From Rick:

In two previous posts here (July 9, 2012 and July 23, 2012), I talked a little about point of view (POV), specifically first person and how to choose the best POV for the story.

Point of view is a lengthy and complex subject in writing, in part because there are so many possible POVs one can write in. Every story is told from the perspective of one or more narrators. Whoever is narrating the story at a particular time is termed the POV character. Moreover, a story does not have to be restricted to a single POV. Many novels are written using multiple POVs, but most short stories are restricted to just one, although this is not a requirement for short stories.

In an effort to simply this topic, let’s for the moment consider two broad POVs: omniscient and limited omniscient.

LIMITED OMNISCIENT POV is called limited because the narrator’s knowledge of the story is limited to the knowledge, thoughts, and feelings of ONE character. This narrator’s knowledge of other characters is based solely on what he/she knows of the other characters, but that knowledge cannot involve the thoughts or unexpressed feelings of any other characters (because the narrator cannot be inside the heads of those other characters–only in his/her own head).

Maybe if we look at a different way, it’ll be clearer. When you’re in a room with other people, all you can know and experience is what’s coming through YOUR senses. You can’t read minds. You have only your senses and experience to go on. As an author writing in such a POV, you can only reveal what that character knows and experiences.

NOTE: In modern fiction, it is recommended that the author limit the viewpoint to ONE CHARACTER in a scene and start a new scene (with an appropriate scene break) before shifting into another character’s head.

OMNISCIENT POV: This POV is one in which the narrator (usually you as the author acting as an external narrator) tells the story from a viewpoint completely outside that of any of the story’s characters. The narrator knows everything about all of the characters, as well as their thoughts and feelings. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a good example of omniscient POV.

Omniscient POV is not popular today because (1) it’s difficult to write in it well, and (2) it tends to distance the reader from the characters (because the reader doesn’t always get to feel close to the characters). Note that this is different from writing in multiple POVs, where the author “becomes” one character for a given scene, then becomes a different character in another scene.

A somewhat omniscient POV can come from a character who lived through the entire story and who is telling it from some point in the future when all (or most) of the story’s events and pieces are known. But this still is not fully omniscient because the narrator can’t know the intimate thoughts of the characters unless he was told them later.

In omniscient POV, the author is permitted to shift perspective within a scene because, in essence he is the story’s god.

Characters can express themselves in one of three ways in a scene: with words, with actions, with thoughts and feelings. With LIMITED OMNISCIENT POV the words and actions aren’t a problem. It’s the thoughts and feelings that are a problem since the narrator can only be aware of the POV character’s thoughts, not those of non-POV characters. And this is where many writers get into trouble with what’s termed HEAD HOPPING.

I’ve seen writers shift POV within a scene and claim they’re using omniscient POV. How does head hopping differ from omniscient POV? Basically, it’s a matter of technique. True omniscient POV is told by an omniscient narrator. Good story craft demands that the writer establish the POV at the opening of the scene. This is where most writers go wrong: they don’t establish the omniscient narrator at the start and begin with one character POV (limited omniscient).

Let’s go back to our room full of people and with you as the POV character. Consider that you could the read minds of everyone in the room and wanted to tell a friend everything you experienced and learned. How would you convey that information in a non-confusing manner? Done right and carefully, this is what omniscient POV is all about. Done poorly, it becomes head hopping.

Head hopping is therefore the jumping into the heads of other characters without an intermediate narrator to smooth things out. This can be distracting to a reader you’re asking him to become many people in turn, instead of staying in one perspective. It tends to dilute the story and distance the reader from the main character, and can prevent the reader from focusing on the story and the main character. In effect, you’re letting the character is getting lost in the crowd.

Certainly it’s possible to tell multiple characters’ stories in a novel. It’s done all the time. As I said before, the best approach, generally, is not to do them all at once and not to switch back and forth in a given scene. Set up one focal character for each scene and stick with that one in that scene.

Romance writers will sometimes insist that in a love scene or some intense scene they want the reader to see the perspective of both hero and heroine at the same time. Some authors can do it well, but most can’t. You have to be very careful to keep the transitions between them smooth, and not simply jump back and forth

So what’s the best way to handle situation when you really need a second perspective in your story? One way is to use a sequel scene–a follow-up scene. Here you can show another character reacting to what just happened. For example, a husband and wife are arguing (his POV), and he walks out at the end of the scene. A poor writing technique is to continue the scene in the wife’s POV. It’s better to make a clean break.

The sequel scene could be in the wife’s POV, with her reactions, maybe even retracing some of the previous scene. This is a much more effective, less confusing, and more powerful approach.

When you feel you need to slip into other heads in a scene, you should ask yourself WHY you need to do it. Is the information being provided by another perspective really important enough that you need to convey it directly? Can you instead find other ways to have the character express his/her feelings in the scene–or would it better to express them afterwards in a sequel? On the other hand, if the information really is that important, then perhaps the scene is in the wrong POV to start with.

I’ve gotten myself into trouble by using too many viewpoints in my novels (still just one per scene, though) because readers complained it was hard to keep track of all of them. Most times, the best way still is to tell ONE main story and to drop in various subtle hints about what the non-POV character is thinking. This is where actions and body language come in.

