This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.
Structure: Headhopping & Tenses
Since these are two relatively minor elements, I’m going to cover them both here.
Note: Please keep in mind that my structure posts are going to be relatively tentative, because this is some fairly high-level stuff that I’ve only been getting into over the last few years.
“Headhopping” is a pejorative term for shifting POVs while still in the same scene. You’re an intermediate writer now; you’re allowed. Master writers shift POVs a fair amount, I’ve discovered, and do it so smoothly that most readers (and yours truly) won’t notice it on a first read.
How is it done? You have to understand POV as being from a specific character’s perspective in order to do so, and it’s for third-person POVs only (as far as I know):
- You’re writing from character A’s point of view.
- You need to get something from character B’s point of view, either information or an opinion.
- You make character A’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
- You swap over to character B’s point of view and make it as “objective” as possible.
- You get whatever you need out of character B, going deeper into the opinions and attitudes of the character as necessary.
- If you need to go back to character A, make character B’s point of view as “objective” as possible.
- Swap over to character A, with their point of view as “objective” as possible.
I have “objective” in quotes because the shift doesn’t have to be truly objective, just not anchored directly, obviously, and solely in one character’s point of view.
Here’s an example. The POV of this scene is a character named Dodger who is walking through Victorian London with his dog, Onan (who smells bad).
The one thing you could say about this dirty old city, Dodger thought as he headed out of the attic, strutting along in his new suit with Onan at his heels, was that no matter how careful you were, somebody would see anything. The streets were so crowded that you were rubbing shoulders with people until you had no shoulders left; and the place to do a bit of rubbing now would be the Baron of Beef, or the Goat and Sixpence, or any of the less salubrious drinking establishments around the docks where you could get drunk for sixpence, dead drunk for a shilling, and possibly just dead for being so stupid as to step inside in the first place.
In those kinds of places you found the toshers and the mudlarks, hanging out with the girls, and that was really hanging out because half of them would have worn the arse of of their trousers by now. Those places were where you spent your time and your money so that you could forget about the rats and the mud that stuck to everything, and the smells. Although eventually you got used to them, corpses that had been in the river for a while tended to have a fragrance of their very own, and you never forgot the smell of corruption, because it clung, heavy and solid, and you never wanted to smell it again, even though you knew it would.
Oddly enough, the smell of death was a smell with a strange life of its own, and it would find its way in anywhere and it was damn hard to get rid of—rather, in some respects, like the smell of Onan, who was faithfully walking just behind him, his passage indicated by people in the throng looking around to see wherever the dreadful smell was coming from and hoping it wasn’t from them.
(Terry Pratchett, Dodger.)
In the first paragraph, the character is thinking to himself; we’re inside his head. But the POV slides over to a vague sort of “you,” a generic “you” that doesn’t sound like an objective third-person POV, but it really is–it’s not clearly coming from Dodger himself, but kind of vaguely from “you.”
You probably didn’t notice that by the end of the third paragraph, you’re in the POV of the people behind Dodger and Onan, looking around to see where the smell is coming from. It’s not Dodger’s perspective; he can’t even see them.
A good POV jump shouldn’t be obvious, and it should only drift as far from the main POV of the chapter as necessary to accomplish the point. The technique isn’t supposed to be clear cut; if it were, it wouldn’t be effective.
Your two basic tenses are present and past tense. Because this is English, however, you can use all sorts of other tenses! One of the strengths of English is in how freaking specific it can get about time:
The experiences he had had had been bad.
The time travel machine would have existed, except that it hadn’t.
We will have been there for an hour by then.
At this level, however, your main question is probably “Should I use present or past tense in my writing?”
Currently, fiction written in past tense is more common, and readers will tend to disappear into it more, because they have more familiarity with it. Writing in present tense is less common, and you’ll have to work harder with sense and opinion details to keep readers buried in the character–but it also gives the tale a more modern/YA feel.
What tense you use should be more influenced by whether you like writing in it and whether your readers like reading in it than anything else–which is another reason to keep up with reading current work in your genre, so you know whether present- or past-tense books are more popular.
Anybody who says you must/must not write in a certain tense is talking to beginners!
Next time: Scenes vs. Summaries: When to show…when to tell!
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