Writing Tips Continued: Changing your Point of View

Point of View, part 3

In Point of View Part 2, I touched upon the magic of writing your stories from a point of view character and how this can make your stories come to life. (If you don’t remember, that was back in September, so check it out here) We’ve only scratched the surface of the intricacies and potential mistakes inherent of this sort of writing. It’s time to dig a little deeper. The summary first:

Once you begin a scene in a specific character’s point of view, stay in that character’s head at least until the scene concludes and you’re ready to start the next scene.

No exceptions. Read the above paragraph as many times as you need to until it sinks in. If you think about breaking the rule, smack yourself. Then read it again.

No. Really. Don’t ever do it. I know when I have posted other rules, I have, without exception so far, followed up with examples of when it is okay to break that rule. But there is no exception to this rule.

Well….that is…..

Okay, okay, okay!! There is one exception that I know of, and that applies to romance and erotica intimacy scenes, where “head hopping” (further defined below) to a certain extent is permitted, but  since I’m not the person to talk about this, watch for a future guest blog from the current president of the Indiana Romance Writer’s chapter. (THAT should keep people checking my page daily for awhile.)

So let’s dig a little deeper.

First, it’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that a short story should start in, and stay in, a single character’s point of view from beginning to end. And yes, you’ll find many exceptions to this (including stories that open with an omniscient voice as discussed here), but generally, editors take a dim view of short stories that shift the point of view during the narrative. Too much shifting in a short story will cause an editor to add your story to the reject pile. And unless there is a clear and obvious reason for doing so that benefits the story greatly, a short story should stick to one point of view.

A novel, because it is a longer narrative, offers more opportunity to shift points of view. In thrillers and similar genres, a storyteller can ratchet up the tension by jumping from the hero to an occasional scene with the villain, with a blatant or understood “meanwhile”.   In fiction with romantic elements, a scene with Him, followed by a scene with Her, certainly makes for a pleasant reading experience. Several ambitious novelists can weave an epic story shifting between six, eight or even more characters (but the rule of changing the character point of view only between scenes or chapters still applies). Stephen King’s epic THE STAND is one of the better-known of this sort of storytelling.

AN ASIDE: I’ve seen an interesting new form of “first person from multiple points of view” used in commercial epic fantasy. The change of point of view takes place every chapter, heading the chapter with the name of the character, followed by a first person narrative from that character’s point of view. Then the next chapter is named after another character, and the narrative proceeds in the first person, but in that new character’s point of view. If you want to read something pretty cool in such a style, check out the epic fantasy series by Daniel Abraham.

Now, returning to point one: Never ever, ever, switch points of view in the middle of a scene–at least, don’t do it on purpose. This is called “head-hopping.” It’s a common mistake for beginning writers, and so far, it seems no matter how “good” or experienced one gets, it’s still easy to do on accident, even after years of practice.

What do I mean by head hopping?

A quick and obvious example:

      Tom walked into the bar. He looked around and saw the gorgeous blonde sitting at the bar across the room.

     Tammy noticed the burly man approach. She shook her head and released a sigh. The last thing she needed was another slimeball trying to pick her up.

The first paragraph presents Tom’s point of view, then the second paragraph “hopped” to Tammy’s point of view. The presents a number of problems in storytelling, not the least of which is, there is no dramatic or story-related reason to change heads.

Here’s something for new writers to look for. If the responses to your story from trusted pre-readers is that “it was just okay” but no one can tell you why they weren’t into it, or why it didn’t move them, check to see if you were head hopping. Chances are, you were.

Even if a reader can’t articulate what was “wrong” with a scene or story, head-hopping, because of its flip-flop structure, causes a mental fatigue and affects a reader’s ability to “escape” into a story. (That, plus too much emphasis on the visual approach as discussed here are two big signs of a beginner)

Plus, head-hopping blows great opportunities for drama. Take Tom in our example. Suppose he considers himself a charmer with the ladies and decides to approach Tammy. Written from his perspective, he would be oblivious to her attitude, and his surprise when she tells him to buzz off becomes the reader’s surprise at the same moment.

So how to choose a point of view? The first thing a writer should do before composing any scene is determine: who is the central character of the scene? Sometimes this is obvious. If Tom talks to Tammy, then Tammy leaves, and Tom continues to talk with the bartender, then compose the entire scene from Tom’s point of view. Otherwise you need to break the scene and resume the action from the head of another character. Just think the scene through. The answer is not always that simple, but more often than not, it is.

Why does this work so well? Because as human beings, we live life confined to our own head, and sticking with one character best re-creates our life experience. It’s a view readers are most familiar with because they live it every day.

So whether we’re talking about deep third or first person, all a writer needs to do is compose each scene from inside the head of a single character’s POV and stick with it. Easy, right?

Wrong.

Because there are several ways this can get fouled up, and we’ll look at some examples in the next blog.

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About R.J. Sullivan

R.J. Sullivan’s latest book, Commanding the Red Lotus, is a novel-length collection of three space opera tales in the tradition of Andre Norton and Gene Roddenberry. His novel Haunting Blue is an edgy paranormal thriller and the first book of the adventures of punk girl Fiona “Blue” Shaefer and her boyfriend Chip Farren. Seventh Star Press also released Haunting Obsession, a Rebecca Burton Novella, and Virtual Blue, the second part of Fiona’s tale. R.J.’s short stories have been featured in such acclaimed collections as Dark Faith Invocations by Apex Books and Vampires Don’t Sparkle. R.J. co-hosts the Two Towers Talk Show YouTube program with John F. Allen. He resides with his family in Heartland Crossing, Indiana. He drinks regularly from a Little Mermaid coffee mug and is man enough to admit it.
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2 Responses to Writing Tips Continued: Changing your Point of View

  1. ericgarrison says:

    My first urban fantasy reading came from Charles de Lint’s Newford stories. I think they were part of the “magical realism” subgenre originally, but grew more blatantly fantastic as time went on.

    Anyway, de Lint often employs the multiple first person POV in his novels. One chapter in one character’s head, the next in another’s, with the title of the chapter being the name of the character. He does a wonderful job with each character’s voice and perceptions being unique. I have debated doing this myself, but I think the most difficult aspect would be equally dividing a story among several characters without forcing the perspective change or overlapping a lot of plot from different POVs.

  2. Eric, I agree. The form appears daunting and I suspect tackling a project like that requires a great deal of skill and confidence on the part of the writer. In any case, I’m not ready.

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