Head Hopping

Let’s start with a basic truism: a reader desires 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 during the scene, though, the process is truncated. The reader is confused: why am I switching away? I liked being inside that point-of-view 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, much 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. You should make sure that any act of volition from a secondary character is indicated by physical means. 


Direct, Not Indirect

We all use shortcuts in writing. When we perceive a topic to be of lesser interest, we summarize it, treating it like a minor building block of the story. One way to do that is using indirect quotes. By not putting what is said into dialogue, you are relegating it to a passing mention. 

Indirect storytelling can, however, also be a sign of inexperience. It is much easier to report on a scene than inhabit the characters involved in it and tell it from the inside. Plus, we are all influenced by what we read, and a veteran writer often uses indirect speech—because she knows which pieces don’t merit more attention. Yet we may not realize the distinction when we sit down to write ourselves.

I’ll use a running example to show how relative weights should be assigned. “He told Annie he would be working late” works well in the context of a businessman engaged in an elaborate fantasy about an upcoming dinner with a sexy new client. In his mind at the time, making that tired excuse to his wife is an insignificant matter, and so it should be told that way.

Indirect is the wrong approach, though, when a plot event is crucial. Let’s say that later the husband has to tell his wife he had sex with the sexy client. That same indirect storytelling—“He confessed to Annie that he slept with the new client, and she broke down crying”—is utterly the worst way to engage the reader. What he tells her is not minor anymore. It may make or break his marriage. For that reason, the reader’s emotions will be deeply engaged if the scene is told in full, with dialogue throughout.

I should point out one other aspect of indirect storytelling. It can be a way for an author to shield himself from truths he’d rather not face. Writing is a process of exposing yourself. An author who writes about a cheating husband may in real life be faithful to his wife. So the indirect approach may be the author shying away from a subject that makes him uncomfortable. His wife, after all, may well be the first reader of the manuscript he’s writing. 

A large factor in determining dramatic importance is whether an action is being performed by the scene’s point-of-view character. Direct quotes increase the immediacy of prose, raising your major characters to more prominence. Indirect quotes tend to lower them.  So when a plot event is attached to someone the reader knows, crack open the nut and show what’s inside.

Exercise: If you decide that a passage should be heightened more by dialogue, you don’t have to write out an entire conversation. Sometimes a few lines of exchanged dialogue will provide the proper emphasis. If it needs more than that, add thoughts. In other words, you can calibrate how much you zoom in.


Ensemble Voices

A novel told through a wide assortment of characters allows the author greater scope to explore where the novel’s plot lines take him. Yet invariably I as a reader end up feeling less involved with the proceedings. I just can’t put my emotional stock in so many characters. To clarify, I am discussing a continuous narrative, not broken into Roshomon-like parts wherein each character discusses the same events from different points of view. 

I will point out several basic problems with the ensemble approach. First and foremost, it virtually guarantees that the story will be slighter in impact. How could it not? As a reader, rather than immersing yourself in one point of view, allowing that person to take over your own thought processes, you are jumping from one person’s head to another. I can make that switch with maybe one or two other characters, but even then I’m hoping that the protagonist will govern most of the scenes. Like any reader, I form a loyalty to the person who dominates the proceedings.

Second, an ensemble cast demands strong plotting. If character and plot are regarded as two ends on a balance scale, the more you feed into one, the less will be allotted for the other. If you are using a variety of characters to tell a story, that means that you are paying more attention to plot. The reader won’t delve as deeply into the characters, so the concomitant result is that more plot events are needed to entertain us. 

Third, setting up an ensemble cast will likely confuse readers during the opening segment of the book. We are looking for a story thread to follow, and if we keep on meeting new people, that thread is obscured by all the bustling about. Once a reader feels her emotions are being pulled in too many directions, she may put the book down.

The inherent emotional slightness of a tale told by an ensemble cast needs to be factored into your calculations when devising the initial outline. You need compelling plot events that consume your multiple characters. Further, you should avoid assigning really good material to a character the reader doesn't know well enough to care about. Otherwise, the book may be relegated to the label: busy but not good.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a single character’s name in your global search window. Find which scenes he inhabits and write down what he does in a list of single-sentence entries. If he governs any scenes early on, the reader is given a signal to regard him as more important. Yet what happens to him later? If he is crowded aside by later developments to other characters, haven’t you left the reader hanging? Why did they spend so much time with that guy if he’s just going to drop out of the book?

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.