Monday, October 29, 2012

Beast Post: Omniscient


Or: Taming a God


Warning: this is another Beast Post.

So after reading Taming a Beast with 24 Heads, you've decided to write in Omni.
"I know, I know, everyone says not to use it. But I think it's perfect for my story."
Rilly? Is your story an epic fantasy? Or historical fiction? Or space opera?
"Yeah. Totally. All of the above."
Ah, so you've got like, a cast of thousands?
"Totes. And everyone's got a different thang going on. S'why I need omni. I need to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Mwahahahaha –"
Sure, but you know you might be sacrificing that thing people call intimacy for this power, right?
"Worth it."
And it can be cray-cray confusing for both you and your readers if you're not in the groove.
"I got this."
Then why the f*ck are you here?
"…. I'm scared of headhopping."
I am too, Skippy. I am too…

Let's put our serious pants on now. And our business socks too while we're at it.
Today we're going to tame the Omni god. First, we'll pin down a working definition to make sure we're all on the same page. Second, we'll revisit head hopping in relation to Omni. Lastly, we'll do some samples.

This is what the idea of writing in Omni POV can seem like. Author as Omniscient god, with his mind-reading tentacles in all the characters' meat heads all the time.

But there's the rub. Say you have an epic story that's so shiny and all the characters are so super spesh, wouldn't it be the bestest to write down everything that happened? The reader should know every special thing every special character thought, right? That's what Omni can do, right?

Err…. Yes and no. 

The answer is in the name itself: Omniscient Point of View.
Omniscient means all-knowing in a story, not all-telling of everything that happened while the story was going on. Also, Omniscient means all-knowing, NOT all-powerful. That would be Omnipotent. Sometimes I think people see "Omniscient" and get so awestruck, the rest of the name for this narrative mode gets forgotten. 

Here it is: 3rd Person Omniscient Point of View

What does this mean? Try thinking of it this way. The Omniscient Narrator as a foreign news correspondent in your world's story. He's a reporter. The story unfolds from his Point of View. He doesn't have the "godly" power of "dipping into" your characters' heads. He doesn't need to. Dude knows everything already. He exists in the story to report events as they unfold. 

Let's poke at that dead horse. Point of View is the locus from which the story is experienced and reported, aka viewpoint, aka narrative mode. So you're already familiar with 1st Person POV ("I am going to tell a story as it happens to me.") and 3rd Person POV Limited ("He/She is going to tell a story as it happens to him/her."). 

3rd Person Omni (aka Omni POV or just Omni) can look like "Let me tell you a story in which I don't actually participate in." Think of it like this: an all-knowing entity, pretending to be a Star Trek Captain who adheres strictly to the Prime Directive. No interference whatsoever. Right now, let's say it's Starfleet Captain Morgan Freeman, and he must report what happened in his very unique, very distinctive voice. 

That's the heart of it. 3rd POV Limited and 1st POV Limited are both participants in the story, play roles in the story, have stakes on the outcome of the story. 3rd POV Omni is not a participant, but exerts a presence in the way the story is told.
Sometimes, the presence is palpable and distinctive. It can hit you in the first line: something along the lines of "Come, gentle reader. Bend your ear to this tale I present." Or a few pages in: "If you're of a tender soul and sensitive to such titillating taboo topics, pray avert your gaze from the next scene for in it yadda yadda."

Sometimes, though, the narrator isn't as obnoxious. In fact, sometimes the narrator is transparent, and the text seems like 3rd Lim. You might go pages into a book, unsure, since the story starts off following one of the protags through some worldbuilding stuff. 3rd POV Lim and 3rd POV Omni share that 3rd POV prefix and thus share the same pronoun bank. Characters will be referred to as He/She/It. 

