Jennifer Dinsmore Editorial
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How to Avoid "Head Hopping”: First-Person Point of View

Point of view refers to the way in which an author tells a story. It dictates how an author presents the characters, setting, and events of the novel, as well as establishes the narrator’s position.

Simple, right? Sure, but like most things knowing and putting into practice are rather different. In fact, one of the most common mistakes I see writers make is confusing point of view.

There are a few point of view options available to you, and each has unique opportunities for creativity. That said, there are also rules you have to follow when writing in a specific point of view.

Why? Because confusion in point of view will cause confusion in your readers. They’ll lose the thread of the story, and will very likely discard your work for something else. And who wants that?!

It is worth taking time to consider the best point of view for your story, as it lays the foundation for the ever-so-important voice of the work.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be breaking down each one in detail, starting with first-person. Ready to master this personal point of view? Read on!

THE BASICS

Next to third-person, first-person narration is the most popular among writers. In this point of view, you are is limited to writing only what the narrator can sense, experience, or know. First-person pronouns—I, we, mine, my, me—are used to convey action.

I went for a walk that fateful Tuesday afternoon. Leaving the house I headed along my usual route, past the lights and down the well-trodden forest path. A cool breeze swept brittle leaves across the ground. The sound they made as I trod upon them eerily prescient of things to come—at least in hindsight. But as I lifted my face to catch the last warmth from the sun’s rays, how could I know how much my comfortable, boring, awesome life would change forever?

In first-person point of view it is common to have the narrator also be the main character, but they may also be an outside observer of the main action. Think about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In both these novels the “I” narrator is not the main character, but rather one who has intimate access to them. Yet they can only guess at the protagonist’s true thoughts and motivations.

ADVANTAGES

First-person point of view is most effective when the author creates a distinctive voice, allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the narrative. Some writers may choose this point of view as it is the one we all use to narrate our daily existence, therefore making it “comfortable” in which to write.

Some may also choose it because it allows for an in-depth exploration of one character and their experiences. Perhaps you want to convey a specific historical event or show people a different lived experience than their own. In genre fiction, a strong first-person perspective can help readers suspend their disbelief, buying into the rich world you’ve created. You can also create tension and conflict by having your narrator be a little unreliable. How well can readers trust what they are being told, and how does this affect their perception of the other characters?

DISADVANTAGES

Creating a distinct voice can be rather tricky to do, so some writers may choose to avoid this viewpoint. After all, if you have an idea that may benefit from multiple voices, first-person may not be the best way to go. There are works which use multiple first-person narrators, however, switching every chapter or scene. Even so, their voices must be unique and distinct to be effective.

In choosing the first-person narration, also be aware that you are choosing to write within the constraints of whatever biases they may have. You may have a hard time getting readers to buy into a story featuring a loathsome narrator. In this case, it may be more effective to distance them from the narrator by choosing an alternate point of view, such as third-person.

WHERE IT ALL GOES WRONG

Writers “head hop” in first-person point of view by revealing the deep inner workings of another character. Stating information that was never revealed to the point of view character will only cause confusion. As a constant observer, they are unable to know anything but that which is revealed to them—be it through speech, by overhearing a conversation, or reading a dropped note. (Even if you’re protagonist is a mind reader, this is still a mode in which they directly receive information.)

A quick example:

I walked into the pub and saw Don seated at the bar. He’d been so insistent in wanting to meet that I hesitated, something telling me this was not good news. I watched as he twirled the glass in his hands, the clink of ice reminding him of the clink of handcuffs, their cold grip.

Put yourself in the narrator's shoes; how could they know this what the sound reminded Don of? Instead, sit them down next to Don and have them notice how he winces when he hears the ice cubes rattle in the glass. Maybe he asks for his next without, prompting them to ask why. With a bit of convincing, Don could reveal he had been arrested, resulting in the reason he called….

TRY IT OUT!

When considering first-person narration, be sure ask yourself how you want necessary information revealed. Is a single distinct voice best for the story you’ve set out to tell, or would it benefit from other viewpoints?

If you’re unsure, take a small part of your WIP (a paragraph, page, or scene) and write in the opposite view. How does this change how you reveal information? Does the voice feel more authentic, given what you are trying to say?

Reading examples of first-person point of view is a great way to better understand its opportunities and limitations. By no means an exhaustive list, some examples include The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Martian by Andy Weir, and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.

Stay tuned ... I'll be breaking down the different points of view this month. Next up, using the persuasive voice in second-person point of view.

Until next time, friends,

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P.S. Liked this? Don't forget to read How to Avoid "Head Hopping": Second-Person Point of View.