The Official Rules on Head-Hopping

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but somebody told you head-hopping is a no-no, and now you’re worried because you like head-hopping. What’s the deal?

Agata posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I’ve been reading your blog and it’s amazing. I’m planning/writing a novel and your posts are incredibly helpful in organizing everything. I’m writing here because I have a dilemma about the POV characters.

I have two POV characters, sometimes they have their own scenes and sometimes they are together. In that case, I don’t always know which one should be the POV. Is it acceptable to go from one character’s head to another? Like here (I’m just making it up, but it shows the structure of my scenes):

Emily looked up when the door opened.

“you’re late” she hissed. God, he was so irritating.

“what do you want from me?” he snorted.

“to act like an adult” she left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Josh stood there, wondering how to apologize to her this time.

 

So Emily is the POV when she’s alone and when Josh comes in, but then she leaves so he has to be the POV. Is that ok? If so, can I swith POV when they’re both in the room as well, or should I adapt the “God’s eye” approach throughout the story and not show anyone’s thoughts?

Hopefully my question makes sense, I’m just not sure what I should stick to.

Thanks a lot

Agata

Randy sez:  Let’s define terms. “Head-hopping” is the practice of switching point-of-view characters within a single scene. This is not the same as the omniscient point-of-view, which would allow your narrator to know things that none of the characters know.

If you want to start a war among fiction writers, a golden way to do it is to tell everyone that they can’t hop heads. Or tell them that they can.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Wrong

Those who oppose head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character in each scene. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for the scene.

Then in the next scene, your reader may become some other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Why Head-Hopping Is Said To Be Right

Those who believe in head-hopping make their case this way.

The purpose of writing fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. You do that by putting your reader inside the skin of one character at a time. The reader sees only what that character sees. Hears what she hears. Smells what she smells. Feels what she feels. Your reader becomes that character for a part of a scene.

If you need to transition to another character in the same scene, you do that in a way that cues the reader that you’re about to hop heads. And just like that, the reader becomes that other character. The reader is never confused. The reader is always having a Powerful Emotional Experience.

This is the one and only way to write fiction.

Randy Settles The Argument Once And For All

So who’s right? The hoppers or the non-hoppers?

Randy sez: Personally, I’ve never hopped heads. That has worked for me, and I’ll bet that 99% of my readers don’t know or care that I’m a non-hopper. Readers just care about whether the story is working for them.

But I have plenty of friends who hop heads all the time. So far as I know, they all write romance, and in the romance category, head-hopping is accepted. Why? Because in a romance novel, the relationship is the most important character in the story. Not the hero. Not the heroine. The relationship. So the reader likes to know what both the hero and heroine are thinking in each scene.

As far as I can tell, this works for my head-hopping friends. I’ll bet that 99% of their readers don’t know or care that they’re head-hopping. Readers just care whether the story is working for them.

Po-tay-to. Po-tah-to. What really matters is how it tastes in the soup.

What do you think? Leave a comment and tell me your opinion.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

42 Comments

  1. Agata April 30, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Thank you for the answer. I’ve been thinking about it and I think I’ll try to avoid head-hopping. Thanks for the insight!

    • Donna Hatch Romance Author February 6, 2017 at 11:06 am #

      I find head hopping annoying and it takes away the suspense of not knowing right away what the other character is thinking. Sticking to one point of view per scene creates some good mysteries, and if there is a misunderstanding, it’s easy for the reader to understand why and believe it. Going into the other character’s POV can be done in another scene or chapter and still carry the relationship in a very strong way.

  2. David April 30, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Great response. I’ve never heard that angle before, that in Romance fiction the relationship is the main character. That’s very interesting. I was reading Nora Roberts recently, mainly because I’m always curious about hugely successful authors, and was shocked to find her head-hopping like crazy early in the book. In some scenes, she head-hopped numerous times in just a couple of paragraphs. As a writer, it probably stood out to me in a more glaring way than it would to a reader. But I have to say, I did find it disorienting at times. Again, maybe my surprise played into that.

    But it certainly goes to show that a hugely successful author with millions of loyal fans worldwide can be a hopper. They say a new writer should never do it because their inexperience might cause it to be clumsy. But frankly, Nora Robert’s version of it seemed pretty clumsy to me. What I would consider a BAD reason for a new writer NOT to do it would be insecurity, whispering “Everyone will think you’re unprofessional”. Insecurity rarely tells the truth. So if it feels natural to you and you like the result, don’t worry about what any other writers might think.

