At the Back Fence Issue #223

May 1, 2006

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Head-Hopping & Said Bookisms

Opinions about head hopping are as diverse as POVs (points of view) in a novel with too much head hopping. Some readers loathe head hopping and will put down a novel, any novel, where the POV switches too often within a scene. Others will put up with as long as they like the book. Yet at the same time, many readers don’t really care about head hopping.

Put me in the camp that doesn’t like head hopping, but will put up with it if I must. If the book isn’t that good, head hopping can be enough to make me put it down. I’ve been that way since I first started reading romances. As a long-time romance reader, I knew that I would run into head hopping – but that didn’t mean I head to like it. Especially when it kept getting in the way of the story.

One thing that drove me nuts was when the POV bounced not just between the hero and the heroine (hey, it’s a romance, I can understand that) but among other characters as well. Take this scene from Valerie Sherwood’s swashbuckling romance from 1986, Nightsong, where the hero Kells confronts another man about his wife, Carolina:

It was too much. Kells had a sudden instinct to seize Deauville by the lace at his throat and shake some decorum into him and then to turn this wild wench at his side over his knee and pound some sense into her as well.

“You will not entertain my wife while I am gone,” he said evenly.

“Indeed?” The Frenchman did not lack for valor. “But while the cat is away, Capitaine, what may not the little mice do?” His tone was insolent, for he liked not the way this tall fellow was scowling at him. He had sent men to their graves for less! For in France Deauville was accounted a swordsman and a dangerous one. His lace-cuffed hand was creeping toward his rapier even as he spoke.

Carolina did not catch the gesture.

There’s more to the scene, from Carolina inwardly laughing and trying to make Kells jealous to Kells noticing the gesture Carolina didn’t see. There’s even a big chunk of interior monologue from Carolina. This plot involves Kells getting amnesia after an earthquake and forgetting who he was married to. Isn’t it more likely he forgot about her because the POV kept switching every which way?

Compare that to the use of POV in Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child, which came out the year before. While this is one of Linda Howard’s earliest novels, she doesn’t play around with the POV. Most of the time, she only switches POV from scene to scene. It doesn’t hurt the story. Even when the POV is squarely in Sarah’s corner, we can tell what Rome thinks by what he says, how he says it, and his actions. The POV does switch within a scene some of the time, but it doesn’t bounce like a ping pong ball – proving that a master author can switch POVs in a scene without throwing the reader out of the story. (It’s like that proverbial tree in the forest. If the reader doesn’t notice the headhopping, is it really there?) As a reader, I think we get a better idea all around of what Sarah and Rome are thinking because of this. Also, the POV doesn’t go from Rome to Sarah to a concerned neighbor to a goldfish and back again. For the most part, they are the only viewpoint characters. Say what you will about Rome’s behavior, at least he doesn’t let annoying Frenchmen wander in on his POV territory.

Still, even scenes that keep the POV between the hero and heroine can be jumpy. Take this scene from Virginia Henley’s The Hawk and the Dove:

He pulled her into his arms and gazed down at her. “Sabre, could you be happy here?”

I’m mad in love with him, she thought wildly.

He could hear the rustle of her petticoats and inhale the scent of her flesh and every inch of him responded. “Sabre, my love, I want you to come here to me whenever you can steal away from court.”

“You are asking me to become your mistress?”

He groaned. “I mean you no dishonor. Circumstances prevent me from offering you more.”

“You mean the queen?” she probed lightly.

“No, damn it, I mean I am married, though that is a secret I would ask you not to divulge. ‘Tis a marriage in name only and means naught to me,” he vowed.

His words brought her to her senses. She, better than any other, knew his marriage meant naught to him, but to actually hear it from his own lips, while at the same time he was proposing an adulterous relationship, cured her instantly of the love she’d been feeling for him.

Is it just me, or is the room spinning? I’m not sure who’s mind we were in for most of that scene. Hers? His? Hers again? All of the above? (And don’t get me started on those dialogue tags. Yet.) For me, part of the problem with head hopping is that I don’t always know where I am. Excessive head hopping can get confusing. I’ve had romances where I suddenly stopped and thought “Wait a minute… The hero is carrying a purse?!” before I realized we were back in the heroine’s viewpoint! Then there’s “How can she know that?” syndrome, where I end up wondering if the POV has changed or if the author is simply telling us something. How often have you read a scene where the heroine is standing with the back to the hero, and yet his expression is described perfectly? My first thought is often “Eww! She has eyes in the back of the head. I thought this was a Regency, not a paranormal.” The hero (or was it the heroine? I lost track) in Laurie McBain’s Dark Behind the Rising Sun must have had x-ray vision and extremely good hearing. The hero has just realized the servants must be listening at the door:

“Well? Enter, or be damned!” he called out, ignoring Rhea’s expression of feigned exasperation.

