Friday, March 18, 2005

POV, Geometry. What's the Difference?

Oh, Joely Sue Burkhart just gave me the topic of today's entry via her comment on yesterday's. The dreaded sin of head-hopping!

Back in the day when I first started reading, I had no idea what Point of View was or meant. I remember liking books where I knew everything about everybody (which I have since learned is omniscient POV) or books where the main character told the story (first person POV). That simple demarcation was plenty enough for me. Books were either "I" stories or "other" stories.

Since those halcyon days of innocence, I've since learned that life is waaayyy more complicated than a simple all-or-nothing approach. Now I know that there's first person, second person, third person and omniscient POVs. Plus there's limited POV and unlimited POV to further muddle the pot. Not only are there three to choose from (and I know I listed four but I honestly can't ever, ever imagine what reason would exist to force me to write a second-person POV), but there are actually unwritted "rules" about the correct way to handle changes in POV (and this is a good article, btw!).

I've always been one of those lucky writers who from the get-go understood the concept of POV. I have absolutely no trouble at all maintaining a single POV within a scene or section of a story. Every once in a while one of my critique group partners will question the POV within a paragraph, but usually it's because I've been too vague rather than because I've actually jumped into another person's head. Maybe I've described a non-POV character in such a way that made it seem all of the sudden the paragraph is about that person. So I'd say I was guilty of hopping from third person to omniscient POV more so than hopping from person to person. Either way, it's bad and it's wrong and I fix it when someone points it out to me.

Anyway, since POV has never been a major stumbling block for me, it baffles me when other writers seem to have such a hard time with it. I was that way with sophomore-year Geometry. I just couldn't get why other people had such a hard time understanding what to me seemed as clear as crystal. But there are things that I struggle with that I'm sure other writers would roll their eyes at, so I'm certainly not judging anyone. Sometimes I'd trade in my grasp of POV for a good ability to write an action scene that leaps off the page or a love scene that doesn't sound same-old-same-old.

What seems to be the biggest issue is when writers change POV throughout a scene. Standard rule of thumb is that when writing third person POV, the story stays with one character's POV through a scene or at least until a natural break occurs at which time something like an extra line between paragraphs or a row of asterisks or something of that sort alerts readers that a change-she-is-a-comin'. But sometimes writers either 1) don't understand the whole concept of POV, or 2) don't know about this unwritten law, or 3) don't care because they need the readers to be able to see inside more than one character's head at a time, or 4) don't care because screw rules, I'm an artiste and rules don't apply to me!

Until I learned this rule, head hopping never bothered me. Now? It drives me crazy. I've heard tell that Nora Roberts is pretty much the one and only writer on the face of the planet Earth and perhaps even in the entire Milky Way Galaxy that can pull off head-hopping so seamlessly she's a legend. Since I've never made it entirely through a Nora Roberts (just haven't picked up the single title of hers that provided the call-me-to-Jesus moment), I wouldn't know if this is a truth or not. I'll give Ms. Roberts the benefit of the doubt because as prolific as she is, lord knows she's had more practice than anybody and by now should be pretty dang good at it.

I do know, however, that in Night Pleasures Sherrilyn Kenyon wantonly jumped between the hero, Kyrian, and the heroine, Amanda's, heads so often I felt like I was watching Wimbledon. To her credit, I was never confused by this technique. I always understood very clearly whose head I was in and never attributed a specific instance of breast-lustage to Amanda or a had a moment of confusion when Kryrian seemd to appreciate a particularly nice set of buns-of-steel.

Does that mean the Kenyon is in the clear as far as pulling it off? I wouldn't say so. Because if I understand correctly, the biggest Goal of a writer - the Brass Ring, the Gold Ribbon, the Best-in-Show moment - is to immerse a reader so deeply into the story that the reader forgets she is actually reading. Anything - anything - that pulls the reader back to the surface is to be avoided if at all possible. And I did notice this head hopping and it did remind me that I was reading a book and it did distract me from the story.

All this being said, I know there are plenty of readers who aren't bothered by head-hopping in the least. And to them I say "You go girl!" I'm one of those readers who doesn't mind the anti-feminism premise of having a heroine rescued by a big strong man, so who am I to say that anyone's particular preferences are good, bad or ugly? Those of us who are POV purists will stay on our side of the camp and glory in our smug superiority while those who are POV mongrels will slink around...I'm kidding!!

You know I'm joking here, right?

Off topic here, but highly worthwhile. Since you all know my penchant for all things Pride and Prejudice, I particularly enjoyed PBW's comarison of the publishing industry to the characters in P&P. Very clever! Go check it out.


Joely Sue Burkhart said...

When I first started writing, I headhopped freely. I'd read many books done the same way many times, and I figured as long as the reader knew who was thinking/speaking, I could switch as often as I wanted. Any side character that had something to add at the time had a POV. I even had a generic "crowd" POV.


Once I learned a little more on craft, I went back and hacked all of those POV shifts out. I found through rewriting each scene that it was harder work to think of how to show everything I needed to move the story while staying true to one POV. It was easier to lay some suspense by having some side character worry or wonder in response. My main characters suddenly had to work harder at looking about them. Which is a good thing, I think!

There's still a lot about POV that I don't know and probably won't try for a long while (like omniscient). I tend to write best in deep third with only H/h POV as much as possible, perhaps a villain or significant character.

It never bothered me as a reader until I went back and rewrite my entire first ms to eliminate the headhopping. Not it drives me batty!

Wendy said...

I'm rereading Jude Deveraux's THE VELEVET PROMISE and she head hops, amazingly enough, to characters not in the scene. That's a special talent, huh?

Anonymous said...

Having recently "discovered" Nora Roberts (yeah, I know, what planet have I been living on? :D ), I can tell you categorically that she does *not* pull off her POV switches seamlessly. At least half a dozen times in each book, I get pulled up short by some unexpected POV switch. I'm most likely to notice it when she head-hops to some bit-part character whose POV I couldn't care less about, but it occasionally jars even with H/h switches.

In my never-very-humble opinion, the people who say she can pull it off are just scared to criticise someone who's been doing it as long, and has made as much money out of it, as Ms. Roberts.

- M :)