2.23.2016

Head Hopping

The omniscient narrative voice allows an author to tell a story from multiple points of view. This latitude is valuable when you want to explore events that a first-person narrator couldn’t possibly experience. Yet one of the boilerplate reasons a literary agent will issue a rejection slip is a phenomenon known as “head hopping.” You jump between different characters’ points of view within the same scene.

The objection stems from a reader’s desire to merge with the point-of-view character. We participate vicariously through that person’s actions and thoughts. During the course of a scene that process deepens. If you then jump to another person’s thoughts, though, the process is truncated. The reader is confused: why am I switching away? I liked being inside that lead character’s head. 

If you are just starting off as a writer, you should be concerned for a more systemic reason. Writing in the omniscient voice is, frankly, easier than writing in the I-voice. You can report about what the characters are doing rather than telling the story from within. The head hopping is just the most obvious indicator of how far away from inhabiting the character you are. 

You should be pushing yourself. Try limiting the number of points of view within a manuscript to roughly 3-4 tops. That way you get the multiple experiences, but all are viewed through a specific character’s prism. The reader can dig in with each one, even if she doesn’t like, say, the villain’s point of view. That revulsion then forces yourself to create a villain that the reader can understand, at least on some level—one with more complexity. 

Omniscient doesn’t mean lightweight. If you look at a great novel with multiple points of view like War and Peace, you will see that you empathize with each lead character, even though flighty Natasha couldn’t be more different from philosophical Pierre. That’s the bar you should set for yourself. You won’t achieve as much depth as you would with a single protagonist, but the reader is still wading in with each one right up to his neck.

Exercise: Examine the individual scenes in your manuscript. One character should rule the proceedings. This extends not only to actual thoughts but more subtle mental states as well. For example, “She wanted to consider . . .” is an interior state. Make sure that any act of volition from a secondary character is indicated by physical means. 

“When you pick up a book, everyone knows it's imaginary. You don't have to pretend it's not a book. We don't have to pretend that people don't write books. That omniscient third-person narration isn't the only way to do it. Once you're writing in the first person, then the narrator is a writer.”
—Paul Auster

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


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