What’s your perspective? Writing Pitfalls #3

Settle into a comfy chair, and let me tell you a little story. Three years ago, I wrote a steampunk novella. It was awful. I’m not fishing for comments saying “Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” because it was that bad. And that’s not even the point of this story. The point is, I presented my manuscript at a science fiction and fantasy writing workshop held by a leading published author in the field. Thankfully, she tore it apart.

Why am I thankful that she tore it apart? Because I never would have learned so many brutal lessons at once if she hadn’t. It was emotionally very difficult, and I had to step back from creative writing for months afterwards because I needed time to let my emotions run their course before I could come back to the keyboard with a clear head and an unbiased appreciation for the rules she taught me.

Fast forward to today.

I continue to glean valuable writing lessons here and there, whether through blogs I read, or just learning by the examples I see when I read. But the things she taught me stick with me to this day.

After the lively discussion that the latest installment in my series provoked, I wanted to share that preface with you guys, so that you can better understand my perspective in all this. Without further ado, today’s post focuses on a rule that many of my fellow writers in the workshop struggled with: point of view violations.

Enjoy!


I’ll start by following Fatty McCupcakes’ advice from my first writing post: with a simple example:

Professor Plum crouched behind the sofa, careful not to let Colonel Mustard see him grasping the lead pipe. The longer he had to crouch in silence, the more his ankles ached — and now he felt a sneeze coming on! The Colonel meandered into the study, enjoying his brandy and wondering what their host would serve for dinner. Suddenly, right as the Professor was planning to erupt from his hiding spot, Mrs. Peacock flitted in the room, worried because she didn’t know where Professor Plum was.

This is a classic case of “head-hopping,” or going into multiple characters’ heads within the same scene.

My workshop instructor was quite adamant that head-hopping is absolutely verboten. Every scene must adhere to the same point of view throughout. Therefore, for POVs linked with a specific character, we should only be privy to what that character sees, thinks, feels, and knows.

Head-hopping blatantly violates this rule, as it allows us into the inner thoughts of multiple characters within a scene. The above example begins by establishing the fact that we are close third person to Professor Plum. After all, we know that his ankles ache and that he feels a sneeze coming on; these are both internal feelings that an outward observer could not know for certain.

Since the passage establishes that we are reading Professor Plum’s perspective, then there is no way he could know what the Colonel is wondering, or that the Colonel is enjoying his brandy. All he is able to see is that the Colonel meanders into the study and is sipping brandy. He also can’t know that Mrs. Peacock is worried.

Keep in mind, though, it is OK to have your POV-centered character conjecture about what others are thinking or feeling, but it has to be clear that they are just conjectures. Here is the same passage, with the POV violations corrected:

Professor Plum crouched behind the sofa, careful not to let Colonel Mustard see him grasping the lead pipe. The longer he had to crouch in silence, the more his ankles ached — and now he felt a sneeze coming on! He managed to hold in the sneeze as he watched the Colonel meander into the study, sipping his brandy. Suddenly, right as the Professor was planning to erupt from his hiding spot, he stopped when he saw Mrs. Peacock flit into the room with a look of anguish on her face.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve done research on POV advice, and, much to my surprise, I’ve come across some things that suggest that some authors actually endorse head-hopping. According to this site, which I am taking with a huge grain of salt, head-hopping has historically been a common practice in the romance genre. Since I don’t read romance books, I wouldn’t know, but I say all of this as a word of caution to be mindful of conventions within your chosen genre. I can say with certainty that, at least in fantasy and science fiction, head-hopping is definitely frowned upon.

Finally, it is possible to avoid head-hopping but still violate your chosen POV. Close third person is a popular perspective, in which the tense is third person, but we are privy to everything the centered character feels, thinks, sees, does, and knows.

That last word, ‘knows,’ is where it is easy for writers to get tripped up, when it comes to writing details of a scene that the main character couldn’t possibly know, such as scientific details, exact measurements, or visual details that they literally are unable to see.

