Head Jumping

Pretty much anyone who’s read a book has probably seen narrative written in first and third person. Some people may have even seen a couple in second. Everyone has their favorite to write in, and generally read, but I’ve always been rather partial towards third person. (Specifically third person limited).

Now, before I continue, First/Second/Third Person Points of View (POV) are something most people have heard about, but as a quick refresher:

In a first-person POV the story is relayed by a narrator, who is also a character within the story, so that the narrator reveals the plot by referring to this viewpoint character as “I” (or, when plural, “we”). For example: “I walked into the club…

In second person, the narrator refers to one of the characters as “you”, therefore making the audience member feel as if he or she is a character within the story. (“You see the man walking toward you.”) Not very popular, it’s mostly seen in “Choose your own adventure” books.

Third person has two subsets—limited and omniscient. In both, every character is referred to as “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”. In limited, the narrator is a character in the story, much like first person) only referred to as “s/he” rather than “I”. In omniscient, the narrator is a being outside the narrative relating all the character’s actions (as though they are watching the action unfold on stage/below them).

Everyone feeling refreshed? Okay, on we go.

Each POV has their own pros and cons, but first person and third person-limited are by far the most popular in modern literature.

Interestingly, after reading so many first novels working as an editor, I find that first time novelists seem drawn to first person (not as a rule, but as a general observation). I’m not quite sure why that is (perhaps the connection writers tend to feel towards first characters?) but it does offer some protection from a common third person limited problem. Head jumping.

If you’re writing in third person, stop and take a look at your writing. Are you showing the world as how your main character would see it? Then you’re in third person limited. Now, do you still say how every character is feeling when it comes up? That’s okay, but only if you stay in one character’s POV. Otherwise, it’s head jumping. And head jumping can be both annoying and confusing.

Without the confines of telling a story in first person–where you’re forced to stay in one character’s head–many people find themselves telling the reader what each character is feeling when it suits. We start in Character A’s head, showing the world as they experience it, and say what they’re feeling. For example:

A felt her stomach flutter.

As the POV character, A can know how she’s feeling. And it’s good to say. You’re showing how she’s feeling, not telling the reader how she’s feeling. Top marks for you. A can’t however know how character B is feeling. For example:

A felt her stomach flutter.
B looked back, knowing she was in love.

I know, not a great example there, but still, 1) B can’t know that unless they’re a character with some sort of omniscient powers and, 2) You’re in A’s point of view, A can’t know what B knows. It is a POV slip.

It may not seem like the biggest deal for some people, but going back and forth in third person limited shifts the entire world. As I said before, in both first person and third person limited you are showing the world through a character—both their point of view, and how they experience their world. A might be a pessimist, for example, while B is an optimist. In B’s POV, therefore, the reader is going to be experiencing the scene that is happening differently. Not markedly, perhaps, but through B’s eyes, not A’s. By jumping back and forth, you shift the entire view the reader is getting, which can offer a strange sense of vertigo.

Luckily there are some things you can do to stay in one POV in third person.

 1. Decide who’s experiencing the event. Think about whose eyes you’re seeing the story through (or the scene through). That is the person who is going to be telling everyone their personal experiences. Don’t slide into someone else’s just because you want their reaction.

-And more importantly-

2. Think about what the POV character could see to give other characters’ reactions. Perhaps the POV character can’t know the other character’s having their stomach flutter, but they can see them place a hand on their stomach, or swallow, or (if nothing else) you can say it seems the other character is experiencing something (A placed a hand on her stomach, looking as if it fluttered uncomfortably). The last might not be the best way to go about it, but it’s better than head jumping.


It can be a little harder to funnel your writing through one character’s POV, but lazy writing doesn’t make for good writing, so just take a little longer and think about what the POV character could know. It will also help with the age-old showing vs. telling problem. You will be forced to show actions rather than just saying what characters feel. And, after all, you can’t just say how your characters feel. That makes me feel angry. 


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