Head Hopping: What it Looks Like and Why You Shouldn’t Do it

One of my favorite books I’ve ever edited was written by an author I got to work with on a series of four books. All four books were fun to read and edit, and I didn’t have a lot of major plot concerns. But even though it was good, there were still things to work on. This is proof that everyone needs editing.

One of the main things I worked with her on for book four was not “head hopping” (or, using multiple points of view* incorrectly).

*The phrase point of view from here on out will be shortened to POV. 

Employing multiple POVs in a story can add depth and conflict when done well. This technique is used by some of today’s best-selling authors, such as Francine Rivers (The Mark of the Lion series), George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones), and Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). There is an art to the technique, however, and many authors fail when it comes to the simplest essential of POV knowledge. 

Here it is in a nutshell: in every scene, you must stay with one point of view–one character. You might be switching throughout the book, but each scene should only be viewed from one character’s eyes. If you show more than one character’s POV in a given scene, you are guilty of head hopping, and your own head should be chopped off.

So what does head hopping look like? 

Every time you change POV, the reader is inserted inside another character’s head. The reader is able to see the scene through that character’s eyes and hear his or her thoughts.

Here’s an example: Stan watched Marsha pour herself a glass of water and thought, Man, she’s hot.

This line of narration is from Stan’s POV. Stan is the one watching Marsha; we’re seeing this through Stan’s eyes and hearing his thoughts.

Now, what if the line read like this:

Stan watched Marsha pour herself a glass of water and thought, Manshe’s hot 

I wonder if he notices me, Marsha thought as she peeked at him out of the corner of her eye.

Now you’ve got both Stan’s and Marsha’s thoughts at once. This is not only confusing but also takes away from the suspense of the scene. You want readers to attach to your story and your characters, but head hopping doesn’t allow this. When the reader isn’t attached, they have less character empathy and less involvement in the story. This leads to the reader not caring what happens to the characters, which leads to the reader putting the book down.

Obviously this is not something that you, as a writer, want.

So here’s what you need to do: 

If you choose to use what’s called omniscient third person and show multiple characters’ POVs, you should limit yourself to one character per scene. (Or chapter, depending on how well your scenes are broken up.)

And if you choose limited third personyou must stick with only your chosen character in every scene–that means your character should never know anything he or she hasn’t personally seen or heard about.

 

Unsure whether or not you’re head hopping?

Look at each individual scene through one character’s eyes. Is there anything your character didn’t see firsthand? Anything he or she didn’t hear firsthand? If so, those parts need to be cut or rewritten.

So that’s head hopping in a very small nutshell.

 

Do you agree that head hopping is confusing? Have you ever seen it done well?

 

*For more, check out these great articles:

Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited

Head Hopping and Hemingway

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7 thoughts on “Head Hopping: What it Looks Like and Why You Shouldn’t Do it

  1. Hmm. Interesting post. I think you’re right about head-hopping making things difficult. That’s probably what made Pride and Prejudice so difficult to read. Don’t get me wrong. I love that book, but there were moments when I would have to run back through it to see who what saying/thinking what… That seems to be fairly common among older authors. Gone With the Wind was bit like that at times, but that’s probably because those authors had to explain EVERYTHING because of the lack of visuals we have nowadays.

    • Ugh. I didn’t mean OUR lack of visuals. THEIR lack of visuals (like our TV and magazines) forced writers to have to explain everything in greater detail than we have to.

    • Another thing I’ve noticed about some of the older stories is wordiness. Sometimes a sentence will go on forever, at times even exceeding my own record for the longest sentence (I’ll save you the horror of how long that sentence was).
      I haven’t read ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I keep meaning to read Jane Austen, though. I have a habit of thinking, “I’d like to read so-and-so classic novel,” then forgetting about it when I have a chance to get the book. Some day…

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. POV switches are very noticeable to me (curse of my journalism fiction writing classes) and I will put a book down if POV switches within scenes. I actually think this is a result of poor writing rather than some specific choice or forethought by the author to do so. I realize this comment sounds a little vain….but you’ve touched on one of my biggest writing pet peeves. 🙂

  3. In some of the stories I’ve seen on Wattpad.com, the writer bounces around between POVs too much. Sometimes multiple POVs can enrich the story more than sticking with one POV, but there comes a point where you’re all over the place and the story seems disjointed.

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