Why Is Head-Hopping Bad?

by Jami Gold on January 27, 2011

in Writing Stuff

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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Laura Pauling January 27, 2011 at 6:13 am

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.

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 6:24 am

Hi Laura,

I read one of the biggies a while ago and the POV was solid except for a few paragraphs in the middle of one scene, where it switched from the MC to a minor character and then back. It pulled me out enough that I stopped and analyzed if she’d done it “wrong.” She hadn’t. She’d anchored the switch with a “baton pass” and everything.

But I think the idea that “anchoring a change is the way to do it right” is a writer myth. Readers don’t pay close enough attention to when we name a character at the beginning of a paragraph to realize it’s anchoring. (Besides, we use names with actions at the beginning of paragraphs plenty of times when it’s not meant to be anchoring.) And readers shouldn’t be paying close attention to the words or our sentence structure.

Did it stop me from finishing the book? No. As you said, I saw past it. But it still pulled me out enough that it made an impression that stuck with me. Thanks for the comment!

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Pippa Jay January 27, 2011 at 6:23 am

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.

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 6:28 am

Hi Pippa,

Yes, I think it’s a subconscious thing. I wonder if TV and movies have messed with our written storytelling approach. On screen, it’s so easy to switch from one character to another. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Todd Moody January 27, 2011 at 6:32 am

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!

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 6:36 am

Hi Todd,

*whew* Glad to know I’m not the only ornery one. 🙂 Thanks!

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Marc Vun Kannon January 27, 2011 at 7:06 am

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.

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 7:18 am

Hi Marc,

Most agents and editors would consider a paragraph break to be insufficient “signaling” of a POV change. Some best-selling authors are allowed to get away with it because a) they’re best-selling and b) they include some action or prop as a “baton” to pass between the characters. 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? Her gaze then landed on the mismatched button on his shirt.
Maurice looked down to see the button she’d noticed and shrugged. Like he cared what that know-it-all thought.

There the button and the action of first her looking at it and then him looking at it acts like a baton passed in a relay race. This technique is taught as the “correct” way to do a mid-scene POV shift without head-hopping. However, non-big-name authors aren’t allowed to do this in general because agents and editors don’t trust them to know what they’re doing. 🙂

And my point was that readers shouldn’t be noticing the chosen words and sentence structure enough to pick up those clues anyway, so readers often still have to do a reread, which takes them out of the story even when the technique is used correctly. My post next Tuesday will be on how head-hopping is different than omniscient point-of-view, so maybe that will help give you more ideas. Thanks for the comment!

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Austin Wulf January 27, 2011 at 8:25 am

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.

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 8:36 am

Hi Austin,

Great breakdown! Yes, a chapter break or scene break automatically interrupts the flow of the story and that same interruption can be used to switch POVs as well. Two purposes in one. 🙂 That’s different than a mid-scene change.

I would consider that multiple POV rather than head-hopping. It’s unusual to do with first person, but it can be done, especially with the clear signals of a chapter break and character name above the text, as you mentioned.

Besides, I’m not saying we should never change POVs. 🙂 I have one story that’s a single deep-3rd POV and my others are multiple (hero and heroine) deep-3rd POV. But when I change from one POV to another, I either do it at a scene break or at least use a line break and then stick with that new POV for several pages (so the first half of the scene is in one POV, then line break and the second half is in the other POV). I just know that even my method has gotten dinged in contests for the “lack of connection” aspect, so anything we can do to minimize that interference is probably a good thing. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee January 23, 2013 at 9:21 am

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

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Jami Gold January 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Hi Carradee,

Exactly. Thanks for being so clear. 🙂

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Murphy January 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

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? 🙂

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 9:12 am

Hi Murphy,

Oh yes, good point about how POV is a tool to hide or reveal plot points, which increases tension, so why would you want to ignore that technique?

Yep, as I mentioned in the comment above, using a line break while still in the same scene is different than using a line break to switch scenes. POV change with line break AND scene change is completely acceptable. POV change with line break WITHOUT scene change is more iffy.

I’ve done the later, but I look at scenes not only for the time/place setting, but for the emotional arc. When I change POV mid-scene with a line break, it always comes at the turning point in the emotional arc of the scene. So yes, it might still be the same setting, but one emotional arc has finished and the next one has begun. Some people consider those separate scenes and some don’t, so there’s various opinions about whether or not that’s “allowed.” 🙂 Thanks for the great comment that made me think. Again!

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Carradee January 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

As a note, “scene” can be used a few different ways—in reference to settings, to story arcs, or to formatting chunks. That can make things a bit confusing when you start talking about scenes.

Personally, I learned a lot of the proofreading jargon before the writing and editing jargon, so I still tend to think of “scenes” from a formatting standpoint. Causes miscommunications and arguments, sometimes. *shrug*

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Jami Gold January 23, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Hi Carradee,

Good point! I was trying to explain that while the setting/time/place might still be the same after the line break, I consider it a “scene” change because the formatted sections before and after the break have their own emotional arc. I know some think of scenes strictly as a time/place change, so I was attempting to clarify my definitions so the explanation would make sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jessica Anne January 27, 2011 at 11:12 am

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!

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 11:13 am

Hi Jessica Anne,

I’m glad this is helpful for you. Good luck with your edits!

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Kinley Baker January 27, 2011 at 1:06 pm

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

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Hi Kinley,

Yeesh, you don’t go for the easy ones do you? 🙂 I used to mix and match character actions with another character’s dialogue–and I got dinged for it in a professional critique. The lesson was that the dialogue paragraph should belong to the character speaking.

And I get that. I do. But that means that I’d have a lot one sentence paragraphs out there while I bounced back and forth, and I don’t think that’s the way to go either, as that would dilute using one sentence paragraphs for power. Besides, sometimes the action comes as a result of the dialogue, and it really felt like they should go together, she-made-a-joke-and-he-laughed type stuff.

