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February 3, 2011

How to Avoid Head-Hopping

Relay race baton pass with text: Point of View: Handling Hand-Offs

We’ve learned that head-hopping should be avoided if we want to maintain a strong connection between the reader and the characters, and we’ve learned that just calling something omniscient doesn’t solve the head-hopping problem.

This brings up the obvious question: How do we avoid head-hopping?

The answer might be different for each story we write.  Remember how we defined head-hopping in the last post?  If a story uses a character’s voice for narrative introspection/internal monologue, we need a transition between each character’s point-of-view (POV).  Otherwise, we risk confusing the reader, taking them out of the story, and breaking the reader’s connection to the characters.

So let’s look at our options, starting with the smallest transition and continuing up to the biggest.

Paragraph Break

The vast majority of agents and editors consider a paragraph break to be an insufficient transition for a POV change, especially for a character-focused story.

In contrast to plot-driven stories, character-focused stories are page-turners because the reader cares about what will happen to the characters.  It’s harder to create a sympathetic/empathetic relationship between the reader and characters in one-paragraph chunks.  If the characters don’t matter, they might seem little more than puppets to the plot.

Baton Pass

Some best-selling authors look like they’re getting away with merely a paragraph break transition, but a) they’re best-selling, and b) in actuality, they usually include some action or prop as a “baton” to pass between the characters.  This technique is taught as the correct way to do a mid-scene POV shift without head-hopping.  Here’s the example I posted in the comments of last week’s post:

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.  However, in general, non-big-name authors aren’t allowed to do this because agents and editors don’t trust them to know what they’re doing.

And honestly, as I got confused when I read the main author held up as the prime example of how to do this right, I don’t think it can be done “right enough” to not take some readers out of the story.  Even the best-selling author I read used this method only once in the whole book.

Camera Zoom Out/Omniscient

Sometimes omniscient POV is used as a transition between close third POVs, like a camera pulling back from one close-up to zoom in on another.  Note that these stories are still considered close third person and not omniscient.

This technique can be used mid-scene, with omniscient paragraphs of observation between the deeper POV of two characters.  More commonly, it’s used as one scene ends and another begins.  Here’s my no-talent-for-omniscient example:

Thank goodness that day was over with.  She pulled the covers up to her neck and prepared to sleep like the dead.  But she didn’t know that more was in store for her.

Across town, her meddling soon-to-be-mother-in-law had other plans.  Kathy tapped her pencil on the list of extravaganzas the wedding planner had put together.  Why oh why had her son found the most high-maintenance woman in the county to marry?

Notice that the first line of the first paragraph is written in the character’s voice.  The next two lines each pull back a step to an omniscient viewpoint.  Then we do the reverse in the second paragraph, going from omniscient to a deep third person with the new character’s voice.  Check out my friend Simon C. Larter’s blog post for more (better?) examples along these lines.

Line Break

This is as simple as it sounds: Add a blank line between one character’s POV and another’s POV.  At the very least, this lets the reader (including editors and agents) know that we meant to change POVs and aren’t changing perspective willy-nilly.

Scene Break

With this technique, the line break signals both a POV change and a scene change, interrupting the reader as efficiently as possible with a two-for-one.

This is the method I use, although my definition of a scene might be different from that of others.  For me, a scene ends not only when the setting (In the next room…) or time (Two weeks later…) changes, but also when a character’s emotional arc ends.  So I insert a line break and change POVs when one character’s arc ends and another character’s arc begins, even though the setting and time continue from the previous scene.

Chapter Break

Here the POV switches only at the break between chapters.  With a multiple-first-person POV, this technique is often used with the name of the POV character as the chapter title.

Only One POV Character

Sometimes the entire story is told from the perspective of one character so the POV never changes.  This is often the case with certain genres (women’s fiction, urban fantasy, cozy mysteries) or when the story is told in first person.

There is no right answer for which method to use.  The best method for a first-person POV story is going to be different from an epic tale with a large cast of characters.  In most romances, both the hero and heroine’s POV are expected, but other characters’ perspectives are not typically used.

A scan of some of the recently published books piled on my desk revealed that some authors used only chapter breaks (and some of those chapters were very short).  Other authors used scene breaks—typically only when the time and place changed—and at most, once per chapter.  Only rarely did an author use just a line break—again, usually once per chapter.

Other than one best-selling author who used the baton pass technique, no published books I checked used anything less than a line break.  The vast majority used either the scene or chapter break methods.

Does this mean we can’t use anything else?  No.  But just as with everything we write, the choices we make have consequences.  Choose what will work for you, your story, and your readers.

Which method do you prefer when reading?  Which method do you use in your writing?  What does a scan of your library reveal as to the most popular methods?  Does it depend on the genre or publication date?

What do you think?

27 Comments on "How to Avoid Head-Hopping"

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Roni Loren

This is a great overview of methods. Though now I’m thinking I do the baton pass thing, lol, but with an extra line of space between. I just turned in final edits, so I didn’t get called out on it by agent or editor if I did. Phew! I want to say I see that a lot in romance when you go from heroine to hero but there is usually an extra line of space to kind of alert you it’s about to happen–not sure if that’s the same thing you’re talking about.

