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January 27, 2011

Why Is Head-Hopping Bad?

Mannequin heads

Depending on who you talk to, head-hopping is somewhere between a shoulder shrug and the-world-is-ending bad.  Note that neither of those extremes thinks that head-hopping is good.  I suppose it could be positive if used in some sci-fi story, along the lines of “body snatchers,” but we’re talking about it in the written point-of-view (POV) way today.

So let’s first define it. Head-hopping is when the viewpoint shifts from one character to another without the author signaling the change.  For example:

Cynthia stared at Maurice in disbelief.  Who would think wearing a neon-green shirt with mustard-yellow plaid pants was a good idea?  Maurice shrugged.  Like he cared what that know-it-all thought.

The first two sentences are firmly in Cynthia’s POV with her internal reaction and thoughts.  The last sentence is in Maurice’s thoughts.  Thus, it’s a clear violation of the no head-hopping rule we have drilled into us.

Some writers insist that head-hopping isn’t that bad, arguing that “readers aren’t bothered by it, only other writers.”  Most writers will even concede that they never noticed it until learning of the rule.  But let’s ignore the rule for a minute and think about why passages like this might be bad regardless.

Writers must form a connection to the reader to make them care about the story and characters.  We do this by creating sympathetic characters and placing them in situations with risks.  The most common way to make a reader sympathetic to our characters is to share their internal thoughts with a deep POV.

If the POV is unclear or changes too frequently, the reader doesn’t form as strong of a connection to the characters.  This is one reason why omniscient stories are less popular now—TV and movies have trained us to want more emotions and higher stakes.  Unless other aspects of the story carry them along, unconnected readers might not care enough about the outcome to finish the book.

By that measure, head-hopping is bad—not because the rule exists, but because anything that impedes readers from connecting to our characters is bad.  But more importantly, that observation should get us to look at any POV change more carefully.  After all, even if a switch is done correctly, it still risks damaging the reader’s connection to the story.

“How much” a reader feels invested in a story is intangible.  In fact, it’s so indefinable that I think all readers, writer and non-writer alike, do notice head-hopping—if only at the subconscious level.  We only think we don’t notice it.

We might not consciously notice when we have to reread a passage to figure out whose head we’re in, but when we do, we’re briefly taken out of story. We remember that we’re reading a book with words as opposed to “becoming” the story.  I don’t think that’s a good thing.

And yes, I’ve read those big-name authors held up as examples of “head-hopping done right,” and no matter how smooth the transition was, I had to reread a paragraph or two to get my bearings.  So I suspect that if the story is written in deep POV, mid-scene shifts can’t be done “right.”

Some might be smoother than others.  Some might be technically allowed because the change was signaled by anchoring the reader in the new POV character’s head.  Some might signal the change with a line break.  But they all impact the reader’s connection to the story, so we should choose when and how we change POV very carefully.

Do you agree all readers notice POV shifts, if only at the subconscious level?  Did you notice head-hopping before learning about the rule?  How do you think POV changes can be done right?

(Thanks to Suzanne Johnson for inspiring today’s post.  Check out her blog for her take on head-hopping.)

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What do you think?

49 Comments on "Why Is Head-Hopping Bad?"

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Laura Pauling

It’s been so long since I read a book with head hopping I can’t remember if it bothered me or not. I think writers for adults tend to try and get away with it more than writers of kidlit. But I can see past anything if it’s a truly great great story! Which is rare.

Pippa Jay

I wasn’t consciously aware of it as a reader or a writer, until a friend and published author critiqued my book for me. Now I’m in the midst of a major edit to remove all the nasty little POV changes from my MS, wishing that I’d known that rule earlier. Having seen the suggested changes and after reading them back, I can see how head-hopping confuses the scene and breaks the flow, and I catch it more often when I read books now. The books where it doesn’t happen are usually the ones that hold my attention more.

Todd Moody

I HATE when authors do that Jami! I’m using a couple of different POVs in my story but they are clearly separated. Great post!

Marc Vun Kannon

I shift POVs too often. I usually shift paragraphs when I do, so I don’t know if that violates this rule or not. I would render your example above as:
Cynthia stared at Maurice in disbelief. Who would think wearing a neon-green shirt with mustard-yellow plaid pants was a good idea?
Maurice shrugged. Like he cared what that know-it-all thought.

I don’t think of my stories as a collection of scenes with characters moving through them, I think of them as characters in motion. Whatever character is moving (speaking, perceiving, thinking) is the focus, and that’s the POV I use, until some other character starts moving. I rarely break my stories up into separate scenes unless the characters are isolated.

