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omniscient vs 3rd person POV

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tko

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I thought I'd figured this out, I've certainly read enough about it, but some of it isn't clicking. Basically, I'm having a hard time telling the difference between 3rd person POV where, say, you switch characters mid chapter, and omniscient POV where you do the same thing. I'm going to quote from this web site.

http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/pw34.shtml

[SIZE=-1]"He bent over his secretary's desk, "Audrey, run the mail down right now, please." Robert was always one for covering bases, and sending his secretary out on an errand would insure she could not hear what was about to take place."

The site claims that the second sentence is [/SIZE]
[SIZE=-1] a narrator omniscient comment, so you can tell its [/SIZE][SIZE=-1]omniscient POV. OK. Why is the second sentence an [/SIZE][SIZE=-1]omniscient comment? [/SIZE]Suppose I replace Robert with the word 'he'? Looks pretty 3rd person to me, like a personal musing.

[SIZE=-1]"He was always one for covering bases, and sending his secretary out on an errand would insure she could not hear what was about to take place[/SIZE]"

So what really is the difference between omniscient and 3rd person POV with a limited cast of characters and limited shifts in character? And what's the difference between bad 3rd person POV w/head hopping and good omniscient?

[SIZE=-1]
[/SIZE]
 

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I think your confusion lies in the meaning of 3rd person limited (also frequently called close third). In 3rd person limited, the story is told from the point of view of ONE character. It has nothing to do with the number of characters. There can be thirty characters - but we only know the direct thoughts of one of them.
 

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First, remember that omniscient IS a version of third person.So there will be similarities. Think of it as third person limited vs. third person UNlimited (OMNI)

In omni, the narrator can at any point in a scene, skip to any character either present or not. The narrator can also move forward or backward in time (which you could only go backwards in third limited), and the narrator can deliver details about setting that the characters themselves are totally unaware of, which is a trait limited to Omni alone.

It is a lot of power for the author to carry! It can also become overwhelming and some people feel it can be impersonal. Like any POV, it takes practice.

Good omniscient will have the presence of a narrator or at least separate comments NOT in any character's POV that are present. A great example of this (that I like) is Neil Gaiman. He does Omni well. If you like, I have a new piece in Omni in SYW here:

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=196893

It isn't perfect yet, but it's free and easy access!
You can see it isn't head hopping and clearly there is "someone" commenting on things that is not any of the characters present. Yet, you still have shifts in thought and POV from characters within each scene without breaks.

PLEASE anyone who knows of better free examples, post! I'm biased, but I am also still working on Omni. We're still cozying up to each other.
 

maestrowork

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It's about whose point of view t is, not pronouns.

3rd limited is from the POINT OF VIEW of the character, as if it was told by the character, only not in 1st person voice. When it's CLOSE 3rd limited, its actually told in the character's voice, so it's basically first person but with he or she instead of I. When you switch character, you're actually switching the POV to be that of the new character, and that's why you need a scene break, because you're literally switching gear.

Omniscient is told from the point of view of the all-knowing narrator. Always. There is no POV character. The narrtor knows everything from what is happening on Mars to who Mary or John or Lucky the dog or Alvin the chipmunk is, and what they are thinking. The narrator simply chooses what to tel, you, the reader. There's no switching gear. The narrator is always there.

Here are two examples. I'll use 3rd limited CLOSE vs. omniscient so you can see the starker difference (a more "neutral/distant" 3rd limited is harder to tell from omniscient in a short excerpt). Also, I'll use two characters who are 14 years old, so you can see the difference in voice (pardon the poor writing -- I'm speed-writing here to make a point):

CLOSE 3rd Limited:

