We’ve learned that head-hopping should be avoided if we want to maintain a strong connection between the reader and the characters, and we’ve learned that just calling something omniscient doesn’t solve the head-hopping problem.
This brings up the obvious question: How do we avoid head-hopping?
The answer might be different for each story we write. Remember how we defined head-hopping in the last post? If a story uses a character’s voice for narrative introspection/internal monologue, we need a transition between each character’s point-of-view (POV). Otherwise, we risk confusing the reader, taking them out of the story, and breaking the reader’s connection to the characters.
So let’s look at our options, starting with the smallest transition and continuing up to the biggest.
The vast majority of agents and editors consider a paragraph break to be an insufficient transition for a POV change, especially for a character-focused story.
In contrast to plot-driven stories, character-focused stories are page-turners because the reader cares about what will happen to the characters. It’s harder to create a sympathetic/empathetic relationship between the reader and characters in one-paragraph chunks. If the characters don’t matter, they might seem little more than puppets to the plot.
Some best-selling authors look like they’re getting away with merely a paragraph break transition, but a) they’re best-selling, and b) in actuality, they usually include some action or prop as a “baton” to pass between the characters. This technique is taught as the correct way to do a mid-scene POV shift without head-hopping. Here’s the example I posted in the comments of last week’s post:
Cynthia stared at Maurice in disbelief. Who would think wearing a neon-green shirt with mustard-yellow plaid pants was a good idea? Her gaze then landed on the mismatched button on his shirt.
Maurice looked down to see the button she’d noticed and shrugged. Like he cared what that know-it-all thought.
There the button and the action of first her looking at it and then him looking at it acts like a baton passed in a relay race. However, in general, non-big-name authors aren’t allowed to do this because agents and editors don’t trust them to know what they’re doing.
And honestly, as I got confused when I read the main author held up as the prime example of how to do this right, I don’t think it can be done “right enough” to not take some readers out of the story. Even the best-selling author I read used this method only once in the whole book.
Camera Zoom Out/Omniscient
Sometimes omniscient POV is used as a transition between close third POVs, like a camera pulling back from one close-up to zoom in on another. Note that these stories are still considered close third person and not omniscient.
This technique can be used mid-scene, with omniscient paragraphs of observation between the deeper POV of two characters. More commonly, it’s used as one scene ends and another begins. Here’s my no-talent-for-omniscient example:
Thank goodness that day was over with. She pulled the covers up to her neck and prepared to sleep like the dead. But she didn’t know that more was in store for her.
Across town, her meddling soon-to-be-mother-in-law had other plans. Kathy tapped her pencil on the list of extravaganzas the wedding planner had put together. Why oh why had her son found the most high-maintenance woman in the county to marry?
Notice that the first line of the first paragraph is written in the character’s voice. The next two lines each pull back a step to an omniscient viewpoint. Then we do the reverse in the second paragraph, going from omniscient to a deep third person with the new character’s voice. Check out my friend Simon C. Larter’s blog post for more (better?) examples along these lines.
This is as simple as it sounds: Add a blank line between one character’s POV and another’s POV. At the very least, this lets the reader (including editors and agents) know that we meant to change POVs and aren’t changing perspective willy-nilly.
With this technique, the line break signals both a POV change and a scene change, interrupting the reader as efficiently as possible with a two-for-one.
This is the method I use, although my definition of a scene might be different from that of others. For me, a scene ends not only when the setting (In the next room…) or time (Two weeks later…) changes, but also when a character’s emotional arc ends. So I insert a line break and change POVs when one character’s arc ends and another character’s arc begins, even though the setting and time continue from the previous scene.
Here the POV switches only at the break between chapters. With a multiple-first-person POV, this technique is often used with the name of the POV character as the chapter title.
Only One POV Character
Sometimes the entire story is told from the perspective of one character so the POV never changes. This is often the case with certain genres (women’s fiction, urban fantasy, cozy mysteries) or when the story is told in first person.
There is no right answer for which method to use. The best method for a first-person POV story is going to be different from an epic tale with a large cast of characters. In most romances, both the hero and heroine’s POV are expected, but other characters’ perspectives are not typically used.
A scan of some of the recently published books piled on my desk revealed that some authors used only chapter breaks (and some of those chapters were very short). Other authors used scene breaks—typically only when the time and place changed—and at most, once per chapter. Only rarely did an author use just a line break—again, usually once per chapter.
Other than one best-selling author who used the baton pass technique, no published books I checked used anything less than a line break. The vast majority used either the scene or chapter break methods.
Does this mean we can’t use anything else? No. But just as with everything we write, the choices we make have consequences. Choose what will work for you, your story, and your readers.
Which method do you prefer when reading? Which method do you use in your writing? What does a scan of your library reveal as to the most popular methods? Does it depend on the genre or publication date?