As part of our continuing deep dive into different areas of novel writing, we’re taking a look at a specific aspect of point-of-view, namely when to—or maybe more important, when not to—switch between POV characters.
At first glance the whole discussion might seem silly. I mean, this is art and there are no rules, so we—as writers—can switch between characters whenever we want, right?
The issue—as always—is that the writer knows more (generally much more) about the story at any given place within the text than the reader does. And unless we’re purposely being vague for specific effect (which can certainly be valid at times), we generally want readers to feel at least somewhat grounded regarding where we are and in whose head we’re residing.
And more important, how they feel about said character at any given time.
We’ve discussed the importance of reader connection—especially with your main character(s)—and it can hurt the emotional bond we wish to build between reader and character to jump from character to character without some sort of framework or boundary between these transitions.
To move from one POV character to another without following these conventions is sometimes referred to as “head hopping.” (Generally in a less-than-complimentary way.) A typical case might be where the author moves from one person’s POV to another… within the same scene.
Although it can happen in 1st or 3rd person, past or present tense, it seems most common in close 3rd. We’re in one character’s head, then bang, we’re in another’s. With no scene break. When this happens, the author is actually switching (either intentionally or unintentionally) from close 3rd to omni 3rd. Oops! (If unintentional, which it generally seems to be.)
With 1st person, of course, it can only really happen with multiple POV characters. This can be even more egregious than with 3rd person, because in 1st the narrator doesn’t name the POV character (because they’re one and the same). There’s no, “Hi, this is Fred talking to you now. So as I was saying…” Many authors writing in 1st with multiple POV characters use chapter headings with the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter, just to keep the reader grounded as to who’s head we’re currently in.
Because this is important.
Not the heading, but the understanding of which car we’re currently driving. We want (strike that—we need) the reader to have understanding/empathy/connection with the POV character, and that clearly can’t happen until the reader is comfortably seated behind the wheel.
There’s something I call Cost of Transition. It implies that with any instance of transitioning from one time to another, one setting to another, one character to another, there will be a cost in reader attention. It’s in our best interest to keep this cost as low as possible for the reader, while still transporting them to another location, scene, day, or character. (If the cost is deemed too high—especially after a few of these in a row—this is where the reader is likely to put the book down. For an hour, for a day… or maybe forever.)
The cost goes up, not down, if the transition comes at an unexpected place… a place where the reader was thinking, “Hmm… I like it here. I’m interested in this place. I want to stay here for a while…” Then, just when the reader thought they were going to stay there until the end of the chapter… wham. You yank the rug out and throw them into another character… where they have to go through the whole ‘getting comfortable in this new place’ routine again.
This is generally not a good thing. Unless handled with skill, it can feel clunky… jerky… uncertain and uneven… like there’s a student driver piloting the bus.
Part of the reason is that it can feel more like telling than showing. We’ve probably all seen scenes in a manuscript similar to this:
Dick looked at Jane and thought, She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen… I bet there’s no way she’d ever go out with me.
Jane tried to guess what was going through Dick’s mind, and wondered, Hmm… is he ever going to ask me out?
Pretty tell-y, right? Instead of showing us, via actions and mood and dialog, etc. This sort of character-hopping within the same scene can come off as the polar opposite of “Paint a nuanced picture where we discern the dynamics of the relationship from dialog, tone, body language, etc.”
Maybe one of the reasons it can feel unnatural and clunky is that in real life, we are always in the head of the same person, and the only interior monologue we ever get is our own. So… maybe we’re willing to visit more than one person’s interiority, but only if we get closure before moving on to the next. (Sort of a “literary serial monogamy,” I guess…)
Regardless, I’d generally say: Consider not head hopping unless you have a very good reason (and the chops to actually pull it off without the downsides described above) because—as mentioned—there’s a cost to it. I’m sure some really talented and successful authors have used it to good effect, but when I see it in the wild, it frequently comes across as the opposite.
But as always, you do you.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.