How to Annoy your Critique Group: Using Third Person Omniscient

In all the critique groups I’ve been members of, the writers have been quick to accuse authors of head hopping. This is not necessary an automatic reality when you show the thoughts and feelings of more than one character in a scene.

Third omniscient has a long history, it was much more popular in years past, especially in children’s’ literature. Though it is an older style, that doesn’t mean no one uses it today. Stephen King has written in Third Omni, The Lemony Snicket Books are in Third Omni as are others.

Like every other aspect of writing, you don’t want the reader to stop and think, ‘Wow, this is in Third Omni.’ The purpose of Point of View is to frame the story for the reader and pull them into the story. Third Omni can do that as well as any other POV.

Having said this, one can’t simply dive into a multiplicity of character’s head and call it Third Omni. Let’s back up a bit and define what we’re talking about here. Third Person Omniscient is a point of view in which the narrator knows everything, what everyone is thinking, feeling, no matter where they are. They also know how the story ends, and what comes before. However, there are shades between Third Person Limited and Third Omni. The author can show thoughts and feelings just within the scene and setting. You can have a narrator who doesn’t know how things turn out and so on. It is important to pick what the narrator knows and what they don’t, then be consistent with that level of knowledge.

I keep talking about the narrator. The narrator can be a character like the one in Lemony Snicket, or barely visible as Stephen King’s tend to be. The important thing is to establish your narrator and keep them in front of the reader. The easiest way I’ve found to manage the narrator is to use description as a way to remind the reader of the narrator’s presence.

Say you have a scene in a coffee shop, in third limited you’d show the coffee shop through the eyes of your POV character, the smells, sounds, sights etc. With a narrator you step back and move to a wide angle view to show the coffee shop as the character moves through it. Instead of riding on the character’s shoulder we’re watching them. We may see what the cook is thinking, or feel the waitress’s painful feet. Once you’ve done this you can zoom in closer to the characters and their dialogue/thoughts/feelings. Since you’ve reminded the reader of the presence of the narrator, they’ll take in the extra information without getting confused.

Even in Third Omni, you want to work hard on showing feelings etc., not just labelling them. Think of writing from the narrator’s POV, and that narrator can cut from one place to another like camera angles in the movies.

The challenge of Third Omni is getting your reader to attach to your characters. This is why the narrator is so important. If the narrator cares about the characters, the reader will. Narrative voice and whether they are trustworthy is vitally important to a good story, even more so in Omni than in other POV’s.

Next time you’re in a critique group, shock the group by not complaining about head hopping, but suggest how the author might more effectively work in Third Omni.

A Guide to Head Hopping: Person and Point of View

The person that you write your story in will have a big effect on your Point of View. Person is whether you tell the story as if it were happening to you – I pulled up my gun and yelled “This is a stick up!” The advantage of first person is the immediacy. The reader is right there with the character and knows everything the character knows though sometimes the narrator is untrustworthy and withholds information. The challenge with first person is that the character can’t read minds or know what is going on in the next county so you have to use a lot of dialogue and other tricks to show the story in its fullest to the reader. While there are a few first person novels that switch POV to another first person narrator, they are few and far between. The ones that do it well are even fewer. If you are going to change into a different first person POV, you not only have to change the POV, but you need to change the voice of the narrator so it doesn’t read like one character with two different names. It is possible to mix first person and third person, but again, voice is essential as is making clear whose head the reader is inhabiting.

Third person is when we sit back a bit further and use ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’ – Jim Bob ran into the bank waving his gun and yelled. “This is a stick up!” You have to work a little harder with third person to achieve immediacy because the reader is at that much greater distance from the character. The advantage is that you have a wider field of view. You can have the bank guard pull his gun to shoot Jim Bob in the back, and Jim Bob doesn’t know it. You can’t do that in first person.

There are a range of options in third person stories. You can stay pretty close to ol’ Jim Bob and just describe the action in the bank. Or you can pull back and watch the bank robbery in progress, but also comment on the action further away. The danger is that you lose even more connection with your character. There is also a style that is even further back called the omniscient narrator. In that case the narrator knows everything including what is going on in other people’s heads. This is rarely used these days.

So now we’ve defined the different persons a story can be written in, and some of the varieties of POV. Let’s look at that bank robbery and see what head hopping does.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention.

Frank was cleaning his nails when the idiot ran into the bank yelling about a stick up. Somebody high on something. He didn’t even have a gun. Then the idot pulled his gun and blew a hole in the ceiling. Plaster dust wafted down on the screaming customers. Frank pulled his gun and took careful aim at the bank robber’s back before pulling the trigger.

Marion was counting hundred dollar bills for Mr. Smythe when she heard a shot, but she felt a sharp pain in her chest before she could push the alarm. Her legs gave way and she fell to the floor.

Mr. Smythe didn’t know what to do. Was the money on the counter still the banks, and thus insured, or was it his and not covered? He felt the hot steel of a gun barrel poke the back of his neck and decided that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.

Jim Bob grabbed the rich dude and spun him around to be a shield between him and the bank guard. He fired two shots at the guard.

Mr. Smythe’s ears rang. He might be permanently deaf from the noise.