Mary couldn't believe Mommy didn't let her to go to Bobby's birthday party. Not fair! She pouted, stared out the window, the crummy weather outside was just miserable. Mary wanted to scream. Then she remembered Mommy had told her she was a lady now. No screaming, and no throwing tantrums. Not fair, so not fair! Mary decided to read a book instead, but she looked all over and couldn't find it. She heard a knock on the door. She had no idea who that could be. Mommy? She opened the door and was surprised to see Bobby standing there dripping wet.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, shocked.
"I want to see you," he said. He frowned and waved his hand."Aren't you going to invite me inside?"
She thought about it for a second. "Mommy said no boys in my room."
He grinned. "But I'm not just any boy."
#
Bobby waited and waited and waited for Mary to open the door. He was wet. All wet. Hated it. What the fuck? He wasn't supposed to swear. Just couldn't help it. Ever since The Old Man had left town, Bobby had no one to give him rules or punishment. Freedom, that was what he liked. And Mary. She was cute. The door opened and the girl was right there. Sweet Jesus. She was so fucking hot. She said no boys allowed, and Bobby knew exactly what he had to say. Perfect.

"Wanna go to the shore with me?" he said. He knew she had always wanted to go there.
"Now? In the rain?" She shook her head.
"Oh, come on. It'd be fun."
She lowered her head. Then she looked straight into his eyes. "Alright."
He knew it. He knew it.


Omniscient (of the same scene):

One thing Mary could never understand was why her mother wouldn't allow her to go to Bobby's birthday party. Surely it was unfair. She pouted and stared out of her window. Outside the sky was gray and twenty miles from there, the shore was getting treacherous. It was a miserable day for the whole town, but it was even more miserable for Mary. She wanted to scream, but then she remembered what her mother had said. "You're a lady now." Her mother was serious and proud that her little girl was all grown up. And ladies don't scream or throw tantrums. Mary decided to read a book instead, but she couldn't find it -- little did she know, the book was right under her bed. She heard a knock on the door and couldn't for the life of her anticipate it to be Bobby. She thought it was her father. Meanwhile, Bobby waited outside, soaking wet after running for five minutes in the rain. He waited patiently until Mary opened the door.

"What are you doing here" she asked, puzzled.
"I want to see you," he said. Fuck, you're so beautiful, he thought. He suppressed an urge to swear in front of her. He frowned and waved his hand. "Aren't you going to invite me inside?"
She gave it a serious thought. "Mommy said no boys in my room."
"But I'm not just any boy." He had rehearsed that line the whole day. "Wanna go to the shore with me?"
"Now? In the rain?" She shook her head -- she couldn't possibly.
"Oh, come on. It'd be fun."
She thought about it again. "Alright."
He knew he had won.


OK, the writing is kind of crappy, but I hope you kind of see how the two differ. In close 3rd limited, the scenes are told from the point of view of the characters, and use their voices in the narration. When we switch, we switch the voice and the point of view, too. When we're in one character's POV (say, Mary's), we can only know what Mary can see and hear and think and feel. We don't get to know what is outside the door, or what Bobby is thinking. Same thing when we switch to Bobby's point of view. We can only hear and see, etc. what Bobby can, and know what Bobby thinks, not Mary. Even though in the same scene Bobby and Mary are present.

In omniscient, there's no switching. There's one consistent narrator and the story is told from its point of view -- it just knows Mary and Bobby and how they think and what they do and it also knows what is happening 20 miles away at the store, etc. etc. The narrator is omniscient, and it is not any of the characters and it has its own voice.

Remember, I'm doing an extreme example. In reality, even if you're writing in omniscient, it doesn't mean you should just report on EVERYTHING or what EVERY CHARACTER is thinking all the time. What it means is "you can, but probably shouldn't." It takes great skills and discipline to pull of smooth omniscient.
 
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Linda Adams

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Omniscient viewpoint is a single narrator who tells the entire story, sometimes touching on the different characters but always seeing the world from the single narrator's eyes. A key way to tell if something is in omni is if the narrator knows or sees something the main character can't possibly know.

The more traditional third person is restricted to the viewpoint character's perspective--basically whatever the character can see or know.

