How to avoid head-hopping in 3rd person POV + story updates

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Hello! This month I’ve got some story updates that are a little bit more exciting than last month’s, plus advice for fiction writers on tackling point of view when writing in the third-person narrative…

Without further ado…

Who is Rudolph Fentz? wins 3rd prize in the winter issue of Scribble

This is my second most exciting piece of news of late (will share the first in a mo). Long and short: I was voted 3rd prize winner out of 19 stories in the winter issue of Scribble and got a lovely little £15 cheque. I also got some interesting feedback from Scribble’s readers, which you can read in the blog I posted last week.

You also can read a sneak peak of the story here.

The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller gets closer to publication

This is my most exciting piece of news—though I’ve probably jinxed myself now. (Is it still hip to say ‘jinxed’? What are the cool kids using nowadays?)

The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller is one of the Million Eyes Short Stories, which I wrote early in 2015. It’s received really good feedback from various different places, but still publication has eluded it.

It did get accepted for publication by a new magazine called Aesop, but unfortunately that magazine is a non-starter. They never launched their first issue (despite the implication on their website that they’re distributing monthly). They also haven’t updated their Facebook and Twitter pages since 2014, and now the editor’s stopped replying to me. Shame. It was a really good-looking magazine that I was looking forward to being a part of.

I’m going off on a tangent. Basically I’ve been having some back and forth with an editor of an online magazine (who shall remain nameless for the time being). She’s really keen on The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller, but wants some sprucing up of the language and description so she can accept it. I’ve therefore been squirreling away at the story this week, adding about 800 words (I think I originally wrote this to a tight word limit, but this magazine is not as strict, giving me room to flesh it out).

My re-edit is virtually complete. Just need to do another once-over. Then I’ll be sending it back to her and hoping for the best! Might be onto a winner with this one! 🙂

The Emancipation of Google is longlisted by Inktears

I mentioned a few weeks back that The Emancipation of Google, another story set in the Million Eyes universe, was longlisted in the 2015 Inktears short fiction competition (as Rachel Can See was the year before). I was obviously hoping the story might get a bit further than Rachel Can See. Sadly a few days after I wrote that excited blog about being longlisted, I got an email saying that was as far as the story had got.

I’m not too downhearted. Being longlisted in a competition that has a top prize of £1000 is fantastic and gives the story a further accolade (it already won the Rushmoor Writers Founders’ Cup last year). I will continue sending it out—the right publisher could be just round the corner!

Tackling POV in fiction writing

This month I thought I would offer some advice on point of view in fiction writing. It’s quite a technical subject that, to be honest, I had no knowledge or concept of until I got a critique of an early version of Million Eyes.

I always knew that there were two main types of narration or perspective used in fiction writing: first-person narrative and third-person narrative. With first-person narrative, the reader experiences the story through the eyes of a particular character. The story is told as if it’s a diary entry, for example:

I didn’t know what to do next. We were out of options.

Third-person narrative is where a narrator rather than a character is telling a story. The characters are referred to by name, or as “he”, “she” and “they”. For example:

Angela didn’t know what to do next. They were out of options.

Sounds simple, right? That’s what I used to think.

Actually, third-person narrative is further broken down into two types: third-person limited and third-person omniscient.

Let’s take each in turn…

Third-person limited

This is where you are using third-person narrative but you are still in the character’s head. You are not narrating the story as if you are him or her—so you still use “Angela did this” and “she said that” etc.—but you are describing events from that character’s perspective or point of view only.

In other words, if Angela doesn’t see or hear something, neither does the reader. The narrator will describe Angela’s thoughts and feelings, but won’t describe the thoughts and feelings of other characters. That’s because Angela doesn’t know what the other characters are thinking or feeling (unless she’s a telepath, of course).

Generally this is the way most modern books are written, with a tight focus on a particular character. Today’s readers seem to prefer this, as opposed to….

Third-person omniscient

This is the way a lot of older books are written. Third-person omniscient is, as the name suggests, where the narrator is everywhere and can see everything that’s happening in the story. With this kind of narration, the reader is told the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters.

I used to think this was how third-person narrative worked generally. I was wrong.

The difference between third-person omniscient and “head-hopping”

When you write in third-person omniscient, you do not write from the perspective of your characters. You write from the perspective of the narrator. In fact, think of the narrator as a character with his/her own voice, watching everything that’s happening and knowing what everyone’s thinking.

The problem is that some writers (including me, until I learned about all this) think they’re writing in third-person omniscient, when actually they’re writing in third-person limited and telling the story from the perspective of a particular character.

This leads writers—who think they’re omniscient—to head-hop to another character and start telling the story from that character’s perspective instead. This is jarring for the reader. With third-person limited, even though there is a narrator, that narrator is seeing things through the character’s eyes. You’re in the moment with that character. If you suddenly jump into someone else’s eyes, you lose the connection. Some writers will then hop back into the head of the character they started with, like the reader’s at a point of view tennis match.