    Agata, the sample you gave in your question was very smooth, and not the least bit confusing. Since that was just made up on the spot, I imagine you could pull it off consistently well if that’s the direction you wanted to go. You might want to experiment with a few scenes written both ways. If hopping is natural for you, and if you like the results better than the non-hopping versions, the reader will almost certainly feel the same.

    • wilson April 12, 2015 at 9:22 am #

      I have found myself in the same situation several times. I read books of successful authors just to know how the people who have made it to the top write, and guess what, they turn out not to be following so many of the things I thought they would be following (the head hopping, the clichés, the flat characters, the telling instead of showing, etc, etc)
      Cheers.

      • n arbic April 5, 2016 at 11:13 pm #

        tell the boring stuff, show the good stuff,

        clichés for the unimportant points, something original for important points,

        major characters full, minors are flat

        if it’s about a person, don’t headhop, if it’s about the relationship, or bigger picture head hop.

        nothing is wrong, unless it’s in the wrong
        place

        Feedback?

        • Nicole Collet June 9, 2016 at 6:29 am #

          Perfect! I would still try to avoid clichés as much as possible and make secondary characters as vivid as possible, but your points are spot-on.

          • Toad October 9, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

            I totally agree — no cliches, very vivid supporting characters and, for me… Giddy-Up baby, Hippity HOP, like a Friggin Frog!!!

  3. A3 April 30, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    I suspect that this statement is the key: “If you need to transition to another character in the same scene, _you do that in a way that cues the reader that you’re about to hop heads_.” I’m guessing that unsuccessful head hoppers are really unsuccessful at communicating that they’re head hopping. So their readers get confused and, if they analyze why, conclude “head hopping is bad.” Perhaps some examples of how to write good cues would make a good column.

  4. Debra L. Butterfield May 1, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    Randy, thanks for this clarification. I had recently heard head-hopping was okay in romance. As you stated, we need a cue to the change. Agata’s example was clear to me that the POV switched and I was comfortable with it.

    Many writers don’t have a good understanding of POV and therefore head-hop from sentence to sentence in one paragraph without any clue to the change at all. I would be inclined to say that a paragraph change would be the most basic requirement of a cue.

    I second A3’s suggestion of a post on how to write good cues.

  5. Joyce Erfert May 1, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    Alexander McCall Smith is one of my favorite authors, and he head-hops in his Botswanna series, which is not in the romance genre. I was never confused when he switched, and I grew to feel like his characters were my friends. I think it is possible to do it in any genre as long as you indicate to the reader that you are switching. Smith is a master head-hopper.

  6. Barbara Blakey May 1, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    Excellent post, Randy. What I appreciate most is the balanced perspective. We can be a passionate lot, clamoring against our pet peeves and forget the reason our readers read–that all important emotional experience.

  7. LyndaQ May 1, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Head-hopping always jars or stops me. Maybe if I read romance, I’d get used to it.

  8. Martha Rogers May 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    Well, I both write and love to read romance, and I ABHOR head-hopping. It really stops me, and I have to go back and figure out who is who and what is going on. Most romances I read don’t head-hop, and unless the story is so intriguing, suspenseful, or heart gripping, or the writer is excellent at giving clues as to what he/she is doing, I don’t finish it. That’s only my opinion, but it does affect which authors I choose to read and which ones I avoid.

  9. Susan Kinney May 1, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    This is interesting to read about. I didn’t think a Christian writer could find a publisher if they head hopped. 🙂 I’d never heard that a romance book would be an okay place to use this technique. What food for thought! I’ll keep my eyes open for this in the books that I read. I don’t think I will want to do it with my manuscripts though because I’ve found it confusing when I’ve run into it in older books. My mind likes to glide seamlessly along the words on the page….

  10. Donna Winters May 2, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    I’ve been writing romances since the early 1980s. When I started out, head-hopping was SOP. Skip ahead to 2010 when I joined American Christian Fiction Writers. There, to my surprise, I learned that head-hopping was NOT acceptable, romance or otherwise. I even read on one blog by a well-known Christian agent that many readers will stop reading and not finish a book if they run into head-hopping. These were reader comments on a post where the agent asked what made her blog followers stop reading a book. Lesson learned. Now, when I resurrect my older romances for today’s readers on Kindle, I edit out the head-hopping. How I WISH it were as you said: okay for romances. It was more fun writing that way, and never caused me a moment’s trouble as a reader.

