The first fiction I read as an adult was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was drawn in by a mysterious guy, Phaedrus, whom the viewpoint character kept veiled in his faulty memory. (Incidentally, this is different from an author playing games and holding back information that the VP character knows.) As the book jumped from story to philosophy and back, a bit more of Phaedrus emerged, making me finish the book before I learned the disturbing truth about who he was. I felt kind of sick.
Even so, I loved the book, especially the philosophical sections.
A few years later when I was learning to write fiction I ran into a “viewpoint” discussion and remembered how the author of Zen had used a strictly limited viewpoint to suck me in and string me along.
The opposite of a strictly limited viewpoint is an “omniscient” viewpoint. The terms have evolved over the years, but even in omniscient (all-knowing) viewpoint, the authorities who still think they run things don’t want us “head hopping.”
“Head hopping” is moving the viewpoint from one character’s head to another’s within the same scene. The dividing lines between scenes can be vague sometimes, but to illustrate, here’s an example of head hopping:
Oinkie-Jim settled back on the couch with a chill in him. I’ll shoot it if it gets out of the box. The front door burst open with a bang.
Blake carried in a greasy car battery and eased it down on the lid to keep the critter inside. Then he scratched his head. These cats got teeth up in there. It’s sitting in a flimsy cardboard box.
Louise was on the phone looking out at the moon, admitting she and Jim was in a pretty swell place back in Baton Rouge. Not big, but… A gun went off and Jim shouted bloody murder like he’d shot his own self again. That poor dumb man. She laughed but stopped. What if he shot his self dead this time?
OK, now here’s roughly the same scene, limited to one viewpoint character, rather than hopping from one head to another.
Oinkie-Jim settled back on the couch with a chill in him. I’ll shoot it if it gets out. He stroked the handle of his gun as Blake stumbled in, lugging a dirty car battery. What the? Blake set the battery on top of the box before there was time to stop him. The lid caved in and the battery landed on the cougar’s head, setting him off but good. The cat came out claws and teeth but Oinkie, nobody’s fool, pulled his pistol like he’d planned, and ba-bam! Shot his own self. This time in the left foot.
To make things worse, Louise was laughing her stupid college-girl head off in the kitchen. But Oinkie had to be nice. Somebody was going to drive him to the ER and it weren’t going to be Blake. Not that moron.
There are two points. First, “head hopping” versus staying in one character’s head or point of view. I hope I made the difference clear in those two version of that scene.
Second, the way some writers use viewpoint, it’s as if the VP character were literally writing the story. In this case, I’m pretending that the VP character, Oinkie-Jim, is literally doing the writing. It’s as if there’s no infallible hack involved, just Oinkie whose English ain’t so good. This means that I can’t be blamed for the grammar unless it becomes distracting and takes the reader’s attention off the story…. which probably happened here in retrospect.
When you let the VP character “write” the story, there can be an interesting effect that’s a lot of fun to write, and also a pleasure to read if it’s done well. But you have to be careful not to get carried away like I just did. A great example of this technique is the best-seller, The Fault In Our Stars, which I talk about here and here, as well as in the e-book I’m working on, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.
Limiting yourself to one viewpoint character is a little like a straitjacket when you first learn to do it. At least it was for me. Even after it becomes a habit, it limits your plotting, especially if you stick to one POV character for the whole story. But it’s also a lot like real life because it makes everything subjective and linear.
Head-hopping, and even a legitimate omniscient viewpoint to some extent, can distance the reader from the raw emotion of the main character, allowing objectivity to murder the magic.
But omniscient viewpoint gives you huge plotting freedom, among other advantages. To bridge the gap, many novels start with an omniscient perspective in the early going, then switch to limited viewpoint. This was done well in the Potter series, which I discussed in, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.
M. Talmage Moorehead
If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” my in-progress novel may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.
It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.
But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.
So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 19,000 word pdf will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)
Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell someone beautiful and intelligent about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your help and thoughtfulness.
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