Under A Wandering Star: Reining In Points of View

Editors often warn of the wandering point of view, sometimes called head-hopping (a term I don’t love for reasons that will become clear). This is the practice of switching from one person’s point of view (POV) to another during a scene. It often gets listed as one of those Things Editors Hate, like the frankly ridiculous blanket ban on disembodied body parts, or submissions in Comic Sans, and as such some authors don’t think it’s a big deal, and/or don’t notice themselves doing it. Well, it is, and you should.

Here’s an exaggerated (but not by much) example of classic head-hopping.

Lucy opened the door. Happiness rushed through her as she saw Jim. “Hi Jim!”

Jim didn’t feel at all pleased to see her, rather than Moira. She had a smudge on her face that she obviously hadn’t noticed and he thought she looked tired. “Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Lucy felt devastated. Why would Jim ask for Moira straight away? “No, but…” She plastered on her brightest smile. “She’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

That was nice of her. Maybe Lucy wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” Jim said, meaning it.

This passage has more problems than its predictable love triangle. We are in Lucy’s head, feeling her happiness. We jump to Jim’s perspective in the next line, feeling his sensations and seeing Lucy through his eyes. Then we’re back in Lucy again, this time right in her head with her unmediated thoughts. And then we switch to Jim’s deep POV, which in this case shows us that he’s been fooled by Lucy’s fake smile.

This is bad writing, not because wandering POV is against some manual of style, but because it’s confusing, distancing and expositionary.

Confusing: in the fourth line, the reader can’t tell if ‘That was nice of her’ is Jim reflecting on Lucy’s behaviour or Lucy reflecting on her own behaviour. We have to read on to work out who’s thinking. That can be a useful puzzle to set the reader in a crime novel (when we’re in the villain’s head without knowing who s/he is), but here it just breaks the flow for no useful purpose.

Distancing: Because we go from head to head, we don’t get to inhabit a character. We see what they’re feeling but we don’t get carried along into experiencing Lucy’s hidden resentment or Jim’s selfishness.

Expositionary: The passage is just telling us things. Lucy feels happy. Jim feels cross. Lucy feels devastated. Jim is fooled. The boy throws the ball. Topsy and Tim go to the circus.

Here is the scene written from Jim’s point of view.

He’d hoped to see Moira, but it was Lucy who opened the door. Her hair looked greasy, there was a smudge on her face, and the wide goofy smile she gave Jim made his heart sink. Please let her have got over that stupid embarrassing crush from last term. “Hi Jim!” she chirruped.

“Hi Lucy, is Moira in?”

Her smile got even wider and brighter. “No, but she’ll be back in a moment, why not come in?”

Jim felt a wave of relief. That was nice of her. Maybe she wasn’t going to stand in his way when he asked Moira out. “Thanks,” he said, meaning it.

I’m not saying this is epic writing, but some things to notice:

  • You get a much better sense of Jim as a person (the prick).
  • The passage flows, instead of jerking. We build up a picture of what Jim feels/knows/assumes. We don’t learn what Lucy thinks but there’s a hint (the inappropriate smile) that Jim’s interpretation of her isn’t reliable.
  • There are fewer first names in the narrative. I didn’t do this on purpose: you just don’t need to use names as much when you’re in one person’s POV, so it’s less clunky.

This much, this obvious. There is another form of POV wandering that’s much less easy to spot, which I’m going to call the Embedded Feeling.

Alex scowled at his grandmother. He loved her dearly but she should know better to interfere in his love life. “Gran, I’m a millionaire at thirty, I don’t need a wife, and particularly not that clumsy cardigan-wearing librarian!” Even if he suspected she might look better without the glasses. “Why would you set me up on a date with her?”

Gran looked unembarrassed. “Well, why not, dear?” She stood, her knees complaining at the movement. “She’s my bridge partner’s granddaughter. Meet her at seven.” Alex made an outraged noise, but she just smiled infuriatingly. “Don’t be late.”

Did you spot the jump?

 

 

*** Big Sesame-Street-like space for you to think about it. I’m not doing all the work here. ***

 

 

We are in Alex’s POV. Unless Gran’s knees are literally complaining in an anthropomorphic Clive Barker sort of way, he cannot know what her knees feel like. This needs to be something Alex observes:

She stood, a little awkwardly—evidently the arthritis was troubling her.

Even better, something that earns its keep by telling us something about Alex as well as Gran:

She stood with a wince at the movement, and Alex felt his annoyance wash away at the reminder of her advancing age. If this was important to the daft old coot, he’d do it.

