Point of view- is it okay to ‘head hop’?

We all know the typical traits of a creative writers early work. Debut novels often are not only thinly autobiographical – frequently with idealised versions of the writer being played out (in literary terms this is known as the Mary Sue phenomenon) but they also tend to be in the first person.

I’m not quite sure why this is an issue that has only been coming up recently with students of mine. Perhaps it is because some are now later on in their assignments, and are challenging themselves with new, technical ways to tell a story. But more and more of my students who now write in the third person have been wondering about Point of View.

In a previous blog post I discussed how within the third person free indirect speech (which renders thought as reported speech) or direct speech (which adds tags such as ‘she asked’) can be used.

But what I didn’t focus fully consider was Point of View. If, for instance, an author writes a line like

‘Jane was one of those people who hated confronting people. Tom was such an awful man! He was obviously lying. But when she opened her mouth she said how sweet it was of John to be honest.’

We here have Jane’s point of view (in the third person with free indirect speech). If we want to maintain a strong relationship with the reader we can’t just switch to Tom’s point of view. Calling a narrator omniscient doesn’t mean that we can either! If an author uses a characters voice for an internal monologue then we need to have a transition into another point of view. Otherwise we take the reader out of the story, lose their emotional connection with the character (Jane, in this case) and risk confusing them. Like any story, it is being told from a perspective, and as authors we have some responsibility towards that perspective.

I have found that most creative writing teachers – and for that matter agents and publishers – find a new paragraph an insufficient transition into a new point of view. The reason we keep turning pages of a book is because we are emotionally engaged with our character. It seems more than likely that the author is emotionally engaged with their protagonist too. So they probably often won’t want to engage in a sloppy switch of Point of View, and hop heads into a new character. One technique I’ve very occasionally seen for a switch, mid scene, is the ‘baton pass.’ It’s a technique some writers use by focusing on a certain object. For instance –

Helen stared at Brian, her mouth gaping. Who would wear a shirt with holes in on an occasion like this? Her gaze fell onto the shirt.

Brian looked down to consider his shirt and shrugged. As if it bothered him what she thought.

However, this is a technique that almost certainly won’t gain the approval of a publisher or an editor. The author would need a whole new set of language to convey the emotional world of Brian, having started with Helen’s point of view. So why would we switch?

I would urge readers who are tempted to ‘head hop’ to ask themselves what this is achieving. Is it worth breaking the emotional connection with the reader to go into a new characters head? What will it add to the story?

Occasionally, it can be good to get a new perspective on a matter, from the point of view of a fresh character. Say, for instance, Jane has described her feelings on her break up with Tom, and then in a new chapter we could get Tom’s perspective. This could be a good way to use the third person, making the most of the wider perspective it offers. But at the very least a line break will be needed. But, more likely a scene break (perhaps starting with a statement like ‘In the next town…’) will be required.

I would go with a chapter break. That way the reader can have a totally fresh perspective, and confusion will be avoided. But do bear in mind, that if you are dipping into a new characters thoughts, they will have a whole new vocabulary, as well as style of speaking and thinking. You will have to craft a whole new perspective afresh.

Has anyone had issues with Point of View that aren’t covered here, or which they would like to discuss?


Also published on Medium.

4 Comments

  1. Barbara Henderson 24 May 2017 at 9:46 am

    Point of view problems are one of the most common that I see in new writing. I’d like to recommend a very short downloadable book: Deep Point of View by Marcy Kennedy. It is very good at explaining why head-hopping is a poor technique!

    Reply
    1. Guy Mankowski 24 May 2017 at 1:44 pm

      Thanks Barbara, sounds useful. Will signpost my students towards that book.

      Reply
  2. Jane Edmonds 29 May 2017 at 10:29 am

    Have just read 3 books that explore point of view in different ways:
    The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively. Short stories, witty, excellent.
    Five Rivers met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris. The victim and witnesses of a fatal accident. Some not convincing.
    Transit by Rachel Cusk. The main protagonist listens or interviews different people in her life and includes their stories/thoughts as part of the novel. I think in the third person.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Ten tips to help beginners come across as advanced writers. Part 1 - WeAreOCA

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