The Fictorians

Head Hopping – the Forbidden POV

27 March 2015 | 4 Comments » | Ace Jordyn

Want to start a passionate debate? Just mention head hopping.

When I started writing, I bravely went to my first writing workshop. I was berated for head hopping between two characters in one scene. I was devastated. What had I done wrong? More importantly, why had I thought I could do this? I was too scared, too naive to defend the ‘rule’ I had broken.

But, what exactly, is head hopping?

It’s about using multiple points of view. It isn’t third person omniscient point of view (POV) where the omniscient narrator can peer into anyone’s head anytime. An omniscient narrator maintains a god-like distance, giving a more objective rather than a subjective telling. The story is told in the narrator’s voice who doesn’t word thoughts and feelings in the characters’ voices. It isn’t a story told in close third person which has multiple viewpoints where the view point changes only when scenes change. When this happens, the scene is written using that character’s voice.

Head Hopping occurs when the POV within a scene skips from one character to another within that scene. Unlike the omniscient narrator, the voice changes and is unique to each character. Let’s look at an example:

Stuart swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it then set it on the table. He loved Rothchild’s Merlot but it was impossible to enjoy when Carrie was in the midst of a mood. He’d have to settle the matter, then they could enjoy their evening.
“We don’t need a dog yet,” he said. Darned nuisance they are, always needing to be walked, he thought.
“But they’re so cute,” Carrie insisted. She was tired of going for walks alone when Stuart worked late at the office. A puppy would get her out of the house and she’d meet more people. “And don’t you want to be happy?”
The waiter hesitated before coming to the table. He hated serving arguing couples because they tended not to tip well.

Three heads in one scene. If you don’t mind head hopping, you’ll find the different points of view entertaining. If you don’t like it, you’d likely prefer a root canal.

Handled clumsily (as in this example), it looks like the Stuart is psychic, for how can he know what everyone else sees or thinks? That’s the main problem with it for the point of view character loses the ability to read the other character’s cues such as body language and actions.

Do we need to know what everyone thinks? If the information isn’t germane to moving the plot along, is it important? In the example, do we need to know what the waiter thinks? It may be important if it compels Stuart to react in the moment, but how can Stuart react when he hasn’t been allowed to see the waiter’s reaction? Here’s a version staying in Stuart’s point of view:

Stuart swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it then set it on the table. He loved Rothchild’s Merlot but it was impossible to enjoy when Carrie was in a mood. He’d have to settle the matter and then they could enjoy their evening.
“We don’t need a dog yet Carrie,” he said. “Maybe later?” He glanced toward the waiter and caught his eye. Maybe Carrie would be more reasonable once they ordered.
“But they’re so cute,” Carrie insisted.
Stuart shook his head, saw the waiter hesitate and glared at him. What was it with this fellow? The waiter hurried to the table with a cheat sheet in hand while fumbling for the pen in his pocket.
“What would you like, sir?” he asked.
“Ladies first,” Stuart snapped.
Carrie’s eyes danced and before she looked to her menu, a slight grin appeared. Why did she find shoddy service so amusing? Stuart tapped his fingers on the white linen signaling for her to order.
“Ma’am?”
“Oh yes,” Carrie ran her finger down the page of entrees while Stuart drummed his fingers into the table. The waiter’s eyes darted to Stuart and back to Carrie. “The Chicken Kiev,” she finally said.
The waiter’s Adam’s apple bobbed, sweat formed on his brow. “We’re out of that,” he squeaked.
Stuart’s fingers drummed louder.
“Chicken Marsala?”
“I’m afraid–”
Stuart snorted. “What kind of a place is this if you can’t give a lady what she wants?”
“I want a puppy.”
The spilled Merlot was a sea of red flowing toward Carrie.

By choosing not to head hop, I found the scene easier to write, to escalate tension using the simple formula of action-reaction-action. This is the key difference: head hopping doesn’t allow a reader to get fully submerged in the story. By and large, stories with head hopping tend to feel more shallow because the author can’t go deep into any character’s head beyond a thought about something. Yet, the technique is used and very successfully by a few authors such as MC Beaton, Nora Roberts, Alexander McCall Smith and others. Sometimes we don’t want to be or need to be fully submerged in a point of view. Sometimes, we just want the story told, the clues laid out, to know the entire landscape without feeling the grass tickle our toes.

