How Many Heads?

How many viewpoints in a novel?

How many viewpoints in a novel?

When you’re reading a modern third-person limited perspective novel (he said, she said from inside a single character’s head – see this great post for an explanation on narrative modes in literature) how many heads are acceptable?

When I first wrote Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, which is written from two key protagonists’ perspectives, I switched from head to head without thinking about it, and would quite often jump into the head of minor characters. Strictly speaking that’s nearer third person omniscient, without that irritating ‘know-it-all-ness’ of an Eighteenth Century narrator.

I didn’t give it much thought, until a Beta Reader pointed out that head-hopping within a scene can be confusing and is generally avoided, and that it wasn’t a good idea to see inside the head of minor as well as major characters. It came as a surprise, because I didn’t really think about it as I wrote – the almost-omniscient style seems to be my default.

That probably reflects the literature I read: authors like Georgette Heyer, who write in what I suppose to be omniscient third person. Even though Heyer spends most of the time following one person’s viewpoint, she’s happy to hop into the thoughts of anyone relevant to explain the scene. Even though I’ve studied the theory and know the principles I still struggle when I write (and even when I read) to always know the difference. I read this great article today that helps to explain it.

That’s why Dragon Wraiths was refreshing – in first-person-present you only know what the main character sees, hears and feels. It adds other challenges to do with character development and so on, but you don’t have to worry about head-hopping.

Class Act Cover

Class Act Cover

I’ve just been through my first draft of Class Act and, like Baby Blues, it’s littered with head-hopping. That’s fine, I can fix that. But, also like Baby Blues, some of my favourite writing is inside the heads of secondary characters. I cut it all out in Baby Blues but now I’m wondering if that was entirely necessary. Maybe it’s just my voice, my style. Maybe I tend more towards multi-voice perspective or omniscient than tight third person (sticking to one head). Maybe I should embrace it rather than fix it.

I say this only because I’ve just finished The Radleys by Matt Haig and it reads like a soap opera script, seen from everyone’s perspective. I have to admit it added to my enjoyment of the novel rather than detracting from it. (Possibly because I love omniscient authors like Heyer.)

Now Haig is a much more experienced and talented writer than I am, and my execution is bound to fall a long way short, but that’s no reason not to try.

So, my question is, if you were reading a novel that took you on a brief trip inside the mind of the mum or the best friend, would that confuse or irritate you? I guess until I finish my revisions and send it out to Beta readers I won’t know. Here’s an example scene to show what I mean.

Daphne looked up, and her smile was like the sun rising over the horizon. She put the tapestry aside and rose to her feet, holding both hands out in greeting. Alex took two paces forwards and enveloped her in a bear hug, her scent infusing the space between them, bringing with it all the comfort and memories of childhood. He hadn’t been home for weeks, not since he’d started rehearsing the play, even though it wasn’t that far away. He felt terrible, but his mother of all people understood his need to carve his own way in the world, away from Sidderton.

“Alex, darling, how lovely to see you,” she said as she finally released him from the embrace. “Sit down. Does your grandfather know you’re here yet?”

“No, I came to see you first, of course.”

“You mean you crept around the side like a naughty school boy?”

His smile made him look every inch as she’d described him. “Maybe. I need to ask for something and I thought I’d ask your advice about the best approach.”

“You need money? I thought you’d got a handsome settlement when you left your last place of employment? Didn’t you talk of share options?”

“I don’t need money, and as if I’d ask Grandfather if I did! He’d roast me alive. No, it’s more complicated than that.”

“Then it’s about a girl. Have you got someone in trouble?”

“Mother!” Alex was genuinely shocked. “What do you think of me? Firstly, no, I haven’t got some poor girl pregnant. Secondly, this is the twenty-first century, not Downton Abbey. We don’t buy the servants and wenches off with money these days you know.” His tone was ironic and gently chiding. Sometimes he thought living here at the hall had confused his mother into believing they lived in the eighteenth century.

“You are partly right though,” he continued, “it is about a girl.”

“I thought you had decided girls were all fortune hunters out to ensnare you? Has one managed to catch you?” She looked worried, and he laid a hand on hers to reassure her.

“Well, I suppose I have been snared, but not for my fortune. She doesn’t know anything about it.”

“What do you mean? Does she think we are one of those impoverished families who spend every penny on their crumbling manor?”

