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.)Pin It