Last week I talked about head-hopping in terms of POV. As a refresher, head hopping refers to slipping out of the viewpoint of whichever character is narrating a scene and slipping into the viewpoint of another character in the scene, one whose thoughts and feelings the starting POV character cannot know.
I also discussed how this differs from the omniscient POV. In that POV, an external narrator is telling the story and is therefore able to enter into the heads of various characters because he knows what those characters are thinking and feeling.
A variant of head-hopping is the POV slip. This happens when the author inadvertently slips out of the POV character’s head to reveal something the character cannot be experiencing directly. Often this will be some reaction on the character’s own face (such as blushing) that he can’t see unless he’s looking in a mirror. However, the character can know what blushing feels like (warmth in the face or neck), so the author can (and should) express it this way.
Other POV slips that writers do are mentioned creasing of the forehead, dimples forming, a face turning pale, pupils dilating, and eyes sparkling. (What does it really mean when eyes sparkle?) Are these characters aliens whose eyes emit light so that they can glow or sparkle?
Here are some examples of POV slips.
[THIS SCENE IS IN JASON’S POV]
Jason rose from his seat and walked to the stage. He didn’t hear the thunderous applause or feel anything. After he delivered his acceptance speech for the Oscar, the audience, which had been eerily silent, burst into spontaneous and uproarious applause. Many stood as Jason was escorted from the stage. He won many hearts that night. He had given an acceptance speech that Hollywood would talk about for weeks to come, often embellished, with many a personal anecdote attached.
(The second sentence shows the first POV slip. If we’re in his POV, we can’t say that he didn’t hear or feel something. The last two sentences are also a POV slip because the author is telling us something that’s out of the moment of the scene and not in the character’s immediate viewpoint.)
[POV IS ANDRE’S]
“I didn’t mean to do that, Andre,” Erica said. “I don’t why I did. I couldn’t stop myself.” She stared into Andre’s misty blue eyes.
(Because the scene is in his POV, he can’t mention his eyes this way. He can only see her staring into his eyes. While he surely knows he has blue eyes, it’s unnatural that any character would mention it this way. Further, he can’t see that they’re misty. This is the author’s way of trying to add emotion to the scene, but this isn’t the right way to it. If the author really wanted the misty blue eyes mentioned, then perhaps the scene should be in Erica’s POV.)
[POV IS RYAN’S]
“I understand,” Ryan said, not understanding at all. “Could we take it slow? A movie? Dinner? Coffee?” He hoped he didn’t sound desperate. “Please?” God! Now that was desperate.
Sherri stared into hopeful eyes. “We will see. I cannot explain to you now.”
(The first paragraph is fine. In the second one, while he may feel hopeful, saying that his eyes are hopeful is a POV slip.)
[POV IS MICHAEL’S]
“It’s so bright and airy in the daytime,” he told her. He paused and a cloud passed over his face.
(He can’t see a cloud passing over his face. On top of that, it’s a rather bad metaphor.)
(NOTE: I have a future blog post planned on good and bad uses of similes and metaphors.)
“Thanks,” Steve said, feeling color coming into his already bronzed complexion.
(How does one feel color coming into one’s face? This example also contains the same issue as the example with the blue eyes. It’s not natural for a character to think of his complexion as bronzed in this situation.)
POV slips have a couple of causes (apart from an author not knowing about them). First, the author is attempting to describe too much and believes it’s necessary to include every detail and feeling and thought in the scene. Second, the author has failed to focus firmly on the POV character, often being more intent on telling the story in his own head rather than showing it from the character’s viewpoint.
What I didn’t cover in the previous post is a simple technique for avoiding POV slips and head-hopping. When you enter a scene, you, the author, should plant yourself firmly in the POV character’s head. BECOME that character. Use that character’s senses—not your own—and imagine everything he/she sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, and thinks.
Not only will this sharpen your scene and avoid POV issues, but it will also bring the reader closer to the character. Reader involvement in your character is exactly what you want. You’ll also find that this technique may help you to limit over-describing the setting. If you’re in your character’s head (and you know your character), then you’ll show the reader only what’s important to that character. You’ll see it as the character (not you) sees and experiences it.
Now, I didn’t say this was easy to do. The technique is a simple, but utilizing it will require that you be intimately familiar with your character and his/her perspective and quirks.
In addition, using this technique will help you get to know your character better and therefore make him/her more three-dimensional. Just remember to stay inside your character’s head and not leave it, and your story will be stronger.