  11. Sunni Jeffers May 5, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    I entered the romance genre in the late 80s and was taught at conferences and in college creative writing classes not to head-hop. It was and is done, but it’s one of those rules to break only if you understand it and are breaking it on purpose. Nora Roberts is famous for her head-hopping and her readers know to expect it. Many writers, especially newer writers, don’t know how to transition within a scene in a way that is smooth and not confusing. I personally avoid it. I’ve accidentally head-hopped in a first draft and always been called on it by an editor or professional reader. If I catch myself doing it, I make a scene break and start a new scene in the other character’s POV. Yes, in romance, the relationship is key, however there is always one character with the most to lose or gain in a scene. That is your POV character. Same with a novel. One character is the stand-out character, with the most to lose or gain in the end. I’ve wrestled over this in several books. Of course, this is my opinion, so take it or leave it.

    • Toad October 9, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

      I’ll leave it.

  12. Connie Berry May 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    Since I don’t read or write romance, I’m unfamiliar with the rules that govern that genre. But I know a bit about the mystery genre, and this is what I understand about head hopping:
    Don’t do it if you’re a new writer wanting to be published.
    If you’re an established writer with a following, it’s probably okay.
    If you’re Louise Penny, you can do whatever you want.

  13. Scott Miller May 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    I’m not a fan of head hopping and try to avoid it, even when purchasing romances.

    In her first published novel “Compromised” Kate Nobel head hops some of the time. Looking for an example of 3rd person unlimited (head hopping) for a class in POV I copied out a couple of pages from the middle of “Compromised”. Hero and heroine are having a roll in the park and things are progressing much too fast. Ms. Noble did a credible job. View point stays shallow, and she inserts a couple of transition paragraphs before switching view point. In the end the hero realizes he must stop–he’s engaged to the heroine’s sister.

    While presenting the example I realized it could be rewritten strictly from the hero’s POV. He’s the one who realizes things are progressing much too fast, why, and puts an end to the frolic. Every emotion of the heroine could be shown by her dialog or body language–her reaction. Finally, head hopping works best when the author doesn’t get too deeply inside the characters’ heads–but with a limited POV (or even 1st person) you can go deep and very intimate. In effect, head hopping can be more limiting than 3rd person limited.

    Later in “Compromised” Ms. Nobel gives us the scene where hero and heroine finally consummate their love affair. More head hopping, and this time not as skillfully done. It was confusing and took the occasional reread of the previous paragraph to get reoriented as to who was doing what to whom. In her later novels Ms. Nobel stuck to a limited POV.

    Realizing that 3rd person omniscient is a different kettle of fish–I’ve yet to find an example where 3rd person unlimited was a requirement, or worked better than 3rd person limited.

  14. HJ Blenkinsop May 15, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    Ooooh good one! I do head hop and I don’t write romance (more YA paranormal thriller) and had never worried about it before. I think the most important thing, after fulfilling the emotional experience of the reader, is the practical matter of being clear whose head the reader is in!

  15. Scott July 22, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    I can’t stand romances. I don’t care if a story head hops.or not so long as it is interesting and fun to read. I read a story that was published in the 1940’s by Philip Wylie called, I believe, “Finley Wren”. It was written mainly in the first person, but assumed the God P.O.V. from time to time. I remember thinking: “He got away with this!?” Yes he did. I never had the guts to try it. I thought that it worked, but, I haven’t seen anything like this in modern literature. Maybe people had more guts to experiment back in the day.

  16. Scott Miller July 24, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Just read Scott’s post about Philip Wylie’s novel “Finnley Wren”. Some of the things that get published can be shocking. I think it’s not so much the bold author, but the bold publisher. Many authors break the rules, but only a few of those experiments ever get published. We like to think it’s the established authors who get to do crazy things, but here are two examples by first-time authors.

    Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights Big City” published by Vintage Books in 1984–written in second person.

    Donal Ryan’s “The Spinning Heart” published by Transworld Ireland in 2012 and won several awards including the Booker Prize–features 21 first-person characters.

    Amazon has “look inside” for both books, so you can get a sample of the writing.

  17. Mark Hoult August 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Some of the most powerful and imaginative works of literature use different threads which intersect in some form or another – through plot, theme or some other connection. These, of necessity, use head hopping. People who claim that head-hopping is poor writing are missing out.

  18. Frank Miles August 30, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    When an author head hops on me, I lose what John Gardner calls the “fictive dream.” That could be my limitations as a reader, I suppose. But mine is the only reader’s head I’ve ever actually been inside. So I go by that.

    What doesn’t work for me, I can’t expert to work for my reader. Unless I want to start guessing, or estimating what might work, based on the conflicting reports of other readers. And I’m not about to do that just yet.

