Head Hopping – the Forbidden POV

Want to start a passionate debate? Just mention head hopping.

When I started writing, I bravely went to my first writing workshop. I was berated for head hopping between two characters in one scene. I was devastated. What had I done wrong? More importantly, why had I thought I could do this? I was too scared, too naive to defend the ‘rule’ I had broken.

But, what exactly, is head hopping?

It’s about using multiple points of view. It isn’t third person omniscient point of view (POV) where the omniscient narrator can peer into anyone’s head anytime. An omniscient narrator maintains a god-like distance, giving a more objective rather than a subjective telling. The story is told in the narrator’s voice who doesn’t word thoughts and feelings in the characters’ voices. It isn’t a story told in close third person which has multiple viewpoints where the view point changes only when scenes change. When this happens, the scene is written using that character’s voice.

Head Hopping occurs when the POV within a scene skips from one character to another within that scene. Unlike the omniscient narrator, the voice changes and is unique to each character. Let’s look at an example:

Stuart swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it then set it on the table. He loved Rothchild’s Merlot but it was impossible to enjoy when Carrie was in the midst of a mood. He’d have to settle the matter, then they could enjoy their evening.
“We don’t need a dog yet,” he said. Darned nuisance they are, always needing to be walked, he thought.
“But they’re so cute,” Carrie insisted. She was tired of going for walks alone when Stuart worked late at the office. A puppy would get her out of the house and she’d meet more people. “And don’t you want to be happy?”
The waiter hesitated before coming to the table. He hated serving arguing couples because they tended not to tip well.

Three heads in one scene. If you don’t mind head hopping, you’ll find the different points of view entertaining. If you don’t like it, you’d likely prefer a root canal.

Handled clumsily (as in this example), it looks like the Stuart is psychic, for how can he know what everyone else sees or thinks? That’s the main problem with it for the point of view character loses the ability to read the other character’s cues such as body language and actions.

Do we need to know what everyone thinks? If the information isn’t germane to moving the plot along, is it important? In the example, do we need to know what the waiter thinks? It may be important if it compels Stuart to react in the moment, but how can Stuart react when he hasn’t been allowed to see the waiter’s reaction? Here’s a version staying in Stuart’s point of view:

Stuart swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed it then set it on the table. He loved Rothchild’s Merlot but it was impossible to enjoy when Carrie was in a mood. He’d have to settle the matter and then they could enjoy their evening.
“We don’t need a dog yet Carrie,” he said. “Maybe later?” He glanced toward the waiter and caught his eye. Maybe Carrie would be more reasonable once they ordered.
“But they’re so cute,” Carrie insisted.
Stuart shook his head, saw the waiter hesitate and glared at him. What was it with this fellow? The waiter hurried to the table with a cheat sheet in hand while fumbling for the pen in his pocket.
“What would you like, sir?” he asked.
“Ladies first,” Stuart snapped.
Carrie’s eyes danced and before she looked to her menu, a slight grin appeared. Why did she find shoddy service so amusing? Stuart tapped his fingers on the white linen signaling for her to order.
“Oh yes,” Carrie ran her finger down the page of entrees while Stuart drummed his fingers into the table. The waiter’s eyes darted to Stuart and back to Carrie. “The Chicken Kiev,” she finally said.
The waiter’s Adam’s apple bobbed, sweat formed on his brow. “We’re out of that,” he squeaked.
Stuart’s fingers drummed louder.
“Chicken Marsala?”
“I’m afraid–”
Stuart snorted. “What kind of a place is this if you can’t give a lady what she wants?”
“I want a puppy.”
The spilled Merlot was a sea of red flowing toward Carrie.

By choosing not to head hop, I found the scene easier to write, to escalate tension using the simple formula of action-reaction-action. This is the key difference: head hopping doesn’t allow a reader to get fully submerged in the story. By and large, stories with head hopping tend to feel more shallow because the author can’t go deep into any character’s head beyond a thought about something. Yet, the technique is used and very successfully by a few authors such as MC Beaton, Nora Roberts, Alexander McCall Smith and others. Sometimes we don’t want to be or need to be fully submerged in a point of view. Sometimes, we just want the story told, the clues laid out, to know the entire landscape without feeling the grass tickle our toes.

Those who love head hopping know to expect it. If you chose to write this way, ask yourself if you can build a following who will love and expect it. If it works for you – do it! But do it well or you’ll be dismissed as an amateur who doesn’t know the craft.

Doing it well means making sure that the signals as to whose head we’re in are clear, that the emotional experience for the reader is retained as is suspension of disbelief. If the reader is jarred out of the story and forced to reread to get their bearings, the writing has failed. Drama and tension must continue to build. Provide seamless transitions and ensure the head hopping moves the scene along.

As it turns out, I’m not a head hopping writer and it isn’t employed in the YA fantasy writing I do. But I read a lot of mystery and when I find it, I’m willing to head hop for the sake of the story. It’s fun, amusing and even an easy read when done well. It’s a cinematic way of telling a story where I don’t need to or even want to get deeply involved with the characters. I enjoy the clues and the bird’s eye view while the sleuth solves the mystery.

7 responses on “Head Hopping – the Forbidden POV

  1. Terry Odell

    I write Deep POV, and usually have 2 POV characters in my romantic suspense stories, per the genre’s expectations. But nothing pulls me out of a story faster than head hopping. Maybe I’m sensitive because I was clueless about POV when I started writing, and it was the first thing my mentor pointed out. Heck, I don’t even like it when an author has to include a new POV character for one scene. There’s got to be a better way to get that information across. I want to be grounded in a character’s head. As long as an author can do that, and make the transitions seamless, I’m OK with doing it at scene breaks, chapter breaks, or even within a scene.

