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:
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
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.
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 says
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.
Anderson Brezinski says
Totally agree that head hopping can be hugely effective in romance. I head hop. If I were to do switch POVs in another scene,it would lose the efffect. Thumbs up to head hopping, I say.
Eg…I am in Sheena’s POV as she speaks to Eva.
“Awrite, Eva, you haven’t forgotten me, have you?”
“Darling, how could I? I just came in from work. It must be past midnight in Glasgow. What’d ya doing up so late?”
Eva’s provocative outfit shocked her. “Gosh… you go to work dressed like that?”
Eva giggled at her friend’s astonishment. “Yeah… of course. This is New York, darling. Ya dress to impress.”
“Men in the office must walk around with stiff wallopers—you look ravishing.”
“Even some of the women stare,” Eva replied laughing. “So when’re you gonna visit? You’re welcome anytime, sweetie.”
Eva must have noticed how she blushed. “I can’t wait. Soon enough; sometime within the ten days that I’m off.”
Eva’s pulse quickened. Soon she would have to face her after the fling in Barbados with Sheena’s man. “So how’re you an’ that sexy man doing?” Eva asked.
I think head hopping there is most “impactful” in describing Eva’s immediate concern about having to disclose she cheated with Sheena’s man.
I would appreciate any ideas on how else it could be accomplished.
Not a professional writer, no experience, someone who had never head-hopped even writing silly adventure stories in early teenage years (I don’t do that anymore) and always noticed and was kind of annoyed at head-hopping in romance novels (part of reason why I stopped reading them), even without knowing what POV is…
a) why do you even need to showcase her concern now? The reader knows about the adultery, right? Can’t they guess she’d be nervous? b) if you feel like showcasing it, a minor detail could do. Such as ‘Eva’s gaze darted away for a second’, or her laughter could be a little strained or high-pitched, or you could invent a nervous quirk just for her that she could maybe instinctively start doing and then catch herself.Of course you wouldn’t be outright stating it then, and Sheena will have at least a hint of what’s coming, but she’ll probably brush it off – and if you don’t want her to have a hint, then, once again, readers already know about the fling and are probably aware that Eva would be nervous.
Sorry if I’m annoying. Head-hopping is one of my pet peeves.
G. Robert Jones says
Certainly a good portion of writing is deciding when, how, and how much information is to be delivered at what point in a narrative. However, unlimited omniscient narration is as much a tool at the writer’s discretion as first, second, or third person limited. Of course, once chosen, consistency probably should reign (although Conrad appears to have gotten away with some inattentiveness).
Much the same as we all know, it is the writer’s decision to indicate a non-essential clause or phrase (by using or not using commas); it is his to decide whether or not his narrator discloses only one character’s state of mind at any given time. No point of view is right or wrong–only enjoyed or not enjoyed by the greatest number of readers.
Peter Griffiths says
Excellent point about whether it’s enjoyed or not! It’s the only valid point.
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.
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)
n arbic says
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
Nicole Collet says
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.
I totally agree — no cliches, very vivid supporting characters and, for me… Giddy-Up baby, Hippity HOP, like a Friggin Frog!!!
Richard Atwood says
Well, I did a dinner scene. In first person, main characters POV, regarding seven others. Occasionally, there was a mention of what the other person was thinking when talking, but the “first person” was cognizant of that, almost becoming the omniscient one, so I don’t feel I confused anyone. It was quite clear, I thought, if the narrator knew what the king was thinking… about perhaps taking the one woman in his arms, whether invited or not, because he knew the king’s undercurrent inclination, just from how he spoke. How can that be distracting? As long as one did not dwell on the king’s inner dialogue. So if it was about the bigger picture, it made sense.
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.
Debra L. Butterfield says
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.
Joyce Erfert says
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.
Barbara Blakey says
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.
Head-hopping always jars or stops me. Maybe if I read romance, I’d get used to it.
Martha Rogers says
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.
Susan Kinney says
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….
Donna Winters says
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.
Sunni Jeffers says
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.
I’ll leave it.
Connie Berry says
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.
Scott Miller says
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.
HJ Blenkinsop says
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!