  19. Rita February 18, 2015 at 4:17 am #

    I’m not a writer and I don’t have any specific education, but even as a teenager reading romance novels I always got bothered by the head-hopping, though I didn’t know why or how. Now that I’ve done some research on the topic it takes me out of the story even more. Put simply, if the story head-hops, it doesn’t work for me because I cannot get fully submerged in it. Not that I’m trying to say that it’s a major faux pas or anything – if it works for someone else that’s great. It’s just not for me.

  20. Jessie May 7, 2016 at 9:12 am #

    I laughed at the “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” xD I’ve ran into a coupple writers that think like that. This guy just finished his first dtaft snd thought he eas done. So he was asking people what he needed to do to get published. Good god … I gently gsve sone advice, posted a few links along with one that listed fake publishing companys.

    Okay, back to the toppic. 😛

    I like staying in one characters head for the entire scene. And I don’t switch to another untill it’s needed. It all depends on what that chapter needs, where the story is going, and what happened to the main pov.

    The online writers and cridics I encounterd allways pushed hard on how bad head hoping is and to never do it.

    I think head hoping is like prologs, it has to be done well, as they are hard to do right. I’m guessing. -Shrug-

  21. Jessie May 7, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    Excuse the tyops It’s harder to catch them on a phone.

  22. Isabelle Rose May 26, 2016 at 5:19 pm #

    This is really the greatest response to the topic I have read so far

  23. Julie Sturgeon June 5, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    Head hopping is NOT accepted among romance publishers these days. It creates a hodgepodge emotional stew, and skilled writers don’t need it to convey the other person’s emotions through showing. Skilled writers also know how to break that rule without muddling the emotional flow. But most simply don’t have the experience to make that happen, and it makes more sense to put their energy toward polishing the show-not-tell techniques.

  24. Nicole Collet June 9, 2016 at 6:09 am #

    Thanks for this clarification! I had an editor and some authors comment that I do head hopping (I write romance and use head hopping precisely in scenes of physical or emotional intimacy in order to share with readers what both characters are thinking and feeling). As long as the reader is not confused and “the soup tastes good,” I don’t see a problem. Nothing is black and white in writing. Rules are good for guidance but they can’t be absolute or they become tyrants to creativity.

  25. Hendrik Boom July 17, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    I had written a draft in which I was deeply into the psyches of two characters, and one of my early readers even appreciated how well it was done. But in the next draft I was into only one POV. Why? Because one of the characters had a deep secret which came out only gradually through the scene, and I felt it was cheating to put the reader int that character’s POV without an early reveal. But in the first draft it was invaluable to be in both characters minds just so I could keep track of them and have them react naturally.

  26. M Bates August 3, 2016 at 4:46 am #

    YES But I have learned the hard way that publishers and their editors will NOT deal with romance head hopping. Nor will they deal with that is buy a book that is written in other than 3rd limited/close.

    I’ll send you their letters. I submitted my romance novel to seven publishers. Three wrote back, asking to see the ‘full ms.’ one went nuts because it’s not in 3rd limited & does have head hopping.

    Anoother said to revise. That is, re write. I’ve done that, putting it into 3rd limited/close and have hopeflly repalced the head hopping dialogue with one that is OK.

    MY QUESTION

    Please please please tell me how to stay out of omniscient and stay in 3rd limited.

    This is a ‘common’ mistake; though I don’t see it as a mistake so much as nobody will buy it if. Since I was a non fiction writer and well published, this is kind of weird, but I must learn~~ Help. It’ll help many others.

    Thank you.

    • Ginger December 3, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

      “Please please please tell me how to stay out of omniscient and stay in 3rd limited.”

      This is not a direct answer to your question but accomplishes the same thing–read the book Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Elizabeth Nelson. It revolutionized my writing in about 1 hour.

  27. Shannon August 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

    Thank you for clarifying. I am in the process of writing a novel, and I was a bit worried because I am indeed a hopper. But I have several readers who indulge in my unpublished stories, and none of them have ever complained. If anything, they love my previous work. So again, thanks. You’ve really helped out! 🙂

  28. Joseph Hefferon February 22, 2017 at 9:26 am #

    Thank you.My defense of head-hopping is Elmore Leonard, who changes POV in mid-sentence and no one cares. Maybe it’s because his stories are so good. The best description of why you should not head hop comes from a blog post I read – (paraphrasing) “it’s ok that the author is omniscient and knows what a character is feeling or thinking, he just shouldn’t write those thoughts in a character’s voice.” So, the author can write, ‘John was dejected. He suspected the relationship might end soon.’ The omniscient author is making this reveal
    The author should not write, Mary thought, “He’s dejected, he knew this relationship was doomed.” Mary can’t know what’s in John’s head. It took me a long while to see the difference. Hope this helps

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