I had to quit reading a book published by a Big Six publisher last week, as the narrative was a little too confusing. The head-hopping was too much and I didn’t want to waste time trying to sort it out.
Head-hopping: an author switches point of view characters within a single scene or even a paragraph. This can be quite confusing, like watching an unbalanced tennis match.
The problem could have been resolved in the revision process if the author had an editor’s eye on their work prior to publication, which I doubt they did.
Point of view must be consistent throughout the narrative but doesn’t have to be solely that of one character. However, it should only be shown from one character at a time.
In my own work, each of the major players has a story. Sometimes they have something to say that advances the story, so yes, the narrative switches to a different character. I give them a separate chapter so there is no doubt about who is speaking.
Also, I limit the number of characters who are allowed to speak to the reader.
In many of my favorite novels, the aftermath of an action scene becomes an opportunity to show the antagonist’s story line through their eyes. That’s a good strategy, as we need to show why the enemy is the enemy.
When shifting point of view from one character to another, the points where you change from one scene to the next are crucial to the story.
These are transitions.
Good transitions make a well-paced narrative, a piece that has a kind of rhythm.
- processing the action,
- action again,
- another connecting/regrouping scene
Regrouping scenes make logical transition scenes. These are opportunities to move the plot forward through conversation or introspection.
These transitions allow the reader to process what just happened at the same time as the characters do. This is where we justify the events that just occurred, making them believable.
Transitions are also opportunities to ratchet up the tension.
Unfortunately, these are also places where it is easy to accidentally jump into the headspace of a different point of view character.
For this reason, in the revision process, it’s important to pay attention to who is talking and make sure we are only in their head for the entire scene.
One useful kind of transition is introspection. It offers an opportunity, a brief segue in which new information important to the story can emerge.
- Introspection also allows the reader to see who the characters think they are. This is critical if you want the reader to bond with them.
- Introspection shows that the characters are self-aware.
I do suggest you keep the scenes of introspection brief. If you use italics to set thoughts off, I would consider not having your characters do too much “thinking.” A wall of italics is hard to read, and we want the reader to stay with the story.
Characters’ thoughts are like conversations. They must be purposeful and serve to illuminate motives at a particular moment in time. Idle thoughts waste time and bore readers.
So, in a conversation between two characters, introspection must offer information not previously discussed.
Something else to consider—internal monologues should not make our characters seem too wise and all knowing. If you show them as a bit clueless about their flaws, strengths, or even their deepest fears and goals, you make them seem more approachable, real, and human.
I do recommend that each character should speak uniquely. Small habits and things make them individuals. I’ve seen books were the author dumped the conversations into a blender and poured out a string of commentary that made everyone sound alike.
Without speech tags, it was impossible to tell who was talking.
In regard to speech tags—please don’t get fancy. It’s best for me as a reader when the author avoids obscure words that take me out of the narrative. You want them to blend in and go unnoticed because the information imparted in the conversation is the important thing.
We want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head. One way to do that is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by showing the thought processes of the narrative character, along with their actions and conversations.
Wikipedia says: Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character’s thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation.
This is a difficult device to do well. It is why James Joyce’s work is a difficult read for most people. The only time I have used it was in a writing class.
I sometimes use the first-person point of view to convey intimacy. With the first-person point of view, a story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within his or her own story.
I use this point of view most often in short stories and find it easy to write.
I usually write my longer work in a third person omniscient voice. In that mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.
A way to convey intimacy when writing in third person omniscient is to use the third-person subjective. This mode is also referred to as close 3rd person.
I like this mode and frequently use it. At its narrowest and most subjective, the story reads as though the viewpoint character were narrating it. This is comparable to the first person in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonist’s personality but differs as it always uses third-person grammar.
It is easy for me as a reader to form a deep attachment to the protagonist when a story is written in this mode. This is also a good way to avoid the first draft curse of “head hopping.”
In the revision process, we work to ensure consistency in our narrative mode, especially in regard to point of view. Making good revisions can actually take longer to complete than writing the first draft did.
But the reward is a smooth narrative, which is worth putting out extra effort.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Stream of consciousness,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stream_of_consciousness&oldid=934342441 (accessed January 28, 2020).