If you want to learn about omni, the best way is to read books written in omni. A lot of the examples on websites either don't do it justice or misses the mark on the single narrator. A lot of people think omni is head hopping because the single narrator can touch anyone in the story. But omni is always the viewpoint of the single narrator. Head hopping occurs with unplanned and abrupt viewpoint shifts.
 

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Any comparison between 3rd person multiple POV and Omni always amuses me.

I never use Omni, so I may well be way, way, way out in left field.

Omni looks to me like the greatest case of head hopping possible, but it seems to be OK. :evil;)

Head hop in 3rd person multiple POV, and you commit one of the gravest possible sins. :evil:cry::flag:

3rd person multiple POV requires serious discipline to control head hopping in POVs and scenes.

On the other hand, Omni seems to allow acceptable open slather on head hopping.

I apologise if this hijacks the thread, but I believe this might be relevant to the OP -- and it's something I've wondered about for years.
 

maestrowork

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On the other hand, Omni seems to allow acceptable open slather on head hopping.

Since it's always told from the omniscient narrator's point of view, which knows everything, there's technically no head-hopping.
 
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maestrowork

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Hmmm, since head-hopping has such a bad rep, I think it's better to clarify that. Otherwise, it just muddles everything and people will never understand the differences.
 

leahzero

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I think your confusion lies in the meaning of 3rd person limited (also frequently called close third). In 3rd person limited, the story is told from the point of view of ONE character. It has nothing to do with the number of characters. There can be thirty characters - but we only know the direct thoughts of one of them.

No, not quite--it's one character per scene (or chapter, or other discrete narrative block).

When the scene changes or there's some other form of narrative break, the POV can switch to another character.

By contrast, omniscience is always active, so multiple characters can reveal their thoughts within one scene without any scene breaks.

Edit: to clarify, the amount of POV characters is not the distinguishing feature between narrative modes (except in the case of omniscience, where it's irrelevant). You can have multiple first-person narrators, or just one; you can have multiple third-person limited narrators, or just one; etc.
 
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maestrowork

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When the scene changes or there's some other form of narrative break, the POV can switch to another character.

By contrast, omniscience is always active, so multiple characters can reveal their thoughts within one scene without any scene breaks.

I love these two paragraphs, because they highlight the difference so succinctly. 3rd limited actually "switches POVs" (or stays with one). Omniscient "reveals thoughts' of multiple characters.
 

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I really like the discussion above, but I'll add for this specific point:

[SIZE=-1]"He bent over his secretary's desk, "Audrey, run the mail down right now, please." Robert was always one for covering bases, and sending his secretary out on an errand would insure she could not hear what was about to take place."

The site claims that the second sentence is [/SIZE]
[SIZE=-1] a narrator omniscient comment, so you can tell its [/SIZE][SIZE=-1]omniscient POV. OK. Why is the second sentence an [/SIZE][SIZE=-1]omniscient comment? [/SIZE]Suppose I replace Robert with the word 'he'? Looks pretty 3rd person to me, like a personal musing.
[SIZE=-1]
[/SIZE]

I agree ^^^. It could be a personal musing, especially in not-close 3rd (for lack of a better term, lol). You'd have to read more to know. Ray's examples are better than that authors regarding the differences between the limited 3rds and omni.

Omni can read just like limited 3rd for passages, no doubt. Sometimes it takes longer to see that it's in omni.
 

maestrowork

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Omni can read just like limited 3rd for passages, no doubt. Sometimes it takes longer to see that it's in omni.

Exactly, especially when the voice is similar. You do need to read more than a short excerpt to get a feel whether it's written in omniscient. Some omniscient narrator is evident right off the bat (Jane Austen, for example). Some are more neutral and it will take a few pages to sink in.
 

