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May 1, 2018

Why Is Head Hopping Considered Lazy Writing?

Cat asleep on a rug with text: Is Our Writing "Lazy"?

Several writing craft issues tend to be hallmarks of what’s called “lazy writing.” Some of those habits deserve the label more than others.

For example, typos or incorrect homonyms frequently occur in our first drafts. That’s not “lazy writing.” That’s just how our fingers make an imperfect conduit for our thoughts, especially during the frenzy of drafting. (Now, if those mistakes remain in the final published version, that is less-than-ideal editing. *smile*)

On the other hand, if our thoughts (and our edits) fall back on clichés, that can be a sign of lazy writing. Clichés mean we’re not writing fresh ideas or being deliberate with our character’s voice, wording things in a way that’s true to their character development.

Similarly, the practice of head hopping is usually considered lazy writing. But unlike with clichés, which we probably heard our teachers rail against, we might not understand why head hopping earns that label.

Several years ago, I wrote a couple of posts about head-hopping issues, but I haven’t revisited the topic since gaining more writing experience. So let’s dig into head hopping: what it is, why it causes problems, and what our options are—as well as how we can avoid the “lazy writing” trap.

What Is Head Hopping?

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 point of view (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 from writing craft instructors.

Why Is Head Hopping a Problem?

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 consider why floating POVs might be bad regardless.

Readers Connect to Our Stories through Our Characters

To encourage readers to care about our story and make it feel meaningful, we often focus on creating sympathetic characters and placing them in situations with stakes or consequences. Over the last few decades, more writers have chosen to write in deep POV to create stronger connections.

Anything that creates stronger connections to characters is good for keeping readers in the story. Anything that breaks or weakens connections is bad for reader immersion.

Floating POVs (head hopping), unclear POV scenes, or even too-frequent switches of non-hopping POVs can all discourage strong connections between readers and characters. Unless other aspects of the story carry them along, unconnected readers might not care enough about the outcome to finish the book.

Head Hopping Is Bad Because…

Head hopping is bad—not because the rule exists, but because anything that impedes readers from connecting to our characters or story is bad.

Why is head hopping a problem for our writing? Click To Tweet(And yes, we should carefully look at every POV change to ensure we’re not damaging the reader’s connection to the story by leaving readers unanchored or without a hook to continue reading, etc.)

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.

What about Author X or Y Who Head Hops?

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.”

(Note that scene here refers to a story-scene, with an emotional arc, and not necessarily a setting-scene, with a change in time or place. Romance authors frequently take a big plot event and switch POV part-way (with a line break or other signal)—after the first POV character reaches their emotional realization about the event—so each POV scene acts as a complete mini-story. The signaling and the mini-story aspect make this completely different from head hopping, which switches POV whenever “convenient” for sharing information.)

Deep POV Changes Our Options

Some of those big-name authors started writing before deep POV became the goal. Maybe they don’t write in deep POV at all, or maybe they’ve simply been writing so long that readers are used to their head-hopping style.

None of that changes how deep POV makes head hopping more noticeable and problematic. Instead of an experience of shallowly dipping into different characters like a rock skipping across a water surface, readers in deep POV can feel like they become the character, with all their thoughts and feelings.

Why can't we “get away with” head hopping like long-time authors? Click To TweetThat mental/emotional connection is great for making readers turn pages, but pulling readers out from one mental, emotional, and physical sense of self and plopping them into another one without warning can create an identity crisis. In deep POV, un-signaled changes are like an out-of-body experience.

How are we defining deep POV here? If a story uses a character’s voice for narrative introspection/internal monologue, we need a transition between each character’s POV. Otherwise, we risk confusing the reader, taking them out of the story, and breaking the reader’s connection to the characters.

(Omniscient (or other shallow-style) POV can reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings, but filter words and other techniques are used to keep the reader on the outside looking in rather than on the inside looking out. Omni uses the overall narrative voice for those insights rather than the character’s internal voice.)

Learn to Avoid Head Hopping for Each Type

Now that we know why we want to avoid head hopping, we need to learn how. The techniques we use to fix head-hopping problems depend on the type of head hopping we have in a story.

