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Posts Tagged first person narrator
‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).
Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?
All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.
Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.
It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)
Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.
However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)
Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.
He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.
But also … he might have got it right!
The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.
Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.
Two ways to shift point of view
New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.
Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:
- Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
- Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.
(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)
What we leave out
One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.
All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.
Control is everything
Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.
Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.
Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.
Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one
Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!
NEWS The audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life is now live! You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.
If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.
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Free indirect and deep point of view are ways to help readers walk in a character’s shoes. You may find you already use them. But if you’re told you need to get closer to the main character, you might find these two techniques helpful.
Free indirect is a technique used in third-person narration to show a character’s thoughts. To understand what it is, and why it has such an opaque name, we need to backtrack a little.
Direct speech. The character’s thoughts are reported in quote marks (unless you’re leaving them out as a style choice, like Cormac McCarthy). Example (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy)
She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. ‘Just what are those gnomes doing on my lawn?’
For today’s readers, this can look unnatural. It has the effect of making the character seem to utter the words out loud. Which you may or may not want.
Indirect speech aka reported speech For noveling purposes, this is dialogue without the quotes (not in the Cormac McCarthy sense), and with extra text to explain it’s thoughts.
She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. She asked herself just what those gnomes were doing on her lawn.
So indirect speech avoids that awkward mental picture of the character declaiming to an empty room…
… and is where we get the name…
In free indirect speech, we enter the thoughts of the character. It’s as though we’re having a first-person narrator’s experiences from a third-person perspective.
She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. Just what were those gnomes doing on her lawn?
It’s more intimate than normal indirect, less artificial than direct. (And therefore is the most direct of the lot, but let’s not get confused.)
Writers who aren’t using first person often wonder how to show the character’s thoughts. Some resort to quote marks, but that looks weird unless the situation calls for out-loud declamations. Some writers try italics, but this is hard to read. Italics are for emphasis. Great paragraphs of italics make for migraine on the page. Normal indirect speech flows better but adds a lot of extra undergrowth.
Free indirect, though, mimics the immediacy of dialogue without the awkwardness.
This is another way to involve the reader in the character’s experience. While free indirect is about thoughts, deep point of view is about feelings and the senses.
She opened the gate. And stopped. On the front lawn were three small, jagged shapes. She peered into the gloom, waiting for a movement that would reveal perhaps it was a fox. Hopefully not a skulking burglar, but all the same her hands were tightening defensively around her keys. Behind, a car swished down the wet road. Its headlights filled the small front garden. Gnomes. Those things were three garden gnomes.
Now here’s the same scene told in a less deep point of view:
She came down the steps and saw an unexpected shape that made her stop in astonishment. For a moment she peered into the dark, wondering if it was a burglar. Then a car’s headlights revealed the truth. They were three garden gnomes.
The first example, in deep point of view, is closer to what the character is feeling. In the second example, the narrator (not the character) is the personality. Many of the words give distance, in this case slightly ironic – ‘made her stop in astonishment’, ‘wondering if it was’.
It’s not necessarily worse, by the way. If you have multiple story strands with several main characters it’s the natural way to wrangle them all.
If you have a single strong protagonist, whether first person or third, deep point of view will give you immediacy and vividness. You probably won’t use it for less intense moments, such as catching a bus or making breakfast. Readers don’t need every moment in deep point of view. But you can deep-dive to increase our connection to dramatic events.
Do you have problems getting close to a character’s experience? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!
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- ‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell October 29, 2014
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- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
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