One of the sins that will elicit rejection of a manuscript submission is a narrative technique known as “head hopping.” This occurs when an author is writing in the third-person voice, and within the same scene the point of view switches from one character to another. Writers may understandably be confused. When you use the third-person voice, that allows you to write from multiple points of view, right? What’s more, there are plenty of famous novels in which such switches occur. So why is it okay for those writers and not me?

One distinction is the difference between a truly omniscient voice and an approach known as third-person limited. In the former, the author retains the right to narrate certain material from a point of view that transcends what any one character could know. In the latter, scenes are written from a certain slant, usually that of the protagonist. Just as in a first-person narrative, the reader is privy to that character’s thoughts, opinions, and the like.

This is the way most inexperienced authors write. They realize that plot events alone do not make a reader care enough about a story. In their stumbling-forward fashion they try to add depth to the characters, and one of the easiest ways to achieve that is adopting a limited point of view. The problem for them is that when they jump from one character’s mind to another, they are passing from third-person limited into an omniscient narrative.

In simple terms, the violation stems from the reader’s involvement in the character. When they are plucked out of that point of view, the effect is disorienting. You were telling the reader to identify with the character, and switching points of view creates a feeling of distance.

So why are those famous writers allowed to pull it off? The key difference is the intensity of the narrative attack all the way through. A skilled writer not only records what I call surface thoughts—a character’s reaction to a plot event that is happening or just happened—but an entire train of thoughts based on the character’s long history and their intimate feelings about an entire world they are experiencing. Before a sentence is written, the author has created in their own mind a full range of contingencies. That can include, on one hand, knowledge of a family’s history dating back to the Russian Pale in the 1880s, or the acts of prejudice endured by a black community in one specific locale. The authors do their homework, in other words, so that what is written rings true all the way down to the character’s bones.

Exercise: If you are still learning how to write, do not make the mistake of pulling back to the safe shores of the omniscient voice. That will only increase the distance between you and your characters. You should force yourself to write each scene from only one point of view. That way you will begin to plumb the depths of the authors you admire.

“Though leaves are many, the root is one.”
—William Butler Yeats

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.