Eva Machicado (Embark’s Copy Chief) gives her thoughts on a tricky aspect of copyediting fiction, namely the point-of-view shift.
Do you have a query about fiction copyediting you would like Eva to address in a future post? If so, leave a comment!
What The What? Who Just Said That?
In the fiction market, head hopping (or switching character points of view within a single scene) is frowned upon. Why? Because it confuses the reader and makes it difficult for them to follow the story when they are forced to switch from the thoughts and feelings of one character to another mid-paragraph. When switching the perspective from one character to another, publishers will normally insert two blank line spaces as a signal to the reader.
It is especially common for newer authors to head hop simply because they are still in the beginning stages of honing their craft. Often, they are so close to the work that they don’t even know they are doing it. So don’t be shy about pointing this kind of thing out; a career-minded author will appreciate your help improving their manuscript.
Let’s briefly review the standard points of view (POV) used in fiction and some examples of where things have gone awry.
In this POV, the entire story is told through the main character, so they refer to themselves using the pronouns I or my (other first-person pronouns used include me, mine, we, us, and ours). They will describe what is going in the physical world around them along with their thoughts and feelings as it occurs. Sometimes the character will reminisce or have flashbacks about things that happened in the past, and sometimes they will surmise or form projections about what they think will occur in the future. However, because the story is limited to this character’s direct experience and interpretation, they cannot know what is going to happen or what anyone else is thinking until it actually becomes known. In order to have concrete information that they are certain about, they have to be present in scenes and witness what has happened, or someone has to tell them what has occurred (perhaps in the news or by a friend).
Here is a made-up example of a head hop while in first person:
I set the plate of steaming pasta down on the table with a flourish and a “Ta-dah!” It had taken me the better part of the day to make the pasta and meat sauce from scratch. Even if it didn’t taste good, I was still proud of myself. It smelled good though, which was a hopeful sign. And anyway, I was excited to be sharing my newly developed domestic skills with my boyfriend.
Mike smiled, tucked the corner of his napkin into his shirt collar, and said, “Looks great.” The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes though because he couldn’t help the revulsion he felt inside. Having grown up poor, he’d eaten more than his fair share of pasta and would have been more than happy never to see a noodle of any kind ever again.
The main character cannot know what Mike is thinking or feeling unless this is paranormal fiction and she is a mind reader. Had she known he hated pasta, she never would have made it in the first place. The only thing this character could do is notice that Mike’s smile and tone aren’t quite right when she presents the dish to him and ask him what’s wrong. From there, what happens in this scene will depend on if Mike is honest with her or not.
Here is a made-up example where the author breaks from first person POV to foreshadow:
I reminded the girls again as I pulled into the drop-off line that their father would be picking them up from school today.
“We know, Mom,” they chorused.
I watched them roll their eyes in the rearview mirror and laughed. “Just making sure,” I said. “You tend to forget a lot of things I tell you.”
Like every morning, they hopped out of the car as soon as it rolled to a stop and joined the other kids streaming into the school.
“Love you,” I called through the crack in my window as I pulled away.
Had I known this was the last time I was going to see them, I would have said and done so much more.
It would work if this section was a memory. But in this chapter, we are present with the character in real time as they are going about their day, so the last sentence clearly doesn’t belong. The main character cannot know the future.
The pronouns you, your, and yours are used in this POV, and it is used to address the reader. This is rarely done in fiction because, by doing this, the author jerks the reader out of the story and back into real life. Just think about it, the reader is going along and getting hooked into a story world, forgetting about their day, and suddenly the author talks to them. They’re like, “Who? Me?” It can be a bit abrupt.
Second person is commonly used in emails, presentations, and business or technical writing. When you get a note from your parents saying, “Make sure you water the plants,” that is second person, as is this blog post.