Here’s an example from Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin, the book whose review spawned this writing series. In the following scene, our main character, Thanan, is entering the village of a community of forest-dwellers for the first time:

The footprint of the village was a giant circle and at the center of the clearing rose the largest tree Thanan had ever seen. Rising four hundred fifty feet into the sky and with a trunk measuring forty feet in diameter, its lush branches thrust outward, covering the entire clearing. A wooden staircase spiraled up the massive trunk one hundred fifty feet, and at the top of the landing stood an open-air structure, which was much more ornate than the other buildings in the village. Its roof was constructed with overlapping wooden shingles and the posts were intricately carved to resemble intertwining vines. The fort wrapped around the entire trunk and had a ten-foot balcony cantilevering over the ground.

Unless Thanan has Rain Man-style abilities that the author hasn’t told us about, there is literally no way he could stand on the forest floor, look up at a giant tree house, and know the exact measurements. It would have been acceptable for the author to say that Thanan conjectured the structure to be roughly 40 stories tall. But he absolutely cannot know the exact measurements (and as a side note, who thinks of measurements that huge in terms of feet? Such a small unit of measurement is not realistic. A real person would look up at a tall tree and think of it in terms of miles or kilometers or stories).

Additionally, the other POV violation in this passage is the description of the shingles on top of this 450-foot-tall tree house. Thanan is a human, not a bird. Without climbing to the top and then climbing on top of the roof, how on earth could he stand on the forest floor and know that the roof is constructed of intricately carved shingles?

Again, the only acceptable way to include this information in a passage told from Thanan’s perspective would either be conjecture on his part (which would seem odd; who conjectures what a roof looks like?), or to add dialogue from a character who built the tree house and can give facts about it.

Tell me, what are your thoughts on POV violations? Do they jar you as a reader as much as they do me? What are your thoughts on head-hopping?

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte

 

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15 comments

  1. While the previous instalment caused the utmost personal aggro and a tonne of procrastination over my WIP (I’m still split in my opinion about how to play that particular angle), I have to say this one gets my thumbs up. It makes sense. Switching between POV just makes the passage confusing. I don’t know how anybody could dispute that regardless of what genre they’re writing.

    As for our friend Logan here, he could have made it much easier on himself by creating a new paragraph after Thanan’s POV moment. He could have described the tree house from a non POV perspective and it would have flowed just fine. It seems to me like he has a desire to use pointlessly elaborate words as well. I did the same in my WIP and am systematically removing them as I go along. No need for them at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree about not understanding how anyone could really argue that switching POV mid-scene is ever really acceptable. In the case of Logan’s passage, as you say, all he would have needed to do was separate Thanan’s POV moment from a scene where he jumps to a distant narrator who knows all the details of the forest and can describe it in ways that a character wouldn’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I’ve since come to learn that is known as third person omniscient. I do it a lot in my WIP. It’s the best way of building a scene in terms of its settings for me before then switching to a traditional third person POV. It can be hard not to switch between POV’s though as I’ve discovered. Sometimes I do it unknowingly, but then I read it back and wonder to myself “Is this being told from that character’s POV or is this paragraph in third person omni?”. For example, thus: “Hart shot a confused glance the way of Morales. Morales responded with a shrug of his shoulders before walking away in the direction of the helm”. Could that be construed as third person omni or are we to take it as Hart’s third person POV because the paragraph starts with him? I suppose as far as lengthier paragraphs go where descriptions of what the character feels and thinks you would say that paragraph belongs to that character and so adding the thoughts and feelings of another would be a bad idea. Either you should start a new paragraph from the other characters POV explaining their feelings or you should have the first character describing what they see in the other character; a surmisation of their thoughts and feelings. Once you get into the thoughts and feelings you’re leaving the comfort blanket of third person omni and turning it into something more personal.

        I may have been absent a week, but it’s been getting my due consideration 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • The passage you give here definitely makes me pause. The first time I read it, I immediately thought it was told from Hart’s perspective. However, digesting it a bit, I now wonder if it was third person omniscient. I suppose it boils down to how we interpret “confused glance.” Thinking on it some more as I type this, I’m landing on Hart’s perspective.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s just the thing. If you start to involve people does it immediately become third person POV from the perspective of the first person referred to? Can third person omni only occur if there is no mention of a person or if you keep the person in question as purely objective? This is all stuff I’m hoping to glean from my foray into relearning English grammar (self teaching by use of a book borrowed from the library). I think it can be really tough not to switch POV in a paragraph sometimes if there’s a lot going on with numerous people in it and telling all from one perspective can cause the story to flow badly. The creating a new paragraph idea perhaps doesn’t work here if switching back and forth as you then end up with about ten one sentence paragraphs. That said, it has made me think from a POV perspective in my writing since and I am doing my damndest to keep it all in the one perspective rather than switching to and fro because I do agree it’s better that way.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a great thought provoking post. I had not considered the importance of a single POV until now and it makes perfect sense. I will definitely be checking my WIP for any POV violations. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Exact measurements are such a pet-peeve of mine and I am glad you pointed that out. As someone who has a very difficult time imagining measurements – what the heck does 40 feet even look like? – those descriptions have never been very helpful to me. Point of view is a tricky issue and this is a pitfall I tend to wander in to. It’s so tempting to present little bits of information from other perspectives, but ultimately it throws off the reader. I am really enjoying this series, by the way! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ian! I am really glad people are enjoying the series. I’m certainly enjoying writing it, and I hope my writing will benefit from my own research.

      I’m glad I am not the only reader for whom exact measurements are a pet peeve. I totally agree with you here! I can’t even visualize what 40 feet looks like. As I type this, all my mind can come up with it laying down eight 5-foot-tall people head to toe in a line, because I know what 5 feet looks like. Incidentally, it’s why I hate it when utility trucks carrying cargo say thinks like “stay back 100 feet” on the back of them. What the heck does that look like? If I’m driving 70mph down the interstate, how on earth am I to gauge 100 feet? Alas, I digress.

      Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. POV is tricky. I’m curious. As a writer, do you recognize when you head-hop as you are writing (if you do head-hop), or do you tend to spot it in the editing phase? I have a hard time recognizing that I’m doing it until someone else points it out to me. When I started writing I had no idea there were so many rules! LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me personally, my POV struggles are less with head-hopping and more with the second issue I discussed here, regarding the POV-centered character knowing more than they possibly could about the surrounding scenery. It’s something I need to catch myself on when I go back and edit. I have a hard time catching mistakes while in the middle of writing.

      What about you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Once I started reading all the “rules” (and trying to follow them) I noticed that my inner editor was getting in the way of writing. Now I just write as I see a scene unfolding and save all the rest for the editing phase.

        Like

  5. I love this post and I’m learning a lot from you! Thank you for the mention and the simple example first. As a teacher of many language learners, I can say that POV is one of the most difficult aspects of literature that I teach. Language learners have a hard time grasping POV and I can say, without a doubt, that head-hopping would most certainly set their heads spinning! I think what you highlight is such an important aspect of writing literature. So many authors want to excel at writing deeply profound, detailed, and complex imagery, that maybe they forget that complex doesn’t have to mean complicated. If I ever venture back into fiction writing, the lesson on head-hopping is something I’ll always remember!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you liked the post! I am also fascinated to hear your experience as a teacher. I had honestly never thought of any of this from the perspective of what comes most easily when we first learn language arts and storytelling as children.

      I’m curious, in what ways is POV tricky for children who are learning? As I think on it right now, I’m not entirely sure how I would go about explaining/defining the various POVs out there to someone who wasn’t familiar with them. I mean, aside from the obvious first/second/third person. But it’s so much more than that. I think I’d have a tough time explaining how third person distant differs from close third person or omniscient narrator.

      Liked by 1 person

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