Friday, February 11, 2011

Deep Point of View or How to Avoid Head-Hopping

I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my author clients is to portray their story world mainly through the point of view of the main character(s), rather than hovering above them, and to stick to one point of view per scene or chapter instead of jumping back and forth from one character’s viewpoint to another’s (head-hopping).

Point of view (or POV) simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. We see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would – with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This helps your readers identify with the viewpoint character and get immersed in their world.

A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient point of view is no longer popular today, and for good reason. Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know her inner thoughts, aspirations, desires, and fears; so they become emotionally invested and care what happens to her.

As Jack M. Bickham says, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice: Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character – and stay there.” Of course, you don’t have to remain in your protagonist’s point of view all the time, but most of the story should be from the main character’s POV so the reader knows his thoughts and feelings and can emotionally connect to him.

I strongly recommend writing your first chapter, and most of the book, in your protagonist’s point of view. This gives the reader a chance to figure out whose story this is and get to know him and start bonding with him and rooting for him.

If you’re writing a romance and you’re in the heroine’s point of view (which you should be most of the time, as it’s her story), you’re not going to mention her blue eyes or long blond hair unless she’s looking at herself in a mirror – and that one’s been overdone. You can have someone else comment on them, like her sister, BFF, or the hero.

To show your hero’s reactions in a scene that’s in your heroine’s POV, show us what she sees and hears: his words, tone of voice, facial expressions, movements, attitude, and body language.

As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.” Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we each experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action.

If your fiction is to be effective and your lead character is to come alive and matter to the reader, you’ll need to show most of the action from inside the head and heart – the thoughts, senses, and emotions – of the person you have chosen as the viewpoint character.

In a sequel to this post, I’ll discuss concrete ways to tell the story mainly from your protagonist’s point of view, and how to avoid “head-hopping.”

Main resource for today’s post: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham.

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Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at http://www.jodierennerediting.com/ and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/.

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22 comments :

  1. Jodie: I think deep POV is one of the most under-utilized aspects of the rookie fiction I edit. Thanks for making such a compelling case for it!

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  2. Such a helpful post. I read once (here?) that the best way to write a deep POV is to pretend you are a camera looking out the character's eyes. You can only see (experience) what they do.

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  3. We're on a wave-length. I've done two blog posts on POV on my own blog this week, including some exercises.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  4. Head hopping can be so distracting. If it gets too bad, I put the book down.

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  5. I have a hard time reading multiple POV, even when only two characters are alternating chapters. It just pulls me out of the story, and we all know how bad that is to long-term writing success. ;) Thanks for visiting, Jodie. Look forward to the follow-up post!

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  6. More brilliant info, Jodie. You are amazing.

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  7. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I got really busy running errands today before going away, and just realized my post was up today! That's what I get for not checking Blood-Red Pencil early in the day.

    Liza, I like your idea of a camera looking out of the character's eyes.

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  8. Great post, Jodie.
    I'm reviewing a longer piece right now. I'll highlight the POV which 'hovers above the world', just to see THE BIG PICTURE re: how much I've used this method.
    Thanks.

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  9. Yes, Jodie.
    Now that I think about it ...(thanks for reminding me) a good read has always been much more 'alive' when we can deeply feel and experience all that the protagonist deeply feels and experiences.

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  10. Thanks for posting about this important subject. So many new writers don't understand that staying in one POV for periods of time is what connects the reader to the character.

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  11. Thanks, Della, Emily and LJ. My follow-up blog post (or two) will deal with practical ways for aspiring novelists to ensure that you're showing the scene from one point of view at a time.

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  12. I guess this deep point of view stuff is the next closest thing in third person to writing a novel in the first person.

    I can see how it would suck the readers into the person's life better than the more distant stance I've been taking. Will work on that. I've got a ways to go to get published, so it's good to get some useful advice.

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  13. Excellent and thought-provoking words, Jodie. I have a problem with multiple POV books. I realize The Time Traveler's Wife won many accolades, but I simply couldn't read it. Tried, but finally gave up.

    I appreciate your expertise and the great advice you offer in these articles.

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  14. oooh, love this. I'm deep in revision right now and trying to tighten my POV. Thanks for the tips.

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  15. Thanks, George, Michael and bfav. In part 2 of this topic, I'll be giving specific tips on revising to be sure your POV isn't pingponging back and forth, or hovering overhead.

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  16. Great advice. My protagonist is always first-person, but I use third person familiar for the other characters. Never use omniscent POV--the reader needs to understand who's talking or doing, and it's difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept a mighty voice speaking for all characters.

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  17. This is a subject that is close to my heart, because despite the fact I am aware of the problems with "head-hopping," I still find myself screwing up and doing it on occasion.

    As a thriller writer, I believe laying out the story by alternating POV by chapter can help add suspense, but if done indiscriminately or inside a chapter can be distracting and annoying to the reader.

    Good piece, and also a timely one, in my case at least...

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  18. Thanks, Larry. Interesting comment: "It's difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept a mighty voice speaking for all characters." - Good one!

    Al, I agree with you that the suspense in a thriller can be enhanced by different points of view. It's especially exciting in a nail-biting way when we get into the head of the villain and find out what he's planning on doing to our hero!

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  19. This is really good advice Jodie and I'll keep your words in mind as I continue my manuscript revisions. I especially like what you wrote here; "...show most of the action from inside the head and heart – the thoughts, senses, and emotions – of the person...chosen as the viewpoint character.

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  20. Jodie, more good info from you, the article on Deep POV. It's so easy to put the character on stage and keep the microphone for myself.
    But the books I have never forgotten allowed me to identify with the protagonist. Your article came at a good time since I am trying to strengthen my main characters.
    Thanks, Ruth

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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