FennelGiraffe

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[SIZE=-1]"He bent over his secretary's desk, "Audrey, run the mail down right now, please." Robert was always one for covering bases, and sending his secretary out on an errand would insure she could not hear what was about to take place."[/SIZE][SIZE=-1]
[/SIZE]

Aha! I think I figured it out. They're saying that "Robert was always one for covering bases" is the narrator's opinion of Robert, not Robert's opinion of himself. That's what makes it omniscient.

I don't think that's a particularly good example, though. I don't see why that couldn't be Robert's opinion of himself.

ETA: Actually, they do explain that (my bolding)
[SIZE=-1]Note how we both read the thoughts of Robert and also read the author's comment that Robert covers bases.[/SIZE]
 
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maestrowork

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It's a bit hard to decipher. Plus omniscient doesn't necessarily mean the narrator would inject its opinion or comment. In this case, it does about Robert. But like you said, it could very well be Robert's self-assessment.

Same idea in my example. The following are the narrator's comments:

Surely it was unfair.

...but it was more miserable for Mary.

But either could very well be Mary's own feelings.
 
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amergina

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left field.

Omni looks to me like the greatest case of head hopping possible, but it seems to be OK. :evil;)

Head hop in 3rd person multiple POV, and you commit one of the gravest possible sins. :evil:cry::flag:

3rd person multiple POV requires serious discipline to control head hopping in POVs and scenes.

On the other hand, Omni seems to allow acceptable open slather on head hopping.

I apologise if this hijacks the thread, but I believe this might be relevant to the OP -- and it's something I've wondered about for years.

As others have said, it's not really head-hopping in omniscient, since the narrator has access to all heads.

But poor transitions between characters in 3rd omniscient can kill a story just as fast as head-hopping in 3rd limited. The trick is to transition seamlessly and not in any manner that confuses the reader. At no point should the reader think--Wait, who said that? Who thought that?

3rd omniscient done well, like any other POV done well, is a pleasure to read. Done poorly it, like any other POV done poorly, may induce book-wall syndrome.
 

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Knowing and revealing what is going on in the head of a character is not the same as going inside the head of that character.
 

maestrowork

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Knowing and revealing what is going on in the head of a character is not the same as going inside the head of that character.

I'd go further and say there's a difference between knowing what Bufty thinks and feels and tell you all about it, and assuming Bufty's perspective and persona and tell it as Bufty would.
 

tko

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exactly!

Yeah, that's exactly what has been confusing me, thank you. If I call it 3rd person POV and head hop I'm terrible, but if I call it omni I can get inside anyone's head I want. Great.

So, there is no difference between the two except for how you head hop? Or, bad 3rd person POV w/head hopping is similar to omni?

The site I quoted appeared to think that there was other stuff that made a difference, such as omni observer comments, but I don't think there example works. What's the difference between a characters thoughts and a omni observers comments? Not much I think.

Any comparison between 3rd person multiple POV and Omni always amuses me.

I never use Omni, so I may well be way, way, way out in left field.

Omni looks to me like the greatest case of head hopping possible, but it seems to be OK. :evil;)

Head hop in 3rd person multiple POV, and you commit one of the gravest possible sins. :evil:cry::flag:

3rd person multiple POV requires serious discipline to control head hopping in POVs and scenes.

On the other hand, Omni seems to allow acceptable open slather on head hopping.

I apologise if this hijacks the thread, but I believe this might be relevant to the OP -- and it's something I've wondered about for years.
 

tko

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thanks, got it (I think)

Thanks for all the work typing that example up. That does help. So in omni you're roaming around, even in one sentence, making comments on the world anywhere, anytime. In any form of 3rd person POV, although you may head hop, you're limited to what your current character can experience at any one time.

I've been to about a dozen web sites and none explained that very clearly (or maybe I'm too dense), but I see it now. For example, the web site I quoted in my OP has none of this even though they tried to go into some detail. Let me think out loud (as a lesson to myself):

3rd POV is always limited to what one character is experiencing at any point in time.

