H is for Head-hopping
Head-hopping is the ‘art’ of jumping out of one character’s head (perspective) and into another, usually under the guise of allowing the reader the ‘full-on’ experience. I’ve heard many a writer say they want their reader to know what’s going through a secondary character’s head (if only for a moment). ‘How will they [reader] understand what’s going on?’ is the common argument.
The problem with head-hopping is that it is seriously… seriously irritating, and jarring. Imagine writing a wonderful, tension-filled scene. The reader is deep in your main character’s pov (point of view) and then suddenly – briefly – you’re in another character’s perspective (they had some crucial information to ‘think’ to the reader) before jumping back into the main character’s head. It breaks the tension, it’s jarring, not to mention irritating.
It isn’t head-hopping if you change to a different pov character with a scene or chapter break. Head-hopping happens mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, or mid-scene.
‘Ah, but it’s okay so long as you tell the reader you’re switching pov. So they know whose head they’re in.’ This isn’t a quote, but it’s advice I’ve seen handed out in writing groups, and no, it isn’t ‘okay’.
‘Yes, but [some well-known, traditionally] published authors do it’, is another argument to support head-hopping, and yes, they may well ‘head-hop’ (or perhaps they write in omniscient which allows for multi-pov perspectives) but they’ve ‘earned’ the right to write how they wish. They sell a lot of books. New and unestablished authors get the joy of playing by the rules I’m afraid, and yes, self-published authors may take the decision to head-hop as it is in a writer’s nature to bend, break, and challenge the [writing] rules (that were never ‘rules’ in the first place, but guidance). That doesn’t make it any less irritating, or confusing, to read through.
In case you hadn’t gathered, I’m not all that keen on head-hopping. When I’m editing, I remain neutral. I highlight instances of head-hopping (in the comments) and advise authors of the ‘rules [guidance]’. In the event that a secondary character has crucial information, I suggest alternative methods of getting this information out.
Incidentally, I scared the life out of one new writer (in a Facebook group) not so long ago when I announced that I never head-hop. I apologised almost immediately. I answered the thread without thinking about how a new writer would perceive it, and originally, failed to mention that although I don’t head-hop now, that wasn’t to say that I haven’t in the past. Like every other author/reader out there, I’ve seen it in published (traditional) books and figured if the big name authors were doing it, then it must be the ‘right’ way to write. I’ve had my knuckles rapped when getting feedback and had experienced authors explain the basics to me. I’ve also spent a lot of time reading up on it over the years. I have been where new writers are now, and I remember how confusing I found it, but once I understood how jarring it could be, and focused on staying in one head at a time, my writing was better for it.
Why it is better to avoid head-hopping
Remaining in one head per scene or chapter gives you – the author – the opportunity to really explore your characters (and the story). Rather than jumping into another character’s head to explain how character A behaves a certain way because of XYZ, you can reveal it through narration, action, and dialogue. By ‘acting it out’, as opposed to offering a quick snippet of information from Character B’s perspective, you are strengthening how your characters are perceived, and adding depth to your story.
How to avoid head-hopping
Use an omniscient point of view
If you really want to show the reader what every character is thinking, consider writing with an omniscient narrator. The narrator has a ‘god-like’ perspective (knows all and sees all) and observes and records the story as it plays out. This may sound like the ideal solution to your problem, however, omniscient is very difficult to do correctly, and if done incorrectly, all those pov switches will sound like head-hops anyway. You can read more about omniscient here, though personally, I would advise against it. Omniscient is, apparently, out of favour in modern writing.
The most common technique to avoid head-hopping is to signify a pov change with a scene or chapter break. If you want to switch from character A to character B, then a double line space at the end of your last scene will be sufficient to tell the reader the pov is changing from A to B. While the previous scene contained A’s telling of the story, with inner thoughts and perspectives, and perhaps observations of what he thought B might be thinking (because he can’t actually know what is in B’s head), this new scene will continue with B’s telling, inner thoughts, and perspectives.
The trick to writing a scene from one character’s perspective is to pick the best character for that particular scene, chapter, or plot point.
- Which character holds the most information to move the story forward?
- Which character’s inner thoughts or perspectives do you need access to?
By picking the strongest pov candidate for this scene, you can remain in one head and strengthen the bond between your character and the reader. You might start writing and realise that B is the better option for this scene as he knows something that A doesn’t.
From time to time, the situation arises where a minor character holds crucial information that neither your main or secondary characters know. When this occurs, you have to examine how else the information can be given.
- Perhaps a main or secondary character overhears a minor character speaking to someone else (even on a phone)
- Physical clues might be discovered by a main or secondary character
- Other methods of providing information: TV, radio, internet
- Visual clues in narration (foreshadowing)
Avoiding head-hopping can, at times, feel like more trouble than it’s worth, especially if you’re just discovering this concept. Personally, I think it’s worth the trouble (of avoiding it). Writing from the perspective of one character at a time gives your reader a chance to get close to them, to get to ‘know’ them.
If you are interested in reading further on this, I have listed a couple of articles below:
I’m with you, i hate head hopping when i come across it in a book. I like to know exactly who’s story is being told and when. My current WIP is a polyphonic storyline with three main characters who each kind of ‘take their turn’ depending on what is happening in the storyline at that time. As you say, you pick the best one to tell each bit, sometimes they overlap, but never within the same paragraph or section. there has to be a signifying break between the viewpoints.
Another excellent, informative blog.
Thanks for sharing my link–and great article! As I’ve mentioned on my blog before, even when “the pros” head hop, I’m still thrown off a bit and taken out of the story. That taught me there’s really no “right” way to head hop–if even “the pros” can’t avoid that issue.
For me, the question isn’t “Can I get away with it?” but “Is the benefit of head hopping in this scene worth the risk of kicking readers out of the immersive experience of the story?” (If anyone doesn’t understand that connection: Confusion can lead to loss of immersion when readers are reminded they’re reading words on a page during their attempt to get un-confused–backing up and rereading, etc.)
So I haven’t found a good reason yet to answer “yes” to that “is the benefit worth the risk” question. 🙂 Especially as there are so many other ways to get across the information we want readers to know, head hopping often just strikes me as lazy (or inexperienced) writing. Either way, not a good impression.