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

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

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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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 the 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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Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is a massive best-seller and is soon to be a TV series from Amazon that will rival Game of Thrones by all accounts.

The books have many, many characters. Broadly speaking, each chapter is written from the point of view of just one of the main characters. We know the thoughts and feelings of that one character even though they are presented in the third person.

Here's a brief excerpt showing this technique. "He" is Rand and we are seeing the action from his point of view. He is describing to Nynaeve what happened when he had to carry his sick father through the forest to avoid danger. In a fever, Rand's father revealed that Rand is adopted.

enter image description hereThe Eye of the World: Book 1 of the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

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