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One scene, two heads

Oh ye people, last week I was in Devon on a beach. The wind blew, the rain rained, but my four kids – none of whom had seen the sea before – were wild with joy. Me too. I can’t say I come back rested, but I come back knackered in a different way. In the world of parenting, that’s a win.

While I was away, I read a book that’s been on my TBR list awhile: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owen. The book ends up as a well-executed courtroom thriller, but the heart of the book is a coming-of-age story set in the marshlands of North Carolina with, as its heroine, the semi-feral Catherine ‘Kya’ Clark.

It’s an excellent book, with enough good writing and character depth to give a basically commercial novel some real swagger. But one scene in particular struck me, because it was such a deft example of head-hopping.

I’ll look at that scene in a moment, but first, a quick refresher on the normal guidelines:

In general, the advice given to new writers is to limit yourself to one point of view per scene or, in nearly all cases, one point of view (POV) per chapter. The reason is that passages such as this one feel clashingly awful:

Peter Piper felt his heart racing. He’d never have a better moment than this. He crept towards the dark shelves at the back of the shop. The place smelled of molasses and candied lemon and boiled sugar, all his favourite things. He had just reached the shelf, when - 

‘Stop, thief,’ roared Old Mother Hubbard. She was so angry, she wanted to take a swing at him. The little villain!

The problem here is simple.

We start with Peter Piper. We, the reader, are committed to him. We’re with him, creeping through the dark shop, feeling both excitement and fear. If the writing until this point has been decent, we’ll be fully invested in Peter and his delinquent quest.

Only then, without warning, we’re pulled out of the young man’s head and plunged into OM Hubbard’s interior world. She has her emotions too, but how can we commit to her inner landscape, if two seconds before we were fully committed to Peter’s?

The answer is that we can’t. I’ve published maybe one and a half million words of fiction and I should think I’ve broken the “1 point of view / 1 chapter” rule maybe on only four or five occasions in all that time.

And yet – I have broken the rule. And did so consciously. And did so because the story demanded it.

The reasoning behind those exceptions is fascinating and somehow uplifting. We’ll get into that in a second, but first of all an example.

Here’s Delia Owen breaking the rule and doing so with ease, grace and purpose. I’ve edited the passage somewhat for length. The whole thing runs to about two pages. The text itself is in italics. My comments are square bracketed and in bold.

She [Kya] walked into the trees without looking, and there, leaning against the stump, was the feather boy. She recognized him as Tate, who had shown her the way home through the marsh when she was a little girl. Tate who, for years, she had watched from a distance … He was calm, smiled wide, his whole face beaming …

[This passage is all Kya’s POV. We are given a description of her interior knowledge – matching this young man up with his ten-year-old predecessor. We are given a physical description of Tate entirely from Kya’s eyes.]

She halted, shaken by the sudden break in the unwritten rules. That was the fun of it, a game where they didn’t have to talk or even be seen. Heat rose in her face.

[Still Kya. Their game involved exchanges of gifts at a distance, but it’s Kya’s perspective on that game we’re hearing about, not Tate’s.]

Tate couldn’t help staring. She must be thirteen or fourteen, he thought. But even at that age, she had the most striking face he’d ever seen. Her large eyes nearly black, her nose slender over shapely lips, painted her in an exotic light …

[Bam! We’ve jumped straight into Tate’s head, and now we’re seeing Kya through his eyes, just as we saw him through hers.]

Her impulse, as always, was to run. But there was another sensation. A fullness she hadn’t felt for years …

[Back to Kya. More of her deep inner world. Then there’s a bit of dialogue, and a modest amount of action. She tells him she can’t read. He, without shaming her, explains what was in the notes he’d been leaving. Then …]

Kya hung her head and said, ‘Thank you for the [feathers]; that was mighty fine of you.’

[Neutral. No particular POV. This could be written by a neutral observer simply conveying external data.]

Tate noticed that while her face and body showed early inklings and foothills of womanhood, her mannerisms and turns of phrase were somewhat childlike, in contrast to the village girls whose mannerisms – overdoing their makeup, cussing and smoking – outranked their foothills.

[Not a great sentence, I think. The inklings, foothills and outranking end up delivering a rather muddled image. But look: now we’ve got to Tate’s innermost thoughts – and we’ve got there without any sense of clashing gears or abrupt switching. The scene finishes by switching back to Kya and Tate’s simple, astonishing offer, ‘You know, I could teach you to read.’]

I think there are several  things to pick out from this.

First, notice that the sequence moves like this:

  1. We start with Kya’s interior thoughts and relatively neutral action descriptions that aren’t heavily stamped with any particular POV.
  2. We see him through her eyes; then – within a sentence or two – we see her through his eyes. That’s intimate and interior, yes, but not deeply interior. We’re still just recording how someone looks.
  3. There’s a bit of dialogue in which she makes herself vulnerable (revealing she can’t read) and in which he responds with kindness (he doesn’t judge her.)
  4. She hangs her head – an act of submission or yielding – and says a proper thank you. We’ve read 100 pages by this point, and this is the most yielding Kya has ever been.
  5. We go straight into Tate’s innermost, innermost thoughts about her.

In other words, the passage initially touches each point of view in turn, but quite gently – noting physical descriptions only, not plunging far into each separate soul.

That first exchange of perspectives is followed by what is effectively a little trial of love (‘Do you mind that I’m illiterate?’) and honour (‘Not at all.’)