Let's move on to Omni and headhopping by taking a look at your epic historical fantasy on anthropomorphic space-travelling racehorses. 
Who are some of the main characters?
"There's Wa'frio'ffill'kroebedo, the main dude, and Heo'gell'baran, the love interest, and –"
WTF. Let's call your main protag Waterbed and his love interest Honeybear. Say you're writing 3rd POV Lim from Waterbed's POV in chapter 1. If, within the same paragraph a few pages in, you suddenly switch to describing Honeybear's feelings, that would be headhopping. In 3rd POV Limited, the POV is LIMITED by the POV character's meat head. Hopping out of Waterbed's meat head to get into Honeybear's meat head is therefore headhopping. 

If you wrote in 3rd POV Omni, the narrator is all-knowing. The Narrator already knows what everyone's feeling and junk. To the Narrator, the meat heads are transparent, thus, no need to get into or out of them. Frex, why would I bother trying to get into your meat head if I already know exactly what you're thinking/feeling in the past/present/future. Seriously. Why would I bother? I would simply say what you're thinking and feeling so the story makes sense. 

Logically then, it follows that we can use the term "headhopping" to refer to a switching from one limited POV to another (aka, hopping out of a meat head). But in Omni, that meat and bone limitation doesn't exist, therefore the term "headhopping" has no application. Me saying "You're headhopping!" while reading your Omni POV would be like me saying "You can't lane change, fool!" if we're traveling through space, in which there are no lanes. 

What might actually be happening in Omniscient POV when that criticism of "you're head hopping" pops up is this: the transitions between the narrator reporting different character's thoughts are too abrupt. 

Frex: Waterbed felt shy. Honeybear was horny. Waterbed needed time to – Honeybear suddenly felt hot in the room. Waterbed tried to leave. Honeybear tackled him. Etc.  It's like listening to a little kid tell you about attending his first birthday party. "There was a clown. And the clown did this. And boy was mom mad. But Dad thought it was so funny. The clown magicked the cat. And boy did Dad think that was so funny. But Mom, she started yelling. And dad was all…" 

Quick fix for this? Slow down, Skippy. Seriously. Slow down the switches. I'm not saying you need oodles of sentences describing Waterbed and Honeybear looking at each other. And for the love of glob, don't resort to using phrases like "Waterbed touched his mustache" or "Waterbed tossed his hair" to show you're switching from reporting Honeybear's thoughts and feelings to Waterbed. Within each scene, try spending the most time reporting the feelings and thoughts of the character who has the most at stake. (Think Frodo when he's all, ZOMG, Gandalf, idk if I can leave the shire! Did we spend equal time in Sam's head? Or even Gandalf's, though G-man had the juiciest gossip? No, it was Frodo. And switches from reporting on what Frodo thought and felt to what Gandalf thought and felt were marked by line breaks.)

What does all this mean for you? Well, dear writer, let me use some clumsy arrows to show you.

Limited POV: Waterbed experiences the story. -> Writer writes the story as if in Waterbed's meat head. -> Reader reads Waterbed's POV.

Omni POV: Waterbed experiences the story. -> Omni Narrator (Morgan Freeman) watches and chooses to report what's happening to Waterbed. -> Writer writes down Morgan Freeman's Starfleet report. ->Reader reads Morgan Freeman's POV reporting on what happened with Waterbed. 

Here's a picture of a puppy to break up this Wall o' Text:

"Whatever writing issues you're going through right now, it can't be worse than this. Trust me. you don't even want to know."
Let's put what I've shown about Omni to use.
Awfully generic example of 3rd POV Limited:

Bob fidgeted in his seat as the barmaid set a glass of ice water in front of Wendy. Great Gods, would the infernal woman find fault with this too?
"Is that tap water?" Wendy asked, squinting at the glass as if vile creatures lurked between the ice cubes.
"Yes, ma'am," said the barmaid.
"I only drink bottled water," Wendy snapped.
"Of course ma'am." The glass was whisked away, replaced by a bottle of Merlin's Tears and a chocolate satin pie as big as a cyclops eye.
"You going to eat all that?" Bob asked.
Wendy, pie-filled spoon halfway towards her mouth, gave him a glance that could slice diamonds.
"Are you saying I'm fat?" she said.
"N-no. It's just… that's so much…"
She stared down at her plate, free hand gesturing under the table. The silence between them stretched and Bob, giving up hope he'd be able to say anything to set it right, tried to turn back time. It didn't work.

