Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Anne M. Marble
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Still, even with those limitations, there is plenty to trip up writers. Viewpoint problems can seem subtle, but the resulting effect can make your reader feel like a ping pong ball.
No, headhopping is not something alien characters do in futuristic romances. Headhopping refers to writing where the point of view whips back and forth between multiple characters within a scene.
Headhopping is not to be confused with multiple viewpoints. Multiple viewpoints are expected in today's romance novels. Most romance novels today show scenes from the viewpoints of both the hero and heroine. However, you should avoid switching that viewpoint in the middle of a scene.
Headhopping is most noticeable when it occurs frequently. Some writers see nothing wrong with changing the point of view within the same paragraph. This can be confusing to the reader. Many editors also hate headhopping because it's close to impossible to edit out of a novel.
How do you detect headhopping in a scene? First, decide who the viewpoint character is for that scene. Then, ask yourself if the viewpoint character should be able to experience everything that you have described in that scene.
Here's a short sample scene:
Glancing over the top of her menu, Blythe looked Anthony in the eye. She knew he was worried that she was going to order the lobster. "The specials look nice," she said, wondering if he would notice that the featured special was lobster. He needn't have worried. What she really wanted was the buffalo wings.
Either that scene had headhopping or Blythe is psychic. How else would she know what both Anthony and the waitress are thinking and experiencing? And if we're going to be strict about this, how does she know that he's worried she'll order the lobster? This scene might seem like an exaggeration, but it's only a slight exaggeration. We've all read scenes that had that much headhopping or more. So how can we improve it? Let's assume that Blythe is our heroine. That will make her a good choice to carry the viewpoint of the scene. But aren't we going to lose Anthony's perspective on this scene if we limit the scene? Not if we do this right.
Glancing over the top of her menu, Blythe looked Anthony in the eye. He was already scowling at her; on their last date, he'd rewarded her with the same inviting expression when she'd ordered the lobster. "The specials look nice," she said, wondering if he would notice that the featured special was lobster. He needn't have worried. What she really wanted was the buffalo wings.
This scene no longer tells you everything that everyone is thinking, but is that really a loss? By sticking to Blythe's point of view, the scene gains focus. Blythe can figure out what Anthony is thinking by reading cues or from his dialogue. (We hope she'll figure out someone else must be the hero of this novel!) More importantly, we don't need to know what the waitress thinks.
Just to make this more confusing, some readers (and some romance writers as well) prefer to have multiple viewpoints during love scenes. They feel this makes the reader feel more connected to both characters. Unfortunately, because love scenes are so intimate, switching viewpoints indiscreetly during a love scene can really mess up a good scene. So if you are going to switch viewpoints during a love scene, do so carefully. Read examples of best-selling authors such as Nora Roberts to learn how they do it.
Once you get accustomed to writing in a third person point of view, you can change viewpoints within a scene. The trick to changing viewpoints is doing it so that readers (and editors!) never notice. Be subtle and don't switch back during the same scene once you've made that switch. One good way of switching viewpoints within a scene is to switch the viewpoint only at the end of the scene, and then carry on the next scene from the point of view of that second character. This also makes a smooth transition.
More rarely, some beginning writers will write lots of short scenes that bounce back and forth, as if they want to avoid headhopping and will do anything they can to avoid it. Having lots of short scenes to avoid headhopping is even worse than headhopping. Instead of feeling like a ping-pong ball, readers feel like a volleyball. Ouch.
Also, keep in mind that most romance novels are written in a third person point of view. If you decide to write your story in an omniscient viewpoint, headhopping might be expected. However, it's going to be hard to control. Remember that readers won't say to themselves, "Oh, she's using omniscient viewpoint, so the headhopping is OK." They will thrown up their hands and say "Oh, no. More headhopping." True omniscient voice is a challenge. Only a skilled writer (such as the late Patrick O'Brian) can make it work well.
It used to be common for authors to insert their own statements into a novel. In the middle of a scene about the orphan boy looking for the missing skate key, readers might have to tap their feet while the writer told them about the poor working family down the street. Luckily, today's audiences are more demanding.
Still, authorial intrusion can sneak into a novel. This is common in all genres. Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara lapses into authorial intrusion now and then. (For example, he tends to tell us that his protagonists don't realize that something or someone is following them. I should imagine not! If they knew, they might turn around.) Many older romances use these techniques, such as Karen Robards' Sea Fire.
Here's an example from the ongoing saga of the beleaguered Blythe. For example, "Blythe thought she was safe in the dark parking lot, but she didn't notice the mysterious pink Cadillac following her." First, wouldn't it be more interesting and suspenseful if she did notice? This isn't a movie, and you're not Hitchcock. You can't hire Bernard Hermann to write spooky music to go with the pink Cadillac. You're writing a novel, and this scene is in Blythe's point of view, so you should be creating suspense based on what Blythe experiences. In that way, a limited third person viewpoint can be a more intimate experience for the reader. Second, who on earth is telling me this story? I thought Blythe was the viewpoint character, and suddenly, someone told me that Blythe didn't know about the mysterious Cadillac. Pity the poor reader who suddenly whips around, trying to figure out who is narrating this novel.
Have you ever noticed that characters often know what their expression looks like? We often read sentences such as "Blythe wore a startled expression." What, there's a mirror at the other end of the room? When was the last time you truly realized what your expression looked like?
So how do you describe your character's expression through her point of view? The trick is to find better descriptions. The phrase "wore a startled expression" is a cliche anyway. How did you feel the last time you were startled? Try to use those descriptions when telling the reader what Blythe went through. The readers will be more interested to learn that Blythe's voice shook as she spoke than they will be to learn that she had a "startled expression."
There are a lot of best-selling writers who use headhopping, authorial intrusion, and other viewpoint bugaboos. If it works for them, fine. Usually, they can do this because they are skilled at creating seamless transitions from headhop to headhop. However, you don't have that experience. Without that experience, you're better off avoiding headhopping altogether. Remember, you have an obligation to write the best book possible. If you don't have the skill to tell readers about multiple viewpoints within one scene, then don't even try it. Yes, there are plenty of readers will say they don't care about headhopping or that they don't notice. However, donŐt forget that there are many readers who notice it but never voice an opinion -- they simply don't buy books by authors who use headhopping.
Today, there are more romance writers who avoid headhopping and who feel strongly about point of view. For example, romance author Alison Kent shared her thoughts on viewpoint at All About Romance in an article "Who's on First?" (http://www.likesbooks.com/wb22.html). This article is an excellent resource for readers and writers alike. (I'm not saying that just because I wrote the introduction.)
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.