I agree with you 100% If a certain style works, then it’s okay to use it! I believe that the true art is in how it’s done! It’s good to change things up a bit, as long as the reader enjoys the story!
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.
Scott Miller says
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.
Mark Hoult says
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.
Frank Miles says
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.
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.
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-
Excuse the tyops It’s harder to catch them on a phone.
Isabelle Rose says
This is really the greatest response to the topic I have read so far
Julie Sturgeon says
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.
Nicole Collet says
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.
Hendrik Boom says
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.
M Bates says
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.
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.
“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.
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! 🙂
Joseph Hefferon says
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
Jane Douglas says
You know what would be better? If the story is written in third person instead of first person. What I do is that I practice head hopping when I’m writing fanfiction. I make it a rule for myself to NEVER head hop when writing an original story. Sorry, but I can’t pull that off. I don’t have that kind of talent.
ark Conte says
I cane on this site because I have a friend who is just beginning to write and goes to a writers group. These are people who don’t really want to be a writer, they just wart the title and the right to act as professionals so they can give their ignorant advice to new members who is intimidated by these would be writers. They say they have been writing 20 years. It does not natter how long you have been writing. It only matter what you have published and how much you have published. If you are satisfied with pats on the back from a writers group, you will never be a real writer. They told my friend that she was head hopping and my friend was using a, omnificent POV. Wrong.
As for point of view, all my books are in the Omnificent POV. I am like God. I know everything about everyone. I know what an ant is thinking as he crosses the road. I can make an inanimate object animate (The sun struggled it way around tall grey buildings that made up the Cuban skyline.) Stop listening to other beginning writers. Take a course at a university , a good one whether it is night school, online or in college. It will do you good to get away from your chores for a while and learn to write the right way.
I have the same problem and it’s been causing me a lot of grief.
Where does one draw the line between the so-called head-hopping and an omniscient narrator who speaks of what characters may think or feel in the moment?
That’s even more confusing than the line between Third Person Limited with multiple POV and just Subjective Omniscient.
I realize this is a very old post, but hopefully someone can help me understand a crucial thing about my writing.
Where is the threshold of head-hopping?
Apart from the obvious, where the POV of view is always limited but shifts between characters, how do you define what is a “head-hop” and what is not? For example:
“The man shook his head and sighed in disapproval.”
This sentence references a non-POV character in the middle of dialogue. Do I have to point out that this is what the POV character assumes the other one feels, or is that already implied?
The thing is, I strongly lean to writing in Third Person Subjective Omniscient since my novels are as much about the characters’ internal struggles as they are about the events around them. Naturally, the most common critique I get is that I switch character POV too often when I never meant to use character POV in the first place.
Should I limit myself to writing in Third Person Limited (with multiple POV characters), or is there some trick to Subjective Omniscient I’m missing?
M W Taylor says
Yep, I have had the same problem with a writer’s group and head hopping. I have just self published my second novel (killing Time)… a crime mystery. It has to be in the third person – especially as the muderer… is nowhere near the protagonist when murdering.
But I want the thoughts and feelings of the murderer, and even the victims. So my method is a strong narrator, or, as agents keep asking for, a strong voice. A voice of God if you like. Someone or something that knows all the characters and describes the scene, but moves aside for the characters to inhabit the scene. It is still show not tell if done right.
But is this really head hopping If it is the narrator… erm, narrating? I guess the only test you need, is whether people get lost or not. This should be all that matters… well, and good storytelling! And that principle holds for every element of your story, and why honest beta readers are so important, as the author is too close to the source to know otherwise. Use a book group to get many points of view from people who don’t know you.
Donna L Arthur says
I am having the same questions in my own situation. I have written a murder mystery that I am told is excellent – except for the head hopping. I changed it to narrative, with the exception of the perp. Still rejected. Very frustrated.
