Head Hopping: Should You Do It?

 

by Sara Butler Zalesky 

While I was working with an editor on Wheeler, the phrase ‘head hopping’ kept coming up again and again, but I had no idea to what she was referring. Being new to this thing called writing, my only experience was what I read from other authors. I’m a prolific reader, from sci/fi, fantasy, romance, YA, thrillers, anything I could get my hands on, I read. I hadn’t noticed the difference between hearing the inner thoughts of the characters, I was either fully engrossed or I couldn’t get past the first chapter.

To me, head hopping was hearing both (or all) of the characters’ inner thoughts in a scene, not necessarily what they were seeing or even feeling to a certain extent. What I began to realize was that a vast majority of the novels I read had the narrator telling me what the characters were thinking and feeling.

According to the many, many articles and blog posts I’ve read since, there is no hard and fast rule, only the elusive ‘guideline.’ Some famous novelists head-hop all over the place. Some are a bit, um, vehement about not doing it.

The Editor’s Blog says: ‘Head-hopping is what happens to the reader when a writer suddenly changes the viewpoint of a character or POV. Experiencing the mind and heart of one character for a moment only to be forced to switch focus to another character a paragraph or two later, is disconcerting.’

Then I read Randy Ingermanson’s blog on the subject and I became even more confused.

“Randy sez:  Let’s define terms. “Head-hopping” is the practice of switching point-of-view characters within a single scene. This is not the same as the omniscient point-of-view, which would allow your narrator to know things that none of the characters know.”

But then the points being made by Randy were eclipsed by what was being said in the comments, specifically:

“If it’s about a person, don’t head hop, if it’s about the relationship or bigger picture, head hop.”

And then:

“Skilled writers don’t need it (head hopping) to convey the other person’s emotions through showing.”

I then found Ciara Ballintyne‘s post on the subject, and this is probably the clearest explanation, along with a great flowchart:

  • First – I gave a small shrug. That was of no matter at the moment.
  • Third – Isaiah gave a small shrug. That is of no matter at the moment.
  • Omniscient – Isaiah gave a small shrug. He thought it was of no matter at the moment

And that’s when my brain exploded. But I’ll give you an example of my problem:

“Oh shit!” Graham swerved back into his lane to avoid a collision with a lorry.

Loren’s head snapped up at the blaring truck horn to see a Jaguar swerve out of its way. “Typical,” she muttered and went back to trying to roll the rigid tire over the lip of the carbon wheel. She almost had it in when the opposite side popped off.

“God dammit!”  

Graham’s eyes went back to the rear view mirror and the woman on the stone fence. Perhaps I should stop. She looks like she could use some help. He pressed his lips together and turned his attention back to the road ahead.

As he waited his turn to cross an intersection not far down the lane, he draped his arm over the passenger seat and looked back, his brows knotted together. It’s not like I haven’t stopped to help before. There was that charming older couple last month. She could be completely mental.

“Bollocks.” He made a three-point turn in the middle of the road, momentarily blocking traffic and headed back. With no vehicles coming in the opposite direction, he quickly steered the car across the road and parked. Graham removed his sunglasses and observed the girl struggling with the bicycle wheel.

The corner of his mouth went up as a bit of cleavage showed when she bent over to retrieve something she dropped. He cut the engine and got out to walk toward her, smothering a laugh as he heard her curse under her breath.

Grumbling, Loren had started over when out of the corner of her eye, the dark gray Jaguar that had almost gotten into an accident came to a stop a few yards away from her. You’ve got to be f**king kidding me. She didn’t look up when the car door opened. I’m not some f**king damsel in need of saving “… you prat.” She froze at his stifled chuckle. Did I say that out loud?

“Everything alright, miss?”

There’s no separation of POV, it just flows back and forth between the two AND you hear their internal thoughts.

Now, the final version. In between the paragraph breaks is now an entire section dedicated to the introduction of Graham (that I skip over here for space).

“I didn’t see any damn f**king squirrel,” she grumbled as she revised her grip and removed the wheel, leaning it against her leg. After gathering the items she needed from the little bag under her seat, she set the bike down, picked up the wheel and went to sit on a broken stone wall on the side of the road.

She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and looked up at the bright blue sky overhead. At least it’s not raining yet. That would be just f**king brilliant.

***

Graham Atherton yawned as he turned his metallic charcoal-gray Jaguar XJ sedan off the M25 at Potters Bar. His fatigue caused by spending much of his overnight flight from New York mulling over the changes that had come over the past year of his life, some being better than others.

“Oh shit!” He swerved back into his lane to avoid a collision with the lorry, but his eyes snapped up to the rear view mirror and the woman on the stone fence. Perhaps I should stop. She looks like she could use some help. He pressed his lips together and set his focus back on the road ahead.

As he waited his turn to cross an intersection not far down the lane, he draped his arm over the passenger seat and looked back. It’s not like I haven’t stopped to help before. There was that charming older couple last month. Then again, she could be completely mental.

Graham shook his head. “Like she can follow me home on a bicycle,” he muttered and made a three-point turn in the middle of the road to head back.

***

Loren’s head came up at the blaring truck horn to see a gray Jaguar swerve out of its way.

“Idiot,” she grumbled and went back to trying to force the hard rubber tire over the edge of the wheel.

A few minutes passed with her wrestling with the tire when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the same gray Jaguar came to a stop a few yards away from her. You’ve got to be f**king kidding me. She didn’t look up when she heard the car door close. I’m not some f**king damsel in need of saving “… you prat.” She froze at his stifled chuckle. Did I say that out loud?

“All’s well, miss?”