Now let's try turning it into 3rd Omni: Write the scene from the narrator's POV. I'll use a strong annoying modern narrator.

Bob was totes jerking around like a raver on the sweet end of a rush while the barmaid gave Wendy a glass of ice water. He was straight up skurred Wendy was going to cuss out the waitress right there, right in front of e'eryone.
"Is that tap water?" Wendy said, looking at the glass like it was full of knock-off Brandymountain Mead.
"Yes, ma'am," said the barmaid.
"I only drink bottled water," Wendy snapped. Seriously, though, Wendy totes regretted it. The barmaid looked like she was gonna spit in whatever she brought out next.  But Wendy was so hungry, she didn't care. Seriously. She would've eaten her own LadyJane pumps, her Proda purse, and the satin bags they came in.
Girl was all cray-cray about the water because last time she had tap water at a pub, ohemgee, she got some kind of amoeba or something. And now that she got prego, no way she was gonna take En Eee chances. Full stop.
Anyway, barmaid brought out a bottle of Merlin's Tears and a chocolate satin pie with mounds of whipped cream – real cream, Wendy could totes tell it was real because of how shiny it was – and even a cherry. She wanted to be all up in that pie, but she was all like, Rilly? What would Bob think if he saw you all up in that pie?
So anyways guys, listen. Listen! If Bob knew Wendy was prego, or what she was gonna say after what he said would totes blow up Universe #624, he prolly woulda been more smooth-like or something because Oh. Em. Gee…
"You going to eat all that?" Bob asked.
Wendy, who was getting all up in that pie, stared at him like he was last year's BestBrand luggage collection – the one with the dark red stripes that didn't match a single thing she owned.
"Are you saying I'm fat?" she said.
"N-no. It's just… that's so much…"
Girl stared and stared at her plate, and she did something under the table, like literally, under the table. It was so quiet, Bob could hear his own piss freezing in his peepee. He was so skurred he wouldn't get laid after dinner that he tried to turn back time. It didn't work.

Wow. That… is a Hot Mess. The narrator stole the spotlight, I think, and obscured what was really going on in the story. Kept the reader at a distance. Now let's finesse the sample a bit by making the narrator more transparent for the most part. In effect, we can visualize this as addressing the narrator of our own work "Dude. Calm down. What really happened?" (IRL, I talk to my characters a LOT.)

Bob fidgeted in his seat as the barmaid set a glass of ice water in front of Wendy. He was worried Wendy, who hadn't smiled once during dinner, would find something else to complain about. [1]
"Is that tap water?" Wendy asked, squinting at the glass as if vile creatures lurked between the ice cubes. [2]
"Yes, ma'am," said the barmaid.
"I only drink bottled water," Wendy snapped. [3] Immediately, she regretted it; the poor barmaid looked ready to spit in whatever she brought Wendy next. Not that Wendy cared; she was famished. She'd eat the food, spit and all. Perhaps even the plate if no one was looking.
This was because last time she had tap water at a pub, she'd gotten violently ill from some waterborne microbe. And now that she was pregnant, she couldn't take any chances. Except just a second ago, she'd decided she'd eat the barmaid's spit! Goodness, she could almost feel the pregnancy hormones shaving points off her Intelligence Rank.
The ice water was whisked away, replaced by a bottle of Merlin's Tears and a chocolate satin pie with mounds of whipped cream – real cream, she could tell from the gloss – and even a cherry. She could barely hold herself back from burying her face in it, thinking what would Bob say if he saw her rooting about like a pig? [4]
Now, if Bob had known about her being in pig, or that her response to his next question would lead to the eventual destruction of Universe #624, he might have phrased said question more delicately. Alas…[5]
"You going to eat all that?" Bob asked.
Wendy, pie-filled spoon halfway towards her mouth, gave him a glance that could slice diamonds.
"Are you saying I'm fat?" she said.
"N-no. It's just… that's so much…"
She stared down at her plate, free hand gesturing under the table. [6]The silence between them stretched and Bob, giving up hope he'd be able to say anything to set it right, tried to turn back time. It didn't work.

