A friend of mine recently told me that she could no longer read a book if it shifted points of view (or “head hopped” as it is also known) too frequently. More, that she had learned from her writing group that frequent point of view (pov) shifts are wrong and she could no longer write stories like that.
Using more than one pov in a novel, a short story, even in a paragraph is a technique. There is nothing inherently wrong or right about it. And yet I keep hearing people say that it is a sign of bad writing, especially in the US of A:
- Emma Bull protested over the head hopping, saying that it was sloppy style and removed all suspense from the scene. In a later discussion, Mely mentioned that the main point of romance isn’t suspense, and so the head hopping is perfectly fine in romance the way it wouldn’t be in mystery or SF/fantasy, which so often does rely on reader ignorance.
Which is to say that head hopping is a more common technique in romance than it is in mystery or SF/fantasy. It is not sloppy style! Besides, it can increase tension to show the different characters having completely different takes on the same situation. So i don’t even buy that it removes suspense.
Joseph Conrad was the master of head hopping. Famously he wrote paragraphs where the pov shifted from sentence to sentence. In one paragraph you get to jump into four or five heads. And he’s such a genius of a writer you have absolutely no problem telling them apart nor do you get dizzy. The only reason it’s not a great idea for a beginning writer to try this is that it’s really, really, really hard. But maybe that’s exactly why a beginning writer should give it a go. Just to see how tricky it is.
The injunction against head hopping is just part of a whole raft of prohibitions I keep hearing about. There’s also the words you should avoid.1 The parts of speech ditto: especially the humble adverb and adjective.
Most of these injunctions, when I press people about them, seem to stem from creative writing classes and workshops and various writers groups. This drives me insane not just because it’s a lazy way to teach but because it’s creating readers who dismiss very fine writing as bad or unreadable because it deploys techniques they’ve been told are wrong.
Let me repeat: no writing technique is bad per se. Sure, it can be done badly, but that’s an entirely different issue. Writing that obeys all the writing workshop rules and deploys not a single adjective or adverb can also completely suck.
When my friend submitted her first piece of writing to her critique group they jumped all over her for the frequent shifts in point of view. Instead of saying, “We were confused and could not tell the various points of view apart. You need to make them more distinct and the transitions cleaner. Or perhaps the multiple povs is getting in the way of your story and you should cut down to only one or two,” they told her that head hopping is bad writing and she should only ever use one. She didn’t learn how to shift povs cleanly; she learned to remove a technique not only from her repertoire as a writer, but also from her set of pleasures as a reader.
That makes me want to cry and not just because she’s a really good writer.
Or it would if I really believed it. But too many people who claim to hate head hopping then tell me that one of their favourite writers is Dorothy Dunnett, or Joseph Conrad. or some other writer who freqently shifts points of view.
“I like clean, spare writing,” they’ll tell me, “without any of those rubbish adjectives or adverbs.” Next breath they’ll be confessing their love for Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler.
- The list I cite of Margo Lanagan’s prohibited words is largely meant in jest. Her main point is not that you avoid those words, but that you think carefully about how you deploy them. I suspect that most writing teachers’ list of banned words operate in the same way. Unfortunately, some of their students take the wrong message from the lesson and seriously believe that “corruscating” is an evil bad word that only hacks use. Tell that to Angela Carter. [↩]