Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lesson 1: Don't Get A Head Of Yourself

If there is one thing that will easily identify a writer as a novice, it’s head hopping. What is head hopping? It’s switching from one point of view to another within the same section, or even worse: within the same paragraph. For example:

Dinner was served on the finest china, with a full staff of servants attending. Mrs. Davies couldn’t have been more thrilled, as the food was delicious and the setting perfect. Even the prince of the mighty Northwestern Railroad dynasty was impressed and pleased.

First, we experience the dinner from the hostesses point of view, and then we switch to the point of view of the distinguished guest, Mr. Hales. While this one instance may seem insignificant, after pages of head hopping, the reader will feel like they are reading a book while riding a merry-go-round. (That means head hopping is dizzying, just in case you missed the metaphor.)  

To use an over-exaggerated comparison, let’s say omniscient POV is like social media. Every minute, thousands of thoughts (I can’t be sure exactly how many thoughts, but it might be somewhere in the kabillion range) are sent out into the interwebs. Can you read/process every one? No. Would you want to? Heavens no. You don’t really care that Suzy Somebody thinks Fluff-n-Stuff is the best Laundromat to use when visiting Wichita, do you? In order to sift through the overabundance of information, you focus on those you find the most interesting, or those with whom you are the most invested. 

Authors must keep this in mind as they write. Always ask: Which characters do I want the reader to bond with? Which characters have the most to lose? –These are your POV characters.

Now that you have established which characters are your POV characters, all other character’s heads should be closed; their thoughts hidden. Certainly, the reader can guess what other characters are thinking based on behavior and expressions, but the reader should not be TOLD minor character’s thoughts.

Oh hey—did you see that word I used in that last sentence? TOLD. One of the biggest downfalls of the omniscient POV is that the author uses thoughts to TELL us what is happening rather than showing us.

In this particular scene, a fight has broken out between two characters. At first, we are in Reese’s head:

Reese jumped at Robert with all his force and began swinging his fists, not aiming at any body part in particular. A group of men had gathered outside and several of them pulled Reese off of the dazed Robert.

And then we head hop into Robert’s POV:

Thankfully for Robert, the alcohol had numbed his sensations and he wasn’t aware of how hard he had been hit, although he would feel it double-fold in the morning.

We’ve just been TOLD about Robert’s injuries rather than seeing them. Imagine this instead:

Robert let out a devious chuckle and his breath filled the air with the pungent smell of whiskey. It was obvious that the alcohol had numbed his senses, as any other man with an eye that had instantly swollen shut would be writhing in pain.

SEE the difference?

Another downside of omniscient is that the author is not able to hide secrets from the reader. Why does a novel need good secrets? Because it’s what keeps the reader turning the pages. Look at this passage:

“Your letters portray an entirely different person. Either you are a Dr. Jeckal & Mr. Hyde, or you are not the author of your love sonnets,” Mae said.

I will omit the next paragraph where the accused, Robert, acts offended and lashes out at Mae for her allegation. But then, we learn this in the very next paragraph:

What Mae didn’t realize was that Robert was on the defense against her remark; he had hired someone to write love letters for him. Several years ago, he hired a young and promising poet to write lyrics. Robert constantly kept the small notebook with him, as it was filled with verses of love and adoration. Whenever Robert needed to enchant a young lady, he referred to this book and merely changed a few words and phrases to fit the female.

If Mae is going to get duped by Robert’s sycophantic words, shouldn’t the reader get duped as well? The reader will feel more attached if she gets to experience the same emotions as Mae. Another risk of giving away too much information is that the reader can actually turn against your main character and find them ignorant and foolish. You want your readers to be sympathetic, and this is best accomplished with an intimate emotional connection between the reader and the character.

Instead of the author (in this case, the much younger, much more armatureish me) divulging Robert’s secret, imagine if Mae falls for Robert’s wiliness, but then later in the story reads a poem written by that aforementioned young poet—who is unknown to her—and finds the very same verses that had once been written for her in Robert’s hand? After experiencing a growing attachment to Robert, she would now feel betrayed, used, and foolish. The reader will sympathize with her and her hatred for Robert, rather than just thinking, “What a lame-o! Mae should have known better than to get jiggy for a playa!” (Although, if that is how your reader thinks, maybe she is reading the wrong genre. She probably thought your book was a how-to guide for getting more hits on her dating profile.)

While omniscient POV is mostly associated with the classics, there are some modern authors who use this style successfully. If you like reading omniscient, you may like writing it as well. That is fine. Don’t let anyone tell you which POV you can or can’t use. But! Be aware of the pitfalls of omniscient before deciding if it is the right POV for your novel. If you use omniscient, do it with purpose and do it right—meaning to only include the thoughts of those characters who really matter, changing POV’s only after a section break. Infuse your story with rich imagery rather than telling them what everyone is thinking. Give your readers reason to keep reading.



  1. Lori, that was a lot of helpful information! It gels with a lot of the things I've been learning recently, plus some new stuff. I like the way you summed up the lesson at the end. I now have a better idea of what the omniscient point of view is, and what the risks are. Cool! Thanks for a great first post!

  2. Thanks Jenna, glad it was helpful!


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