Skip to content

Make POV Work for You: Avoiding Head-Hopping

Monday, April 27, 2009

I know what you’re thinking—we’ve already determined that head-hopping isn’t what we want to do, that we want to write Deep POV, with only one viewpoint character per scene. We know: head-hopping is bad, bad, bad, bad. No-no. Don’t do it. No writing the thoughts of any character but the viewpoint character.

Yes, that’s the majority of head-hopping—from one character’s thoughts to another. The other part of head-hopping, the part that’s harder to grasp, is when we jump outside of our viewpoint character into either omniscient or no viewpoint whatsoever.

Huh?

I shared last week a few comments that I make on a lot of contest entries I judge. Another one is that in deep POV, you cannot write anything that your viewpoint character cannot see, hear, smell, taste, feel, or know for him/herself. If you’re in your heroine’s viewpoint and you write: “her face turned red,” you’ve head-hopped. Why? Because that description is coming from an external observer. She can’t see her own face turn red. She can only experience the burning sensation, feel the mortification deep-down inside her soul, wish the floor would open up and swallow her.

Last week, someone posted a question on the ACFW e-mail loop asking if she could write that her viewpoint character smiled, since the character cannot see herself smile. This is taking this part of POV a little too far. Every time I see that question crop up, I think about a line from Steel Magnolias when Ouiser is talking about having run into Drum Eatenton at the Piggly Wiggly, “…and I smiled at the [SOB] ’fore I couldn’t help myself.” We think of ourselves as smiling at other people. Sometimes we may not realize we’re doing it, because it can be a subconscious gesture. And you don’t want to fill your narrative with: She smiled. He smiled back. You want to get to the root of the emotion behind the smile. But sometimes, a viewpoint character just needs to smile. The best thing to do is to imagine yourself as your viewpoint character—and then write only what you can experience as her.

Then, there’s the problem of no viewpoint at all. Have you ever read a book and you got to a certain point in a scene and you had to flip back a page or two to remember whose viewpoint it was in? This happens when the narrative is too objective, especially in a scene that’s dialogue-heavy. Unless you’re writing your whole novel with this objective voice (in other words, you never go into anyone’s thoughts, emotions, gut-reactions at a deep level), what you’ve done is just hopped out of your character’s head. Here’s an example from Menu for Romance—first, edited down, then the full version:

Major changed the subject. “Your mom invited me to drop by their New Year’s open house. You going?”

Meredith shook her head. “No.”

“She said she had something she wanted to talk to me about.”

“Hmm. No—I don’t usually go over for the open house, just for our family dinner later. Instead, I’m fixing to go home, sleep for a few hours, and then head over to the new house—I’m planning to get the paint stripped from all the woodwork in the living room and dining room tomorrow.”

“In one day?” Major grunted. “Wouldn’t you rather relax on your holiday?”

“But working on the house is relaxing to me. Plus, it gives me a good excuse to go off by myself all day and be assured no one’s going to disturb me.”

The elevator doors opened to the dim, chilly underground parking garage. Major stopped her from exiting first. He stepped out, looked around, then turned and nodded to her. “Looks safe.”

“Of course it’s safe. You lived in New York too long.” She walked out past him.

“Meredith, Bonneterre isn’t the little town we grew up in any more. Even before Hurricane Katrina, it was booming.” He stopped her again and planted his hands on her shoulders. “Please don’t ever take your safety for granted. Not even here in the garage with security guards on duty. If anything happened to you…”

Meredith blushed and dropped her gaze.

“Look, I don’t mean to alarm you. But in this day and age, anything could happen.” He kept hold of her a moment longer, then let go and readjusted the straps of his bags on his shoulder.

Whose viewpoint is that scene in? Major’s or Meredith’s? Now, read it again:

Major changed the subject. “Your mom invited me to drop by their New Year’s open house. You going?”

Meredith shook her head. “No.” The simple answer held a magnitude of surprise.

“She said she had something she wanted to talk to me about.”

The porcelain skin between Meredith’s brows pinched. “Hmm. No—I don’t usually go over for the open house, just for our family dinner later. Instead, I’m fixing to go home, sleep for a few hours, and then head over to the new house—I’m planning to get the paint stripped from all the woodwork in the living room and dining room tomorrow.”

“In one day?” Major grunted. Meredith’s new house was anything but: a one hundred-year-old craftsman bungalow everyone had tried to talk her out of buying. “Wouldn’t you rather relax on your holiday?”

