Thursday, October 18, 2012

POV: Three's a Crowd!

Point of View is something that besets and often bedevils many writers. It took me ages to work out the nuts and bolts of this technique. However, I could not explain it to anyone in terms that they would understand. Luckily for writers out there, here's an excellent article by Randy Ingermanson, and all is revealed.

Is Headhopping A Sin?

 Every so often, the issue of "headhopping" comes up among writers, and the fur soon begins flying. It came up recently in a circle of novelists I belong to. Some writers insist that there is no sin more vile than headhopping, except possibly teaching the cat how to smoke. Other writers claim that headhopping is an acceptable practice in romance, where many readers like it and a few editors even insist on it.

Is headhopping a sin? If it's so horrible, then why does Joe Bigname Author hop heads like crazy? Is headhopping just another "gotcha" invented by writing teachers to put newbie writers in knots? Isn't headhopping just the same thing as the omniscient viewpoint?

First things first -- we need to define "headhopping."
To do that, let's review the main alternatives. The two most common points of view in fiction are first-person and third-person.

1st and 3rd person POV
  • In first-person POV, the author writes as if she is one of the characters, using the pronouns "I" and "me" to refer to that character. When you write in first-person, you put your reader firmly inside the head of that one character and it would be unnatural to get out.
  • In third-person POV (the most common POV these days), the author chooses one particular character in each scene to be the viewpoint character. The author uses the pronouns "he" and "him" or else "she" and "her" to refer to that character.
When you write in third-person correctly, you put your reader firmly inside the head of that one character. You show only what that character can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or feel. Nothing more. So third-person is very much like first-person, except for the pronouns you use.

Either first-person or third-person puts your reader on intimate terms with the viewpoint character for the course of any given scene. This makes it easy to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, which I believe is the main goal of writing fiction.

Now of course it's possible that a writer will do a bad job of writing either first-person or third-person, which means that the reader will have no Powerful Emotional Experience. But tens of thousands of professional novelists use these viewpoints effectively because they work.

Two or more POV
 Now we can define headhopping. Headhopping is like third-person, except that the author uses two or more viewpoint characters within a single scene. In headhopping, you put your reader firmly inside the head of one character for a while and then hop into another character's head for a while.

Let's look at those questions we raised at the beginning of this article:

Is headhopping OK?

My own opinion is that it's OK to do this IF you do it well. But it isn't easy to do it well, for two reasons.
  • First, those pesky transitions from one head to another are hard to get right. If you confuse the reader, then that's a speed bump in the reading experience and that's bad.
  • Second, even if you do the transitions well, doing them too often will make your reader feel jerked around.
 Why does Joe Bigname Author use headhopping in his novel?

Good question. Some authors actually don't know any better (and neither do some editors). Some authors know that headhopping is risky but do it anyway because they believe they can do it well and the rewards are worth the risks.

Is headhopping just an invention of selfish writing teachers who want to earn more money by putting up more roadblocks for new writers?

Three's a crowd!
Not that I can tell. Headhopping is hard to do well, and very often it just plain doesn't work. Headhopping by novice writers almost always doesn't work. Writing teachers spend most of their time working with novice writers, so they spend a lot of time telling them not to hop heads.

Is headhopping exactly the same thing as the omniscient viewpoint that was used so successfully by the great 19th century writers?

In my opinion, no. I believe that omniscient viewpoint means that the narrator is actually omniscient and can know things that NONE of the characters know. I am tempted to say that all right-thinking people must agree with me, but I know at least one writing teacher who believes that headhopping is the same thing as omniscient.

I'm afraid that rational discussion will never settle this argument. However, kicking, biting, scratching, and hair-pulling might, so I have hope that someday all writers will agree with me on this point.
Let's fight about it!

So should you hop heads? Will you suffer eternal torment if you indulge in the forbidden fruit of headhopping? My own opinion is that if you're a new writer, then it's best to avoid headhopping, for two reasons:
  • Headhopping requires that you master third person viewpoint AND that you master transitions from one head to the next. It's easier to master one skill than two.
  • Some editors will reject you outright for headhopping.
 Once you've learned to write third-person Xtremely well, then you'll have the skills to try hopping heads when you have a scene where you believe it makes sense.

At the very least, if you're going to hop heads, you should be aware that you're doing it, you should have a reason to do so, and you should make it work.

The goal in writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. Do whatever it takes to do that.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Randy Ingermanson Publisher, Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/ezine
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