I teach workshops on a regular basis to mostly beginning writers. A common issue that often shows up in their first drafts deals with point-of-view shifting; specifically what’s called “head hopping”. Most of the time it’s done without the writers even realizing it. They want to make sure enough information is passed on to the reader for the story to make it clear and move forward. I’ve found that even after pointing out the problem, it’s a bit mystifying and confusing to new authors. It takes practice to understand where they’re going wrong. Unfortunately, head hopping comes with some undesirable side effects which I’ll cover below. First, here’s an example of POV head hopping.
Agent Miller watched his partner, Agent Cobb, as they suited up for the assault. Why was Cobb so secretive when he showed up at the staging area? Why had he seemed reluctant to talk about his upcoming promotion? Cobb always confided in him with personal issues. After ten years together, it wasn’t like him.
“You decide to take the gig,” Miller asked as the two suited up for the assault.
“Not sure,” Cobb said and turned away, not wanting his best friend to know that the promotion meant he would soon be Miller’s new boss.
Here we have the inner thoughts of both men. There are two points of view.
It would be easy to conclude that this is omniscient point of view. The omniscient narrator simply knows what both men are thinking. Technically, it is. But there’s a good chance the author didn’t use omniscient POV on purpose. If anything, it was out of inexperience. Omniscient POV is not used much in popular fiction these days. Its heyday came years ago when writers like to play god—all knowing, all seeing. In order to maintain an omniscient POV, the narrator had to know everything about everybody all the time. It’s an oppressive writing style that dilutes the mystery and personal conflict of the plot—one of the side effects I mentioned.
The biggest downside to head hopping is a lack of close, personal connection with the main characters. Readers love to get “inside” the heads of the protagonist and antagonist. They want to see and feel what the characters feel; what makes them tick. With head hopping, it’s more distant and somewhat sterile. Even cold like a documentary where the voice over narrator tells everything in a matter-of-fact fashion. In contemporary fiction, the reader desires to see the story through the character’s eyes, not the narrator’s.
So what’s the solution to head hopping? As an example, let’s rewrite the scene with the two agents. Pick a POV character, usually the protagonist and route everything through his eyes and thoughts. As the writer, put yourself in the character’s head. You’re not a psychic, clairvoyant or mind reader. You can only determine another character’s attitude through their actions, reactions and speech.
Agent Miller watched his partner, Agent Cobb, as they suited up for the assault. Why was Cobb so secretive when he showed up at the staging area? Why had he seemed reluctant to talk about his upcoming promotion? After ten years together, it wasn’t like him.
“You decide to take the gig,” Miller asked. He knew Cobb always confided in him about personal issues.
“Not sure,” Cobb said and turned away.
It was almost as if Cobb was hiding something about the promotion. Something that embarrassed him.
The basic information was revealed in the second version. The difference was that an element of mystery, even conflict emerged. It pushes the story forward and tells the reader something about both characters’ motivation.
So how do you manage multiple POVs?
It’s called the “handoff”. Sort of like when the quarterback hands off the football to the running back. The focus is now on the new character with the ball. In order to shift POV, you must hand off the POV from one character to the other. This can be done with a “drop” or scene change where the first POV character leaves the scene thereby “handing off” the point of view to the remaining character. An even better method is to always stay in a single POV per chapter, shifting only when the new chapter starts.
Shifting POV should be for a specific purpose, not random. Not doing so violates the most important rule of writing: never confuse the reader.
How do you deal with POV shifts? Any additional tips?
“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.