OUCH! YOU'RE HEAD HOPPING
POV has the power to make your story come to life or to confuse readers to the point of tossing your book out the window…unless it’s an eBook. Then they’ll just RETURN it and impact your sales stats.
THERE IS NOTHING PURIST ABOUT POV
There was a time, way back when, head hopping didn’t exist. Or, at least there wasn’t a name for it. We were educated on HOW to be professional writers…on what was acceptable and what got our manuscript tossed into File 13 by publishers and agents alike. Even though there wasn’t a name for it, authors didn’t allow head hopping.
HEAD HOPPING IS NOT A GRAMMATICAL RULE THAT CANNOT BE BROKEN; IT IS A CONVENTION THAT HAS GROWN OVER THE YEARS.
Today's readers, all readers, are more critical and intolerant of sloppy writing. They are investing their time and money in our stories and it’s the character’s voice they expect to hear as clearly as their own. It’s the character’s unique view of the world that keeps readers intrigued and persuades them to empathize. It’s the way we, as writers, masterfully conceal and reveal details that keeps the plots fresh and our readers turning the pages.
Savvy readers know it’s our use of narrative that determines whose viewpoint they’re in at any given moment. The term narration was defined for us as it is applied to the telling of action within a scene as opposed to the description of the setting or a dialogue between characters. However, there are also perception, introspection, and voice (i.e., the diction, style, and attitude of the narration) of the POV to be considered. But, those are necessary items saved for a future post.
What I really want to present is the difference between writing separate scenes for each of our characters and the “unmanicured”, multiple-third person POV—the narration of a scene that switches from one character’s POV to another’s, indiscriminately shifting among them (this is called head-hopping). The latter is where most novice writers get confused, break POV rules, and lose their readers. And, head hopping has become a CARDINAL SIN in the publishing industry…even in the Indie and eBook publishing industry (because writing is still writing no matter where or how it is published).
It’s head-hopping in multiple third-person or limited third-person Point Of View run amok without a plan
What is head hopping exactly? It’s a lack of controlling the other viewpoint approaches. It's shifting from one POV to another without any discernible reason (which, by the way, makes the narrative chaotic…schizophrenic). It’s like being trapped on a bus with a driver who keeps changing lanes every few seconds. It trivializes the significance of being privy to the thought of the important characters. It confuses readers who expect that knowing the history and inner secrets of a character signifies that character is essential to the plot. It’s multiple third-person and limited third-person POV run amok without a plan, a purpose, or regard for the effect on our readers.
Create each POV passage as detailed as possible
Off the top of my head, I can think of only one book, (but, I know there are a few others) “Under the Dome” by Stephen King, where head hopping was effective because it was masterfully done. It was the scene of a shooting rampage that begins with the view point of the shooter. As the reader, we’re inside the character’s head and it’s not exactly my comfort level, nor the comfort zone of many other readers either. The character, a young man with a brain tumor, keeps looking at people he knows and thinking and swearing and then shooting them…dead. Just when some readers may have gotten too comfortable in the shooter’s head, King has a surprise for us. For one paragraph in that scene, he permits us to experience the thoughts and feelings of one of the young man’s victims, a woman…from the moment she sees the gun pointed at her to the point after she is shot and fades into a nothingness of a “non-afterlife”. Then, in the next paragraph we are back in the shooter’s head.
I think the reason this works is that King followed the rule of not beginning and ending this scene from the POV of the person getting killed (which is another no-no in writing...well, honestly, how can a person who is dead end the scene?).
So, how do we know if there is head hopping in our MS?
Here’s a hint to help: multiple third-person POV means we write separate scenes from each of our character’s POV. If the scene has to be in omniscient POV, then limit and control the perspective of, say, two characters. Move into a character’s POV just as that character prepares to take action. Then, once the character is performing the action, there’s no need to be in his head. Let the readers see the action through the narration or the dialogue.
It’s at this point that perspective “shifts” back the omniscient and our readers are able to get a comprehensive view of the action. This is not done willy-nilly. This is used when a character has a unique perspective to offer. If head hopping occurs, it makes it difficult to create a sustained plot narrative or identifiable characters.
When head hopping happens in the middle of continuous action, it’s a serious problem
A second hint that can help is to create each POV passage as detailed as possible and conclude one character’s “part” before the scene viewpoint switches to another character. More than one version of the multiple characters’ reality is still being created, but using this “trick” allows our readers to finish the scene with an understanding of not only how each character’s perspective is unique but also how it contributes meaningfully to move the overall story forward (as in the Stephen King novel mentioned above).
Here’s a test to help determine if it is multiple third-person POV or head hopping appears in your MS. Can you read people’s minds? Can they read yours? Nope. Well, it’s the same for the characters in our stories. PROTAGONIST cannot know what ANTAGONIST is thinking, what s/he is planning, or how s/he feels. And, it works both ways. Choose a scene from your MS where you believe multiple-person POV is used. Pick up your highlighter and highlight every shift where one character knows what the other character knows, sees, hears, or feels.
Here’s another test…one closer to home. Print out a scene. Pick up your high-lighter and every time there is a shift in viewpoint, highlight it. Now, let’s start with the last shift. Can you state your purpose for that shift? No? If you cannot, then change back to the previous POV. Work backwards like this for each shift highlighted until you get to the beginning of you scene.
One last hint out of many I could post (but, I’ll save them for questions—if there are any). DID YOU KNOW that the longer your story stays in one POV, the more powerful the shift to another will be? A long passage in one POV allows your readers to get to know your character’s experience of reality (and so do you) and it gives the POV shift more importance because readers will know something happened to cause the change.
Hopping distances your readers from the close emotional connection with the central POV in the scene; it draws attention to the fact that the writing is an artifice; and it just sounds awkward unless masterfully pulled off.
IF you choose to use multiple or limited third-person POV, make sure each of your characters is different enough so readers can’t and do not confuse her/him with another character. Okay, this last falls more under character building/development than POV, but it is very important to remember. Each of your characters has original and distinct traits. They all come to the readers with different backgrounds, jobs or positions, ages, personalities, etc. Just interview them to learn how true this is (well, interviewing your characters could be a future musing).
As a member of a professional Indie group, Mimi Wolske evaluates books at indie writers’ requests. As a published, international author and Indie Writer, a past ghostwriter and editor, and a speaker/trainer, she shares her information to help as many writers as she is able to reach.