I’ve got a number of deal-breakers for me when I’m reading slush or, when I’m writing my dreaded “dear author” letters for my clients – these issues seem to crop up the most often and make me sigh. A lot. This one’s affectionately called “head hopping”. First-pass edits that I do usually end up with loads of red ink or tabbed comments that state just that. And if you’re currently thinking of disembodied heads bouncing down the road then some of my work here is done.
When you write a story, one of the first things you need to decide is who the narrator is. This is the person telling the story.
Your first-person narrator uses the pronoun “I” and writing the story feels like a personal account.
I went down to the harbour, bought some chips, and fed the seagulls.
What’s lovely about first-person point of view is that it lends the text a sense of immediacy. We’re reliving a series of events through the eyes of an unreliable narrator who a) might be lying to herself about what’s happening or b) simply doesn’t have all the information at hand to make informed decisions.
There’s a degree of uncertainty. Did events really transpire as the person suggests? Think about how you retell some of your misadventures as a teenager compared to how your mom would. Each narrator will add flavour to a story, based on their beliefs and personal biases. (Your mom might say you came home after your 18th birthday looking like the Wreck of the Hesperus, which says quite a bit about your mom – and you.)
Then there’s second-person point of view, where the narrator uses the pronoun “you”, and the story feels as if it addresses the reader.
You went down to the harbour, bought some chips, and fed the seagulls.
See what happens there? You’re the one who’s in the story. You’re the one who’s getting greasy fingers feeding a bunch of squawking birds. This style isn’t very common, and can be quite tricky to execute well. My own opinion is that I’d find reading a novel-length work in this style incredibly tiresome.
Lastly, we have third-person, which would see the point of view a bit more remote.
She went down to the harbour, bought some chips, and fed the seagulls.
Now, we’re reduced to voyeurs, viewing the events as one would watch a movie. Third-person point of view is, at present, the most prevalent style of writing. In fact, I’ve met quite a few readers who balk at reading any other style (missing out on all the lovely first-person narrations out there).
For more funzies, there are basically two ways of treating third-person point of view. One I’m going to tag as deep third-person point of view and the other is omniscient point of view.
Your bog-standard fiction tends to be a deep third-person point of view where you’ll have one character’s point of view in each scene or chapter. This means that although we’re learning why Susie went down to feed the seagulls (she was feeling sad because James left her), we don’t also know what Billy, her stalker, was thinking. In fact, Susie wasn’t even aware that Billy was watching her that day until we see a later chapter where we’re in Billy’s point of view and he’s looking at the photos he took that day.
If we were writing omniscient point of view, and doing it well, we would, perhaps halfway through the scene, swap points of view to Billy, who’s sitting on a boat nearby with his camera. Authors who shift smoothly, would give some sort of transition in their writing, clearly showing how they change in point of view. Think of it like watching a movie, where the camera pans from one face to another. If you have choppy camera work, hopping back and forth between points of view rapidly, the story’s going to suffer.
Now I’m going to be absolutely straight up. Every editor has his or her preferences, and as an editor I absolutely loathe third-person omniscient. [BIG DISCLAIMER: THIS IS MY OPINION – other editors may vary] This is where the author is writing from some sort of god-like perspective, showing readers what multiple characters are thinking in the same scene.
While there is nothing wrong with writing third-person omniscient, it’s also not a convention that is at present popular within the realms of commercial and genre fiction. That’s not to say that third-person omniscient, is wrong, per se, it’s just that there are few authors out there who manage to pull this off with any real flair. At this point, I’ll nod at Sir Terry Pratchett as possibly one of the best examples of this style of writing well done. Go read his Discworld novels to see how this is done.
In the majority of the cases I encounter, writers' attempts at multiple points of view in one scene, often result in a garbled, muddled mess. The actions, dialogue and thoughts of different characters get so hopelessly entangled in one paragraph, I sometimes have to resist the temptation of hurling my coffee mug at my very expensive computer screen – an action I will most certainly regret instantly.
If you’re absolutely dead set on writing omniscient point of view, my advice is to consider the idea of establishing the voice of your narrator. Who is telling the story? Develop the author’s character as the teller (think of what makes Roald Dahl so awesome – go read a few of his stories). Think about the fact that the author is presenting him or herself as the storyteller, providing a framework upon which the actions and words of the characters will hang.
The difficulty here is developing individual characters’ personalities to make them stand apart from each other. The other drawback is that because your narrator has godlike powers, you risk falling prey to the temptation of revealing all of the secrets too early, thereby robbing a story of much of its mystery and tension. Alternatively, you’ll withhold key information under the impression that you want to build this tension. (Think of a murder mystery where the murderer is a viewpoint character who conveniently neglects to consider that he or she has done the deed – yes, I’ve read traditionally published books that fall prey to this sin.)
Often, I feel that new new authors write a third-person omniscient point of view because they feel they need to show all the aspects of the story. To them, I say: RESIST THE TEMPTATION. Resist it. You can. I promise you, holding back on secrets is good. It makes giving the big reveal near the end an even better surprise. Readers don’t need to know everything all at once. Feed them morsels so that they’ll keep wanting more. If a character doesn’t know something DON’T mention it. If they do, and it's absolutely vital to the story at that point, find a way to foreshadow in a way that doesn't feel as if you're doing it for the benefit of readers.
I promise you, when there’s a fight scene, you don’t need to show what the hero and villain are thinking at the same time. Pick one. Show how they perceive the other party, how they analyse the situation then aim to survive.
Whatever point of view you write, seat yourself firmly in the head of your chosen character. Or, if you’re an author-narrator, think of the tone of how you show your world. Think of your story in terms of you holding the camera. The moment your camera work requires jagged shifts, realise that this may well disorientate your audience.
Lastly, there are no hard-and-fast rules. But there are conventions, and a savvy author will know when and how to play outside the bounds of these conventions. My advice is to colour inside the lines for a bit first before you’re comfortable to do something a bit more risqué. Like invoking my serious side-eye at your bouncing heads.
Bio: After surviving a decade in the trenches of newspaper publishing, where she fought against the abuse of the English language, Nerine Dorman is now a freelance editor and designer who is passionate about words that not only sound good, but look damned good too. She’s also written a few books. You can stalk her on Twitter or, even better, support her authorly aspirations via Patreon. If you’re feeling particularly brave, and would like to inquire about her editing rates, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org