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Is third-person limited limiting?

March 17, 2011

As a beta reader, I’ve often worked with and mentored writers who merrily engaged in head hopping. Head hopping is (unfortunately) quite common in lesbian fiction, so common that some readers and writers see nothing wrong with it.

Fans of head hopping often seem to think that third-person limited POV is, well… limiting. After all, if you have to stay within only one point of view per scene or chapter, you can’t mention what the POV character doesn’t know, see, hear, etc.

True. But to me, that’s not a limitation. It’s what makes a limited POV such a powerful tool.

Staying within one POV per scene has two big advantages:

  • Limited POV creates reader identification. If readers get into the skin of one character for a longer passage (a scene, a chapter), share her thoughts and feelings, readers start to identify and empathize with the character. Being thrown into the mind of two or more characters within a scene distances readers from both characters.
  • Limited POV creates suspense. By staying within one POV per scene (or per chapter), you control what your readers know. Limited POV allows you to keep secrets without cheating and raise questions in the reader’s mind. When the reader has to guess along with the POV character what the non-POV character is thinking and feeling, you add suspense. Readers will ask themselves questions such as: Is it love at first sight for the non-POV character too? Why is she acting like such a jerk? Is she really as unreliable as the POV character thinks? etc. And we know that readers who ask questions continue to turn the pages to find out the answers. That’s a good thing.

So what if, for some reason, you don’t want to withhold information from the reader? What if you need readers to know what the non-POV character is thinking or feeling?

Well, you can do that without violating POV and resorting to head hopping. The non-POV character could share her thoughts through dialogue, for example. Or the POV character could interpret the non-POV character’s facial expressions and body language.

At times, the non-POV character will lie or the POV character will misinterpret the other character’s feelings or motivations — and that leads to more suspense.

So don’t waste potential by head hopping. If used correctly, third-person limited POV is not limiting at all.

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10 comments

  1. You have hit upon my hugest peeve.

    Your second reason, suspense, is the biggest reason I give to writers I mentor when I’m calling them on POV violations: “We don’t need to know that now,” “You can show it later and have a much bigger impact to the story,” etc. The toughest to convince seems to be romance authors: “But the reader needs to know that (non-POV) character B thought character A’s gesture was sweet! It’s the whole reason she starts giving up resisting character A’s advances.” Ugh. Either rewrite the scene entirely from character B’s POV or show, don’t tell, her reaction in the original scene.

    Misinterpretations are another great reason to hold carefully to one POV. Adding twists, and misdirections, and other complications to plot, as you’ve pointed out in several blog posts already body language interpretation is not an exact science. We all do it, and it’s only as you really get to know someone that the signals they send start making sense. Showing that skill subtly developing over the course of a story is a GREAT thing. No need to rush it.

    Anyway, great post, Jae!


    • Thanks, Lara. Your comments are always appreciated.

      I admit I’m a stickler for a consistent, well-controlled point of view.

      Many of the authors I worked with argued that they are allowed to head hop because they are writing from an omniscient POV.

      But to me, head hopping and omniscient POV are not the same. And, of course, the more distant omniscient POV is probably not a good choice for a romance novel anyway.


      • Head-hopping and omniscient POV are definitely not the same. Omniscient POV has not only every character’s thoughts, but an invisible “opinion” of those thoughts and the characters’ actions. It’s often used for fairytales — the Grimms were expert at it.

        Head-hopping is strictly shifting character to character in POV like a neck-snapping tennis match.


  2. Excellent Jae…love these postings of yours. I hate head hopping and think it thins out the character. Often it’s so confusing that you’re not even sure who is speaking. This was a super post and thanks


    • Thanks for commenting, Cathy. Avoiding POV whiplash is a third reason why I don’t head-hop. 🙂

      Even if the writer doesn’t switch POV so often that it becomes confusing, head hopping always makes me feel as if I don’t have the time to settle into the POV character and into the story.


  3. […] Is third person limited limiting? […]


  4. […] Is third person limited limiting? […]


  5. Personally, I prefer 1st person. Jae, I never really thought that 3rd perrson could be inhibiting until I read your post. Anyone who wants more advice on creative writing, my blog is here: http://theartofwritingfiction.wordpress.com/


    • Thanks for the link. I think every writer has her or his own preference and dislikes when it comes to point of view. I always said I’ll never write a story in first-person POV, but now I’m writing a short story in exactly that point of view. Well, as they say: never say never! 😉


  6. I detest the limiting properties of limited POV, and none of your diatribes will ever have the potential to change my impression that that POV is absolutely evil, as opposed to the perfect editorial omniscience of Thackeray or Fielding.

    Likewise, I consioder reader identification as perverse and decadent, and none of your attempted brainwashery will ever change my attitude towards it.



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