Omni has no limitations. You can draw in details from around the universe if you want.

You could write an entire novel about a one guy, on a desert island, in omni point of view, if you're referencing outside events in your narrative.

You could also tell the same novel in 3rd POV, if you head hop off the island occasionally to tell what's happening elsewhere.

Omni doesn't need another character to show a different location. 3rd does. Omni can mix up scenes in one sentence, 3rd can't. Even if you head hop in every sentence in 3rd person it's still not omni.

It's not really about POV and characters then. I didn't get that before.

I think many novels throw in brief periods of omni, even in 3rd/1st person, if needed. For example, if you have science fiction story about the earth's destruction, told 1st person by a guy in NY, you might have a section describing what the sun is doing, solar flares and all, something no one can possible observe. Sometimes I've seen this section italicized to indicate it's omni.
 

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You could write an entire novel about a one guy, on a desert island, in omni point of view, if you're referencing outside events in your narrative.

You could also tell the same novel in 3rd POV, if you head hop off the island occasionally to tell what's happening elsewhere.

Omni doesn't need another character to show a different location. 3rd does. Omni can mix up scenes in one sentence, 3rd can't. Even if you head hop in every sentence in 3rd person it's still not omni.

Just to clarify, head hopping is a BAD THING. It's really not supposed to be done. If you are writing in 3rd limited and wish to shift POV, you are supposed to have a scene break or even a different chapter to note that there is a shift.

If you were writing about a man on an island in omni, you wouldn;t have to write about events off island, but you could note things on island the man was unaware of. You could note that there was a storm coming in (he wouldn't be aware of that). You could say what was happening on the other side of the island. You could make observations while he was asleep.

Those novels that have bits that appear to be written in other POV are in omni. You can write a HUGE amount of novel from one character's perspective, with only small bits of narrative about other things. The key to omni is not that all the details flood at once, it is just that the ability is there.

It was a hugely popular narrative style in the past and has only recently lost popularity (the last say 50 years?). Some genres have more stories in it than others. You can find a great many fairy tales in omni, and YA. It is more popular in the UK.
 

amergina

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All POV is about narrative mode--who is telling us the story right now? In first person, it's pretty darn obvious. In 3rd person, it can be less so--that's why third has so many forms.

With third omni, the answer to "who is telling us the story right now?" is "a narrator not directly involved in the events of the story who knows and sees all."

With third limited, the answer to "who is telling us the story right now?" is "Character X, who is in the thick of it."

If you're going to switch narrative modes, you need to switch scenes/chapters. So, yes, you can switch between 1st and 3rd limited in a book--but not in the same scene. And yes you can switch between 3rd limited and 3rd omni--but not in the same scene. And you can switch from one 3rd limited narration to another 3rd limited narration--but not in the same scene.

(Insert here a caveat about people breaking rules all the time if they do it well.)

So in your desert island example--if you're writing the book/scene from 3rd omni, in the same scene, the narrator (who is not the person on the island) can tell the reader about the stranded guy's wife, and how she feels in the same scene as the guy thinking about his wife.

In 3rd limited, the guy would act as the narrator of the scene, and think about his wife. Then there would be a scene break, and the wife would take on the role of the narrator and give her feelings.

Does that make sense?
 

maestrowork

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Again, there's no head-hop in omniscient, since the narrator is all knowing, and the POV is always that of the narrator's.

Think about this. You're God. And you know everything. You know Mars is going to explode in 2 million years. You know what Bobby and Mary did two minutes ago, and you know what they're doing and thinking and feeling now, and you know what they're going to do two minutes from now. You just know. You don't have to DIP into their heads to find out. You KNOW.

That's why there's no head-hopping. Head-hopping means you actually have to go INSIDE the character's head to find out. 3rd Limited is all about assuming the character's perspective and tell the story (at least, the scene) from his or her perspective.

There's no such thing in omniscient: the narrator just KNOWS, and it's telling you anything it wants to.


