Writing How-To: Avoiding Head Hopping POVs

Saturday, December 26, 2009
Well, yesterday I did something I don't get as much time to do lately as I'd like. I sat and finished reading a book.

Unfortunately, this book was an older romance (published in the early '90's). I ordered it and the sequel from Paperbackswap.com because the sequel had been talked about on an Amazon.com discussion board and caught my interest, and when I looked it up, I found it had a prequel so I got that too.

I'm almost afraid to read the sequel.

The book (no, I'm not going to tell you the title or the author) is a historical set in England and involves pirates. (That narrows it down to about a bazillion books.) And while the story was okay, the characters okay, one thing that slammed home within the first ten pages was head-hopping.

I'm not talking every once in a while, I'm talking all the time. Including dropping into the heads of MINOR characters for just a sentence or two.

I'm guessing the author wanted to write this book in third-person omniscient, and while yes, that IS a valid POV approach, the way they went about it, especially for a romance, totally pulled me out of the story time and again and was executed so poorly I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who the heck's POV I was in.

It was both a lesson in patience and writing for me. I've seen poorly-executed POV shifts before. This...this was just flat-out BAD. Now, I don't know if romances published in this time period had a lot of that, or if this was just a particularly bad example, but jeez Louise, give me a break.

Here's how NOT to execute a POV shift, especially in a romance:
  1. Don't shift multiple times on the SAME PAGE. (Only one or two shifts PER SCENE, and limit them to major characters.)
  2. Don't flip into a minor character's POV for a paragraph or two when it's not integral to the story. (Most of the time, it's not integral to the story.)
  3. Don't make your reader work to try to figure out whose POV they're in. (I cover this shortly.)
  4. Don't give every character their own POV. (See point #2.)
I mean, it was baaaaad.

Limit your POV shifts to the main characters, and only once or twice during a scene. In a romance, that is your hero, heroine, if it's a menage/multiple story then other lovers in the story can have a POV, and if there is one, the antagonist can have a POV. Sometimes minor characters can have their own POV, but ONLY if the scene they're in is one in which they are the pivotal character IN that scene.

For example, in my Tymber Dalton book, "Love Slave for Two: Family Matters," Tommy's mother, Peggy Kinsey, gets several scenes in her POV because she is the lynch pin in those scenes. Nevvie (the heroine) actually takes a backseat to her mother-in-law because of the events. That was a perfectly acceptable use of that POV. There are other scenes where she (Peggy) is in the scene, but I never flip to her POV because it's not necessary.

When you flip to a different POV, CLEARLY indicate that's what you're doing. One of the easiest ways to do this is the following example yanked from my brain:
(Long scene in hero's POV, ending in the following...) He walked over to the TV and angrily turned it off. "I want to talk to you about this." Sue looked scared. Good. He wanted her fear now, because maybe it would mean she would actually listen to him for once.

Sue watched as he turned off the TV and turned to her. She'd never seen him look so angry before. I wonder if he's going to yell at me, she thought. "What's wrong?" she asked him.

Again, that's an out of my butt example. But you can see where when I flipped to the heroine's POV, I clearly indicated it by identifying her immediately by name and by showing an observation from her point of view, followed by a thought, followed by her dialog. Now, I didn't have to have all three of those things, of course, but the key was I immediately identified her and an observation clearly attributed to her, that only she could make, so I anchored the reader in her POV. It is patently obvious we are now in the heroine's POV. And if I was to continue the example, there I would stay for a while. I would NOT immediately flip back to his POV in a paragraph or two.

Another technique for a seamless POV shift is the character whose POV we were in leaves the room or falls asleep and another character takes over. This is effective when you had three or more people in the room and need to flip to a third POV. Then you can avoid a scene break (if the scene hasn't ended).

In a romance, especially during romantic scenes, it's very tempting to flip back and forth in POV during love scenes. I know, because I used to want to do it a lot. But there is a fine line between head hops and legitimate POV shifts, and the more I write, the more I'm finding ways to avoid them so I don't have readers wanting to toss a book. *LOL* I actually approach writing differently now than I used to simply to avoid unnecessary POV shifts. There are a lot of houses now who will not accept ANY POV shift within a scene simply because so many people cannot properly execute POV shifts without it becoming head hopping.

So pay attention to your POV and save yourself agonizing choices later during edits. While writing, anchor yourself as the writer in one character's POV and remember you cannot write something that character doesn't personally think, observe, or say. So if you're writing from the heroine's POV, you cannot write that the hero thinks something while in her POV.

Some POV slips can be taken care of by exchanging an internal thought or observation into spoken dialog. This is an easy fix for many things. Or you can say the other character "seemed" to ______ or "apparently" _______. That would convert it to an observation the other character could make, preserving POV.

Happy Writing!

4 reader comments:

  1. I wrote my firs novel, 90,000 words, in 4 months and then sent it off with nary an edit to be considered. Now, wiser and more craft-learned, I shudder when I remember having done that. :) It's a good story and someday I'll pull it off the shelf and fix it. But I hop ALL over the place, just like the story you described. Thanks for giving me a good laugh and walk down memory lane.

  1. I only occasionally revert to head-hopping and usually it's because I'm very tired. My editor is great and she always catches it! I have noticed, when re-reading some older romances, that I find the POV changing with every paragraph. Back when I first read those book, I didn't notice, now I definitely do!
    Very useful post! Thanks!

  1. The first novels I sent to Siren had head-hopping throughout.

    I shall never do it again. The time I had to invest in getting rid of it was unbelievable.

    I think some authors tend to believe they will lose the emotional element, if they only describe one POV in a certain scene. Sometimes this is the case, although you can let the other characters descibe some of it for you.

  1. Laurie - Oh, we've all been there, done that. *LOL* I've got one of my own that it's really a good story, but I need to go through and clean up POV issues too. I wrote it about ten years ago and never did anything with it.

    Julia - Thanks for stopping by! I'm a relative newcomer to reading "genre romance," so when I read that book I was wondering if that was a more common practice back then (the book is nearly 20 years old now). Now when I read more modern romances, the head hopping is rarely as bad as this book was.

    Jan - That's hitting the nail exactly on the head. There are ways to switch POV in a scene without it being head hopping, but it's definitely far easier to write without using it. Sometimes trying to eliminate it is very difficult. Add to that, some narrative elements aren't really POV slips, but just omniscient "stage direction" type of narrative, and that can confuse the situation even more. *LOL*