Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Stephen King uses the Head-Hopping Point of View

What is head-hopping? When I first began reading how-to-write books, there was no such thing. Or at least, nobody had a name for it.

But now it's the Worst Thing Ever that a writer can do. Head-hopping happens when you are writing in the third person point of view, and instead of limiting yourself to the thoughts and feelings of one character, you shift into the thoughts and feelings of another.

Recently I was reading a Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, which is pretty much like The Simpsons Movie without Spiderpig and the Boob Lady, and there it was. Head-hopping. Now, since Stephen King isn't an unpublishable amateur writer, I guess this means that head-hopping is indeed a tool we can use.

The scene was about a shooting rampage being carried out by a young man with a brain tumor. As the scene begins the young man is our viewpoint character. Now, inside this young man's head is not the most comfortable place to be. He kept looking at people he knew, thinking bad thoughts about them with swearwords in them, and then shooting them dead.

For one short paragraph of the scene, however, we experience the thoughts and feelings of one of the victims, from the point she sees the gun pointed at her to the time, after she is shot, that she fades off into the 'nothingness' of the non-afterlife. (Don't worry, folks, elsewhere in the book we learn that even though there is no afterlife, we do become ghosts that can communicate with dogs after we die. Yes, the godless are illogical.)

After this paragraph we are back in the shooter's head for the rest of the scene. The question is, why did Stephen King choose to use the head-hopping point of view here?

The young shooter had been the viewpoint character in a great many scenes and we got to witness him doing many horrible things, including other murders. Most readers, we would hope, were not too comfortable in this young man's head. Most knew they weren't supposed to be. But if you had gotten too comfortable vicariously whacking people along with this young man, Stephen King has a surprise for you.

The shift into the victim's head gives you another very different point of view on the action. You comfortable hanging out in the killer's head? Stephen King asks us. Step right over here, and I'll show you what it's like to be in the head of one of his victims! And we get to experience everything: seeing the gun, being shot, and fading off into nothingness.

If a reader had been getting complacent about the deaths--- of which there are a great many in the story, many of them children--- this is what restores the horror. We get to see what it's like to be one of the victims that didn't get away.

This, I believe, is a good use of head-hopping. First, the viewpoint character of the scene is a bad man victimizing others. If your mind had gotten dulled to the tragedy caused by any human death by the previous carnage in the book, hopping into the head of one of the random shooting victims wakes your sense that each death in the scene is an individual horror.

Now, this was a giant book in which King slaughters most of the population of a small town in Maine, and he frequently let readers inside the heads of characters about to be killed--- in fact, the first viewpoint character of the whole book is the first to die. I think by the end of the story most readers have become indifferent to the deaths just because there were so many (and the characters were weak, and some hard for normal folks to identify with, such as the lady Congregationalist minister who was an atheist, but somehow not guilty of fraud and hypocrisy for keeping her job.)

But head-hopping, done right, can be a tool that the ordinary writer can use in similar circumstance. In the book Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, head-hopping point of view is treated like any other point of view, as something a writer might choose.

4 comments:

Nick Wilford said...

Good post. I think where it works well is when it's used deliberately for dramatic effect - as in the example you describe. It comes across as "amateurish" if the author seems to be lazily slipping from one head to the other, as if not realising he's doing it. Then the reader can end up confused.

Nissa Annakindt said...

Nick, I'd say that if the reader notices you are head-hopping, you've probably done it wrong. That's probably why some people are so against it, they have only noticed it in amateurish, badly-done examples that read as if the author had no idea they were doing the head-hopping. Done right, though, it's a useful technique in some situations.

PaperSmyth said...

"Don't worry, folks, elsewhere in the book we learn that even though there is no afterlife, we do become ghosts that can communicate with dogs after we die. Yes, the godless are illogical."

You crack me up. You know that, right?!?

I think you are dead right when you say if the reader notices, you've done it wrong. I'd add if the reader notices there is something wrong, but can't quite put her/his finger on it, you may have also done it wrong. (I wish I knew more about fiction writing so I could make more intelligent comments.) I think this is a good post and will be very helpful.

Cherie Reich said...

I suppose we'll let Stephen King slide this time for using head hopping. Hehe!

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