This is the most common point of view used in fiction. I won’t list all of the pronouns here because there are many of them, but he, she, and it would be the main ones used. In this POV, the story is being related by the storyteller but only using the knowledge they have of the character they are relating the story through. Other characters are presented only externally while in one character’s POV. The storyteller would have to shift to a second POV to relate the story from that angle using the other character’s thoughts and feelings. However, the storyteller cannot tell the story from two different mindsets at the same time.
In the case of some current and very popular authors, the head hopping rule is disregarded.
Here is an example from The Mistress by Danielle Steele, shown here exactly as it appears in the book:
“Thank you for bringing the painting.” She smiled easily at him, and recognized him from the restaurant the night before, even without his suit. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt too, and had left his shoes downstairs in a basket when he came aboard the boat. “Vladimir said someone would deliver it. It was nice of you to come.” He noticed her Russian accent again, but her French was excellent. She had no idea what Vladimir had paid for it, and how normal it was that someone would carry it to the boat. She assumed Theo was the maître d’ at the restaurant, acting as messenger and delivery boy now. She took the painting from him officially, handed it to the security guard, and told him to lock it in Mr. Stanislas’s office, per Vladimir’s instructions. He had sent an email advising them of delivery instructions. She was polite to Theo, and turned to him with a warm smile. “I guess Vladimir was right when he said that everything has a price,” she said with a shy glance at Theo. “He usually is.”
“Not everything. But in this case, selling it was the right thing to do for all concerned,” Theo said seriously. Vladimir hadn’t bested them, or taken advantage of them, he had offered a fantastic price and a very good deal, and Theo was cognizant of it, whether he liked the man or not.
Whose head are we supposed to be in? How does he know she recognizes him from the restaurant or that she received an email from Vladimir about the painting? And how does she know that he left his shoes downstairs in the basket of this enormous yacht? In this excerpt, we find ourselves in Theo’s head, Natasha’s, and Theo’s again. Most of this book is written in limited third person POV. But there are several sections where it skips around between two or three characters like this, which is a little distracting. In this section, we can also see that there are several places where the text should have been broken and new paragraphs started. That would have helped make things clearer, but it wasn’t. In this example, we would have to ask the editor why they didn’t correct it as it falls on their shoulders to spot these kinds of things.
In this POV, the narrator knows and can relate what every character is thinking and feeling. Omniscient means “all knowing,” so you can think of it as the voice of the story god. This POV is commonly used as a literary device. Some examples of novels written in this style include Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1984 by George Orwell, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
How can the author show another character’s side while we are in one character’s head without head hopping?
Just as in real life, the character whose POV we are in will gather information about what someone else is thinking or feeling (short of the other character telling them) from clues. The characters they are interacting with will show what they think or how they feel through the little they do say, the tone used to say it, and emotions expressed through actions.
Here is another made-up example:
“Clean up your room now or we aren’t going to the park,” I repeated to my daughter.
She glared up at me with all the fury a five-year-old could muster, which was significant. The rage shining from her normally innocent blue eyes made me glad that movies like The Omen were pure fiction. The possibility of that kind of anger actualized was the very fabric of parents’ nightmares.
“I hate you!” she said and stomped her tiny foot on the hardwood floor, hands fisted at her sides.
But I could see that her desire to go to the park was far stronger than her hatred of cleaning, because she began to pick up her toys and put them away.
Here you can see that that mother is picking up on the daughter’s external expressions and can make the assumption she does at the end. It is okay for a main character to assume, guess, or conclude something about another character based on their words or actions. They can see that someone “seems” a certain way. Just be alert when you are editing for times when one character is certain about another the inner state of another character. Ask the question “How do they know that for sure?” Again, the main character doesn’t know anything for sure until it actually becomes known. The inner thoughts and feelings of the other character regarding what happened can be reflected on later if/when the author switches into their POV.
In conclusion, unless you are working with a celebrity author and have been instructed by the publishing house to let the head hopping slide, do your clients a favor and correct it. The authors and the readers will thank you.