SNZMtw – Fabián Heredia Montiel Sep 25 '12 at 23:54
  • As you can see in the video, there are so many beats and focus shifting from Light to L and back and it was clearly visible, who is talking what and who is thinking what. We know both already. In written form I would use long paragraph for each turn to describe person reaction and thoughts, then switch context and next paragraph would be other beat -- Ryoga sudently turned to Light and with intese look whispered "I am L" -- Light was deeply shocked, but managed to not change expression or do any movement. "Im .. Impossible!" he though "What he is saying.... Not good" he closed eyes, ... -- – gilhad Oct 8 '18 at 15:36
  • Your example from the movie is 3:34 minutes long, while actors utters just few sentences. Also there are long sequences dedicated to each move they respectively made and light travels from one to other to clearly show, who is in spot just now. The same principle, as in physical fight, where we can see clearly each movement of each participants, maybe switched focus like 5-9 times, while they are charging agains each other (on span of like few steps). I reality that part would be under one second lenght, in movie it may be couple of minutes. And in book it may be a chapter of lot paragraphs. – gilhad Oct 8 '18 at 15:44
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It's a good question. It is something I have seen done - for instance, I have recently been re-reading some of David Weber's Honor Harrington series. He uses this occasionally to show the reaction of a character to events. Sometimes it's quite satisfying - but if not used very carefully, it can make the reader confused. A lot of what your omniscient narrator tells the reader will not necessarily have come from the PoV of any character, so if you chop backwards and forwards between two characters' heads the reader can end up uncertain of which thoughts and feeling came from which character. And that can be pure death to your story, because it will dilute the impact of it substantially.

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  • +1 for Honor Harrington – MarielS Oct 19 at 22:22
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Third-person limited narration is telling the story in third person, from one person's point of view.

Omniscient narration is telling the story in third person, from a distanced, neutral point of view.

Note that with third-person limited, you may still write from multiple character's points of view--but not in the same scene.

If you want to tell about the inner thoughts and motivations of multiple characters in the same scene, you can do that. But you will want to distance yourself from the characters and writing in an unbiased, neutral tone.

Pros and cons of each:

  • A benefit of omniscient narration is access to everything that a single character (or any character) wouldn't have knowledge of, including, as you said, access to multiple character's inner thoughts in one scene.
  • A benefit (and cost) of third-person limited is a focus on a particular character's perspective: you can (and should) imbibe every detail with their perspective, which allows you to reveal character in other dimensions.
  • A downside of omniscient is that it can be confusing if you are not careful to state who is doing or saying what continually.
  • And finally, another implication of omniscient narration is that it feels more distanced from the characters.

Crime and Punishment is an example of a great work of fiction that is written in omniscient POV and employs frequent head popping. It's a useful technique for the psychological nature of the work. Dostoevsky will simply say things like (not a quote),

John asked Sarah how she could afford such a thing. Sarah thought the question awfully direct, but remained courteous in her responses.

In some passages, he describes the dialogue instead of actually writing the dialogue with dialogue tags, and in other passages he writes the actual dialogue. I think what helps it to work is that he does not employ head popping during actual dialogue; only when describing dialogue.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is another example I read recently. I would study either of those books to get good examples of how to do omniscient POV well, weigh the pros and cons of each POV for your particular work, and decide appropriately.

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Coincidentally, I just finished reading an otherwise good fanfic that had me ready to grab and shake the author going "for the love of god, please stick to a single POV!" so I'll take a stab at this question by explaining what annoyed me so much about it.

The basic problem with head-hopping is that usually, in a third-person limited POV, the reader can assume that all narration is being filtered through the character's point of view and are their thoughts and feelings even without it being explicitly stated as such. This lets you really get into the POV character's head. Example:

Alex ground her teeth as her friends argued. Why couldn't they ever just go along with what she suggested? Why did things always have to be such a production?

Her hand throbbed with pain. This was taking too long.

