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Sunday, July 14, 2013

When the Best Break the Rules -- Intentional Head-Hopping

When authors of undoubted craftsmanship choose to break a general rule of POV management, there's bound to be an interesting reason.

SPOILERS AHEAD
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In Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon, the last full novel in her Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, Wimsey and Harriet Vane finally marry, and go off to spend their honeymoon -- with the competent and devoted manservant Bunter in tow -- in a country house Harriet had admired as a child. When the previous owner is found murdered in the cellar, the three collaborate on trying to solve his murder.

Most of the book is told from Harriet's point of view. Whenever the POV is to change, the scene changes as well. This is in accord with the prohibition against "head-hopping," a practice often found in the writing of novices, where the POV can change from one character to another within one scene, or even within one paragraph. Head-hopping can easily confuse and distract the reader: trying to figure out whose observations and reactions we are experiencing pulls us out of the story.

Toward the end of Busman's Honeymoon, however, as crucial clues are coming to light, in the middle of a long scene told (as usual) from Harriet's POV, we have this passage:

[Peter's] eye roamed the room, passed over Harriet and the vicar and rested on Bunter. "You see," he said, "we've got the first and last terms of the progression--if we could fill in the middle terms."

"Yes, my lord," agreed Bunter, in a colourless voice. His heart had leapt within him. Not the new wife this time, but the old familiar companion of a hundred cases--the appeal had been to him.

Suddenly, we have Bunter's POV. Then, within a few more sentences, we return to Harriet's, and remain there for (if I recall) the rest of the book.

Why this unorthodox transition?

Well, the moment is far more effective this way. If Harriet, observing, managed to spare a thought at this climactic juncture to comment on how Wimsey was bestowing his attention, there would be neither the certainty the Bunter POV conveys, nor the emotional impact. And if, instead, Sayers had forced a full-fledged scene change, she would have interfered with the tension and progression of the narrative.

That may be all. I suspect, however, that Sayers had another reason, that she shifted away from Harriet's POV in order to emphasize the similar shift that the passage describes -- Wimsey's collaborative attention returning, possibly against expectation, from Harriet to Wimsey's "old familiar companion."

I had read the book many times before noticing the discontinuity. This (as far as I know) single  instance of head-hopping neither confuses the reader nor interferes with the flow of the scene.

In contrast, the novel Run, by best-selling author Ann Patchett, head-hops all over the place. The POV constantly shifts, without any structural warning or transition, from one to another of the ensemble of main characters. And confusion, at least momentary, does frequently result. Where are we? What's going on? Into whose thoughts are we intruding?

Again, I believe this effect is intentional. It reflects the uncertainty, central to both the novel's plot and its emotional dynamics, about what these characters are all about, and just what relationships exist between them.

Do these examples mean we should all head-hop promiscuously? Of course not. But they do demonstrate that rules, once understood, are made to be carefully, judiciously broken.