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Head-Hopping Gives Readers Whiplash

September 10, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 10, 2011

Yes, head-hopping can give your readers whiplash. And headaches. And lots of confusion.

Switching from one viewpoint character to another, experiencing the mind and heart of one character for a moment only to be forced to switch focus to another character a paragraph or two later, is disconcerting.

Head-hopping is what happens to the reader when a writer suddenly changes viewpoint character or POV. The practice abruptly pulls the reader from one orientation and thrusts her into another.

When one moment we’re enjoying Ginger’s viewpoint, seeing the world through her eyes, appreciating events through the filter of her experiences and expectations, and in the very next moment we’re watching events through Gunter’s eyes and sensibilities, we’ve head-hopped. And we’re shocked, shaken from our identification with Ginger and left scrambling to accustom ourselves to Gunter.

To be clear, head-hopping is not merely a switch in viewpoint character. It’s what happens when that change occurs mid-sentence or mid-paragraph or even mid-scene. When it happens repeatedly in a scene. When the switch is done without thought or planning by the writer.

It happens when a first-person narration suddenly flips to third person.

Changes in viewpoint character are easiest on the reader when they’re done with a scene change and with a clear announcement that such a change has taken place.

Thus, at a chapter break or a scene break, clearly marked in the text, readers are prepared for a possible change in point of view or viewpoint character. And when the writer introduces the viewpoint character in the first words—Gunter raced toward the car, knowing he was too late before taking the first step—readers can quickly acclimate to the change.

When the viewpoint character changes mid-thought or mid-paragraph, readers are instead slapped. The momentum of the story is stopped, and readers might need to read a passage several times to understand that a change has occurred. This pulls the reader out of the fiction and has her looking at the mechanics.

And if the writer neglects to name the new viewpoint character, merely using he or she, the confusion is even stronger. Readers may not catch on for several paragraphs, not until the character’s words or personality assert themselves and reveal that the focus has shifted to a new character.

The whiplash comes in when the viewpoint changes multiple times in a scene, either bouncing between two characters or switching to even three or four characters before a scene is finished.

I find head-hopping to be a true annoyance when I’m trying to enjoy a book. And if I don’t catch on right away, when the events or the character’s words suddenly don’t fit the character I thought I was following, my interest in the story plummets. I can forgive one such instance. But if the writer repeatedly yanks me from one character’s mind to another, that writer has lost me. I’m no longer involved in the fiction, believing it to be true and enjoying the story’s adventure. I’m instead quite conscious of the story’s underpinnings. If the story’s framework doesn’t remain hidden, I have no desire to lose myself in the tale.

The short and easy advice? Don’t head-hop. Don’t do anything to distract your reader from the fiction when you know how to prevent that distraction.

Keep to one character’s (or the narrator’s) point of view until there’s a logical place and reason to change.

Suggestions for changing viewpoint character and/or POV—

~  Keep the reader in one head, one heart, at a time.

~  Make the difficult decision and choose which character gets to present a scene. Showing every character’s thoughts and feelings isn’t necessarily the best option. Who has the most at stake in a scene? Consider him or her as the viewpoint character for that scene.

Do change POV or viewpoint character if doing so serves the story. But do it with purpose and not accidentally.

 ~  Keep the readers in mind as you write. Understand their investment in and identification with a character. Help them move between characters in a way that doesn’t shock them from the fiction.

~  Change viewpoint characters in logical places—at scene or chapter breaks.

~  You may have a great reason to change either POV or viewpoint character. Realize what you lose—the reader’s intimacy and identification with the first character—and weigh the benefits and costs of such a change.

~  Use action and dialogue to reveal the inner workings, the thoughts and emotions, of characters who aren’t viewpoint characters. Readers don’t need to be in his head to understand a character.

Head-hopping is not a sin; however, it can be lazy writing. It can also simply be bad writing.

The practice of indiscriminately jumping from head to head can definitely work against the rich imaginary world and fictional experiences you’ve taken pains to create.

Unless you have a purpose for it, don’t head-hop.

And if you do have a purpose for it, make sure that purpose is strong enough to overcome the negatives of whipping your readers out of one character’s head and into another’s.

Write with purpose. Change viewpoint character with purpose. Remain aware of what your choices mean to your readers.

If you want readers to identify with a character, to root for one character against all others, give readers a strong connection to that character, one unbroken by lazy writing.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

38 Responses to “Head-Hopping Gives Readers Whiplash”

  1. Nick Daws says:

    Great article. I see this mistake a lot in new writers’ work. I’ve also seen it described as wandering or promiscuous viewpoint, but head-hopping is a more concise and vivid alternative!

  2. Nick, nice to see you. I hadn’t heard the term promiscuous viewpoint, but it’s certainly descriptive.

    I’ve even seen head-hopping in published books. When the change of viewpoint character is done well, multiple viewpoints bring richness to a story. But when the reader is bounced willy-nilly between viewpoints, the story loses its cohesion.

  3. Don Abdul says:

    Great article, very helpful indeed.

  4. Don, I’m glad you found something useful here.

  5. Sheogorath says:

    So the head-hopping between two characters I did in a story isn’t actually head-hopping because each viewpoint change is between paragraphs and not within them?

  6. Not exactly, Sheogorath. Between paragraphs is still midscene and thus still a problem. It’s not as distracting as if it were done midparagraph, but the change is still jarring. If you insist upon switching viewpoint characters midscene (and yes, many published writers do it), between paragraphs would be a better place to make your change than within a paragraph. Alert readers to the change in the paragraph’s opening words to lessen the chance of them becoming confused. And put your first midscene viewpoint change early in the story so readers get used to what you’re doing.

    If you’re unpublished and looking for an agent or publisher, it’s still best to refrain from jumping from head to head within a single scene. While it is done, the practice isn’t well received and unpublished writers may find that head-hopping keeps an agent or editor from taking them on. Why handicap yourself with agents and publishers and why create an unnecessary burden for readers when a few changes and some planning can create scenes that work for both characters and readers? Why not allow readers to enjoy their time in one character’s head for an entire scene?

    • Due to attitudes beyond my control: I need to ask, is it acceptable for me to make a comment here concerning the subject of Head-hopping?
      And, what are the rules concerning changing Point-of-View?

    • Sheogorath says:

      @ Fiction Editor Beth Hill: Valuable advice, thank you.
      “Alert readers to the change in the paragraph’s opening words to lessen the chance of them becoming confused. And put your first midscene viewpoint change early in the story so readers get used to what you’re doing.”
      Because the two characters’ views of themselves and each other are vastly different, I use that as the heads up on the viewpoint change. Also, the first change occurs between the first and second paragraph, with each paragraph thereafter being from the opposite character’s viewpoint. As to the rest of your advice, I’m not really looking to be professionally published, and this is the only story in which I’ve head-hopped thus far. In all the others, the scene changes are as clear as I can make them, and any viewpoint changes happen then. I only head-hopped for this one story because that’s what worked best, and I got away with it only because it’s a short story. I’m not so daft as to imagine it would be forgivable in a novel, people would soon tire of the back and forth.

