Whose Head? Point of View in Fiction

This month we begin looking at Fatal Flaw # 5: POV Violations. Fiction writers often violate POV (point of view) “rules,” and have trouble seeing how this manifests in their scenes. Editor Rachel Starr Thomson introduces this month’s topic and explains the problems inherent in head hopping.

The commonly heard phrase “Well, from my point of view” expresses something central to human existence: our whole experience of life is bounded by the fact that we are trapped in our own heads.

Life is all about point of view. Fiction, which emulates life, is too.

How authors handle point of view has changed dramatically since the days of Robinson Crusoe. A hundred years ago the usual convention was to write “omnisciently” (more about this in a future post), from the point of view of an all-knowing, all-seeing narrator, who might be the author or possibly some kind of god.

Omniscient POV can be a joy to read, and some (few) authors still use it. But over time, the trend in fiction has been to limit point of view—to bring perspective down to one head at a time, the same way we experience it in our own lives. The usual rule is “one point-of-view character per scene.” As a result, readers are immersed fully in the experience of the POV character(s), with all the greater opportunity for empathy, understanding, challenge, heartache, exhilaration, and growth that kind of close identification brings.

Whose Head?

This month’s posts will examine several aspects of effective POV in fiction. This week I want to focus on one of the most central tenets of limited POV: it limits us to one character at a time, and that means you can’t write in the head of more than one character a time. This is the first POV violation that we’ll be looking at this month.

Obvious, right? But it’s surprisingly easy to get tripped up in practice. Jumping from one character to another within a scene is called “head hopping” (no, not “head hunting”—that’s illegal in much of the world).

Head hopping is bad because it diffuses the most powerful thing about limited POV and the reason most authors switched over to using it in the first place: that staying in one person’s head within a scene allows us to get far deeper into all the emotional and mental under-layers of a story and experience it all the way down, from the inside, the same way we experience real life.

Let’s take a look at this first POV violation issue.

BEFORE:

Jackie tensed, staring at the frosted windowpane. Her heart raced as the footsteps outside stopped, where the man in the darkness stood thinking, weighing his next move.

The glass shattered.

She screamed. The temperature in the room dropped as cold air blew in and the stranger came in with it.

Peter straightened and brushed the glass from his coat and jeans with his free hand. With the other, he trained his gun on Jackie. This wouldn’t be hard—all he had to do was take one hostage and he could get home.

She stared into the barrel of the Springfield XD-S pistol. There were five, maybe six, feet between them. A bullet traveled at the speed of 2,500 feet per second. She could not possibly move fast enough to get away.

AFTER:

Jackie tensed, staring at the frosted windowpane. Her heart raced as the footsteps outside stopped. Someone was out there. Something waiting in the dark . . .

This was so much like last time.

The glass shattered.

She screamed. The temperature in the room dropped as cold air blew in and the stranger came in with it.

Tall, dressed in black, his eyes piercing, the man brushed the glass from his coat and jeans with his free hand. With the other, he trained his gun on Jackie.

She stared into the barrel of the handgun. There were five, maybe six, feet between them. She could not possibly move fast enough to get away.

Tears pricked her eyes. Would she ever be fast enough? Or was life going to end right here—too slow, too stupid to escape the doom she could always see coming?

In the Before example, we have POV violations from the first sentence:

  • Jackie not only knows it’s a man outside, she also knows what he’s doing—thinking, weighing his next move.
  • When he comes into the room, this “stranger” is suddenly identifiable by name—and she doesn’t know his name.
  • Not only that, but Jackie knows way too much about guns and the laws of physics, which is not something she would know, hence not in character or POV. (This is intrusion not of another character but of an omniscient narrator who knows more than the character does.)

The After paragraph keeps us inside Jackie’s experience. It keeps us inside her fear, her perceptions, and her limited knowledge. That heightens the tension in the scene, as well as creating mystery the story can later unpack—who this stranger is, what he’s doing here, and what events in Jackie’s past inform the way she experiences this event in the present.

Your POV Character Can’t Know Things She Doesn’t Know

Keep in mind that limited POV means you can use perceived details to reveal your characters and their stories in intimate ways. If Jackie knows Peter, his name can be used—but her reaction to him will also be very different, and you can delve as deep as you want into the dynamics of their relationship and how she feels about seeing him here.

