Using head words the right way

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Deep POV is popular—almost to the exclusion of any other kind of third-person POV. And as such, there have been a lot of rules promulgated about how to create and maintain deep POV.

But, in case you’re new here, I’m an iconoclast when it comes to arbitrary writing rules. Some of those arbitrary rules that help no one include “never use the character’s name in deep POV,” and “never use ‘head words’ including ‘he thought,’ ‘she assumed,’ or ‘he realized.'” Although head words can often distance our readers from our writing and should often be avoided, I’m with editor/author Alicia Rasley on this one:

I don’t know how to say it any better than this (and you know it anyway, so this is aimed at those others), but you cannot create deep POV by following a list of rules like “Never use the POV character’s name” or “never have the narrator report that she saw something; just say what she saw.” You can only do a good job with deep POV if you know your character so well you know how she thinks, and she will not think the same way another character does, and she might not think the same way in every situation!

Sometimes these verboten head words are actually useful: they can keep from ejecting your readers from the deep POV you’ve worked to hard to establish, and they can add nuances to the character’s thought processes. Both of these are examples of the technique of using detail, then drawing the conclusion.

Nuanced thought processes

Granted, in a lot of amateur writing, there are a lot of gratuitous head words: “His suit looked like a bad ’70s prom tux, Jenny thought to herself.” However, specific head words can add nuance to our characters’ thought processes—they can show how our characters came to their conclusions, rather than just . . . well, jumping to conclusions.

Would these sentences convey the same thing without the head words (and yeah, I’m being a little tricky in using a so-called “head word” as the main verb here, but whatever)?

  • She could never understand him.
  • She realized she could never understand him.
  • She thought she could never understand him.
  • She knew she could never understand him. (And is that different from “She just knew she could never understand him.”?)
  • She could never understand him, she reminded herself.
  • She decided she could never understand him.

Each of those head words adds something to the meaning, showing us how this character came to that knowledge—it’s something new, or something she should have learned by now, or something she’s trying to convince herself of. That’s an important role for head words—unless we just want our characters to have constant epiphanies.

Reading other characters’ minds to not eject readers

Another example of using detail and then showing the conclusion is how we show other character’s emotions and even movements through the eyes of our characters. If we fail to do this, it can frustrate our readers and push them out of our character’s POV.

Now, this is a time to avoid head words (and scaffolding). At the same time, however, we have to be careful to make it clear that we’re not hopping heads. One example of this is in observing other characters’ emotions. If we’re in Timmy’s POV and we just flat out state “Jane felt sad,” (aside from being telling instead of showing), it seems like we’re suddenly in Jane’s POV.

Other characters’ movements can also present this problem. Another example from Alicia Rasley, on the sentence “Joan walked in from the kitchen,” disrupting the deep POV from Tom’s viewpoint [emphasis added]:

Sometimes as I read a passage, I feel ejected, like suddenly I’m not in Tom’s mind, I’m in Joan’s mind, or dangling helplessly in between. When I go back and read to figure out why, it’s often actually a deep POV issue, where the writer has Tom interpreting something from the way Joan speaks or behaves… but because there’s no “Tom thought” in there, it sounds like JOAN.

Okay, let me backtrack. While Tom cannot know what Joan is thinking, he can definitely interpret. This is not weird for the reader, as of course, the reader also cannot read minds but can interpret body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. But of course, Tom might or might not be good at this. He might be really empathic and intuitive and see a twitch of her lips and know she’s lying, or he could be the clueless type who thinks he knows what that lip-twitch means (“Oh, she’s going to sneeze!”) but is wrong. But… the important thing is that if it’s significant, if you want the READER to interpret also, the POV character has to notice and narrate it.

As I said before, this is another example of detail-conclusion. Just like we interpret other people’s emotions from their tone and body language, our characters can note other characters’ expressions and then interpret how they’re feeling. Or maybe they don’t need to interpret at all—maybe leaving it to the readers is even better in some cases.

What do you think? Are there any other uses for “head words”? What makes these uses okay but so many other uses bad?

Photo credits: plunge—Konrad Mostert; frustrated—John De Boer

Series NavigationYour character’s thoughts—in real timeEliminate “scaffolding” for elegant deep POVWhy some great books just don’t make good movies: powerful POV

6 thoughts on “Using head words the right way”

  1. Trying to write in deep POV is like pulling teeth for me, but I’m determined. I definitely catch myself using the head words all the time. I do think it works better for me because my MC experiences sights and sensations that aren’t really there.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. Oh, that’s another great exception! I’ve been toying with the idea of someone who discovers she’s telepathic, so that would be another challenge.

  3. Oh, LOL. I guess it could go either way. On using head words, it probably depends on whether the character realizes that she’s seeing isn’t there. If she doesn’t know that, then the head words might seem out of place, but if she does, then they could make that clearer.

    But yeah, I think deep POV would help a lot with that kind of character!

  4. I try to avoid head words too, but sometimes you just need them to ground it. Not often, but on the occasion. I keep working on honing deep POV. With each character it means something a little different, you’re right.

  5. This is super-helpful. I actually have a spot in my upcoming release that is precisely the “almost head hopping” kind of thing you reference here. Having this laid out helped me resolve the issue in my edits. Thank you!

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