Problems to Avoid -5

by Al Kalar

Head Hopping:

You’ve seen it in the writings of even established writers. The scene is being played out from the viewpoint of one character, when suddenly you’re given the internal reaction of another character. Some writers can do this without confusing the reader, but often the reader is left hanging, wondering who’s thinking or feeling something.

“Head hopping” is the result of sloppy writing. New authors (who get rejected because of this) and established writers who have become lazy are the most frequent offenders. The established writer gets away with it because his work will sell in spite of it and his publisher knows this (but still dislikes putting the story out that way).

The easiest way to avoid this is to write in first person, but not all stories lend themselves to this (multiple story lines) and not all writers are comfortable writing in the first person. When you’re “looking through the eyes” of just one character, you’re forced to observe other characters for clues to how they’re reacting to something. A grimace, frown, laughter, whatever.

In the third person, you as the author can force yourself to do much the same thing while still using third person language. Here’s an example of how not to write a scene:

John steeled himself before saying, “I’m sorry, Gloria, but your boyfriend is dead.” He felt absolutely rotten having to be the one to deliver the news.

Gloria’s world was shattered. “How … how did he die,” she muttered as hot tears flowed down her cheeks.

We’ve two viewpoints here. Now let’s assume John is the viewpoint character:

John steeled himself before saying, “I’m sorry, Gloria, but your boyfriend is dead.” He felt absolutely rotten having to be the one to deliver the news.

Gloria’s face crumbled. “How … how did he die,” she muttered as tears flowed down her cheeks.

We’ve eliminated anything that John can’t see. We see Gloria’s physical reactions, but can’t experience her shattered world, nor the temperature of her tears. But we can see that she’s profoundly affected by the news.

Talking Heads:

When people converse, they don’t freeze into one pose and just move their mouths. They wave their arms, pace, handle props, react with facial expressions, and exhibit nervous tics.

To make your dialog more readable, include some of these things. Here’s a passage from a book in the works by Al Philipson without the embellishments:

“Suzie!”, she almost screamed.

“Oh, Vickie, I almost died when your father told us you were coming home on leave,” Susan squealed.

“Where’s Hollingsworth?” Victoria asked.

“Oh, poo on his Royal Stuffiness. I bullied your father into letting me pick you up instead of Mister Protocol.

“Would you rather see me or put up with,” ‘yes, your ladyship’ and ‘no, your ladyship’ and, ‘Lady Willingham, that would not be proper. The Earl would never approve’.”

“You do that better than Hollingsworth. Have you been practicing?”

Now, here it is the way Philipson wrote it:

“Suzie!” She was almost screaming as she hugged her best friend.

“Oh, Vickie, I almost died when your father told us you were coming home on leave.” Susan squealed into her ear, almost deafening her.

“Where’s Hollingsworth?” Victoria looked for her missing chauffeur.

“Oh, poo on his Royal Stuffiness.” Susan stepped back but kept both hands on Victoria’s shoulders. “I bullied your father into letting me pick you up instead of Mister Protocol.

“Would you rather see me or put up with –” she stepped further back, pulled herself up straight and mimicked the absent chauffeur, “– ‘yes, your ladyship’ and ‘no, your ladyship’ and, ‘Lady Chandler, that would not be proper. The Earl would never approve’.”

Victoria giggled at the performance. “You do that better than Hollingsworth. Have you been practicing?”

You’ll notice that Philipson removed all the dialog tags (Susan squealed, Victoria asked, etc.). That forced him to write in some action to identify the speaker.

Over identification:

When there are only two people in a room, they don’t address each other by name every time they speak. They already know who they are and you, as the author, only have to give enough information to let the reader know who’s talking. Let’s further mess up the previous talking-head example:

“Suzie”, Victoria almost screamed.

“Ok, Vickie, I almost died when your father told us you were coming home on leave,” Susan squealed.

“Where’s Hollingsworth, Suzie?”.

“Oh, poo on his Royal Stuffiness, Vickie. I bullied your father, the Earl, into letting me pick you up instead of Mister Protocol.

“Would you rather see me, Vickie, or put up with,” ‘yes, your ladyship’ and ‘no, your ladyship’ and, ‘Lady Willingham, that would not be proper. The Earl would never approve’.”

“Suzie, you do that better than Hollingsworth. Have you been practicing?”

And yes, I’ve actually seen something similar sabotage a really good plot.

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