Have you ever come across head-hopping while reading a novel? Maybe you’ve found it in your own writing, as well. While some writers can make it work to their advantage, most people will agree that head-hopping is bad.
New writers – and sometimes even seasoned writers – can find it hard to identify head-hopping in certain cases. Those who write using the omniscient point of view may find it particularly difficult.
Let’s take a look at why it’s bad and how it’s different from the omniscient perspective.
What is head-hopping?
Head-hopping occurs when the narrative switches between characters without warning. When writers want to share the perspective of two or more characters, the most common way to make that change is to signal it by ending a scene or a chapter in one POV and beginning a new one in another POV.
Some writers change perspective in the same paragraph:
“He rushed into the office and set down his things. He couldn’t be late again. If only he could get his car fixed. One of his teammates was in the corner. She choked back a laugh while he set up his station. God, what was he wearing? He looked like he’d gone through a hurricane.”
The first three sentences are in his point of view. Sentences 2 and 3 are his specific thoughts (third person limited). The last four sentences are in his teammate’s point of view. He wouldn’t have known what she was thinking. He might not have known she was laughing, either. He would have only heard a choke, or nothing at all, since he was busy getting ready for work.
Others change it in the same sentence:
“Audrey made a face, wondering how he could eat that, but Charlie didn’t care what she thought and kept shoveling the horrific combination into his mouth.
The sentence starts in Audrey’s point of view, then switches to Charlie’s. It ends in Audrey’s voice again. Charlie wouldn’t think the combination of food was “horrific,” but Audrey would since she made a face.
Often, someone tries to create an omniscient POV. But instead of writing in the omniscient, they are combining several third person limited POVs. When this happens the narrative voice is replaced with multiple voices at the same time.
The omniscient point of view is when a story is told through an all-seeing narrator. They know what is happening at all times and what all the characters are thinking. They can show the reader anything they want them to see. With that said, the narrator should only show characters’ thoughts when they need the reader to know them in order to understand what’s going on. They cannot word thoughts and feelings in the characters’ voices. (“He did this. She did that. While she did that, she was thinking this.”).
“He rushed into the office and set down his things. This was the third time his car troubles had made him late. From the corner, one of his teammates saw him enter and covered her mouth, choking back a laugh. He jumped, only just noticing her there, and rushed over to help. She waved him off, wiping the smile off her face.”
For a more detailed look at omniscient POV, check out this article.
Why it’s bad
Imagine you’re at a football match. You are seated in the stands, surrounded by others supporting the same team. The guy next to you has a beard. The girl in front of you is waving a sign. You blink and you’re teleported to somewhere lower down on the stands, closer to the field. Two kids are fighting over a phone to your left, and someone is squeezing past you with a tray full of snacks to your right. Blink, and you’re teleported again. It takes you a minute to realize you’re on the other side of the stadium – in the stands for the opposing team. People are shouting celebrations and you’re not sure if you’re supposed to cheer along or not because you can’t figure out where you are yet.
In this scenario, you are constantly reevaluating your situation. How high in the stands you are, your view of the field, what the people around you look like, what team they’re routing for. You have no time to actually watch the match, which is the whole purpose of being there.
Head-hopping is forcing a reader to teleport from character to character, each with their own arcs and side plots. They spend so much time trying to figure out where they are, how they’re supposed to feel about that position, and what’s going on that they can’t enjoy the main plot.
In summary, perspective is the lens through which readers situate themselves within a novel. It is how a reader contextualizes their experience inside a novel.
Writers work hard to form a connection with a reader. They do this by creating realistic and sympathetic characters and placing them in situations with high stakes. Readers become invested in the characters’ world, their thoughts and feelings. Changing POV too frequently and without a clear signal is jarring. It severs the reader-writer connection by forcing the reader to reread the same line or paragraph multiple times in order to find a sense of place.
Tips for avoiding head-hopping
When writing in third person limited, stay true to the character you are writing about. Make sure their voice is consistent, their thoughts and opinions on things are subjective, and their feelings match their personality. Refer to other characters only through their perspective – what the anchor character can infer about them through actions they noticed or conversations they’ve had.
When writing in third person omniscient, keep in mind that the narrative here is more objective – instead of intimate thoughts and feelings, the reader encounters facts and observations about the characters.
To stay at a distance, try not to write line-by-line in each head. Each time you want to visit a character and their thoughts, take time to reset the scene. This allows the reader to make the transition with you without feeling jarred. Describe the setting first, then the character, then their thoughts.
Ask yourself, “Am I changing voices when I talk about each character?” If you are, you’re viewing the others from different character perspectives at a time, which is head-hopping.
Try to refer to the characters consistently. To do this, take some time to build a character for your nameless narrator. Even if they’re not a character in the story, they have a perspective of their own – opinions, a personality, a distant relationship with the characters.
Remember that this narrator is the reader’s guide through your story. If you are tapping into a character’s thoughts, it must be for a purpose. What do you want the reader to know through them? How does this help the story progress? Ask yourself, “Would a camera be able to pick up on this?” If so, looking into their thoughts might not be necessary.
What to do if your writing has head-hopping
If you look through your own writing and find head-hopping, don’t worry. Identify the perspective you want to be in and the perspective you’re actually in. Then, use the tips discussed here to problem solve ways to rewrite your scene back on target.