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I am writing a novel wherein there are many characters whose thoughts are key to telling it properly. In an earlier draft, I attempted to have any given chapter told from the point of view of exactly one character, but that turned out to be problematic. Usually it led to chapters I found uncomfortably short, or I would wind up writing mostly about nothing as I forgot that character was no longer important for the current scene.

In my current draft, I decided to go with a pseudo-omniscient narrator to solve these problems. It could only step into one character's head at a time, but it would be able to switch characters mid-scene, if necessary, rather than waiting for a section or chapter break.

Some of the transitions from one character to another have felt a bit awkward, though. Most of the better ones I have involve dialogue; it's easy to switch the frame to another character naturally after that character has just spoken. Are there any other techniques that can make these transitions flow better?

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Well, don't do it for a reason ;) Honestly, if you use a technique which is known to be doomed, you have to make it right within your special context. If there were a functioning general rule, it would be done more often. Could you add more details, or are you afraid to reveal too much? –  John Smithers Nov 19 '10 at 18:59
    
I'm not entirely sure that this is a "doomed" technique... –  StrixVaria Nov 19 '10 at 19:02
    
It is doomed, but that does not mean, that it cannot be done. You can always play against the rules ;) What I want to say: you must play a special trump for your special scenario. You need your own special scene technique. Don't give up, try and try again till it fits. Good luck! –  John Smithers Nov 19 '10 at 21:47

4 Answers 4

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Well, first off I would try to avoid that if you can, but that's not always possible, so here's one thing that I've found worked for me in the past.

I had both characters looking at something and thinking about it (and in this case, each other). I started with one character's thoughts, then moved to a mix of both of them as they overlapped, then finished in the other character's head. It took a couple tries to get it really working.

My real goal with this was to make the reader only realize that things had changed after it had happened, they would just find themselves naturally in the other character's mind and not question it. Though I admit it took a few tries to get it working.

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Usually if I massage the words enough I can get it to be how you described. Just like you said, I want the reader to not realize he's in someone else's head until after the fact. I will try this out if the opportunity presents itself. –  StrixVaria Nov 19 '10 at 19:08

Character jumping can be done gracefully, but it's important to master the concept of one character perspective per scene first. It's tempting to jump around, but you will find that your writing gets better when you slap a constraint of no head jumping mid-scene. The writing is better because you're forced to build intimacy with the current character instead of trying to show everything at once.

Head jumping jars the reader naturally because you're breaking the intimacy with the current character, and forcing your audience to understand the situation through a whole new perspective.

For your specific issue, try picking the most important character in the scene so it doesn't fall flat. The issues you ran into by staying with one character (short chapters or no impact) seem like a core issue in the approach toward the story. When the story requires so many characters to tell their thoughts in one scene, imagine the potential for reader confusion as they try to relate to the concepts.

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You can also do the opposite: if you have two characters whose perspective you want to visit, visit them via a third character. This is more challenging because you'll have to convey their thoughts via action and dialog. Still it's often a better way to build a character than just dumping their internal monologue right out there on the page. –  Satanicpuppy Nov 19 '10 at 23:04

I would highly recommend section breaks, even if it is happening mid-scene. This isn't an alien technique - many authors have used it. All you really need is a double character return. The reader barely notices it, but it's at least an indicator that we're changing character viewpoints. If you don't use the double return for anything else in your story, then the reader will quickly become accustomed to seeing it and knowing what's happening.

However, if you go for long stretches in one character's head, and then you decide to jump around a bit, and then you go for long stretches again without doing this, it will probably seem somewhat sloppy. You'll probably want to try and dedicate a fairly even amount of time (as much as possible) to each character - or at least divide up the scenes into even chunks, even if you revisit certain characters on a more regular basis.

I highly recommend checking out Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoints - he addresses this very topic, and he does an absolutely magnificent job describing the strengths and weaknesses of various viewpoint options, as well as how to use them most effectively.

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Since one of the OP's complaints was overly short chapters, I like the idea of considering them as sections instead. –  David Thornley Dec 5 '10 at 17:54
    
Especially if the new POV is highlighted immediately, e.g., "...but he could never tell Jane this.¶¶Jane knew that John was holding something back..." –  Larry OBrien Apr 29 '11 at 23:04

I'm going through the same thing now.

I've had excellent responses from readers and negative responses from my editors. My editors want me to use the traditional section break or just write from one character's POV per chapter.

I thought about that but decided to stick to my style of head-hopping. Ultimately, I am responsible to myself, my story and my readers. To me, it's all about message and audience. So far, my test readers love the story. To me, that's all that counts.

It's not easy breaking rules. You have to understand and respect the theory behind the criticism, before you decide to disregard it. Most importantly, if you're going to break the rule, you better be damn good at it. I am. I have technical reasons for head-hopping and I've had great reader response. If something was missing or just not working, I'd relent and rewrite as per my editors.

I've found that head-hopping works best for me when it's limited to 2 characters at a time (usually no more than 3, although in one scene I jumped into the minds of 5 of my characters - and yes, I rocked it). I find it works well with he said/she said and inner/outer dialogue.

Life's short; do what brings you joy. If that's how you want to tell your story, then do that. Test it out. Find some readers you trust. What do they think? Is it working for them? Is it working for you? If so, then good for you succeeding! If not, then good for you for trying!

I hope that helps. :)

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Can you add some details about what types of positive and negative feedback you received about this technique. I would like to know why editors oppose the idea. –  tylerharms Dec 19 '12 at 20:43

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