Tag Archives: head hopping

Handling multiple POVs: first person

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Sometimes, using more than one POV in a novel can be tricky. Handling multiple POV styles can be even trickier. Last time, we looked at how to transition effectively between multiple POV characters in third person, and today we’re looking at multiple first person narrators and mixing first and third.

Multiple first-person POV characters

Ooh, now we’re getting tricky! Is that even allowed?

Oh yes. However, you want to be careful in doing this. It’s easy to confuse the reader when both or all of your POV characters call themselves “I.” So here are some quick guidelines on keeping the “I”s dotted straight.

  • Only change POVs at chapter breaks. Absolutely never head hop within a single scene. It might be possible to change first person narrators at a scene break, but it still might be jarring. (One of my books has two first person narrators and I always changed narrators ONLY at chapter breaks—and I didn’t use a chapter break unless I was changing viewpoint characters.)
  • Don’t be afraid of the “idiot light.” Put the viewpoint character’s name at the top of the chapter! (My band director in middle school used this term to describe a dome light that came on when you opened your door, as if you didn’t realize your door was open. He was using it to describe accidentals in music designed to cancel out the previous measure’s accidentals, which are automatically cancelled by a measure bar—just a reminder in case you’re not smart enough to remember those accidentals are no longer in effect.)
  • Make sure your characters have truly distinctive voices. This is important in third person, but critical in first. If they sound too much alike, your POV probably isn’t deep enough—and your readers are going to get confused, no matter what other precautions you take.

Multiple narrators, different persons

Whaaa? Can you even do that?

Yes! You can mix first- and third-person narration. My multiple first-person POVs book I mentioned? It also had some interspersed “scenes” that weren’t “in” chapters—and those were in third person, present tense (vs. past tense for the rest of the book). I needed a more distant POV for the narrator in those sections—and I really couldn’t put his name at the top of his chapters (since it would give away the villain’s identity, a major twist in the novel).

As with everything else we’ve discussed, if you’re going to mix first person and third person, do it on purpose and with purpose. You can even use different persons for the same character (in different scenes)—just be sure you know what effect you’re going for, and make sure it’s working for that effect. Another example would be Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence. It has six or more narrators, all in first person except for the character who is an elective mute. But at the end of the novel, <spoiler alert!> the elective mute breaks her silence and concludes the novel in a first-person epilogue.

Just in case you’re wondering, as with multiple first person stories, I think it’s helpful to label the chapters with the viewpoint characters’ names, especially if two or more of your POV characters are in first person. (In The Weight of Silence, the chapters were all labeled with the viewpoint character’s name.) You can do this in third person as well, but I find it a lot clumsier than handling multiple third person narrators organically.

What do you think? What’s the most unusual POV or the most unusual POV combination you’ve ever used? How did you handle it? Come join in the conversation!

Photo credits: couple eating—Mr. Thomas; I-Spy badge by Leo Reynolds; Silent—Jennifer Moo

Handling multiple POVs

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Sometimes, using more than one POV in a novel can be tricky. Handling multiple POV styles can be even trickier. Today we’ll look at how to transition effectively between multiple POV characters in third person, and next time we’ll take it to the next level, looking at multiple first person narrators and mixing first and third.

Multiple third-person POV characters

In general, the guideline is that we don’t change POV characters within a scene. I’ve even seen this rule phrased as “you can’t change POV characters within a chapter” but from all that I’ve read and seen, I think that’s far stricter than general publishing guidelines. I’ve also seen some writers state that you can’t change POVs within a chapter, but that’s patently ridiculous, to put it mildly.

When changing between viewpoint characters with all third-person POVs, you will want to use a scene break (denoted by white space or other marks in novels, denoted by centered asterisks or octothorpes in manuscripts) or a chapter break. As with any scene ending, you’ll probably want to give us something to look forward to for the next time we see that character or we get that character’s POV (a hook, if you will).

In the new scene, orient the readers to the new POV character as quickly as you can. You have a number of options of narrative modes to start the scene, but orienting to the POV character can make it a little tougher. Using dialogue can be hit or miss. Thoughts, in general—such as the sequel from the previous scene in this character’s POV—aren’t the best way to switch off the POVs.

I think of opening with thoughts like starting a movie scene with a black screen and a voiceover—without the advantage of recognizing the voice right away. There’s a certain stark effect there, but if you’re not going for that, use the anchor and marble in those thoughts amid the present action.

The easiest way to orient the reader to the new POV character is to begin with a physical action anchor. I do try to avoid falling into a formula, but this beginning is also a good place to orient the reader and character in place and time, include a short sequel from the last scene we saw the POV character in (especially if something important happened and we need their reaction) and state the scene goal (which is often related to the sequel).

Seems like a lot? You can do all that in as little as three sentences.

Another personal rule that I use with multiple POV characters (and this is totally my option, a guideline I gave myself, you don’t have to follow it, but I do) is that any character whose role in the story is important enough to warrant getting their own POV should probably have their POV introduced within the first 3-5 chapters or 30-50 pages.