[1] Narrator is spending some time describing Bob, dribbling info in about the scene in relation to Bob.
[2] Oh hey, guys. Wendy said something. Oh, and Wendy's doing something. Let me describe that now.
[3] She's kind of more interesting than Bob atm. Let's describe her for a bit.
[4] She's doing something by trying not to do something. Intriguing. Action. Find the reaction. She's worried about Bob's reaction. Let's focus on Bob.
[5] Narrator using a pun to transition to Bob because he wants to clue us in on the significance this moment will have further in time.
[6] Oh you sneaky narrator. Why don't you just tell us what she did under the table? Is it because you're describing what Bob's seeing, and not what's really going on? Interesting…

Now apply what we've gone over here to your own WIP. Do you have:
1.      A narrator who doesn't participate in the actual story.
2.      A narrator who presents the scenes by focusing attention on significant details, or mention only information that's relevant to understanding that specific scene? (A technique I find helpful on revision is to pause at a questionable scene and ask myself "What would Starship Captain Morgan Freeman do?")
3.      A narrator that blends well with the story? Do you have too many moments where the narrator takes center stage and draws attention to itself. Not a bad thing, but it can be obnoxious. Could be funny too. You never know until someone else reads your junk.

Speaking of reading, y'all may be interested to know that Omni is not a dead god. For modern examples of how current published writers (you know, your future BFFs) are using it, check out Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. It's already a great story in skeleton form, but Gaiman uses Omni to weave in folk tales and legends stuff some readers might not be familiar with, giving the story an incredibly rich depth. Had he used 3rd Lim on the main protag, Charles probably would have had to go to some library place and there might have been several "he happened upon a book of tales something" going on. Slower pace, definitely. And would've diffused a lot of comic tension if we only knew things as Charles discovered them rather than anticipating his reaction when he found stuff out. 

Another book y'all might want to take a look at is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004, btw, and that's good enough proof for me that the Omni god is still very much alive for this generation. Jones's book is also a solid example that Omni is not just for fantasy or sci-fi epics.

Hopefully, Omni doesn't seem so mysterious now that we've gutted it and poked around its insides a bit. Until next week!

Happy Halloween,

P.S. I'll be participating in NaNoWriMo. I encourage everyone to give it a go. If you've just finished your WIP, now would be a good time to set it aside and let it develop. Later, when you revisit it, you won't be so word-blind and it might be easier to see inconsistencies, plot holes, grammatical errors, etc.  

Or, you can send your WIP to your beta readers. Focusing on a new project will help you digest any comments they send back, rather than set you lathering at the bit. 
Setting your WIP can also give you time to reset your brain. Experiment. Frex, I usually write Narrative Nonfiction and 3rd Lim fantasy epics that span millenia. For Nano, I'll be experimenting with a 1st Lim character study that only spans one month.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Beast Post: Multiple Limited POVs

Multiple Limited POVs

Or: Taming a Beast with 24 Heads.

 [Awesome picture of 24-headed leviathan here.]
Let's put our serious pants on early this week, guys. Chances are, unless you're in a regularly-meeting critique group, you ain't gonna get many comments on this beast. Esp since many writing forums have a limit – maybe 2k words or so – of how much you can post at a time for critting. And establishing that you are indeed doing multiple POVs can take a few chapters.

