I wince at the memory of using each of these writing “no-no’s” in my early fiction (and critique partners still catch me in the act at times). Data dumping is fun for writers bursting to share their research or hard-wrought descriptions, but it’s a bane for readers who just want to get on with the story. Using filter words is a hard habit to break but one a writer should consider if the goal is to draw a reader closer to a point-of-view character. And head hopping? Let’s just say I’ve worked for weeks to destroy the chaos I brought to one of my first novellas.
This is another in my series of what-I-wish-I’d-known-then posts that include short lists with definitions and links for further reading.
Data Dump (also Information/Info Dump)
“There’s an important balance that has to be struck, between ‘intriguing information about this world’ and ‘overwhelming info dump about this world.’” ~ Stefanie Gaither
A data dump in fiction is an instance where a writer shares too much information (such as backstory, description, or history) all in one place. Coming upon such a weight might prompt a reader to skim a page (or more) until the action resumes. Data dumps also slow down the forward momentum of a story, often stopping it, and usually signal author intrusion. A better approach for a writer is to weave in pertinent information only when a reader needs it.
Routine use of filter words—saw, heard, looked, felt, etc.—in describing a point-of-view (POV) character’s experience adds a subtle barrier between the character and the reader.
With filters: Jim saw the falcon dive from the crevice and felt a wing graze his cheek as the bird swooped by.
Without filters: The falcon dove from the crevice. A wing grazed Jim’s cheek as the bird swooped by.
According to Janice Hardy, filter words not only distance readers from the POV character, they “remind them they’re reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling [versus showing] or crafting passive sentences.” Without filter words, the reader “looks through the eyes of the POV character” at the world. With such filters, a reader “looks at the POV character” as the character looks at the world. And, “Remember, your POV is already filtering for you. There’s no need to remind the reader they’re doing it.”
Janice Hardy, Fiction University: “You’ll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words”
When a narrative jumps from one character’s POV to another within a paragraph or scene, it’s called head hopping.
Joe Bunting gives the following explanation of why head hopping is discouraged for most genres*: “[W]hen the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it jars the reader and breaks the intimacy with the scene’s main character. Also, it’s good to give readers ground rules—such as a consistent point of view—for how the storytelling will work, and if we break those ground rules, we can lose the reader’s trust.”
Cynthia VanRooy adds, “Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”
Head Hopping vs. Omniscient POV
Head hopping might sound like the same method used to tell a story through an omniscient point of view (the all-knowing, outside narrator), but D. E. Wallace explains the difference this way: “It comes down to ‘voice.’ Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene. But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner ‘voice’ to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.”
*In the romance genre, head hopping is more acceptable because the reader wants to know how the love interests feel at a particular moment. Romance writers might use multiple POVs within a scene, but separate them by paragraphs to avoid confusion.
Jodie Renner on Kill Zone Authors: “POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping”
K.M. Weiland, Writers Helping Writers: “Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV”
As a writer, have you ever dumped data, overused filter words, or hopped from one head to another? From a reader’s perspective, have any of these writing methods pulled you out of a fictional world?
For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs
Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring
Clichés, Point of View, Suspension of Disbelief