Monday, 19 May 2014

To Hop or not to Hop?



Katherine sent in this heartfelt plea for help on the subject of point of view perspective: I just can’t seem to get my head round this issue of point of view and head-hopping. I understand about first person and third person and that side of it, but when I ask for feedback on my writing it seems I always get the same comments – that I’m head-hopping. I just don’t understand where I’m going wrong. Writers in my online group keep trying to explain it to me and I’ve also looked on the internet for help, but it all seems so complicated. Do you have an easy way to demonstrate it, so that I can finally understand what everyone else seems to find so easy to grasp?

First of all, Katherine, you are not alone. Many writers find it difficult to get to grips with staying in point of view. Before I give you my tips on keeping within one character’s thoughts, feelings and observations, I would just like to explain (for those who aren’t sure) the viewpoints available.

First person – this is where we remain in the narrator’s head at all times, observing all others from that one perspective. (I went to the cliff and wanted to jump, but I was pulled back by Sarah).

Second person – this is where the narrator is talking to a person throughout the story about that second person’s actions (you went to the cliff and wanted to jump, but you were pulled back by Sarah).

Third person – this is where the story is told from the perspective of the character or characters.

Third person can be broken down into three groups

Limited: readers are only privy to the thoughts of one character. Everyone else in the scene is shown through that character’s eyes, thoughts and feelings. (He went to the cliff and wanted to jump, but he was pulled back by Sarah.)

Limited is the most popular and easiest to master.

Objective: there are no inner thoughts or feelings. Readers only see what happens and what is said. (He went to the cliff to jump. Sarah pulled him back.)

Objective can leave readers without any emotional involvement in what is going on.

Omniscient: here the readers are privy to everyone’s thoughts, feelings and observations – head-hopping from one character to another within a scene. (He went to the cliff and wanted to jump. Sarah wanted to save him and pulled him back).

Omniscient is hard to pull off unless the writer is extremely experienced and a master storyteller.

From your email it seems to me that you are using the omniscient point of view, but it isn’t working for you because you haven’t quite mastered it. For many writers, it is impossible to get right because (unless you are very careful) the reader loses track of who is speaking, whose thoughts we are sharing, whose eyes we are looking through and so on. It becomes tedious and leaves the reader confused and unwilling to continue.

Regardless of which point of view you choose, you need to know how to deal with writing from that perspective. There is a simple exercise you can carry out to help with this.

Imagine someone in a restaurant. He’s there because he’s had a massive fight with his wife. He observes a couple at another table. He can hear the dialogue, but he doesn’t know the people. He has no other background knowledge outside of what they look like. This means he can only judge them on how they look, what they do and what they say. He is our point of view character and it’s his life we are involved with. The other couple are not important to the story. They are simply there to bring out the point of view character’s thoughts and emotions. We are looking at this scene through his eyes. We’ll call him Jake.

Jake put down his newspaper, eyes drawn to the next table where a middle-aged couple were studying menus. He noted they were both wearing wedding rings, but by the way they avoided eye contact, he didn’t think this was a celebration. Picking up his own menu, he was about to decide on a starter when a whispered exchange drew his attention back to the couple.

“You know how I feel about this, Carol.”

“Yes, John, I do. You’ve never made any secret of it.”

From the above dialogue it is impossible for the reader to know whether the dialogue is friendly, unfriendly, intimate, angry, or any other emotion. Because we can only know what Jake is thinking and feeling, we have to discover the emotions of the couple – and how it impacts on Jake’s own situation – through his eyes and ears.

Let’s see the dialogue again, this time with Jake’s observations included.

Jake glanced across in time to see the man reach out to touch the woman’s hand.

“You know how I feel about this, Carol.”

“Yes, John, I do,” she said, snatching her hand away. “You’ve never made any secret of it.”

Jake wondered what the man had done to make the woman so angry. He sighed. His wife always seemed to look at him like that these days. If they were still together when they reached the couple’s age, he’d be amazed. He imagined reaching out to touch Sarah’s hand and … no, better not to think of Sarah and the fight he’d walked out on.

It’s tempting at this point to slip into the woman’s or the man’s point of view and let the reader know what thoughts and emotions are being felt, but this is where staying in point of view comes into play – we are only interested in Jake’s life – what he thinks and feels. What if Jake had seen something different? What would Jake think?

Jake glanced across in time to see the man reach out to touch the woman’s hand.

“You know how I feel about this, Carol.”

“Yes, John, I do,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “You’ve never made any secret of it.”

Jake sighed. His wife never looked at him like that these days. If they were still together when they reached the couple’s age, he’d be amazed. He imagined reaching out to touch Sarah’s hand and … no, better not to think of Sarah and the fight he’d walked out on.

As you can see from the above, because we are in Jake’s point of view, we can only experience the event from his perspective. Using Jake as a first person point of view would be the same.

I glanced across in time to see the man reach out to touch the woman’s hand.

“You know how I feel about this, Carol.”

“Yes, John, I do,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “You’ve never made any secret of it.”

I sighed. My wife never looked at me like that these days. If we’re still together when we reached that couple’s age, I’ll be amazed. I imagined reaching out to touch Sarah’s hand and … no, better not to think of Sarah and the fight I’d walked out on.

And here is the same scene, this time head-hopping to use the perspective of all three characters.

Jake put down his newspaper, eyes drawn to the next table where a middle-aged couple were studying menus. He noted they were both wearing wedding rings, but by the way they avoided eye contact, he didn’t think this was a celebration. Picking up his own menu, he was about to decide on a starter when a whispered exchange drew his attention back to the couple.

Jake glanced across in time to see the man reach out to touch the woman’s hand.

“You know how I feel about this, Carol,” the man said, wishing she would be more understanding.

“Yes, John, I do,” she said, snatching her hand away. He was so selfish, thinking that a nice dinner made up for all the rest. “You’ve never made any secret of it.”

Jake wondered what the man had done to make the woman so angry. He sighed. His wife always seemed to look at him like that these days. If they were still together when they reached the couple’s age, he’d be amazed. He imagined reaching out to touch Sarah’s hand and … no, better not to think of Sarah and the fight he’d walked out on.

From a reader’s perspective, we have lost touch with Jake. There is no reason for us to know what John or Carol are thinking and the scene is weakened as a result of having their thoughts intrude.

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2 comments:

Ailsa Abraham said...

Very interesting post. I got around the problem of head-hopping in my own books by writing the name of the character from whose pov we were seeing things at the beginning of each chapter.
It was not nearly as confusing as it sounds. The result was that the same events could be shown in two or even three perspectives.
Head hopping without notifying the reader is a big no-no in my book (in my book - geddit? hahahah)

Lorraine Mace said...

Hi Ailsa, I agree with you. The important thing is to make sure the reader knows who is saying, thinking and feeling what. There is nothing worse than trying to figure it out and getting hopelessly lost because the author hasn't made it clear which character is speaking/acting/thinking or whatever.