You Can’t Be In Two Heads At Once

* Continuing the “Do Not Do” list from January 10th *

The viewpoint (referred to as Point of View—through whose character’s eyes the story is told) is often the first decision made after the inspiration of the idea itself. I have found the use of first person or third person usually becomes readily apparent, though I have written identical scenes using both to ensure the most suitable for a certain piece of writing.

First person (the use of I, me, we) is the most intimate choice, though one fraught with restrictions: the reader sees and knows only what the viewpoint character understands and witnesses.

Third person is the most popular (he, she, they) and tends to be the natural and common choice for most novels and short stories.

And there’s the omniscient, god-like view, where the reader is randomly cast from one person’s thoughts to another, dipping into heads like one would test an assortment of fondues.

#

 “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” John said, but knew it was a dangerous idea, one that could get them both killed.

What a pansy-ass, Dave thought, but refrained from saying it. “Risky, but the take is worth it.”

Worth prison? Worth getting killed? No amount of money was worth that to John. “I don’t think so, not with just two of us.”

Dave kept the smile from his face; he had John right where he wanted him. “I know a guy that would be willing to help us.”

John cringed. He had seen Dave’s friends and didn’t want anything to do with them.

 #

Omniscient viewpoint has fallen out of favor, and for obvious reasons: jumping back and forth between two character’s heads (or more) is a tenuous and baffling circumstance for a reader, and quickly gets tedious. The tendency is to have the characters sound the same or so near the same that the reader gets confused, especially when the “tags” are left out— John said, Dave kept the smile from his face—and it’s never a good idea to “tag” every line of dialogue, whether the he said variety or a character’s movement.

Another reason omniscient viewpoint has lost popularity is that it is difficult to do well. In most cases, it shows a writer’s poor form and lack of skills.

The above example is an intentional use of the god-like viewpoint choice, but what happens most times is an unintentional misstep, something like this:

Bright sun, blue sky, and having company during the shopping trip added up to a great day for Kathy. Desiree stopped at the shop window, admiring the book display. Kathy pulled up and doubled back to be with her friend, and knew Desiree focused on the book about angels at the base of the display.

Kathy could not know her friend focused on the particular book about angels, nor could she know Desiree admired the display, but she could guess or surmise that was the case; it’s critical you let the reader know that Kathy is guessing (witnessing) Desiree’s interest rather than knowing.

A rewrite might be:

Bright sun, blue sky, and having company during the shopping trip added up to a great day for Kathy. Desiree stopped at the shop window to stare at the book display. Kathy pulled up and doubled back to be with her friend, and saw Desiree’s eyes riveted on the book about angels.

The rewrite shows what Kathy observes about Desiree’s behavior, using the verbs to stare and riveted to indicate Desiree’s attention to the display and the book about angels.

Should you decide you do need to be inside the head of more than one character, there is a remedy—the multi-third person viewpoint. In the multiple viewpoint, you are never in two people’s head at the same time, or during the same scene. Each character gets their own section (whether chapter or part of a chapter broken by the # sign), so that your “jumping” is identified and makes it easy for the reader to follow—clarity without confusion the requirement.

That being said, a short story is not normally a place for the multi-viewpoint, but can be accomplished if you identify for the reader when you are leaving one character’s head and delving into the next—again with the pound sign (#) to break the flow. A tip: make it clear in the first sentence of the new section or chapter that you now have another viewpoint because the break in text (#) can indicate a transition of another kind, such as time or location.

Volumes have been written on viewpoint; these are examples of common problems that pop up, often so subtle the creator misses the confusion despite a number of revisions. Have you ever typed “that” when it should have been “the,” and about the gazillionth time you’ve read it, you finally see it? How did I miss that? (A good reason to have a First Reader whose fresh eyes will pick up the unintentional errors that inevitably pop up in a manuscript).

Choosing viewpoint will dramatically change any piece of writing, altering the intimacy with which the reader will identify with the story. If unsure which would be best, experiment with different viewpoint forms—you will sense which feels right for the tale you weave.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Author: Rick "C" Langford

Writer, blogger, Business Owner, dreamer, and fantasy lover

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Be In Two Heads At Once”

  1. Classic omniscient with direct reader address is my one true point of view; and non of your diatribes will ever be able to deter me from writying so, and from refusing to read any drivel written in third-limited.

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