A Common Rule)
There are a few pieces of advice that always turn up when you start learning how to write. “Show, don’t tell,” is a famous one, meaning that you should describe events directly, and communicate characters’ emotions by how they act. There’s also “write well-rounded characters,” which means that your characters have nuance and personality, with more than a single dimension to define them.
A third rule that is oft repeated is that you should “never, ever head hop,” which means to shift from one character’s perspective to another in a single scene. If you begin the scene with Max telling you about his inner thoughts and feelings, then you shouldn’t have Eleanor doing the same just a few moments later. You don’t want something like this:
Max picked up the papers and lifted them across the table. "It's just a contract," he said "it's just business." Why does she always have to take these things so personally? he wondered. Eleanor ignored the papers, angrily tapping her fingers on her arm. Doesn't he realize that nothing is 'just business' anymore?
But why not write it this way? It’s understandable, isn’t it? So long as we clearly label where every thought and feeling is coming from the audience will be able to follow along, so what’s the problem with it?
Well, yes, we could write a novel this way, and if we made clear distinctions at every change then yes, the audience would understand. In fact, many of the audience may not even realize that we are doing something that is frowned upon. But even if they don’t pick up on it consciously, the audience will lose a little bit of their reading flow every time we make a change.
Jumping from one context to another requires a small, mental effort to reorient oneself. After all, in reality we only inhabit one headspace–our own–and when we read a novel, we also try to inhabit just one headspace. We try to attune ourselves to the thought patterns and feelings of Max, and when the story suddenly jumps to Eleanor’s perspective, we have to get ourselves in that context instead.
Of course, this isn’t meant to suggest that you can’t let the reader know what both of these characters’ inner thoughts are, just that they need to be told to from one perspective.
So, for example, consider this passage, where we communicate the same information, but only as interpreted by Max:
Max picked up the papers and lifted them across the table. "It's just a contract," he said "it's just business." Why does she always have to take these things so personally? he wondered. He watched as Eleanor tapped her fingers on her arm, which was one of her tells when she was angry. He understood that this wasn't 'just business' to her.
Another option would be to tell the story from an omniscient, outsider’s perspective. In this case the mind that the reader is inhabiting is that of the narrator. We can still describe each characters’ inner thoughts, but it is the narrator who relays them to the reader, not the characters.
Max picked up the papers and lifted them across the table. "It's just a contract," he said "it's just business." To him there was nothing personal about it. Eleanor ignored the papers, angrily tapping her fingers on her arm. To her it absolutely was!
It Happens to Us All)
Of course, the reason why this is such a common piece of advice is because we authors are so frequently in violation of it. And that includes me, too. I fully understand the principle, yet I realized that I broke it a few times already in my latest chapters of The Salt Worms.
Consider the last chapter, where Nathan ran across the salt fields while being shot at by a sniper and pursued by a truck. I never got into anyone’s head but Nathan’s, but I did make sudden jumps from his inner thoughts to the city wall where the sniper was lining up her next shot, something that we clearly weren’t seeing through Nathan’s eyes.
I offended the “no head hopping” rule more egregiously earlier, when Nathan was fighting with Everett in the bowl. I jumped into Nathan’s head as he came to the realization that his foe had run out of bullets, then I jumped into Everett’s head as he came to the realization that Nathan had come to that realization.
Admittedly, I struggled a little when writing those sudden, sharp transitions. They just felt off to me, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that it was because of this rule I was violating. If you’re ever having a hard time making a smooth transition in your story, it might be because it’s a transition you shouldn’t even be trying to make!
How Did I Get into This Mess?)
But why do we writers make this mistake in the first place? If these are transitions are so unnatural to read, why do they seem natural to us when we write? From looking at my own experience, this issue seems to crop up as a combination of two factors.
The first is that I don’t plan ahead. I usually don’t give much thought to my story’s perspective when I start to write it. Most of us will naturally settle into a close third person, where the view is not directly from within a character’s head, but close to it. But I don’t take the time to make that decision consciously, and so I don’t ask myself at the outset of each scene how I’m going to keep that perspective.
The second factor is that I want to have my cake and eat it, too. In yesterday’s chapter I wanted to see how Nathan reacted to the bullets raining down on him from far away, but I also thought it would be neat to show the person who was pulling the trigger as well. To write that scene from one perspective would have meant having to cut out half of those moments.
And I think the reason why I imagine scenes that hop back and forth between characters in the first place is because I picture them like a scene from a movie. Movies, you see, are not beholden to this rule of no head hopping. In a movie all you have to do to change perspective is literally just cut to a shot that is centered on another character. You don’t have to write something like “back at the city wall, Maxine locked the next bullet into the chamber….”
Thus, these past few chapters of The Salt Worms would have worked just fine for a film adaptation, but they are strange in a novelette. Moving forward, I want to decide beforehand what the perspective of my stories will be, commit to them in each scene, and always remember that I am writing a short story, and not a screenplay.
Though maybe I should start writing some of these stories as screenplays in the first place…