Thursday, January 24, 2008

POV and head-hopping

I was going to write a long response to Kimber's comment on my blog yesterday, then decided I'd use it as the basis of today's entry instead. Thanks, Kimber!

Kimber said, "I haven't figured out how to do 3 POV's without looking like I'm headhopping."

What does "head hopping " mean in the context of writing? It means switching points of view (see previous blog for definition) from one character to another within the same scene. So the reader starts reading the scene written from, say, the heroine's POV, then at some point during the scene, the author switches to another character's POV.

What's wrong with head-hopping?

Frankly, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with it and I don't think it should be condemned out of hand. Like so much of writing, it all depends on how well its done and when.

That said, it's generally frowned on because unless it's done well, it's disruptive to the flow of the scene, jerking the reader out of the story and messing up the pace.

However, that's not the same as saying an author should never do it. I've only read one Nora Roberts (shame on me, but I don't read or write contemporary romance for a reason -- it just doesn't float my boat) and I realized she does that often, and very well, because it's done smoothly. You barely notice it, in part -- and this may be key -- because in case of secondary character's POV, she does it very briefly. The bit is over before the reader's really had a chance to realize that we're in another character's head.

But let's use an example of three points of view of one moment in the same scene which would certainly be condemned as head-hopping, written by somebody who's not Nora Roberts (i.e. me):

"And the award goes to...Helen Heroine!"
       Helen stared in disbelief. She had won? After all the criticism, all the doubt, despite the moments when she'd been sure she'd fail -- she'd won? Her heart pounding, she rose and began to make her way to the stage, fighting back tears of joy. Tears weren't exactly part of the cool, professional image she should maintain if she was to be taken seriously as a nuclear physicist, but she'd dreamed of this moment so many times....
       Watching Helen and her beauty queen smile approach the podium, Vincent Villain smiled and clapped with everyone else. But did anyone here really believe she'd earned it? It had to be common knowledge that Helen had slept her way to the win; the evidence was right there for all to see. Or perhaps it wasn't as obvious as he thought. If so, he'd make sure that changed. Otherwise, they might as well give the award to the fellow who changed the oil in the chairman's car.
       As Mr. Presenter handed Helen the heavy plaque, she finally subdued the urge to weep with happiness and smiled broadly instead.
       She really did have a lovely smile, Hector Hero thought as he tried not to be envious. After all, he couldn't fault her research, or the exciting conclusion she'd reached. He couldn't say she didn't deserve the prize. Perhaps he'd been unreasonably hopeful that this time, the academy would recognize his efforts, and all the years of hard work and dedication would finally be acknowledged. Then, he, too, could smile like that.
       No wonder she'd won Miss Frisson of 2008.

Okay, so not terribly smooth and rather disruptive, right? But it could be worse. For one thing, this is a relatively static moment in the story -- Helen's just walking to the stage and accepting an award. If you did something like this during a chase scene, though? The reader will likely feel yanked in all sorts of directions. On the other hand, that may be exactly the emotional response from the reader you're aiming for. That's why I think the "rule" about head-hopping is one you can obey or not, as suits you and your style.

In its defense, let me point out that in the above example we learn exactly how Helen feels and why, how the villain feels and why, and how the hero feels and why. By using each character's POV, we learn more than just how they feel. We learn their underlying reasons for those responses, which tells us more about them.

We learn that whatever Helen's showing on the outside, she's struggled and is still somewhat insecure. She's also a woman in a man's world, with all that that can entail.

We learn that the villain thinks she doesn't deserve the win, and he's going to take steps to "correct" that. He believes he has a valid motive for being upset and angry -- he truly thinks she hasn't done the work. What makes him a villain is what he's going to do about it.

Then it's back to Helen, to show that she's received the award and hasn't actually cried, and is smiling instead. There's been some physical motion, which breaks up the (slower paced) internal narrative. It also shows us that Helen's quite capable of subduing her emotions and presenting a mask to the world, especially to her colleagues.

