Whose head is it, anyway?

One of the first issues a writer faces is deciding in whose point of view (POV) the story will be told.

And one of the most-often heard criticisms of a manuscript is “head-hopping.” In other words, jumping from one character’s head to another in the same scene.

Editors hate this, so my advice is Don’t Do It.

Multiple POVs was a time-honored format years ago. Notice I said years ago. Today you rarely read a book that tells the story through more than two characters. I’m not sure why multiple POV (along with Omnipotent POV where the reader knows what every character is thinking and feeling because the story is told by a god-like narrator who Knows Everything) has lost favor, but neither of these POVs will get you a publisher unless you are already a big name and sell many, many books, in which case you can do as you like.

A beginner, though, had better stick with the current format, which is to limit the number of POVs and make a scene change every time a new character is thinking or speaking. You recognize the shift by this device:


Some writers shift between POV by alternating chapters. This works well, too.

I’ve read that one exception is bedroom scenes, when the characters’ thoughts can be tossed back and forth like the ball in a tennis match. But you still need to make certain the reader knows whose thoughts are whose.

I’m revising a manuscript that started out with multiple points of view. I thought it was necessary in order to present information the reader needed to know. However, on re-reading (and several rejections) I decided to change it to a single POV, the heroine’s.

The result is I have limited myself to sharing information that only the heroine can know.  It is similar to first-person POV, when the narrator is speaking directly to the reader. In other words, “I saw, I heard…”

This means cutting many sections of the manuscript. Hitting “delete” is hard, but it has to be done.

So how does the heroine get her information, and indirectly, the reader? I have one scene where she overhears something critical to the plot. That’s a trick I try not to use more than once, since it is about as overused (if necessary) as the “letters that were never delivered” device.

The result is dialogue, which I love to write. People tell her things, or don’t tell her things, which is just as revealing. For example, the hero refuses to discuss his past, which alerts both the heroine and the reader to the fact that he has something to hide.  Or sometimes the other characters don’t even need words, their actions tell her what she needs to know.

It’s slow going as I have to rethink many passages before I can rewrite them. Or decide if they are necessary at all.

I hope it makes for a cleaner manuscript. It’s harder to write, but if it improves the story, it will be worth it.






2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lorrainequinn4
    Sep 13, 2015 @ 13:15:33

    I had just had this same conversation with a fellow writer yesterday. I had to cut POV’s down to hero and heroine from my current story. It was difficult, but as you said, publishers reject multiple POV’s. The problem I have as a reader – I love to read multiple POV’s. I’m not an idiot and I don’t think most readers are, and can figure out who’s head I’m in. I like to know what the best friend, the villain, the nosy neighbor is thinking.

    I’ve also been snagged for the POV reading thoughts through facials of another character. When someone is sending me a dirty look, I know it! You don’t have to be a mind reader to know what they are thinking cause it’s all over their face.

    I try to follow the rules but I feel like I’m dumbing down the text. Thankfully some well known authors can break the rules. They provide well rounded stories (and I know what the nosy neighbor is thinking – even in the same paragraph as the heroine – imagine THAT!) and for that reason, I will continue to buy their books!


  2. Sandy Bruney
    Sep 13, 2015 @ 14:24:35

    Hi Lorraine, I feel your pain! I think the romance genre is more strict about these “rules.” Literary fiction allows more leeway, at least as far as I can tell. I love multi-faceted stories and like you, love to know what the butler is thinking about his master or the maid about her mistress! And I guess they wouldn’t dare show it through their expressions!
    Would Downton Abbey be the same without multiple POVs?
    I think not.


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