“Lord, ‘elp us!” whispered one of the chambermaids cowering just outside the door.

Wow. When I read that, my first thought was “How did he know they were behind that door and saying those things?” Then we ended up in the head of one of the maids. So this went beyond head hopping and became a case of doorhopping. Talk about confusing. So often, readers have been treated to the POVs of characters who stayed around for maybe a paragraph. Sometimes, that can add something to the story, but more often, I was left thinking, “Why am I supposed to care what the maids think about him?”

As you can see from the above examples, that sort of headhopping (and worse) was rampant in older romances. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen today. Even today, writers still head hop into secondary characters. The first four paragraphs of Christine Feehan’s Dark Secret go from the POV of Sheriff Ben Lassiter to the heroine Colby and back to the sheriff again, until returning to Colby’s POV once more. And I wondered why I couldn’t get into that book!

And of course, love scenes with head hopping are not extinct, as this love scene from Cheryl Holt’s Complete Abandon proves:

He regarded her, not sure what to make of her or the peculiar association they’d formed.

She pondered the same. Where would it lead? Where would it end?

He reached behind her and retrieved a cloth, swished it in the water, wrung it out, then offered it to her, encouraging her to misbehave with complete abandon.

It seemed such a venial sin, to merely brush it across him. How could she resist?

Whoah. I’ve seen romances about psychics that moved from mind to mind less often than that scene. Those short paragraphs don’t help, either. I know some readers prefer headhopping during love scenes because they want to know what both characters are thinking, but when I see scenes like this, I feel like I’m in a spinning or bouncing amusement park ride, getting yanked from paragraph to paragraph. Besides, it’s pretty clear what the hero is thinking, headhopping or not! He’s thinking, “Yay, sex!”

All this isn’t to say that writers can’t head hop and make it work. A great author can switch POV without making it a burden to the reader. When discussions about head hopping pop up, readers often point to Nora Roberts as an offender. But (blasphemy of blasphemies), I can read her books without feeling as if I’m following a tennis match. I’ve always worshipped at the feet of authors who can switch POV in the middle of a scene without me noticing at first. I remember talking to a local romance author (Mary Alice Kirk) at a signing in the late 1980s and gushing over her POV switches. (Yes, I am such a geek!) She switched POV between the hero and heroine so carefully that even I often didn’t realize she had done it at first. At this time, I was also falling in love with the POV in Mary Jo Putney’s earliest books. She switched POV rarely and carefully, and only when needed. Not only were writers like this telling me that there was a place for issue stories in romance, but they were also telling me that there was a place for romances where the POV did not give me neck cramps.

Said Bookisms

Hissed. Cried. Whispered. Railed. Gasped. Shouted. Scoffed. Have you ever read a romance where you got exhausted following all the dialogue tags? Sometimes I wonder why the characters don’t collapse into heaps of exhaustion because everything they say is at such a high pitch. They never simply say or ask, they whimper or demand or exclaim.

Take this scene from Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove as an example:

“Nay! Nay!” she choked in a rage, pushing at his hands. “No words were spoken by a priest to seal our bonds. I belong to no one. Not you! Not Ragnor! Not even Wulfgar! Only myself!”

“Then why do you crawl into the Norman’s bed like some docile bitch?!” he hissed. “You sit with him and dine and your eyes are only for him. He gives you the slightest glance and your tongue stumbles over words.”

“‘Tis not true!” she cried.

This passage is full of what some people call “said bookisms.” This type of dialogue tag can be distracting, if not outright infuriating. I find it hard to live on a constant diet of “He screamed…” and “She screamed…” (They all screamed for ice cream?) While I don’t mind the occasional shouted or ordered or whatever is required for the scene, too many of them make me realize I’m reading a book. A few can add spark to dialogue. Oodles of them can take away from the dialogue. When characters explode in lots of said bookisms, there is often a forced rhythm on the page – a sort of badoom badoom badoom. Sometimes I end up ignoring the dialogue and gaping in horror at the tags instead. It can be just as distracting as jumpy head hopping.

