The Authorial Ventrilaquist

He’s back with the cryptic headings! What does this one mean? If you’ve read previous blogs, then you’ll know what this is about, but for those who don’t know, it’s all about “head-hopping” (which is a writing problem rather than something you do at a festival).

Now, this is part of a series of blogs I’m writing where I’m applying the principles outlined by Marcy Kennedy in her fantastic book: A Busy Writer’s Guide to Deep POV. So far I’ve taken a wider view and then grappled with that age-old advice: “show don’t tell”, and this month it’s time for another classic problem: head-hopping. Or more formally, POV violation. This is something that I can find jarring as a reader, and so I’ve always been more conscious of it as a writer, but I definitely feel I know it better now. Another invaluable lesson.

Just a quick recap…

…although it gets longer every month!

  • The first blog considered whether deep POV was necessary in my writing at all;
  • The second then asked how many perspectives were optimal;
  • The third looks at some of the statistics from the deep POV interrogation of Mandestroy (and also compares with FU);
  • The fourth blog looks at the effect of the deep POV edit on those same statistics (most notably sentence length);
  • And last month’s blog looked at “showing vs telling“.


What is head-hopping?

It’s just what is says on the tin.  In its most aggressive form, it is quite literally where the prose is being written from the perspective of one character in one moment, and then there is a sudden shift and we’re seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. This would be jarring as a person in everyday life – imagine being suddenly transported into someone just across the room! – and so it is just as jarring for a reader.

Of course, in the world of fantasy / sci-fi, the concept of a “head-hopper” might a being in its own right, but the authorial issue will be more than that. One minute we see the world through the eyes and emotions of one person, and then suddenly we switch. Imagine having your feelings one moment when you’re getting the hair-dryer treatment, and then a second later you are your boss, and you’re angry. That would be very disturbing.

That being said, this actually goes much further than this blatant example, and the problem is tightly woven with the choice of perspective taken. For example, the omniscient perspective is written from the perspective of an “all-knowing” narrator who can quite literally head-hop. But the skill with omniscient is to do it in a way that encourages the reader – knowing what to say and when to say it. It is story telling at its purest.

Think JK Rowling – the Harry Potter series is omniscient, apparently. I’ve read them all, and I didn’t know that. That’s how good those books are.

And then we have deep POV: the opposite end of the spectrum. Here, we are so wrapped up in the mind of one individual that what actually becomes important is keeping the bounds of knowledge intact. That is, as a reader, we cannot know more than our character does. Of course, the flip of this is that we must know everything they know, but it is these bounds that are important.

So this is the risk: as soon as we express the views of someone who isn’t our deep POV focus, then we have violated the rules. Although this doesn’t quite feel “head-hoppy”, it is a problem of the same essence. Let’s see how bad I am at it!

What’s the damage?

Well, all in all I uncovered 94 “POV errors. That’s 3.2% of sentences, which doesn’t sound too bad. This is my lightest error category, and I think I expected that. Here’s why.

In terms of pure “head-hopping”, I’m certain that this is not a problem I’m prone to. I write third person, and even where I have fifteen POVs (yes, fifteen! That’s what I managed in Fear’s Union), I make clear efforts to segregate the perspectives. Section breaks; paragraph breaks – you know the stuff. As it turns out, I violated another rule and didn’t let the reader know who the new POV was until too late, but the POV was, at least, was consistent.

But if I was perfect I would have zero errors, wouldn’t I? And I don’t. I have 94 in Mandestroy where we only have a single POV, so where do these come from? Well, these are the kinds of things that I think I’m prone to:

  • Naming the emotions of other characters when our protagonist can’t know this. He can suspect it, yes, or perhaps he can see something in the set of the eyes, but he can never know.
  • Moving body parts. This is a less obvious violation, where, for example, “his eyes moved to follow the shadow”. But in deep POV, we are in the head of our character, whereas “his eyes moved” suggests we’re outside. So this is a POV violation because we’re witnessing something we can’t. Instead, it’s better to write: “he watched the shadow move…”

Dare I say it, but I suspect the bulk of the violations are going to have this flavour. Let’s find out what the reality is.

The Reality

Exhibit A

Let’s start off with a beauty. This one has two (yes two) POV violations in it.

That triggered a smirk on Kantal’s own face, and he wore it often when his father stood proudly beside him.

Can you see the two violations? Here they are:

  • That triggered a smirk: like the smirk is independent of Kantal? Err, why not “he smirked”.
  • Father stood proudly beside him: I have an inkling that I know how someone looks when they “stand proudly”, but it is still an assumption. Kantal isn’t proud, and so it is a subtle violation.

So, how do we fix this? Well, this is my current effort:

In fact, he had adopted that same smirk himself, and he wore it often when his father stood beside him.

The tense of the sentence has changed slightly, but then that’s a lesson in itself – sentences do not exist in isolation. I’m assuming I’ve tweaked the surrounding sentences too, but won’t go into detail here. The point is that the POV errors have been removed. Hurrah! And both of these conform to the two things I think I’m bad at. Let’s move on.

Exhibit B

His companion offered a spiteful glance, but it didn’t matter.

A nice compact sentence, and yet we have a problem. How do we know his companion’s glance is spiteful? We don’t. We can assume that like this…

His companion offered what looked like a spiteful glance, but it didn’t matter.

…which solves the problem. But this is an example where deep POV actually offers the opportunity to really expand and enrich. This is what I actually came up with:

His companion offered a glance, the look of a man who’d just picked dog-dirt off his boots, but it didn’t matter.

Enough said. You may question whether dog-dirt on the boots triggers feelings of spite, but I don’t actually think it matters. That is the look he got, and that’s a great way of putting it. I’m happy with that.

Exhibit C

He looked sadly at Kantal.

How do we know he implied sadness? Again, we can assume this. What would be an interesting way of expressing this assumption?

The prince looked at him as if he were a condemned man.

That actually relays the sensations better too. Sadness is a part of the look, but actually it probably is tinged with disgust. And those are likely to be the emotions one would reserve for a condemned man. Again, I like this.

Exhibit D

This is a simpler one:

When he wasn’t reading his book, his thumbs twitched impatiently.

Were the thumbs impatient? Less head hopping and more “body-part hopping”. But easy to fix:

When he wasn’t reading his book, his thumbs twitched.

Exhibit E

One last example of terribleness. Here’s an easy fix:

His eyes flicked to the prince, but the young colonel didn’t seem to care as Kantal tried to talk his way out of the situation.

This could be easily changed to:

He looked to the prince, but the young colonel didn’t seem to care as Kantal tried to talk his way out of the situation.

But hang on. This is an opportunity. This isn’t a great sentence, so why don’t we “jazz” it up? Here goes:

He looked to the prince, but the young colonel didn’t seem to care. Oh well, there was no other option. He tried to talk his way out of the situation. This was unlikely to go well.

A fine example of this editing work shortening sentences and yet also lengthening word-count. Much better.

In conclusion

I have my POV vices (aka body parts and other characters’ emotions). But now I’m aware of this, I’m going to be much more conscious about it when I write. And there are some great examples here where the text has been enriched, so this is all good. Thanks again Marcy!

Next time…

… we will look at errors in the depth of the writing, and this one I’m really bad at. Fortunately, there are some easy fixes, but until then, keep in touch by signing up for the newsletter here.

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