“But working on the house is relaxing to me. Plus, it gives me a good excuse to go off by myself all day and be assured no one’s going to disturb me.”

The elevator doors opened to the dim, chilly underground parking garage. Major took hold of Meredith’s arm and stopped her from exiting first. He stepped out, looked around, saw nothing out of the ordinary, then turned and nodded to her. “Looks safe.”

“Of course it’s safe. You lived in New York too long.” She walked out past him.

“Meredith, Bonneterre isn’t the little town we grew up in any more. Even before Hurricane Katrina, it was booming.” He stopped her again, planted his hands on her shoulders, and turned her to face him. “Please don’t ever take your safety for granted. Not even here in the garage with security guards on duty. If anything happened to you…”

Meredith blushed bright red and dropped her gaze.

“Look, I don’t mean to alarm you. But in this day and age, anything could happen.” He kept hold of her a moment longer, then let go and readjusted the straps of his bags on his shoulder.

Now whose viewpoint is this scene in? See how just a few little things that come from deeper inside the character’s head keep us grounded in whose viewpoint it is?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, April 27, 2009 10:58 am

    Excellent example. I find that I write like your first version when I’m roughing out. Then I go back and feel the scene from the viewpoint of the POV character, and fill in to make sure things are clear and richer.

    Like

  2. Monday, April 27, 2009 12:08 pm

    Thank you for the example. Characters blushing was one of the hardest hurdles I had to get over. I’ve found it interesting to really have to think about what you feel when you “turn red” instead of just plopping “she blushed” down. It’s made me work harder on my story!

    Like

  3. Monday, April 27, 2009 1:22 pm

    Now I really want to read this book! You’re making us wait too long, Kaye.

    This is a great example of how deep POV really makes a piece shine and grabs the reader inside the POV character’s head and emotions. I’m working on this, but my crit partners still catch me slipping sometimes.

    Like

  4. Monday, April 27, 2009 4:32 pm

    I finished Stand-In Groom today! I enjoyed it very much. I’m looking forward to your next books!

    I reviewed SIG on my blog today (http://miller-schloss.xanga.com/700228141/stand-in-groom-book-review/) and posted pretty much the same review on Amazon.

    I’ll be loaning SIG to several friends to introduce them to you!

    Like

  5. Monday, April 27, 2009 6:25 pm

    Love this:-) I’m going back and reediting (for the fifteenth billion time) my first novel and wow, I can SO see how applying this is helping! Granted, I already did some of it before, but now that I’m actually conscious of what I’m doing, I can see the drastic improvement! (not that it can’t still get better… but I’ll take improvement any day!)

    Like

  6. Carol Collett permalink
    Monday, April 27, 2009 9:08 pm

    “in deep POV, you cannot write anything that your viewpoint character cannot see, hear, smell, taste, feel, or know for him/herself.”

    This is exactly what I needed. Funny how sometimes the lightbulb just goes off. I see it shining above my head right now.

    Like

  7. Thursday, August 9, 2012 8:36 pm

    Wow, no matter how much I study how to avoid head hopping, I always have more to learn. I hadn’t even thought about how the POV character wouldn’t be able to see themself blush. Good point. Now I’m gonna have to go back and check my story and make sure I didn’t do that! This was an excellent article and I made sure to share it.

    Thank you!

    I’m actually reading a traditionally published book and there’s all sorts of head hopping when the two main characters are together. I don’t think a few months ago I would’ve noticed, but now I’m hyperaware of it and it kind of bothered me that the editor didn’t stop that from happening.

    My favorite example I’ve been telling other authors lately that I edit for is to look at the Harry Potter series. She almost always writes from Harry’s POV and I almost forgot it was written 3rd person. You know him so well, and you only know what he knows with the exception of the very few chapters when she has to show something happening that Harry would not know. For example at the beginning of book 4 we see the gardener on the old grounds where Voldemort’s family used to live. J. K. Rowling only uses one POV per chapter. She could’ve easily written chapters from so many of her other juicy characters POV’s but she didn’t, because Harry was the main focus of all the stories. We wanted to go on the journey with him, cheer for him more than anybody else. Brilliant writing and for me has been my best example of how to write 3rd person correctly without any head hopping whatsoever.

    Now, I won’t mention the other rules she breaks, because she’s so brilliant I don’t really give a damn.

    crystalleeauthor.com
    Crystal Lee

    Like

Join the Discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: