You’re writing in third-person and your viewpoint character has become unconscious. However, you want the reader to understand how their discovery and recovery come about, and without head-hopping. Here are 5 ideas for how to tackle it.
What’s covered in this post
Start at the top if you’re new to viewpoint, or jump straight to the solutions if you’ve already nailed it but are wondering what to do about your oblivious point-of-view character.
> Protagonists versus viewpoint characters
> Why an unconscious character can’t be a POV character
> Head-hopping, narration style and number of POV characters
> The setup – a fictive piece of fiction!
> Solution 1: Create a new section or chapter with a new POV character
> Solution 2: Create a new section or chapter and switch narration style
> Solution 3: Unveil through dialogue
> Solution 4: Unveil through data
> Solution 5: Use emotional reflection
Protagonists versus viewpoint characters
The protagonist is the person whose experiences drive the story. The novel revolves around them. Readers are usually more connected to them and their outcome within the story than any other character.
The POV character is the person whose internal experiences drive a scene or chapter.
While your protagonist might often be the POV character, one role doesn’t always equal the other. A POV character can also be an antagonist, a major character, or a bystander who makes but one appearance.
Your protagonist, however, is always your protagonist, whether they’re in a scene, doing something else somewhere else, or lying in a coma on the beach.
Why an unconscious character can’t be a POV character
Perhaps your POV character has had an accident, become ill, been knocked out, or drugged. Perhaps they’ve drunk or drugged themselves into unconsciousness.
As long as they’re unconscious, they don’t know what’s happening. Which means the reader doesn’t either. Their oblivion is ours. And at that point they’re no longer a viewpoint character. They can’t be; they’re busy being unconscious.
However, just because they’re out for the count doesn’t mean the story is. Action is still taking place in the form of physical movement, dialogue, and the passing of time.
If authors need to tell the reader what happens to the unconscious character during their period of absence, it needs to be done in a way that makes sense.
If a character regains awareness, becomes the POV character and reports what happened to them during time out, they need a way to access that information. Otherwise, someone else will report that information, and a new POV character comes into play.
Head-hopping, narration style and number of POV characters
What is head-hopping?
When readers are forced to jump from one character’s thoughts and experiences to another’s in a single scene, head-hopping is in play.
Head-hopping is convenient because it lets readers know what everyone in a scene is thinking and feeling all at once. That convenience is usually a problem in commercial fiction because it rips out the suspense.
Rather than readers getting in the heads of everyone, they engage with and invest in no one because they are never in one place long enough to do so.
What is third-person limited POV?
Third-person limits readers to a single character’s experience – what they see, hear, feel and think. Readers get to sit in their skin; it’s as if we’re them.
In that sense, it’s not unlike first-person narration, another in-skin POV. The difference is the pronouns – he/she/they/it for third person; I/we for first person.
The difference lies in the narrative distance – how close the reader feels to the character. With third person, the distance is wider because those pronouns are a constant reminder that the character is someone else. With first person, the ‘I’ personalizes the experience more deeply because we’re reading the same language we’d use if we were talking about ourselves.
Third person is a narration style that most writers find easy to master at the beginning of their journey, and is popular with writers and readers of commercial fiction.
How many viewpoint characters can a novel have?
A novel can have multiple viewpoint characters sharing their experiences through various narration styles such as first person (I) and third-person limited (she, he, they).
However, it’s conventional in commercial fiction for each POV character to tell their story in distinct chapters or sections. Lumping multiple viewpoints into a single scene is often an indication of head-hopping.
The setup – a fictive piece of fiction!
Let’s set up a scene. Our current viewpoint character is Alicia, a private investigator. She’s also the protagonist.
Alicia’s received a tip-off from an old contact that her targets are using a derelict office building on the edge of an industrial estate for nefarious purposes.
Early in the evening, she decides to snoop around. She scopes the place out and enters once she’s confident the coast is clear. Part way through her search, she feels a blow to the back of her head. Next thing she knows, the floor’s coming towards her face. That’s where the chapter ends.
Because I’m the writer, I know the following:
How much of this information I can convey without dropping viewpoint will depend on how many POV characters I have in the novel, which narration styles I feel confident using, and when I decide to reveal this information so that I maximize reader engagement.
Solution 1: Create a new section or chapter with a new POV character
Creating a new section or chapter with a new viewpoint character is perhaps the easiest option if the novel has been structured such that it regularly switches between several characters’ experiences, each narrated in a first or third-person-limited style.
Let’s say it’s the first time Patty has entered the story but I plan to show the world through her eyes in future chapters and will deepen the reader’s engagement with her character in the process.
And so, for now, we can switch from Alicia’s POV after she’s hit the floor and give Patty a section or chapter that introduces her to the reader and shows us the world through her eyes. Here’s how that scene might play out.
Gerry swings into the kitchen as Patty puts a leg of beef into the crockpot.
‘Dinner will be ready bang on 8 pm, darling,’ she says.
He grunts. Ungrateful pig. She chops vegetables and thinks about how damn weird today was.
The call on the way back from the supermarket from you-know-fucking-who. A possible security breach at the Wickers building. Like she didn’t already have enough on her plate. Her handling security? What did they expect? This is Norwich, not New York. Thank God for that leg of beef.
How she climbed the stairs and found that woman rifling through a filing cabinet containing all their Very Sensitive Information.
How the leg of beef – frozen solid – made a thwack as it connected with the back of the woman’s head, and the way she just flumped down. No resistance, no fight. All very not Jack Reacher.
How she checked the woman – still breathing. Good – then grabbed the paperwork and got the fuck out.
How she’s stepped over a line.
But most of all how this time next year she’ll have dished up a decree nisi rather than a roast for her arse of a husband and his prickless cronies.
So now the reader knows what happened to Alicia but in a way that gives another viewpoint character the floor and opens the door to the reader’s journey with her.
There are questions too, because now we want to know more about Patty.
A word of caution
Those questions will need to be answered eventually. If they’re not – if out of the blue, we’ve been granted intimacy with Patty for the purpose of explaining what happened to Alicia only never to revisit her – the reader will be left feeling that there’s unfinished business, and that they’ve been party to a literary tool of convenience.
That’s a contrivance and a manipulation, and will damage your story.
Solution 2: Create a new section or chapter and switch narration style
To avoid the convenience problem, you could adapt Solution 1 by pulling back and opting for an alternative narration style.
A third-person-objective narration could work. Here, the prose is flatter, more told. The reader focuses on what can be seen and heard, rather than being immersed in emotional context.
This style widens the narrative distance but allows you to tell the facts. And that might well suit the mood of your book now and then.
We learned a lot about Patty in Solution 1. But what if I decide that Patty is a character I don’t want to develop? In that case, the reader doesn’t need to know anything about her.
It might be discovered later that the perpetrator was called Patty, and that she’d got in with a bad crowd, or was a frozen-beef-joint-wielding walloper for hire, but that’s not the story. Patty will not make the grade as a POV character in the novel.
And so instead, I could place this new section or chapter after Alicia’s scoped out the building and started snooping, but remove her experiencing the blow to the head.
The call is brief. There’s a possible security breach at the Wickers building. The driver pulls up in front, takes a plastic bag from the back seat and enters the building. She listens. Hears the squeal of a rusty filing-cabinet drawer on the next floor up. Mounts the stairs, pulls a leg of beef from the bag and stuffs the plastic in her pocket. She enters a room.
A woman is by the filing cabinet, rifling through the contents, her back facing the door. The driver swings and the joint cracks against the back of the woman’s head. She flops forward. There’s a sickening thud as her head recoils on the concrete. The driver checks the leg of beef. In forty-five minutes, it’ll be in the crockpot. In four hours, it’ll be on the plate.
It’s exposition without emotion, and told objectively. Now the reader knows what happened to Alicia, but it’s been narrated in a way that’s cold, clinical and anonymous. And that might very well serve your novel better than an emotional, limited narration that needs developing.
Solution 3: Unveil through dialogue
If your novel has only one viewpoint character, this solution will allow you to unveil what happened, and when, through a conversation.
Your POV character needs to have recovered sufficiently and be able to access the people who have that information and engage in dialogue with them or eavesdrop on a conversation they’re having.
They could be the police or security services, medical staff, an antagonist, the saviour – anyone who knows and can fill in the blanks.
It means the unveiling comes after the period of unconsciousness, which makes it an emotionally rich experience for the reader because we’re discovering what happened to the POV character at the same time as they are. We get to live their life with them in the moment.
Let’s imagine Alicia has recently regained consciousness again. She’s the POV character; we experience the world through her lens.
I want her to report her discovery of some of what happened to her and where she is. She’s ignorant of all the facts. Here’s how that might appear on the page.
She turned her head to the side. Bad idea. It hurt like a bitch and made her want to throw up. She took a few breaths, lifted an arm: ID bracelet and an IV taped to her hand. To the right: railings and a handset with a call button. Ahead: a pale-blue curtain.
A nurse poked his head out around the curtain, then disappeared. A man pushed through, smiled and introduced himself. Detective Paul Brown. Big, warm eyes and a neat beard that mostly covered a purple birth mark.
‘How long have I been here?’ she said.
‘Since last night. Bunch of kids found you in the old Wickers building on the industrial estate at 8 pm. You were out cold.’ He smirked. ‘You were lucky. Said they went there just to hang out and listen to music but one of ’em stunk of weed. We’ll let it go … they called you in and stuck around. So what’s going on?’
