I was having lunch the other day with a friend who shared a hilarious story about purchasing gorilla suits for her sons one Christmas (thank you Lisa O. for a great tale). Later that night, while I read a new book, visions of the gorilla suit returned to me. It wasn’t because the story was about primates. The story stopped me because the writing violated some basic rules about point of view (POV) making me wish the author had slipped on the main character’s suit to tell the story.
Having a story unfold through a single character’s viewpoint isn’t an easy thing to do. However, once you decide to reveal your story through either first person (I, me), third person (she, he) or omniscient narrator (hey, it’s those guys down there), it’s important to stay in a single character’s head. NOT forever, but for—let’s say—a scene or chapter or place clearly marking a POV shift. Otherwise, you’re hopping from head to head, like the story I was reading.
Some writer’s like to argue that “head hopping” makes for a richer experience, so a reader can learn what everyone is thinking or feeling.
The problems with this approach?
First, to agents and editors it shows you’re an amateur. They like books where there is a clear POV character speaking to them…one at a time. Otherwise, the story reads a little like a meeting where everyone is talking at once and it’s difficult to become invested in who matters in this tale. Also, unless you’re a pro (I’m talking a Nicholas Sparks-like pro), then you probably won’t be able to write this way in a fluid manner. Sure, some author’s head hop. You’ll note their published books typically have printed on top, “NY Times Bestselling author…”
Second, letting everyone know what everyone else thinks at the exact moment of each scene reduces the stakes of the story. As a reader, I want to fully be the character…mind, body, and soul. Consider this: have you ever done something stupid and wondered what everyone who is politely smiling at you really thinks? Yeah, me too. So do my characters. When an author head hops in their writing, the mystery is gone. Good writing is about creating page-turning novels
Third, when you stay one character’s head for a while, EVERYTHING from this one perspective, it gives more opportunities to slowly reveal conflict in your story. An example from The Hourglass, where Brenda (heroine) talks to hero CJ (hero) about her first husband:
The topic left her uneasy. For Brenda, every time the signs appeared—slurred words, a shift in his demeanor or the odor of liquor on his breath—the old wounds of her childhood reawakened. A crater of angst would swell in her gut while her inner soul waited in the same gloomy place as Jack’s until he returned to normal. She pressed her lips tight, unwilling to say more.
CJ’s jaw tensed and, even though he looked at her, it seemed his mind wandered deep in his own life. He replied quietly, “You’re right. Not everything can be fixed.”
Sadness filled the space between them. An emptiness in CJ’s expression left Brenda wanting to know more.
Did you want to know more about what CJ was thinking? Then it’s a good thing I stayed in Brenda’s point of view.
Now go toss on a gorilla suit (or your character’s suit) and pursue your writing journey. What it reveals may surprise you.
THANK YOU to our guest author, Sharon Struth.
Sharon’s Website: www.sharonstruth.com
For a trailer, excerpt or book group questions visit www.thehourglassnovel.com
Sharon Struth writes from her home in Bethel, Connecticut where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She's a graduate of Marist College and was raised in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Her debut novel, The Hourglass, is published by Etopia Press. Other writing credits include essays in several Chicken Soup for the Soul Books, the anthology A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers, Sasee Magazine and WritersWeekly.com. She is represented by Blue Ridge Literary Agency (http://www.blueridgeagency.com/)