What’s Wrong With Head-Hopping?

Head Hopping (verb) – The practice of moving from one character’s perspective to another in the middle of a chapter or scene. Widely considered to be poor writing practice, although it does have some staunch defenders out there as well.

If you’re thinking that it sounds a lot like a third-person omniscient perspective, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the two, but they are different.

If you’re writing from the third-person omniscient point of view, the narrator is constant. It knows exactly what’s going on in every character’s head at every point in the story, and it can choose how much of that to reveal at any given moment, but it never jumps into any one character’s head. The reader won’t experience any moments in the story from one particular character’s perspective.

An omniscient narrator is its own technique, and I’m actually planning another blog post on that very topic, so I’m not going to go into any more detail about it now. Moving forwards, in this post I’m talking about a third-person limited perspective, and the problems with head hopping when it comes up in this context.

Head hopping, unlike third-person omniscient, is where a story being told from one person’s point of view switches, mid-action, to another person. It’s like the popular strategy of telling a story from a range of close third-person perspectives, but without waiting for a chapter break to do the switching. To give you an example to look at:

Alice stood up, rolling her shoulders back in an attempt to work the kinks out of her neck. The last thing she wanted to do was escort the new girl around all day, but she didn’t feel like she was being given a choice.

“Come on then,” Alice said, without bothering to hide her irritation.

Penny flinched at the older girl’s tone. It was like hearing her mother’s voice all over again, scolding her for being untidy, forgetful or otherwise imperfect. She gathered her bag and coat up, wondering miserably what it was about her that seemed to provoke that reaction in everybody she met.

Alice waited in the doorway for Penny to catch up. She felt an unpleasant flash of recognition as the new girl shrugged her bag onto her shoulder, her gestures jerky and anxious. It’s like she’s waiting to be kicked.

We start of squarely in Alice’s head, we know her motivations, we know how she’s feeling. And then, without warning, we’re in Penny’s head. We’re getting her thoughts and feelings. Then back to Alice again, and her reaction to Penny’s movements.

What’s the problem?

So, we’ve established what head hopping is, but what’s wrong with it? Some authors will say: nothing. Some people like to use it as a short-cut to giving the reader information that only some characters in a scene are aware of, without making it common knowledge within the story. It can also be used to provide context for the ways in which characters are interacting with each other within a scene. It can allow the unique voices of different characters to shine through, by giving them a chance to share their thoughts directly with the reader, and it can provide a break if the previous point-of-view character is getting a bit stale. For a more detailed look at the pros (as well as the cons) of head hopping, I recommend Jennifer Ellis’ post on the topic. LINK.

Maybe you’re nodding your head reading those, and thinking that head hopping sounds like a useful technique for your own writing. It’s important to be aware though, a lot of editors will see head hopping as a problem to be eliminated, and here are some of the reasons why.

1. IT CAN BE DIFFICULT TO REALLY IDENTIFY WITH ANY ONE CHARACTER

Part of the point of a close third-person perspective is that it allows readers to really identify with one character in particular. Only having one character’s thoughts and feelings might seem like a weakness if you want people to understand all of your characters fully, but if the reader is seeing through two or three different characters’ perspectives in one scene it becomes difficult for them to feel particularly aligned with any of them. It can also be harder to keep track of what the characters understand about each other if, as the reader, you’re in everybody’s heads at once.

2. INCONSISTENT RULES DISORIENTATE YOUR READERS

In so many areas of writing, consistency is key. If you’re telling a story, you (probably) want the reader to be able to forget about the method being used to tell the story and just be immersed in the events and characters. I know when I’m reading one of the primary indications of good writing is that I didn’t even think about the writing until after I’d finished. Head hopping can give a reader pause – it can make them wonder who’s telling the story, and which character’s version of events they’re getting. This may not always be the case, I’ve seen a lot of people argue that they or their readers don’t even notice head hopping, but I know that when I come across it in a story, I find it distracting.

3. USING ONE CONSISTENT PERSPECTIVE CAN BE MUCH MORE POWERFUL

I don’t think any of those advantages of head hopping suggested earlier are only achievable via this method. Sure, it might be an easy way to provide context for another character’s actions mid-scene, or give the reader information that your previous point-of-view character doesn’t have, but I would argue that there are more interesting and impactful ways to achieve this – if it’s even necessary in the first place. If the reader knows what’s going on in every character’s head all of the time it can eliminate a lot of the opportunity for conflict and drama created by a close third-person perspective. When it comes to giving your supporting characters compelling motivations, sure you can just switch to their point of view to explain them, but I think it’s far more compelling if those motivations are uncovered through the course of the story, or hinted at through dialogue and gestures, so that the reader has an opportunity to put things together for themselves. And if you’re just worried that the reader needs a break from your main character’s perspective, maybe there are better ways to fix that than head hopping!

Re-writing without head hopping

If you’re looking at a piece of writing with a bunch of head hopping that you now want to avoid, the first thing you want to do is decide which perspective you want to stick to. This is a big deal, because it can significantly change the way your reader experiences the story. If we go back to the example from earlier, and put it purely in Alice’s point of view, we get this:

Alice stood up, rolling her shoulders back in an attempt to work the kinks out of her neck. The last thing she wanted to do was escort the new girl around all day, but she didn’t feel like she was being given a choice.

“Come on then,” Alice said, without bothering to hide her irritation.

Penny flinched and started to gather her bag and coat.

Alice waited in the doorway for Penny to catch up. She felt an unpleasant flash of recognition as the new girl shrugged her bag onto her shoulder, her gestures jerky and anxious. It’s like she’s waiting to be kicked.

Without the context of Penny’s thought process the reader might have a little more sympathy for Alice’s frustration. If nothing else, we’re at least fully embedded in her experience. The fact that she’s physically uncomfortable, and there’s something in the new girl’s behaviour that’s reminding her of something she doesn’t seem to want to be reminded of. How about if we take the scene from Penny’s perspective?

Alice stood up and rolled her shoulders back.

“Come on then,” She said, without bothering to hide her irritation.

Penny flinched at the older girl’s tone. It was like hearing her mother’s voice all over again, scolding her for being untidy, forgetful or otherwise imperfect. She gathered her bag up, wondering miserably what it was about her that seemed to provoke that reaction in everybody she met.

Alice waited in the doorway for her to catch up, and Penny shrugged her bag onto her shoulder. Her movements felt awkward and jerky, and she was hyper-aware of each extra second she was taking. A strange look flashed across Alice’s face, something like distaste, but it was gone by the time Penny reached her.

In this version we get to inhabit Penny’s discomfort. We still know that Alice is annoyed, but we don’t know anything else about her, and the focus is completely on how that annoyance affects Penny.

Whether you prefer Alice’s or Penny’s point of view depends on the story you want to tell, but I would argue that either is more impactful, and contains the potential for greater storytelling, than the head hopping version.

But maybe you disagree! If you think head hopping is an underrated technique, or you want to recommend an example of it being used to great effect, I’d love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments. And if you’re worried about head hopping in your own work, maybe you’d like an editor to take a look? I have some availability in October if you’re interested, just putting it out there…

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