And this is important, because mediating the whole scene through Alex’s point of view allows the author to deepen his character continually and subtly. We don’t need his feelings on everything spelled out, that would be lethal, but what he notices, doesn’t notice, misinterprets or reacts to are all ways for the author to reveal him. That’s what his point of view is for. Telling us Gran’s feelings directly adds nothing to our knowledge of Alex, or to Alex’s knowledge of Gran. (If she said, “Oooh, me knees,” Alex would be learning something about her.) And given Alex is our hero, this is a problem.

Of course, maybe it’s plot crucial that Alex doesn’t know about Gran’s bad knees. (No, I don’t know why.) In that case, the author needs to find a way to convey the information to the reader or to hide it, as required, but in a way that’s consistent with Alex’s POV. Thusly:

“Get that jug off the mantelpiece for me?” He turned to retrieve the object. When he turned back, she was standing.

Now, here’s another even more deeply embedded POV shift. What’s wrong with this passage?

David brushed the rain off his short-cropped black hair as he hurried down the street. He needed to get a taxi, otherwise he’d be late to meet Gemma, and she’d have his balls on a platter. She was the least forgiving woman he knew.

 

 

*** Another educational pause. Come on, then, let’s see some hands. You–yes, you at the back… ***

 

 

The word ‘black’ is a POV shift. Obviously David knows what colour his own hair is. But there is nothing about the act of brushing a hand through hair to remind him it’s black. He might feel its coarseness, or its curl, or the weirdness of it being short when up till yesterday he had dreadlocks, but he can’t feel its colour. And by dropping in a sight reference (the hair’s look) for something we can’t see when we’re in his POV, the author jerks us out of immersion. We’ve gone from being in David to looking at David in that one word. This is why I prefer ‘wandering POV’ to ‘head-hopping’ as a term: we haven’t gone into anyone else’s head here. But we have gone from David as subject to David as object, which is why it jars.

So keep your POVs under control (here’s some discussion of different POVs and their benefits). Watch for the little wanders as much as the big hops. And don’t, whatever you do, spend the rest of the day with Lee Marvin’s ‘I Was Born Under a Wandering Star’ as an earworm.

You’re welcome.

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and writer. Her Society of Gentlemen trilogy is published by Loveswept. She is also opinionated on Twitter @kj_charles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 replies
  1. Pam/Peejaker
    Pam/Peejaker says:

    This is a great post. I really like your explanation about the pov shift regard to “black”, re David’s hair. I’ve always been bothered by that sort of thing, but never quite identified it as a pov shift.

    Sometimes I see stories that begin with this more distant 3rd person pov, in order to give us a picture of how the character looks, then shift to the deeper pov after that. I don’t know if this is considered “bad”, but I don’t like it. It always strikes me as feeling “shallow” & can put me off reading a book if I think the whole thing will be written that way. I do very much like to have at least a nominal description of each character’s appearance, because without it I feel very mentally unsettled about the character’s appearance. I think I don’t want to let myself picture anything concrete in case it’s contradicted by something in the text later on. Though this can also be annoying, I think I’d rather see a scene where the character looks into a mirror and we learn details of appearance that way, than something like “Carolyn ran her fingers through her short blonde curls, bright blue eyes sparkling as she . . .”, etc.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I am probably going to do a follow up post on how to get away with the mirror thing. It’s far better than wandering POV.

      I don’t mind an omniscient narrator that homes into deep, but it has to be really carefully controlled and you have to have a reason. What I cannot *bear* is the multiple POVs just to convey info. Want to show what the hero looks like? Why not use the footman he passes? Because we never meet the footman again, that’s why, and it’s enraging keeping track of a dozen characters and then realising that 90% of them were basically just serving as eyeballs.

      Reply
      • SandyCo
        SandyCo says:

        I just saw this post today, and of course, this comment. I agree! In one Harlequin Presents, the POV abruptly shifted to the taxi driver, who thought about how beautiful the heroine was. Of course, we never saw or heard from him again, and it was just awkward! Pair of eyes indeed.

        Reply
  2. Lotta
    Lotta says:

    Thank you for an interesting post! I actually noticed something like this in the Jim Butcher book I’m reading just after I read your post, and it made me kind of happy that I spotted it. I also react negatively to characters thinking too much about their physical features in a way we don’t really do in real life. Like thinking about their “black tresses”. Who does that? And now I know why it bothers me.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thanks! And this is why it’s important, not just ‘fussy prescriptivist editor’: it *does* bother readers, even if they couldn’t put their finger on why.

      Reply
  3. Megan Reddaway
    Megan Reddaway says:

    That is a great point about the black hair. Another one I hate is when we’re in Carl’s point of view and we read “Carl didn’t notice Lucinda taking a third slice of cake.” Who’s telling us, if Carl didn’t notice?

    With the knees complaining thing, I actually read it as meaning that the knees made an audible sound. I was deep enough into the narrative to refuse to be pulled out by that 🙂

    Reply

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