and Shocked Expressions
Anne M. Marble
Anne M. Marble
is a creature that can trip up many writers -- both novices and experts alike.
Some things make viewpoint a bit easier for romance writers. First, you are
usually going to stick to the viewpoints of your hero and heroine, and in longer
novels, important secondary characters. Second, most romances are written from a
third person limited point of view. That means scenes should be seen from the
eyes of a single character (more on that later).
even with those limitations, there is plenty to trip up writers. Viewpoint
problems can seem subtle, but the resulting effect can make your reader feel
like a ping-pong ball.
headhopping is not something alien characters do in futuristic romances.
Headhopping refers to writing in which the point of view whips back and forth
between multiple characters within a scene.
is not to be confused with multiple
viewpoints. Multiple viewpoints are expected in today's romance novels. Most
modern romance novels show scenes from the viewpoints of both the hero and
heroine. However, you should avoid switching that viewpoint in the middle of a
is most noticeable when it occurs frequently. Some writers see nothing wrong
with changing the point of view within the same paragraph. This can be confusing
to the reader. Many editors also hate headhopping because it's close to
impossible to edit out of a novel.
do you detect headhopping in a scene? First, decide who the viewpoint character
is for that scene. Then, ask yourself if the viewpoint character should be able
to experience everything that you have described in that scene.
a short sample scene:
over the top of her menu, Blythe looked Anthony in the eye. She knew he was
worried that she was going to order the lobster. "The specials look
nice," she said, wondering if he would notice that the featured special was
lobster. He needn't have worried. What she really wanted was the buffalo wings.
know she's going to order the lobster.
He smiled, hoping she didn't realize he was nervous. Anthony realized that his
menu hadn't come with the list of specials. Well, he should be safe; this place
never listed lobster as one of the specials. Blythe was really beginning to
annoy him. She'd told him she liked buffalo wings, but the first time they went
out, she'd ordered lobster!
The waitress came by. From the moment she saw this couple, she knew she'd
get a lousy tip because this man was already scowling at his date, as if afraid
she would order something expensive. She tried to keep her voice cheerful as she
asked, "Are you ready to order?"
that scene had headhopping or Blythe is psychic. How else would she know what
both Anthony and the waitress are thinking and experiencing? And if we're going
to be strict about this, how does she know that he's worried she'll order the
lobster? This scene might seem like an exaggeration, but it's only a slight
exaggeration. We've all read scenes that had that much headhopping or more. So
how can we improve it? Let's assume that Blythe is our heroine. That will make
her a good choice to carry the viewpoint of the scene. But aren't we going to
lose Anthony's perspective on this scene if we limit the scene? Not if we do
over the top of her menu, Blythe looked Anthony in the eye. He was already
scowling at her; on their last date, he'd rewarded her with the same inviting
expression when she'd ordered the lobster. "The specials look nice,"
she said, wondering if he would notice that the featured special was lobster. He
needn't have worried. What she really wanted was the buffalo wings.
smiled, but his smile looked more like a grimace, reminding her of the
politician she'd seen on TV last night. He glanced at his menu and then flipped
the pages around, as if looking for something. "I don't seem to have the
list of specials," he said. "By the way, I hear their buffalo wings
waitress came by. "Are you ready to order?" The harsh tone startled
scene no longer tells you everything that everyone is thinking, but is that
really a loss? By sticking to Blythe's point of view, the scene gains focus.
Blythe can figure out what Anthony is thinking by reading cues or from his
dialogue. (We hope she'll figure out someone else must be the hero of this
novel!) More importantly, we don't need
to know what the waitress thinks.
to make this more confusing, some readers (and some romance writers as well)
prefer to have multiple viewpoints during love scenes. They think this makes the
reader feel more connected to both characters. Unfortunately, because love
scenes are so intimate, switching viewpoints indiscreetly can really mess up a
good scene. Read examples of best-selling authors such as Nora Roberts to learn
how they do it.
you get accustomed to writing in a third person point of view, you can change
viewpoints within a scene. The trick is to do it so that readers (and editors!)
never notice. Be subtle and don't switch back during the same scene once you've
made that change. One good way of doing this is to switch the viewpoint only at
the end of the scene, and then carry on the next scene from the point of view of
that second character. This also makes a smooth transition.
rarely, some beginning writers will write lots of short scenes that bounce back
and forth, as if they want to avoid headhopping and will do anything they can to
avoid it. Instead of feeling like a ping-pong ball, readers feel like a
keep in mind that most romance novels are written in a third person point of
view. If you decide to write your story in an omniscient viewpoint, headhopping
might be expected. However, it's going to be hard to control. Remember that
readers won't say to themselves, "Oh, she's using omniscient viewpoint, so
the headhopping is OK." They will thrown up their hands and say "Oh,
no. More headhopping." True omniscient voice is a challenge. Only a skilled
writer (such as the late Patrick O'Brian) can make it work well.
used to be common for authors to insert their own statements into a novel. In
the middle of a scene about the orphan boy looking for the missing skate key,
readers might have to tap their feet while the writer told them about the poor
working family down the street.
intrusion can still sneak into a novel. This is common in all genres. Terry
Brooks' "The Sword of Shannara" lapses into authorial intrusion now
and then. (For example, he tends to tell us that his protagonists don't realize
that something or someone is following them. I should imagine not! If they knew,
they might turn around.) Many older romances use these techniques, such as Karen
Robards' "Sea Fire."
an example from the ongoing saga of the beleaguered Blythe: "Blythe thought
she was safe in the dark parking lot, but she didn't notice the mysterious pink
Cadillac following her." First, wouldn't it be more interesting and
suspenseful if she did notice? This
isn't a movie, and you're not Hitchcock. You can't hire Bernard Hermann to write
spooky music to go with the pink Cadillac. You're writing a novel, and this
scene is in Blythe's point of view, so you should be creating suspense based on
what Blythe experiences. In that way, a limited third person viewpoint can be a
more intimate experience for the reader. Second, who on earth is telling me this
story? I thought Blythe was the viewpoint character, and suddenly, someone told
me that Blythe didn't know about the mysterious Cadillac. Pity the poor reader
who suddenly whips around, trying to figure out who is narrating this novel.
you ever noticed that characters often know what their expression looks like? We
often read sentences such as "Blythe wore a startled expression."
What, there's a mirror at the other end of the room? When was the last time you
truly realized what your expression looked like?
how do you describe your character's expression through her point of view? The
trick is to find better descriptions. The phrase "wore a startled
expression" is a cliché anyway. How did you feel the last time you
were startled? Try to use those descriptions when telling the reader what Blythe
went through. The readers will be more interested to learn that Blythe's voice
shook as she spoke than they will be to learn that she had a "startled
are a lot of best-selling romance writers who use headhopping, authorial
intrusion, and other viewpoint bugaboos. If it works for them, fine. However,
you don't have the experience they have, and without it you're better off
avoiding these situations altogether. Remember, you have an obligation to write
the best book possible. If you don't have the skill to lead readers through
multiple viewpoints within one scene, then don't even try it. Yes, plenty of
readers will say they don't care about headhopping or that they don't notice.
However, don’t forget that there are many readers who notice it but never
voice an opinion -- they simply don't buy books by authors who use headhopping.
there are more romance writers who avoid headhopping and who feel strongly about
point of view. For example, romance author Alison Kent shared her thoughts on
viewpoint at All About Romance in an article "Who's on First?" (http://www.likesbooks.com/wb22.html
). This article is an excellent resource for readers and writers alike. (I'm not
saying that just because I wrote the introduction.)