That exchange, and her acknowledgement of it, allows the leap to complete intimacy, and access to Tate’s innermost thoughts. In other words, the passage ends up claiming full access to both inner worlds, and does so in a way that feels beautiful and right, rather than clashing and false.

The tiptoe approach to that full intimacy is a critical part of what makes it all work.

Second, the scene starts and finishes with Kya’s point of view. That matters. I don’t think you can easily enter a scene with person X and leave it with person Y. There are probably exceptions here, but they don’t immediately leap to mind.

Third, these two, Kya and Tate, are going to become lovers. You already know (100 pages into a 370 page book) that this is the critical first scene in a love story.

That’s no coincidence, because if you want biggest single qualification to the “1 point of view / 1 chapter” rule it’s simply this: “except where the two people are deeply, deeply intimate.” Usually that will be between two lovers, but it could certainly be between a parent and a child. I once head-hopped in a critical scene between two brothers.  If the intimacy is there, the head-hopping can feel natural

And – fourth – you may as well add this qualification too: “and except where the scene involves breaking into a higher level of intimacy than the pair had before.” This scene is a perfect example of it. It’s not that Tate and Kya are intimate. They’re not. In a way, this is their first true meeting. But they are breaking through into a wholly new level of intimacy. (And for Kya, a somewhat dangerous one.)

The dual-perspective trick both generates that sense of intimacy and is the crowning proof of the intimacy achieved. It’s a beautiful thing to feel and even more beautiful to write.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that you won’t write many such scenes. They’re sweet, because they’re rare.

(Incidentally, I bet there are other examples of head-hopping scenes that don’t fit this model, but I couldn’t think of any while writing this. If you have good examples of well-written head-hopping, then do drop me a line and tell me about them.)

Meantime, I’m going to go and shake Old Devonian sand out of my beach shorts and clear the car of broken crab shells. Is it possible I still smell of seaweed?

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Comments (10)
    • Quite a thought full article, Harry. Thank you. Clearly anything is possible if done the right way, but it is whether it is right for that situation and those parties that seems to be the key. For a novice writer it seems that such things should be steered clear of and maybe one should be asking why we are attempting such ploys if they arise. For a (skilled) practitioner rather than apprentice, I suspect it is a useful but dusty tool.

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      • Funnily enough, with the right passage, I think you may find yourelf writing with a dual POV, almost unconsciously. I had a scene with two brothers (one trapped in a car, maybe dying, lots of history between the two), that I wrote very naturally from a dual POV. Only later did I notice that was the first time in the 160,000 word book I'd done anything of the sort.

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      • I recall reading the passage thinking it was like a telepathic conversation they were having, as if hearing each other's thoughts without knowing. It's a wonderful scene in an excellent book.

        But a far from perfect one.

        I'd be interested in your view of my major issue with Delia Owens' storytelling. We spend time deep inside Kya's head when she's alone the night before the verdict is to be given. At no time does she think of one crucial fact that she knows, but which we readers don't find out until the final chapter, many years later.  

        In my rulebook, the reader should be allowed to know everything the viewpoint character knows. It's not a problem when we have an omniscient authorial viewpoint - authors must always hold information back. But to take us deep into someone's mind then choose not to have her think about the One Big Fact on which the plot hinges is unrealistic and contrived. This artificial withholding of information, to build suspense and/or to allow a twist later, is a cheap trick which makes the reader feel cheated. It made me feel cheated. 

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        • Yeah, I'm do agree - a bit. I'm pretty careful as a crime writer not to break those rules. This wasn't technically a crime novel, but came close and I agree it's cheeky to have the character in possession of a major but unrevealed fact. (Different story if you tell the reader, or hint, that you're not telling everything.) 

          On the other hand, this wasn't really a crime novel, or even really a courtroom thriller, and the rule breach wasn't so huge, so in the end I didn't mind too much. But I do accept that different readers can differ.

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          • Oddly, that withheld knowledge seemed correct to me. If I was in court being tried for the murder of my lover I would not think about the killing at all. I would think about everything else under the sun, but not that. So, that struck me as completely right. However, I think her timing is quite wrong. It would not have been possible precisely because the bus was late.

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          • Interesting blog as usual, Harry! Just read Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano and was amazed at how effectively she head hopped. Chapter 1 covers passengers boarding an airplane and the reader enters the thoughts of at least twelve passengers and learns about all the people and situations they’re thinking about as they’re seated. In Chapter 2 we enter the head of a rescue worker at the scene of that plane’s crash with only one survivor—youngest boy from a family of four. The rest of the novel is in Edward’s head and how he copes—alternating with continued chapters of the soon-to-be dead passengers thoughts right up to the point of their crash. The reader is not allowed to write them off (as I started to once I knew they were dead) and all the information has connections and a point—and the point is to care.

            We process so much data daily—I think we can handle complicated view points if they’re effectively written. Some read to kick back and chill and don’t want the convolutions—I get that. However, I never mind a gripping story well told—the more detailed the better!

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            • Harry, your email on head-hopping came just as I'd been thinking about POV.  As you say, we are always told not to switch but I had come, rather late in life, to the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard. I read Light Years in which we get almost everyone's POV and it adds so much.  For example, there are situations between married couples where each one is doing what they think the other one wants, except they don't. That is so much more powerful because we do know everyone's POV.

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              • I thought this was an especially interesting post. What you say makes all the sense in the world, but it's great to have somebody else lay it out as you've done. The book has popped up several times when I've been on-line. It looks intriguing, but what a shame about the 'trick' on which you and Glyn exchanged.

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