Thursday, April 19, 2012

CRAFT CORNER: Hopping 'Round Those Heads!

by Isabo Kelly

You’ve heard it before—avoid “head hopping” at all costs! But what is it and why should you not do it?

First, it’s important to distinguish between “head hopping” and point of view shifts. Romance stories are frequently told through the eyes of at least two characters, hero and heroine, so the admonition to avoid head hopping is not a call to stick to only one character’s point of view throughout a story. It’s an appeal to control the use of those POVs.

A point of view shift is when the author moves from one POV character’s perspective to another’s with the change usually indicated by a line, scene or chapter break. Each character should have their own tone and voice, so each scene shown from their POV should feel distinct and specific to the character.

Head hopping, on the other hand, is jumping around from one character’s thoughts to the next not only within the same scene, or paragraph to paragraph, but sometimes even within a paragraph. Thoughts of all characters, including minor walk-on characters, often slip into the narration and readers get dizzy.

Jumping around from one POV to another and sometimes not even being in a character’s thoughts does happen validly in third person omniscient. But this type of storytelling is not seen much in commercial fiction. Modern readers like to get into the head of one character at a time and really experience the story through that character. When the term head hopping is used in craft discussions, we’re talking about stories that are supposed to be written in close third person limited, stories where readers are expecting to experience the events of the novel through a particular character’s thoughts and feelings.

Though considered a pet peeve by many, head hopping is still frequently seen in published works. Why? Because the truth is, if an author can carry it off successfully with skill and purpose, agents, editors and readers will accept it. The problem is most authors can’t carry it off, and that indicates to agents and editors a lack of control of authorial voice by the writer.

There are a lot of drawbacks to head hopping as well. Sudden shifts can pull readers out of the story as they try to figure out who’s doing the thinking. Suspense and tension is dissipated because the reader sees into all the characters heads at once, leaving nothing to figure out and therefore no reason to continue reading. Again, each character’s voice should actually be distinct within a novel, so shifting randomly back and forth between those varying tones is jarring. And in the publishing world, there are purists who will reject you outright for committing this “sin”. Unless you have a very good reason for using it, it’s to your benefit to simply avoid the habit.

Here’s an example of head hopping:

“Janet could not believe Harry claimed to hate dogs? Who didn’t like dogs? What a rotten way to start the date. Harry loved dogs, but there was no way he’d admit as much to Janet. Her ex-husband had hated dogs and he’d been the worst possible excuse for a man she’d ever come across. She had been acting like a bitch from the moment he knocked on her door. He wanted a way out of this damned fixed up date.

“Janet swallowed as she tried not to hear his slurping, loutish eating. Her abusive husband had those same habits. Why would Sam even think this man was right for her? He ignored a big glop of food at the corner of his mouth. Harry laughed inwardly as he watched Janet stare at the food on his face. That aught to get this stuck-up fashionista out of his life and there was no way Sam could blame him for it. She forced a smile, trying not to show her disgust. Wipe that mess off, she thought as panic set it.”

Confused yet? Okay, so this isn’t a great scene but as an example, you can see how this is disorienting and there’s no suspense. Sticking to either character’s POV will not only fix the dizziness for readers, it will add to the tension of the scene. If we’re in Janet’s POV, we won’t know that Harry is doing this on purpose and may actually think he’s a dog-hating slob. If we’re in Harry’s POV, we won’t realize that Janet’s false smiles and disgust are driven by something deeper. Additionally, Harry’s voice is different to Janet’s. Hers is tinged with rising panic and his with irritation. But mixing those all up in the same paragraph means we don’t get a good sense of either character. That’s a big problem with head hopping. It can lead to distancing from your important characters. What if I’d thrown in the thoughts of a random customer sitting at a nearby table watching the fashonista and the slop? Not only would that throw the reader completely out of the scene but it would keep us from really getting inside the heads of our main characters.

Head hopping is considered a great craft sin by some, by others it’s only a minor annoyance or not even noticed at all. But agents and editors do take note of it in books they’re considering. Editing it out can often be difficult to impossible, and if it’s not working, if it’s done because the author didn’t have the control to stick to a single perspective, it’s an easy reason to reject a manuscript. Mastering the technique of shifting POVs carefully and skillfully while avoiding head hopping ensures readers lose themselves in your fiction rather than just losing interest and putting your book down. ♥

Isabo Kelly has spent many years trying to weed excessive description out of her fiction. Sometimes, she even succeeds. Sometimes, she succeeds too well (but that’s another article). Her latest fantasy romance, BRIGHTARROW BURNING, is available now from Samhain Publishing. Visit her at  for more on her books, or follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly.

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