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shayla sullivan

Head-Hopping in POV (Point of View)

What is confusing about the POV (point of view) in the example below?

Jenny started her day as she usually did, feeling the ray of sunshine on her face, but dreading to go into the office.  Today was supposed to be different.  Her boss, Mr. Sanders was supposed to discuss her proposed raised today.  When she arrived at work, she slowed her pace when she saw Mr. Sanders in the doorway with a worried look on his face.  “Jenny, we have a problem,” said Mr. Sanders.  Remembering back to a time in his own past when he faced a similar situation, Mr. Sanders hesitated, nervous about the bad news he was going to have to give her.  He knew she would be upset.

Did you notice the problem?  No?  Read it again, but this time, see if you can distinguish whose perspective on the incident you are getting.

You are getting both Jenny’s and Mr. Sanders’ perspective.  How do we know that?  Because you learn Jenny’s inner thoughts and see what she see’s when she arrives to work.  But then you also get Mr. Sanders’ perspective about having to reveal bad news about an expected promotion, as well as his memory from a similar incident.

In other words, there are multiple POV’s within a scene, which is a huge NO-NO.

And here is why:

Granted, multiple POV’s are warranted, even praised within a book, but only when done correctly.  The use of multiple POV means that the perspective is separated by a physical narrative barrier- such as a chapter or a scene. Pick a POV character, say Jenny, and write the scene for her POV only.  Then in a separate scene (I prefer chapter breaks for POV switches), write from Mr. Sanders’ POV.  One thing to steer clear from here is writing a retelling of the same scene.  Sure, sometimes this is done very well on film, but for your book, this would be considered redundant.  Instead, consider writing a fresh scene with a different event.

But what is even meant by “head-hopping”?

Head-hopping is just that- hopping from one character’s head to another, and another, then back, then another- so much to the point that it is difficult for the reader to gain a clear sense of who the scene belongs to, or whose perspective is being told. The problem with this erroneous technique is that it pulls the reader out of the scene, never allowing them the full experience of a character.

And that is bad, especially when you need the reader to bond with that character.

For a reader to really feel for a character, they need to be all the way in, as close as they can be, with that character.  Do this by allowing the thoughts, emotions, and visuals of that one character, or at least one character per scene or chapter.  Again, I like to break POV by chapters rather than scenes because I prefer minimizing the back and forth as much as possible.  Chapter POV’s allow a longer time with the character, and thus a better chance to bond with them.

Let’s revise that scene, and stick with only Jenny’s POV:

Jenny started her day as she usually did, feeling the ray of sunshine on her face, but dreading to go into the office.  Today was supposed to be different.  Her boss, Mr. Sanders was supposed to discuss her proposed raised today.  When she arrived at work, she slowed her pace when she saw Mr. Sanders in the doorway with more of a frown than a smile.  “Jenny, we have a problem,” said Mr. Sanders. Jenny slowly approached him, feeling more nervous than she had felt at home. Her anxiety increased when she saw Mr. Sanders’ hesitation as she approached him.

Much better!  What changed?

The action remined the same. But the POV, this time, remained consistent.

Instead of saying “Mr. Sanders had a worried look on his face”, Jenny sees that he has more of a frown than a smile.  This is because Jenny cannot be sure that Mr. Sanders is worried, but she can study his face to make that assumption.  Of course, we removed Mr. Sanders’ memory, since Jenny would not be aware of that, but we also removed the statement about Mr. Sanders himself feeling nervous.  Again, Jenny can only see his hesitation in the new passage.

Remember, when maintaining POV, only describe what that character sees and allow them to make assumptions from there. Only allow the internal thoughts of the POV character, and thoughts of everyone else in the scene should be displayed by facial expressions, dialogue, and other behavior, as physically seen by the POV character. 

Doing this makes for the most personal journey between the reader and the main character (or chosen POV character), making for a deeper investment into the story.

More about POV in Establishing POV I: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and Establishing POV II: Omniscient vs Limited (Close)

Hope that helps!

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