Austin Wulf

I’ve seen head-hopping done effectively -once-. In Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk changed between POV characters (in first person, no less) between each chapter. At the beginning of the chapter, there would be a heading with the character’s name (like “Mr. 100” and so-on.) Also, each character had a different voice. It was an inspiring read stylistically, and I don’t think it took away from the overall narrative.

Carradee

That’s not head-hopping. 🙂 That’s multiple POVs. Head-hopping = multiple POVs within a scene.

Murphy

Ah, good ole head-hopping. Personally? I’m not a big fan – even if it is done well by a multi-published author. I much prefer a clear POV that is sensitive to story action. Choosing the best character’s POV for relaying that action – to better drive and/or hide specific plot details is a huge tool in a writer’s toolbox, so why muddy your story vision when you don’t have to? Be purposeful.

Murphy – who also got dinged in a contest because I switched between the hero and heroine’s POV in the same scene (with line break) but apparently, introducing the male POV is only acceptable when you introduce it in a scene of its own. *shrug* What do they say? You can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people – all of the time? 🙂

Jessica Anne

This is so helpful to me! Since I’m editing my first novel, I have to fess I do it, and it drives me crazy when I’m reading it. I’m working on fixing it, and having a name for it, and knowing I’m not the only one that does it is really helpful. Thanks!

Kinley Baker
Kinley Baker

Great post! I have a question related to head-hopping. What do you think about actions portrayed by another character? For example, we’re in Erica’s POV and she is observing Steve.

Steve fixed the lightbulb.

Do you think this is breaking the POV rules since we’re in Erica’s perspective? Or is it safest just to go with:

She watched Steve fix the lightbulb.

Just curious 🙂 I think your perspective on head-hopping is great!

Kinley

Sue Ann Bowling

I try to stick with one POV at a time, but I’ve been putting the POV character’s name at the head of the section–no matter how short the section is. This means I have some POV “characters” (a rat and a puma in my current story) who are important in telling something about a main character, but are only “on” for a few paragraphs.

Lisa Gail Green

I agree! I’ve made this comment recently during critique. I’ve used alternating POVs in one manuscript, but it was clearly defined, predictable, and necessary to the story itself. It’s a tricky thing to manage for sure. Character is very important to me.

eyeamImran
eyeamImran

there’s one thing your post today has done for me. every time i come across a paragraph like the one you used as an example, i’m probably gonna say, “bad writing etiquette”. you never mess with the reader’s subconscious. it’s sacred, if one wants to be liked. and what writer doesn’t want to be liked? it’s hard enough getting along, who wants ONE more #obstacle. thanks for the post.

Rachel Firasek

Great Post, Jami! Hey, are you a member of Savvy Authors? If not, you need to join and link your blog to their blog. I bet quite a few of these posts would make it to their article board. Just sayin. Have a great weekend!

Bethany
I just finished writing a manuscript and as my writing group was critiquing the first few chapters, several months ago, the “head-hopping” without a clear signal just did not work for them – and these are people who love writing and who come together to critique each others’ work every week. You’d think if “head-hopping” would be okay with anyone, it would be okay with them, that they would be able to read past it. But it just confused them. None of them mentioned a “head-hopping rule” to me, but all of them said they weren’t sure whose head they were in at first and that it jarred them out of the story while they stopped to figure it out. I ended up breaking almost every POV shift with a new chapter and adding the name of the person whose POV we were in under the chapter number, almost like a chapter title. There is one place where the POV shift does not come with a chapter break, but even that one is set off with a line break and the name of the person whose POV we are shifting to, centered and boldfaced. I think it’s like this: the writer is sitting inside the house, throwing windows open, and trying to move the furniture around so the readers can see what’s inside, but the readers only have the view from the windows and nothing more. The task of the writer is to make the windows bigger and arrange the… Read more »
Michele Shaw

By far, my biggest pet peeve is when I can’t figure out who is speaking. It drives me nuts. Head hopping is the main cause of this imo. And yes, it is just plain jarring to the read. Great post, Jami. You always have such good info to share:)

Tahlia Newland

This is really helpful, Jami. I had some headhopping in lethal Inheritance, I don’t now, but I do have three 3rd person POVs and the transitions between them is a tricky area. One is easy because it’s a completely different place and scene, but the other two change mid scene and they have to because the emotional journey of both are important to the story. It reads fine to me, but I’m still not sure that I’ve got it ‘right’.

I’ve flagged the changes clearly and I’ve gone for a line gap because that seems to be aceptable today, but I personally think it flows better without the gap. Nevertheless, I’ll stick to what is least likely to red flag a publisher.

I notice that many romance novels do change POV in the middle of a scene, and if they didn’t you wouldn’t get the guys POV, which I really enjoy.

