Writing a book is about establishing a connection between the reader and the character in the book. No matter how excellent the historical details, how correct the description of everything from how to dismantle a gun to how to perform emergency surgery in the wild, unless the reader is invested in the characters, the read will leave them at most lukewarm. Unless, of course, they read the book precisely to find out how to dismantle a gun, but generally expectations on a work of fiction are somewhat higher than that.
To establish that connection, the writer has at their disposal person and POV – point of view. Person is usually a choice between first person and third person. I once attended a very interesting lecture about using second person, i.e. “you” throughout a book and came away with the conclusion that this a) was difficult to pull off without sounding patronising/hectoring b) would never create that sensation for the reader of being inside the character’s head, seeing as the writer was always talking TO the character rather than THROUGH the character.
First person is not a favourite with me. Yes, there are a number of books written in first person that are very gripping, but in general I feel first person is rather restrictive. However, there are some books in which a combination of first and third person are used in an excellent fashion, and there is one book in particular where an initial third person bleeds over into a first person that I find quite amazing. This is a story about a woman afflicted by dreams of the early 13th century, vivid dreams in which she effectively sees the past through the eyes of a person living in the past. As the dreams become increasingly more vivid, as the lines between reality and dream become more and more blurred, our protagonist drifts from third person narrative to first person narrative and I, as the reader, am thereby dragged along into her obsession/that distant past life.
Many first person books end up being flat. There is a lack of depth in reactions, reflections, emotions as they’re often sifted through one very subjective view. (The obvious exception are intense books roiling with personal feelings where first person may well be the only choice as it is the subjectivity of the reactions that define the book and the character) Once again, some writers overcome this hurdle with ease – but far more do not.
Some books have multiple first person POVs, but those I tend to find rather confusing. What I really detest about books written in first person is the “how do I fit in a description of my character now that I’m writing in first person” issue. Studying your own reflection happens a lot. Strange sentences such as “I dragged the brush through my long, golden locks” make me cringe, as rarely do we think of our hair as anything other than plain hair. Or “My blue eyes teared up.” Urk.
The benefit with first person books is that the POV is very clear. People writing first person rarely head hop – indicative of the fact that we generally do not know what the person we’re talking to is thinking, nor do we feel their emotions, be they anger or irritation or joy or whatever. Our first person character might see their reactions. “His face lit up” would indicate the person is pleased. “I watched with trepidation as his hand bunched into a fist,” indicates some sort of conflict. Our first person can guess at what they’re thinking/feeling. “To judge from how X kept his eyes on the plate, he had no desire to continue this discussion.” It might have nothing to do with an unwillingness to continue the discussion: maybe X was struggling with mirth and did not want to hurt the protagonist by bursting out in laughter.
Third person narratives (and I prefer those with various POV characters) somehow offer more depth – at least to me. They do, however, require that the writer sticks to the chosen POV throughout a scene/dialogue, this so as to avoid confusing the reader. Head-hopping, i.e. the writer’s tendency to leap-frog from one person’s thoughts to the other, not only causes confusion, it also causes distance, as the reader is thereby expected to bond with multiple characters simultaneously.
“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. No way. Never. It was wrong, heck, it was probably illegal. (Here we are in HER head)
“Because I want you to,” he replied, amused by her stance, by how she lifted her chin. He had to hand it to her: she had guts—and a moral compass. Wouldn’t help her much, though. (What? And now we’re in HIS head?)
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. She glared at him, hating the way he smiled, the way he looked utterly unfazed by her refusal. (Back to HER head…)
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her and she backed away, her eyes wide and dark. She licked her lips. He liked that. (HIS head. Somewhat sinister, isn’t he?)
“Dream on,” she snapped back, trying to inject determination in her voice. (Oops! Back to HER, so I can’t continue exploring his sinister side. Pity…)
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm, enjoying how she shivered under his touch, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Soft, slightly damp skin. Not only because of the damned heat, he supposed, bending down to brush his lips down her cheek, down her neck. She smelled nice. He kissed her just below her ear. She tasted nice too. She softened—for an instant, before yanking free and ducking under his arm, marching towards the door. A futile gesture. The door was locked and he wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to. He could wait all night if necessary. (All in HIS POV. Quite the relief after all that preceding back and forth)
Okay, so the reader gets the above. He wants her to do something, she doesn’t. He is clearly attracted to her, whether she returns the favour is unclear. But the reader does not need to develop more than a shallow bond with the characters – the writer is telling the reader just what each speaker is thinking with each line of dialogue, which is a far cry from how things are in real life. Far more importantly, this writing technique means the reader is missing out on how the POV character reacts to what the other person says or how she/he reacts – in itself an illumination of the POV character.
So if we were to write the above purely in her POV, it might read like this:
“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. No way. Never. It was wrong, heck, it was probably illegal.
“Because I want you to,” he replied, the corner of his mouth twitching. Damn him for looking at her like that, as if she had no choice but to do as he asked!
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. She glared at him, hating the way he smiled, the way he looked utterly unfazed by her refusal.
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her. She scrambled back, not wanting him too close. Or maybe she did. She licked her lips. His smile became a grin.
“Dream on,” she snapped back, trying to inject determination in her voice.
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I told you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm. She shivered, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Too intimate, too gentle. His lips, brushing her cheek, her neck, and she leaned into his solid warmth, his gentle touch. He kissed her just below the ear and she bit back on a moan. No, no, no! What was she doing? She yanked free, ducked under his arm and marched towards the door. A futile gesture, she knew that. He wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to, and to judge from his expression he could wait all night if necessary.
What we get from this is that she is conflicted. She is attracted to this man, but she is also angry and intimidated. This makes her an interesting character to the reader, we sort of like conflict, don’t we? His behaviour – as analysed by her – would indicate he is attracted to her, but not to the point of letting her off the hook.
We could also write the scene from his POV:
“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Because I want you to,” he replied, amused by her stance, by how she lifted her chin. He had to hand it to her: she had guts—and a moral compass. Wouldn’t help her much, though.
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. He just had to smile. His princess looked about as dangerous as a determined poodle. How fortunate he was here to keep her safe.
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her and she backed away, her eyes wide and dark. She licked her lips. He liked that.
“Dream on,” she snapped back, and he heard the quaver in her voice.
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm, enjoying how she shivered under his touch, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Soft, slightly damp skin. Not only because of the damned heat, he supposed, bending down to brush his lips down her cheek, down her neck. She smelled nice. He kissed her just below her ear. She tasted nice too. She softened—for an instant, before yanking free and ducking under his arm, marching towards the door. A futile gesture. The door was locked and he wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to. He could wait all night if necessary.
Well, maybe he isn’t that big a jerk. He is attracted to her and admires her and the use of “his princess” indicates he cares for her. He still has no intention of letting her off the hook, but after reading his POV the reader can toy with the idea that maybe there’s a valid reason behind his insistence. Maybe. Once again, we have been given deeper insight into the character than in the original head-hopping scene. This generates more interest from the reader.
Note that the changes are subtle. The dialogue as such doesn’t change, the overall conflict (he wants her to do something she doesn’t want to do) remains unchanged. But the persuasions behind their actions become somewhat clearer, indicating a complexity to their characters.
As an aside, I find it helps to write crucial scenes in various POVs as this tends to shed light on the various characters, thereby giving me, as the writer, a deeper understanding for their motivations.
Some writers—notably those who do it—feel head-hopping is no big deal. Some say well-known, established authors do it (and yes, sadly some do). Some even go as far as saying that adding the inner reflections of their various characters to their every line of dialogue enriches the reading experience. Hmm. Nope, not to me. Instead, I am highly irritated by head-hopping as it indicates that the writer is either a) unaware of some of the basics of writing, or b) a tad lazy, as it is much harder to refrain from head-hopping than it is to do it. Besides, every time the writer head-hops, there is a risk that this will yank the reader right out of the character and the story. What could have been a deeply satisfying read becomes nothing but a distraction, potentially enjoyable but forgettable. Seriously, what writer wants their books to be classified as that?
16 thoughts on “That weird head-hopping stuff.”
You’re description of POV and how to stay in one person’s at a time, is spot on as is your description of headhopping which is to go from one head to another and back again. I hope that lots of writers who don’t understand what it means to Head hop, now do, and why it shouldn’t be done.
Like you, Anna, I am also flabbergasted by the amount of famous authors and also not so famous, who use the head hopping technique, and i must admit, before i became i writer myself I’d had no idea that some of my favourite authors were doing this. I’m afraid I struggle to read books where the author head hops constantly. Its not too hard sometimes to forgive the odd slip, but going from one to another is excruciating and yes, i do also agree that its a lot easier to not do it than it is to do it, as one good friend of mine will testify to.
Glad you enjoyed it!
It drives me mad too. It’s distracting and completely unnecessary.
Love the example 🙂
Well, it’s obviously going to end up in a book 🙂
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Head-hopping, and its dreaded counterpart, the omniscient narrator voice, are the main reasons I can’t re-read and enjoy some oldie-goldie favorites like Anya Seton’s Katherine or Jan Wescott’s The Queen’s Grace. I had to abandon both a third of the way in because of these factors.
As for the current crop of “best-selling authors,” I expect they believe their fast-paced plots make up for a variety of Writing 101 sins.
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lol. But I agree: I tried to re-read Katherine some time ago and I just couldn’t. And let’s not get me started on omniscient narrator – it creates SO much distance IMO
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One author who does omniscient well is Neil Gaiman but he evokes the idea of gathering around the fire and telling a story. But he’s an exception
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Omniscient Narrator’s voice sounds so spiritual… Hur Hur.
But in all seriousness, I hate the bits where authors feel they have to tell you what all the crowd are thinking, as though they all are n the same wavelength as each other.
I liked the “hur hur” 🙂
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Reblogged this on The Road to Hastings and other Stories and commented:
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I have no problem with multiple first person (well, two anyway). I do share your view on ‘head-hopping’ (as you define it) but I notice a surprising number of well-known writers do it.
Great article, Anna. I’m currently reading a very prolific, very popular ‘Medieval’ author who head hops constantly and it pulls me out of my reading flow instantly. Within the first pages this was happening and, for me, it means I’m probably more critical of what’s about to follow, more aware of other inconsistencies and possible anachronisms etc. For many authors (and I include myself) it might take a learning curve to gain avoidance techniques re poor POV writing, but I think it’s lazy writing to just ignore it and carry on regardless. Quickly produced writing is not always of the best quality.
I agree. Head-hopping makes it difficult to enjoy the story… Yes, we all need to work on our POV stuff because all of us make little slips now and then. And as to learning curve, I guess writing is like any other profession: one must invest time and effort to become proficient 🙂 Thank you for stopping by!