Donna L Arthur says
I have written a murder mystery that was turned down because of head-hopping. After reading this blog and all of the conversations regarding it, I believe I understand why. However, I am using a narrative for all characters except the perpetrator. I am confused about why said perp should not have their own perspective in the story. It works for James Patterson, but apparently not for me. 🙁
Edward Eaton says
Like any writing, if head hopping is done well, it is acceptable; if it is not done well, it is lazy writing. I had never heard of head hopping until I started publishing. My editor kept on making me clean it up, telling me that it was forbidden (f course, I made the changes). FYI, I have extensive experience in literature–I have PhD in Theatrical History and Literature and have been a Professor of Literature. When we discuss narrative, we discuss many things, including POV. We never discuss head hopping. A number of my colleagues had never heard of it until I brought it up. Now that I ‘know’ it is ‘bad’, I see it all over the place. I am rereading Lonesome Dove at the moment. LM head hops five or six times a page. If some editor had told me this was bad writing, I never would have known Lonesome Dove was so flawed–regardless that it won a Pulitzer and is arguably one of the best American novels in the last hundred years (or ever). Tolkien does it. Homer does it. Technically, it is a thing, if only because it has been defined and can be identified. Artistically, it is something new that editors have decided is the way things should be done. When it is a problem is when the writing is bad. In those cases, cleaning up the head hopping won’t help. When the writing is good, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve been told I hop heads. I do switch POV in scenes with out skipping a line (inserting a blank line) as some authors do. I usually like to have a blunt transition that just happenes on the very next line as the action continues uninterrupted. However, I do like to insert cues so the reader won’t be like WTF is this mess?
Why do I do this? Because I have a 3D imagination. You know those 3D computer renderings of objects that you can turn in any direction and see all sides of as though it were real? That’s how I imagine everything. I can look at one side of an object and then imagine the other side as though I’m spinning it around in my head. I can take the room I’m sitting in and imagine an overhead bird’s eye view as though I’m leaving my body and floating above it…very unnerving when I do this, but it’s awesome. When I write I imagine the scene so realisticly that it’s in 3D. I spin the scene around and look at it from different angles to double check details to make sure they’d work in real life…nothing that bends the laws of space/time.
With that said: I hop heads as apart of my ability to freely move throughout a scene as though I was god himself…I’m not, let’s clarify that right now, lol Sometimes I’ll even address the reader and say, in one way or another, that they’re watching the character exit the apartment building (or whatever location) from across the street. I place the character in the scene as though they don’t exist, but they do, and are watching it (the scene) from where I tell them they are. At one point, in the novel I’m writing, I pause the action mid-scene (actually cue the reader to imagine the action has suddenly paused) and take the reader, as if floating overhead, from the hospital they’re in to the parkinglot of the hospital where the police are entering (action still paused and cued as such to the reader), then return the reader to where the action was paused in the hospital then resume the action (appropraitely cued) as though nothing happened. As far as the characters know, nothing did. It’s all in 3D. My biggest worry is that a person without a 3D imagination, which is most people, won’t be able to imagine the scenes well enough to be awed by them as much as I was when writing them…or as I would be reading them if they were written by a another author.
Most of the time in my novel you’re in the head of the main character (MC), but sometimes you’re in the head of the “love interest” or another character in the scene, but I always have a main POV character for each scene. You might hop heads to get a characters internal reaction to what the MC said, but if the MC is the POV character of that scene, once the action is finished you return top the MC. I do not switch POV characters and leave the reader hanging as though there is no main POV character for the scene. The scene is from a specific character’s POV and any head hopping is for the benefit of that POV.
I don’t look at it as head hopping in the traditional sense. I imagine my story as being told by a narrator who is separate from the story and you, the reader, are a person sitting and listening to the story the narrator is telling…maybe sitting in two opposite facing chairs in a room light and warm,ed by a fire place (intimate story time). The narrator, as a story teller can do whatever they want, they’re words. So the narrator does whatever he wants in order to make each scene fully well rounded, interesting, and worth listening to (reading). The story is set in our universe, but by the end of the story hopefully the reader will have gotten the idea that the universe we live in is far grander than our every day (limited) experience. The hand of fate is actually personified in one scene and then killed. God is mentioned as being existent in one form or another (never identified) and separate from the hand of fate. The relationship between the two is never discussed. Time stops, slows (slow motion), and space/time is refered to as “this” space and time or “his” space and time, as though space/time is subjective and only one part of the grand scale. Often I’ll have a character turn and stare directly into the face of a “bad guy” and just before the fear hits them and the scene takes off time freezes…tick…the scene explodes in action (or at whatever speed is appropraite for that scene). Head hopping is just one more thing to solidify the grand scale idea of the universe. At one point I have a car slam into a lightpole and when relating the wreckage I slow the scene (slow motion) so the reader can notice the overhead streetlight glimmering against the falling glass (from the wreckage). Then the scene resumes normal speed as the pooling automotive fluids are mentioned. Grand scale.
