Head-jumping, or How characters (don’t) experience the world

It has often been pointed out that modern fiction tends to make fairly heavy use of the omniscient narrator device, the storyteller who knows absolutely everything that is happening both internally and externally to each character involved in the action being related. This can allow the writer to add many layers of detail to their work and can give the reader a much richer experience. It can also, however, allow for a great deal of complication.

The narrator who is all-knowing can relay what is happening from the perspective of each character involved, of course, but can also do so from a bird’s-eye view of the story proper, informing the reader of what is happening in the world that is unbeknownst to all and sundry; a kind of meta-storytelling, if you will. (Sometimes the writer will even employ meta-storytelling in its full sense where the narrator addresses the reader directly about the story that is being told to them.) This can have its advantages but it can also burden the reader to some extent, especially when they need to keep track of just who within the book knows what and who has yet to learn – or maybe will never learn – what. A number of classic whodunits have exploited writing techniques such as this and many of us have probably found ourselves keeping notes and making charts as we try to untangle Colonel Mustard from Missus Smith and the question of the tooth found with its filling missing. Then there is the further twist where the knowledgeable narrator is actually revealed to be one of the characters taking part in the story being told, only later in time say, and now knowing what they didn’t know then. Knowing so much, in fact, that they are even able to get into others’ heads.

This getting into others’ heads, whether from an outside and non-involved narrator’s perspective or from that of a character-cum-narrator, is what is known as head-jumping. In such instances the narration describes the inner lives of multiple characters in addition to the events themselves. Bob was feeling and thinking this while talking to Katy who was feeling and thinking that. We the reader know what they know about themselves but we the reader also know what they don’t know about each other. A giant “Caution!” sign is erected on our path here. Bob can’t possibly know what Katy is feeling and thinking and she can’t possibly know what he is. That is how life works, that is a basic fact of the type of animal that we are, and yet that is precisely what all too many writers find it very easy to forget. What Bob and Katy can know is how the other is behaving towards them, their facial gestures, their actually spoken words, stutterings, half-starts, displayed reactions. That, however, is the whole of it. What Bob may have wanted to say or considered saying is entirely unknown to Katy and she can never be made to react to such. She has nothing to go on but what has appeared before her in the form of Bob and his expressed conduct. If a writer desired it the narrator could be made to fill a sort of go-between role here, listing what Katy does and does not know and therefore she decides to say Y in response to Bob rather than the X that she had been inclined to say, but such a usage strikes me, at least, as a fairly heavy-handed manner of writing. Nevertheless, the main danger that is always faced in such omniscient accounts is that the reader will forget the epistemic position each character holds and become lost along the way or worse become confused and angry that Katy would say that to Bob despite his very clearly intending something different by his words. In such instances the reader can easily lose empathy for the very characters that the writer wishes to maintain it for.

The key here, I suppose, is to make sure that you as the writer are keeping track of everything yourself, and that can be quite difficult because there is yet another position to consider: your reader will not know where you are planning to take the story. As you write you will naturally have an endpoint in mind and hence what happens is moving towards that; that is your position of superior knowledge vis-√†-vis your reader. Your reader though knows only what has been told to her. Now on top of who within your book knows what about whom and where, why, when, you also need to remember what your reader does and doesn’t know about all the characters who do and do not know about each other and about the situations and contexts in which they are moving. If the importance of careful planning weren’t clear yet it must be very explicit by now; our garden is suddenly littered with thorns. What to do? If you are writing this kind of a book then I would suggest keeping up the head-jumping yourself. When writing Bob really get into Bob’s point of view and pause your thoughts on the story’s arc and structural elements, and when writing the narrator’s sections head-jump over to how your reader is understanding things. Only when you return to the scaffolding you have erected for yourself as the creator of the account in question will you be firmly (and solely) in your own head – be sure to keep it clear.

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