I didn’t like it at first. It was different than the way I had been writing for the past 15 months. I didn’t like the hard breaks in the text interrupting what I thought was flow. But, I had to admit that my now fired editor was right. Yes, the first version was ‘good enough,’ but it was high school. The second, obviously changed to reflect the final version, was not only shorter, it was better. Focused. Adult.

As dive into revising the follow up novel, I’ve applied what I learned and it’s changed the way I write now. A little head hopping might sneak in every so often, but now it is done on purpose and only in very specific scenes.

I think this time I’ve created something that I can be proud to say, “I wrote this.”

 

 

 

This post is dedicated to Rachel C. for being a patron of A Writer’s Path.

Alternately titled: Head Hopping – It’s Not About Beer.

Guest post contributed by Sara Butler Zalesky. Sara is the author of the novel Wheeler, bringing the excitement of the women’s European cycling peloton together with women’s fiction, romance, and suspense. A paralegal at a boutique law firm in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, Sara is also an avid road cyclist and indoor cycling instructor. 

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26 thoughts on “Head Hopping: Should You Do It?”

      1. Ah, you had a great post! I learned something NEW, which is GOOD! I had not heard the expression “head hopping.” I think you lost me with the long story passages. Shorter examples would have been better.

        While nice that someone coined the phrase “head hopping,” I think we all have our own style of writing and in the end, we need to edit for what can make our writing “tighter” and more “succinct,” rather than get too caught up in the word “head hopping.” Otherwise, we lose our creativity, because our thoughts are always with… “Did I head hop too much?” Just my thoughts from reading the article. GREAT POST, appreciated the topic!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree – the example was too long – which in my own post I cut it down a bit. My bad. In the first version of Wheeler, I was hopping heads all over the place but funny thing, nobody pointed it out. It wasn’t until I hired the editor that it came up. Then again, I hired the editor to make my book more marketable, and appealing to a larger market meant doing things more mainstream. Like not head hopping.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Don’t think I’ve ever read a single book where ‘some’ head-hopping hasn’t occurred – but I had no idea it was actually an established concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had never heard of “head hopping” either until after I had written my first book…. as a reader I had never noticed that point of view usually stayed with one person.
    Writing from only one person’s point of view felt awkward at first, but I’m getting there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard of it for a few years now. And any time I attend a writer’s conference, they say…don’t do it! My editor catches it every time, and I’m thankful for it. To me it gets very confusing, as that first passage shows very well. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for the refresher. I have heard the phrase “head-hopping” a lot because I have a real problem with it. During my edits this is an area where I have to pay special attention. When I first started writing, I wrote Omniscient but then I heard this was rarely if ever used anymore, and I switched to Third Person, but how I love to be in everybody’s head. 🙂 It’s something as an author I really have to work at. The rule that I’ve heard is one POV per scene and it’s even better if you can stick to one POV per chapter.

    I have seen some authors write a scene or chapter in one POV and then write the same scene or chapter in another POV, similar to how you have it. However, choosing which POV character boils down to using the character who has the most to lose during that scene.

    Sometimes head-hopping can mean a 2-3 star review instead of a 4 or 5 star review. This is especially true if the reviewer is an author or editor who are a stickler for sticking to one POV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whichever character has the most to lose – that’s exactly what my editor told me and I’ve tried to hold onto that thought as I rewrote the novel. Twice. (shiver) As I pointed out in my post on things I wish I knew before self-publishing, making your story about someone – one person’s journey – is a good idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m familiar with this. My suggestion is that in the first draft we should probably not be too inhibited; head hopping needs to come out on the first self edit, whenever that occurs. And speaking of criticism, “prolific reader” doesn’t make sense unless the reader is making recordings of his/her reading. I think you may have meant eclectic, or the more common voracious, or insatiable. (I admit that words are my passion, so I’m extra picky. If I haven’t used a word recently, I look it up. Having a paper dictionary helps. It’s actually more convenient when you are writing on a computer.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Although I agree POV should stay the same throughout a scene, I, personally, like your first version better. I could picture it in my mind as a movie. Maybe there are exceptions to “the guideline”?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In YA, a common technique is to have each chapter in a single POV, clearly labeled, e.g. Chapter One Lee Chapter two Celia. I take a different stand than Randy on one point. I think it takes an enormously skilled writer to head hop in a scene, because the voices have to be so well-defined, you know whose POV you’re reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This comment reminds me of a tour de force by Carol Shields. In the concluding chapter of Larry’s Party (the party itself), Shields head hops from character to character, never one identifying who is speaking; yet by this time in the novel she has done such a brilliant job of creating her characters that you know who is speaking. it feels like being the the middle of a room full of people at a very interesting party. I was blown away at the skill and humanity of her writing. I would not dare try it myself, but it’s lovely to know it can be done.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It is terribly confusing. I wrote a post about this not long ago if you want to try another explanation. Basically, it comes down to “voice.” Omniscient POV is in the narrator’s voice – someone who is telling the reader the story. In this case the pov isn’t really changing – it’s always the narrator who is relaying the feelings, thoughts, and actions of the characters. Think of The NeverEnding Story as an obvious example – The grandfather is telling the story and we even occasionally pop back into the grandson’s bedroom. Head hopping occurs when the POV and “voice” keep jumping around from character to character. Instead of seeing the story from the narrator’s perspective, we’re seeing it from inside one character and then all of a sudden we’re in another, and then another. The “narrator of the story keeps changing. Hope that helps 😀 http://mythsofthemirror.com/2016/09/01/omniscient-pov-versus-head-hopping

    Like

  9. I also learned a new term. My editor often points out that I am very much inside so and so’s head and have suddenly shifted! Now I have a term to reference, perhaps I will stop doing this …

    Like

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