Head hopping can be very effective if done correctly and with respect to the reader. Don’t just play the “do whatever you want when ever you want…fuck you, I’m the writer” game or the reader won’t finish the book. You have to play the “I can do whatever I want, I’m the writer…but hey, we’re in this together, so don’t worry, I’ll take it as easy as I can” game…that one they will put up with.
Anyway, do whatever you want as a writer, so as long as you do it with respect to the reader. “With respect to the reader”…if everything is done with that genuinely in mind you can get away with alot more than otherwise.
I look at my book as the greatest movie ever made…the one you imagine in your head based on the words I’ve written.
If I could have made a movie instead of written a novel, I still would have written the novel. The biggest piece of the puzzle is the reader imagining everything…each with their own unique experience based on what they come up with. It’s a movie you imagine in your head. Each person’s is different, although it’s based on the same words.
It’s still a novel, written in prose, but it’s so grand in scope that it leaps off the page and becomes an experience that you’ve had…were immersed within…were apart of…and hopefully will have with you the rest of your life.
A.F. Lamonte says
In nearly every book I have ever read, including books that have very high ratings on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, I have seen head-hopping and rarely see complaints about it. I do it myself in my own manuscripts as well. I’ve never seen it as a problem, but I have had a few beta readers say that my head-hopping is annoying to them.
I think it just depends on the reader.
Edward Eaton says
I am fairly late to this conversation. I used to hear the phrase “head-hopping” from the editor, and I was told to stop it. I wanted the publisher to put my books out, so I did.
Then, I began seeing it everywhere. Dickens did it. JRRT did it. Hemingway did it. Clavell. King. Hugely important and famous writers doing it all the time.
I had never noticed it before. Now I cannot not notice it, it seems.
I think the concern over head-hopping must be fairly recent. I see it mostly in blogs and indie reviews where, it seems, the reviewer is trying to show off by using jargon to warrant their opinions (I feel much the same way when a film reviewer says that ‘the third act was too long’ or something like that). I would be surprised is a review in the NYT said anything about head-hopping.
Some of these ‘rules’ are influenced by academics, who study patterns and methodology. However, these patterns and methods (from as far back as Aristotle and stretch to Campbell and beyond) are intended to be descriptive. Many editors and publishers and indie reviewers deem them prescriptive.
This hearkens back, in my mind, to neo-classicism, which was all about the rules. Racine’s plays, which followed the rules, are filled with lovely poetry, but, by and large, they are not really good plays (I think Auden said something like this, but it could have been someone else). Shakespeare’s plays did not (and were not expected to), but they are Shakespeare’s plays).
I will continue to enjoy King and Clavell, for all their head-hopping. I will read JRRT again, ignoring it. They write well and tell captivating stories. That is what is important.
George Doctoroe says
Lots of interesting comments about ‘head hopping’ here. I would appreciate a couple of specific books where great authors like Hemingway or Clavell did it.
I’ve been writing first person and am just now switching over to an omniscient view in a new effort, so this discussion is helpful.
donna black says
Thank you, thank you. From the way I had heard it, head-hopping was a cardinal sin. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to get the important info of how both characters were interpreting the situation into the work without an awkward separation of a chapter for each one. I now feel free to head-hop a bit with proper queues to the reader. What a relief!
Amilcar Hernandez says
I feel better now. In the end, if the reader likes it who cares.