But yes, if you want to tell us something happening on an island in 3rd limited, you must go through a character who is ACTUALLY on the island that the time and you can only tell us what this character can see, hear, feel, etc.

In omniscient, technically speaking you can do anything you want. You can zip to the island and tell us the volcano is going to blow and there's no one to witness it. Then zip back to the city and tell us what everyone is doing. And then zip to Bobby and see what he's doing.

Now, that doesn't mean you should. With the freedom of omniscient, you have the responsibility to not confuse your readers and also anchor them emotionally. If you zip around too often, you risk disorienting them and becoming too distant that they don't care what is happening.


The trick of writing in omni or 3rd limited is to realize who is telling the story, like amergina said. To do omniscient well, you really must maintain that narrator's pov and refrain from "getting into the character's skin" like 3rd limited.

Many writers write 3rd limited (assuming the character's perspective and voice) and head-hop, but they think they're writing omniscient because "Gee, I'm telling what everyone is thinking!" They're really not getting it.
 
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Dave.C.Robinson

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Yeah, that's exactly what has been confusing me, thank you. If I call it 3rd person POV and head hop I'm terrible, but if I call it omni I can get inside anyone's head I want. Great.

So, there is no difference between the two except for how you head hop? Or, bad 3rd person POV w/head hopping is similar to omni?

The site I quoted appeared to think that there was other stuff that made a difference, such as omni observer comments, but I don't think there example works. What's the difference between a characters thoughts and a omni observers comments? Not much I think.

Sadly you can't change a bad example of one into a good example of the other by changing what you call it. Part of the problem is that they're more similar when done badly than when done well, and that can lead to a lot of confusion.

The way I always distinguish between omni and head-hopping is that with omni you have a single narrative perspective that can look in to any head, where with head-hopping you start looking out of one head and then jump to another and look out of that one.

One difference between a character's thoughts and the comments of an omniscient narrator is that a character's thoughts are necessarily limited to things that character could know and an omniscient narrator's comments aren't so limited and can easily include things the character could not possibly know.
 

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One of the things I asked myself when I started doing omni was what made it different than actual head hopping. Because I've read plenty of omni books and not been jarred out of the story. But I have done plenty of critiques where the writer did headhop, and it was really obvious that's what they were doing. So I went back to make comparisons.

In the critiques, what usually happens (especially if the writer thinks they're writing in omni) is that the writer wants to show what everyone is thinking. But there's no purpose or reason for it, other than the writer hasn't really figured out who's important in the scene--or even what's important. So the writer bounces all over the place without any thought to what they're doing, and in doing so, they also make, jarring, unplanned shifts into the viewpoint of different characters. It's very uncontrolled because there actually isn't a viewpoint to give the scene focus.

In omni, a single narrator controls everything. So it is intentional when the narrator moves from character to character, and there's a transition between--usually pretty subtle--to keep it from being jarring. ln fact, one of the things I noticed was that there isn't that much character movement when I compare omni to actual head hopping I've critiqued. The way people talk about it, it sounds like omni does character movement every paragraph. I've read scenes where it didn't do it at all, and other scenes where it did it three or four times. I've also seen a few--very few--where it did character movement in one paragraph.

But when I've seen true, actual headhopping, it's all the time because the writer isn't thinking about what they're doing. There's a sense that nobody's behind the wheel.

The difference though is that a lot of writers read books with the intent to figure out what was done wrong and try to learn from it. Unfortunatley, they're also given a set of rules, which include "Don't head hop," so when they see omni, it's automatically, "Oh, this is head hopping." All they're looking for is that the scene started with Joe Smith's "viewpoint" (mistaking the narrator for following Joe Smith for a while as a viewpoint) and then switched to Jane Jones. I think a huge part of the misunderstanding is that the single narrator overseeing the story is actually a hard concept to get. It seems like it should be easy, but it isn't.
 
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