Point of View—
No Head Hopping Allowed
© 2008 Anna Furtado
Point of View (POV) is something writers, old and new, must grasp to tell a scintillating tale. Whose story is this? Whose scene? It's important to know the answer to these questions as the writer develops the story.
Point of view is the perspective from which the story is told, the lens through which we see a story unfold. Where are we standing as the story unfolds? Who's telling the story? What is it that they want us to see?
A story can be told from the perspective of the three little pigs, evoking sympathy for the porcine trio. However, what if the wolf tells his side of the story, revealing exactly why he's inclined to huff and puff? Maybe his family is held hostage by the porky portion of the mafia and he is forced to rub the pigs out to save his wife and wolflets. Maybe he grew up a victim of abusive parents and his reaction was to bully others in return. A change in perspective can evoke a very different tale.
Point of view is also the approach we take in choosing how the character or characters will tell their story, whether using first person, second or third. If the wolf is telling the story, does he tell it this way?
"I've always had a problem with pigs—ever since I was a tiny wolf pup and a porker tried to invade my den. My eyes had barely opened when I was confronted with that horrible snout. I can still hear the snuffling and smell it's putrid breath on my face. It scared the bejeezus out of me, and I've never quite recovered from it."
The story could also be told in second person with the wolf still telling the tale. This little-used technique is not always as easy for the writer to wrap her mind around. However, the wolf might say:
"You can't trust pigs. Especially if you were the runt of the litter and one invaded your territory when you were just a little defenseless thing. If it gave you nightmares into adulthood, you'd know what I'm talking about. You'd grow up angry and lashing out. You'd want someone to pay for your troubled childhood."
Third person is the most commonly used point of view in writing. It's the "she said, he did" perspective.
"Once there was a sweet, tiny wolf pup, who had been frightened by a large boar as a baby. This bruised him terribly and, although he tried to be understanding of others, he just couldn't seem to control his anger, often expressed as an urge to huff and puff and blow some house down now and then. He just didn't like pigs."
There are different types of third person. In the story above, the narrator tells us about the wolf by telling us something about the inner workings of the character. He's driven to huff and puff by some terrible experience as a child. How does the narrator know this? Perhaps she knows everything there is to know about all the characters in the story, pigs and wolf, making her omniscient, godlike. She knows everything, and in the telling of the story, she tells us all she knows. By doing this, the inner workings of each character may be revealed.
What if the story unfolds from the point of view of only one character—or only a few key characters? Then the story is told in the third person limited. And while one character reveals inner thoughts and feelings, we're in that character's point of view. While in that single point of view, though, we cannot know what is going on in the minds of the other characters.
Let's try the wolf's story again:
The wolf woke up that morning with the seething, angry burning in his gut. If he didn't huff and puff and blow something in, he felt as if he might explode. That's how he ended up in the porker ghetto. He had no business there, yet he was driven. When he came to the first little pig's house, made of straw, he couldn't help himself. He took a big breath in, feeling his lungs expand. As he did, he saw a little piggy snout emerge from the window. The pig trembled and thought about his mother and how she'd never know that he had made something of himself and had been able to build his little house of straw. He thought that was quite an accomplishment for a pig. The wolf blew out his breath and watched the straw walls give way.
Wait! What happened there? In the middle of the story, we've switched to the pig's point of view. However, the scene starts strongly in the wolf's perspective. This is commonly referred to as head hopping and should be avoided at all cost.
It is possible to reveal something about the pig without hopping into his head. Staying with the wolf's point of view, we could say:
The wolf woke up that morning with the seething, angry burning in his gut. If he didn't huff and puff and blow something in, he felt as if he might explode. That's how he ended up in the porker ghetto. He had no business there, yet he was driven. When he came to the first little pig's house, made of straw, he couldn't help himself. He took a big breath in, feeling his lungs expand. As he did, he saw a little piggy snout emerge from the window. The pig trembled and his eyes widened just before the wolf blew out his breath and watched the straw walls give way.
In the second version, all we know is what the wolf saw as he was about to destroy the pig's house: the pig trembled at the sight of him and his eyes widened, probably in fear and shock. We can show the pig's reaction, but not his thoughts—not when we're in the wolf's point of view.
We can, however, start a new scene after the paragraph above and switch point of view saying:
As the first little pig's house came crashing down around him, he felt a pain in his chest. Overcome by fear and shock, his little piggy heart couldn't survive. His last thoughts were of his mother and how she'd never know that he had made something of himself and had been able to build a house for himself, even if it was no more than a house of straw.
Separate this new scene from the wolf's point of view by putting white space between the paragraphs or use the start of a new chapter when changing to the pig's perspective.
For each scene, pick a character and stick with him or her until the scene ends. Show other characters' reactions if it suits your purpose, but don't let those characters tell us their feelings or internal reactions. If they must tell us their interior thoughts, only allow them to do so in their own scene.
As a general rule, when assigning point of view, do so only to primary characters to the story. That's the rule, but rules were meant to be broken. In some cases, it may be necessary to allow a secondary character to have the point of view in order to advance the story. In The Heart's Strength, my second Briarcrest Chronicles novel, I tried to allow the villain of the story to tell of an encounter with a little boy during which he tried to extricate information about the women of Briarcrest. Knowing that main characters should be point-of-view characters, I tried to let the cleric, Isadore, tell the story. However, I soon discovered that to allow him to tell the story from his perspective was to allow him to reveal too much too early. By switching to the child's point of view, with his limited experience, I didn't need to reveal what the cleric knew and his real identity wasn't confirmed too early in the story. In this case, a secondary character's point of view served the tale.
At times, especially when using a single point of view, the constraints can be frustrating, and the writer may have to leave out certain information from a scene. When encountering this difficulty, try to write the scene from different perspectives to see which one works best. In the end, though, the decision may have to be made to leave out certain details, or to work them into the story another way—in a different scene altogether.
One of the techniques I use to keep track of any story I'm writing is to keep a log that serves as a brief story outline. This is handy for referencing scenes during re-writes. In addition to the scene summary, I note chapter, scene number, page numbers, and any notes I want to make, along with the point-of-view character's name for each scene. This keeps me honest. As I write each scene summary, I am forced to ask myself the question that started this article: whose scene is this? It helps make sure that no one else's perspective crowds out the character whose scene it is supposed to be. Here's what my spreadsheet, done in MSWord, looks like:
||Wolf wakes up angry and needs to blow off steam. He goes to the first little pig's house and destroys it.
||Try to work in more backstory on the wolf for sympathy
||As pig lays dying, he thinks about what he has accomplished in his life and regrets his mother will never know about it.
Finally, check out the Wikipedia website for a list of books by point of view at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_novels_by_point_of_view
And remember, for sparkling scenes that stay on track, keep from head hopping and remain in one character's point of view for each scene.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.
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