      • Jack says:

        Sheogorath, I’m just becoming familiar with how this comment section works, and to clarify, I did not mean to post to you personally (although I am glad, as you responded most eloquently to my rambling). I meant my questions as general, so forgive me for the confusion. I do believe I see now how and where to leave a reply…:)

  7. Sheogorath says:

    @ Jack: Well, you didn’t actually reply to me, you replied to Beth. Trololololol!

  8. Sheogorath, I’m glad to hear yours is a short story rather than long fiction, but that back and forth might even be too much for a short story.

    The good news is that you can try anything. But do be aware of the ping-pong feel of going from head to head. The technique will keep readers from quickly identifying with either character and with a short story, you don’t get a lot of time to create links between reader and character. That should happen right away, but won’t with a story that jumps between viewpoint characters every paragraph. Keep in mind too that most short stories have only one viewpoint character. With two, you’ve effectively cut in half the opportunities to create links between the reader and one of the viewpoint characters.

    Are you trying for a particular effect? Why the need to switch viewpoint characters every paragraph? What do you gain? Does that gain make up for what you lose by not staying in the head of a single character for a full scene? Is it worth drawing the reader’s attention to the format of the story and away from the plot and characters?

    Just some considerations for you. If you get a chance, let us know how your story was received.

  9. Jack, feel free to ask your questions. What are you looking for specifically?

  10. Sheogorath says:

    “The technique will keep readers from quickly identifying with either character and with a short story, you don’t get a lot of time to create links between reader and character.”
    No worries on that score. The story’s a Silent Hill 2 fanfic, so the majority of readers are already quite familiar with the characters from having played the game.
    “Are you trying for a particular effect?”
    Yeah, I’m showing just how differently James Sunderland and Pyramid Head view the same scene because of the massive differences between them.
    “Is it worth drawing the reader’s attention to the format of the story and away from the plot and character?”
    The huge contrast between the characters’ viewpoints is part of the plot, and the comparison of them is revelatory.
    “Just some considerations for you. If you get a chance, let us know how your story was received.”
    815 Hits, 15 Kudos, 3 Comments, and 2 Bookmarks since it went live last month.

  11. Sheogorath, it seems as if you’ve given your choice a lot of thought and that it’s working. It’s always good to hear when something unusual works the way we want it to.

    As for a line space, that is how you show a scene break. And a change of viewpoint character is considered a scene change (at least of a sort). Yet simply putting a line break in between back-and-forth viewpoint switching, something such as every other line or paragraph, doesn’t solve the problem of switching viewpoint characters. That line space and the constant switching would get highly annoying for readers. Plus it’s only a visual representation of the change. It’s necessary for scene changes, but its use doesn’t mean that shifting viewpoints is the right choice. Consider the line space as a cosmetic—it reflects the decision the writer has made, but its use can’t say whether or not the choice was the correct one.

    The best option is still to begin and complete a scene in the viewpoint of one character before switching to another.

    We wouldn’t jump to a new location or fast-forward ten years into the future without a scene or chapter break; changing viewpoint character is that same kind of drastic change, and so it shouldn’t be done midscene either. As we’ve said, there are exceptions and writers can and do make those exceptions work, but the result can be tough for readers to get used to. Yet they can get used to much, so if it can be made to work, that’s one more option for writers.

    Yet changing viewpoint characters in the same scene can simply turn into a mess. Much of the time the practice simply means the writer hasn’t decided who gets to tell that part of the story. That choice is usually made by deciding which character has the most at stake or most to lose in the scene. That choice should be consciously made, not glossed over by jumping from head to head to show everyone’s thoughts and reactions because the writer couldn’t decide whose scene it should be.

    And sometimes head-hopping is the result of a lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or a lack of understanding about the toll that shifting viewpoints midscene can take on the reader. A reader lost in the thoughts and emotions of one character who is rudely yanked out of that character and forced into the head and heart and experiences of another character without warning can be an unhappy reader. A distracted reader. A fed-up reader.

    Weighing options is one of a writer’s toughest tasks. There are often benefits to one choice over another, but their are drawbacks and limitations as well. The writer who understands the options and all their strengths and weaknesses is the writer who can make wise decisions for his story.

    A great discussion, Sheogorath. Thanks.

  12. Cyberia says:

    What if you’re writing in Omniscient POV?

  13. Sheogorath says:

    Then you wouldn’t be head-hopping at all, you’d be in the narrator’s head the whole time, merely observing the events of the story.

  14. Cyberia, Sheogorath is right—if you’re using the omniscient, you’re not head-hopping. Yet even with the omniscient, you can show what the characters are thinking. The omniscient narrator can peek into any character’s head and reveal what they’re thinking.

    But there’s more to the omniscient than just the ability to peer into the minds of all the characters, so the use of omniscient should be clear from the very first words of a story.

    The omniscient narrator will have described the setting in a way no character would or would have revealed information no character knows.

    In omniscient the narrator doesn’t stay inside the head of a single character for long stretches, as if a scene is being presented in deep POV or close subjective third. That is, the feel and the focus in a scene is different. Readers, even if they couldn’t point out the different POV options, should feel the difference between them.

    Because of the omniscient’s strengths and style, the narrator can pop in and out of multiple character’s heads at will, even in the same scene. Even in the same paragraph.

    Yet if the omniscient narrator stayed in one character’s head too long, for full scenes and chapters, that would create a different feel. And then a writer should start wondering why he’s using omniscient when what he probably wants is a deep third with multiple viewpoint characters.

    And even if the omniscient narrator doesn’t remain in only one character’s head for a full scene but does stay there most of the scene, only to give readers a single thought from a different character at scene’s end, that will cause problems. The omniscient’s ability to show character thoughts is not the same as the the subjective third’s ability to portray a scene from one character’s viewpoint.

    Think of the omniscient as a way to touch base with character thoughts—if you intend to even show their thoughts. It is very much the feel of an outsider looking in, a reporting of what’s going on in a character’s head. Think of subjective third as a way to look out at story events from inside the character. It’s an experiencing of what’s going on rather than a report of it.

  15. Mark Hoult says:

    Very concise summary – thank you. The most important thing is to decide which POV you intend to use in each snippet and make sure that you communicate that to the reader at the start of it.

  16. Calico Chase says:

    I have a question that pertains to this very topic. I would love any input.

    I have a novel that is 4 story lines all told from various POVs. For 99% of the book, I never head-hop. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific character, and I make sure I do not allow the reader to receive any information the character in that chapter would not have access to. However, the storylines converge and main characters share scenes as the book reaches its end, and that has presented me a problem: The ending scene starts with one character, and as the situation unfolds, the character who originally anchored the scene gets knocked unconscious, but two other main characters are still in the room, and the action is still taking place. It seemed bulky and unnecessary to add a scene break or start a new chapter in order to switch the perspective to the character who is “the second in command” of the scene, especially when the first character got knocked out (which is clearly stated) and the scene is at the height of the action. I guess my question is: If you are clear as to what is happening, and it would be more jarring to break the scene up, is it acceptable to change POV to serve the story?

    Thank you for any consideration given to this question.

    • Calico, I think you can definitely try what you’re suggesting. Before I got to the end of your comment, I thought you were going to say that you were intending to show that scene through the eyes of four different characters, four characters that you had used throughout the story as viewpoint characters. That might be tricky, but I’d like to see something like that work.

