Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Head-Hopping

One of the things many of my writing students seem to struggle with is keeping to the main character's viewpoint throughout the story. "But I want to tell the reader what the other characters are thinking/feeling," they complain whenever I point out that they've changed character viewpoint. Or - even worse - "I want to show how the mum/dad feels too."  A lot of new writers struggle with this so it's a subject I talked about in my new book Get Writing: Children's Fiction.

I thought I'd share some of this advice with you, and ask if you have any further advice to add to it.

1. Choose who is going to be your main character and tell their story. Only tell the reader what this character sees, hears, feels, thinks, knows or does.

2. Don't tell the reader how a minor character thinks or feels or anything that happens out of the main character's line of vision such as another character pulling faces behind their back. If your main character can't see it happening then they don't know it's happening (unless another character tells them).

3. If you want to tell the story through two characters' point of view then start a new scene or, preferably, a new chapter when you are switching characters. And keep to that character's viewpoint for the whole scene or chapter. Don't switch viewpoints half way. Similarly if you use multiple characters' viewpoints keep to one viewpoint per scene/chapter.

4. If you get confused whether you are keeping to the character's viewpoint you might find Pamela Cleaver's example helpful. She referred to it as like the Gorgon sisters, who only had one eye and shared it among the three of them and advised that you told the story from the viewpoint of the character holding the eye.

Do you use multiple characters' viewpoint in your stories? If so, do you have any tips to share?


Karen King writes all sorts of books. Check out her website at www.karenking.net

18 comments:

Pippa Goodhart said...

My tip is to enjoy portraying multiple viewpoints via illustration in picture books. Yes, the text will stick with a steady narrator voice or a main protagonist point of view, but we readers can SEE that somebody making faces behind the back of that unaware person, and that makes for tension and humour of a kind that words alone can't achieve.

Sue Purkiss said...

I must admit, I struggle with this rule that there must only be one point of view in a children's book. As a reader, I'm perfectly happy in, for instance, a detective novel, with multiple viewpoints, and although I know it's what required, I don't actually see the logic in only being allowed to get inside one character's head. There! I've confessed! Is it just me?

Karen said...

You're right, Pippa, picture books are brilliant for showing 'look behind you' stuff to the reader and the kids love this kind of thing. And Sue, no it's not just you I think multiple viewpoints can work in some adult novels written by an experienced writer.

ghostwriter said...

Thanks a lot with this ideas.. It helps me a lot..

Richard said...

Terry Pratchett is a master at saying anything he wants while staying in viewpoint. When that's not enough he makes Omniscient work seamlessly. See the first page of Snuff for example.

Karen said...

Thank you, ghostwriter. :)

Karen said...

Terry Pratchett is an amazing writer, Richard. Thanks for the info about Snuff, I'll check it out. :)

Penny said...

Presumably 1/ and 2/ only hold strictly if you are telling the story in first person?

Or are you saying for children's books you should always stick to one person's POV even in third person?

Presumably 3/ relates to stories in third person. The ability to switch heads is (for me) one of the big advantages of using third person. Plus you also have the option of using omniscient POV at the start and end of scenes and chapters and then shifting into a character's POV.

Keren David said...

As someone who (so far) only writes first person, I'd have thought that the occasional bit of head hopping is the great advantage of third person. When I think about books that I enjoyed as a kid (Antonia Forest's MArlow family series, for example) I'm sure that the head-hopping was one of my favourite things.

Karen said...

Penny, I'm always told by editors to stick to the main character's viewpoint even when writing in third person. If your story is told through multiple viewpoints then you should start a new chapter or at least a new scene for that viewpoint. Editors seems really strict on this. Multiple viewpoints can be told in first person too, as Melvin Burgess does in Junk and as I'm doing in my new book, but you need to make it clear when the character viewpoint changes.

Karen said...

Keren, I've read your book When 'I Was Joe', and think you write first person brilliantly. I do agree that 'head hopping' can be interesting sometimes but editors (at least my editors!) are really strict about it in children's books so I always tell new writers not to do it. Experienced and well-known writers can, of course, get away with breaking these 'rules'.

Richard said...

First person head-hopping in YA: The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint

And for the adventurous, second person (adult, no head-hopping): Halting State by Charles Stross

Both have got Look Inside on Amazon, but the former doesn't have enough to show a head-hop.

Karen said...

Second person, Richard? Now that's an interesting viewpoint. Must pop over and see how they tackle that.

And yes, you will find published books with 'head hopping'. I'm just passing on information that editors tell me hoping to help other writers. It's a rule most writers hate and struggle with.:)

Richard said...

As a reader, I found that with first person multi-viewpoint I wasn't getting enough cues to tell me who I was. For me at least, just a chapter heading seems to be insufficient. I think it would be desirable to have a significant change in voice as well.

Karen said...

A good point, Richard. Each character's 'voice' needs to be different and identifiable as that character, otherwise it doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Um, I think you mean the Graeae. The gorgons had the normal number of eyes!

Nicola Morgan said...

Neil Gaiman uses a head-hopping pov brilliantly, eg in The Graveyard Book. I see no problem with it as long as it's done consistently and deliberately. Done well, it's a perfectly natural and traditional way of using 3rd person pov. The time it becomes a problem is when you're in one pov and then suddenly/randomly switch into another one for convenience.

I'm writing a complicatedly switching pov novel at the moment and I've been wrestling all the povs into place to create what I hope will be a natural consistency, so that the reader always knows whose pov the scene or mini-scene is from. I regard as nothing more than a camera switching subjects.

C.J.Busby said...

Interesting post. I 'head hop' quite a lot and only recently had to be taken in hand by my editor and told firmly to rewrite a chapter from a consistent pov. (She's not a dragon, she lets me hop happily, but wants consistency in any one scene, as you say, Karen). I feel a bit as if I'm 'learning on the job' with much of this pov stuff, it's not something I ever really consciously noticed when reading or planned when writing.