Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 41

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 41: Inferring Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts

These, days, writers have to be clever. There are so many guidelines we need to observe in order to make our plots, characters, and narratives as vibrant and powerful as possible. As this series on most common writing mistakes attests, there are so many things we try not to do in our writing. The problem is that all this balancing can sometimes cause us to overcompensate in other areas.

For example, one of the first things we often learn is not to “head hop.” Head hopping occurs when a writer violates a tight (or deep) point of view (POV), in which the narrative is being told strictly from the viewpoint and in the voice of a single character. This violation happens when the narrative briefly “hops” into another character’s head, sharing thoughts or perspectives the actual POV character would have no way of knowing. As in:

Luke watched Elizabeth absently twirling her hair as she read the menu. She was thinking about ordering spaghetti again. She frowned, not looking up. She hated the way he was just staring at her, like he was trying to read her thoughts. She was angry at him. No way she was agreeing to a second date.

Unless the previous paragraphs indicated Elizabeth verbally telling the narrator about her desire to slurp noodles and avoid him henceforth, there’s no way Luke could know this. This is out of Luke’s POV. This head hopping. Bad author.

How to Sap the Narrative by Translating Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts

So what’s a savvy author to do instead? That info about Elizabeth’s spaghetti craving and ticked-off mindset seems pretty important to readers’ understanding of the scene and Elizabeth’s character. What we have to do now is cleverly come up with a way to let readers know about Elizabeth’s need for spaghetti without violating POV. Our first reaction might be to have Luke infer and translate Elizabeth’s thoughts:

Luke watched Elizabeth absently twirling her hair as she read the menu. No doubt, she was thinking about ordering spaghetti again. She frowned, not looking up, as if she hated the way he was just staring at her. She probably thought he was trying to read her thoughts. Without question, she was angry at him. Almost certainly, she was promising herself not to go on a second date.

On the technical level, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with this paragraph. No head hopping at all! We’re firmly in Luke’s head from start to finish. He’s only supposing what Elizabeth is thinking while she studies that menu. The author has cleverly used the following words to share Elizabeth’s thoughts without ever breaking POV:

  • No doubt
  • As if
  • Probably
  • Without question
  • Almost certainly

What’s the Problem With Translating Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts?

So what’s the problem? Actually, there is no problem–as long as this technique is used cautiously and sparingly. We all make inferences about what other people are thinking based on their expressions, body language, the context of the dialogue and setting, and our intuition. It’s totally realistic that Luke would do the same.

What’s not totally realistic is if Luke is doing more than just guessing Elizabeth’s thoughts. If he’s spot-on in all his suppositions–if the author just happens to be using all these “no doubts” and “as ifs” as a narrative smokescreen to disguise the fact that he really is head hopping–then this technique will inevitably weaken both your narrative as a whole and the narrator’s character development.

The problem is that all this inferring is creating a narrative flow that is based more on telling than showing. Instead of allowing the subtext to speak for itself, Luke is offering up his insanely educated beliefs about Elizabeth’s thoughts.

How to Create Realism and Subtext by Inferring Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts

In most instances, readers will be able to guess the other character’s thoughts just as accurately as Luke simply by being shown the same clues as he’s seeing (Elizabeth’s frown, her refusal to make eye contact–especially when paired with the context of the surrounding scene). And the result is a subtle shift to showing the scene rather than simply dumping it into the readers’ lap by telling them everything all at once.

Even better, removing a little of the narrator’s certainty about another character’s thoughts allows you to create a more accurate flow in his own thoughts–and to create the always interesting possibility that he may be totally wrong.

Check it out:

Luke watched Elizabeth absently twirling her hair as she read the menu. Was she thinking about ordering spaghetti again?

She frowned, not looking up.

Well, he was staring, after all. Maybe that made her uncomfortable. It wasn’t like he could read her thoughts or anything. Not that he’d want to right now, with her being so upset and everything. The chances of her letting him ask for a second date seemed to be dwindling about as fast as their chances of being served in the next five minutes.

We’ve still got some active supposition going on here. Luke is still using words like “maybe” and “seemed.” But the difference is that he’s now working through a realistic mental process, instead of just leaning on a psychic connection with his all-knowing author. And the fun part is that he might be totally wrong about Elizabeth’s mindset, which spikes the potential for intra-personal conflict (because, as the Bible says, “Through presumption comes nothing but strife.”)

3 Reasons You Might Be Committing This Most Common Writing Mistake

Most authors commit this writing mistake for one of the following three reasons:

1. Head Hopping

We’ve already covered this one. Your desire to avoid head hopping is entirely well conceived. But just because allowing the narrator to infer another character’s thoughts is better than head hopping doesn’t mean it’s the best choice.

2. Lack of Trust in the Narrative

The other reason you may be sticking in all those unnecessary “probablys” and “undoubtedlys” is because you’re not certain your contextual narrative is doing a good enough job of conveying the non-POV character’s thoughts.

