Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Head Hopping and Point of View

First Person POV

Authors spin tales from someone’s or something’s point of view. There is the “First Person” point of view. “
I tell you what I feel, think, do and smell.” A story written in this voice indicates the writer is the speaker and gives your story a personal feel, but I can think of one draw back. The reader will expect your character to survive. How else can they tell the story?

Second Person POV

“Second Person” is another point of view. “You did this or that.” This voice is much like a detective telling a suspect what he thinks the party is guilty of doing and indicates to whom the writer is speaking and is not a popular POV when writing.

Third Person POV

“Third Person” is the most commonly used POV, “He or she did this, feels that, etc.” I read somewhere that ninety percent of modern speculative fiction is written using this POV. Third person pronouns such as “he” and “she” are used to refer to all the characters. The advantage is that third person offers the personal aspect of a first person viewpoint while it provides the reader with more detail. Your POV character does more than speak and act. They appraise the actions of others. When they see someone grit their teeth or stomp their foot they make determinations based on the emotion experienced and this process involves the reader.


If the reader stays in one character’s head throughout the entire story, scene or chapter, this is considered “limited third person.” An option when writing in “limited third person” is to include the thoughts of two people, but I offer a word of caution. If you bounce back and forth from one character’s thoughts to the other you lose the tension produced by the unknown because the reader is allowed to know everything. This head hopping will lead the reader to confusion, boredom or both. The rule of thumb to follow is to stay in one character’s head for a complete scene or chapter.

I came across one such oversight in a novel I read this weekend. Set in a 1940’s gangster scenario, the bad guys shoot it out with the cops in the middle of the street. A small group escapes the skirmish. They retreat unnoticed and within a half block the sound of the battle diminishes. They hope the cops stay busy until they make it around the corner. Suddenly the POV shifted. “The front window of one of the cop cars exploded.” How would the POV character know this from a half block away and his back to the action? He could have heard it and turned to see what happened, but he didn’t. One moment I found myself sneaking from the scene, neatly tucked within the POV character’s head, and the next I transported back into the gunfight down the street. The following sentence put me back with the group turning the corner and out of sight. The confusion caused me to stop and re-read the section. This error in POV broke the tension the author intended the reader to experience.

It doesn’t matter if you are writing about aliens that possess your characters and shift from one mind to another; you must stay within the POV character’s head until the scene changes. Why? The POV drives your story. Head hopping triggers an unnatural thought process. When you bounce from one character to another, your POV is unclear and the reader gets lost. This mistake will discourage your reader from reading your work to completion, and an editor will return your manuscript with a big red POV scrolled in the margin.


Miss Mae said...

Very clear definitions of these important aspects. Thanks!


Donna Sundblad said...

Thanks, Miss Mae. Glad it helped.