If you're saying "Hold on, J. I totes need 24 POVs in my epic on racehorse lovers of the twenty-third century."
Huh… are you talking about people who love racehorses or –
"Nah, anthropomorphized space-traveling horses, dude."
Uh, this actually sounds fascinating but 24 POVs? Rilly?
"Totes. 24 3rd person limited POVs"
Okay. Many epics have more than one POV. Indeed, many epics have six to a dozen…

Here's a critique you might come across then: "Do you really need all these POVs?" Or "I stopped reading after chapter three and started skimming until I got to Yaga the assassin's chapter again."
What it means: "I totes don't see why I should care about the protag at all, since I haven't read anything from her POV for like, eight chapters." Or "I only read Yaga and Mimsy's chapters, so in reality, I only read ten chapters out of your ninety-five chapter book." (This last comment actually came from discussions in two writers' group about a current popular fantasy series <names have been changed to protect the yadda>.)
If you're saying "My WIP is supposed to be romantical and stuff. How do I show what they feel for each other without using multi?"
Here's the thing – two POVs can be great. Three or more can be fine. Where it stops working is when you have so many characters you want the reader to care about, the multi POVs dilutes the reader's emotional investment.

A story should be immersive. A step stone to that goal is following a protag that is relatable, understandable, etc. (not necessarily likeable!). The protag must be so compelling that a reader cares about the protag enough to turn the page to find out what happens next, otherwise it might be more appealing to put down your story in favor of surfing facebook, retweeting what Bob had for breakfast, soaking in a hot tub with a tumbler of vodka in one hand and fat cigar in the other.
Let's say you do have a protag (let's call him 1protag) with an awesome mix of vulnerable roguishness and comic badassery or whatev, and all he wants to do is save the kingdom from dragons  find his long lost little brother  win the universe horse racing cup. But then you change POVs into his antagonist. Or his BFF. Or his bastard sister from his philandering father's side who 1protag's secretly in love with because he doesn't know they're related. Dropping 1protag's POV can be a gamble. You risk losing a substantial fraction of your reader's emotional investment in 1protag, and therefore, 1protag's story.
The risk might be worth it. Perhaps the second POV – let's say it's mum's POV – is just as compelling and just as integral to the epic plot because she um… I dunno, secretly wants to kill 1protag in revenge for 1protag's father's roving penis eye. Having the second POV can increase tension because now you've got the WTF factor: dramatic irony – audience knows something 1protag doesn't.
But now you've got another character, who – by virtue of her importance to your epic plot – deserves just as much development as 1protag. What I mean by this is she must be a character with her own history, habits, motivations, vocabulary, etc. These are the things which make her relatable. Otherwise, the fact that she only exists as a gimmick to provide information becomes obvious.
Ok, now let's add another POV say… 1protag's BFF, Gina. Same things apply about her – another personal history (beware the infodump and infologue!), another set of mannerisms, another set of motives which must be different from the first two, otherwise, why have her. Gina's necessary because 1protag and mumprotag are stuck at the king's court  family court  the racetrack, but Gina, being a knight insurance salesman lightspeed racehorse, can travel to places the other two protags can't. She can be the vehicle for more information. Yeah, that's it!
So that's a good … what, another POV? The ancient, super duper evil baddie from Space Station Omega Delta Blueberry Pi who wants 1protag's right thumb because it unlocks a dimensional gate between three different time zones? Okaaay... another personal history, etc. etc.
Oh, and the baddieprotag's toady.
And toadyprotag's second cousin horse trainer.
And baddieprotag's daughter who's secretly in love with 1protag.
That's six more POV's added. Count backwards from this paragraph. Doesn't seem like much so far, but that's six paragraphs separating the moment from the main character. In a WIP, that's ideally going to be six chapter breaks, with several paragraphs in each chapter. Remember what the protag wanted? Me neither.
Don't even get me started about trying to query this clusterf*ck.

