Head-hopping: how writers nail down points of view in their stories

A few years ago I was invited to a book launch in a small local bookshop, at which readings by the author from her novel were punctuated with musical interludes from a remarkably loud bongo band. This mildly surreal juxtaposition didn’t reduce the fact that the author – clearly – had complete mastery of both character voice and of points of view.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Points of view are often a challenge to beginning writers.  I’ve discussed it before, but it’s well worth discussing again. The problem is simple: a story written from the perspective of a specific character shouldn’t include details that wouldn’t be known to that character. And yet, all too often, that’s exactly what seems to happen. I don’t know why, other than to suppose that in this age of movie and TV entertainment, some authors visualise their story as if watching a movie.

Let me explain the main points of view:

  1. First person singular. The story is told from the perspective of a single individual, ‘I’. It’s a powerful technique for conveying a specific character, a unique or distinctive voice, and for showing how they see the world. Nothing can be revealed other than what the main character sees.
  2. Third person singular. Similar to first person singular, but instead of ‘I’ the author refers to the character as ‘he’ or ‘she’. It’s another powerful way of conveying a specific character. Again, nothing can be revealed other than what the character sees.
  3. Third person plural. It’s possible for an author to have multiple lead characters. Care is needed – every one has to be properly developed. Each needs their own distinctive voice. Consistency of viewpoint remains crucial: each character takes full frame when it’s their turn, and nothing should happen that the character currently narrating the story wouldn’t see. One of the best examples I’ve read is Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.
  4. Eye of God. The author narrates what happens to the lead character or characters, but not so strictly from their viewpoint. Again, this doesn’t mean just jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint; it’s important to consistently narrate every scene from the single viewpoint of a chosen character. A good example is Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which was third person singular, but where the ‘Eye of God’, in the form of the storyteller’s voice, and occasional scenes from elsewhere, intruded from time to time. He got the balance right.

Why is ‘Eye of God’ restricted? The reason’s simple: if the author reveals things the ‘focus’ character wouldn’t know or see, it usually destroys tension, because the reader ends up knowing a lot more than the character. Sometimes that works to build tension, but only if it’s done right – if the reason for that revelation is made clear. It also has to be plausible. More often it ends up with the storyteller ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ the reader, which is a story killer in its own right. And it always takes focus away from character – which is what all stories must be hung around.

So the PoV rule is pretty simple: keep it consistent with what you’ve chosen – and always ask: ‘Could the character who’s the current narrative focus see or know this?’ If not – well, avoid. More soon on voice.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


3 thoughts on “Head-hopping: how writers nail down points of view in their stories

  1. Regarding this particular topic, one thing I’ve been wondering lately is this: If you’re writing in third person singular, can you describe the POV character’s facial expressions such as grins, scowls, glares, etc.? Since it seems like I’m often unaware what my face is doing in real life as I experience glorious victory and shameful defeat, I’m inclined to think such descriptions are a POV break. But I’m often not sure because sometimes I’m aware when I have a big, goofy grin on my face 🙂

    1. It’s whatever the POV character woild themselves be aware of. Goofy grin? Sure! They would also be aware of how others react to their expressions. That reaction offers one way of conveying the expression to the reader.

      1. That’s a really good point about using other people’s reactions to the POV character’s expressions. That’s definitely something to keep in mind as I wrestle with this stuff.

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