      What would make this hard is if you’re using a deep POV for most of the viewpoint characters. Switching viewpoint characters midscene is hard if you’ve got readers so deep inside a character that they imagine they are the character. When you change viewpoint characters under these circumstances, you’re telling readers that they aren’t the character they’ve been imagining themselves to be. You are breaking the fictional bubble they’re immersed in. And all it would take is the insertion of a line space to mark a change of scene to keep the fictional bubble intact. Readers understand what that space means and they can flow right along with it.

      In your case, you may want to switch viewpoint characters before the first gets knocked out, if the second knows what’s going on. The first character may be worried or fearful, maybe entering a room without knowing who’s inside. Rather than show him or her getting knocked out from that character’s own viewpoint, switch viewpoint characters just before that moment and let the second character report (to whatever degree you intend) what happened to the first character. It may only be to point out that the other character is suddenly missing, if no one yet knows what has actually happened. Or maybe this second viewpoint character sees another character doing something and is moved to investigate. Maybe it’s that third character who knocks out the first.

      Since I don’t know the details of the scene, I can’t recommend anything specific, but I’m sure you get the idea.

      So there are considerations, but, yes, you should be able to do this without too many problems. Make sure readers know that both viewpoint characters (or all, if you’ll use more than the two) are present in the scene before you need them and then make sure readers will catch on immediately when you change viewpoint characters—name the new viewpoint character right away and show him or her in action. You don’t want there to be any doubt about a change in viewpoint character.

      A lot of writers actually pass off viewpoint duties by having the first viewpoint character touch the second, like a passing of the baton in a relay race.

      ————

      However, if you’re only going to use the two of them as viewpoint characters, you could insert a scene break. It depends on how much of the scene you’re showing through the eyes of each character. At a story’s end, you want action to move quickly, and one way to show a story moving is through shorter chapters and scenes. Breaking the scene into two scenes or chapters might create the feel you want.

      Maybe you’ll let us know what you decided to do.

  17. Richard says:

    I am a successful screenwriter – (Optioned three scripts) – just moving into writing novels. I am adopting several of my screenplays in the process. I’m used to writing for the camera – which is completely omniscient and objective – and yet in a screenplay you CANNOT write a character’s thoughts – only what they see, say or illustrate through action.

    So choosing POV has been a bit of a struggle. Until I was reading a copy of Dan Brown’s “Inferno” – another Robert Langdon novel. (Played by Tom Hanks in The Davinci Code and Angels and Demons)

    It’s a typical fast paced puzzle piece, with Robert Langdon rushing around Florence searching for clues with a beautiful young accomplice, pursued by various bad guys.

    As I read, I was struck by how ‘cinematic’ the flow of the story was. The pace of the scenes, the LENGTH of the scenes. Some chapters were only one page. And the viewpoint would often change within a chapter from one character to another – utilizing a centered ‘line’ ___ between the paragraphs to denote a change in POV.

    __________

    This is EXACTLY how a screenplay is broken up. “CUT TO” lets the reader know the camera is in another location, showing us what is happening with a different character. Dan Brown has no problem going into the character’s thoughts – (Always in italics) and showing us what the character sees and does – before jumping back to the other scene CUT TO – and we’re with Robert Langdon again.

    In fact, on pages 206/207 during an ‘action sequence’ – there are three such breaks – denoting the action as seen and experienced within three different points of view.

    I think that the modern reader – more accustomed to the fast paced rapid cuts of the syntax of film – won’t have much trouble at all following a rapid series of changes – as long as you follow the rules set out above – which are the same as in screenwriting. SHOW us the ‘cut’ or break – The underscore for example. In the opening line of the next paragraph – give us the ‘SLUG LINE’ – where are we? Who are we with? In screenwriting it looks like this. CUT TO:

    INT; BOB’S HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY

    Bob paces back and forth holding a gun

    You get the luxury of florid prose in a novel, but the goal is the same. Let the reader know where they are, who they are with, and the viewpoint they are experiencing – without confusion – from the moment of the cut – and they’ll follow you anywhere.

  18. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi Beth,
    While I appreciate your explanations, above, and while I’ve read exactly the same explanations from many in the publishing industry, I have to admit I’m none the wiser about the logic (or validity) of the entire debate about ‘head-hopping’ (which is a rather derisive & dismissive term in itself).

    Firstly, I’d like someone (anyone) to explain to me exactly when this apparent modern concensus against ‘head-hopping’ arose. Editorial consultants have admitted to me that it was still prevalent until only a few years ago.

    Secondly, the question of Omniscient POV v. ‘Deep 3rd person’. I recently wrote a novel in Omniscient – which, it seems to me, is the most natural & obvious way to write – yet several editorial consultants told me I needed to stick to a single character’s POV throughout, as the reader needed to get ‘emotionally involved’ with the protagonist. So again, when did this dismissal of Omniscient become fashionable? I’m tempted to blame the ‘computer-game generation’, since this is how computer-games are scripted. It seems that book readers (or at least, the publishing industry) are no longer satisfied with a writer simply ‘telling’ a story (that was always the phrase in the past – you ‘tell a story’). Instead, book-readers (like computer-game players) now expect to be ‘shown’ a story – just as if they are viewing it on a screen. Furthermore, it seems that they expect to be able to imerse themselves in the action as the protagonist – even ‘becoming’ the protagonist – just as if they were playing a computer-game. Is this the case? If so, it seems to me that Charles Dickens & Jane Austen (despite still selling in large numbers) might fail to get published if they were alive today… (I suspect this because editorial consultants have also claimed to me that ‘Omniscient POV is a very olde-fashioned style of writing, that isn’t used, much, any more’).

    Any clarification gratefully received,

    Regards, Steve

    • Steve, you’ve asked a few great questions, any of which could lead to in-depth discussions. I’ll see if I can limit my answers to something manageable.

      For starters, consultants may have suggested you stick to a single character’s POV because of the type of story you wrote. They might have thought a third-person POV would be a better fit for it. And for exactly those reasons you mentioned—allowing a reader to become a character or at least allowing the reader to better relate to a single character. You’d likely want to do this for stories in which the main character carries much of the story or is quirky or is truly the main focus for the story.

      But such a setup wouldn’t be true for all stories. Some need a variety of viewpoint characters so the story can focus on the actions/events of more than one character. When multiple characters have viewpoint duties, you usually still want to focus on only a small number and do so one character at a time. Part of this is simply to keep readers from becoming confused. Part is so readers can still try to empathize with only one or a small number of characters. When readers don’t get the opportunity to link with one character but get pieces of every character here and there, that story is more distancing. Readers are outsiders, rather than participants.

      But not all stories have to allow a reader to get inside the character (or a character inside the reader). Omniscient POV is still a valid option, but it’s usually used for certain genres or story styles. Epics or stories with big casts, stories that cover a wide time period, even some thrillers (such as political thrillers) can successfully use omniscient POV. But there’s a big difference between omniscient and the practice of head hopping.

      In omniscient, a narrator tells the story. He may be able to dip into every characters’ head, but he also knows everything else as well. So in an omniscient story we might get info about the story world and about social conditions in that world. We may get a report of story events seen through the impartial eyes of the narrator.

      Omniscient POV gives the reader much more than simply the insights of multiple characters—it gives the reader a different kind of read.