Or, let me put it in stronger terms. I find that when a writer feels the need to use multiple viewpoints in a scene it’s because the writer hasn’t developed the skill to be able to SHOW the story instead of telling it. (And there’s that “show, don’t tell” thing coming back to bite us.) Sometimes this is also a result of reading badly written books that make head hopping a regular practice.

The next time you feel like head hopping, ask yourself two things.

(1) Is the information so important that I need to convey it?
(2) Can I convey it some way (dialog, actions) besides head hopping?

Having just edited a story for someone who used head hopping (more out of laziness than lack of imagination), I can attest that all head hopping can be fixed, often very easily. Most of the time all I needed was to rethink the problem line or passage and recast it. One time I simply added a scene break because the head-hop scene was long enough to warrant it, essentially making it a sequel to the previous scene. A couple of other times, I changed the POV in the scene to that of another character. Sometimes the information simply didn’t merit being kept, so I cut the problem line.

Or you can do nothing and let it go. Most readers won’t care. But I can almost guarantee that one or more reviewers will care and will point it out.

So, let’s do an example. Below is an excerpt from chapter 8 of my More Than Magick. I’ve edited it to add some head hopping and to condense the scene. Following this excerpt is the condensed original without the head hopping and all in one POV (Kart’s).

In a future post I’ll discuss POV slips, things that aren’t head hopping but which shift out of the limited-omniscient narrator’s POV.

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WITH HEAD HOPPING:

From behind the bar, Kart surveyed the Common Room of his inn, the Silver Spectre, illuminated by lanterns and waning daylight coming through the three front windows. At a table near the middle of the room, five laborers sat discussing long hours, backbreaking work, and meager pay. The popular center table held a strange mix of what had come to be regular patrons in the past month. Seated clockwise were the following people: the town blacksmith and his new apprentice; Andrik, one of the Town Guards; and two gentlemen of questionable character, Tarsk and Drogo. All awaited the arrival of Kedda, their unlucky gambling companion.

The Smith, a quiet man who had rarely socialized until recently, had biceps the size of most men’s thighs. If his brawny body left any doubt about his profession, the singed tips of his thick beard and his leathery skin cured by years at the forges did not. His abnormally flattened nose suggested his life had at some past time been less peaceful.

Kart turned his attention to the two thieves, Tarsk and Drogo. An outsider might wonder why they let Andrik associate with them, given their reputations and that he was a law enforcer who knew exactly what Tarsk and Drogo were.

At the bar, Kart’s three hostlers discussed the Smith’s new apprentice. “He’s a scrawny street urchin. Why the Smith took him on mystifies me. Maybe the forge fires have cooked his brain.” A second hostler raised his voice. “I don’t think the Smith feeds him enough. He won’t last another month.”

The Smith, hearing their comments, eyed them disapprovingly. He’d show them how capable he was, mentally and physically, if they didn’t keep quiet.

Kart didn’t hear the rest of their conversation. He saw a figure enter and quietly move to a dark booth in the farthest corner. He felt himself shiver, then busied himself washing mugs and wiping up behind the bar.

Two mercenaries that he hadn’t seen before entered and walked up to the center table. He focused on them to redirect his thoughts.

“Can you direct us to the best inn in town?” one asked. Kart heard trouble in the man’s voice.

Drogo looked up and decided he’d have some fun with them. “You’ve found it.”

“This is your best? I’ve seen better stables.”

“Try Hilfar’s place two streets north, three east.”

Tarsk laughed and added his own dig at them. “We call it ‘The Lice and Mice.’ You’ll fit right in.”

The mercenary drew a dagger and waved it in front of Drogo.

Andrik rose from his chair. He wasn’t about to let these intruders cause trouble. “May I help you?”

“This is none of your affair.”

The Guard intended to show them the error of their ways. “It is now.” Staring the mercenary down, he crossed his gloved right hand to the sword sheathed on his left side.

Knowing Andrik had the situation under control, Kart shifted his attention to the dark corner. He saw the stranger’s lips move, his hands gesture lightly above the oak tabletop.

The scene with the mercenaries changed abruptly. The one holding the dagger calmly sheathed his weapon.

What just happened? Andrik wondered for a moment before he escorted them outside.

Kart made his rounds to refill drinks. Drogo stroked his scant, sandy goatee. “Mighty peculiar. His kind gives us reputable folk a bad name.”

Andrik returned. Since he was off duty, he had turned his prisoners over to the current watch. On his way back he’d encountered their awaited gambling companion.

Drogo smiled widely, glad that his favorite benefactor had arrived. “Kedda! Purse full? I feel lucky.”

With a sideways glance at his partner, Tarsk said, “Luck has nothing to do with it. You know he always loses.” He looked up at Kedda. “Why do you play with us? You always lose all your coin, yet come back to lose more?” He wished he knew why Kedda always lost. It was almost as if he did it on purpose.

Drogo wondered where Kedda got a purse full of gold and silver to gamble with each night. He secretly feared him as competition.

