Managing Point of View

Inexperienced authors have a rude awakening when their manuscripts are rejected, in part or solely, because of “head hopping.” That term of derision is applied when the point of view shifts from one character to the next within the same scene. Yet oftentimes the omniscient narrative voice is chosen precisely because the writer wants to convey the thoughts and intentions of multiple characters. 

The imperative for this open-ended narration is greatest during a climax sequence. The author wants to convey not only the point of view of the villain, but of the protagonist and possibly a character in grave peril because of the villain. So, three points of view, and the author wants to keep switching in order to heighten the suspense of each step along the way. The feat can be pulled off by employing four tools.

First, a chapter can be broken into multiple scenes, with a line-space break in between them. You’re not head hopping, because you’ve switched to a new scene. When you look at an exciting chapter closely, you’ll see that one character will tend to dominate a sequence for paragraphs at a time. You’re not making the reading too jagged by switching every page or so, or even a half page at a time.

Second, when you’re switching for only a single paragraph, see if it can be moved to the next time that character assumes the point of view. For instance, if the villain throws a victim into a closet, the next paragraph’s descriptions of the victim being bruised may not have to come immediately afterward. The reader already knows what happened. If you make the reader wait a half page to record the bruises, no one is going to notice. Such transpositions apply especially to the protagonist hunting for the villain. If the capture isn’t imminent, does that step in getting closer really have to go right there? 

Third, look at single paragraphs and ask if they are needed at all. You may find that you’re repeating that step in the sequence, only from a different point of view. Yes, you do have the slight shading, and the reactions of the second character are useful for suspense, but does that outweigh the need for the smoothest narrative—the least breaks—possible?

Finally, the feeling of choppiness can be eased by breaking more frequently to a new chapter. It is common practice in a climax sequence to employ short chapters. The break itself creates suspense, because it leaves the reader hanging. An even better idea is to see, as much as possible, if you can have each chapter either end or start with a scene featuring the protagonist. Now you’re creating dramatic emphasis when in fact you’re using the narrative gambit for another reason entirely.

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”  —Oscar Wilde 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.