Anyway, so you're sure your epic needs multiple POV's. How to handle it? An approach that's been suggested in my writing group is to write each POV's story from start to finish. Frex, write 1protag's entire story with events only experienced from his POV. Next, write mumprotag's entire story. Just hers, no one else's. Next, write Gina, the BFF's story. Etc. Ideally, each personal story should be integral to the plot – ie, what one person does affects multiple story lines. Also, ideally, each personal story should stand alone. Contradictory? Not so much when you think about it this way: Can each character live beyond the scenes you allow into your story, or do they only appear because you have to relay information. Are they pro-active? Or re-active.
Once all POVs have been written, weave them together at appropriate plot points.
Does this seem like a sh*t ton of hard work? If you said "Hell yeah!", that's a sign your story probably doesn't need POV's 4 through 24. It's easy and (imho, lazy) to start the story with one protag and bring in another character's POV when the first protag starts getting boring.
Did POVs 8, 12, and 16 just have a chapter or two each, in which they burst into a super important scene that 1protag, mumprotag, or BFFprotag couldn't be at? That's a sign you're using characters 8, 12, and 16 as a plot crutch.
Did you dread writing POV 9, 13, and 20? Cut them. Hold them over a flame. Then dip them in acid.
Do POV 7, 14, 19, and 22 sound like exactly the same people doing different things? Cut them or merge them into supporting cast members.

If you're sure you need all 24+ POVs in your racehorse romance epic, then do it. You know your story. The point of writing it down is to put that story in another person's head. Multiple POV's can be the important puzzle pieces (you know, the edges or obviously the eye of a Cyclops, top of a skyscraper) that can help a reader fill in the larger picture (because the story was bigger than any one person involved! Woah! Mind=blown!).
But it's a gamble. Because as 1protag's chapter ends and you put forth 2protag, you're betting your entire WIP that 2protag's story is just as compelling and page-turning as 1protag's. Same goes for 3protag to nprotag.  

Next week, another Beast: Omni. 

Monday, October 15, 2012


First Person POV Limited

Or:  The I in Your Meat Head

The comments: "I felt claustrophobic." Or "It feels like a laundry list." Or "Headhopping." Or "You're infologuing here." 

What they mean: The narrative in First Person POV (1stPOV) is so limited to what the narrator (the "I" in your story) experiences, that it turns into a list of telling statements (A "laundry list" of sentences starting with the word "I".). Or trying to introduce an event or knowledge that the narrator cannot physically know results in infodumps disguised as dialogue. 

Quick fixes: Vary sentence structure. This is a two-birds-one-stone quickie! Not starting with "I" statements can also help you describe experiences rather than the claustrophobic focus of describing the narrative character as events occur. 
 Frex: I brushed the hair from my face as I stood up. I shielded my eyes as I looked around. 
 Vs. Wisps of smoke, sputters of dull orange flames, were the only things moving in the gutted infrastructures. 

     Regarding headhopping: Expanded post here. For 1stPOV, the easiest, most common mistake to make and fix is the BLUSH. I can feel my cheeks get hot, get prickly, sweat, etc. I cannot see my cheeks turn scarlet, redden, or become pink. 

     The infologuing aka infodumps disguised as dialogue. A severe limitation of 1stPOV is that the narrator's meat head is absolute. A workaround I've seen pop up is the narrator happens upon a person who was present when the narrator couldn't be and the ensuing exchange happens: 
"You should've been there, J! Where were you?" said Martha. 
At the time, I happened to be battling a dragon and afterwards I went for a mani-pedi. But to protect my super secret identity, I said, "I was on a date. Why, what happened?"
"Well, decades ago, Knight Soandso, who's my cousin on my father's side, went insane. That meant my older brother, Bigandtall, would be next in line to the throne. Well, he went up to King Tinybits and said that he didn't want the throne. On account of our super secret family curse that says anyone who wears the crown goes bald. So Tinybits ordered all his white-cloaked knights to kill Bigandtall. Anyway, Bigandtall's youngest daughter vowed to avenge him. She just turned sixteen. She was hiding in the woods, by the way, training to be a knight in secret. Well, she comes out of hiding and strolls into the castle and tries to kill King Tinybits, only Tinybits was ready and she didn't even get through the front door!" 

So what's the quickfix for this? Well… it could be something as simple as making sure your narrator already knows 90% of everything that happened in the world you've placed them in. Another fix is to address each interaction in which you must reveal a plot element as a poker game. Keep in mind that each person speaking has his/her own motivations for what they choose to reveal or conceal. Play it off a narrator who may not want to know everything. 

