This week I got an email question about switching point of view within a scene. It’s one of the hardy perennial questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it directly in this blog. First, an example:
Jennifer paced the room, wondering where George was. It’s three in the morning! He should have been back hours ago! Maybe she should –
There was a scratching noise, and Jennifer froze. The doorknob turned, and the door swung open to reveal a sheepish-looking George.
The minute he saw Jennifer’s worried face, George knew he was in trouble. God, all I want is to forget this night, he thought. I don’t need another fight. Hoping to head off an explosion, he said in his meekest and most apologetic voice, “I got lost.”
The first point is that this question only ever really comes up in regard to third person. If you’re writing in first person, it would obviously be intensely confusing to have “I” be Jennifer in the first two paragraphs and switch to George in the third, and the same is true for “you.”
Third person is more ambiguous. This makes it more flexible and allows for a greater range, but it also means that there aren’t nice clean lines between what you can and can’t do in various types of third person. In first person, it’s usually fairly easy to tell a letter from a diary, a memoir, stream-of-consciousness, or the more common riding-along-in-the-head variety of first person. In third person, tight-third-person shades into camera eye and omniscient very gradually, leaving large gray areas that aren’t quite one thing or the other.
This means that there are a lot more opinions about what is and isn’t “allowed” in various forms of third person. Some of this is because different people define the various forms slightly differently – in essence, they draw the line between “tight-third-person” and “camera eye” in a different place, or they break the continuum of third person down into more categories (filtered tight-third-person, unfiltered tight-third-person, limited omniscient, observer-in-the-corner, camera-on-the-shoulder…there are dozens of possibilities). There is even more confusion because different genres often have different conventions regarding what is acceptable and what is not. “Head-hopping” is, in many genres, considered a sign of bad writing. In Romance novels, however, it is far more acceptable – you do hear occasional complaints, but a look at what actually gets published will tell you that switching viewpoints within a scene is extremely common in that genre.
Furthermore, there are some types of third-person that aren’t well-suited to particular genres. The vast majority of murder-mystery novels I’ve read are written in first-person or tight-third-person; very few are in omniscient, because a truly omniscient viewpoint means that the narrator knew whodunnit and was just refusing to tell the reader, which is difficult to make work. Multiple-viewpoint mysteries are rare, but not as rare as omniscient, because if the writer chooses the viewpoint characters carefully, it doesn’t give the murderer away.
Not giving the murderer away is a major convention in murder mysteries. In thrillers, the central problem is not “who did it?” it’s “will they catch him?” (frequently “will they catch him in time?”); in these stories, multiple-viewpoint gets used a lot because part of the point is for the reader to know what the villain is doing and how far the heroes are from stopping him/her.
Which brings me back to mid-scene viewpoint switching, and the two basic Real Rules of Writing:
- You have to write.
- What you write has to work on the page.
Switching viewpoints in mid-scene is problematic because it is difficult to do smoothly in a tight-third-person scene without jarring the reader out of the story, confusing the reader, and/or breaking the reader’s identification with the main character. Note that “difficult to do” does not mean “impossible.” If you can make it work in your story, then you get to do it.
For most writers, however, mid-scene viewpoint switches (aka head-hopping) are not a good idea, for three reasons. The first is the one I cited just above: it’s extremely difficulty to make work smoothly. The second is that even head-hopping that works is a bit like exclamation points: the more often you use it, the less well it works and the more obvious and annoying it becomes. And the third is that, in my experience, at least 90% of the time the writer who wants to head-hop wants to do so because it looks like a quick and easy way of getting some important piece of information across to the reader that Character B knows, but Character A (who is the viewpoint) doesn’t know. Frequently, the important information has to do with Character B’s emotions or reaction to what is going on in the scene, but sometimes it has to do with some knowledge that B has and why B chooses not to mention it just now, even though it looks like a logical time to do so.
In other words, 90% of the time, the writer is trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the ability to dip into any character’s thoughts and feelings at any time, as in omniscient viewpoint, without sacrificing the identification and intimacy that comes with having a specific tight-third-person viewpoint. They don’t want to do the work of figuring out how to write an emotionally intense omniscient that will lead the reader to identify with their characters (very hard to do), nor do they want to do the work of figuring out a way to convey to the reader what B is feeling, how B is reacting, the fact that B is hiding something, etc. in a tight-third-person viewpoint when A is the viewpoint (also hard to do, especially the first couple of times).
Which means that 90% of the time, mid-scene viewpoint switching doesn’t work. It also means that the writer isn’t learning any of the techniques that do work in tight-third person, many of which will be far more useful in the long run. And since even the best and smoothest viewpoint-switching is a technique that only remains effective when it is used rarely, it is a really good idea for writers to know those other techniques. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more options you have.
Next time, I’m going to talk more specifically about some of those options.