Friday, 18 May 2012

POV Made Simple and Why Head-hopping Is Naughty

It’s not that hard! Really, people, get with the programme. 

OK, possibly that is slightly harsh. I don’t think POV is hard, but this is for all those people whose brains work in slightly less dysfunctional ways than mine and who struggle with getting point of view right.
It took me a long time to figure it out, but there’s something about POV that seems to come naturally to me. This is not to suggest I am somehow better than those who don’t get it, but more a request to bear with me as I attempt to explain something that comes instinctively. In fact, it’s only recently I’ve actually understood it in terms I can explain to others. Before that I was like Nike – I just did it. So I don’t claim to be a good teacher! Just an opinionated sod with a loud mouth. 

So why am I so riled up about POV?

Because I am tired of bad POV, especially head-hopping, in traditionally published books by authors who should know better. Here, in Australia, I pay $22 for a paperback, so if I have bought one instead of an ebook, I damn well want quality for my money. It's also one of the biggest sins newbie writers commit and one of the most complained-of problems by editors and agents.

If you don’t already know, you may be asking ‘What is head-hopping?’ We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s consider the three main kinds of POV (I'm not going to look at second person because - eww! Just eww).

First person

This is where you write the story as if you are the protagonist. ‘I walked down the hall’ is an example of first person, so it's as if the protagonist is narrating their story to us. It’s conventional to only have one viewpoint character when using this POV. If it is absolutely necessary to have another viewpoint character (such as because we need to know events the viewpoint character is not present for, as is the case in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series when Claire is in the future and we need to know what happens to Jamie) then it is conventional to use third limited for the other characters.

I am aware there are books that have broken this rule, but I personally hate this technique, and there’s a reason the rule exists. It can be confusing and disorienting for the reader to try and work out which one of multiple viewpoint characters ‘I’ now designates, and it can also be difficult to really settle into and relate to multiple characters from inside all their heads. I personally detest books written in this way. I’m not a fan of first person to start with, although I enjoy Diana Gabaldon, but multiple viewpoint characters in first frankly just turns me off. The only time you can
maybe get away with it is if each viewpoint character has a very distinct voice. 

Third limited

Here the story is written from the perspective of one or more viewpoint characters, so everything is still perceived through that character’s ‘filter’, but the story is not narrated to us by that character. Third limited uses ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns such as in ‘She walked down the hall’ but the use of these pronouns is not definitive as they are also used in third omniscient. ‘Limited’ refers to the fact the reader can only know what the viewpoint character knows. We may also be privy to the character’s thoughts. It's like we travel through the story on the viewpoint character's shoulder or perhaps in their head, not controlling the action, but seeing it through that character's eyes. I freely admit third limited is my favourite. 

Third Omniscient

And now we get to the really hard stuff. This is where people most often get confused. Omniscient is where we have a narrator, but the narrator is not the protagonist. The narrator may themselves be a character in unfolding events or may remain nameless and faceless, in which case, I hear you say – how do we even know there is a narrator? You know there is a narrator when you see a scene and the character isn’t present – or in other words, we get a camera view of the action, like watching a movie. We aren’t inside anyone’s heads, although the ‘narrator’ may tell us what certain people are thinking where it's relevant, and so we may be privy to more information than in first or third if the narrator informs us of the thoughts and emotions of more than one character present in a scene.However, our understanding of each character is more superficial than in third limited. 

I can’t write omniscient (and don’t care to) so I’ve borrowed this from a book familiar to many – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
‘...but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursleys’ front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls. Only the photographs on the on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed.’
Whose viewpoint is this from? Not Harry, and not any of the Dursleys. It’s the narrator’s viewpoint. In fact the scene set by the opening of chapter two paints a picture pretty consistent with the scene we get from the camera in the movie as it sweeps in over Privet Drive. This is omniscient, although note Harry Potter later switches to third limited for the most part. For another good example of omniscient POV, check out Dionne Lister’s ‘Shadows of the Realm’ which I admire for getting omniscient right (and deliberately so).


