Why Head-Hopping Ruins Your Writing

Nope, head-hopping isn’t some weird musical mash-up of rap and Sixties acid-rock. It is, as you already know, the practice of jumping from one character’s point-of-view to another, usually in the middle of a scene — but I’ve come across it in the middle of a paragraph, and even in the middle of a sentence.

It’s almost universally abhorred by agents and publishers, but we’re all guilty of it occasionally, especially in early drafts. I’m very prone to it when I get carried away with a big dramatic scene and I want to tell all the details at once. I sometimes hop from head to head so often it’s a wonder I can remember who I am, never mind who my characters are. It’s just as well we can always fix it later.

It’s all about consistency

Essentially, the problem boils down to inconsistent storytelling. In commercial fiction, the story is king and if your grasp of story mechanics is in any way lacking, you’re going to get a hard time from publishing professionals. Your story needs a consistent perspective to hold it together and while that doesn’t mean you must tell it from only one point-of-view (POV), it does mean that you must tell it from one point-of- view at a time.

When POV isn’t clear — which is what happens when you jump between characters — one of the following will almost certainly follow.

Reader identification will be disrupted

Reader engagement is a precarious business at the best of times. It takes a lot of hard work by the writer and a lot of trust by the reader to meet in the middle. Readers invest a good deal of time and emotional energy in making an emotional connection with a well-drawn character, but when that connection is unexpectedly broken (as happens with a sudden jump into a different character’s perspective) that connection is lost. It’s jarring and unpleasant. And if it happens often enough, it leads to a dizzying, disorientating experience. Think of it as a movie, where the camera cuts to random characters even as other characters are speaking, so eventually you don’t know who’s saying what to whom.

Readers will become confused

When you’re constantly shifting viewpoints, it makes your story very difficult to follow…especially if your plot is already complex. A jump to another viewpoint in the middle of the action can be disconcertingly abrupt. The problem is exacerbated if you don’t use character names — he or she doesn’t clarify anything, and the reader is apt to think that the new POV character is still the previous POV character. That way lies confusion, madness, and ultimately the implosion of the entire universe. Well, maybe not that last one.

Your writing will appear lazy

Make no mistake, head-hopping is a lazy way of exploring the various facets of your plot. And your reader will notice your laziness. It can be difficult to tell the story you want to tell from a single perspective, but that’s no excuse for not trying to do so. If the reader thinks your writing is lazy, they’re going to ask themselves why they should engage with your story when you clearly haven’t. Don’t let them think that about you. I know you’re not lazy. So don’t make it look as if you are.

The thing is, many readers won’t even notice head-hopping, at least consciously. They might if it’s a real howler, but it’s much more likely that they’ll simply feel something is “off.” They’ll find themselves thrown out of the story, even if they’re not exactly sure why.

Focus on one character at a time

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (from the first draft of my short story “Silent Call”):

“What were you doing outside the hospital last night?” Jackie said. She’d seen Viv outside from the ward window, before a patient had sounded a buzzer and Jackie had needed to attend to him.
Viv turned away from the toaster and stared across the breakfast bar at Jackie. “What?”
Jackie took a bite of toast. “Last night,” she said. “Around ten? I saw you standing by the gates. I waved.”
“I wasn’t out by the hospital last night,” Viv said. She’d been alone at home, of course. Just like every night. Jackie was always saying things like this. Viv sometimes thought she did it deliberately, just to get a rise.
Jackie laughed, before taking another bite. She hadn’t been mistaken and she couldn’t resist baiting Viv further. “Of course you were! I saw you.”
“It wasn’t me!” Viv said and snatched her toast from the toaster as it leaped free. “I was here all night.” She suddenly felt like she was being interrogated.
“Whoa, take it easy,” Jackie said. “I guess you’ve got a double. No big deal.”

Confusing, right? It’s not clear which character’s eyes we’re seeing this through. Consequently, it’s hard to identify with either of them and the modest “mystery” of the night visitor becomes less significant than figuring out who we’re supposed to be rooting for.