      Simply showing the thoughts of one character after another, especially if the focus has been on one character alone for multiple chapters, isn’t omniscient. If readers have been in John Smith’s head and heart for pages and then they get a thought from Sally Jones, they are jarred right out of the story. Omniscient sets up a pattern of showing thoughts of multiple characters right from the beginning, if that will be the practice for the balance of the novel. Simply showing the thoughts of different characters, beginning at page 100, is not omniscient.

      And yes, today’s audience is different from the one of 200 years ago. Different from the one from 60 years ago. Many readers want that close tie to characters and events. They want to be immersed in the fictional world. Not every reader and not for every type of story, but this is true for many novels.

      But I think that genre is or should be a big driver of the POV choice. Some stories simply work better with an omniscient POV while others need a more intimate one.

      What kind of story do you have? What do you hope to accomplish with your POV choice? If you really want an omniscient POV, check to see that that is what you’ve actually used and not just multiple third-person viewpoint characters that change whenever you have the need to show us into a different character’s head. Use omniscient if it will create the kind of story you want to create, but fully commit to omniscient and use all its strengths. But if it can’t accomplish what your story needs it to do, consider a different POV.

  19. Steve Lowe says:

    Dear Beth,

    Thanks ever-so for the prompt reply, and for trying to clarify the (rather confusing) advice I’ve received previously. However, I’m still a bit lost about the difference between writing-styles. Though I shan’t bore you by asking any more lengthy questions :-)

    To answer one of yours, however: Yes, my novel actually is an (historical)epic, and it has a (very) large cast, and it covers several decades and generations (or at least, it will do over the course of the planned trilogy which will result from the publication of the first book) and it’s also a kind of thriller/murder-mystery/love-story combined, that includes a lot of historical, archaeological, linguistic etc details about a particular period of (not until now very well understood) British history. Which, you might agree with me, suited my original choice of Omniscient POV. Though maybe those editorial consultants I contacted didn’t see it the same way. As I say, I blame the ‘computer-game generation’ for spoiling publishing, so that we are now expected to ‘show a story’, rather than simply ‘tell a story’ (when on earth did you ever hear anyone use the phrase: ‘I’m going to show you a story’?!? :-)

    As Richard has already mentioned, above (October), there is a distinct difference in style between writing a novel & a screenplay, where a screenplay *cannot* enter a character’s thoughts; which can also lead to confusion about how to write a novel – especially one which (we might all hope) may get optioned for a screenplay :-) Richard also cites Dan Brown, who, as he describes, uses head-hopping mercilessly, and yet still remains a best-selling author. I recently mentioned this to an editorial consultant, who gnashed her teeth in response, admitting that all I’d said about Brown was perfectly true. However, she opined that he is an example of exactly how *not* to write, and that if I wanted to write like him, then she couldn’t help me! I replied that I would be happy to be considered half-as-bad a writer as Brown, if it resulted in only half his book-sales :-)

    So perhaps you can see my confusion a little more clearly: I’m beset by contradictory advice from the enire publishing establishment – some of which also seems counter-intuitive, and even, seems to contradict the apparent success enjoyed by moden best-selling authors… The upshot of which is that I’m really non-the-wiser about how I’m expected to write in this day and age in order to be seen as ‘publishable material'; especially since fashions in publishing seem to have changed so ubruptly in only a short period of recent history :-)

    Anyway, thanks fro trying to help.

    Regards, Steve

    • Richard says:

      Steve,

      If I may –

      I have a sister in law who is QUITE a successful romance author. Major publisher, walk into any bookstore, you’ll see her titles on the Romance shelf.

      I asked her about the Dan Brown situation. She replied – “Yup – he does it, a lot – and he gets away with it. It’s his ‘style’. I couldn’t get away with it. My critics would call me ‘lazy’. It’s not really done in the ROMANCE genre. The readers aren’t used to it, and don’t expect it. The trick is to write a compelling story WITHOUT confusing the reader. If you know the rules, you know how to ‘bend’ them.”

      I totally get that. There are conventions in screenwriting. Fairly rigid. But if you’re adept at bending them – if the reader NEVER has to pause and go “Hang on, WHO is this? ” and go back and re-read, then you’re likely to get away with bending the rule as a personal stylistic choice. And of course, if you’re enormously successful – you can get away with murder. J.K. Rowling or Steven King could turn in a novel written long hand in crayon on the back of grocery bags to a publisher, and they’d read it.

      You or I…? Not so much.

      Reading your response, it sounds like you have a couple of choices that are more or less acceptable. Write each CHAPTER from a specific point of view. (GAME OF THRONES is a great example.) This chapter is the story from John’s point of view. Next, we jump across the continent to see what JANE is doing. But within each chapter, we are only in John or Jane’s head. No problems, easy to follow.

      If you MUST jump from head to head within a chapter – then utilize the conventions mentioned above. Use a ‘break’ between paragraphs. Double space, or underscore – as a visual clue to the reader that the story flow is ‘shifting’. Again – you MUST use these correctly and adeptly. Think for a moment how disjointed the story would be – if between every shift you put in THREE BLANK PAGES. “Okay, this is annoying…” the reader would think. There’s a point of diminishing ‘annoyance’ if you will, in utilizing the least intrusive break to denote the change. And doing it EARLY in the story, is going to clue the reader that this is the stylistic choice of the author. “Oh… okay, now we’re in the other character’s head/location… got it.” And they’re primed to follow your lead.

      True OMNISCIENT – historically is very old. “And so dear reader, we leave our hero to look in on Jane, and her difficulties at the old estate….” The narrator is intrusive. The author has a narrative voice, almost exactly as if you were sitting in the room, listening to them TELL the story. Think OVID or HOMER.

      The ‘video game’ generation is more likely to feel comfortable with first person narrative. (My son is getting is degree in game design.) They actually NAME games after the POV. “First person shooter” for instance – where the player only sees their own hands with the weapon in them.

      As I mentioned before, I think the ability to shift rapidly, and SMOOTHLY between viewpoints WITHIN a chapter – CAN be done. (Dan Brown) But I think it’s due to the fact that “Film is the literature of our generation,” – to quote Steven Spielberg. I think people ‘see’ stories in their heads, in the same way that they ‘remember’ scenes from a movie.

      You still have to understand how to write from ONE point of view – before being able to shift smoothly to another. There has to be a visual change, an establishing line to prime the reader, and clarity in the exposition and dialogue tags.

      Just my thoughts.

      Richard

  20. Steve, your questions are great—ask any at any time. It’s my answers that get long, unfortunately. I always want to be sure to cover every option.

    Regarding most issues in writing and publishing, it’s likely you’ll get lots of advice, some contradictory. There is no single answer to most questions/issues that fits every condition or variable. There is no writing by number. But writing so that the reader isn’t confused and isn’t pulled out of the fictional world should always be a writer’s goal. There are many ways to accomplish these things, but there are some ways that work better than others under the different circumstances. As Richard pointed out, in romances, head-hopping is definitely frowned upon. Readers are so immersed in the characters that they don’t want anything breaking that fictional bubble. And jumping between the heads of hero and heroine without warning is one sure way to yank readers out of the fictional aura.

    Still, some romance writers do head hop. But for those new to publishing, it’s unlikely that they’ll be allowed to keep moments of head-hopping in a published book.

    You mentioned that your story will cover decades and generations over the course of a trilogy—but how much time does the first book cover? Does it alone cover multiple decades and generations? If it’s actually more the story of a single person or protagonist and antagonist, that wouldn’t be an epic and might not need omniscient. Each book must be whole in itself and all the elements must work for that book alone. You do need to consider the other books of a series as you write each individual book, but each book must be complete in itself. So choose the best POV for the first book based on the needs of that book. (Richard’s reference to Game of Thrones was perfect—that’s a great way to use multiple points of view. It’s not the only way, but it is a good option.

    Also, you mentioned that the book is a historical epic but that it’s also a thriller/murder-mystery/romance. While any story may have elements from each of those genres, it’s not likely that it’s a story representative of each of those genres. One book cannot fit every genre.

    For a quick demonstration to see why one book can’t be an example from multiple genres, let’s look at the differences between mysteries and thrillers.

    A murder mystery starts with a murder. Typically the story is a whodunit, though there are other types of mysteries. With a whodunit, the whole story is about discovering who committed the murder. The story is often told via first person.

    A thriller is usually about a character or characters trying to prevent events from happening—a kidnapping, the assassination of a political figure, the blowing up of some building. The POV for thrillers is usually multiple third person.

    There’s usually more active action scenes in thrillers. There’s often a ticking clock—the protagonist has to head off an event by a certain time. There may be a lot of moving around to different locations, even all over the world.

    In thrillers, we often know who the antagonist is. We may even get scenes in his viewpoint. In mysteries, the identity of the murderer is unknown until the unmasking at the end. Readers often try to discover who the murderer is even as the writer provides red herrings and false clues.

    In thrillers, there’s no mystery about who is involved. The thrill is in discovering how the protagonist will outwit the antagonist and save the day.

    These are only a few differences between the genres; there are others. And each genre has particulars, elements that each book in the genre will include. Without these particulars, a book isn’t part of that genre. And some of the elements of one genre would get in the way of the required elements in a different genre—the two genres cannot exist equally in the same story.

    I’m stressing this because as you write, you want to know which genre your book fits so you can include all the elements that make the book a part of that genre.

    Readers have expectations regarding genre novels, and successful genre novels will meet those expectations. That doesn’t mean you can’t include more than those expectations, but you should include at least the story elements that will fulfill genre expectations.

    On the other hand, you don’t want to include everything plus the proverbial kitchen sink. Readers don’t want a mishmash of every kind of genre. They want stories that aren’t muddied by a bit of every genre.

    As you wouldn’t add every different spice to a pie or use thread of every color to make a football jersey for a particular team, so you wouldn’t want to throw a bit of every kind of story into your novel. The elements will either not blend or will cancel one another out. Each will get in the way of something else. One book cannot be all things—there’s simply not enough room for everything, and the elements that work for each genre will be muted or smothered or made ineffective by the presence of the elements necessary for the other genres.

    My suggestion is that you decide on one genre and enhance your story by making the most of the elements that fit that genre. Cut out what doesn’t fit, those story elements that keep the story from being a cohesive whole. And accentuate those story elements that do fit, those that can be delved into and enhanced to create a richer story.

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t have touches of romance or mystery in a historical novel. It does mean that your historical novel isn’t also going to be a romance and a mystery as well as a thriller.

    Decide what the story is at its heart and choose your POV and your approach based on that. Be ruthless in cutting out what is superfluous and distracting.

    Much of writing is choosing between options—keep this item or toss it; choose this or choose that instead; include any of these three options or find one that fits better. One key choice is settling on a genre, choosing between the options, including subgenres. A writer has to exclude genres in order to pick one.

    You’ll find that a story will be stronger when it is more narrowly focused, when it is one kind of story rather than a blend of story genres or elements that don’t fit, that crowd each other out. I realize that you want your story to be full and rich, but believe me when I say that you can make it full and rich while still adhering to genre expectations.

    Every genre has elements that can be highlighted, that can be used to write tremendously great stories. And taking advantage of the elements in one genre or even a mixed genre is all you’ll need to do to create a full and entertaining read. Mixing the elements from a handful of genres weakens a story rather than strengthens it.

    See if narrowing the focus and choosing a single genre doesn’t help you with POV. Again, you can include touches of mystery and romance in any novel, but that won’t mean the story is a mystery or a romance. Decide on the genre, understand what that means for POV and required story elements, and see if that doesn’t help focus the story and give you an idea of the needs of that story.

    ———–

    Good questions and a good discussion. I’m glad you brought up the topic.

  21. Richard, thanks for contributing to the discussion. Excellent points.

  22. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi again folks! It’s good to have such an interesting discussion, and to see that some others have noticed the same anomalies in publishing as I did. I was beginning to think I’d stumbled into the ‘twilight zone’ when first trying to find a literary agent & engaging editorial consultants a couple of years ago, and wondered why I was getting the sense of ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ about various prescribed writing styles. But it’s reassuring to see that at least some others are wrestling with the same questions. I’ve got a few comments for both Richard & Beth, which I’ll cover in turn:

    Firstly, I’d like to make the point that – though many others profess to have a problem with it – ‘head-hopping’ (which I still think is an overly disparaging term) does not bother me, personally, one bit. Frankly, the more information an author wants to give me – whether as background or as the POV of multiple characters – the better, as I fing it actually helps me to understand what’s going on in the story. We are – after all – constantly being persuaded to ‘see the other person’s POV’ in real life… I’d certainly never accuse any author who used it as being ‘lazy’. On the contrary, as I say, the more info they want to give me the better – which can hardly be described as ‘lazy’ writing.

    Richard menions Rowling & King, and of course there are many others who – once established – seem to be able to write however they like, and nobody is going to tell them otherwise. The trick, of course, for the rest of us, is to get our first book published: Until then, it remains rather a ‘catch 22′ situation…

    Re: one POV per chapter, that’s something my current editorial consultant suggested to me, but then it depends on chapter length. Lee Child’s chapters are typically only three pages, so he can afford to devote an entire one to a single POV. But then, neither my consultant nor I are fans of such short chapters (mine are typically 10 p. – though used to be much longer).
    So she did alternatively suggest the ‘paragraph break’, for moving between POVs within a chapter (I favour: ‘*****’ as the symbol). Having discussed my story with her, she now agrees with me that it works well with the ‘dual protagonists’ I have (who are actually brothers) and whose shared experiences justify this. I need my protagoinsts to be observed externally, as well as just internally (as would be the case with 1st person POV).

    Which brings up how Richard echoed my point about the ‘computer-game generation’, and the fact that all those spotty teenagers who play such games (some of whom might now be middle-aged book readers, themselves) might prefer 1st person POV. This is an important point, which I don’t think many authors or editors can have properly considered.
    For example, 1st person POV is now deeply fashionable among historical authors in my chosen genre (‘sword & sandal epics’ to give it a label). Bernard Cornwell is a prime exapmple with his Arthurian/Alfredian trilogies; though his namesake – Patricia – seems to do the same for her crime thrillers. But there is a deep flaw in setting-out to write in 1st person POV, for anything other than a Mills & Boon style romance. To put it simply, the reader’s sense of jeopardy on behalf of the protagonist depends on not knowing if – or when – they might face injury – or death – in the story. But if you write in 1st person, then you are telegraphing to the reader that you (as the protagonist) are still going to remain in one piece & relatively intact by the end of the book (or trilogy, if that’s the case) since how else could you still be alive to write chapter one, if you got greased half-way through the book…? However, either current authors who use 1st person or their agents, or both, haven’t even considered this paradox. Or maybe thy have, but they just hope the rest of us haven’t :-)

    My previous editorial consultant actually suggested rewriting my novel in 1st person POV (to allow the reader to get into the protagoist’s mind) until I pointed out the above paradox to her. Which is why I moved to my current consultant, since she actually agrees with my argument, above, that 1st person is deeply inappropriate for any story where the hero faces jeopardy every day.

    Richard’s Spielberg quote: ‘Film is the literature of our generation’ also makes the point about traditional writing styles suffering & changing, accordingly (as with computer-games). And it explains – to some extent – the modern fashion for ‘showing’ in novels. But really, literature can never compete with movies in that way, since, as we all know: ‘A picture paints a thousand words’. Consequently, if you really want a novel to give you as much visual information as the millions of frames of film in a movie, then you are looking at a novel thousands of pages long, which makes War & Peace look like a parking ticket (as my original consultant was forced to admit, when we discussed it :-)

    Beth asked about my novel (1st of a trilogy… at least :-) I see what you’re saying about keeping genres distinct, however, there are elements of all those genres in my story: Mine does indeed start with (multiple) murders.
    Though it’s not so much a ‘whodunit’ – since it’s obvious ‘who’ it was – but rather a question of ‘what, exactly, it was they they… erm… ‘dun’.’ If you’d like a better idea of my plot, then think of the movie: ‘The Odessa File’, which was one of my inspirations.

    My story then progresses to a ‘Thriller’, where the heroes (the brothers) do indeed attempt to prevent many more mass murders, with a lot of moving around to different locations (strange how your summaries, above, eerily describe the contents of my novel… I do hope you haven’t been peeking :-)

    As for romance, I’d also beg to differ that it cannot work successfully within a ‘murder-mystery’/’thriller’. That’s one thing my original editorial consultant *did* agree with me on. Despite telling me I needed a single POV (in her own, misguided, preference that being 1st person – see above) and that I needed to ‘show’ more than ‘tell’, as well as include more dialogue (among other things) she did say that she was very impressed with my plot, which was my ‘strong suite’, due to ‘incorporating multiple strands that were delicately woven together’. And without giving away too much of the story, it involves the main protagoist (one of the brothers) losing the love of his life on page one, but – possibly – getting her back in one form or another half-way through; which has the fortunate effect of making him ditch his newly acquired ‘death-wish’, and choose to go on living, in order to avert other future disasters of the same kind. It’s a bit like Wuthering Heights, or Romeo & Juliet… but in reverse! Well, I could *never* bring myself to write a story that didn’t have a happy ending :-)

    And it’s *all* based on historical fact, yet it covers a period of British history which is hardly known about by the general public… So maybe, it might even be titled an ‘educational’ book, too :-)

    Regards to all,
    Steve

  23. Richard says:

    Steve,

    My use of the examples of Rowlings and King being able to bend the rules of SUBMISSIONS for manuscripts – was perhaps clumsy. Make no mistake, they are STILL ‘edited’ if they break basic rules of writing. In point of fact, King tried writing scripts for the X-Files, and Chris Carter kept rejecting them and finally had him rewrite the scripts to HIS specifications. So yeah – they can get IN the door easier than you and I – but they still have to obey the rules. That was the point I was trying to make.

    There’s nothing stopping you from writing your story any way you like – and self publishing. If as you believe – it is the best way to tell it, and you are convinced everyone will love it – go for it.

    You might be happier finding the people who – quite literally – share your viewpoint on viewpoints. But you won’t get ‘in’ the door of a major publisher.

    The true THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT voice – sounds like what you are striving for. It is currently (for the most part) out of fashion. You might be the author to resurrect it. But it’s hard to write in. Here is a sample from Anna Karenina

    Exactly at midnight, when Anna was still sitting at her desk finishing a letter to Dolly, she heard the measured steps of slippered feet, and Alexei Alexandrovich, washed and combed, a book under his arm, came up to her. “It’s time, it’s time,” he said with a special smile, and went into the bedroom.
    “And what right did he have to look at him like that?” thought Anna, recalling how Vronsky and looked at Alexei Alexandrovich.
    The house was big, old, and Levin, though he lived alone, heated and occupied all of it. He knew that it was even wrong and contrary to his new plans, but this house was a whole world for Levin. It was the world in which his father and mother had lived and died. They had lived a life which for Levin seemed the ideal of all perfection and which he dreamed of renewing with his wife, with his family.

    It’s pretty much the voice of 19th century literature. Most readers find it a bit stilted. Most editors cringe when they read it – because most new authors cannot do it well. If you’re committed to trying – then read up on some more recent books. “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “The Dante Club” by Mathew Pearl. “Unwind” by Neal Shusterman. Just do a google search for “Third person omniscient authors”.

    Based on your description of the book – and your description of the elements of the genre – I still think third person LIMITED is the way to go. Changing by chapter, or utilizing the paragraph breaks. Chapter length can be different as well. Again, utilizing Dan Brown – some chapters are only a page or two long.

    “Head Hopping” IS a problem. It’s a term for changing points of view so poorly, that your reader is confused – and has to stop – go back – and reread the passage to understand whose point of view they’re hearing the story from. If someone is reading your manuscript, and they get lost in the POV – then yes, you are ‘head hopping’ – not using multiple viewpoints or OMNISCIENT viewpoints correctly. And your manuscript will be rejected. Picasso and Pollack make ‘abstract’ seem structure-less – but it’s not. It is VERY carefully thought out.

    Your argument that FIRST PERSON Pov is flawed – because the reader knows the Protagonist survives to tell the tale – will come as a great shock to all fans of the genre. You seem to brush of the thrill that comes from EXPERIENCING the story as told from the first person point of view.

    If I arrived late to a lunch date with you, sat down, and began to tell a tale of exactly WHY I was a half hour late – (And I was a good story teller) – I could keep you enthralled, entertained, and even SURPRISED by my adventures on my way to meeting you. I could manipulate your emotions so skillfully, that I would have you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for each word. I could tell you about the accident from my point of view in such a way – that your heart would race – your palms would sweat – your stomach turn – even knowing I came out of it okay. You might laugh hysterically at my (internal) thoughts about the police officer’s bad hygiene. You might wonder if I asked the young lady out on a date, while exchanging vehicle registration information – and be surprised that I did. When the waiter interrupts to take our order, you might be eager to hear ‘what happens next’ after I lost her information.

    So – telling a story from the first person point of view – need not require the character’s DEATH to maintain tension, humor, pathos, excitement, romance or MYSTERY. Only the THREAT of it. Indeed all first person detective/crime/noir stories and many excellent ‘combat’ tales are told from 1st POV. The excitement is on hearing HOW the character managed to solve the mystery and survive to tell the tale. (I’m a huge Cornwall fan by the way.)