And so we come to the notorious head hopping, oft-times cursed but little understood. So what is it?
Head-hopping happens when people confuse third omniscient and third limited. Maybe they want to write in omniscient but they don’t properly understand what distinguishes it from third limited. Maybe they want third limited but like the appeal of ‘knowing what everyone in a scene is thinking’. Here is an example of head-hopping from The Serpent Bride by Sara Douglass:
'Isaiah gave a small shrug. That is of no matter at the moment. “Tell me how you feel. There have been times since I pulled you from the water when my physicians feared they might lose you back to death.”
Axis rested back against the pillows, not entirely sure how to respond. He’d been walking with his wife Azhure...’
Did you see that? Did you spot the head-hopping? If this is third limited, which it is supposed to be, I believe, how do we know both what Isaiah is thinking and how Axis is feeling and what he was doing previously? That’s head-hopping, when the author puts us inside the heads of more than one character within a scene.

But, you protest, maybe it’s omniscient, in which you said the narrator can tell us what more than one character is thinking or feeling? Indeed I did, but I said the narrator can tell us; I didn’t say we can hear the character’s thoughts. I said our experience of the character and their thoughts is superficial. Isaiah’s thoughts are italicised – that is, it’s an internal monologue we, the reader, are privy to, as is customary in third limited. Thoughts are one of the easiest ways to spot POV issues and here’s a quick rundown of how thoughts should presented in each POV using the example from The Serpent Bride above:
  • First - I gave a small shrug. That was of no matter at the moment.
  • Third - Isaiah gave a small shrug. That is of no matter at the moment.
  • Omniscient – Isaiah gave a small shrug. He thought it was of no matter at the moment.
We italicise thoughts in third limited to indicate it is internal monologue. There is no need to italicise in first because the character is narrating to us and therefore we already know it is the character’s thoughts. In omniscient, we don’t hear the character’s thoughts at all – we are merely told by the narrator what the character thought. So in omniscient we can be ‘told’ what two characters in the same scene think or feel, but we should not see any internal monologue, because the story is merely narrated

Why is head-hopping wrong? For the same reason multiple viewpoint characters when using first is unconventional – it can be jarring to the reader. Which character am I with? Who am I rooting for? Who am I supposed to be emotionally connecting with? These are questions for which the answers are unclear.
The second reason is because third limited is used to bring the reader in closer (as opposed to omniscient which keeps the reader at arm’s length), which serves as an aid to build rapport. Then the effect of conflict and tension in the story is magnified. Does he love her? Will he agree to stay with her or will he go? We empathise with the viewpoint character and want her to have a happy ending, and not knowing makes us keep reading. But then, if you go and tell the reader what all the other characters are thinking, you destroy that tension. Oh, he’s going. He doesn’t love her. No need to keep reading then. 

Admittedly, omniscient defuses that tension too, but there is no point in selecting third limited, a POV designed to bring the reader in close and crank up the tension, if you then turn around and ruin all that work by throwing in omniscient. Doing this just creates a mongrel child of third and omniscient with all the worst features of both – and we call it head-hopping. If you want to tell the reader what all the characters think and feel, then use omniscient, but be aware it’s not in vogue as much right now because it keeps the reader at arm’s length. That said, there are still genres that tend to this POV. 
How do we avoid head-hopping?

If you’re using third limited, you should only switch between viewpoint characters at legitimate scene or chapter breaks. If you find it difficult to stay with the viewpoint character, I’m told writing it in first and then switching the pronouns out can help prevent head-hopping - of course there's a little more to it than that, because you have to adjust for narration. I can’t personally comment, because I have the opposite problem – I can’t write first to save my life, I have to write in third and switch all the pronouns back and add in the protagonist's narration. But you could always give it a try and see how it works. Alternatively, method writing, where you become the character whose viewpoint you are in, can help. If you pretend you are the character, then as soon as you spot yourself writing something you couldn't know in that scene, you know you're head-hopping.

Lastly, different genres of book tend to different POVs. Mysteries and thrillers are often in first person, where fantasy is typically third limited or third omniscient. 

Next week, we’ll take a look at deep third and see how it differs from third limited. It’s the big thing right now, and I’ve only just figured out what they mean... so I might as well share it with you lot as well!

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Stella Deleuze said...

I always hated head-hopping, but only because writers do it wrong. They often use the 'thoughts in italics' tool, which is irritating. One can do it, but in moderation.

The example you're using above is wonderful, I find. Personally, I'm using it in my new book for the first time and quite enjoy the challenge. Those who read excerpts didn't even notice the change of POV. My friend, who's reading my book as I go has now started One Day, which I threw across the room for many reasons, one of them the badly handled omniscient POV. She says it's very noticeable compared to my writing. If more people are in the room, you need to let the reader into the characters' heads constantly. Head-hopping is rather irritating if you start the chapter with on person's POV, go on for ages and suddenly dip into another head.

Christina Carson said...

I have read and reread  the discussion on POV. Yours is the first that I have been able to grasp. I feel like I should shout out as is the custom of where I now live - the Deep South - "Thank you, Jesus," even without a drop of religion in my soul. However, it is not yet set in stone. I have to work with it to take it home. 

I like first person because of the intimacy and easy access to the inner monologue which my storytelling requires. I am now in the process of doing that bad thing, though not naughty, having two different major characters, but one is dialectic in speech so I believe that won't be confusing to the reader. BUT - help me here, if you will. I love setting a scene physically- landscape or weather or geography and as  I was reading your blog I realized I had moved to a narrator voice to accomplish that. Is that permissible or is there another way to offer that detail? Please feel free to e-mail me if that is easier for you. Thank you in advance for your help.Again, many thanks for rendering this confusing subject in an understandable way.

Elizabeth Ann West said...

I like to write in 3rd person omniscient, but I focus on one character per scene. If I'm NOT in a character's head, I'll write for a draft what's up above in the head hopping example, but then GO BACK and block that "internal" information. By blocking, I mean like in theatre, where you ascribe action to the internal conflict to express an emotion to the audience. And for the love of the pen, leave the "bit his/her lower lip" out as much as possible. It's easy to become cliche using this method too. 

Basically, I play it in my head. What does Character XYZ DO to express what's going on in her head? It can be anything from snapping a rubber band to slamming a water faucet etc. to shifting his weight to his other foot. In real life, people fidget. People stall for time. And when I can't come up with an action? Then it's time to consider that little tidbit just doesn't belong because it's not important. If the internalization isn't affecting my character in a physical manifestation, it won't affect my reader, either. And in that scenario, I revisit the dialogue, perhaps there's a way to convey the subtext or underlying meaning there, but removing words or not directly answering/responding to the previous dialogue etc.

Anyway, hope that helps.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

The thoughts in italics tool is a good indication that they THINK they are writing in third limited. If you take out thoughts in italic, you remove the reader from the character's head, and you should, hopefully, then be in omniscient. Most often head-hopping results from confusion on the writer's part about what POV they want to use and how to execute it. Knowing what multiple characters are thinking in omniscient is perfectly acceptable, so long as we aren't inside their heads. When omniscient is used properly the average reader shouldn't notice - and in fact, when I'm given good examples of omniscient POV in books I've read, usually my response is 'I didn't notice'. That's omniscient well done!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 I'm thrilled you found this both useful and easy to understand! It sounds your two POV characters, while both are using first, are easily distinguishable, and while this is unconventional, this is the recommended way of approaching this issue.

I don't think there are any hard and fast rules about changing POV e.g. as I note above, Harry Potter starts in third omniscient and ends in third limited, although there are some purists who will tell you this is a no-no. I'm not sure if this is particularly frowned upon in first (I suspect it may be but have no source for that). Personally I would describe the scene through the perception of your POV character - it's more relevant to your reader anyway. If you're telling us things your POV character doesn't know, your reader probably won't care either.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 I personally believe a writer can write their first draft in whatever way works best for them. As they say, it's better to get it on the paper, and fix any issues later, than to write nothing because the writer is making an attempt to make it perfect. A first draft doesn't need to be perfect; that's what editing is for. The first draft is just getting the story out. The way you write the character's thoughts in your first draft sounds to me like the notes I make in mine - a reference card for the writer so they know to make certain changes on the second pass, rather than something the reader is ever intended to see. And there's nothing wrong with that. this is just part of the writing process, and as we know, every writer has their own! In some ways, my own notes are more obvious than yours - I bold them and highlight them in yellow and they read things like 'Check if X did/said Y in scene A'.

Goran said...

Thanks for writing this.

I've often wanted to do a similar post but I was never brave enough to do it (I guess I was afraid I would do it wrong). I totally agree with you that established authors with professional editors from big publishing houses have NO excuse for getting this stuff wrong and you are completely justified in feeling ripped off when paying good money for a poor quality product. That said I also feel that a low proce point doesn't excuse sloppy craftsmanship either but it does somewhat soften the blow if it does exist.

This kind of information - with clear examples - is key to getting people to understand so my hat's off to you for doing it.

I would like to suggest that first person and third limited have a lot in common and one could (conceivably) be changed to the other with minimal effort. Doing that might not give you the best example of the new POV but it would be correct.

In fact I do just that. If I am in the middle of a tricky scene with lots of characters and am a bit stuck regarding how to portray the non POV character. Write it roughly in first person, placing myself firmly in the POV characters place, and then migrate to third. 

Looking forward to the next post when we go deeper (excuse the pun) into this. :-)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 It's taken me a long time to do it! And I agree, examples are critical. No amount of explanation is going to help someone who just 'doesn't get it' but showing an example can often be a light bulb moment.

I agree, 1st and 3rd do have  lot in common. I think if you migrated first to third, you'd get an example of deep third (which we'll look at more next week). If you migrated third limited to first, you'd get an imperfect example of first which might need some editing to get it right. But it's pretty close, and in fact it's the only way I can write first.

I think when we get bad writing in books from big publishing houses it's because the writer has enough clout to resists the editor's suggestions. And in my opinion, that's wrong. If people are paying good money for it, the writer should be made to fix technical issues. Creative differences are something else of course. I agree craft issues in cheaper books also annoy me but, as you say, the price softens the blow and probably my expectations weren't as high anyway. On the other hand, you get a better impression when a book with a lower price actually gets it right!

Jo Denton said...

Great post! Lots of good examples and tips. Look forward to the next one. Thanks!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 Thanks! Glad you found it so useful. :-)

Veronica said...

Great tips. Now I have to check myself. I will referring back to this post. Thank you.

lynneinPborough said...

Oh my!  Now it's going to take me forever to edit.  Many thanks for this.  Great examples.  I think I understand.
She thought she understood.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 My pleasure. I'm pleased this post has been so popular!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 LOL, is she sure? Glad you found the post useful. Wait til you read about deep third. It's even doing my head in.

Jeri Walker-Bickett said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post since you published it. POV is the biggest problem in the novel I'm currently writing, and once I read this post, I knew beyond a doubt that head-hopping was my problem. In the past, I've written most of my short stories in 3rd limited, but I thought I could pull off omniscient for my first book (biting off more than I can chew). Ugh. Most modern writers gravitate toward 3rd limited, but at times I wish that wasn't the case. Readers and writers get too conditioned at times to go with the flow. One of the best stort stories I've read in recent years was in 2nd person. It just all depends on the purpose to be achieved and the skill-level of the writer. I'm forever thankful I've had intense workshops where I experimented with all variations of POVs, but still find myself falling back on 3rd limited. I most prefer 1st person, but feel it's the hardest to pull off. Anyway, I'll be thinking about this post for a long time which is the true mark of a job well done on your beahalf!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

 Thank you, I am very flattered. I think certain writers I have certain preferences, and I admit to being one of them - I prefer third limited, both as a writer and a reader, but that also comes out of people's genre preferences, because certain genres tend towards certain POVs. I read a lot of epic fantasy, which doesn't fit first person because there are so many characters, but people who read a lot of thrillers may prefer first because that is the tendency there. Second is not only extremely hard to write well, but not much sought after by publishers of any kind.

I think it's appropriate to first choose a POV that suits the genre you write, and then a POV that is within your skills. First is not only unsuitable for my genre, but after discussions with my writer's group, definitely not my strength. You're right, it IS hard to write, although commonly mistaken as easy. But there is no shame, I think, in playing to one's strengths. I gave my group the same story in first and third, and one of my crit partners said she had many objections to the first person version - but when she read the third person version, they just disappeared and the story worked very well. And for the record, while I write third limited, I'm told it is further to the omniscient end of the scale than not. Just my style, I guess.

Choose the tool appropriate to the job, and one you know how to use. Then you'll get the best result.

Michelle Rene (Illustrator) said...

Really great post! Very helpful to me as I'm new to writing, just awesome!

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