Stephen King says a lot of quote-worthy things. Many of them are true. The one I think is the most true is this:
I know this is true because I’ve been a voracious reader since I could first decode words. My absolute favorite book growing up was The Giving Tree. In middle school, by my own choice and in my own time, I read Roots followed by Gone With the Wind as we learned about slavery and the Civil War. My aunt gifted me a copy of Scarlett after that. Of course, these were among the other boxed sets and more “age appropriate” books (though I’m not sure YA was a thing when I was thirteen).
The point is, literature has always been a huge part of my life. When I started writing novels, I did it backwards – I wrote one, then went back and read books about how to write one (I don’t recommend that order of operations. I had to rewrite that book about thirty times.) I obviously had some messy practices as a newbie, but I was surprised to learn that I already knew some of the good practices because of my decades of reading – things like pacing, placement of important plot points, and dialogue.
Of course, I’m still a voracious reader, but I’ve also become quite a lazy reader. I start many books that I simply don’t finish. I figure, there are literally millions of books out there. I’m not going to suffer through one I’m not enjoying just because I feel like I have to finish it. The author won’t know, and I can spend my precious reading hours with a book that truly hooks me.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve read an increasing number of self-published books. They’re often cheaper, and many of them are quite good.
There’s one thing I see in a lot of self-published books, and more often than not, it makes me stop reading: head hopping.
Yay! We’ve finally arrived at POV!
Head hopping is when the point of view suddenly jumps from one character to another. One minute, we’re in Bob’s head thinking about donuts. The next minute, we’re in Dana’s head thinking Bob should consider a juice diet. There’s no scene or chapter break. This happens from one paragraph to another, or sometimes within the same paragraph.
Now, there is one type of POV where head hopping is theoretically okay: subjective omniscient. Or broken down:
Subjective = we know what’s going on in a character’s head.
Omniscient = we can know all the things in the story, including what’s going on in other chatacters’ heads.
I said theoretically for a reason.
I see head hopping so often in self-pubs that I started doubting my own advice to my CPs – namely, don’t effing head hop. It’s harder to relate to the MC and it can be confusing.
I’ve been reading nothing but self-pubs for a while, so I decided to do a little research with this question in mind: what is the favored POV among traditionally published best sellers? If they use subjective omniscient, maybe my preference for limited third or first – where you’re inside one character’s head and only know what he knows – is just my own preference and I need to give my CPs a break.
But maybe – maybe – my decades of reading have taught me something. Maybe there’s a reason head hopping bothers me.
I know there are some self-pub authors who couldn’t give half a crap about traditional publishing standards, and that’s fine. You can write your book in Sanskrit if you want. Just don’t expect to sell as many books if you do that.
The point is this: if you wanna play with the big dogs, it’s a good idea to know what they’re doing.
So I read chunks of every well-known, best-selling book in my kindle. Then I went to Amazon and read the sample pages of some top selling novels I don’t own. I’ve arranged the list this way: author – title – POV
But first, a couple of disclaimers:
1. This is a minuscule sample size compared to the total number of traditionally published books. There may be some out there that use subjective omniscient. Feel free to look around and comment if you find one.
2. My inclusion of these books should not be viewed as my endorsement of them. Yes, I loved most of them. But two were so poorly written that I stopped well before the 50% mark in spite of the tight POV. I won’t tell you which ones those were. That’s not the point.
To the list!
Stephen King – The Stand – limited 3rd
Steven Becker – Wood’s Relic – limited 3rd
Marissa Meyer – Cinder – limited 3rd
Dan Brown – Da Vinci Code – limited 3rd
Stephen Chbosky – Perks of Being a Wallflower – 1st
Ted Dekker – The Circle Series – limited 3rd
Dean Kuntz – Lightning – limited 3rd
Douglas Adams – The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – omniscient
Suzanne Collins – Underland Chronicles – limited 3rd
Stephen King – The Shining – limited 3rd
Kathryn Stockett – The Help – 1st
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games Trilogy – 1st
Sandra Brannan – In the Belly of Jonah – alternating 1st/limited 3rd
Jerry B. Jenkins – Riven – limited 3rd
Stieg Larsson – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – limited 3rd
Naomi Novik – His Majesty’s Dragon – limited 3rd
Matthew FitzSimmons – The Short Drop – limited 3rd
David Baldacci – The Guilty – limited 3rd
Janet Evanovich – Tricky Twenty-two – 1st
Philip K. Dick – The Man in the High Castle (1962) – limited 3rd
Vince Flynn – The Survivor – limited 3rd
Kristin Hannah – The Nightingale – 1st
Sean Platt & Johnny B. Truant – Invasion – limited 3rd
And for fun, let’s include a famous self-pub:
Hugh Howey – Wool – limited 3rd
I was originally going to include fifty books on this list, but I think you get the point with half that number.
Side note – many of those limited third titles did include the POV of more than one character, but not within the same scene. A break of some kind occurred before jumping to a new head.
One book was written in omniscient POV – Hitchhiker’s Guide. It’s told from the view of an omniscient narrator, like someone telling a story around a campfire. We occasionally know what a character thinks or feels, but there isn’t the inclusion of what I would call head hopping. If you’re considering writing a book in omniscient POV, please read this classic as a guide.
So what conclusion can we draw from this exercise? For me, I’m more confident in my stance that limited third and first work better for storytelling (perhaps to the chagrin of my CPs). For you? Well, that’s for you to decide.
What is your favored POV for storytelling? Does this list sway your opinion?