Have you ever read a paragraph or a page in a book that was so confusing it made your head spin? It’s possible that you were head-hopping while reading (without even knowing it!), which honestly, can feel a little bit like whiplash.
One moment you’re enjoying character A’s viewpoint, experiencing events and seeing the world through their perspective, and in the very next moment, you’re watching events through character B’s eyes and filters.
Some writers feel that head-hopping is a personal choice rather than an indication of their writing skill. But head-hopping can actually weaken your writing.
Emerging writers aren’t always clear about what head-hopping means, so I think it’s important that we clarify it. In this post, we will clear up the confusion around head-hopping and discuss why it should be avoided.
What is head-hopping?
Head-hopping is what happens to the reader when the writer suddenly changes from the viewpoint of one character to the viewpoint of another without good reason. I’ve underlined “suddenly” because it’s more than a simple change in viewpoint character. It’s when the change occurs mid-sentence or mid-paragraph or even mid-scene. It’s especially disorienting when it happens repeatedly within a scene.
Here’s an example of head-hopping from a course I took:
The figure stepped out of the shadows and pointed the gun directly at Seth’s chest. A jolt of adrenaline shot through Seth’s body. He froze. “Give me your wallet,” said Jackson. He pulled at the itchy scarf around his face, making sure his features were hidden. He didn’t want to do this, but he needed the money. Why did Sarah’s medicine have to be so damn expensive? Seth’s hand trembled as he reached for his wallet, his face flushing with shame and indignation. At the other end of the street, someone spotted the incident and hurried by, lowering their head. No need to get caught up in such things. — Sophie Playle, Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory
Can you see how this can be disorienting for the reader? If not, don’t worry. Let’s dig into this scene and do a little analysis.
We enter the scene from Seth’s point of view. It’s clear that Seth and Jackson don’t know each other because Seth views him as a “figure.” Then we learn the figure’s name (Jackson) and some of his thoughts before immediately switching back to Seth’s point of view. It’s unclear whose point of view the second to last sentence belongs to, but the final sentence feels like it can be from the person passing by.
What’s the problem here? Well, unless Seth is psychic, it’s not possible for him to know Jackson’s name or that Jackson is desperate and needs money to buy some expensive medication. Furthermore, it’s also not possible for either Seth or Jackson to know the thoughts of the person passing by at the other end of the street—if the final sentence is indeed that person’s thoughts. It’s hard to tell because the narrative has been jumping around.
Why head-hopping should be avoided
Head-hopping weakens the writing by abruptly pulling the reader from one orientation and thrusting them into another. This results in readers having to reread passages to work out whose point of view they are currently following. Head-hopping drags them out of the story, and they lose engagement.
Some writers feel that head-hopping isn’t that bad, and argue that readers are neither bothered by it nor do they notice it.
Personally, I disagree. As a reader, I have always noticed head-hopping, even before I became an editor. (It’s even more noticeable now!) Like many other readers, I also get caught up in a story quite quickly. So if I have to reread a passage to get my bearings, it’s noticeable to me. Whether or not I’m bothered by it depends on how often it’s occurring. This has led me to believe that all readers notice head-hopping on some level—even if it’s only subconsciously.
How to fix head-hopping
The first step in learning how to correct head-hopping is by studying the various types of POV and what makes them work when they’re well done. My coach has a saying: “Skills are career-long.” Writing is just that—a skill. There will always be room for improvement as you continue on your path as a writer.
Here are two things to remember:
Stay in one character’s head (or the narrator’s if using omniscient POV) per scene. Decide which character gets to portray a scene. This can be hard, but showing the thoughts and experiences of every character isn’t always the best option. Take time to think about who has the most at stake in the scene you’re writing. Consider that person as the viewpoint character for that scene. Use action and dialogue to portray the thoughts and emotions of the other characters. Readers are smart, and capable of working things out on their own. They don’t need to be in every character’s head to understand them or know what they are doing.
Consistency is key. If you find that you’re constantly referring to characters in different ways, that’s a good indication that you’re head-hopping because you’re probably re-framing characters from another character’s POV. Like “the figure” instead of “Jackson.”
Let’s go back to my course example from earlier. Here is the revised version, using Seth’s POV:
A figure stepped out of the shadows and pointed a gun directly at Seth’s chest. A jolt of adrenaline shot through his body. He froze. “Give me your wallet,” said the figure, pulling at the scarf around his face that concealed his features. Seth’s hand trembled as he reached for his wallet, his face flushing with shame and indignation. At the other end of the street, someone spotted the incident and hurried by, lowering their head, probably not wanting to get caught up in such things. — Sophie Playle, Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory
Can you see how this is much easier for the reader to follow using a consistent POV throughout the scene?
Writing a story without head-hopping can feel restrictive at first, but as mentioned previously, it’s a skill that can be learned. It can be challenging for sure (“how do I show that Jackson is desperate for money when the scene is from Seth’s point of view?”), but it can also make things more interesting for the reader, by allowing them to infer a character’s motivations. Writing a focused narrative creates the foundation for an amazing story—one that will keep readers engaged from the first page to the last.
What’s your POV?
I’d love to hear what you think! Drop a comment and let’s discuss.