If for some reason she knows a lot about guns, the gun details can stay in—and her calculation of a bullet’s speed would tell us a lot about her analytic personality. But this would necessitate setting up her expertise in this field earlier in the novel.

Your POV Character Can’t Know What Others Are Thinking

In the Before example, the most egregious bit of head hopping is the line that tells us what Peter is thinking and what he’s intending to do. There we’ve gone whole hog from one character’s head into another’s and then back again. This not only makes us dizzy, it also drains some of the tension from the scene and prevents us from closely identifying with one character.

When you self-edit, ask yourself whether your character knows the things you’re conveying. Check to make sure that if you’re in Jackie’s head, you’re not relaying Peter’s thoughts—or information that only an omniscient narrator is privy to.

Your POV Character Does Know What She’s Thinking and Feeling

And take advantage of the head you’re in. Let personality come through. Let your character’s perception and history and hopes and fears color the way events are experienced. That’s the reason for the lines added in the After paragraph: they fill in Jackie’s feelings, her fears, and her past. The way she’s experiencing this moment in the larger story of her life.

Ultimately, that’s the power of fiction—to help us see stories in events. Someone else’s story, and maybe even our own.

Your Turn:

How about you? Can you see “head hopping” in your own writing? How can narrowing down POV within a scene allow you to develop a story more effectively—writing “all the way down” into the layers and themes that are there? When have you read a book that swept you so completely into one character’s POV that you emerged from it changed by someone else’s perspective?

20 Responses to “Whose Head? Point of View in Fiction”

  1. Sheryl Dunn May 6, 2015 at 3:44 am #

    Head hopping hasn’t been one of my weaknesses…so far! I think that in my entire first manuscript my editors only found one instance of author intrusion. (There’s not enough room in this comment to list all my weaknesses, however.)

    I’m preparing for a public reading, and it occurred to me that the last line of the opening scene is, “I can’t see what’s happening.”

    Kind of appropo, right? I had a small laugh when I noticed that the line really does relate to POV, and that it makes the reader want to turn the page (not on its own, of course…the scene also has a number of story questions and a character that my beta readers adore. Whew! Because she’s a grandmother, and I was worried that she was too old for younger readers.)

  2. Christy Distler May 6, 2015 at 6:40 am #

    Excellent points and examples, Rachel!

  3. JHolmes, author May 6, 2015 at 8:35 am #

    Thanks for this great post. I thought I had a pretty good handle on POV, until one of my CPs started pointing out missteps in one of my mss. Mental head-slap! This post will help me dig through my mss to find the POV slips. Great reminders on what to look for.

    • cslakin May 8, 2015 at 9:09 am #

      Glad this is helping. I think by the time all four posts come out this month, you’ll have a handle on those hopping heads!

  4. Garry Rodgers May 6, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    Thanks for this, Rachel & Susanne. Head-hopping is something I struggle with and this post really helps to put it in perspective. A device I’ve been using to break up point of view is a mini separation in the scene which is divided with a break like this –

    * * *

    Then I switch to another person’s POV or an actual change of location, etc. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

    • cslakin May 8, 2015 at 9:08 am #

      The basic acceptable format is to use just one # in the middle of a line. A # means “space” so it’s all you need. The other thing to consider is to avoid switching to a lot of POVs with short passages unless it’s really important to do so. By first thinking through who really needs to see and experience a scene, it can eliminate the need to jump around. Sometimes, and only rarely, usually in very key fast-action sequences will good writers jump from head to head in short bursts. That’s very effective in mimicking camera action in a movie as you show one, then another, character acting and reacting in fast succession. But for most scenes, it works best to stay with one POV the whole scene. I’m finding in my romance novels that since the book is usually two POVs–the hero’s and the heroine’s–a chapter will often have one for each, or even more depending on the plot development going on. But even with that, each scene is 8-15 pages long, allowing it to develop as needed, with that build to a high moment and resolution.

  5. Shah Wharton May 6, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    Superb post. Shared and printed off for my writing article folder! 🙂

    shahwharton.com

  6. Kimberly B. May 6, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

    I try not to head hop and am usually pretty good about not letting my characters mind read, but sometimes I get lazy about showing vs. telling (i.e. if I write “he was angry” instead of “a vein bulged in his forehead, he was red-faced and breathing heavily,” or some better description of being enraged). Or sometimes it might be logical for the POV character to infer what another character is thinking, but I have to make it clear they are drawing a conclusion that could be wrong. Where I also slip up is in remembering what my characters can or can not see: I recently had a scene from my heroine’s point of view in which the hero hugged her, then closed his eyes. Well, if he’s hugging her, and a foot taller than she is to boot, how exactly can she see that?