My current work uses first person POV for the three main characters. With that said, two other characters have had their scenes. I couldn’t avoid it. I avoid head hopping as a general rule because so many editors hate it. With that said, I’m here because I have a scene that needs quasi head hopping. I have a ghost and two telepathic characters whom I want in a simultaneous exchange of thought during a verbal conversation between the two telepaths and three non-telepaths. I hope that made sense. It’s complicated. Thing is, I don’t think it’s appropriate to have another scene between the ghost and telepaths to discuss their thoughts about the verbal conversation. I think far better while the actual conversation is ongoing. I gleaned enough here to convince myself to go for it. POV won’t be changing. It’s more about the fact I will be interjecting thoughts unaware by the POV. However, an astute reader will realize that in the end, the story was a collaborative effort of all the characters.
I am currently working on the edits on my debut novel and my editor just pointed out to me that I also do a lot of head hoping. However, when I originally did the first 3 rounds of edits on my own (with a writer friend) she said that it worked… I am now at a point where I don’t know what to do. I have always felt like it flows well. :S
Me = discouraged. :'(
Rosemary Brandis says
For the most part, I try to not headhop. But there comes a scene that two protagonists find out they are twins who weren’t raised together. Each girl has had their own POV chapters. Their initial encounter left them not trusting each other. I think readers would want to know the reaction of each girl. Each one has a totally different reaction. The scene would not have nearly the impact, only showing one reaction.
So with the proper preparation of the reader, and focusing only on one girl at a time, it think it appropriate.
The only other time is at the climax, when there are many revelations for the characters and there are six different people who are affected. How can one get away with only giving one person’s reaction. It is a family reunited. They all have a lot to lose.
I love head hopping omniscient narration. So long as the narrator keeps close to certain characters within a scene, it works.
If Dune was telling me about how relieved Jessuca was that her son Paul is still alive (first chapter), then told me his perspective, then jumped far, far away to another character not in the scene, who has nothing to do with that scene, it wouldn’t work.
But Frank Herbert does a good job of cluing you in when the perspective switches to another character.
I admit it gets overdone with the betrayal. In my opinion. But other than that… it was what that story required.
I’m writing a superhero team series where the heroes are powered by sentient-but-non-verbal crystals. The only way to “hear” what the crystals are “saying” is to get into the head of the person a particular crystal is bonded to. If the team’s having a discussion and the crystals are putting their two cents in, I HAVE to hop heads nearly as often as I change speakers.
And there’s times when one character isn’t available for the whole scene. I had a bit of fanfiction where a car get into a near accident. The passenger had been sleeping before it, so the scene had to start from the driver’s perspective, but I wanted the reader to experience the confusion of the rudely-awakened passenger. No way to do that without hopping heads mid-scene.
I don’t see it as all that different from the “shot reverse shot” in motion pictures; in shot reverse shot, the viewer can get clues about a character from their immediate environment, but it’s hard to write the difference between, say, a secretary’s personalized part of the office and a visitors’ waiting area, without waxing exposition, while shifting heads is as simple as shifting speakers.
Kussy Gonzalez says
Seems like writers will rip each other to shreds, whereas readers don’t even notice or are aware of any “rules”.
Peter Griffiths says
Is this head hoping?
After a short, noisy journey, the teenagers arrived at the imposing sight that was their school. Franciscan monks built it in the early nineteenth century, at the height of the Gothic Revival period. The school, set on the bosom of a hill, sat brooding with superiority over the Rural landscape in the small northern town of Bradstock in the county of Newshire.
Lucy entered the English classroom, greeted Miss Martin, and slumped into her seat next to her best friend, Fred.
‘What is it?’ Fred said when her eyes remained sullen for too long.
‘Nothing!’ Lucy snapped, clenched her teeth and turned to the tall, pointed-arched window.
Miss Martin’s small grey eyes glared at the teenager over half-moon reading glasses. ‘Quiet, Lucy!’
In her early forties, the school’s charismatic English teacher, Miss Martin, a short, compact woman of formidable intelligence, had long recognised the mark of genius on the forehead of Lucy’s petulant young face and took her under her wing.
Randy Ingermanson says
I don’t see any sign of actually entering the heads of any of the characters, so I wouldn’t call it head-hopping. Some would call this omniscient, and maybe that’s what it is, but it doesn’t really have any true viewpoint.