‘I don’t know. I was … I was looking in the filing cabinet and there was this pain and … that’s it. I woke up here with my head feeling like it’s going to explode.‘
‘Not surprised after the clobbering you took.’
Brown waved a hand. ‘It’s okay. A concussion, but the docs say you’re doing fine. So come on, I’ve told you what I know. Your turn.’
Alicia decided to trust him.
Now she knows what the police officer knows, and the reader knows too. And unveiling it like this avoids a mundane in-the-now narrative about a group of kids whom we’ll never meet again.
Solution 4: Unveil through data
Similar to Solution 3, the unveiling of what happened and when during the character’s unconsciousness is revealed later, but this time through files, documents, records, a diary, reports, messages or some other physical repository.
Again, they’ll need to be sufficiently recovered and have a mechanism for accessing this data.
As with the previous solution, the reader is drawn deeper into the POV character’s experience because we’re with them every step of the way on that journey of discovery.
In this scenario, I want to reveal who knocked Alicia out and how – not just to the reader (as with Solutions 1 and 2) but to Alicia herself. Perhaps this happens much later in the book, once she’s much further on in her investigation.
Alicia flicked through the diary, skimming pages full of domestic fury. One word jumped out. WICKERS.
I stepped over a line today. Whacked someone. Just like that. Not whacked as in killed, mind you. I wouldn’t go that far. Well, I don’t think so! I was on my way back from the supermarket when the call came. You-know-fucking-who. Shocked me, it did – possible security breach. Like I don’t already have enough on my plate with HIM. I don’t get it. Of all of us, I’m hardly the best person to be handling security. What did they think I was going to do? This is Norwich, not New York. Thank God I’d picked up a leg of beef.
Anyway, I hear someone messing around on the upper floor so up I go, and there she is, this woman, rifling through a filing cabinet containing all our Very Sensitive Information. I didn’t think twice, that’s the thing. Just swung the meat at her. Frozen solid it was. It made a sort of thwack as it landed on the back of her head. And the way she just flumped down … no resistance, no fight. All very not Jack Reacher.
I checked her (I’m not a monster), and she was still breathing so that was good. Then I grabbed the paperwork and got the fuck out. I tell you, next year I’ll be dishing up a decree nisi not a roast for that arse of a husband and his prickles cronies. Still, I should be grateful. No evidence. They ate every morsel.
This solution allows us to access Patty’s voice – she speaks through the pages of her diary – but it’s our protagonist whose eyes we read through and whose head we’re in.
Solution 5: Use emotional reflection
A fifth option is to use emotional reflection. This contemplation approach might be more suitable if your character has time to reflect.
Perhaps they’re still in hospital or bed-bound or imprisoned and are thinking about what they’ve learned.
You might find it’s a good solution if you want to slow the pace and give the story some breathing room – space for a little recent backstory.
I still want the reader to discover how Alicia ended up in the hospital, but rather than have them experience the reveal with her, they’re late to the party; she’s had a chance to reflect on it.
She raised her head. Okaaay, not too bad. A couple of hours ago, it had hurt like a bitch just to open her eyes. She took a few breaths, lifted an arm and inspected the ID bracelet and IV taped to her hand. Pressed the call button on the railings.
A nurse poked her head around the pale-blue curtain, asked Alicia if she wanted anything.
She was parched, she said. The nurse poured her a glass of water, patted her arm, called her sweetheart. She had big, warm eyes, like the detective who’d come earlier. He’d smiled when he introduced himself, made her feel like she could trust him as he’d scratched a neat beard that mostly covered a purple birth mark.
He’d told her what he knew. That her head had taken a clobbering. A concussion, but she’d be okay. That she’d been in the hospital most of the night. Bunch of kids had found her in the old Wickers building around 8 pm. She’d been out cold. That she was lucky; the kids, all of them stinking of weed, could’ve legged it but they’d stuck around, called an ambulance, made sure she was safe. It made her teary. People could surprise you sometimes.
We’ve still avoided in-the-now description about the movements of a group of kids we’ll never meet again. And our POV character has reported what happened between her hitting the floor and waking.
However, this time it’s revealed in a more introspective manner – background detail that’s framed within a deeper understanding of Alicia’s character, for example, sharing what she notices and the emotionality that her judgement is founded on.
Just because your POV character is out of it doesn’t mean the story of what happened during that time can’t be unveiled while holding point of view.
Experiment with narration style and different time frames for the unveiling, and separate characters’ experiences by giving their scenes distinct sections or chapters.
And don't forget that your protagonist is always your protagonist, even if they're not the viewpoint character because they're unconscious.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
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