Thursday, September 30, 2010

Whose head is this anyway?

By Julie

I thought it might be fun to explore a few craft issues here at What Women Write.

If you’re new to writing, you might not be familiar with the term “craft.” When we study writing, we focus on different pieces of the whole – the emotional and inspirational part, the publicity and marketing part, and the nuts and bolts part, just to name a few.

Craft is the nuts and bolts part of writing. It’s the “how to.” It’s the “What the FRACK am I doing with this here piece of writing?” part.

After a while, some of these things may begin to feel like second nature, but when you’re starting out, all those trees can look like one big forest, so to speak.

Some writing terms are fairly easy. We learned about them as early as grade school.

Setting. Characters. Prologue.The ever-exciting denouement.

But I remember the first few times I heard unfamiliar writing terms after venturing into writing as a “serious vocation.” The words alone weren’t unfamiliar, but in the context of writing fiction, they suddenly seemed quite complicated, and sometimes even elusive.

Voice. Arc. Flat. Episodic. Flashback.

One particular item I thought I had down pat.

Point of view.

It turns out there is more to point of view than I ever imagined. And that brings us to today’s topic and what I hope is a simple primer in point of view. At least from my point of view, or as you might call it, too, narrator.

Typically, a story is written in one of the following types of point of view, though some talented authors are able to use a finely balanced mix of two or more. Generally, it’s a good idea for new writers to choose one and stick with it for their first few manuscripts until they have the mechanics down.

First person
This is the most easily recognizable. If you open a book and the narrator is obviously the narrator because he or she uses “I” or “me” or “my,” well, that’s a pretty good sign it’s first person. A fun and excellent example of first person writing can be found in a novel I just finished last week, Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, by Lisa Patton.

And because I like to go in order …

Second person
This is probably the least used point of view, most likely because it’s really tricky to pull off. This is where the narrator addresses YOU as if you are the main character. For example, you might see a sentence that starts, “You walk into the room and see …” The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber shows a limited use of second person, though it mainly morphs into a more traditional point of view. Lorrie Moore’s short story collection, Self Help, includes many stories told in second person.

Third person
This is probably the most commonly used point of view, generally recognizable by the use of the point-of-view character’s (or characters’) name and third-person pronouns, such as “he” and “she.” Third person can get confusing because you can also have “close” third person and “distant” third person, though other terms might be interchanged for those to mean the same thing. Distant third person can even morph into another type of point of view altogether called …

Ah, what a slippery thing to define. Many words have been spent trying to describe this one. I like how the fiction writing expert at describes it: Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story, as opposed to third person limited, which adheres closely to one character's perspective.

But you can see there how complicated it can get. I used the “close” while describing third person, whereas Ginny said, “limited.”

One reason omniscient versus third person can be confusing is because many authors morph between the two. Some well, others dismally. Thus, it’s difficult to find great examples of novels that strictly use one or the other. I found John Irving’s A Widow for One Year to be a good example of omniscient point of view. But I guarantee if you got a group of writers together, we could probably argue the point all day given a stack of books to label.

I’m going to dare to name one more point of view, though not necessarily in a positive light.

Generally labeled the cardinal sin of fiction writing, headhopping is when an author changes third-person viewpoint more often than is strictly reasonable. It’s okay change point of view from one character to another by chapter, and often even by scene, but when the point-of-view character changes from paragraph to paragraph, or even from sentence to sentence, it can be a bit unsettling.

It can lead to reader whiplash.

I’m honestly not sure I ever even noticed this phenomenon until I started studying craft. But it’s possible I just didn’t come across it because I managed to avoid books that employed it. Or perhaps I had the sense that something was off, but couldn’t put a finger on why.

Now it glares at me. It stops me in my tracks.

But what bothers me more than head hopping itself is not being entirely sure if the author intended to headhop … or not. I finished a book last night where there was head hopping galore. Or I think it was headhopping anyway.Though I really enjoyed the book, I found myself asking the question, “Dude, is this third-person head hopping out the kazoo, or is this some really daring form of omniscient?” It was that puzzling. Yes, we really do begin to ask ourselves these kinds of questions after studying craft for a while. It can be kind of annoying.

At any rate, those are the basic categories of point of view, though as you can see, even in this part of writing fiction, there are many variations.

Next time, I’ll talk a little about how or why I choose or have chosen to write in a certain point of view.

Any thoughts or additions? Arguments or disagreements? I’m not claiming to be an expert here, just a facilitator. Any favorite books that have used challenging or groundbreaking points of view you’d like to share with us?

Photo credit: MrGiles Flickr photostream, by Creative Commons License.


  1. This might be super basic, but what is the difference between head-hopping and omniscient?
    Head-hopping = no, no
    Omniscient = fine
    I think there's a fine line between the two and I can't seem to put my finger on it. Or, maybe a better question: What are some symptoms of head-hopping? (Obviously reader-dizziness, but what about writer-identifiable symptoms).

    <>< Katie

  2. Katie, really great question. Even in my attempt to describe it in my post, it's still unclear, right?

    I did a little more searching online and found a few articles that may shed a little more light. This one talks about why NOT to headhop, but it still doesn't really address omniscient:

    (And note how it uses the word "deep" instead of close or limited!)

    This article that desribes "limited omniscient viewpoint" is helpful. It describes how you can get away with headhopping by using physical movements to transfer the reader to another character's head:

    I like the camera panning theory.

    I'll talk about it a little more next time, but when I begin to develop a new story, I also tend to think of it as if through the lens of a camera, which helps me decide how I see the story and through whose eyes.

    I tend to recognize omniscient POV by foretelling statements, such as, "What Stacy couldn't know when she glared at the driver of the truck speeding down her street was that the next day, her flowerbed would be ruined by the same truck." (Corny, made-up sentence ... :)

    Anyone else want to jump in?

  3. Thanks, Julie. I've always written in the limited POV, but I wanted to try the omniscient. I've asked this question a few times just to make sure I understand it, but no one can every clearly say "This is when it's omniscient; this is when it's head-hopping." I've finally concluded it depends on the passage.

    <>< Katie

  4. Here's the difference between omni and headhopping:

    Headhopping: _Uncontrolled_ viewpoint shifts. The author is just showing everything without really thinking about what he's doing.

    Omni: The one thing that gets left out of nearly every omni discussion is an important piece: It's a single narrator. That narrator controls who gets the closeup and can dip into the thoughts of different characters. It is important for there to be some kind of transition before these shifts so that it doesn't jar the writer.

    You can tell omni by looking for things the viewpoint character can't know. Sometimes it's pretty obvious like a scene describing divers without telling us who they are, then zooming in on the main character. Other times, it's pretty subtle, like a sentence (J.D. Robb is like that). It has enormous flexibility, because the narrator can have a big presence or only pop up periodically. Well written omni is often mistaken for third person.

  5. Thanks, Linda! Very helpful.


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