So your example does not break POV, in that we’re not in Steve’s head, but it does put the focus on him, which can make it confusing about who’s doing the speaking (as we often/usually use action beats instead of dialogue tags to identify the speaker). The way I’ve dealt with it is to make sure the subject of the sentence is the speaker, but other actions could happen in dependent clauses. So for your example, you could have:
While Steve fixed the light bulb, Erica did/thought something. Then her dialogue here.
As Erica is the subject of the sentence, the focus stays on her for “her” paragraph.

I might have to do another blog post to explain this more. 🙂 Let me know if you have questions and I’ll work on it. Thanks for the great comment!

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Sue Ann Bowling January 27, 2011 at 1:26 pm

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.

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Hi Sue Ann,

Yes, putting the POV character name at the top of each section is a good way to make sure there isn’t any confusion in a multiple POV story. Thanks for the comment!

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Lisa Gail Green January 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm

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.

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Jami Gold January 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Hi Lisa,

Yes, multiple POVs are not bad. I use them too. But making readers confused isn’t good. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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eyeamImran January 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

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.

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Jami Gold January 28, 2011 at 10:17 am

Hi eyeamImran,

Yes, and messing with the reader in a confusing way is just stupid. 🙂 Unless that’s the purpose of what you’re writing. (I’ll admit for foreshadowing and leaving clues, I do mess with readers, but that’s done in a logical and purposeful way.) Great point, thanks for the comment!

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Rachel Firasek January 28, 2011 at 3:38 pm

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!

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Jami Gold January 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Hi Rachel,

No, I haven’t joined yet. I’ll have to check it out, I guess. 🙂 Thanks!

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Bethany January 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm

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 furniture in such a way as that the best view is possible so that the readers feel as though they are inside the house, even though they aren’t. No matter how much we like to think that readers are telepathic and could see inside our minds if we could just put the right words on the page, the reality is that no one is telepathic (at least not that I’ve met), and writers need to allow for that.

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Jami Gold January 28, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Hi Bethany,

The “head-hopping rule” is simple: Don’t do it. 🙂 But seriously, it doesn’t work for all the reasons you mentioned, it’s confusing and jars the reader out of the story. Thanks for the comment and analogy too!

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Michele Shaw January 28, 2011 at 8:42 pm

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:)

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Jami Gold January 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Hi Michele,

Yes, confusion will pull readers out of the story every time. And Thanks! 🙂

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Tahlia Newland January 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm

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?

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Jami Gold January 28, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Hi Tahlia,

Oh yeah, I can see that – when one character is walking away, they’re kind of declaring that scene “done,” aren’t they? So that makes sense to me that the focus would shift to the character still engaged in the scene and prolonging the action. I hope that works for you – I like it. Thanks!

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Luke Kendall June 25, 2015 at 12:07 am

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.

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Jami Gold June 25, 2015 at 12:15 am

Hi Luke,

To be honest, I’m not sure I consciously noticed this issue before becoming a writer, but now that I know, it drives me crazy. LOL! So it’s good to recognize that our reaction doesn’t necessarily match with others and that we each have to decide if we want to limit our readership to only those who don’t care about the same things we do. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and good luck!

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jehallows September 16, 2015 at 6:45 am

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 the right hands.

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Jami Gold September 16, 2015 at 7:48 am

Hi jehallows,

I don’t disagree. 🙂 If you’ve seen any of my other posts on the subject, you’ve seen that I talk about that “passing of the baton” you mentioned. That’s why I qualified the opening of the post with the disclaimer of “without signaling the change.” A “baton pass” is a valid way to signal the change of POV within a scene. So yes, the problem is when it’s not done right. 😉

That said, you’re right that this attitude toward the problem can be influenced by the genres and styles we read. Until recently (20-30 years?), many genres and stories were written in a shallower POV or an omniscient POV, and in those styles, it wouldn’t be unusual to baton pass or show multiple character’s thoughts or feelings. In omni, head-hopping is a completely different situation.

However, in deep POV, as most stories in most (but not all) genres are now written, the baton pass style within a single scene (with no line break) can create confusion for readers. That’s a product of the deep POV style. So if you don’t read much deep POV, you might not have run into the issue.

Authors good at deep POV also use other tools such as subtextual dialogue or body language to signal what non-POV characters are thinking or feeling, so readers aren’t left in the dark when it comes to that issue either. 🙂

As with everything in writing, the style we use is a choice–and we have to decide if that choice affects readers the way we want. Thanks for the comment!

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Errin Stevens October 18, 2015 at 8:23 am

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.

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Jami Gold October 18, 2015 at 9:15 pm

Hi Errin,

As with everything writing, the choices we make will affect readers. The “rules” about POV are certainly breakable. 🙂 But we have to know what effect that will have on readers and decide if that’s the effect we want.

As you pointed out, not all stories should be written in first person, and similarly, not all stories need to be written in deep POV. 🙂 Certainly non-deep POV stories can use various methods to try to build intimacy for the reader, including playing with POV. Literary fiction and genre fiction each have a different approach to POV as well. (My advice here always leans toward genre sensibilities, so your example of Three Junes isn’t as applicable.)

For those stories that are written in deep POV (or are meant to feel like deep POV), shifting the POV mid-scene without at least a line break is somewhere between very and extremely likely to pull a portion of our readers out of the story. (I’m pulled out every time, no matter how “well done” the shift is.) Some of us won’t care about that effect, some of our readers won’t care about that effect. But if we’re writing deep POV (especially deep POV genre fiction) and we care about preventing our readers from being pulled out of the story, then we would want to avoid head-hopping. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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