    As to it being some sort of ‘paradox’ as you imply. It’s not. Some stories told in first person – are told FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE – and are still successful. (Pardon my film illusions, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m a screenwriter.) AMERICAN BEAUTY and SUNSET BOULEVARD both begin with the narrator telling us they are dead. It’s just as practical as telling us they are alive – we want to know HOW they got to this point. We want to experience THEIR JOURNEY from THEIR POINT OF VIEW – live it vicariously through their retelling of it.

    I don’t think Beth said that a genre piece CANNOT have ‘other’ elements to it. It’s that it will have a primary, and perhaps secondary element that appeals to the reader. Sure, there are ‘romance’ elements in a good murder mystery, but it’s about finding out who dunnit. Completely okay to have SOME element of romance in it. But if you find yourself writing more about the detective’s love for the heiress, and how they overcome their different upbringings to find common ground and matrimony – then it’s a ROMANCE – with a bit of a murder mystery going on in the back ground.

    You’ve fairly well defined your genre as a HISTORICAL NOVEL. Great. Sounds like many characters moving across time and space to help tell the tale of an ERA. (Or perhaps it’s the family dynasty.) In such a case, it’s the FAMILY or the ERA or the KINGDOM that is the ‘main character’ – and your characters then help to tell the tale of that moment in history (A battle? A kingship? The rise and fall of the Tudors?). GAME OF THRONES is not about the characters in it – it’s about THE WORLD. The WORLD is the ‘main character’ – not the people who populate it. That’s why it’s so easy to kill off what we – as readers – perceive as ‘main characters’. They’re all just bit-players in the overall story-line.

    That’s what I hear as your need. The need to tell a story about THIS PARTICULAR ERA – and you’re going to do it through multiple viewpoints.

    Regards

    Richard.

  24. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi again, Richard,

    Thanks for all your thoughts & comments – most of which echo what I’ve already heard from others involved with publishing – but it’s interesting, and revealing, to see them all included in a single summary. It may be of use to every other aspiring author reading this thread to see it made clear just exactly what they’re up against with the current fashions in publishing :-)

    I shan’t reiterate the arguments pro-/con-‘head-hopping’, suffice to say that you mentioned Dan Brown doing it, and he seems to get by (whether anybody notices or not). Though, as I’ve said, I still don’t have a problem with Brown (or anyone else) doing it. However, having recently read the 10th anniversary edition of The DaVinci Code, I was struck by the number of plot-holes and continuity errors in the first 100 p.! And I would have thought that the intervening decade since original publication might have been long enough for the author/editor/publisher to have weeded-out such obvious bloopers, wouldn’t you, and feel that this indicates a certain fundamental lack of rigour in such details within the modern publishing world – even with ‘best-sellers’ :-)

    To address the issue of the modern fashion for ‘1st person POV’ in novels (described as ‘1st person POV shoot-‘em-ups’ by yourself in relation to computer-games): You say: “Your argument that 1st person POV is flawed – because the reader knows the protagonist survives to tell the tale –
    will come as a great shock to all fans of the genre.” To which, I can only reply by quoting Robert Redford’s whistle-blowing CIA agent – Turner – from the final scene of the classic 1975 conspiracy-movie ‘Three Days of the Condor’. Ahem: “I HOPE SO!”

    And that’s a genuinely fervent hope: That I might make the entire publishing community (as well as the readers they assume they cater for) aware of the simple metaphysical truth that – as far as we’re aware – nobody has ever returned from beyond the grave to sit down and write a novel! You disagree with my stating that using 1st person POV for an ultimately dead protagonist is a paradox, but it IS! And if you don’t mind me saying so, I think that you are clearly attempting to ‘defend the indefensible’ in saying otherwise :-)

    Yes, I DO “…brush off the thrill that comes from experiencing the story as told by the 1st person POV.” That is, for any story (other than a ‘Mills & Boon’ style romance) where the protagonist is clearly facing jeopardy every single day of their lives. In such stories, 1st person POV is DEEPLY inappropriate, which – if you asked most book-readers – I hope they would agree with, after thinking about it for only a moment. And I’m not sure if modern authors & publishers – who probably grew up playing the kind of ‘1st person POV shoot-‘em-up computer games’ which you mentioned – have now become so brain-washed by such immersive media that they cannot any longer tell the difference between fiction & reality or not; but I think that to write in such a way is to insult the intelligence of one’s readers. And personally, that’s not something which I’d ever stoop to.

    As I said, my current editorial consultant agrees with me completely on that point (re-iterated to me only yesterday) and to use her own words (she is a published adult & children’s author, herself): “I’m fed up with reading about modern ‘teflon-coated’ heroes – recounting their adventures in 1st person POV – when we know, in advance, that they’re going to reach the end of the story without so much as a scratch!”

    She’s also commented – elsewhere – that my story is aimed at an intelligent readership (which is why she deletes so many of my adjectives & adverbs, describing them as ‘superfluous for intelligent readers’).

    Richard, your scenario about arriving late for a lunch-date, due to a car-crash, was a charming little invention; however, you seem to be missing the crucial point that you – nevertheless – arrived at the restaurant in a taxi and NOT an ambulance… and certainly NOT a hearse! :-) For a historical epic like mine – where the protagonist certainly IS facing death every day (for a period of years) – it would be rather ‘giving-away-the-ending’ to let him tell the story in his own words, now wouldn’t it :-)

    One of the bravest things ever done in cinema was when Hitchcock stuck a knife in the audience’s expectations about Hollywood cliches by killing-off Janet Leigh – the story’s initial putative heroine – near the beginning of the movie Psycho. Which isn’t to say, of course, that it’s desirable to see the nominal hero/heroine ALWAYS get greased at the start of a movie (Kathryn Bigelow also successfully pulled the same trick with Guy Pearce in The Hurt Locker) but I think that it’s obviously equally wrong that the putative hero/heroine should automatically be assumed (and known) to survive till the end, n’est-ce-pas? If nothing else, such Hollywood cliches are simply ‘not-true-to-life’. And the audience for a movie (just like for a book) deserve to be treated with both a respect for their intelligence & for the reality of life.

    To illustrate my point, I’m a fan of American football (despite being a Brit, I never liked socker). And it’s an elementary part of the game that – in order to win any match (never mind the Superbowl) – you need a balanced offence. If you either only run or pass the ball, then the defence will just ‘tee-off on you’. The trick is to keep the other team guessing. Not only does that allow you to score more points, but it makes for a more interesting game for the spectators to watch if THEY don’t know which play is coming next, either. And I think that it’s a rather obvious point that creative-writing should follow the same rule. Not only are your readers being treated with more respect if they don’t know what’s coming next (or how the story ends) but they’ll probably enjoy the story more as well!

