Have you ever heard of head-hopping before? If you haven’t, I’d bet you’ve seen it somewhere before. I see it all the time, but I’m a professional editor, so that’s to be expected. (Does that sound like a ringing endorsement for it?) So, what is head-hopping?
What is Head-hopping?
Head-hopping is when a writer jumps from one character’s perspective to another’s abruptly and without a clear delineation between the two, usually within the same scene without a scene break and sometimes within the same paragraph.
As I said above, it’s something that happens quite often–in beginners writing. (Maybe one day I’ll write a post about things that clearly distinguish a new writer from a more seasoned one–let me know in the comments if that would interest you.)
But I’ve also seen it in published works. Typically published works by boutique publishers or self-published books. And I have to tell you it makes me cringe every time.
If you weren’t sure where I was going with this, you know now.
Head-hopping is bad.
It’s confusing. It slows and often jolts readers out of the story as they try to figure out whose head they’re in. It shows the writer in the story, instead of making the reader forget that there is a writer.
None of these things are good things.
The places where this kind of writing is most confusing is in third and first person. Let me give you an example of this in one paragraph:
“Henry moved along the bank of the river, staring at the floating driftwood. The crunch of leaves behind him alerted him to Jack’s presence. He didn’t want to talk to him. He couldn’t. Jack couldn’t understand his cold reaction. It wasn’t like he’d crashed the car. Yet, he still felt guilty.”
Did you notice the shift from Henry to Jack? See how confusing it is to go from one character to the other like that? It gets even worse when you have two men or two women or even more people than two and start using nouns like he and she.
Now one more example. This is from a piece I wrote back in 2015, so let’s ignore the bad writing except for the head-hopping. You’re a pal.
Logan Bell suppressed a feral growl. He sat in the worn armchair and listened to the sounds of metal on metal as the front door clicked open. The living room was dark, the blinds closed to prevent shadows from the full moon outside. The only movement in the small space was the swinging chain of the lamp that sat on the table to his right.
He said nothing, just observed as the door swung open and a tall, lanky, but muscular man stepped through it and shut it behind him. The man reached for the light switch on the wall by the door, and let out a groan when no light came on.
His dark silhouette moved through the living room to the lamp, but he stopped cold when a small glimmer caught his eye alerting him to the movement of the lamp’s chain.
“Hello Andy,” Bell said.
Andy turned the lamp on then looked at the man who’d made himself comfortable in his living room chair. His legs crossed and arms rested on each armrest. The last time Andy had seen him, he’d looked put together. Right now, he was rumpled, as though he’d been sleeping in the suit coat, shirt sleeves, and jeans he had on. His eyes were dark in the low light. And he seemed off, almost . . . frightening.
What is Head-hopping?
Want to talk confusing, there you go. The worst of it was the transition from Bell to Andy. Could you tell without having to think too hard about it when Bell stopped talking and when Andy started?
And I can tell you that it only get’s more confusing as it goes on. (Thank goodness for writers conferences, writing classes, and critique groups. Haha!)
You may think this is a good way to get your story across and make sure that every character’s voice is heard but it’s not.
In fact, I turned this first chapter into a national first chapter contest, with judges from major publishing houses, agencies, and editors, etc., and the one thing that all of them mentioned right off the bat was “You’re head-hopping, stop it.” Okay, I’m taking some creative liberties on that. They were mostly nicer than that.
The point is, five years later and I don’t recall a single other critique on this chapter except for the negative reaction to head-hopping.
What should I do instead?
There are a few things that you can do to avoid this:
DECIDE WHICH CHARACTER IS MORE INTERESTING
Think about the scene beforehand and decide which of your characters can tell the scene from the most interesting perspective. In the scene above, the entire thing should have been written from Bell’s perspective, but I was just too enthralled with the idea of Andy coming home and seeing someone sitting in the chair across the room. Was Andy’s perspective interesting? Sure. What’s not interesting about finding an intruder sitting in the dark in your home? Was it necessary? No. The story was Bell’s. His was the perspective that was important. Not Andy’s.
DECIDE IF IT’S A NEED OR A WANT
If you want it to be from the perspective of more than one character, ask yourself if that’s something that really needs to happen or if it’s something you just want to happen. Sometimes we have to sacrifice what we want so that the story flows better. If jumping from one character to another halfway through a scene will slow or confuse readers, you want to reconsider it. Again, the example above is the reason why.
CAN I TELL ONE OF THEIR POVS LATER IN THE BOOK?
If you feel you have to do it, because each character has something important to say in that scene, consider if there’s a time later on where you can write one of the character’s thoughts instead. Often it’s more interesting to not get all the information at the same time. Maybe we could just get Andy’s right now and then later, we can learn what possessed Bell to go there and do whatever it was he was going to do. That’s a great way to build tension.
HAVE A CLEARLY MARKED SCENE BREAK
If you need more than two character’s telling one scene, have a clear scene break. Often these are marked with a space or a fancy marker between paragraphs.
Just as an example. You’re welcome.
WRITE FROM AN OMNISCIENT POINT-OF-VIEW
If this still doesn’t work for you or the goal of what you want your book to achieve, then you’ll want to consider writing your novel from an omniscient point-of-view.
An omniscient narrator is a narrator who is almost a character themselves. They know things the character doesn’t know, or, in other words, they’re all-seeing, and all-knowing. They can go from one person’s head to the other with no problem to the reader.
Books written in this form include:
- The Secret Garden
- The Magician’s Nephew
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Sense and Sensibility.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Animal Farm
- The Hobbit
- Gone with the Wind
Writing this way can be tricky, so I recommend reading several books that have mastered it, like the ones listed above, and note techniques these authors have used to pull it off so successfully.
Note: There is an exception to the head-hopping rule with romance novels. Why? I’m not totally sure, (because it’s the worst,) but I’ve heard from authors who write romance and head-hop that it’s because they want their readers to know what each of the romantic duo is thinking. And, it seems to work for a lot of readers because it does happen often in romance and people are still reading those books.
I’m personally not a fan of head-hopping, I’ve never read a instance where it wasn’t confusing for a least a few seconds before I figured out what’d happened. Though, I know some romance authors say that they have a way to clue the reader in before changing, and maybe they do, I just haven’t personally seen it, and I edit a lot of romance novels.
I strongly believe that the last thing you want to do is confuse someone, because that pulls them out of the story, even if momentarily, and that’s always a bad thing.
But, there are those who would contradict me, I’m sure, and with good reason. Their books are selling.
So, while I would recommend never head-hopping, (never ever) it’s really something you have to decide for yourself.
Whether you think head-hopping is okay or not, I challenge you to go through the list above of things you can do to avoid head-hopping and try them each out. See how it changes your story and what you think.
If you like head-hopping, do the exercise above and have some alpha and/or beta readers read the copy with head-hopping and without, and tell you which they liked best.
Don’t tell them which you like best. You want honest opinions. Then you can decide from there which route you want to take.
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