Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday's Burning Question

Ellen Hart writes:

As both a writer and a writing teacher, I make sure my students understand POV (Point Of View). Simply put, you can't head hop in a scene. You can't be in two character's minds in the same chapter/section. And then, of course, one smart-aleck student will always go out, find a British mystery, bring it back and point out that the British do it all the time. So there. What's a poor writing teacher supposed to say?

Which leads us to Sandra Parshall's Burning Question for today:

"British authors often "head-hop"--switching from one character's POV to another within a scene. American writers generally regard this as a forbidden practice. How do you feel about it, as a writer or as a reader?"

13 comments:

Sam said...

Multiple points of view in a scene doesn't bother me if it's done well. George Pelicanos uses the technique very well in RIGHT AS RAIN. He doesn't do it often, but when he does, it reads as the literary & mental equivalent to a camera pan across a room in a screen or television production. And, as you point out, British authors use the technique all the time.

Many of the "rules" about writing fiction seem to stem from the fact that whatever the rule covers is often done poorly by beginning writers. Teachers advise beginners to avoid certain techniques while they are learning more fundamental skills and beginners internalize the advice as a "rule" of writing.

It also depends on the conventions that readers expect. British readers obviously don't mind multiple points of view in a scene, so British authors do it. American readers don't expect it, so American writers tend to avoid it.

Joyce said...

Personally, I don't like head-hopping. I have no problem with changing POV, but bouncing back and forth between characters in the same scene pulls me right out of the story.

However, I don't think most readers (unless they're also writers) even notice.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I'm with Sam. If it's done well, switching POV can be a seamless experience that doesn't interfere at all. (One who does it well is Nora Roberts.)

Unfortunately, if you don't put down some basic rules, everyone will think they can do it, and most people just can't. It's better to give people general guidelines, then force them to think seriously before breaking those guidelines, than to let them wander into dangerous waters precipitously!

Sandra Parshall said...

What's truly weird with me is that I notice it when American writers do it and don't notice it when British writers do. I think my mind is unconsciously applying a double standard. I never do it myself. Getting one character's thoughts and emotions right in a scene is enough work for me. I couldn't manage two!

Peg Brantley said...

I think that sometimes when a reader, who isn't also a writer, doesn't like a book and isn't quite sure why, head-hopping is the likely answer.

Eleanor Andrews said...

I'm not a fan of head hopping as a writer or a reader.

As a reader, I find head hopping distracting.

As a writer, I find this practice tedious and distracting. The writer not only needs to see as the character sees. The writer needs to think as the character thinks, speak as the character speaks, and carry the baggage the character carries to make it real.

I'm not a fan of this technique.

Eleanor Andrews

Sheila Connolly said...

It drives me nuts if it's not done well. I have nothing against multiples POVs (should I admit that I have a draft of a book with five?), but not within scenes. I think that anything that pulls the reader out of the narrative--makes him or her stop and try to puzzle out just who's talking--does only harm to the flow of the story.

Not that that stops plenty of writers from doing it--as Laura noted, Nora Roberts gets away with it all the time, and you can see how she suffers.

Cher'ley said...

As a reader, it doesn't bother me, unless there are too many heads and I can't keep them straight.

Terry Odell said...

It's a matter of authorial skill. Changing POV isn't always "head hopping." If transitions are done cleanly, it's simply a POV shift. Doing it too often, however, can dilute the read because the reader can't maintain that emotional connection.

I've read plenty of American books where POV shifts will happen within a scene. Some publishers will edit out the visual breaks the author might have put in to indicate a shift.

That being said, I'm a firm believer in the "one scene, one POV" when I write.

What I don't like is the hop to omniscient POV. That spoils things for me. But there's no rule against it. :-)

Hallie Ephron said...

It's the curse of being a writer that you NOTICE what probably 99% of other readers don't. An out of control viewpoint makes me crazy and I stop reading. A non-writer might just say "it feels so confusing," or "who's the protagonist?" or "I just can't relate to these characters."

A problem with a MYSTERY and head hopping is that as an author you risk revealing too much to the reader and robbing your story of potential surprises further on.

Rosemary Harris said...

I've never switched POVs within a scene, but just did it between chapters in my new book. I had to reveal info in a certain way and it just wouldn't have worked to have my protag do it. I hope it worked... I have to say it was pretty liberating.

ellen Hart said...

Rosemary and everyone: I think switching the pov in different chapters is not only fine (when in third person) but great fun. That, to me, is the value of third person in a mystery. You can put the camera anywhere you want. And the slight-of-hand that comes from being inside the antagonist's pov/the murderer, is fascinating to write. The problem with too many points of views in a third person novel is that the main character can get lost. If you make sure that doesn't happen, then I think it's a rich way to tell a story.

Patg said...

As a writer and a reader, I love it. It makes the book more interesting. Good stories are about many different people, and what they think is important. Granted, it requires skill to do it right.
One of the reasons I moved my required number of pages to read before deciding if I will finish a book, is because of British writers. Their stories with multiple POV or head hopping can start out a bit confusing, but the beauty of most of it is how it all comes together and you can see the funneling as the book progresses. Yes, I get pulled out of the story: to admire the writing!
Patg