Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Headhopping, Authorial Intrusion, 
and Shocked Expressions

By Anne M. Marble

©2002, Anne M. Marble

Viewpoint 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).

Still, 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

No, 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.

Headhopping 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 scene.

Headhopping 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.

How 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.

Here's a short sample scene:

Glancing 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.

I 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?"

Either 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 this right.

Glancing 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.

Anthony 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 are good."

The waitress came by. "Are you ready to order?" The harsh tone startled Blythe.

This 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.

Just 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.

Once 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.

More 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 volleyball. Ouch.

Also, 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.

Authorial Intrusion

It 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.

Authorial 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."

Here's 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.

Shocked Expressions

Have 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?

So 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 expression."

Conclusion

There 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.

Today, 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.)