Kedda grinned, spreading his arms. He enjoyed taunting them and keeping who he was secret from them. His fair-skinned, unbearded face, and modest length, brown hair made him look young. His five-foot-four height made him unremarkable. Except for the violet eyes he could do nothing about.

Kart stepped into the kitchen to give Alir, his daughter, the order for the food. He knew that Kedda often vanished during the day and that Drogo had made discreet inquiries to see if more purses than usual came up missing.

Kart returned with bread and cheese. Kedda flipped him four pieces of gold. Drogo’s eyes widened. “One would be overpayment.”

“Kart deserves something extra to make his life more comfortable,” Kedda replied.

“He’s jealous because that’s four he won’t get his hands on tonight,” Andrik said. He secretly enjoyed seeing Drogo get annoyed.

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SINGLE POV, NO HEAD HOPPING:

From behind the bar, Kart surveyed the Common Room of his inn, the Silver Spectre, illuminated by lanterns and waning daylight coming through the three front windows. At a table near the middle of the room, five laborers sat discussing long hours, backbreaking work, and meager pay. The popular center table held a strange mix of what had come to be regular patrons in the past month. Seated clockwise were the following people: the town blacksmith and his new apprentice; Andrik, one of the Town Guards; and two gentlemen of questionable character, Tarsk and Drogo. All awaited the arrival of Kedda, their unlucky gambling companion.

The Smith, a quiet man who had rarely socialized until recently, had biceps the size of most men’s thighs. If his brawny body left any doubt about his profession, the singed tips of his thick beard and his leathery skin cured by years at the forges did not. His abnormally flattened nose suggested his life had at some past time been less peaceful.

Kart turned his attention to the two thieves, Tarsk and Drogo. An outsider might wonder why they let Andrik associate with them, given their reputations and that he was a law enforcer and knew exactly what Tarsk and Drogo were.

At the bar, Kart’s three hostlers discussed the Smith’s new apprentice. “He’s a scrawny street urchin. Why the Smith took him on mystifies me. Maybe the forge fires have cooked his brain.” A second hostler raised his voice. “I don’t think the Smith feeds him enough. He won’t last another month.”

The Smith eyed them disapprovingly.

Kart didn’t hear the rest of their conversation. He saw a figure enter and quietly move to a dark booth in the farthest corner. He shivered, then busied himself washing mugs and wiping up behind the bar.

Two mercenaries that he hadn’t seen before entered and walked up to the center table. He focused on them to redirect his thoughts.

“Can you direct us to the best inn in town?” one asked. Kart heard trouble in the man’s voice.

Drogo looked up. “You’ve found it.”

“This is your best? I’ve seen better stables.”

“Try Hilfar’s place two streets north, three east.”

Tarsk laughed. “We call it ‘The Lice and Mice.’ You’ll fit right in.”

The mercenary drew a dagger and waved it in front of Drogo.

Andrik rose from his chair. “May I help you?” Kart treated all the Town Guards well.

“This is none of your affair.”

“It is now.” Staring the mercenary down, Andrik crossed his gloved right hand to the sword sheathed on his left side.

Kart shifted his attention to the dark corner. He saw the man’s lips move, his hands gesture lightly above the oak tabletop.

The scene with the mercenaries changed abruptly. The one holding the dagger calmly sheathed his weapon. A puzzled-looking Andrik escorted them both outside.

Kart made his rounds to refill drinks. Drogo stroked his scant, sandy goatee. “Mighty peculiar. His kind gives us reputable folk a bad name.”

As Kart finished up, Andrik returned. Since he was off duty, he would have turned his prisoners over to the current watch. Behind him came the awaited arrival.

Drogo smiled widely. “Kedda! Purse full? I feel lucky.”

With a sideways glance at his partner, Tarsk said, “Luck has nothing to do with it. You know he always loses.” He looked up at Kedda. “Why do you play with us? You always lose all your coin, yet come back to lose more?”

Kart knew that Tarsk and Drogo wondered where Kedda got a purse full of gold and silver to gamble with each night. They secretly feared him as competition.

Kedda grinned, spreading his arms. “For the enjoyment, gentlemen. What good is having money if one does not enjoy life? Do I seem malcontent?” Drogo started to speak, but Kedda continued, “After good Innkeeper Kart has supplied me with a bit of the savory stew that I smell, I shall be ready to trounce you.” He regarded Kart. “More ale for each of my friends.”

Kedda’s fair-skinned, unbearded face, and modest length, brown hair made him look young. His manner bespoke experience. His five-foot-four height made him unremarkable. Except for his violet eyes.

Kart stepped into the kitchen to give Alir, his daughter, the order for the food. He knew that Kedda often vanished during the day and that Drogo had made discreet inquiries to see if more purses than usual came up missing.

Kart returned with bread and cheese. Kedda flipped him four pieces of gold. Drogo’s eyes widened. “One would be overpayment.”

“Kart deserves something extra to make his life more comfortable,” Kedda replied.

“He’s jealous because that’s four he won’t get his hands on tonight,” Andrik said.

==========

–Rick