Then we get the hero's reaction to both the award, and Helen herself -- he's not delighted Helen's won, but he doesn't believe she doesn't deserve it. He's disappointed, and reasonably so, but he acknowledges her accomplishment. He also notices her lovely smile, and unlike the villain, doesn't hold her beauty pageant background against her.

You could also do this bit in other ways:

You could write it from Helen's POV, then Vincent's (briefly), then back to Helen as she accepts the award, perhaps catching sight of Hector and wondering what he thinks about her win. (This being a romance, she's most likely to guess incorrectly, because that way lies conflict.)

Or you could use Hector's POV, then Vincent's, then back to Hector's or Helen's.

You could use either the hero or heroine's, and end the scene with the villain's -- that would leave the reader wondering what he's going to do. Then you make the reader wait while the awards dinner continues, perhaps ending the scene with Helen and Hector in bed. (What can I say? I write romance. This is the way my mind works!)

Or instead of getting into the villain's head, you can have him do something like lean over to Hector and mutter, "Do you suppose Miss Frisson slept with them all, or just the chairman of the committee?" That way we know what he's thinking, and it also gives the hero something to wonder about, a la Iago and Othello. However, we wouldn't necessarily understand that Vincent really believes she hasn't earned the award. He can sound childish and vindictive without a deeper motivation -- and that makes him a less interesting, worthy adversary.

You could be in Helen's POV for the announcement, then have a scene break, then start the new scene in the hero's POV, opening with Vincent's snarky question.

In short, there are several ways to write this, from one POV, from two, from all three. Each one could work, depending on the circumstances of the scene and the author's ability to make smooth transitions.

Just what a writer doesn't need -- more choices and more things to fret over. But I truly think "no head-hopping ever" is too restrictive and doesn't take into account the usefulness of changing POVs in a scene, or the ability of some authors to do it well.


Kimber Chin said...

Awesome explanation.

One thing that scares me about villain POV is I have an issue with villains taking over books as is (I find slightly evil people very interesting). I think giving him thought time would make the situation even worse.

So how do you give a villain POV and not have the reader care for him? I don't want the reader upset when the baddie gets what is coming to him (striving for that happy romance ending).

Oh, but then I'm asking the author who sliced one of my favorite minor characters in half... LOL

Margaret Moore said...

I want the reader to care for the villain, and sometimes (depending on the villain and his motives) I want them to be upset if they die -- as in emotionally invested in his fate, too. For me, the best villains have the reader thinking, "Gosh, what a shame! He could have been a hero if only he'd made different choices, or had a different upbringing."

As for villains taking over the book, I think that happens when it seems as if the villains are the only ones taking action -- doing things - and the H and H are simply reacting, instead of initiating activity of their own. Or you can do what I did when I had a secondary character who could very easily have taken over the book -- I gave him a concussion and he spent a good portion of the book unconscious. In other words, leave him to his own evil devices and give more scenes to the H and H, as well as interesting things to do.

But I'd rather have an interesting villain I want to see more of than a lackluster foil for the H and H!

And if you really like your villain, give him the kind of motivation that leaves open the possibility of change, so that he be the hero of the next book. :-)

Kimber Chin said...

I have to think about this a little more. I always thought of my villains as people the reader could safely hate or feel superior to. A "I can see why he considered doing that but I would have never made that choice" type of thinking.

I do use your (I believe it was your) idea of the villain being one decision away from the hero/heroine.

Margaret Moore said...

I might have said that, Kimber. I want my villains to be the types of people that, if their backstories had been different, they would have turned into heroes or heroines because they have many of the same qualities (inner strength, intelligence, sense of purpose). Instead, they've become completely self-centered. Somewhere along the way, they came to believe they had to look out for themselves ALONE, whereas the hero and heroines think about somebody else's needs, maybe not at first, depending on their history, but certainly as the story progresses.