Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Works in Real Life Works Just as Well in Writing

I’m going to begin varying the Thursday posts adding more general writing instruction pieces. But don’t worry, Lynn Blackburn will continue to educate, entertain, and encourage us with her first Thursday of the month review.

I’ve done a good bit of editing and critiquing for fiction and one thing I see frequently is writers avoiding real life skills. I’m not talking about unreasonable story lines or science fiction. I’m talking about relating to your reader like you’d relate to another person in real life.

Let me show you two specifics of what I’m talking about.

1. POV Shifts. Commonly referred to as Head Hopping. This tendency is frequently found in the manuscripts of newer writers. A scene with correct POV allows the reader to know everything the POV character knows and thinks. It’s as if there were a camera attached to that one character’s head and it records everything. Conversely, that camera can’t record anything the POV character can’t see or experience. Let me show you what I mean by showing you what NOT to do. Here’s a common scene, one we can all visualize, written the way a beginner might write it.

Jill sat at the small table, twisting the napkin in her lap and trying not to stare every time the restaurant door opened. She couldn’t imagine why she’d let Susan talk her into a blind date, but she had and now here she sat, waiting for Nathan to show up. She forced as smile as the waiter refilled her water glass.

“Can I get you anything else while you wait?” Sam disliked waiting on a table with a blind date. His tip depended on so much he couldn’t control. If the date went well, great. If not . . . well all the excellent service in the world couldn’t make up for that.

Jill sat up a little straighter as a tall man approached her table. “Are you Jill?”

“Nathan?” She mentally crossed her fingers. Susan hadn’t exaggerated his good looks.

Sam scooted backward to let Nathan take a seat. “May I get you a drink?”

“Just water, thanks.” Relief quieted the butterflies in Nathan’s belly. Jill was quite beautiful—perhaps this wouldn’t be a waste of time after all.

This scene is a perfect example of HEAD HOPPING—a definite no-no in POV. Head hopping is where the reader knows the thoughts or is IN THE HEAD of more than one character in a scene. You can see that in this scene we start out in Jill’s head, move to the waiter’s and end up in Nathan’s.

In my humble opinion, Head Hopping is the lazy writer’s way to tell the story. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As an author we have an amazing ability—a gift even—we read minds, the minds of our characters. And we can be tempted to think that for the reader to truly understand and GET the story, we have to share this gift.

Not true. And here’s why. You and I go through life without one shred of mindreading ability. Yet, we’re able to GET what’s going on and figure out what’s happening. We’re not handicapped by this lack. In fact, most people I know get along better without it. As a writer, our job is to let the reader EXPERIENCE the details in a given scene and draw their own conclusions. If we write the sensory details well, they’ll have no trouble at all.

2. Back Story. Often called Information Dumping. This is an author’s tendency to give a whole lot of information at the beginning of the book instead of starting where the story starts.

Here are two ways to tell you’ve been guilty of this:
  • You tell people to skip to page ____ or chapter ____, that’s where the story starts.
  • Anytime you think to yourself my reader has to know this before she can understand my character. 

You don’t tell people about your characters, you let them introduce themselves to your reader, and you let your reader discover who they are bit by bit.

If you think about it, how do you react when you meet someone for the first time and they give you their whole life story? If you’re like me you back away slowly until making a quick exit. Your readers feel the same way when you dump a lot of back story on them in the first few pages.

These are just a couple of issues I see while editing. I’ll be posting more as we go along. For now, I’d love to know what parallels you can draw between writing and real life. Leave your comments in the section below and don’t be put off by the moderation feature I’ve had to start using. It’s to keep spammers from cluttering up our conversation!

Don’t forget to join the conversation!


  1. My daughter and I were talking about these two things the other day. She often looks at me frustrated and says: "Since you became an author and have learned about head-hopping and backstory dumping, I can't read a book without those things popping off the page!" It's true.
    What I've found is I've become much more able to spot it in other's writing than my own. Sometimes I don't realize that I wrote down what should have stayed only in my head not on the page. Make sense?

  2. I'm guilty of the second one a lot. How do you weave in the backstory?

  3. I deal with this in my Bible study writing. If I'm describing personal experience, how much does the reader need to know before I move into application? Generally, the less I tell them the better but, sometimes, I have trouble deciding when enough is enough. They aren't reading a study to learn about me - they're reading to enrich their relationship with God.

  4. Backstory, if done well, can move a story forward. Unfortunately, too many writers use is as an info dump because they're too lazy or inexperienced to wind the information into the story.

    And don't get me started on head-hopping. Nora Brooks not only does it in a scene, but sometimes in the same paragraph.

    Great blog, Edie!

  5. This is a great description of POV and I am convicted of doing all the wrong things. Reposted your post with links on my author blog at

  6. Thanks for great post! I don't like head hopping. Even if multiple POVs are done well, I still prefer a single POV in a story. A few exceptions are The Help and The Woman in White. I think it creates more of an emotional investment in the protagonist if you are only in his or her head. Also it really allows for more mystery, I think.

    If writing in 3rd person, this doesn't mean you can't write scenes where your protag isn't present. But the narrator has to be purely an observer - no mind-reading. I have done this twice in my WIP already and I think it mimics what we humans deal with everyday. Observing behavior, hearing words, but not KNOWING what others are thinking.

    Also, love the reminder about no spoon-feeding the reader. I'm guilty of that. Not necessarily in an info-dump fashion, but I often include "helps" that aren't necessary.

    Thanks again!