Writers can head hop unintentionally or intentionally:

It’s the intentional type of head hopping that deserves the “lazy writing” label. It’s lazy because it relies on head hopping rather than finding a better way to share information with readers.

Let’s look at those better ways and see what options we have…

6 Steps to Avoid the “Need” to Head Hop

Intentional head hopping occurs when writers think a character other than the scene’s POV character needs to share information with readers. (If they were the POV character for the scene, the information could be shared the usual way. The problem is getting the non-POV character to share.)

Step 1: Question Whether Readers Really Need This Information

Sometimes the information we think readers need to know, they don’t actually need. We can run into this problem with backstory tidbits or other information dumps as well, and similar questions apply:

  • Is the information relevant to this story (and not simply an interesting point)?
  • Without the context for a character’s actions or motivations, would readers lose their connection to the story?
  • What’s the minimum amount of information readers need to maintain a connection to the story?

Step 2: Question Whether Readers Need the Information Now

Even if the reader needs the information for necessary context and connection, we have to ask if they need the information now, when the character doesn’t own the POV.

  • Is now when it’s relevant?
  • Will readers by confused if they don’t get the context now?
  • Will readers lose connection to the story if they don’t learn the information now?

Step 3: Double Check Our Answers

In many cases, even if information is relevant and would provide context, readers won’t be confused if they don’t get it.

Confusion can be bad in a story, as readers might back up to try to make sense of everything. Confusion can lead to readers having a weaker connection to the story.

But readers having questions can be good. Questions keep readers engaged and turning pages, so we should ask ourselves again:

  • Will readers by confused if they don’t get the context now?
  • Or will they simply have questions?

If readers will just have questions, we can continue revealing hints throughout the story, extending the tension of the secret. The character might even get a POV scene later to share their thoughts with readers.

Step 4: Decide When to Share the Information

Even if we confirm that readers need the information now, we might be able to share or hint at the information earlier in the story.

Readers need info from a different character? 6 steps to avoid head hopping Click To TweetFor example, if the character who’s not a POV character in the scene is a POV character in other scenes, we might be able to get the information across earlier, during one of their scenes. A non-POV character’s actions that don’t make sense in the moment might make sense if we’ve already heard their thoughts about their fears, goals, or motivations.

Or if they don’t have any POV scenes, an earlier scene might still provide a smoother opportunity for us to share the information. It might come up in conversation or be revealed by their reactions to related issues.

Step 5: Decide How Much Information to Share

Remember our answer for the last question of Step 1:

  • What’s the minimum amount of information readers need to maintain a connection to the story?

We might know that our non-POV character is reluctant to get involved with the quest because their last partner/mentee died or was captured or whatever, but readers usually don’t need to know all the details to maintain their connection.

Readers usually just need to know there are reasons for their reluctance beyond simply creating more obstacles for our hero. So anything that even hints at the fact those reasons exist can be enough to keep readers invested.

The full scope can be revealed later, woven throughout the story when it feels natural. And even by the end of the story, subtext is often better at keeping readers engaged than spoon-feeding information.

Sharing via subtext versus sharing via spoon-feeding is similar to the issue of showing vs. telling. Usually, we want to show rather than tell to make readers feel more involved with the story, and the same applies to how we share information (with exceptions for certain genres, styles, etc.).

Step 6: Decide How to Share the Information

Despite what we might think when we’re first learning writing craft, there are many non-head-hopping ways to get information across to readers.

These techniques take more work on our part (i.e., not “lazy writing”) because they might not come as naturally to us as telling/head hopping, but readers will understand them just as well because it’s how the real world works. In the real world, we don’t know others’ thoughts or feelings unless we intuit, guess, or they tell us in some way. *smile*

Sharing from the Non-POV Character

The non-POV character can hint at the information through:

  • straight dialogue (for more subtlety, reveal through interrogation, argument, boasting, etc.)
  • outbursts (frustrated characters might reveal what’s really bothering them, etc.)
  • interrupted dialogue (they start explaining but cut their words off)
  • mumbling under their breath
  • tone of voice or speech patterns
  • other verbalizations (clearing throat, grunting, sighing, etc.)
  • facial expressions (rolling eyes, winking, wincing, etc.)
  • body language (crossing arms, tapping foot, stumbling, etc.)
  • reactions to situations (changing subject, needing personal space, delaying an answer, etc.)
  • conscious choices (who they decide to save, what they deem important enough to defend, etc.)
  • character interactions (who they befriend, who they struggle with or dislike, how they treat others, etc.)

