10.19.2010

Head Hopping. Yeah, I'm Going There.

Writers, at least subconsciously (and often times consciously), like to play god. And why not? The ability to create a world and the people in it, to even put the words in their mouths and the thoughts in their heads and determine their actions and their fates is the coolest thing about writing fiction.

But I'm gonna have to break out the Spiderman wisdom on this one. Do I even have to write it? No? Good.

Just because you have the power to do all of the above-mentioned things in your stories doesn't mean you don't have to exercise some sort of restraint. And one of the most common forms of restraint is knowing whose head you're in. AND STAYING THERE. Or at the very least, having the superlative storytelling skills to move between characters' heads so seamlessly as not to disturb the flow of your writing. The latter is a rare skill and only accomplished by published authors whose style choices have been endorsed by people who know what they're doing.

The rest of this blog applies to the noobs among us.

For many novice writers, POV one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, and head hopping (that is, frequently changing POV in mid-scene without giving any cue to your reader that you are doing so) is, bar none, the most popular pitfall I encounter while editing people's work.

But I know what some of you might be saying. "I'm being omniscient on purpose! It means I can be in everyone's heads! You can see everything! Isn't it cool?"

Well, no. Not really. There is a difference between being omniscient and constructing a narrative as confusing as Donald Trump's comb over. No one is saying you can't write from various POVs in your story. If you want to let that camera in your head roam freely to light upon the thoughts of every character in your novel, by all means go for it. But there are still some established customs you would do well to follow.

You have to be organized and consistent. And you are under no circumstances allowed to confuse your readers. And just because previously published work contrary to what I'm saying exists, that doesn't excuse you from the sin of poor execution. Suffice it to say, if you're switching POVs in the same scene or paragraph, chances are good that you're going to receive the proverbial bitchslap from yours truly (not to mention any number of other editors and agents out there who read for a living).

I fight with writers on this all the time (not all, but some). Many don't even realize they're doing it, and that I can understand. It's easy to get lost in the flow of your characters' interactions. Sometimes in a rough draft, people have a tendency to oversell the scene by covering every possible viewpoint, and in revisions they spot those places where their narration went astray and fix it. Sometimes the head hopping is very subtle. For instance, when your close third-person character makes an omniscient observation about himself. "Harry felt so embarrassed that he blushed." Unless Harry is looking in a mirror, there is no possible way he could tell he was blushing. Maybe instead, he felt his cheeks warm. Or instead of blushing, he felt sick to his stomach. In other words, it has to be a sensation that Harry can affirmatively observe about himself.

Some writers are very stodgy about this issue. They insist that nothing needs fixing, and because they're writing an omniscient story, it means that I the reader can be inside Sally's thoughts as she's telling Becky to go piss up a rope, and in the next sentence read Becky's internalized reaction to said insult without any previous indication that I was supposed to be in Becky's head. Did Sally suddenly become psychic?

 No, No, NO, I say. Just NO!

You may think it's okay to write this way, but think of your readers. If you're constantly ripping them out of one person's head and slapping them into another without warning, all in the hopes that they will find the story more engaging, you're 1000000000000000% wrong.  You're doing the opposite. You're confusing them. You're alienating them. You're punching them in the face with your lack of narrative discipline and disregard for the subtle techniques of storytelling.

It takes a lot of finesse to look through one person's eyes and try to express how the receivers of their actions are responding without shifting the camera into their heads. It's hard to weave a complex narrative and build suspense without giving too much away at once. Sometimes it's difficult to remember what it is we can and cannot observe about ourselves without the help of an omniscient view. It involves roughly 60% natural talent, 30% practice, and 10% good editing.

All I ask is that you find some way to alert your readers that you're about to change POVs. Section or chapter breaks are good if a bit purist. At the very least, it's a sure bet that you won't be pissing someone off too much. Just try not to make a bunch of tiny section breaks, because that can be exhausting to read as well. Better yet, ask yourself if it's even necessary we see all of these viewpoints. Sometimes, less is more.

Don't pull your readers into a state of dissociative fugue or make us have to re-read a scene so that we can try to orient ourselves with who is saying or thinking or feeling what. When your hero/heroine is anchoring a scene and we're seeing only what that one character can see, feel, taste, touch, and think, we can sit back and enjoy the story, bond with your character, and hopefully have a good emotional payoff. If instead you decide to poorly execute a narrative device by throwing everything at us, you won't have very many readers. Except maybe your mom, because your mom always loves your stories right?

4 comments:

  1. This is an excellent post. I have linked to it. :)

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  2. I just this week finished a book in omniscient viewpoint: Saving Fishes from Drowning by Amy Tan. I was aware the entire time of how deftly she moved from person to person, and how she was definitely NOT headhopping. She picked a character POV and stuck with it...until she moved to another. It could be for a paragraph or an entire chapter. Sometimes she would pull back and give the collective attitude of a group, and then she was firmly in the group's POV. I was never confused. Her omniscience was truly a work of art. (BTW, the book sort of disappointed me at the end, but it was an overall good read.)

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  3. Sherri -- There are definitely a lot of good truly omniscient books out there. It takes a lot of writing skill to pull off and I'm not sure it's something I'd be capable of.

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  4. Really good post that makes me desperately want to go back and look at a few of my recent stories to make sure Harry was not feeling so embarrassed he blushed. Quiet, Ian. You KNOW about one head-hopping, bloody mess of mine.

    Also, Trump's comb-over is confusing. Really, really confusing.

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