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Issue # 57
May/June 2010

Table of Contents

Point of View, Narrators, Intimacy, and Head-hopping

By Catrin Pitt

Copyright © 2010, Catrin Pitt, All Rights Reserved

As with all things about story telling, multiple writing techniques are woven together. You can learn about the terms and what they mean, but when put into practice it is difficult to separate one technique from all others. Good story telling is more about using a combination of writing techniques and weaving them around and through a story idea, than about putting words on a page that tell that idea.

So it is with Point Of View, Narrators, Intimacy and Head-hopping.

Point of View.

The term 'point of view' can mean one of two things, and sometimes both. Some writers talk about the point of view character, the character who is telling the story at this point in time. Others talk about writing in first person point of view, or third. Both are considered correct, but to me they are confusing.

In my head I've separated the narrator (the character telling the story at this point in time) from the story's POV (whether the story is told in first person POV, third, omniscient, or even second)

There are four accepted POV's used in story telling:

  • First person POV; the story is told by a narrator in terms of 'I', 'we', 'they.'



Examples of First person POV are;
  • I saw him throw the body into the lake.


  • We ran through the bush to escape the monster.


  • They laughed and joked, but I didn't join in.


Second person POV; the author is telling the story as if you, the reader, is the narrator. 'Change the story' books are a good example of second person stories.

Examples of second person POV are;
  • You can only see the tip of its nose, but that is enough to freeze your heart, to send shivers down your spine.


  • You know you should be comforting her but your own hurt stops you.
Third person POV; the narrator tells the story using 'he' or 'she', as appropriate. The name of the narrator is also used.

Examples of third person POV are;
  • She ran, knowing she would not be fast enough, but Lydia also knew that giving up meant total defeat.


  • James looked out of the ship's window. Stars sparkled in the darkness, so close that he thought he could touch them.


Omniscient POV; the narrator isn't any character in particular, more like a fly on the wall, or a bird in the sky, or a 'god character' or the author/narrator. This narrator can see everything, knows everything, even if the characters don't, and can see into the character's head. The god character or the author narrator may know the story completely but lets the story unfold.

Examples of Omni POV are;
  • The yellow Mercedes speed along the country lanes, like the driver was on a race track. The car took corners as if there was no one else on the road. Michael was lucky that there wasn't.


  • No one saw the package in the stairwell.
There are other POV's mainly used for non-fiction writing, not story telling. I mention these because you will have read something in them and maybe wondering where they fit in.

Modified first POV is where the 'I' or 'we' is implied, but usually the pronouns are not included at all. Used in report writing.

Examples of this are:
  • The weight was attached to the string and dropped from a height of 15 cm. (we attached the weight to the string and we dropped it from a height of 15 cm)


  • The experiment was repeated six time and the results recorded. (We repeated the experiment six times and we recorded the results


Modified second POV, where the 'you' is implied but omitted. Common in computer documentation or travel books

Examples of this are:
  • Click on the menu item File, followed by clicking on the item Save. (You click on the menu item File, followed by clicking on the item Save.)


  • Walk down the street. On the left will be a tea shop and an antique store. Both are worth a visit. (Walk down the street. On the left you will see a tea shop and an antique store. Both are worth a visit.)


Narrator

To go through what a narrator is and how it applies to writing a story I'm going to restrict my comments and examples to first or third POV. Omniscient is a special case, as is second POV and, since most stories are told in either first or third or a combination, I'll leave the other two out.

The narrator of the story, or sections of it, is the character who is relating that part of the story. The way I interpret this is that everything; action, description, thoughts; relates to that character and that character alone.

This means that if the narrator has never seen a teapot and there is one sitting on the table in front of him then he would look at it in wonder, describe it, touch it and discover it hot. He would wonder if it was hollow and be amazed when someone opens it and pours in water and an amount of tiny flakes and then five minutes later out comes brown liquid. He might even taste it and find the tea bitter, or to his liking. What he won't do is call it a 'teapot', or know that the liquid is tea or even that it is drinkable and not poisonous.

This applies whether I am writing in first POV or third POV. At the most simplistic the main difference between the two is that the pronouns used are different.

An example;
  • First POV; I looked at the strange ball-shaped object, with its two curved appendages. One curved around to join the ball at the top and the bottom. I wondered if it was a handle. The other stuck out and steam came from it. I considered that it could have been a release for what ever was inside.


  • Third POV; Jak looked at the strange ball-shaped object, with its two curved appendages. One curved around to join the ball at the top and the bottom. He wondered if it was a handle. The other stuck out and steam came from it. He considered that it could have been a release for what ever was inside.