Alex thought about the immaculate interior of Sidderton Hall – Mother had been an interior designer before she married – and laughed. The laughter lit his handsome face from within, like the sun breaking suddenly from behind storm clouds. Then the clouds drew across the light again, as he realised his charade was no laughing matter. He had to think of a way to make Rebecca love him despite his background. He had to get to the bottom of her dislike of the landed gentry – there had to be more to it than a few idiots being rude to their gardener. That was for another day. He was here to help her build her future, whether that included him or not. Acts of altruism were not part of his general make up, and he found he quite liked the sensation.

Daphne sat patiently whilst these thoughts played out across her son’s even features. She was used to her son’s internal dialogue and knew he would present his conclusions when he was ready. He shifted his position on the ancient and battered leather sofa that dominated the family room and she knew he was ready to speak.

“I need to get grandfather to agree to sell the old hay barn down in the south east corner.”

Whatever Daphne was expecting, it wasn’t that. She spoke aloud her first thought.

“No Sidderton has ever sold one inch of the estate, not even when they faced bankruptcy”.

Alex laughed suddenly as she said it. She gave him a bewildered look and he clarified: “That’s what the estate manager said to me, and I thought the same recently when I was talking with Rebecca about buying property. It must be a mantra that we’ve all been brainwashed with.”

“What makes you think you’ll convince grandfather otherwise, when you know it is so much against the family way?”

“Because I have to,” his voice was urgent, “Because it’s important. Just because that’s the way something has always been doesn’t mean that’s the way it always has to be. Because I want to help the woman I love, and – if I’m really lucky and dig myself out of the huge hole I’m in – it won’t be out of the family for long.” His words came out in a rush, as if to explain it all to his mother suddenly seemed both difficult and vital.

In limited third person the entire scene should be either from Alex’s or Daphne’s perspective, or there should be a scene break when it hops from Alex’s to Daphne’s head. But, to me, the scene works fine as it is. Maybe it’s the subject matter: there is an air of Heyer, or of nineteenth-century romance, about the novel. Should I have the same consistent voice across all my novels or is it permissible to shift it according to the needs of the novel. Answers on a postcard, please… 🙂

8 thoughts on “How Many Heads?

  1. That’s a tricky one. First up, I have to confess that I do it. However, I always break it up with a gap and a row of centred asterisks so that it’s clear.

    Also I did get a little confused there and I’m not sure you need to head hop, anyway. Maybe if you had the bit about Daphne watching her son as he thought just before the point of view changes and then maybe have have him anticipating her surprise at what he was about to say before it switches back.

    That said I’m no expert. I’ve just avoided all head hopping that isn’t proceeded by a blinding fanfare and some warning stars in my books because it seems to be so frowned upon these days. I don’t really know why, because you’re right, Heyer does it all the time.

    Sorry that probably doesn’t help.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • It does help, not least because you understand my pain! I do the three astericks between scenes with a change of viewpoint currently. I guess I was envying the freedom of the omniscient perspective! I will have to train myself to be more aware of it when I’m drafting because it’s a pain in the neck rewriting every single chapter to be in just one head!

  2. I think it flows well and I enjoy head hopping, I like hearing what everyone has to say, or rather think. But I’ve never been one to follow rules, so best not take any notice of what I say (or think) 😉 😀

  3. I haven’t read any Georgette Heyer, though I’ve heard great things about her books. Her books are on my To Read list, so keep that in mind when you read my comment.
    The first time I read through your snippet I was confused but perhaps that’s because I’m not used to head hopping. I thought about it and realized that you were intentionally showing me the feelings of both characters. I read it again, and things fell into place a little better.
    My concern with this kind of point of view is that each character likely has an opposing goal for a scene, and showing me both of their arcs gives the scene a diffuse feeling. But, like I said, third person omniscient is not something I’m used to. (I’m hopping over to your links to brush up. 🙂 )

    As for your question, I think it’s perfectly fine to change up the voices with different novels. In fact, I think it keeps things interesting!

    • That’s a really interesting point and shows my lack of conscious thought as a writer: I don’t tend to analyse each scene for arc and purpose etc. I try and have such things in mind when deciding if a scene stays – but more “does it add to story, character or pace. Okay it stays/goes.” I find if I over-analyse I forget how to write or I lose any sense of the worth of my writing. The way round it, that I’ve used before (that ends up getting cut, generally) is to have a sequence to the scene that shows the other character’s thoughts and emotions.
      Interestingly I started reading a Heyer short story this evening and the head-hopping and impersonal omniscient voice got on my nerves. (The other reason I hate analysing stuff – it ruins the pleasure of reading!)

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