    And, I think a lot depends on the genre. In my mysteries, I’ve come to sticking with a single point of view character. If I wrote suspense or thrillers, it would be a different approach, because then you want your reader to know about the impending “doom.”

  2. Ace Jordyn Post author

    I agree with you Terry that it’s preferable to be grounded in a character’s head. Not only can we engage with the POV and immerse ourselves in their world, it’s much easier to add in those intriguing subplots and to raise the stakes. Although I’m willing to read stories which head hop, I have to make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief, almost forcing myself to accept the style. I’m currently reading a historical mystery which head hops so badly and frequently that I can’t get past the first chapter. And therein lies the danger – it is a device which can be so easily misused (no wonder editors hate it) and there are other ways to get the information to the reader without having an intrusive narrator lecturing. I keep wondering how and why this author sells and I think it’s because she has a well-established fan base who find her characters and their situations amusing.

    The suspense and thriller novels I read are told in close third person and use chapter breaks to get into the antagonist’s or another POV to let the reader know about the impending doom and for us to see just how far the antagonist is willing to go. So, unless someone has a really good reason to use it, is aware of how they’re using it, and knows their market well, I wouldn’t recommend it. Is there anyone who teaches how to head hop effectively?

  3. Terry Odell

    @Ace Jordyn
    Suzanne Brockmann wrote a pamphlet called “Going Deep With POV” where she demonstrated how to slide from one POV character to another, but I would never call it ‘head hopping.’ To me, head hopping is too hard to follow. Nora Roberts is accused of doing it, but if you look closely, her POV is more omniscient.
    That being said, your average reader (including myself until I started writing) probably has no clue about POV and accepts it. However, it’s also likely that they won’t enjoy the book as much even though they won’t be able to verbalize why.
    And, if anyone’s interested, Brockmann’s pamphlet can be downloaded as a PDF. Be aware that the original was a ‘two sided’ publication, so the POV section began by flipping the booklet over. In this PDF, you have to jump to page 50 for her POV article.

  4. Anna Bortolotto

    Great article Ace. You hit the nail with saying it is controversal, (mind you, in writing, what isn’t?) and I recently engaged in just such a discussion. I agree that it really is very dependant on the skill of the writer. One writer in the Fantasy genre that does this successfully is Terry Pratchet, and he is a hugely successful writer. I am a big fan of his humourous writing style. And he “head-hops” frequently, sometimes several times on the same page. But he does it with skill. I began reading his books before I learned much about writing and his POV shifts never bothered me, they were invisible to me. It wasn’t until I grew to know the “rules” about POV that I noticed what he was doing. At first, I didn’t know what to think–even knowing the axiom that you can break any writing rules so long as you do with for a conscious purpose and relevantent intentions and you do it well.
    So, as a reader, I didn’t care.
    As a writer, it become a matter for thought and examination.
    My conclusion is something you alluded to in this article: generally, humor this is a “surface” milleoux. Generally humour doesn’t go deep, we are there for funny, not deep drama. Yes in Terry’s case, for a large portion of his novels, the multiple POVs shifts keep it light. But, we do get to care about these characters, we get to know them, and want to take the ride with them to see where the story goes. And despite the shallower seeming, quick fun reading and funny characterizations, there are deeper, darker themes being explored. There are profound messages and fruit for thought woven into the writing, these novels are a reflection of the human condition. These are all things great writing needs to accomplish, and in some ways are the domain of “funny”–ask any comedienne, humour comes from firing snippets of our shared human experience in surprising, new and unexpected ways. And yet, Terry accomplishes this. How? By delving into the hearts and minds of his characters with carefully selected snippets, that though he does not dedicate consistant, contiguous page time to anyone of the characters very often, he doesn’t need to. Generally, humour is light, not heavy, but I ready mentioned he reflects the human condition, so as in life, there are dark moments. How? Light doesn’t mean it is shallow just because we think “light” isn’t deep. No, he goes deep in the right places, at the “worst” or “significant” moment (or that relates directly with those moments) for that character (whether that character realizes it yet or not), and because the deep it is different from the rest, it is unexpected for the reader (even subconsciouly to “uninformed” readers) that is signals something is coming, and it shocks you deeply, you really feel what that character feels. Terry writes humour, yet some of the most heartfelt tears I have shed as a reader were on the pages of his books.
    To sum up my point: as per the article and comments above, multiple, “head-hopping” POV shifts are shallow on a page by page basis. But it can be a fantastic tool when used for impact when we do go deep into a particular character’s significant moments. The reason I think this is that this contrast is just another level of skill, another signal/indicator to the reader that something important and significant and “deeper” is going on and we feel it.
    In his case, he has the skill to accomplish this without us consciously noticing. He does the multiple POV shifts with such skill that I VERY rarely am uncertain whose head I am in. He uses it for impact.
    Just another example of that axiom: you can break any writing rule, so long as you do it for an intended and relevant purpose and you do it well.
    Thank you for the additional food for thought!

  5. RD Meyer

    Some say that head hopping eliminates tension. I feel that done correctly, it can increase it by making the reader wonder if those involved will ever understand each other, as well as drive us to our own conclusions about the confusion in their conflicting actions.

  6. Ace Jordyn

    Very true RD. It can easily reveal intention, understanding and miscommunication. That can be very compelling to readers because the dynamics play out right before you. It’s intriguing too because we then know what the other characters don’t and the possible scenarios we envision also creates tension. Head hopping can be a dynamic device for tension and should be used for that purpose.

  7. Ace Jordyn

    @Anna Bortolotto

    Thanks Anna for your great thoughts on the matter. Yes, Terry Pratchet is a master and is definitely worth reading.

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