Those who love head hopping know to expect it. If you chose to write this way, ask yourself if you can build a following who will love and expect it. If it works for you – do it! But do it well or you’ll be dismissed as an amateur who doesn’t know the craft.

Doing it well means making sure that the signals as to whose head we’re in are clear, that the emotional experience for the reader is retained as is suspension of disbelief. If the reader is jarred out of the story and forced to reread to get their bearings, the writing has failed. Drama and tension must continue to build. Provide seamless transitions and ensure the head hopping moves the scene along.

As it turns out, I’m not a head hopping writer and it isn’t employed in the YA fantasy writing I do. But I read a lot of mystery and when I find it, I’m willing to head hop for the sake of the story. It’s fun, amusing and even an easy read when done well. It’s a cinematic way of telling a story where I don’t need to or even want to get deeply involved with the characters. I enjoy the clues and the bird’s eye view while the sleuth solves the mystery.

Gambling With the Guidelines

26 March 2015 | No Comments » | Kim May

Short story submission guidelines can sometimes look like a laundry list of Thou Shalt Nots. Thou shalt not write longer than the longest long that we can brain…Thou shalt not have more blood splatter than a Quentin Tarantino movie…Thou shalt not profane the Flying Spaghetti Monster…Thou shalt not write about clowns eating pudding…

Most of these are pretty solid rules but some can be skirted and occasionally — if you’re willing to take the risk — you can ignore one or two entirely. How can you tell which are which? Well when in doubt abide by the rules. This isn’t something that a novice should try. When gambles like this pay off it’s usually because the writing is so good that the editor is willing to overlook the disregard. And as I said, most of the guidelines should be obeyed regardless.

For example, when editors say they don’t want to read a story based on your favorite D&D campaign or one that has enough sex and profanity to make Howard Stern blush, they mean it. The former they see often enough to go into convulsions at the mere mention of it and the latter they can’t publish because it would offend their target audience. They know what their audience better than we do so it’s best to take their word on it.

Word counts on the other hand can be a little more flexible. Magazine and anthology editors know how many words fit on a page and how many pages the budget will allow. They also have an idea of how many stories they would like to fill those pages with. If your story is a slightly under the minimum count, you can still submit it without too much fuss. Every editor that I know prefers too short to too long. Especially since it gives them breathing room for the other submissions. That being said, if you’re over the word limit you’re better off shaving those excess words. It’s hard to write short and few can do it well so it’s not a good idea to assume that there will be a story that’s short the exact number of words needed to accommodate yours. Plus some editors won’t read anything over the maximum because they don’t want to fall in love with a story they can’t buy.

One of the less clearcut gambles lies in the domain of themed anthologies. Say an editor is putting together a collection of stories about magical flying red pandas (because who doesn’t love red pandas?) and they want them in the style of Mr. Rainbow McSweetandfluffy. The best thing to do would be to write exactly that. However, if Sweetandfluffy isn’t your thing but Ms. Dark McThrilling is you could submit that in the hope that the editor decides that your story is exactly what the anthology needs to prevent the readers from going into diabetic shock. But then again, they might not.

This kind of gamble is similar to investing in the stock market. You may lose on your investment at first but if you stay the course you might make a profit months or years in the future. The editor might pass on your McThrilling because they really do want only Sweetandfluffy. But if they need McThrilling-style stories for a different project they might invite you to write for that instead. There’s no guarantee that they’ll buy it but it does mean that the gamble paid off. The editor wouldn’t have invited you if your red panda story didn’t make a good impression. Of course there’s that pesky if. Make the wrong impression and there won’t be an invitation.

Whether it’s wise to gamble is up to you. I’ve had mixed success but that’s the way of it.

