Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Whose head am I in?


I was merrily reading a book, a sequel I'd gone out of my way to acquire, when suddenly, my sheer enjoyment of the storyline came to a halt, and I went, huh?
I didn't know whose head I was in. A minor character began thinking things, which interrupted my exciting journey with one of the two main characters. It seriously bummed me out.
Point-of-view is a sore point with me, and, yes, I'm using the same word three times in one sentence to make a point. I'm sure everyone knows that POV is the eyes through which we tell our stories. We can write in first, second, third or omniscient POV, but somebody is taking us on the journey. And the reader gets used to knowing who is talking to them. You really don't want to make the reader go, huh?
At the very least, anything that takes a reader out of story may irritate or confuse them. At worst, they may stop reading the book and not buy another by that author. My advice to both aspiring and published authors is to think before you bounce between heads.
Many times when I encounter these rough patches, the POV switch was not necessary. The author may defend it, saying there is no other way to let us know some vital information, but most often that is not true.
In the book I mentioned above the information imparted by the minor character could have been inserted with dialogue and action, thus never upsetting this sensitive reader or leading to this blog rant. And, no, I won't name book or author. First, because I don't want to go that route and, second, because this type of writing can be found everywhere.
I have had this discussion with other writers. Some defend multiple and frequent POV switches, pointing out best-selling authors who do it, and others shrug and say they think it's becoming more popular. At the risk of stretching my neck waaaay out there (I picture some of you sharpening your axes), I think it's lazy writing, an easy way to plop info into the story. And that's how it makes me feel as a reader, like I've been plopped on.
To be clear, I'm not talking about the classic method of presenting different characters' perspectives in alternating chapters. Readers can get their bearings in stories told that way. What I'm describing is being in a scene with a bunch of characters and wondering, "Was that thought Joan's? No, we were just in Joe's head. Oh, is it Jane who's thinking now?"
Trust me. You really don't want to make me go, huh?
The comment section is open. Fire away. I've got my flak jacket on.

19 comments:

PJ Hoover said...

I'm just trying to find your currently reading list so I know what book it was.
My question is this: was it an intentional POV change or do you think the author slipped?

I'm deadly aware of POV changes and notice them everywhere. I'm reading THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY right now which totally has various POVs in the same chapter, but I do believe the author did it intentionally, and since it centers around four kids, it works fine for me. I notice it, but I don't think it distracts.
This is not the case at all for other books.

Natalie said...

There are a couple of books that I love that change POV with the chapters (THE ENGLISH PASSENGERS is the one that comes to mind), but even that has to be done well to work.

I think you are completely right about jumping into other characters heads mid-chapter. It's confusing and it makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

PJ: I believe it's intentional, because it happens at other places in the book. For instance, the two main characters meet and within paragraphs each is seeing the other, describing the other. I didn't care for that but it didn't bug me as much as the minor character telling me what he was seeing and thinking. I guess my biggest complaint is that I don't see the need for this. In the instance above, we could have been in one character's viewpoint and she could have noted that she was in jeans while the other was in khakis, or whatever.
I've been interested in the Mysterious Benedict Society, so I will check it out to see how I feel about it. I know some people think it's a new, more cinematic, way of writing. I, unfortunately, feel myself pulled out of story, and there is nothing I like so much as being carried away in a story.

Lisa said...

I get your point. I don't mind switching POVs as long as it's still a LIMITED POV.

So I know that I'm now following Buck instead of Luke (even if both characters are in the scene). And we follow Luke and Buck throughout the whole story. It's not random. There's rhythm and reason for the change.

If it's going to be an omniscient POV, then it needs to be that way through the entire thing.

MeganRebekah said...

I *hate* this too. To me, one of the worst offending genres is romance. So often the POV switches within the same chapter, without even a line break and it disrupts my flow, and forces me to go back and figure out who just said/thought that.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Natalie: I haven't read The English Passengers. I'll check that out. Yes, frustrating, is a good word for it.

Lisa: I like "rhythm and reason for the change." I think that probably is key to making it work.

MeganRebekah: That is the main reason I find it annoying--to have to stop and go back.

Lady Glamis said...

This is such an interesting post! I was going to get really upset with you until you said you didn't mean switching POV as separate chapters, because all three novels I've written do that, and I think it works. My first novel, however, I'm changing to just one POV.

