Head hopping and talking heads...
Learning to write ruined reading for me. (Eventually, I came to enjoy it again, but at first, I picked apart every broken rule in the novels I was reading.) One of those rules is a cousin to point of view that I talked about a few days ago, called “head hopping.” Head hopping is when you are in a scene, seeing it from one character’s point of view, when all of a sudden the view shifts to another character in the room. It’s when we are in Sarah’s thoughts and suddenly we know what Sam is thinking. I read a novel one time where the point of view changed three times in the same paragraph! By the end of the paragraph, my own head was spinning trying to figure out where I was. This is a good way to lose readers.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
“What are you doing here?” Sarah stopped at the counter and crossed her arms to keep from shaking, daring Sam to explain, knowing she couldn’t trust a thing he said.
“I heard about the baby. I want to help.” Sam looked at Sarah. The anger he expected. He deserved her wrath after walking out on her like that. But the other emotion. Was that fear in her gorgeous blue gaze?
“If you’ve come here to give me advice, you can keep it.” Sarah jabbed a finger at him. “And don’t even think about there ever being an ‘us’ again!” She whirled around and raced back up the stairs. How could he do this to her? How could he come back into her life now when she needed and hated him most?
Can you see the POV switches? First we’re in Sarah’s head – she’s daring Sam to explain, knowing she can’t trust him. Next sentence we’re in Sam’s head as he notices Sarah’s anger and fear and even shows us he’s still attracted to her. Sentence three we’re back in Sarah’s head as she asks (in her thoughts) how he could do this to her, admitting she both needs him and hates him.
A fictional scene should take the reader on a journey through one characters thoughts, actions, and emotions. We can sympathize with both Sarah and Sam in the above example, but we would feel the scene better if it were from only one point of view. Sarah can’t know that Sam can read her reactions or that he is still attracted to her. She can surmise it, but she can’t know it. And Sam can’t know that Sarah is angry or afraid except by her actions. In my example, we’re seeing what both people are thinking, and neither one can mind read, so only one set of thoughts should be open to the reader. When you write a scene in a story, think like a camera operator on a movie set. You can only take us through what your lens can see. Make the character who has the most to lose be the one whose point of view your readers see.
To rewrite the above scene in one point of view it would look something like this:
“What are you doing here?”
Sam turned at the sound of Sarah’s voice, his gut clenching. Would she listen? Give him a chance? He set the coffee carafe on the counter that separated them. By her rigid posture and crossed arms he knew far more than the counter would keep her from coming one step closer. He couldn’t blame her. He’d been a fool to walk out on her so soon after they’d said their vows. If only…but wishing wouldn’t wipe the scowl from Sarah’s beautiful face.
“I heard about the baby. I want to help,” he said, his voice catching on sudden emotion. He wanted desperately to step closer, to pull her into his arms and beg her forgiveness. But she didn’t trust him. The daggers in her gaze was proof enough of that.
“If you’ve come here to give me advice, you can keep it.” Sarah jabbed a finger at him. “And don’t even think of there ever being an ‘us’ again!” She whirled around and raced back up the stairs.
He sank onto the bar stool, no longer trusting his legs to hold him. She hated him.
“Oh God, what have I done?”
See the difference? When we stay in Sam’s point of view, Sam’s character deepens. Head hopping cheats us out of truly knowing the people in the story.
Talking heads is another problem – it’s when you have dialogue without beats. Sometimes it’s also dialogue without tags, such as “she said, he said.” Here is an example with tags, but no beats.
“What are you doing here?” Sarah asked.
“I heard about the baby. I want to help.” Sam said.
“If you’ve come here to give me advice, you can keep it. And don’t even think of there ever being an ‘us’ again!” Sarah yelled.
We know something is going on here. We even know who is saying what, but their conversation is like a volley of words. We see no action, have no sense of place or setting, and have no idea what they look like or what they’re thinking or feeling. Fill in the scene with beats (description) and dialogue and stay in one characters head per scene and you’re well on your way to crafting a story your readers will want to keep reading.