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head hopping and POV violations

May 13, 2010

When you’re writing in third person limited POV, you can’t write about things your POV character doesn’t see, hear, feel, or know. You can’t show us what’s going on behind your POV character or what the person on the other end of the phone line is doing while the POV character is talking to him or her.

You can’t show other characters’ thoughts or feelings, at least not directly. But of course the POV character can speculate about other people’s thoughts or motivations and can interpret another character’s body language and facial expressions. How far you can go depends on who your POV character is. If he or she is great with people and a good observer, maybe someone who works in a social or helping profession, you can get away with a bit more.

Head hopping

In third person limited POV, you can switch POV only when you start a new scene (some authors even prefer not to switch within a chapter). If you switch within a scene, that’s “head hopping” and can become very confusing to the reader. The main advantage of third person limited POV is that it strengthens readers’ identification with the POV character. But if we’re yanked from head to head, from POV to POV, it’s hard to identify with any character.

Example:

Anna pushed open the door and glanced at her watch. She was early.

Lisa looked up from her desk, sensing Anna’s gaze on her. “Oh, you’re here already.”

“Sorry. I can wait outside.” She hadn’t wanted to be late, so she had left home half an hour early.

We’re going from Anna’s POV to Lisa’s and back to Anna. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting POV whiplash if I’m reading pages upon pages of this.

Unfortunately, head hopping is really common in lesbian fiction. Even some of the popular, established authors do it.

Readers do notice when something is wrong with the POV, even if most readers won’t be able to pinpoint it as a POV problem. It distances them from the characters and the story.


Examples for POV violations:

Let’s assume for these examples that they’re all from a scene in which Anna is the POV character and Lisa is the non-POV character.

The irony of the thought escaped Anna.

If Anna is the POV character, I can’t write it this way. I can’t mention things that the POV character doesn’t notice.

Anna’s tone was unconsciously defensive.

Again, if Anna, the POV character, isn’t aware of it, I can’t mention it.

Anna’s expression turned cold.

The POV character can’t see her expression. Instead, describe how she feels her muscles tighten or something like that.

A smile lit up Anna’s face.

Again, she can’t see her face, so it’s a POV violation.

Lisa tried to control her voice but didn’t quite manage.

The “tried” makes it a POV violation. Anna can’t know whether Lisa tried to control her voice.

“Sorry,” Lisa said, not even trying to sound as if she meant it.

Again, the POV character can’t know if she’s trying and failing or isn’t even trying.

Anna pressed her heels to the mare’s flanks without thought.

The “without thought” comes too close to a POV violation. If the POV character doesn’t notice and is not aware of her actions, you shouldn’t mention it.

Lisa eyed Anna, looking for any signs of a lie.

Anna can’t know why Lisa is staring at her.

Teary green eyes locked with ice blue ones.

This is switching into a distant, more omniscient POV. We’re observing both characters from the outside and are no longer in Anna’s POV.

Anna smiled at the lawyer, then leaned over and kissed her.

Unless Anna is a person who goes around kissing lawyers just because she thinks their profession is so wonderful, this is a POV violation. I assume most people don’t think of their significant other in terms of her or his profession. Beware of character tags like “the brunette,” “the warrior,” “the smaller woman,” etc. Using these tags instead of names is especially bad when an author refers to a person as “the lawyer” or “the doctor” during a love scene! Lesbian fiction is often guilty of that, because it’s sometimes hard to keep straight (no pun intended) who is doing what to whom, because “she” or “her” can refer to either of them.

Anna flopped down onto the bed and ran her hand through her silky black tresses.

Unless Anna is a very vain poet, she would probably not think of her hair as “silky black tresses.”

The tall person took a step toward Anna, his face still shrouded in darkness.

If Anna can’t yet see the face, how does she know it’s a man?

Anna’s face grew red.

Anna can’t see the color of her face. We can say that her face grew hot, though.

At the knock on her office door, Anna looked up. Frank Young lingered in the doorway. “Hey, boss,” Anna said. He was a fairly tall man with salt-and-pepper hair.

Well, assuming she has seen her boss before, what reason does she have now to pay attention to the way he looks?

Anna opened the door and led her mother into the house. Mrs. Hayes entered the living room and set down her suitcase.

I assume Anna doesn’t call her mother “Mrs. Hayes,” so in scenes from Anna’s POV, we should use whatever Anna calls her mother. You might have noticed that, in the first chapters of Backwards to Oregon, I used male pronouns for Luke whenever we’re in Nora’s POV and female pronouns when we’re in Luke’s POV, because Nora thinks Luke is a man, while Luke knows she’s a woman.

Anna opened the front door and stepped into her apartment. Orange curtains suffused the living room in a golden light. In the corner was a desk piled high with books, files, and magazines.

If this is her apartment, why is she paying so much attention to the furniture? She sees this every day, so she has no reason to look at it or think about it.

“What did your mother mean?” Anna asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

Lisa plopped down on the couch next to her.

“Mean?”

“Yeah.” Anna slid her feet onto the coffee table. “When she thanked me for sleeping on the couch.”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?”

Anna squinted at Lisa. “Tell me what?”

“My mother is staying with us for the next few months.”

Can you tell whose POV we’re in? No? I can’t tell either. If this were the beginning of a scene, it would be a good idea to establish POV earlier – maybe even with the first sentence, if you can.

Here’s a fun look at POV and POV mistakes.

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5 comments

  1. A very coherent delineation of the violations and how to avoid them. This is the hardest thing to explain to the novice writer because they can’t quite separate what’s on the page from what’s in their head. Or they have the dreaded “camera” analogy, which muddies up most intelligent discussions of POV.


  2. […] a beta reader, I’ve often worked with and mentored writers who merrily engaged in head hopping. Head hopping is (unfortunately) quite common in lesbian fiction, so common that some readers and […]


  3. […] A useful link on POV violations: https://jaefiction.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/head-hopping-and-pov-violations/ […]


  4. […] Head hopping and POV violations […]


  5. […] Head hopping and POV violations […]



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