Chances are you’re just plain wrong.

More often than not, when I go back and reread my narrative and start taking out the “probablys” that have sneaked in, I find my narrative not only doesn’t need them, but that it’s stronger without them. There will always be the occasional instance where this kind of specific reinforcement is necessary. But those moments are fewer than you might think.

3. Belief in the Readers’ Need to Know

Finally, there’s the tempting mindset that says readers need/want to know everything about all the characters. We do after all! But this just ain’t so. Readers love subtext, and subtext can never happen if we’re taking it upon ourselves to spell everything out for them. Sometimes not knowing what the other character is thinking is far more interesting.

On your next edit, make a point to search out the scenes where your narrating character is inferring the other characters’ thoughts and translating them a little too accurately. See if you can spice up your narrative by creating realism and subtext thanks to a subtle rephrasing of your character’s observations and conclusions.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you handle this most common writing mistake? Do you ever find yourself translating a non-POV character’s thoughts too literally? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 41

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is so true! Whenever I find myself tending to head-hop within one character’s POV, I usually take it as a sure sign that I need to create a scene break and go ahead with a new POV character. This also provides an added bonus: you get to see what’s going on inside the other character’s heads, even if the protagonist is the more crucial player in the scene. (This makes me think especially of a scene earlier on in Behold the Dawn, in which Annan and Mairead have stopped riding and the POV switches to Mairead. That was a clever way to both get inside her head and to have an objective look at Annan as well.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed Behold the Dawn. 🙂 There’s nothing wrong with *not* showing the other character’s POV, since there’s a lot of subtext to be gained that way. But when *we* start finding another character’s inner processes more interesting than the narrator we’re currently working with, that’s usually a good sign we should be switching over.

  2. You are awesome! Thank you for sharing your knowledge, it has helped me tremendously.

  3. Steve Mathisen says:

    Brilliantly and succinctly put. I have been working through some of these exact issues with a manuscript I am working on. Thank you so much.

    All too often an author wants to fill in all the gaps for the reader. We need to drop just enough information for them to infer these bits on their own without actually saying them. That makes for much tighter writing and it is actually more fun for the readers.

    When we treat the readers intelligently, they infer the same of us. That works out well all the way around.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love the idea that the reader is our co-writer. We aren’t so much telling him the story as we are giving him just enough information so he can bring the story to life in his own mind.

  4. I remember one of the first things I was told in an online workshop I frequented for many years was that I used too many ‘as if’s
    I took this really at heart. I now try to avoid it as much as a can… and you know what? This has strenghten my writing. I usually try to do what you suggested: rather than have the narrator hand info to the reader, I try to depict what the character is doing and let the reader infer the same my MC is infering.
    I know, I ‘try’. There’s no way to know the reader is infering the correct thing (and sometimes beta reading has show they don’t), but I prefer this technique to any other.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We all try. The day we stop trying is either the day we quit writing, or the day we master the craft. And I’ve yet to meet one of these masters! Keep on keepin’ on.

  5. One of the problems I’ve seen with this technique is all of the fluffy filler words that tend to show up in 3rd person. Words like “maybe, just, only, probably, it’s like” can make writing bulge uncomfortably. The writing can also come off as if the writer doesn’t believe the readers can infer anything, and thus makes the writing seem superficial and obvious. (That happens a lot when I read books, unfortunately.)

    With my 1st person POV novel, I’ve had the POV character observing what the observed character… oberves. In a way, it leans more to the showing side instead of telling. It also says more about the POV character because you’re given more opportunity to describe things through their lens, so to speak. What they see and make note of in character interactions is important. The narrator can pick up on the other person’s fidgets that they may not know, and if they’re making a judgement, it could be like, “nervously twirling her hair” or “angry gaze at the menu.” Adverbs can help here. They don’t always need to be destroyed. 😉

    Observed body language is important, especially in 3rd person limited POV. If a book is written in 1st person, the narrator’s worries would fit more reasonably, but I like to describe/show body language that the narrator sees. Doing that helps me keep my writing tight.

    (Whoops, long comment, haha!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. The “observing what the observed character observes” is a great technique–both because it can let the reader into the other character’s head, but almost because those observations from the narrator will always be informative about *him* as well.

      As for emotive descriptors, such as “nervous” and “angry,” my personal policy is always to err lightly with them. As I’m writing, I always have the phrase “never name an emotion” running in my head. Obviously, that’s a bit overstated: I don’t believe in the *never* part. But I say it that way to remind myself to always look for a way to show the emotion rather simply naming it.

  6. This comment also naturally relates to the issue of psychic distance. A well-managed, omniscient narrator is certainly allowed to head-hop as long as the psychic distance is equally well managed. If we’re zooming in on Luke’s thoughts, then it’s very jarring for the reader to suddenly jump to Elizabeth’s thoughts.

    But if our omniscient narrator is panning around a crowded room, that is, the psychic distance is great, then it’s far less jarring:

    Everyone in the Lost Hope Diner was feeling down that night. Elizabeth slouched over the menu, trying to find something that wouldn’t go straight to her hips. Luke, sitting across from her, was certain she was pissed at him, and wasn’t expecting a second date. Their waitress, Wendy, was so worried about the teeny-bopper earning $2/hr to watch her toddler son that she had miscalculated three tabs that evening. And the cook, nursing a secret and forbidden love for the waitress, was all frowns because Wendy didn’t notice his new haircut.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, granted this is a problem and solution specific to tight POVs–which is what most stories these days are written. I’ll be talking about omniscient POVs in a couple of weeks.

  7. I recently had the opposite problem in my latest manuscript. I tried to limit telling by only showing the reader what happened during a scene and letting the reader put it together themselves without any help from the MC. The trouble is, without the MC’s occasional internal thought explaining what she thought was going on, my crit partners became totally confused. Sometimes we need the MC to translate what’s going on. Just not too often.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely nothing wrong with letting the MC translate *as long as* he’s not just *telling* readers what the non-POV character is thinking. His translations should be all about his own perceptions (and, when appropriate, misconceptions).

  8. On the scene break topic, I agree that if it is important to get into a different character’s head, you should definitely think about doing a scene break to switch POVs. Once, I had a problem with this in a rough draft so I went back and made a list of each scene and which character’s point of view was the most important to the scene. Then I eliminated the other intruding POV from that scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Smart. That’s always a valuable step, since choosing the right POV character for any given scene is vital in getting it to work to maximum potential.

  9. Asisha Joseph says:

    Hmmm. What if its a question? Like this.

    Luke watched Elizabeth absently twirling her hair as she read the menu. Was she thinking about ordering spaghetti again? He’d no way of knowing.

    No head hopping here, but I get the feeling its slightly amateurish. Is it?

    By the way I LOVE your advice. Its extremely helpful, and the examples help an awful lot. I salute you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I *love* questions in deep third-narrative. It’s an easy way to present information without telling and within the narrator’s voice.

  10. Now, what do I do if the POV really DOES read minds?

    The most common thing I’ve seen is, that character is kept out of POV. But staying out of her head means losing large sections of narrative, like when she gets kidnapped. Plus she’s so different on the inside! It blew me away when I saw how aggressive this girl really was. You have to be, to infiltrate the lives of the most dangerous men in the world and set them straight.

    At the moment, I am relaying to the reader only ‘exact quote’ thoughts, those that I would put in italics if I were in his head.

    Sigh. Maybe this is going to be one of those that just don’t make it yet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would treat the other characters’ thoughts pretty much as dialogue (although probably in italics instead of quotes).

      • Yep, that pretty much is where I was going. Thanks for the confirmation! You’ve got a great site, by the way… so comprehensive, it seems like a course in Fiction arts in itself.

  11. Alas, if only someone could tell me the rules for writing a mindreader!

    What I’ve seen in the past is that you just stay out of the mindreader’s head. Problem solved. I did that for the first draft, but there’s a lot lost. Times when he’s not there, sure, but the biggest is how different she is on the inside! With her ahem, hobbies you have to be a whole lot more aggressive than you seem.

    Right now I’m keeping the ‘direct quote’ thoughts, figure those are the ones that she would hear as well. That’s about all I’ve got so far. Guess that’s what I get when I make things like that up.

  12. I was reading this post and going “Hah, I never do *that* writing mistake.” And then as I edit a novelette I wrote recently, I find this very sentence while in someone else’s POV:

    This causes her dark eyes to flash up at him, wondering if his comment was meant for her.

    … among many other sentences like that! I guess I infer non-POV characters’ thoughts after all. 😉 I’ll have to work on it as I edit now. Thank you again for another helpful post.

    Madi

  13. Your site is awesome.

    Wonderful post. I did not know what inferring was but I did see the mistake with the first example. It’s cool to watch you revise the example, how you make it shine to prove your point.

    Once I shifted from the MC to suddenly seeing inside her cat’s head. The cat has no super powers. It gave me a laugh.

    I’ve used dialog with beats of action to stop the main POV from inferring. Never name an emotion is top of my head, too.

    I keep a book in my handbag where I note how people behave. I try to characterize through physical actions and habits. It’s amazing how a stance or movement of a hand can express a feeling. Often I’ll write the observations down then find myself in that persons head. It’s great to watch the physical actions/reactions of couples when they converse.

    I agree, too, with Bo Burnette, scene break.

  14. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    A cat with superpowers does sound like a fun premise though!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Luke watched Elizabeth absently twirling her hair as she read the menu. She was thinking about ordering spaghetti again. She frowned, not looking up. She hated the way he was just staring at her, like he was trying to read her thoughts. She was angry at him. No way she …read more […]

  2. […] K.M. Weiland posted another in her most common writing mistakes series. Part 41: Inferring non-POV characters’ thoughts. […]

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