Sunday, November 14, 2010


Deep Point of View or How to Avoid Head-Hopping      

by Jodie Renner, editor and author,

The issue of point of view (POV) or viewpoint can be a difficult one for new novelists to get a handle on, but it simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. We see, hear, smell, feel and experience events as that character would—with no additional information provided “from above” by the author.

In other words, if you’re writing a romance, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view (which you should be most of the time, as it’s her story) you’re not going to mention her blue eyes or long, blond hair unless she’s looking at herself in a mirror – and that one’s been overdone. (Besides, how many of us consciously think about our eye or hair color when we’re looking in the mirror?) At this point in the story, you’re seeing the world through the heroine’s eyes, so you see and hear only what she would see and hear. If she’s talking to someone else, you’re probably not going to mention her freckles or her tousled hair, unless she’s wondering if she looks okay. (Or you could have her sister, bff or the hero mention them.)

Need to tell what your hero is thinking in the middle of a scene that’s in the POV of your heroine? Tell your readers this by what the heroine is perceiving: his facial expressions, movements, attitude, body language, tone of voice and what he says—or leaves out.

As Jack M. Bickham says, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice: “Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.” Of course, you don’t have to stay in your protagonist’s point of view for the whole story, but well over half the story should be from the main character’s POV, so that the reader can identify with him/her and begin to care what happens to him/her.

As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever. The fiction writer wants her story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible. So she sets things up so that readers will experience the story just like they experience real life: from one viewpoint inside the action.”

If your fiction is to be effective and your lead character is to come alive and matter to the reader, you’ll need to accomplish this by showing all the action from inside the head and heart – the thoughts, senses and emotions – of the person you have chosen as the viewpoint character.

To quote Bickham again, “In a novel, there may be several viewpoints, but one must clearly dominate… It’s a fatal error to let your viewpoint jump around from character to character, with no viewpoint clearly dominating…. To put this in other words: even in a novel of 100,000 words, well over 50 percent – probably closer to 70 percent – should be clearly and rigidly in the viewpoint of the main character. That character’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions and intentions should unmistakably dominate the action.”

So, in order to draw the reader in and grab him emotionally, every story must have a clearly dominant viewpoint character. When we see the story through his eyes, reacting as he does, it’s like we’re in the story.

But how do we as authors go about this? Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about Jason, and you have decided that he is the viewpoint character. How do you make sure that your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?

The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by Jason, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Jason. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Jason walks into a room, for example, you do not imagine how the room looks from some god-like authorial stance high above the room, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Jason sees it, walking in.

And of course include his reactions to the other people in the room. Show Jason’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying “the room was stuffy,” say “Jason felt the stuffy heat of the room close around him.” By using words like “Jason felt” and “he knew,” you’re helping the reader get inside Jason’s head and identify with him, which is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get engaged in your story.

But you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a blue-collar worker and high-school dropout, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms.

It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Jason, or telling about something that’s happening in the kitchen, when Jason is in the living room. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Jason by what Jason perceives – he sees their looks and body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.

If you’re writing a romance, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, and the hero is angry, you will show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him (“That jerk! he thought, I’ll show him!”) but by what the heroine is seeing and perceiving – his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.

The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.”

So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?

According to Cynthia VanRooy, “When a reader becomes emotionally engaged in a book, he or she enters into the story. The writer has hypnotized the reader into participating in the illusion of the fictional world. The reader understands the book world isn’t real, but in order to fully enjoy the story, he or she chooses to temporarily pretend otherwise, or to suspend their disbelief. […]

“Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded they aren’t actually living in the fictional world you’ve created, they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.

“…Deep POV gives the reader a chance to really identify with a character, something you aim for as an author. Even Nora Roberts, famous for her frequent changes in POV, lets the reader stay in one character long enough to become thoroughly hooked.”

Self-editing tip to avoid head-hopping or a meandering viewpoint:

A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the markers and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting sentences that describe scenes, people and perceptions strictly from his POV. Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.” Keep on writing!

By Jodie Renner, November 2010

Resources: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham; “POV or: Whose Head Am I in, Anyway?” by Cynthia VanRooy

Saturday, November 13, 2010


As a follow-up to my article on grabbing the reader with a compelling first page, entitled "Act First, Explain Later", here are some memorable first lines (and first paragraphs) of novels, starting with a few recent bestsellers, then going back to some classics:

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” – Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

“Nat Greco felt like an A cup in a double-D bra.” – Lisa Scottoline, Daddy’s Girl

“Cooper Sullivan’s life, as he’d known it, was over.” – Nora Roberts, Black Hills

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.” – Anthony Horowitz, Storm Breaker

“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” – Diana Gabaldon, Outlander

“Happily unaware that he’d be dead in twenty-three minutes, Henry W. Wyley imagined pinching the nicely rounded rump of the young blonde who was directly in his line of sight.” – Nora Roberts, Three Fates

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” – J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

“You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.” – Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

“Inspector Salvo Montalbano could immediately tell that it was not going to be his day the moment he opened the shutters of his bedroom window.” – Andrea Camilleri, The Voice of the Violin

“If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” – Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” – William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” – Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

“Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” – James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

"They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them." – Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. An unattractive man, I think my liver hurts.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From The Underground

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madam Francoise Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes.” – Lalita Tademy, Cane River

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
– Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone

“They shoot the white girl first.” – Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

“He should never have taken that shortcut.” – Michael Crichton, Timeline

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.” – Dick Francis, To the Hilt

“The second time Ian Dunne came into my life, I was trapped under a pile of bodies, behind a sheet of plate glass.” –Lee Nichols, Hand Me Down

“The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.” – Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

“Three days ago Emily Thompson had been Southside’s heir apparent. Every soldier in the city had been hers to command. Now the guards outside her door were the only people she had seen since her arrest.” – Sean Stewart, The Night Watch

“He hardly felt the hit, but he heard it. The muffled roar shook the stick slightly, and he looked out to see the end of his right wing shatter and flake away.” – William Diehl, Thai Horse

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” – Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

“The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. Too many deaths on this voyage, he thought, I’m Pilot-Major of a dead fleet.” – James Clavell, Shogun

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)

“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” – W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944)

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” –Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.” – G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

“I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.” – Tracy Chevalier, Falling Angels

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” – James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

“You weren’t supposed to have favorite children. If there was one thing Margaret Porter knew, it was that nothing could divide a family faster than showing favoritism, even in the most minor circumstances.” – Luanne Rice, Dance with Me

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

“Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.” – David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

“Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” – Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

“Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.” – Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

“When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson.” – Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)

“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.” – Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

“Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” – William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.” – J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

"He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters."
– Virginia Wolff, Orlando

“Five weeks after Kirsten Waller's body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband. Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering away on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband's chest.”
– Joanna Hines, The Murder Bird

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." – Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1983)

“It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.” —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women.” —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” – Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” – Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

“They say when trouble comes, close ranks, and so the white people did.” – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

- compiled by Jodie Renner, November 2010,