I hadn’t heard the term head hopping until a member of the Book Length Project Group asked if we could discuss it this month. She said she’d been accused of head hopping by one of her beta readers and wanted to know what to do about it. Here are some thoughts from the group after discussing this writerly sin.
What is head hopping?
Head hopping, I have learned, is when an author shifts between the thoughts of one character and another within a scene. It generally happens in third person (limited) point of view and is considered poor form.
Why is it bad?
It can be confusing to a reader when we are inside one character’s thoughts and feelings and in the next sentence inside the head of another character. This can jolt us out of the flow of the narrative, maybe cause us to back track and work out who was thinking what. Or even who saw what. We remember that we are just reading a book written by an author, and are not fully immersed in a fictional world.
When the story stays with one character’s point of view, it allows a reader to experience a complete scene from the character’s perspective. The reader is immersed in the story and the character’s thoughts and feelings. We have intimate access to what the character sees, hears, and smells, and why they react the way they do. Sticking with one character’s point of view gives more opportunity for an author to hook a reader into the character and their fate, to empathise with them, and keep reading.
What if you want to show multiple points of view?
Deciding on one character’s point of view in a scene doesn’t mean you need to abandon the other characters’ feelings. You can “head hop” if you help your reader navigate where you are taking them.
Consider whether other characters’ perspectives can be shown through the first character’s observations. For example: “Bill could hear Sally’s foot tapping in the corner of the waiting room and he knew that if he turned around he would see her lips pressed together hard enough to create white lines around her mouth.” Do you need to tell the reader that Sally is apprehensive about the appointment, or can we see that through Bill’s eyes?
Can you include off-screen action that gives the reader clues about the perspectives of other characters? In the above example, you might have already hinted to the reader that Sally had reasons for being nervous about the appointment, reasons that she hasn’t shared with Bill.
Can you describe the scene from the other character’s perspective later in the book? This can help create tension as it withholds information from the reader when they first see the scene and then adds in critical information later in the story.
Consider whether the story would be better served by a third person omniscient point of view. Read the Museum of Modern Love (Heather Rose) and The Book Thief (Marcus Zuzak) for contemporary examples.
When you change points of view…
Ask yourself if there is a clear reason for including the other character’s point of view. You have already decided what you want to communicate in a scene and which character gives the best perspective to get that message to the reader. Do you also need to reveal something that the first character can’t see, or are you simply re-hashing the scene from another perspective to give the second character air time?
Consider limiting changing point of view to the start of a new chapter or a new scene.
Sign-post the change by giving immediate access to the character’s inner thoughts: ‘The alarm went off before dawn and Colin considered bailing out.’
You can also give a clear scene break by inserting two lines before the next paragraph or even marking the break with a short line.
The Book Length Project Group meets on the third Sunday of every month at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne, Western Australia. All FAWWA members and friends are welcome to join us. Go to The Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (fawwa.org) for more information.