Friday, September 7, 2018

Head-hopping: What It Is, Why it Sucks, And How To Avoid It In Your Writing

I'm going to take a wild guess and say that you don't know what the term "head-hopping" means. And, if you do know what it means, I'll go ahead and guess that this practice drives you insane.

I fall into the latter group of people who know about and despise head-hopping. Of course. I always fall into the group of people that knows about an obscure thing and wants to tell everybody about said obscure thing. It's kind of annoying, yet you keep coming back and reading this blog. Why?

Meh. That's a question for another time.

For all you muggles out there, let's start out by defining head-hopping.

Head-hopping: What It Is, Why it Sucks, And How To Avoid It In Your Writing

What is head-hopping? 

Head-hopping is when the point-of-view characters switches (or, as we writers call it: "hops") within the same scene.

Now, some of you more brave souls may attempt to defy me and say: Hannah, that's not head-hopping, that's omniscient narrative.

To this I say: You dare question me, mortal?? FOOL.

Ahem. Kidding. To this I say: No, head-hopping is not the same thing as omniscient narrative. Nice try, though.

Omniscient narrative is when an all-knowing narrator tells the story and gives us a bird's eye view of a character's thoughts/feelings. It only has one voice (the narrator). Head-hopping happens in third person limited and deep POV. Third person limited is when the narrator only knows the thoughts of one character per scene. Deep POV is third person as well, but there is no narrator. Rather, a scene is told entirely from the POV of a single character, and this character is not aware that they are narrating a story.

So, that explained, head-hopping is when a scene is supposed to be told from Bob's point of view, but, about half way through, you slip up and end up telling it from Mary's point of view. For example, here is a scene from Bob's POV with no head-hopping:

Bob was never a huge fan of Batman, but Mary was quite obsessed with him. So, here he was, bingeing Batman films with her. Reaching for a handful of popcorn, he glanced at Mary. Was she buying his enthusiasm? He really just wanted to eat popcorn in silence, but it was either watch a Batman movie or talk about a Batman movie, so this seemed to be the safest option. 

Now, here's that same scene, but with head-hopping:

Bob was never a huge fan of Batman, but Mary was quite obsessed with him. So, here he was, bingeing Batman films with her. Reaching for a handful of, he glanced at Mary. She frowned at the idiot and his fake smile. Did he think she didn't know that he'd rather be stuffing his face with popcorn in his man cave? 

See the red part? That's where the paragraph shifts from Bob's perspective to Mary's, and thus spirals into head-hopping. Why is this a bad thing? *rolls up sleeves* How long have you got?

Mace Windu gif - Take a seat, young Skywalker

Why head-hopping is the worst.

Okay, so maybe it's not "the worst." I mean, I can think of a few other things that are more horrible. Like Dolores Umbridge. Or people who try to explain why Jar-Jar Binks is actually a good character. But...that's about it. Here's why:

It's confusing to your readers. Readers go into a scene expecting it to be told from one POV. They may not know that they're expecting this, but they are. So, when you start jumping around from character to character, things get blurred. Readers have a hard time differentiating between your characters. They confuse Bob's thoughts and emotions with Mary's thoughts and emotions and vice versa.

It makes you look lost. Just pick a character POV, man! It's not hard. But, by head-hopping, it makes you look like you don't know how POV works. And, well...if you are head-hopping, you probably don't. Aside from making you come across as the galaxy's most confused Padawan, it also makes you seem indecisive. Like you can't pick which scenes should be from which character. It's not a good look.

It yanks your reader out of the story. Who is talking right now? Bob or Mary? Which is which? Head-hopping forces your readers to pause and ask these questions. They have to try to decipher which character is thinking/feeling what. This pulls them out of the narrative, which is a huge no-no when it comes to wanting to engage your readers.

When head-hopping is okay. 


Okay, let's move on. 

Just kidding. If you're like me, you're an annoying innovative person who always wants to challenge writing rules. That's cool. We can talk about that. Head-hopping, while wrong 99% of the time, can be pulled off when: 

You know that you're doing it. Look. If you're looking over your manuscript and thinking, "I head-hop, I just didn't realize it until now," then you're disqualified from using head-hopping. It only works if you are hyper-aware of the fact that you are doing it because it's important that...