Your comment on changing it at the emotional turning point is really helpful. I also try to change it when one of the characters walks away from the other or when some other action occurs that would cause a major reaction in the other person. Does that sound okay?

trackback

[…] Last time, we talked about how head-hopping is something to avoid, and not just because there’s a rule against it.  Any change in point-of-view (POV), whether using an “allowed” technique or not, risks weakening the connection between the reader and the story. […]

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[…] learned that head-hopping should be avoided if we want to maintain a strong connection between the reader and the characters, and we’ve […]

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[…] of POV and thanks to some blogging friends, particularly Jami Gold who happened to be writing about POV changes & head hopping at the time I was looking at just that,  I now feel confident that what’s in there now […]

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[…] Here are some more great head hopping articles from author Jami Gold’s blog: http://jamigold.com/2011/01/why-is-head-hopping-bad/ http://jamigold.com/2011/02/how-to-avoid-head-hopping/ […]

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[…] Think of a range along a line, and what changes from one end of the line to the other is how close the reader’s “camera” is to the main characters. Within a story or scene, it’s possible to shift the writing along this line in certain ways, but it’s important to not confuse the reader, as that will take them out of the story. […]

Luke Kendall

I’m in the middle of doing a big revision to minimise POV shifts, and while doing so I’ve been reading up on the topic (your blog items were as helpful as anything else I’ve read, thanks!).
I found it interesting that for me, even reading examples (like Cynthia/Maurice one) held up as the epitome of bad, I feel no disconnection whatsoever, and happily and instantly recognise and accept the new perspective (unless the POV shift isn’t signalled, and the POV could be either, and then you realise there /was/ a shift but it hadn’t been indicated at all). Rather than feeling jarred out of the story, my subconscious reaction is more like “Oh, goody, more intimate details!” The same fluid POV shifting is true in the cinematic dreams I sometimes have.
To me, all this reinforces the idea that I absolutely can’t use my own reaction as a guide to what a reader will feel regarding a POV shift. And I accept that I really need to minimise their use.

jehallows
jehallows
I feel like one of the few people out there who don’t have a problem with head hopping when it’s done right. As long as a writer “passes the baton”, I rarely get confused. Even with the examples you gave here, I didn’t feel a need to re-read at all. I thought it was clear and concise when thoughts were swapping. I don’t know if it’s just an age thing and the sort of styles people are used to reading. Head hopping can be really bad and distracting, but I think it can be done smoothly. I actually tend to dislike when a writer sticks with only one character throughout the whole scene. I want to know what the other character in a scene is thinking or feeling. I consider it one of those rules to break if it’s done well – I’m definitely not completely biased against it occurring in any instance. One author I can think of is Winston Graham (not a modern sci-fi author by any means). In one particular scene he switches between Verity and Capptain Blamey – one one switch to Blamey and back again to Verity – but it is a smooth transition and shows how both characters respond to a particular matter. At no time do I feel confused. Sometimes I read these “writer rules” and wonder if because something can be done badly, it’s considered a no-no at all costs, rather than being seen as a challenge that can be conquered in… Read more »
Errin Stevens

My first book is coming out in a couple of weeks with Liquid Silver Books, and my editing experience on this front was too hard for words. My poor editor and I probably want nothing ever, ever to do with one another again because my head hopping… and while I had a hard lesson I needed to learn on this front (and I learned it, I promise!), I believe discrete POV shifts in close scenes can and should still be allowed in modern stories.

I believe this for the same reason I believe not all stories should be written in first person, which would be the ultimate ‘never-ever-shift’ restriction to definitively end head hopping. The single-POV advice in general is solid… but like any good idea taken too far, overly rigid POV mandates can do the opposite of what they’re meant to, meaning they flatten the emotional connection between a reader and overall story.

Books as an art form are not television or movies, engage a different part of the brain, and should be allowed to do so. We already have an oversell – I suspect on autopilot – of single POV, one I suspect hurts rather than supports the intimacy of a story when applied always and in every case. Anyone ever read “Three Junes,” the 2002 National Book Award winner? Revolutionary, POV-complex, and emotionally delicious.

trackback

[…] Gold, paranormal and urban fantasy author, has a great post about Head Hopping, and why it is bad. Give it a […]

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[…] mistakes, speed bumps in our reading (convoluted sentences, reversed cause-and-effects, etc.), head-hopping, inconsistent stage direction (“Wait, how many hands does he have?”), story […]

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[…] example, many of us have heard the advice to avoid head-hopping. Without understanding why that “rule” exists, we might decide to ignore it simply […]

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[…] learned that head-hopping should be avoided if we want to maintain a strong connection between the reader and the characters, and we’ve […]

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