Frank forced his shaking hand to be still and fired back.

Dang it, Mr. Smythe thought, that’s going to ruin my suit. Then he fell dead to the floor.

Jim Bob put both hands on his gun and emptied it at the blasted guard.

Frank knelt on the floor and steadied his hands before emptying his gun at the robber.

“Freeze,” shouted Sheriff Jones as he ran into the bank followed by his deputies. The bank robber and some old geezer in a guard uniform were pointing guns at each other and pulling the trigger though only the clicks of a dry fired gun sounded.

It was Deputy Bill’s first day on the job and he was pumped that they were responding to a bank robbery. That is until he saw the bloody corpses of employees and customers sprawled on the floor. He staggered outside to lose his donuts in the bushes.

I got confused about what was happening and I was writing the scene. That’s an extreme example, but even if you had several paragraphs for each POV it would be hard to follow. The problem is that we aren’t inside someone’s head long enough to empathize with them. If you re-wrote the scene all from one character’s POV you could create some emotional connection. The way I have it, it is more like telling than showing, even without the usual markers for telling. You can get much more out of the story that way. I’ll show you what I mean.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention. The customers were screaming and running around in a panic. He was THE MAN. There was a teller counting out bills for a guy in a suit. They looked like hundreds. He wanted some of them.

Jim Bob pushed his way to the counter. He heard a shot from behind him and the teller made this funny gasp as red blood stained her blouse. As she slipped from sight, Jim Bob grabbed hold of the guy in the suit who looked like he was dithering over the money. The guy would be a good hostage. Jim Bob poked him with the barrel of his gun, then spun around.

There! An old geezer in a uniform was pointing a gun at them. Jim Bob fired a couple of rounds at the old guy. This gun thing was harder than it looked. He missed the old guy completely though a customer that was hiding behind the guard swore softly and fell to the floor. The old guy fired back and the suit grunted and fell to the floor. Jim Bob had nowhere to hide. He had to take this guy out. He put both hands on his gun like they did on the shows and pulled the trigger.

The sound of his shots and the old guy’s were deafening. But he couldn’t stop. It was kill or be killed. He was still pulling the trigger when the Sherriff barrelled in through the door and shouted.


Jim Bob stopped pulling the trigger. He didn’t know how long his gun had been just clicking instead of banging. The bank looked like a battle zone. There were dead and injured people lying on the floor and he could smell the blood, and other things. One deputy went white and ran out the door faster than he came in.

It is possible to write a good story with quick multiple POV, but it is a challenge. Check this story for an example  The Drive Past Devil’s Butte

Description, more than a pretty scene

Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it’s likely  the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and create atmosphere. Now, I know  everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end is a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.

A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil was rich and fertile and the crops were ready to harvest. There was only one town in the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:

Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them.

The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch it fluttered and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over the thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but there was something she couldn’t name that kept her eyes lifting to the mountains that towered on all sides and wondering what was on the other side.

At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. It lay weightless and delicate in her hand. She could see the tiny veins that ran through it, yet already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne turned to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew change had found her.

Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.

Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.)  None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”

Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.

The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.

John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. The night deepened; the streetlights lit  as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. Not caring he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life he loved, and he messed it up.

John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. DogThing was licking his face. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.

The final point for this article is the difference between passive and active description.

Passive description has nothing to do with passive voice (that’s another article). It is what I call description in which the character (and thus the reader) stop everything to look at the scenery.

Anthony stepped through the door. The butler stood on his left, a look of disapproval pasted on his face. All around the great hall hung the portraits of Anthony’s ancestors. Each with varying degrees of disgust trapped in paint on canvas. The floor was polished marble; he used to get in trouble for sliding in his stocking feet. Straight ahead the staircase spiraled up to the gallery. His mother stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on her son.

That’s a lovely setting, all kind of emotional things going on in the background. We learn a lot about Anthony just by the way he sees the hall. What is he doing while we read the description? Standing in the doorway, frozen in time until he takes the next step. If this is part of a highly emotional homecoming, he have had to work himself up to knock on the door. We expect an emotionally laden dialogue with mother dear, and in between -he’s stuck in the door. There may be times we want that ‘stuck in the door’ moment, but it means we need to use it to forward the plot.

What I like to do is have the character interact with the setting. Thus, active description.

Anthony stepped through the door. He nodded at the butler with disapproval pasted on his face.

“My coat.” Anthony offered his threadbare garment. The butler lifted it with one finger and carried it away, probably to burn.

The paintings still hung around the great hall, Anthony strolled along the line of his ancestors, each with varying levels of disgust captured in paint on canvas.

“Sorry, Father.” Anthony stopped in front of the newest portrait, trying to feel anything but relief.


Anthony turned to the grand staircase where his mother waiting. For a mad moment he wanted to kick off his shoes and slide across the polished marble floor. His mother’s frown deepened as if she’d read his thought. He dragged himself over to stand at the foot of the stairs. As always, she stood on the third step, just high enough to look down on him.

All the same elements are present, but the plot moves forward. We see the emotion in the hall, but also feel Anthony’s shame and reluctance.