Monday, March 3, 2008

POV questions

Very slowly working our way through your emailed questions--

Judy asks--
POV and head-hopping: some writers are of the opinion one must write an entire scene from only one character's POV, but there are times when a scene's impact can be enhanced by giving details from the POV of different characters. I've been told this is 'head-hopping'. Can you shed some light on how best to change POV? I know this is something with which many writers struggle.

POV-- well, first, there are no rules. Well, there are rules, but let's start with anarchy and work out from there!

The Point of View of a passage or a book should accomplish what you want to accomplish. And not all passages convey what you want through single-third POV. Let's say that you're setting this scene at a battleground, and you want to juxtapose the cold strategic planning of the general with what the grunt in the infantry line is facing. Well, a single-third wouldn't accomplish that, as we'd get only one of those two perspectives.

Or say that you're aiming at a comic effect in a scene taking place at a lecture, and the professor is using high-falutin' language but thinking about where he's going to eat lunch, and then we switch to a bored student, who is trying to take notes but also thinking about lunch, and then to the teaching assistant, who is in love with the professor and thinking about where prof will eat lunch so she can accidentally on purpose run into him there. Again, a more multiple-POV approach will really work here.

This isn't head-hopping. Head-hopping is the indiscriminate uncontrolled shifting that occurs because the writer doesn't know what he/she wants to accomplish and how to use POV to accomplish it. And if you're thinking, "This passage needs more than one viewpoint, because (whatever)," you're already controlling your POV approach.

How to shift... well, the most important thing is to keep the reader knowing whose head we're in. So if you're going to shift within a scene, do it as smoothly and surely as you can, so that the reader is immediately oriented in the new mind. Some techniques:

a) Use the new POV character's name right away: Judy glanced around the prison cell....

b) Quickly use a head word (like thought or felt or mused or wondered or ached or tasted)
to convey thought, feeling, or perception from the new perspective: Judy glanced around the prison cell, feeling claustrophobic....

c) Use some action for transference of perspective: Bob slammed the cell door, deciding to give her solitude to contemplate her future.

d) Use some object for transference of perspective: Furious, Bob held out the warrant. Judy took the paper, hoping he didn't notice that her hands were shaking. (Usually we'd go with a new paragraph with a change in POV, but sometimes, especially with object transference, that's sort of clunky-- try both ways and see what works best.)

e) Try skipping a few lines when you shift if you're only shifting once in a scene– but not if you shift frequently, as it will get annoying. Try it out, and feel free to go back to unbroken text if it looks/feels better.



Edittorrent said...

I hate head words.

But I will grant you that they work well for this purpose, mainly because they're a bit distant while creating the illusion of depth. It's a good pov-transfer tool.

But yuck. Hate 'em.


Ian Thomas Healy said...

One concern the agent who nearly accepted Deep Six last summer had was that I had scene shifts with multiple narrators. I cut back on them, but still needed about four main POVs, as there were four main characters whose stories intertwined. I've read plenty of books where this has happened, and modeled my own after them. The agent was really insistent upon focusing solely on a single character's POV and that ultimately led to a rejection after I wasn't willing to change the story into one that wasn't the one I wanted to tell.

Anyway, that's my POV story. :)


Edittorrent said...

Ian, I think many editors and agents don't really know POV as writers do, from the inside, and so aren't as flexible. (Other editors and agents think that whatever works is great.)

I think you said this is more an sf book, and sf as a genre is receptive to multiple POV, because of the scope of many stories, and the need (often) to represent really divergent perspectives.

It might help to find a book that "feels" like yours, ferret out the agent (often acknowledged in the acknowledgments, but also PW often says who sold it), and submit to that agent. You know that the agent will be open to your sort of book, and so you'll be a bit ahead. (But then, there's the chance that he/she will send a lovely rejection that ends with "But I'm already representing (author name), and so it wouldn't be proper to represent you, as you might end up being a direct competitor."

Arrrgh! Frustrating business, huh?

Katie Reus said...

Thanks for such a detailed explanation of what 'head-hopping' is and isn't. I'm not a "head-hopper" but there are times during certain scenes that I would like to expand on things for the readers benefit, but have been uncertain because of the 'rules', and this clears up some of my fears! :)