Spelling and Grammar

25 March 2015 | 2 Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by R J Terrell

Ah, our friends spelling and grammar. We meet them in school and they are with us for the rest of our literary lives. They’re what make non verbal communication possible, and make those of us who think too much marvel at how they came to be and evolved over the centuries.

In nonfiction, such as technical books, cookbooks, etc, spelling and grammar are essential (except your vegan books where we have substitutional products like almond mylk instead of milk) throughout the book. The last thing an author wants is to misspell the word spase in a book about astronomy. *grin*

In fiction, however, it’s a little different. Among others, there are two things going on that make for an immersive novel.

Within fiction, you have narrative, and dialogue. While there different types of narrative styles, for the purpose here, we will stick to three.

One style of narration is First Person. In first person, the reader only knows what the character knows. In this style, you the reader are in the main character’s head, and therefore are reading things in the manner in which they think. In this type of narration, spelling and grammar are usually going to follow the rules. Although you are reading the character’s experiences from their perspective, and sentences are even written in a style according to how they think, spelling and grammar are going to be intact; “When I made my way over that hill and saw that mountain lion, there was no way in hell I was taking a step closer. In fact, I took a step back.” This is first person, but written in a conversational style. Grammar and spelling intact.

Two other styles are Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. The former is similar to first person, in that the reader only knows what the character in question knows, but it is in third person. Omniscient is when the reader knows everything going on in the world even though the characters don’t. These two types of narrative require proper spelling and grammar at all times. We are outside the characters’ heads, and are in a sense, hopping from shoulder to shoulder of each character.

And lastly, we have dialogue. This is what draws us into a character. It gives the character depth and personality. It’s what makes a character real. Now as I mentioned, we all learn spelling and grammar in school, but few people speak in the same manner we write. If I was speaking to you right now, I would say, “Hey, what’s goin’ on?” I’m less likely to say. “Hello. What is going on?” Generally, relaxed conversation just doesn’t happen that way, and it shouldn’t with your characters, either.

If every single character in a book spoke in proper spelling and grammar, we would likely feel like we were reading a documentary. People don’t speak like a text book, so for goodness sake, they shouldn’t be written to speak like one in fiction, unless that is part of the story. However. There is a balance. I can have a character say, “Hey there my man! What’s happnin’ over up that hill?” But if I were to go too far, for instance; “Hey th’r m’mayne! Waz happnin’ over’n up’n th’ hill?” It’s just too much. Although there are people who speak without pronouncing a single word correctly, they can be difficult to understand, just like it would be the case trying to read what they’re saying. A balance has to be maintained. The exception is that if there is one character that speaks this way, it can be highlighted as something that makes them different. A whole race of characters can be difficult to understand, but this must be used sparingly, lest you risk frustrating the reader and them giving up. Nothing is worse than trying to sit down and enjoy a book but having your brain scrambled trying to decipher the dialogue of a book full of characters with crazy speech patterns. That can pull you out of a story just as easily as one full of characters speaking like Rhodes scholars.

So narrate that book with impeccable spelling and grammar, and get those sentences right. But for the sake of your lovely, awesome, inspiring characters, throw in some slang, have that peasant farmer say ‘hisself’, instead of ‘himself’. Find that balance and learn to walk it well, and your readers will love you for it.

 

 

About R J Terrell:
R. J. Terrell was instantly a lover of fantasy the day he opened R. A. Salvatore’s: The Crystal Shard. Years (and many devoured books) later he decided to put pen to paper for his first novel. After a bout with aching carpals, he decided to try the keyboard instead, and the words began to flow. When not writing, he enjoys reading, video games, and long walks with his wife around Stanley Park in Vancouver BC.

R J Terrell on facebook

R J Terrell on twitter

R.J. Terrell on Goodreads

 

Why I Hate Flash Forwards, Except When I Don’t

24 March 2015 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by David Farland.

I usually just hate flash forwards. Seeing one in a story is almost always a sign that the storyteller doesn’t know what he or she is doing.

You know what a flash forward, is, right? It’s when the writer violates the timeline by showing us something that will happen at the end of the tale.