Some said bookisms can even be physically challenging. For example, in Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Seize the Night, there’s this one: “Oh, thank God,” she breathed as relief passed through her. Even more astonishing, there’s this one from The Wolf and the Dove: “Lies! ‘Tis lies!” Maida shrilled. Ow! I don’t know about you, but if I tried to shrill a line of dialogue, I would end up coughing and sputtering. Said bookisms can spruce up a story (and they suit Kenyon’s style), but they shouldn’t make me wince in pain. That sort of dialogue tag really grabs me and shakes me and yanks me out of the story.

Then you have what some people refer to as “Tom Swifties,” named after a boy’s adventure series where dialogue tags were sprinkled with adverbs. These are distracting because they’re often redundant. From Valerie Vayle’s fun Lady of Fire comes: “Mm-m-m-m,” he answers noncommittally. Is there any other way to say “Mm-m-m-m”? In Fern Michael’s Captive Passions, one line of dialogue from the hero’s lover somehow gets two adverbs: Spent, Gretchen lay still, her breathing ragged. She spoke harshly: “I’ve seen you perform better, Regan. I’ve bedded schoolboys that could do what you just said. Where’s the expertise the Javanese women credit you with?” she asked mockingly.

Is it really a shock to anyone that the line “I’ve seen you perform better, Regan” is harsh or that a woman saying the hero wasn’t so great in bed (of course, she was lying) was doing to mockingly? All those tags do is get in the way, slowing down the flow of the dialogue. Then there’s “Good night, love,” he said simply from The Wolf and the Dove. It’s only three words – rather hard to say that in a complicated way, I’d say.

I’ve gotten to the point where too many said bookisms and Tom Swifties can really throw me out of a story. The louder and more annoying, the more I feel as if the author is scratching chalk against a blackboard. Ouch! Yet at the same time, I don’t mind said bookisms when they know their place (like companions in a Regency). People do whisper sometimes. They’ll even scream! It’s only when they whisper and scream and hoot and holler, all in the same page, that I get annoyed.

But as bad as dialogue tags can be, sometimes it’s even worse when there are no dialogue tags for long stretches. It’s too easy to lose track and then wonder Why on earth is he saying that?! I’ve had to go back through passages and mentally say “He said… She said.. He said… She said…” until I get it all straightened out.

A good example might be the YA novel I was listening to while driving to my parents, “God of Beer.” There was a long passage between the narrator and his mother, and the audio book was read by the author, rather than a professional actor. So while you could usually tell who was speaking by the context (the dialogue was really good), there were a couple of times when I thought “Who said that?!” Maybe it was more clear on the printed page, but in my case, I was ready to beg for a dialogue tag or two!

I know that not every reader feels the same as I do. Just as many readers accept or even like headhopping, many readers have no problem with dialogue tags. Some readers even have come to hate the word “said,” finding it monotonous. I recently learned that there are a number of sites of writing advice for young people that declare “Said is Dead.” All of these sites suggest chucking “said” out the window and using more “interesting” words instead, such as “vocalized.” Hmm, I think “I love you,” he vocalized will be a hard sell with editors. (Be sure to check out author Neil Gaiman’s take on the “Said Is Dead” phenomenon for an opposing viewpoint to those sites.)

Questions for the Message Board:

Do you hate head hopping, or does it only bother you if it gets distracting? Or do you like it in general? What do you like or hate about it?

Do you like head hopping under certain circumstances? If so, what types of scenes do you think call out for head hopping?

What about head hopping during love scenes? Some readers hate it, but I’ve heard that some readers like it during love scenes (even if they generally hate it) because they want to know what both the hero and heroine are thinking during such an important scenes. What are the advantages and disadvantages of head hopping during love scenes?

Some people prefer to read about clues to a non-point-of-view character’s behavior to figure out what he’s thinking, while others would rather get in the heads of both (or even several) characters. Which do you prefer, and why?

If you don’t like said bookisms, what do you see as the disadvantages of using them?

Or are you in the “Said Is Dead” camp? If so, what do you see as the advantages of said bookisms?

Are there other idiosyncrancies that drive you bonkers about dialogue tags and dialogue in general?

Anne Marble

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