I’m actually reading a book at the moment that has some head-hopping problems: Library of the Dead by Glenn Cooper. Take this section as an example:

To Peter, his script was like a sacred text, imbued with a quasimagical aura. He had poured his soul into its creation and he kept a copy prominently displayed on his writing desk, three-hole-punched with shiny brass brads, his first completed opus. Every morning on his way out the door, he touched the cover as one might finger an amulet or stroke the belly of a Buddha. It was his ticket to another life, and he was eager to get it punched.

“Well, I think it’s good,” Peter answered. “Did you have a chance to look at it?”

Bernie hadn’t read a script in decades. Other people read scripts for him and gave him notes—coverage.

“Yeah, yeah, I got my notes right here.” He opened the folder with Peter’s coverage and scanned the two-pager.

Weak plot. Terrible dialogue. Poor character development, etc., etc. Recommendation: pass.

Bernie stayed in character, smiled expansively and asked, “So tell me, Peter, how is it you know Victor Kemp?”

Here you can see we start off deep in Peter’s perspective as he thinks about the script he’s written. Then, suddenly, we move into the perspective of the agent he’s meeting with, and we’re given information—Bernie’s thoughts on Peter’s script—that Peter isn’t privy too. I remember feeling a bit jolted when I read this.

It is tempting for writers of plot-driven stories (like me) to want to switch perspective to communicate information quickly to the reader. What I’ve learned is that there are ways of communicating plot information without head-hopping, which I will jot down in a sec.

Essentially, if you’re truly an omniscient narrator, you’re a separate character in yourself. While you are telepathic and you can read your characters’ thoughts, you’re not actually inside their heads, seeing through their eyes. This is why third-person omniscient is less popular nowadays, because there is a natural distance between the reader and what the main characters are experiencing. It also results in prose that is naturally more “tell-y” than “show-y”. This is because the omniscient narrator is describing what’s happening, as opposed to us being in the moment with one of the characters. The “show, don’t tell” rule is a pretty big one in modern fiction.

How to avoid head-hopping

From research, getting critiques and reading how other writers tackle point of view, I’ve come up with a short list of ways of avoiding head-hopping when you’re writing in third-person limited…

  1. Pretend you’re actually writing in first-person narrative. If you do this, you literally won’t be able to jump into another person’s head. From what I’ve learned, there isn’t actually much difference between first-person narrative and third-person limited anyway.
  1. Use a chapter break. End a chapter in one character’s perspective, start your next chapter in another. This is the easiest way of changing perspective without head-hopping. This doesn’t affect the tension, because you’re ending the chapter anyway.
  1. Use a line break. Often writers will want to change perspective within a chapter. A chapter focuses on a particular event and a particular point in your plot, and sometimes you will want different perspectives during that time. You can achieve this simply by using a line break, letting the reader know that you are shifting into another character’s perspective. Lots of writers do this. Deception Point by Dan Brown was written from various different characters’ perspectives, but Brown would always use a line break to signify the change.
  1. If you have to change perspective mid-scene, also use a line break. Changing perspective mid-scene is frowned upon because it’s said to break up the tension. But it depends what you’re trying to achieve. Some of the action scenes in Deception Point would have been inexplicable if Dan Brown hadn’t shifted perspective mid-scene, and it didn’t break the tension for me. On the contrary, I was eager to see what the other characters were doing, feeling and experiencing and I rolled with it.

Hopefully some of that has been helpful! In future articles I will talk about third-person limited narrative and the problem of info-dumping, another obstacle that I’ve learned (and am still learning) to overcome in my own writing.

Next week: are the Royal Family a bunch of lizards?

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7 thoughts on “How to avoid head-hopping in 3rd person POV + story updates

  1. Omniscient narration is myt one true way to go, and none of your propaganda will ever be able to deter me therefrom.

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    • Er – okay. Didn’t realise I was creating ‘propaganda’. I’m just sharing some advice based on my own experience as a writer. If you’ve mastered the difficult art of omniscient, good for you.

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  2. Omniscient narration is nowhere near difficult, as it has already been practised perfectly by Henry Fielding, almost 300 years ago.

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    • I’m glad you find it so easy and have managed to master it, because many writers do not and have not. I would encourage you not to make sweeping and general statements, though, just because you think it’s easy.

      And perhaps I could see a sample of your omniscient writing to see how well you do it??

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  3. I’m confused. If you change POV in the next chapter or with a line break, is it still considered third person limited or is there something in between limited and omniscient?

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    • Hi Sue, thanks for your question. If during those sections, you remain in one character’s head, telling the story through their eyes, then it’s still third person limited. It just means you have multiple 3rd person limited characters. Hope that helps.

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  4. I think now what’s troubling me is the descriptive narrative in third person limited. For example, I am reading a chapter of a book (Adrift: A Mer Cavallo Mystery) that takes place on a boat. The protagonist’s thoughts are the only one’s that are revealed during the chapter so it appears that it is written in TPL. But when the author describes what others are doing, I’m not sure how it can be TPL if the protagonist can’t see it.
    For example, if the protagonist is on the deck below and the captain is inside where she can’t see him, can the author describe what the captain is doing? There is also another section when the boat is coming into shore and without any kind of section break, the author describes what another character is doing inside a store at the dock. Sorry for all the questions, but I’ve become so worried about writing POV properly that it’s nearly killed all of my creativity and momentum.

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