Now, I’m the first reader for one of the world’s largest short story writing contests, so I see a lot of flash forwards. Most of them start with a tremendous amount of action, with the protagonist running for his life and then getting caught. Then the story flashes back to the character living up through the events that got him there.

The problem is, that in nine out of ten cases, those events are so slow, so boring, so routine or mundane that they just can’t hold a reader’s interest. On a conscious level, the author knows this, and so he or she will tack on a flash forward as if to say, “Keep on reading. It gets better!”

The problem is that the writer knows that the scenes as they are written can’t hold a reader. Usually, that’s because there is not enough conflict early enough. The protagonist doesn’t have any real problems, or they aren’t introduced within the first three pages. Or maybe there isn’t a central mystery that needs to be solved, or there just isn’t anything that is intriguing going on. There are just a few things that can hold a reader in the opening of a story. They are:

A fascinating setting or character, a character that is in pain or facing a significant problem, or a writer’s skill as a stylist and storyteller in presenting the story in an intriguing or powerful way.

If you don’t have any of those, you need them. In fact, if you don’t have them, you really should try to incorporate all of them.

Now, generally, a flash forward tends to be problematic. You see, when I begin reading a story, your goal is to engross me—to draw me into your fictive universe, transport me into your setting, let me take on the persona of your protagonist, and virtually live through a shared dream.

But a flash forward immediately kicks the reader out of that shared dream. Why? Because as soon as the flash forward ends, you yank your reader out of the dream. It’s as if the author is saying, “Oh, I was just kidding. This isn’t a story that you can get lost in. This is just me up here.”

In real life, you will never have a flash forward. You will never suddenly find yourself living through something that will happen in nine years. We are locked into a steady sequence of events, living from one second to another, and any violation of that law in fiction will cause a reader to disengage, even for a moment. You don’t usually want that.

Yet sometimes a flash forward can work. For example, in a science fiction novel, let’s say that you have a character who has prophetic visions. Go ahead and flash forward away!

Otherwise, you have to earn the flash forward. It can be done. Perhaps my favorite example comes from the plot of the television series Breaking Bad.

Here’s a description of that dramatic opening shot: A man (Bryan Cranston) wearing only underpants and a gas mask, drives a Bounder RV recklessly down a desolate road in the New Mexico desert. Another, younger man (Aaron Paul) with a gas mask covering a severely bruised face, unconscious, occupies the passenger seat. As the vehicle swerves down the dirt road, two bodies slide across the RV floor until the vehicle veers into a ditch. The hyperventilating driver climbs out with a video camera, wallet, and gun. Identifying himself as Walter Hartwell White, he records a cryptic, handheld farewell to his wife, son, and unborn child while sirens echo in the distance. Walt then steps onto the roadway, with the gun in his hand.

WalterWhite1

WalterWhite2

So why does the flash forward work so well on Breaking Bad but fail elsewhere?

  • In this one, the audience really has to wonder what in the hell is going on—to the point that they’re willing to follow the story for an hour. Yeah, I really wanted to know how Walter White got himself into that kind of trouble.
  • The following scenes must be interesting in themselves. They are. Breaking Bad was written beautifully, with an interesting character undergoing the fight of his life as he struggles with cancer, hoping to find a way to support his wife, his handicapped son, and his unborn child after his demise.
  • The flash forward itself has to work as a hook for what happens next. At the end of this flash forward, Walter White appears to be making a stand—he’s going to confront the police. Too often, I see flash forwards where the protagonist dies in the flash forward, leaving no room for suspense as to what will happen next.
  • The flash forward has to be interesting enough so that we are an audience are willing to see it twice.
  • The flash forward has a twist in the end, taking us in an unexpected direction. When the flash forward does take its place into the story’s timeline, something happens afterward that changes everything—that either shows the protagonist in a new light, or shows the problem in a new light.

So, if you’re going to have a flash forward, you lose something. Most of the time, it’s not a tradeoff worth making.

If you are going to resort to a flash forward, make sure that every line of your story outside of it earns you the right!

 

About David Farland:David Farland

David Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/. Also check out more great advice in his book Million Dollar Outlines. And take some of his online workshops at http://mystorydoctor.com.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: