Omniscient Point of View vs. Headhopping

Omniscient Point of View (OPOV) is commonly known as a headhopping viewpoint.  But it actually doesn’t headhop because as Alicia over on Editor To Rent notes:

Omniscient can shift from mind to mind, but with omniscient, there is a controlling “above” narration, a mentality (not necessarily a person or the author) which knows more than the characters individually or collectively know.

There’s only one point of view with OPOV, the overseeing narrator.   The narrator may touch the thoughts of the characters and zoom in on them for closeups, but the narrator is always in control of the perspective we’re given.  One of the things I looked at when I started writing in OPOV was this difference.   I’d critted pieces where the author had clearly headhopped, and then I’d look at an OPOV–it wasn’t the same thing.

So here’s a different way of how to think of OPOV vs. headhopping, using a typical scene from an action movie:

OPOV: A speedboat is charging across the river at high speed, kicking up the waves.  A pilot is at the steering wheel guiding the boat.   He sees another boat up ahead and steers around it.

Headhopping:  The pilot at the steering wheel has been shot.  The boat is still speeding across the river, but it doesn’t have a pilot.  It moves from side to side randomly and nearly runs into another boat, sending the occupant diving into the water.

Headhopping is uncontrolled viewpoint shifts.  Often, the writer is careening from viewpoint to viewpoint without any purpose or reason.  But OPOV gets treated as headhopping because it’s easy to think in black and white terms–i.e., if the thoughts of more than one character are shown in a scene it’s automatically headhopping.   Justine Larbalestier says:

Most of these injunctions, when I press people about them, seem to stem from creative writing classes and workshops and various writers groups. This drives me insane not just because it’s a lazy way to teach but because it’s creating readers who dismiss very fine writing as bad or unreadable because it deploys techniques they’ve been told are wrong.

Too often, writers are simply told “Don’t do it” because it’s easy for beginners to do it badly.  But how do we learn if we don’t try in the first place?