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.

Head Hopping and POV

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 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 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. Omni POV is the subject of great debates on critiquing boards everywhere. Done well, it is transparent as any other POV, done badly and it keeps the reader from engaging in the story.

There is no right POV to write in. You will use what is comfortable, or what your story demands.

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 idiot 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 bank’s, 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 triggers 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. Dead and injured people lay 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