    • cslakin May 8, 2015 at 9:04 am #

      Those are great points. I see so many POV violations in the critiques I do. They can be subtle. For instance, if you have a character running across the street to avoid getting hit by a car, and then the writer describes her height and how she tries to have good posture and used to be a dancer, it just falls out of POV, as she is not going to be thinking about those things at that time. Writers often don’t get that every word in a scene is in POV, including the narrative. It’s essentially the character thinking at all times.

  7. Jim Steinberg May 7, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Your example is terrific. So is your summary.

    I love limited third person. I wonder what you think of multiple third person narration. I have enjoyed it in a few very good novels and have tried in twice now. In one, rotating chapters between two characters and now in a new project, between four. It raises some challenges, but I’m enjoying them.

    What advice might you have about that?….if you have the time and think it would benefit others.

    Again, thank you.
    Jim

    • cslakin May 8, 2015 at 9:01 am #

      Jim, most of my novels have more than 89 third-person POVs. This is very common in commercial fiction. I think I counted more than 20 in the first few chapters of Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes. I learned much of my style from mystery writer Elizabeth George, and she uses a ton of POVs. To me, it’s the most fun and best way to get inside all my characters’ heads!

      • Sheryl Dunn May 8, 2015 at 9:10 am #

        89 POVs!!!!

        I, too, love getting inside characters’ heads, and creating unique voices for them.

        When I was analyzing POVs for my first novel, I counted POVs in one of Elizabeth George’s novels, too. In that one, she had nine, although I felt that one of them was unnecessary.

        Since I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t have too many POVs, I was concerned that haviing six POVS was excessive. Analyzing writers like Elizabeth George reassured me, although it’s always dangerous to copy what successful writers do. They may be successful, but it doesn’t mean they always make the right choices.

        • cslakin May 8, 2015 at 10:56 am #

          My favorite novels are ones with gobs of POVs. It’s the best way to go deep into every character. George often does so with even her very minor characters, sometimes to excess, it seems to me (hence those 800-page mysteries!). But it’s hard not to love it all.

      • Jim Steinberg May 8, 2015 at 9:17 am #

        89 POV’s! I’ve never done more than two, and I sure have enjoyed getting inside both of their heads. I’ve done it in a novel and in short stories. Now I’m trying four and perhaps a fifth. The fifth will be a person outside the family. She’ll give a more removed perspective.

        Anyway, it’s nice to hear about someone who is even bolder than I am with multiple narration. Actually, it seems quite easy and helpful.

        Thanks for the support.

        Jim

        • cslakin May 8, 2015 at 10:54 am #

          Hah, caught my typo! I meant 8 POVs. Someone to Blame has 14. My suspense/mysteries have the most.

          • Jim Steinberg May 8, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

            Glad to catch your typo. I should have thought of that. You have impressed me so, that I’m amazed to think I considered it anything but a typo! I can handle eight.!

  8. Florence Osmund May 8, 2015 at 5:27 am #

    Excellent article, Susanne. If I had read this years ago before writing my first book, I would have saved myself a lot of time re-writing. I shared the link on my website.

  9. lisa ciarfella May 27, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    Hey Susanne,
    terrific article. Keep em’ coming please! This is exactly the kind of stuff I need help with, and that is not being covered in my MFA classes. I started writing with more than three POV’s and it’s a challenge to keep track of them all, and sometimes I catch myself slipping within a scene. But your advice here is solid on how to get back on track.
    Thanks,
    Lisa

  10. Sweety Shinde April 14, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Superb post and just what I needed. Could you help me on this point? A short story has A &B. While A will speak past memories plus present situations, B speaks mostly in present situations.

    So whats the best way to show the transitions? Do I use italics for past memories? Or use different fonts?
    Its a short story, so no chapters to help me out.

    • cslakin April 14, 2016 at 11:59 am #

      I’m not clear what you mean by speaking past memories. If the character is speaking now, in the present, about things in the past, it’s just regular dialogue. If a character is thinking about past spoken dialogue in her head, it’s best to use italics and quotes. Some writers put large sections of flashbacks or memories in italics, but because it’s hard to read large blocks of italics, it’s best not to use them for more than a few lines. Not sure if this answers your questions.

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