    And in connection with this, I also think that ‘head-hopping’ into alternative POVs can help with maintaining a discrete authorial distance from the protagonist, so that the reader never gets to associate too closely with them and begin to predict what the protagonist will do. Now THERE’S a nice little hand-grenade to lob into the entire ‘head-hopping’ debate… :-)

    But to be serious, I think that the MORE distance (rather than less) that an author can maintain from the protagonist, the less ‘predictable’ will be their actions for the reader and the less ‘cliched’ the story in general. Regarding my own story, there are certain details about the plot which the reader neither needs nor deserves to know until the appropriate point in the story to reveal them – for their OWN good in maintaining the suspense of the mystery. As a result, the very LAST thing I want is for the reader to be able to ‘get inside the protagonist’s head’ where all those secrets are kept! And so, in summary, I personally think it would be a better (publishing) world if we could all go back to writing in 3rd person/Omniscient (even with a bit of ‘head-hopping’ thrown in, perhaps). Which seems – after all – to have sufficed perfectly well for story-telling for thousands of years… until the end of the 20th century, when the mentality of playing computer-games among its current practitioners seems to have infected publishing (at least, that’s my working hypothesis :-)

    Anyway, good luck defusing those few ‘hand-granades’, and here’s hoping you don’t all end up like Guy Pearce in The Hurt Locker :-)

    Regards,
    Steve

    • Richard says:

      There’s no arguing taste.

      If you don’t like first person stories, don’t read or write them. But don’t discount that someone who writes compelling first person – Jim Butcher’s “Harry Dresden” series for example – shouldn’t be popular. (Spoiler) – He even has an entire book where the protagonist IS dead – and literally tells the story from beyond the grave. No one who goes to see a James Bond film – truly worries about Bond being killed off. (Or Superman, or Batman) Same for the books. First person sells – and it sells well.

      No one here is telling you you CANNOT change Point of View. They’re advising you not to be guilty of ‘Head Hopping’. I see the term “Head Hopping” – as a derogatory expression for the poor execution of changing point of view. If you change POV – and lose or confuse your reader – then you’re head-hopping. If you can change it, WITHOUT confusing them – then you’re not. Like the infamous US Supreme court judge said about the definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” It’s a fine line between writing erotica, and smut. It’s a fine line between adept POV shift – and ‘head hopping’.

      Whether you can pull it off utilizing the stylistic maneuvers of Brown – or choose to split it into chapters like Martin does in “Game of Thrones” – will be something you and your editor decide is right for your style, and the needs of the story.

      While we’re on Game of Thrones – I’ll point out something that has affected my enjoyment of the series. (Aside from the snails pace of the next book release).

      Anyone can die.

      Or as he state in the book “ALL MEN MUST DIE”.

      Starting with the first book, when a key player is killed off – it’s devastating. (Like Psycho – disorienting) Immediately, the reader must find someone else to invest their emotions into. Someone ELSE to identify with. Hitchcock did this in Psycho. The character is dead – WHO do we become??? A disembodied viewer has only one person to ‘leap’ into. The Creepy Norman Bates. THAT’S why the movie is so disturbing. Because we must identify with Norman, not the imperfect but beautiful anti-heroine. George Lucas has a brilliant moment in the ‘original’ Star Wars film. In the trash compacter scene – Luke is pulled under by a monster. For a split second – it’s just possible, especially in this ‘ensemble’ piece – that he is dead. WHO do we identify with next??? Suddenly he is ‘reborn’ and the team is ‘birthed’ from the trash compactor. Subtle? Hardly. Effective? Definitely.

      When Martin kills off a prime character. And then… another. And then … another… and then… ANOTHER – in “The Game of Thrones” – it become increasingly apparent that the CHARACTERS themselves … are disposable. Oh look, I’ve just met a new character – wonder how they’ll die. I stop investing interest in them. Call it a kind of ‘literary trauma’ or PTSD. I know NOW that there is no ‘Hero’ to the Game of Thrones. The world is the ‘hero’ – the characters merely there to tell its story. And I’m not sure I’ll bother to read the next book. I suppose it will be Tyrrian who ultimately comes out on top – but I don’t really care.

      There is a convention in ensemble pieces. Especially ‘war’ films. You have a UNIT. A team, a squad, whatever. And it’s their journey. You might kill off ONE or TWO members of the unit – to let you feel the sense of loss. (Boromir in LOTR) The catharsis of combat if you will – “Damn, this is dangerous. Anyone could be next”. But you don’t kill off the whole team. You ADD characters. In war films, it’s “The New Guy” – literally. No one bothers to learn his name, because he’s just going to die. (The Red Shirts in Star Trek) If you do this to your readers – they’re not going to bother to care about new characters – or even the ‘old ones’ – because they’re just going to die.

      If your novel – is about the WORLD – the ERA it is set in – then by all means, wield the sword brutally. Kill them off indiscriminately. Let the reader be left with nothing but the knowledge of the world to comfort them. That’s a valid choice. But don’t be upset if folks drop out half way through, unwilling to plod to the end.

      I completely agree with the plot holes in Brown’s stories. You could drive a truck through them. Half way through “Inferno” I said to myself, “So… WHY is the bad guy leaving clues behind?” – In Batman stories, the Riddler purposely leaves clues/riddles for Batman to find and solve. It’s a way of TAUNTING Batman. “I’m so much more clever than you, here is a hint – but you’re too stupid to solve it in time.” – It’s his strength and his flaw – ultimately it brings him down. But in INFERNO – it’s never addressed. Never. It is NEVER explained WHY the bad guy is leaving these clues.

      As a screenwriter – halfway through “Inferno” – I realized he was writing FOR the screen. Because in cinema, you get the grace of ‘the refrigerator moment’. Hitchcock explains it like this (paraphrasing) – “You watch the movie, and you’re carried along by the excitement and the thrill and the climax. Then you go home. And you go to bed. And you wake up in the middle of the night, and go downstairs to get something to eat. And you’re standing in front of the refrigerator, and all of a sudden you think – “Hey, why didn’t they just call the police???” – That’s when they find the plot hole. And that’s okay. You’ve already gotten their money.

      In CINEMA – the story unfolds at the Director’s pace. He chooses what you see what you know, and how fast information comes at you. The story will take EXACTLY two hours to tell. If it’s good, you don’t dare get up for more popcorn or the bathroom for fear of missing something. You don’t get to run the movie backwards to double check a detail. (Until you own it on DVD)

      In a NOVEL – the reader gets to chose the pace of the read. You’d like them to read as near straight-through as possible. But life intervenes. Especially in an epic story. That’s the purpose of chapter breaks. And if there’s a plot hole – it will stick out IMMEDIATELY and annoy the reader until it is resolved. A burr under the saddle. If the POV shifts, and the reader has to stop, ‘rewind’ – reread, and figure out WHO is telling the story – he’ll set it aside.

      Such are the strengths and weaknesses of writing for the two different disciplines. Sure, there is some crossover skill in any method of storytelling – but having just adapted several of my screenplays into novels – it’s definitely a learning curve.

      And POV is a big element of that. Learning HOW to shift it, and not lose the reader – is the key.

      As to why something you think is drek should sell? Again – there’s no arguing taste.

      Why do people paint portraits of Elvis on black velvet? Because other people BUY them.

      You don’t have to paint them. Heck, I don’t even BUY them. But then – I’M NOT THE FAN BASE. The Artist is appealing to a very specific fan base. And getting PAID for it.

      It sounds like you (and your editor) know your audience. Good. That’s a HUGE part of writing well. Knowing WHO you’re writing for. I hope you sell them lots of books. I hope it’s a big enough market for you to retire on!

      Write on!

      Regards

  25. Steve and Richard, this is a great discussion, helpful to writers. I hope others read and maybe add to the talk.

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