Last time, we talked about how head-hopping is something to avoid, and not just because there’s a rule against it. Any change in point-of-view (POV), whether using an “allowed” technique or not, risks weakening the connection between the reader and the story.
Head-hopping authors sometimes say they’re writing in omniscient POV to cover their tracks. Um, no.
Thanks to author Janice Hardy, I now have an easy way to describe the difference between head-hopping and omniscient. In a fantastic blog post last week, she described voice—that ethereal thing all writers strive for in their work—in a way I hadn’t heard before:
[V]oice is that sense there’s a person behind the words.
Yes. We’ve often heard that voice can be enough to overcome many writing sins. Why? Because if we have a sense of someone sharing this story, we’re more likely to pay attention.
It’s the difference between a friend telling us about the movie they saw this past weekend and hearing a robot read the generic synopsis of the movie. We’re more likely to listen to our friend’s version, aren’t we?
How POV Affects Voice
Now Janice was referring more to the overall story voice, but I think the same definition can help us understand POV. Let’s take a look at the most common POV approaches.
- First person: The main character shares the story directly, so the story should be told in that character’s voice.
- Close third person: A character shares the story less directly, but the story should be told in that character’s voice.
- Omniscient: Like close third person, the third person pronouns are used, but for omniscient, the story is told in the author/non-character narrator/eye-of-God’s voice.
In other words, an omniscient POV story would be able to share different characters’ thoughts and feelings, but would not word them in the characters’ voices. Head-hopping occurs when the narrative jumps from one character’s voice to another without a signal or break in-between.
Examples of POV and Voice
I typically write in close third person, so omniscient is not one of my strengths, but I’ll attempt it here to demonstrate my point. A much better example exists here. (Note that the name of the post is “Why head hopping is good” but then goes on to clarify they’re actually talking about omniscient. *sigh* That doesn’t help the confusion.)
- First person: I didn’t know what to say. How the heck was I supposed to react when my ex called out of the blue to tell me he’s dying? His hacking cough after the announcement wasn’t a good sign either.
- Close third person: She didn’t know what to say. How the heck was she supposed to react when her ex called out of the blue to tell her he’s dying? His hacking cough after the announcement wasn’t a good sign either.
- Omniscient: She didn’t know what to say. The unexpected call from her ex with the news that he was dying left her uncertain how to react. A cough interrupted his next sentence, and he prolonged it for effect.
- Head-hopping: She didn’t know what to say. How the heck was she supposed to react when her ex called out of the blue to tell her he’s dying? He coughed a couple times and then a couple more, just to stretch out the interruption and make her squirm.
Notice that the examples for first and close third person are very similar. A common test to see if close third person is deep enough is to check if the sentences can be changed to first person with just a switch of pronouns.
Now look at that last example for head-hopping. The second line places us firmly in her POV, and it’s clearly in her voice—deep third person. Then the next line puts us in his head, as she wouldn’t know that he’d purposely coughed repeatedly to make her squirm. A true omniscient POV wouldn’t use her voice for any of the lines.
This isn’t to say that close third person stories can use only one character’s POV. In multiple close third person stories, one character’s voice can be used for one scene and another character’s voice can be used for a different scene, but a transition of some kind is needed between them. As we discussed last time, chapter breaks, scene breaks, and line breaks can all be used to successfully switch POVs.
Each character’s voice should sound and feel different to the reader. It’s this difference that makes head-hopping difficult to ignore and even the most well-done mid-scene POV transitions uncomfortable. Mixing character voices in narrative or internal thoughts and feelings jar the reader out of the story.
Transitions between POVs act as a reset button for the reader, letting them know a change is coming. Missing, unclear, or too frequent transitions keep the reader from getting into each character’s perspective. This issue then prevents the reader from bonding to and caring about the characters or the story.
What do you think of my take on how omniscient POV and head-hopping are different? Do you agree or disagree? Does this concept of voice and POV help explain why head-hopping is jarring?Pin It