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 knowthere 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).

Head-hopping

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 shouldpresented 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 becauseit 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!


If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter.

Don’t forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this.

Thanks for stopping by and visiting with us!