The deeper issue the comment can reveal is that you've chosen a pov character who is too far from the plot or too limited by the story's world elements. Frex: a farmer's son wouldn't be plausibly privy to political machinations (or you could devote your 20k words of worldbuilding to get him there.) A cheerleader may not know everything going on in the teacher's lounge. The not-so-quick fix is to rewrite the WIP from the POV of someone who doesn't have such limitations. 

Let's put our serious pants on. 
Awfully generic example: 
     I watched my young son romp across the park field. I was enjoying the heat of a summer morning. A woman came and sat by me on the bench.
     "It's so nice to see a father enjoying time with his son," she said. 
     I nodded. 
     "What do you do?" she asked. 
     I felt wary as I sat up and turned slightly towards her. I panicked, cheeks turning red from embarrassment. "I'm a nursing student," I said. I immediately felt ashamed for denying what I really did. 

     I watched my young son romp across the park field. (Focuses attention on what the narrator is doing, rather than what the narrator is experiencing.) I was enjoying the heat of a summer morning. (Telling.) A woman came and sat by me on the bench. (Vague) 
     "It's so nice to see a father enjoying time with his son," she said. 
     I nodded. I felt wary as I sat up and turned slightly towards her. (Telling. Again, focus is on the narrator instead of the experience.) 
     "What do you do?" she asked. 
     I panicked, (Telling. Also, adding to my "I" statement laundry list)cheeks turning red from embarrassment (headhopping). "I'm a nursing student," I said. I immediately felt ashamed for denying what I really did. (Telling.) 

     Tommy's fat little cheeks quivered as he toddled across the park field. 
     "Stay close!" I called out half-heartedly. Sunlight dappled my winter-pale legs with denaturing heat. A familiar tall brunette pushed an empty stroller up to my bench and plopped down. I'd seen her before, talking to Ann from across our rose hedges, and my wife relayed their mundane conversations to me when we ran out of things to say about ourselves. But I couldn't recall the brunette's name, only the fact that she was a breast cancer survivor. 
     "Nice to see a father enjoying time with his son," she said. 
     I nodded and sat up, wishing I'd had a second cup of coffee, written another thousand words, or read Tommy another chapter from Moo Cow. Any of those would've made me too late for this obligatory let's-get-to-know-each-other playground parents' communion.  
     "What do you do?" she asked. 
    My cheeks burned hotter and hotter as I considered and rejected a dozen glib retorts. "I'm a nursing student," I said. Immediately a wave of nausea struck me and I had to turn away, swallowing convulsively, or else I'd projectile vomit the truth on her face. 

Examples of First Person POV Limited:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Very tight POV can help a story that focuses more on characterization than epic adventuring. 

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. NSFW reading. 1stPOV can help reveal things about the protag the way a flashlight creates shadows in an otherwise pitch black room.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. An example of how 1stPOV doesn't have to be tight or from a reliable narrator to carry a story.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012



Or: Lock Yourself in a Meat Head.

The comments: "You're headhopping." Or "You switched POV's." Or "This part is confusing."

What they mean: You have just described something that your POV character cannot possibly know (unless you're writing scifi/fan in which your world has telepathy/some method of reading each other's minds, but if you're still getting the "headhopping" comment, you've not made the distinction clear enough).

If you're saying "Hold up, J. I'm totes writing in third person omni. That means I can jump into any head I want." Well… "Nah, seriously! That's how Tolkien did it. And C.S. Lewis. And Judith Krantz." 

Calm down, Skippy. I get that a lot of books and stories employ third person omni and this post isn't about that. (Moar on omni later.*) For simplicity's sake, this post will address stories written in first person/third person limited POV. (Does first person omni exist? Yes. Yes it does.) The key word here is "Limited." That means, no matter how hard you try, you can't possibly know what I'm thinking right now. Go on. What do you think I'm thinking? Did you guess "Galactose"? 

No, you didn't. Because you are stuck inside (limited by the meat and bone of) your head, and no matter of wishing, hoping, bargaining with debils, will ever let you see/hear/etc through mine. 

