There are two main types of third-person narration, omniscient and limited omniscient. In omniscient narration the narrator is an authorial voice separate from the characters and able to jump between them almost at will, think of Dickens. Whereas limited omniscient narration is closer to the character, while we still use he/she/they we limit ourselves to one character’s perspective at once. In limited omniscient narration can change perspectives but there’s usually a clear break between narrators, whereas omniscient narration can change between paragraphs.
Some people might break omniscient narration down even further into different categories based on how close or far away we are from the character but it seems to me that adds unnecessary confusion. We don’t need to be able to say that we’re X degrees outside/inside our characters minds. As long as we know whose perspective we’re in and we stick to it unless we deliberately swap we’re doing fine. A risk with any form of omniscient narration is head-hopping where we jump in and out of character’s perspectives without warning or unintentionally. This can happen within paragraphs or even sentences but can be easily corrected during editing.
A general rule of writing limited omniscient narration is to remember what each character knows about what it happening. If Jane is the only one who knows there’s a map to the treasure but we’re in John’s perspective and he starts talking about it then we’ve immediately jumped out of his perspective, either we’ve lapsed into a detached omniscient narrator or we’ve jumped into Jane’s perspective.
However, we’re not head-hopping if we describe the actions of another character without saying ‘Jane saw John put something in his pocket’. The act of saying ‘John put something in his pocket’ implies that Jane observed this, it doesn’t mean we’d jumped into John’s perspective. If we were to say ‘The key was cold in John’s hand as he put it in his pocket’ then we would’ve head-hopped. In the first instance we simply have Jane’s observation of John’s actions while in the second we’ve used knowledge only John, or an authorial voice, could have. It is impossible for Jane to know that the key was cold because Jane isn’t touching it. As I discussed in a previous article we don’t need they looked/they saw every time because if they hadn’t seen it then it couldn’t be describe, the constant repetition of the phrase creates emphasis and draws attention to itself, and it’s unnecessary extra words that can disrupt the follow of our prose.
There are ways of indicating which perspective we’re using such as with our discussion on first-person/subjective narration individualising the voice of the narration based on the personality and knowledge of the character. Such as what might draw their attention to describe, their thoughts on what they’re describing and the words they might use. One important thing that people sometimes forget is that when we change perspective and introduce the perspective character we should do so by name. This might sound obvious when you’re not writing but sometimes in the flow of writing people forget that after they’re lovely bit of description of the scenery when then say something directly relating to the character they lapse into he/she/they. This can happen because as the writer we know who is speaking but that doesn’t mean the reader will and it is the reader’s knowledge of the situation that should inform our writing: What we want them to know, what we don’t want them to know and what they might think they know. Generally speaking which characters’ perspective we’re following comes under ‘what we want them to know’.
A common reaction I know I’ve received to feedback is ‘but I know x’. While it’s great that the writer knows what’s happening if someone has read our work and questioned the clarity of something it can mean there’s an issue with it. Often this can simply be rectified with the use of a name, or a brief sentence reminding the reader who the character is if we haven’t seen them for a while or telling us something about them if haven’t met them before. Other times it might need a bit more editing or it can be a matter of differing interpretation and not an actual issue. However, it is always worth considering the possibility that something is unclear and edit it if it is rather than leave it unclear by accident.