In a story told in first POV there tends to be only one narrator. Usually. And if there is another narrator that narrator tends to be done in third POV. Usually. Except in story-telling there are no rules, only what makes your story the best it can be.

In a story told in third POV there can be many narrators, a few, or one. There are terms for that too. Multiple third is where there are many narrators. Limited third is where there are only a few, or one.

Intimacy

For me, intimacy is how deep inside the head of the narrator you take your readers. This particularly applies to third POV, but also to first POV.

I liken the level of intimacy to how close the 'reader' hovers above the narrator.
  • Distant third (or third objective) is the reader hovering about a foot above the head of the narrator. The reader can see everything the narrator sees, but the reader cannot 'hear' what the narrator thinks. The reader can see the narrator's body reactions (a tremble, a frown), but doesn't know the narrator's heart is pounding in his chest.


  • Close or intimate third (or third subjective) is the reader sitting within the narrator's body. The reader knows that there is a trickle of sweat going down the narrator's back, that his palms are sweaty and his heart is pounding.


  • 'Somewhere-in-between' third (which is my brilliant term *grin*) is the reader sitting on the narrator's shoulder. Here the reader can occasionally hear the narrator's thoughts. Here the reader can see the sweat trickling down the narrator's back but might not know about the pounding heart or the sweaty palm. The reader would instead see the narrator wipe his hands on his trousers.


In first POV the intimacy tends to be close, but I have seen 'somewhere-in-between' first POV, even a distant first.

Head-Hopping

Head-hopping is a change of narrator that detracts from the story.

Change of narrator is a head-hop that enhances the story.

Both techniques are valid, although writers tend to get upset about head-hopping. Note I said 'writers'. A lot of readers don't notice, they don't even know that a term exists to describe the technique.

But it isn't the ordinary readers we are out to impress. The only group of readers we as writers need to impress are editors, agents, publishers and their staff. And they certainly do know about head-hopping.

If you look up the internet you'll find two different definitions for head-hopping, both valid.

One definition is a change of narrator that takes place too often, too suddenly, too briefly. A head-hop moves from one narrator to another with no warning, and makes no improvement on the story.

The other definition of a head-hop is when the narrator describes something they cannot possibly know about, or is inappropriate to think.

Here are some examples.

A head-hop in first POV (yes, it is possible);

In the stillness and half-light I almost didn’t see his move. He tried to get to fancy, feigning right, then left, before bringing the blade around from his right. It was easy to avoid, and a quick turn gave me an opportunity to cuff the back of his head with my hilt. I didn't want to kill him or even hurt him bad, just make sure he knew who was boss.

That made Hal angrier, his head was pounding.

Good. He turned quickly and too far. This time he just charged forward, roaring like a bull. I sidestepped and tripped him
.

How does the narrator know Hal is angrier? Maybe by some facial expression or some articulation, but the narrator hasn't mentioned those things. How does the narrator know Hal's head was pounding. ?

A head-hop in third POV;

Susie ran her finger through her tight curls, trying to smooth out the knots from her bright red hair. Her green eyes sparkled in the sunshine.

Susie might think about her 'tight curls' because her actions are to remove the knots from her hair, but a normal person does not think about the fact their hair is bright red, not unless they have just changed the colour of their hair. Nor does a person normally think about the fact their eyes are green. There has to be a reason for the narrator to think about the colour of their hair, eyes, skin, etc. And the last point; there is no way Susie knows that her eyes are sparkling unless she is looking into a mirror or has some exotic disease that causes them to sparkle.

Another head-hop in third POV;

Jonathan Smyth looked at the phone. He knew he should phone his mother, but some times it was such a chore. She always found some way of criticising him, even when he did something good. Like last time he made the cross country team. All she could go on about was the time training took away from his studies.

He left the phone sitting on the table and walked out the door.

Cynthia was holding her phone, knowing she should call Jonathan for once. She pressed the numbers, but never pressed the send.

Jonathan's jog started slow, but his legs got faster as he let go of the tensions. He smiled. This was why training was so important. He thought better after a run. Maybe one day he should explain that to his mother.


Whilst the little bit about Jonathan's mother is interesting and might be important, it is not knowledge Jonathan has and as such is head-hopping.

There are many more ways these writing techniques can be used or misused. I've covered only a brief personal view. You might have your own view, based on your own experiences and readings. Remember there are no bad techniques when employing the craft of writing, no magic formula, only techniques that enhance your story or detract from it.

And that's the way the POV crumbles.

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
~Sylvia Plath