You're doing it for a reason. Now, there are a several reasons for head-hopping. I personally think that most of them are no good, but some decent ones are: 
  • The scene calls for showing multiple character experiences. For instance, if you write romance and want to highlight the relationship by telling both character's emotions/thoughts, head-hopping may be okay. Or maybe you're writing a death scene and want to intimately show how that death affects multiple characters. Head-hopping may be okay in these scenarios, but also begs the question: Are you head-hopping because you are lazy or because you can't decide what POV to tell this scene from? If so: Don't. 
  • You're writing not-super-limited-third person. The tighter you are to your character, the more jarring the head-hop. If your third person POV is fairly distant, head-hopping is slightly more permissible. More distant third person was fairly common back in the 1800s which is why head-hopping tends to be more accepted in classic literature.
You are signaling that head-hopping is happening. In my Bob and Mary paragraph, I switched character POV mid-paragraph. Super annoying. However, if I wanted to give my reader a heads-up that I'm about to start hopping, I would switch POV by opening a new paragraph. Preferably with the new paragraph starting with the new POV character's name. This gives your reader a nice clue that the POV has shifted.
Willy Wonka gif - Hold on, everybody. Here it comes!

You're writing an experimental story. Have at it, dude. Just...make sure that you're making sense. 

How you can avoid head-hopping. 

Okay, let's discuss how to fix this problem.

Pick a POV character and stick. with. that. character. Every time you enter a new scene, choose your POV character and be sure to only tell the scene from their POV. Write their name on a sticky note and slap it on your computer screen if you need a reminder. 

If you want to switch POV, do a paragraph break or open a new chapter. It is 100% okay to switch POV if you do so by starting a new scene. This is very normal. Obviously, this doesn't work if you are writing from only one POV. 

Make sure you are using the correct POV style for your story. If you frequently find yourself head-hopping or wanting to head-hop, it is very possible that your story shouldn't be told in deep or limited-third person (or that it needs to be told from dual or multiple POVs, not just one). Maybe you should try first person, or omniscient, or multiple POV. Heck, you could even try objective. You do you. 

That's it. Head-hopping is really easy to avoid once you realize that it's a problem that exists. Keep your eyes open and you should be okay. 

Now that you've read this entire post, I feel obligated to state: If you didn't know about head-hopping previous to the post, I apologize. Why? Because you will now start noticing it everywhere. It's a curse, really. But I'm kind of tired of being the only one plagued by it, so I've decided to pass it on to you all. 

Want more POV nerdy goodness? Check out this Phoenix Fiction Writers podcast about writing third person POV. Myself, J.E. Purrazzi, and Janelle Garrett geek out about POV. Jill is a Deep POV expert and Janelle hates head-hopping even more than I do. Impressive.

Also check out my posts on how to write multiple POVs, deep POV, and tips for transitioning from scene to scene.

Have any questions or comments about head-hopping? Let's hear 'em in the comment section below!

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  1. The fact that I knew about head-hopping before I read this post (I just didn't call it that but guessed it was that from its name- you get what I'm saying) pleases my nerdy heart a little.
    As a matter of fact, I head hopped a lot in my first novel, but never, ever inside a single chapter. Whenever I switched povs, I always switched chapters and I think that's not too bad. In fact, if done right, it can even better your book. Rick Riordan does it skilfully in Heroes of Olympus. If you wanna head-hop, do it like Rick, or don't- that's what I believe.

    1. Hey Anisha! *nerd high five* Go you!

      What you described about your novel actually isn't head-hopping, but rather is referred to as writing from multiple POVs. Head-hopping is specific to switching POVs within a scene...multiple POV is switching POVs after a scene or chapter break. Multiple POV writing is 100% acceptable and really cool, so good for you!

  2. You're not the only one plagued by head-hopping. It's really frustrating and annoying as a reader :P Thank you for educating the world!

  3. I didn't know what it was called before, but I had run across it earlier in the summer when reading The Unwanteds–so annoying!!!

  4. I actually did already know about head-hopping, but this post was very helpful in clarifying the issue. Plus, you mentioned some areas where it might be okay and how classic literature used it. Thanks for the help understanding head-hopping better than ever!

  5. The only time I've used it on purpose was a group walking in silence. I jumped from head to head showing what they were thinking and why they were not talking. Each one assessing the problem at hand differently and pointing to a different solution. It worked well

  6. I head hop during possessions only and I still use new paragraphs. Now I go back in time and retell part of a scene from another character’s POV in the next chapter but that is for continuity. I’ve never published and have four completed manuscripts. I write for pleasure and edit for pain.

  7. What about the book ,'Carry on' which is written by Rainbow Rowell .In it she shifts the POV (a lot in some chapters) from Baz to Simon to Penny? Despite the head hopping the book is awesome.Without the different POVs I don't think the book would have been that good so can head hopping actually be good in some places if you tell the reader that you are shifting the pov?

  8. THANK YOU! FINALLY someone explained Deep POV and Third Person in a way that makes sense to me!
    Even without all the stuff about head-hopping (I was the one who didn't realuze... ), this would have made the article well worth reading.
    And then there *IS* all that head hopping stuff!
    Great article, Hannah!

  9. Head hop is not wrong nor annoying when the writer does it right actually


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