I think it's a sign of misunderstanding omniscient storytelling. It's one of the most difficult ways to tell a story, I think, and if not done well, ends up like the book you mention in your post. It doesn't work.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Michelle: I should have said earlier in the post that I wasn't talking about all POV, I guess. Sorry I got your pulse rate up.
I think you are right about omniscient storytelling; it takes a deft hand to do it well. We should not be left wondering where we are but feel it flow smoothly one to another.

Yat-Yee said...

When I vented about this in a post recently about head hopping, http://yatyeechong.blogspot.com/2009/07/from-where-i-stand-or-head-hopping.html

several comments were on the changing POV with alternating chapters. I think that can work very well. I will go so far as to say it can work well even within chapters or scenes (gasps!) Two examples of the POV changes that work very well in this way are COST by Roxana Robinson and CHASING VERMEER. CALDER GAME, on the other hand, worked less well.

Different people have different levels of "huh" tolerance--some of this writing has passed the muster of the agent/editor/publisher--but as a writer, I hope I don't make even one single reader go "huh".

Tabitha Bird said...

POV's are tricky. I have two in the current book I am working on and I am always mindful of changing too quickly or of losing my reader. good points though. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yat-Yee: I'm willing to give your suggested books a try, as I haven't read them. You are absolutely right about the 'huh' tolerance, and that's why I've had debates with other writers. Some people are not bothered by it. For me, it's an issue.

Tabitha: I think you are right to be mindful when writing the POV changes, because it can be done if it's smooth and doesn't bounce the reader out of the vehicle. *smilin' back*

MG Higgins said...

As in so much else with writing style, I think it depends on the execution. I read BENEDICT SOCIETY and agree that the POV switching wasn't (usually) distracting. But I have read books where it's terribly annoying because it muddles rather than adds.

storyqueen said...

I am really struggling with this right now in a WIP. It's a YA, omniscient 3rd.....and the story just wants to jump around people's heads a bit. I think I am too lazy/inexperienced to mess with it too much just yet, because I'm just trying to get it out onto paper! I'm afraid if I try to control the story too much, I'll never finish.....soooooooooo. Um. Yeah. I'll probably have a heckuva lot of fun in the rewrite!!!

I'll keep you posted on the misery.....if I ever finish it!

Shelley

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Mel: I guess this is where we hope our crit buddies, beta readers or editors will flag any areas of muddle. So far, most of my work has been in first or limited third so that I have avoided the issue.

Shelley: First draft seems like you just cut loose and see what it wants to do, but, yeah, on rewrite your hands will be full! Yikes, I hope my big mouth use of "lazy" doesn't make anybody feel that way. I oughta get off the soapbox. I'm sure you'll finish it if your characters are that anxious to be speaking.

Linda Kage said...

I think you have to be a REALLY talented author to successfully pull off head hopping. If each of a writer's characters has such a distinctive voice that the reader doesn't even realize they've just wandered through ten minds in two paragraphs because it flows that real, then bingo, who cares how many heads we're in? If I'm sucked that deeply into a story, I'll keep going back to that author no matter how may POVs they shoot me.

BUT.... if a reader constantly gets confused? Who's thinking that? Who's mind are we in now? What's going on? Aggg, I'm so Lost!! Then, okay, I'd recommend they stick with one POV at a time. And since other writers can so easily pick up these changes, I feel it's extremely difficult to be good enough to pull off head-hopping.

My, myself, and I? I know I ain't got those kind of skillz. So, these days I stick with one head at a time when I write.

Robyn Campbell said...

Tricia, the book I'm reading right now did that. Changed right smack dab in the middle of the dang chapter. It made me so derned mad! It's a really great read, except for that. And it has done that earlier too.

I had to reread it, because I thought I had missed something. And like my pal^ above me said, It's extremely difficult to be that good.

Nice post, my friend. Nice post. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Linda: Hi and welcome! I think you are so right about distinctive voices. If the characters have unusual speech patterns or attitudes that stick out, you can bring the reader right along with the switch. But even then I think there has to be a compelling reason to make a head-hop, something you've got to show right now and that somehow connects to the main storyline.

Robyn: Seeing red together ;) Glad you liked my rant. Cheers!

ElanaJ said...

I don't like POV stuff. I don't even really like books that have alternating characters narrating in the same chapter. Chapter by chapter I can handle. Other than that, I'm not a fan.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Elana: Good to hear your opinion on this. I think I mostly prefer single POV or, at most, two people's. Any more than that is dang crowded.