Shifting Perspective

Much is made today about “head hopping”, the confusing tendency of some authors to hop omnisciently from one character’s perspective to another, even within the same scene. This is seldom, if ever, effective, but that doesn’t mean that perspective should never shift–even within a scene.

Often, I will begin a scene with sweeping omniscience, and then narrow down to one character’s head:

The taut gray fabric of the lift kite snapped and crackled in the sunlight, three turbines whirring below as they stole power from the wind and sent it down a ribbon to the approaching LCUI. Three kilometers below, Lieutenant Calvin McCaffrey stood at parade rest, boot heels buried in the white sand, hands clasped stiffly behind his back, and waited as the flat nose of the landing ship plowed through the lagoon directly towards him, one outrigger displacing sheets of water in defiance of the kite’s starboard tug.

High on a nearby ridge, Dylan wondered aloud what the hell the man was doing.

Why do I do this? Because it lets me set the scene in a very cinematic way. It creates in the mind a world larger than the characters, and then the sense of panning down into their lives. Here, I start by describing a wider scene, information that all the characters might know because they live in this world while we are only visiting. I then zoom in on a conversation, and in the following lines, I will zoom into one character’s head–and stay there until the end of the scene.

Think of it like the opening pan in cinematography.Used judiciously, it is a very effective tool, and like any tool, it can be used to craft or to butcher.