In this case, the reader gets to take for granted that it's Alex's hand that hurts, Alex that's annoyed at her friends, and Alex that thinks everything is taking too long.

If you head-hop, you break that contract. The result is that unless you really make the breaks in POV distinct, your reader has to work to assign bits of narration to the characters thinking them. For instance: if I continue the above example by something one of Alex's friends is thinking, the reader has to:

  • pick up on the fact that the next part is no longer from Alex's point of view
  • figure out at what point the switch happened
  • that may mean going back to the "This was taking too long." line and using logical deduction to work out who was thinking it ("right, Alex was the one who hurt her hand last chapter...")

This sort of confusion serves to yank your readers out of the story. The backtracking part is especially bad, you really don't want your readers to have to jump back to the previous sentence trying to reinterpret it. The fanfic I mentioned at the start left me feeling like I had whiplash from the number of times I went "oh, wait, I guess I'm in character X's head now? so who was thinking that before?"

(Note that this is something different from omniscient point of view, where everything is related from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who has access to what all characters are thinking and feeling. For instance, you wouldn't expect standalone lines like "This was taking too long" in third person omniscient unless the omniscient narrator was thinking them!)

Of course, all rules have exceptions. In this case, if you can make it so that the POVs cannot be confused, it's possible to manage it. There's a scene in Terry Pratchett's Nation where two characters from completely different cultures with no language in common meet which mixes their POVs and which I think works very well:

The girl looked at him nervously and said: 'My name is, um... Daphne.' She gave a little cough and added, 'Yes, Daphne.' She pointed to herself and held out her hand.

'Daphne,' she said again, even more loudly. Well, she'd always liked the name.

Mau looked obediently at her hand, but there was nothing to see. So... she was from Daphne? In the Islands the most important thing about you was the name of your clan. He hadn't heard of the place, but they always said that no one knew all the islands. Some of the poorer ones disappeared completely at high tide and the huts were built to float. They would have gone now... so how many were left? Had everyone in the world been washed away?

Due to the totally different perspectives and languages, it's immediately clear for every sentence whether it's Daphne or Mau's point of view, no chance of reader confusion at all.

So in this context, it works, but that sort of thing is... very hard to pull off. Even in the case of Nation the whole novel isn't written like this, it's really just the scenes with the total language barrier and culture shock. In my opinion, this is absolutely a case of "understand the rules before you break them", and in almost all cases you're going to be better off sticking to a single limited POV or writing omniscient than trying to switch out POVs within a scene.

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Don't trouble yourself as to what other writers consider good or bad. Do it if you want to do it. I read the first couple of Dune novels and Frank Herbert does it constantly.

You mean "head hopping", though, not "head popping".

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You can’t tell another characters thoughts if they are not the first person narrator. You can however, change the POV. Not in that on specific section, but the whole book. First, finish your first draft and ask yourself:

Should this better be explained if it was written in thirt person? Third person omniscient? First person? Maybe even second person, in rare cases. It depends on the novel you’re writing.

If you want to focus mainly on the external conflict (if that is the kind of conflict in your novel) and the characters thoughts and feelings aren’t really a big part of the story, then first person definitely isn’t the way to write your novel.

If however, your characters thoughts and feelings DO matter, and are a significant part of the story, and you need to write down more then one characters thoughts for it to make sense, then I would go with third person omniscient.

I have never written anything in second person besides essays, so I’m not sure about that one, but I encourage you to do your research.

For first person, typically the first person narrator is the main character and hero. If only that characters thoughts and feelings are important, then first person is for sure the way to go. For example, in a novel I’m writing my first person narrator is the way I chose to write the story, because my main character has feelings of tremendous guilt that her family’s death was her fault, and she doesn’t tell anyone. So if I wrote in third person, we wouldn’t know this important information about the main character.

I hope this helps you with your POV problem. If not, I’m sure there are many online courses and classes you can take on this subject.

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