I find POV characters that jump out of nowhere jarring, especially later in a book (especially if it’s for a single scene—drive-by POV—and most especially if that single scene isn’t needed or didn’t need an additional POV character). They don’t have to come up in a regular rotation, but I try to keep the “minor viewpoint characters” in the loop every few chapters as well.

Multiple third-person POVs within a single scene

Seriously? Didn’t I just say we shouldn’t do this?

All right, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in published books. At this point, I avoid this (I’m very strict on myself about POV, actually). But if you really, really, really want to do it, here are some tips:

  • Make sure the transition is necessary. Gratuitous changes can feel like indiscriminate head hopping. Limit the number of heads you pop into in a single scene
  • Make sure the transition is obvious (i.e. obviously intentional). The reader needs to feel like we’ve passed the POV baton onto this new character and the character has accepted it, not like “we’re just in this character’s head for a visit, and then we’ll pop back into the real POV character’s head.”
  • Make sure the transition is smooth. (Obvious and smooth? I’m not asking much, right? Maybe this is why this has fallen out of favor.)

This is not quite like omniscient POV, because in omniscient, you don’t have to be quite so strict about transitions. You want to be systematic in omniscient, but once you’ve established your POV expectations (that you can dip into all characters’ thoughts), you can continue to operate in those parameters.

Unless you’re already published, you have to prove you know what you’re doing with POV, so tread carefully here.

What do you think? What “person” do you typically use? How many viewpoint characters do you typically have? What is the most you’ve ever juggled? Come join in the conversation!

Photo credits: couple eating—Mr. Thomas;
anchor & compass (Falkland Islands War Memorial)—Ambernectar 13; leap frog (for head hopping)—TRiver

What is deep POV?

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Welcome to our series for July: taking the plunge into the deep end of point-of-view! (Perfect for the middle of summer, right?).

Ordinarily, a discussion of deep POV looks in-depth at the history of point-of-view in fiction. Feel free to read Alicia Rasley’s article (linked there) if that’s what you want to do. For our purposes, we’re just going to look at what’s most popular now—and this is one trend that we all have to pay attention to. For better or for worse, deep POV is the default mode of storytelling today (other than first person, of course).

So what is deep POV? Interestingly, it’s very like the other major mode of narration today, first person. In first person (“I did this and that.”), we are limited to only what the protagonist/narrator thinks, feels, perceives and guesses. Just like you can’t read others’ thoughts, a first person narrator can’t know what other characters are thinking. Similarly, in deep POV third person (“He did this and that.”), we are limited to the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and guesses of a single narrator per scene.

Of course, that’s just third-person limited mode. What makes a point of view “deep” is how “close” we are to the viewpoint character’s thoughts. In a distant third-person mode, we may be privy to few of the character’s direct thoughts, and those are always related in italics. We may rely more on their actions and speech to characterize and understand them. Often, we’re acutely aware of what the viewpoint character is doing, as if we’re watching them with a tight focus, and every once in a while we get a voiceover of his or her thoughts (mmm, Burn Notice).

In deep POV, the character’s thoughts can form almost a running commentary on the actions of the story. We don’t just get the occasional The problem with blackmail is that it’s like a gun with only one bullet or Yeah, the mob isn’t exactly known for its cushy retirement and severance package. Statements like that—direct thoughts from the viewpoint characters’ heads—are woven into the narration. In very deep POV, those statements might not even be italicized.

Sometimes, you can get so deep into POV that we don’t “hear” the “author’s” voice in narration, but the character’s. (And that can be awesome.) Everything we, the readers, get is as if we were seeing it through that character’s eyes (or brain, since we get a lot of his/her processing, too). We don’t just watch this character and his or her actions—we don’t see the character looking out the window. We see what s/he sees through the window. We seem to live the character’s experiences ourselves.

That’s a powerful narration mode—and that’s why deep POV has become so popular.

In pure deep POV, “head hopping,” or peeking into the thoughts of other characters within a single scene, is never allowed. Of course, a number of well-known, multi-published authors do this, but in general, new authors have to show that they truly understand point-of-view (oh, and sell books) before they can flout its conventions. In deep POV, you can have more than one viewpoint character, but to change between them, you have to insert a scene break. No matter how smooth or lovely you think your POV change is (and really, it might be masterful), it destroys the illusion of seeing the world through one character’s eyes and throws readers off.

Coming up this month, we’ll be looking at deep POV in detail. We’ll draw lessons from awesome articles around the web on how to show our character’s perceptions and worldviews. I’ll be reading from Alicia Rasley’s book, The Power Of Point Of View (as soon as it arrives; shipped yesterday!). And I already have some ideas for fun practice exercises for getting into our characters’ heads and seeing the world from their perspective.

What would you like to learn about deep POV? What do you like or dislike about the most popular narration mode today?

Photo credits: plunge—Konrad Mostert; man looking out window—Ben Husmann; city view—Mihai Estatiu