If we remove the head-hopping and render all this in a tightly-focused, consistent POV, it becomes much clearer — and much easier to know who we’re siding with. This is from the final, published draft:

“What were you doing outside the hospital last night?” Jackie said.
Viv turned away from the toaster and stared across the breakfast bar. What was this, another interrogation? “What?” she said finally.
Jackie took a bite of toast. “Last night,” she said. “Around ten? I saw you standing by the gates. I waved.”
“I wasn’t out by the hospital last night,” Viv said. She’d been alone at home, of course. Just like every other night. Jackie was always saying things like this. Viv sometimes thought she did it deliberately, just to get a rise.
“Of course you were. I saw you.” She smiled slyly and took another bite.
“It wasn’t me!” Viv said and snatched her toast from the toaster as it leaped free. She was sick of Jackie’s insinuations. “I was here all night.”
“Whoa, take it easy,” Jackie said. “I guess you’ve got a double. No big deal.”

By removing Jackie’s thoughts, we distance her from the reader — but that focuses attention on Viv, whose viewpoint dominates the scene. It’s much clearer and there’s more scope for reader identification.

Tactics to eliminate the problem

Don’t worry about head-hopping when you’re writing a first draft (or even a second or third). Focus on it when you come to edit, because that’s when you can most easily fix it. If you read your work closely (preferably out loud) you’ll notice when the perspective shifts and you accidentally slip into someone else’s viewpoint.

Try these techniques to eliminate the problem.

Use section breaks or new chapters to switch POV

Sometimes, a story needs multiple POVs to be properly told. If you’re certain your story does, there’s no reason not to switch between your various characters, but do so judiciously. Don’t hop into another character’s head in the middle of a scene when you’ve already established a point-of-view. Wait for a section or scene break, or better yet, wait for a new chapter. It’s much less confusing to readers and they’ll be more forgiving if you introduce a new character’s POV in a new chapter.

Ensure consistency of voice for each POV

When you do switch POVs, maintain consistency of voice and viewpoint. Every character in your story should be distinctive and different from all the others, so their opinions, outlooks, and ways of thinking will differ too. Don’t allow all your POVs to sound the same. You need to know your characters very well indeed to do this effectively, so make sure you’ve got a handle on what makes them tick — bios, backstories, and all the other things you gather to bring your characters to life. In this respect, managing POV is about managing characters.

Hold some information back

However great the temptation, you don’t need to show what everyone is thinking in any given scene. Indeed, sometimes drama and tension are increased enormously when we’re not sure of a character’s true thoughts and motivations. In the example above, Viv believes that Jackie is deliberately baiting her, but we don’t know for sure, because we don’t know what she’s thinking. That creates tension. The only clue we have is Jackie’s sly smile, which may be a giveaway or may just be paranoia…after all, we’re seeing things only through Viv’s eyes, and she may be an unreliable narrator. We can use dialogue and physical actions to give a glimpse of a non-POV character’s thoughts — but we can also use them to confuse or confound a reader’s expectations and thus ratchet up the drama and tension.

Keep your characters close to you

In your early drafts, head-hopping is not a fatal condition. It won’t kill your book if you catch it before you release your words into the wild. All that’s needed is a little bit of thought and a sharp eye to look out for it.

As writers, we’re fascinated by people, so it’s no surprise that we sometimes get carried away and try to cram everybody’s thoughts into a single scene. But there’s always time and space to do that one character at a time, if we need to. And sometimes, keeping a little something back, hidden from both reader and narrator, can reap benefits in terms of intrigue.

You need to get as close to your characters as you possibly can to make their internal world real and involving. You need to know them as well — or better — than yourself. But, just as in real life, when you want them to share your life completely and wholly with you, try to invite them in one by one.

And — also like real life — never, ever swap between them at the drop of a hat. Because that’s just asking for trouble.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *