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Rules with a Reason # 2 - No Head Hopping

by Dina Sleiman

Most authors get tired of hearing about “the rules” of good fiction writing. In my role as a content editor for WhiteFire Publishing, I've had to learn to get to the heart of these rules. Now I am not a person to observe rules for the sake of rules. And I'll be quick to say that some writers cling to them too closely. But most of these rules serve a greater purpose. (Check out my Rules with a Reason #1 post here)

The rule I would like to discuss today is "no head hopping." For the uninitiated who might be reading this post, that means no switching from one point of view to another mid-scene without warning. This rule has a very good reason: you don't want to confuse your reader. In my last post I mentioned that we want our readers to feel like they are living out a fictional dream. In order to do that, they need to understand whose head, and even body, they should be experiencing a scene from.

Back in the 1800s, a lot of authors used a true omniscient narrator. Think Jane Austen. The book opens with a narrator, a sort of character in their own right, telling us a story. They magically wander from one person's thoughts to another, and to some degree this works. But omniscient narrators create a few problems. 1) They are not currently trendy in Christian fiction. 2) Some genres do not allow for them. 3) They can create a greater distance between the reader and the story and make it harder to create a fictional dream world. 4) They are more likely to fall into telling rather than showing. (See rule #1) So I don't personally advise that new writers use omniscient, as it seems to be the hardest to master.

But head hopping is a little different. It is when the author jumps from head to head within a third person multiple point of view novel. Of course you can switch points of view (thus the "multiple" part of the name), but you should do so clearly by utilizing a scene or chapter break and then setting the reader firmly in the perspective of the new point of view character. If you don't do this, here's what will happen. You are reading along thinking you are in John's point of view. Then John has a thought that the guy across the room is super hot. Wait! Is the romantic hero in my Christian novel gay? What just happened? So the reader flips back several pages and realizes at some point the scene switched to Marsha's thoughts. Okay, fine, Marsha would totally think that. Except that the reader is now completely out of the story and the fictional dream and wasting time by rereading.

Some writers just skip a space instead of inserting a chapter or scene break. The main problem with this method is that ereaders often delete the space, thus creating a head hopping type experience. Also, some authors think that if they clearly delineate the hand-off from one character's head to another's, that all is well. Two problems with that. 1) What is clear to them might not be clear to the reader. 2) A one sentence hand off is easy for a lazy reader to miss, but a scene break is hard to miss.

Let me mention that you can have point of view confusion without head hopping. First of all, to stay firmly planted in a point of view, in that scene you can only think and sense from the point of view character's perspective, so be very careful about that. Mistakes in this area will often be termed as head hopping also.

Second of all, if your point of view character is not named often and/or does not have a distinctive voice from other point of view characters, confusion can still occur as the scene progresses. During a long passage of dialogue, you should continually remind your reader of whose point of view you are in by offering observations from their perspective.

Confusion of this sort often happens in multiple first person point of view. Sometimes you can be a page or two into reading a scene before you finally figure out whose point of view you are actually in. Even if you put names in italics at the beginning of a chapter or scene to delineate the point of view character, if the point of view voices aren't significantly different, your reader might get lost and forget whose point of view they are in midway through the scene.

So "no head hopping" is all about avoiding reader confusion and helping them to better enter the fictional dream world, both worthy goals. For an interesting article in defense of head hopping, check out this post by Anne Elisabeth Stengl. (click here) I think you'll find that she voices the same concerns, but from the opposite viewpoint.

What is the worst example you've seen of head hopping? Are there any points of view you especially love or avoid?
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Dina Sleiman writes stories of passion and grace. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. She also serves as an acquisitions and content editor for WhiteFire Publishing. Check out her novels Dance from Deep Within, Dance of the Dandelion, and Love in Three-Quarter Time, and look for her Valiant Hearts series coming with Bethany House Publishers in 2015 For more info visit her at http://dinasleiman.com/

Comments

  1. Because I cut my writing teeth trying to emulate '80s historical and contemporary romance, finding out I wasn't supposed to head hop was a huge shocker for me. I understand WHY, now, just like I now understand the importance of not having characters whose eyeballs get pinned to objects and other characters. The funny thing, I never noticed those things as a reader until someone pointed them out. :)
    At the seminar I was at last week Jeff Gerke mentioned the omniscient POV being used more in Christian spec fiction and sci fi, which I found interesting. Not my favorite to read. I prefer third-person multiple POVs (no more than 2 in a single story, though) and the occasional first-person present tense.

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    1. Niki, as a reader, I never thought of eyeballs actually being pinned to objects either because it made sense that the writer was using creative license to get her point across.

      And truth to tell, I still use it if it fulfills the need.

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    2. I definitely have people rolling their eyes. That's the only expression we have in English to describe that gesture.

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  2. I have a harder time getting drawn into omniscient, but I usually end up liking it one I do. And I actually love first person.

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  3. I used to read an author in spite of the serious head-hopping. I'm pretty much of a purist in that area when reading - and I try pretty hard when writing. But when this author went into the viewpoints of two sisters in one paragraph, all three sisters' viewpoints on that very same page, and also included their horse's viewpoint on that same page, I closed the book and never read a book by that once favorite author again.

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  4. Great post. Some authors still write a lot of head hopping, but I really notice it now, compared to ten years ago. I try hard to deepen my characters' POVs by staying in their heads.

    Suzie, a horse's POV? How funny!

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  5. That's true, Susie, the trend is toward deep POV. Hopping might make more sense if the POV is shallow. But I love deep POV. I want to feel like I'm reading a first person close up narrator, even if the book is in third person.

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  6. I read the other article with interest. I think 'readers' don't notice it as much as writers do. I'm surprised how many top selling authors head-hop or use omniscient. Especially in mystery. I generally hang in to find out whodunit but of course part of that is just a compelling story and interesting characters. One of the first rules I learned and I don't think this is one to toss away is: put the POV in the head of the character with the most to lose in a particular scene.
    thanks for a great post!

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    1. Yeah, it's all in how well you do something.

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  7. Thanks for the reminder, Dina. I found head-hopping the easiest to correct of all my flaws when I started writing professionally.

    Deep POV was explained to me this way: Point of view means the person has a camera on their shoulder and the reader only gets to see and hear what the person wearing the camera sees and hears.
    But deep POV is when you ARE the camera and not only do you see and hear, but you also feel and think.

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    1. Yep, I've used that illustration in my teaching before.

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  8. Oh, Anita, I love that explanation. Very nice and relatable.

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    1. Thanks Suzie, I first heard of the camera angle when I sat in on a Margie Lawson Deep EDITS workshop at ACFW many years ago. I remember using lots of colored highlighters. I continue to use the same system when I need a visual of my wip.

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