I also read somewhere (God knows where, can’t remember) that in a manuscript you put one asterisk in the line between paragraphs for a POV switch and then three for the scene break so that’s the method I use. Not sure if I’m doing it right or not, though! 🙂 Great post.

Murphy

I do mid-scene breaks, but I just realized in one story I wrote I did alternate chapters. Hmm.. I wonder why? Must look into that.

Great breakdown, Jami!

Murphy

Eve Paludan

Camera Zoom Out/Omniscient – this is very sophisticated. Love it.

Scene break – what I use the most because it’s easy. LOL.

Thank you so much for writing this! You just went on my Twitter faves list!

Patti Nielson

What a great post and timely for me as I’m working on a project with two POV, which I’ve chosen to separate by chapters.

David Lascelles
David Lascelles

I have always worried about PoV and head hopping ever since I started trying to write professionally. When I was not writing professionally, I used to almost instinctively use many of the above techniques. Then someone told me that you should only use one PoV and that made me overly sensitive about the issues and guilty when I thought I was ‘head hopping’. This post has reassured me that I am doing things the ‘right’ way… Thank you!

Tahlia

This has been really helpful Jami. I don’t really like line gaps at the changes and have been taking them out of my midscene changes – I have the baton pass and sometimes the omniscent POV connector as well, but perhaps I’d better put the line break back in. To me the line breaks the story, but since it’s accepted, and no doubt safer, I’ll go with it.

Andrew Mocete

Hi Jami!
As a reader, the POV can change however it wants as long as I’m not taken out of the story. Really I shouldn’t even notice it, unless it’s something obvious like a chapter break.

As a writer, all your examples are valid (Except the line break. That seems awkward.) and just add to our bag of tricks. Sure, some are easier than others to pull off, but having the ability to go to any of them makes them worth learning.

Simon

Thanks for the link, good lady! And for the most part, I agree with you: POV transitions should take place at a scene break. At least, when folk are starting out writing, that’s how it should happen. It takes a pretty deft hand to flip POVs from paragraph to paragraph.

But the masters manage graf-to-graf shifts just fine. Woolf did it, as did Hemingway, as does Gaiman. Faulkner, on the other hand, used chapter breaks. Who’s right? Who cares?

I say you do what you can get away with. And the more you sell, the more you can get away with. 🙂

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Late for this post, but true to my word I stopped in to check out this series and am very impressed. Your explanations are excellent. For some reason this subject has never internalized well for me, but I think between you and Kristen Lamb I’m finally starting to get it. The only head hopping that seems to work is done here through the blogs. Signed up for notification of your posts and can’t wait to search through and see what you have in store for the days to come. Happy Valentines day!

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[…] point links their way, usually with a tweet like “Good reminder! Watch out for head-hopping: http://bit.ly/huqYU7.”  That way, my more-advanced followers know to skip the link, but newbie followers still […]

A.F. White (@albrtwhite)

I use an extra line and then make sure I mention the new character and setting early, usually in a sentence, such as…”Jack looked around the nearly empty coffee shop to see if anyone had noticed him shouting into his phone.”

Thanks for this posting…some very good ideas.

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[…] characters were all Mary Sue/Gary Stu’s and the voiceless writing style was too telling and head-hopping, but the story itself— how the characters, plot, conflicts, goals, motivations, obstacles, and […]

Jon Tocker
Jon Tocker
I always enjoy reading your articles as they clarify a lot of issues. Proper omniscient vs head-hopping seems to be a mine-field as everyone seems to have different ideas on what is acceptable in the way of POV changes. Some will tell you a paragraph’s separation is fine so long as you leave it clear as to whose head you’re now in – “Jane smiled and nodded but she was thinking ‘what a jerk.'” rather than “‘What a jerk,’ thought Jane, but she smiled and nodded.” The latter, especially in the wake of being inside another person’s (the jerk’s?) head, can be confusing by leaving it until the end of the speech to reveal who is thinking it. Others will say that a paragraph’s separation is “head-hopping” pure and simple and Thou Shalt Not Change Viewpoint Character Without a Scene/Chapter Break. Others maintain that you can’t have any internal thoughts of characters in Omniscient POV at all, that it all has to be “at arm’s length”. “Jane smiled and nodded but privately thought that Bill was a jerk.” Some go as far as to say that Omniscient makes it difficult for readers to properly relate to any of the characters at all, so a close third person viewpoint is required to let them “know who to root for”. On top of this, I’ve been told that you can’t go from a close third person limited POV to an omniscient authorial overview and back again. This is something I have serious… Read more »
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[…] one of my favorite bloggers and fellow WANA instructors, wrote a post back in February all about using transitions to avoid head hopping. Make sure you check it […]

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[…] How to Avoid Head-Hopping […]

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