What is head hopping ?
Whose Head Am I In? Head Hopping and other annoying habits. We’ve all done it. You know what I mean. We look for the easiest way to tell the story, whether it’s changing the punctuation to make it read better or doing an info dump using another character to share the info. BUT the worst culprit, especially for newbie authors and a few seasoned ones too, is head hopping.
What do I mean by head hopping? In one paragraph we’re in one character’s head, in another paragraph a second character’s and in a third paragraph still another character. Sometimes there’s not even a paragraph change but two conflicting points of view in one paragraph. It’s confusing and exhausting for the reader.
I recently read a book and within the first twenty pages there were a dozen points of view. Why is this a problem? Can we not tell a story in multiple points of view? While many stories are told from more than one character’s point of view or POV, there are ways to do it and still establish intimacy with the reader. One way is scene breaks or chapter breaks: establish who is talking or thinking by anchoring the reader in the beginning of the scene or chapter. Keep the reader in that character’s thoughts and reactions, think of it as seeing the story through colored glasses. If you are in character A’s POV everything is blue but if you switch to character C, then everything might look pink. I like to compare this to method acting, you get into the character’s skin and become the character, viewing the world and reacting to everything according to that person’s beliefs and backstory.
First, not everyone needs a point of view. Not every character is important enough to have a “separate” voice or lens. When you give a character POV, you allow the reader to see things through their eyes. We get a glimpse into their world and for a short time, we live inside the character. Bopping around from one character to another is like playing musical chairs, you don’t know which seat feels comfortable because you’re not there long enough to get to know it.
If you have a main or dominant character, even if you allow other characters to have a POV, it is important to establish this dominant character early on. Whose eyes do you want the reader to view the story through? Who do you want us to relate to? Who has the most to lose? In my recent story, Willow’s Retreat one of the reviews mentioned that my extra POV with a third character, Rider, Willow and John’s son wasn’t necessary. I added it because in this series I have three POVs, it’s just the way I’ve done things to allow another twist in the family stories, but I also wanted to establish the importance of Rider and his role in the changes that needed to be made before all was lost. Could I have written the story with just Willow and John’s POV, yes, but I wanted that extra layer. I could have also done it from Willow’s point of view alone, giving the reader only her side of things but as it is a romance, I like to have both partners’ POVs to show more of the conflict between what they are thinking and what they are doing.
In the story I’m reading, the extra POVs are there only to establish who these other characters are or to give an info dump into the main character’s back story. How could this be done differently without using all of these other characters’ thoughts? How about have the main character view them and expound on what he knows about them, since he is their instructor. His observations, comments — even to himself, and reactions tell more about him and it teases the reader instead of deluging them with all the information at once.
Example: Sally saw Dr. Rider watching her and smiled. It’s showtime. If he was like most men, she could use his interest to help her further her career. Men were nothing but pawns to be used. At least he was handsome, not like the last professor, but she’d heard he was gay. Too bad, what a waste of a hot man. She slipped another button open on her blouse, wondering if she could change his mind. Either way, she’d find a way to use him to make her life easier.
If Dr. Rider is the POV character lets view this same incident though his eyes.
Rider studied the seating chart and came across the student’s name, Sally Jenkins. He knew that name. Her test scores were great but there was something about her attitude that bothered him. He glanced up, catching her eye. She smiled, her tongue darting out to touch her eyetooth. Touching her throat with her polished nail, an infraction he’d repeatedly told her about, she stroked her hand slowly down her chest. His eyes followed her hand to the button of her blouse. Heat burned his cheeks as she undid the button, he remembered the claim against one of the other professors and looked away. Maybe he should ask Lawton to stop by the school, but he would definitely not let himself be caught alone with the woman. Yep, this is going to be a fun class.
Both of these convey the same information. The first gives us more insight into Sally but nothing much about Rider other than he’s good looking and gay. But Sally isn’t an important character. The only thing the reader needs to know about her is Rider’s reaction to her. Rider is the main character and his POV is the only one that matters. When we shift the viewpoint to him, we get more insight into his thoughts. No, we didn’t learn he was gay or good looking, but we did learn that he was observant, cautious and smart. While the first one might be more fun to write because she is definitely a character, if she is not an important character then we don’t need her point of view.
Now, if she is the villain or antagonist in this piece, having her point of view might be just what you want to do to give the reader more insight into what she’s got planned.
Second, it is important in each scene, to choose a point of view character who has the most to lose or reveal. Every scene should tell a short story. It should have a purpose. You can have more than one person’s point of view in a scene but there needs to be a break to allow the reader to see there’s a change. Having characters with conflicting agendas whose verbal dialogue says one thing but their body’s reactions and/or internal dialogue says something else adds another layer to the story. It also allows the reader insight into the characters true thoughts and feelings, motives, etc. that the other characters may not have. It’s like watching a scary movie when you know the monster is hiding under the bed but everyone else is worried about what’s in the closet.
Point of View is a tool, and like anything else it takes time to learn to use it well. For beginning writers, I suggest keeping it simple. Choose your main character and whether you want to write their story in first person past or present, third person past, present or future tense, I have seen stories done in second person but that takes more thought than I can put my mind around so you’re on your own on that one. Most common are first person or third, past or present tense. Each have their draw backs.
Remember: first person is I, my, mine, me…third person is he/she/they, him/her/them, his/hers/theirs. If you are writing in first person present tense your character only knows what is happening to them right now (or what has happened in the past. That is usually used in flashbacks.) They don’t know anything else but what’s in front of them. Everything is immediate. Right now. This is used in many modern stories such as YA contemporary fiction, science fiction or fantasy. I have seen it used in rom-com and suspense thrillers, also.
Third person used to be the most common, but I believe they are more evenly split now. Third person allows some distance both in emotion and in immediacy. In romance, especially historical romance, many authors write in third person close, meaning, they still know what their character is thinking and feeling but like the lens of a camera they can zoom in close for emotional stuff or pan out to get a larger view.
I know some authors who write their main characters in first person and their other characters in third. That takes talent to do well and would probably make me a little crazier than I already am.
For more information about POVs, how to write them and their importance, I’ve listed some links below.
Happy Writing, y’all.
2 thoughts on “Whose Head Am I In?”
What a comprehensive post! Head hopping is pretty annoying indeed, but some people like Frank Herbert in Dune did it super well. Anyway, thanks for this post!
Nora Roberts also does it well, like any other rule, they are made to be broken and some are masters but most of us are not.
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