Quick fix: Lock yourself into your POV character's meat head and do not describe anything the character cannot possibly see, touch, taste, hear, feel physically or feel emotionally. 

Let's put our serious pants on.
Awfully generic example for us to deconstruct:
"Professor Grace was at her lab station with her back to the door. I crept in, sat down at my bench, and smiled like I'd been there for a while. When she saw me, she was afraid. I waved, happy that I'd finally gotten her attention with my blood-caked cloak. She was angry. Behind her desk, she assembled a shotgun. Then she raised it and aimed it at my face."

Why is it headhopping? Here is the key: The use of the word "I" should show you that this para is in first person POV. That means we are in one head (I is singular) – the narrator's head. I have put you inside ONE person, with ONE set of eyes that look only two ways: outside at the world, and inside at internal thoughts and emotions. ONE set of ears. ONE nose. ONE mouth. Let's deconstruct the para:

"Professor Grace was at her lab station with her back to the door. (This is the narrator, me. I see Grace through my one set of eyes. I am describing her location in relation to the room.) I crept in, sat down at my bench, and smiled like I'd been there for a while. (This is the narrator, me. I am describing what my own body is doing.) When she saw me, she was afraid. (BAM! Headhop! Why? How would I, the narrator, know what Grace feels? NOT headhop would describe what she looks like: here eyes widened.) I waved, (This is me, the narrator, doing something. Not headhop) happy that I'd finally gotten her attention with my blood-caked cloak. (This is me, narrator, feeling something. Of course I know I am happy because the feeling is inside me.) She was angry. (BAM! Headhop! Why? Because the only way I, the narrator, could possibly know how Grace feels is if I somehow left my body (hopped from my own head) slithered into Grace's body, and felt that anger while in Grace's body. NOT headhop would be: she glared. ) Behind her desk, she assembled a shotgun. (BAM! Headhop! Why? The key here is "behind her desk" which shows that the desk is between us. Again, unless I have left my body, I could not possibly know what Grace is doing behind her desk. Knitting a sweater? Fixing me a sandwich. I don't know.) Then she raised it and aimed it at my face."(NOT headhop would simply be: She got a shotgun from behind her desk (I can see this!) and aimed it at my face.)

Here's another awfully generic example:
"Sarielle approached Gozer the Great slowly. She'd heard stories of his awesomeness, and it made her both fearful and excited. Gozer uncoiled and lifted his head. He was angry at being disturbed, and wanted to kill Sarielle. She took a deep breath and found courage. Gozer admired this, and decided not to kill her." 

See the headhopping? A little tricky with such a short segment, so let's deconstruct it:
"Sarielle approached Gozer the Great slowly. (Ok, two characters in one scene; it's unclear whose POV we're in. But ->) She'd heard stories of his awesomeness, and it made her both fearful and excited. (This sentence should firmly ground you in Sarielle's POV. Proof we're in Sarielle's head would be "she'd heard" – we are in her head, hearing; and "it made her both fearful and excited" – we're in her head, feeling these feelings.) Gozer uncoiled and lifted his head. (Still in her head. Sarielle is seeing this. Therefore, we are seeing this through one set of eyes: Sarielle's eyes.) He was angry (BAM! Headhop! How would we know what Gozer is feeling? We're in Sarielle's head. Unless we HOP out of Sarielle's head and into his, there's no possible way we could know what Gozer is feeling. Nothing in the paragraph has even hinted at this.) at being disturbed, and wanted to kill Sarielle. (BAM! Headhop! Again, unless we HOP out of Sarielle's head and into Gozer's, we would not know what he wants.) She took a deep breath and found courage. (Not headhopping. We are in Sarielle's head, so we should know what she does (she takes a deep breath) and what she feels (she finds courage). Gozer admired this, (Headhopping.) and decided not to kill her. (Moar headhopping. These feelings are in Gozer's head, not Sarielle's.)"

So stay in your POV character's meat head to avoid "headhopping."

* Omni requires a long discussion and including it here would have violated my "each post shall be less than 1000 words" rule. I pwomise we'll get to it!