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.
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,