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Posts Tagged head-hopping
Who’s narrating your book? Whose eyes is the story seen through? Sometimes we know by gut feeling which mode to tell a story in. It arrives to us as a first-person account and that’s that. First person also brings interesting limitations and biases, or even the suggestion of unreliability. (These can be interesting.) Sometimes, we want the reader to share more than one perspective or timeline, so third is the way to go. What are the advantages of each, and the pitfalls? Might your story change for the better if you include other viewpoints…. or close it down to just one? And what, pray, is the much maligned sin of head-hopping and how do you avoid it?
That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.
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‘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!
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One of the deadly sins of writing is the ‘head-hop’ – inconsistency with the narrative point of view. The writer will be following one character’s perspective, then forgets to keep to it, or switches to another in a way that creates a logic hiccup.
The problem is often subtle, which is why it’s hard to spot in your own work. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and you’ll have lost your grip on their imagination.
First-person narratives usually don’t have this problem. The writer is usually extremely aware of what the character can and can’t know. (And often realises they need devices such as letters and diaries to get information across.)
But not all stories are written from one perspective only. Perhaps we have many characters whose experiences count. Or an omniscient narrator who contributes observations from time to time. Once you have these multiple voices, you need to be strict about how you handle them.
Here are my tips for keeping multiple POVs in control.
1 Stick with one POV per scene
Simple is usually best, so write each scene from the experience of just one character, making the POV clear in the scene opening. What if two equally major characters have a dramatic scene? I’ll discuss that below, but let’s get into good habits first.
Some novels with multiple POVs name their chapters according to who is ‘speaking’. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever hops around a large cast in short chapters, each following the experience of one character. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl alternates between the male and the female accounts in different timelines, and the headings allow her to show who’s talking and when the action is happening.
Of course, many other novels use multiple POVs without chapter headings, and that’s fine too. But if you get confused about what you can and can’t show, put them in your draft to focus your mind. Or tint the text in a colour according to whose experience we’re following. Later, remove these props and you should have a logically flowing story.
3 Establish the POV pattern early on
At the beginning of the novel, you need to establish the rules your narrative will follow. If you’re going to circulate through a big cast, give each of them an early chapter, then we’re prepared for the pattern. If you stick with one character for a while and then switch, you might need a more obvious signpost such as a chapter or section heading to ease the gear-change.
Want to narrate some of your book as first person and some as third? No problem. 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.
Deborah Moggach presents one of her Tulip Fever characters as first person, and explained on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club that she wanted the reader to understand some of the cruel things she does. Everyone else is close third person.
Moggach’s device of the headings also allows her to slip into omniscient distance – to convey time passing and chaos settling. One chapter is ‘Autumn’; another is ‘After the storm’.
But whatever you do, stick to it. If you begin by narrating one character as first person and change them to third, you risk disorientating the reader unless you have set up a mechanism for them to understand it. (And preferably a reason why they should bother.)
5 Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?
Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:
- Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
- Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up)
- Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
- Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again. Moggach solves this by writing a chapter in one POV, then starting a new chapter from the other character’s angle and winding time back to revisit the episode. (Do you notice something important here? She never breaks her rule. She’s schooled the reader to expect a framework and she never breaks it.)
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Have you seen other ways to handle multiple POVs? How do you do it? Have you seen the rules ‘broken’ to interesting effect? Let’s discuss!
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