The Emotion Thesaurus is great for helping us with those physical cues non-POV characters can do to reveal their thoughts or emotions. One of the co-authors of the ET, Angela Ackerman, guest posted here with a whole list of how to hint that a non-POV character is lying.

Sharing from the POV Character

If we’re careful about keeping in mind what our POV character knows, we won’t run into problems if the POV character hints at the non-POV character’s information through:

Sharing from Other Non-POV Characters

Other non-POV characters can hint at the information to the POV character through:

  • reacting to situations (“Oh, George won’t like that.”)
  • sharing insights (“You didn’t know George before his father died. He was a different man then.”)
  • character interactions (“Let me introduce my good friend, George. He’s helped me bury the bodies, so to speak.”)

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned above, I’m always thrown out of the story by head hopping (no matter if the author is supposedly doing it the “right” way, such as with a baton pass transition). So I don’t believe there’s really a “right” way to do it, especially if we’re writing in deep POV.

For me, the question isn’t “Can I get away with it?” but “Is the benefit of head hopping in this scene worth the risk of kicking readers out of the immersive experience of the story?” I haven’t found a good reason yet to agree that “the benefit is worth the risk.” *smile*

How can we share information from non-point-of-view characters? Click To TweetAs this post proves (with just the ideas I can think of off the top of my head!), there are many other ways to get across the information we want readers to know.

That’s why head hopping deserves the “lazy writing” (or just plain inexperienced) label. Either way, head hopping is a sign that we have more to learn. *smile*

Have you noticed head hopping in published books? Did it bother you or throw you out of the story, or did you skim over it without trouble? Do you head hop (or did you head hop in the past)? Will this post help you avoid it in the future? Do you agree or disagree about head hopping being a sign of lazy writing?

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Rachel capps

Head hopping always interrupts the flow of a book and unless the story shines, I’ll put the book down.

dolorah at book lover

Head hopping gets extremely confusing. Like, trying to listen to too many conversations in a room at one time. I do feel lazy when I catch those errors in my own writing.

Renee Regent

Thank you for the in-depth look at my number one pet peeve! It irritates me as a reader and a writer. I agree there *may* be some places where it works, but I avoid it. It really pulls me out as a reader, so it would not occur to me to do it as a writer.

Desertphile

Thank you; a fine article. I have met a few people in real life who “head hop” when conversing, and it’s impossible to follow what they are saying. When I encounter similar writing I cease reading.

Jocelyn
Jocelyn

Thanks for breaking it down so well. I am learning the craft and had heard the ‘don’t’ but not so well defined as in how to address it if you felt the urge to hop. Having recently moved, I’d quickly boxed up all my keeper books and am now in the process of slowly going through them. I found an oldie from 1974 that I’m reading through and was surprised to note that some paragraphs have three different POVs in them. I don’t know if I noticed it then, but I sure do now.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Expectations are an important thing for sure. I wouldn’t be bothered by head-hopping for pre-21st century books, or for Chinese books. But I would be more startled by head-hopping in English 21st century novels, lol.

I like your tips on whether to share information from a non-POV character or not, and the different ways you could hint at such information without head-hopping. Lol, I use the “POV character speculates on the motives of non-POV character” method a lot. I also like the conversational hints, e.g. a character suddenly talking quickly for no reason, or a character pausing mid-sentence and then restarting with something suspiciously evasive. XD

As both a reader and a writer, I’m definitely fond of not knowing a character’s true motives until much later on. Suspense is good!

Hey, I realized recently that in some ways, first person narratives are more straightforward. The rules seem much clearer in first person: the narrator simply cannot describe what they cannot see, though they can still guess at something they can’t see.

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[…] relationships quickly, Nils Odlund introduces character agency for beginners, Jami Gold explains why head hopping is considered lazy writing, K.M. Weiland explores several POV problems, and Fae Rowan talks about world building using […]

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