Head Hopping: Save Yourself and Your Readers from the Whiplash
All right, folks, the topic I’m tackling this week is one that’s near and dear to my heart. I promise you, that is not because I’m a fan of it. *cringes, shudders, and generally attempts not to turn green at the writerly gills* The reason I hold it so bizarrely dear is because I used to be an offender of the utmost caliber. I’m talking epically impressive levels. (A little later in this post, I’ll even share a few shining examples. Prepare yourself, it’s ugly.)
Sadly, head-hopping is one of those things where, if no one has pointed it out to you, or you don’t know what it is, there’s a good chance you’re guilty of an offence or two. Or twelve billion. Because, let’s be honest, it’s so easy to do. And what’s worse? When it’s your words, it can be hard to spot. Especially if you don’t know to look for it. If you don’t know any better, it makes sense you might employ it as a tactic to show your readers what you perceive to be as much information as possible.
Unfortunately, that’s almost the exact opposite of what it does. If anything, readers step away more confused than anything.
So, let’s start with the basics here. What even is head-hopping?
It usually takes place in stories written in third-person, although it is possible to occur in first. But let’s be real here for a minute… if this happens to a writer in first POV, it’s likely a mistake and will be corrected in edits. Ergo, I’m going to skip discussing first POV head-hopping, as I have faith my readers won’t fall victim to that beyond simple “oopsie” moments.
Third-person limited is the most widely accepted narrative format. (That’s not to say it’s the best, just that it tends to be the most prevalent… you keep doing you if your style doesn’t fit the collective norm! *pom-poms* We need diversity in all areas!) In third-person limited, you write one POV at a time with distinct breaks—chapter or scene—that signify the switch from one character’s thoughts to another’s. This helps build character voice and keep the reader on track with who is thinking what and from whom they are viewing the situation.
When you get inside multiple characters’ heads within a single scene—switching sometimes even within a single paragraph—you leave the reader disoriented and can destroy both character voice and author voice. This, my lovelies, is head-hopping.
It often leaves your readers confused and, in the best-case scenarios, can send them re-reading to try and figure out who was thinking what, who was doing what, etc. In the worst-case, it can result in the loss of a reader. If they can’t keep track of what’s going down on the page, they aren’t going to stick around. Reading shouldn’t be work, and most pleasure readers—also known as “most fiction readers”—don’t want to put an inordinate amount of effort into their reads. They expect to be drawn in by beautiful prose and loveable characters, not to be bamboozled by difficult-to-follow narratives.
Let’s look at an example, shall we?
In that short snippet from one of my pre-beta reader days’ manuscripts (horrifying, I know), I somehow managed to include three—count ‘em, three—POVs in an insanely short span of time. In fact, in one paragraph, I include both Zane and Emma’s POVs. *facepalm*
Now, I know you’re being plunked into a scene you know nothing about, but how do you feel reading those lines? Probably more confused than you should be, considering it’s a straightforward premise. And aren’t you at least the teensiest bit irritated and eye-rolly over the fact that I’m telling you how all three of them feel?
Sadly, confusion isn’t the only repercussion of head-hopping. It isn’t even, in my humble opinion, the worst outcome. Because when a writer tries to fit every characters’ thoughts and feelings into a single scene, the result is not only a loss of voice—both character and author—but also a loss of deep POV.
Deep POV is a beautiful, beautiful thing that is impossible to achieve with head hopping. You can’t get down into the inner depths of a character’s very being when you’re seeing a scene only partially from their POV… or worse, if the scene ends up playing out twice so it can, essentially, be shown from both POVs. I’ve seen a few examples of this lately and all I can say is: ouch. It’s painful enough as a reader to be bouncing around multiple heads. But when you see a scene (or even a snippet of a scene) from one character’s POV, then the very next paragraph is that exact same scene/snippet only from a different POV… ladies and gentlemen, the cringe is real. Trust me.
Without deep POV and character voice, it’s difficult for a reader to connect with the characters to the extent you want them to. When they’re ping-ponging back and forth from one POV to the other, they aren’t given a chance to settle into a single person’s head and get to know them. And if a reader can’t connect with your characters, they’re going to have a hard time caring about your story. The suspense will fall flat, the tension will feel contrived, and the emotion won’t hit home.
I think it’s about time for another embarrassing example, don’t you? This is from a little later in the previously depicted scene.
Again, I know you guys have no clue what’s happening here but let me say this: it’s an intensely emotional scene. All three characters are battling their own demons. However, rather than focusing in on a single POV to really show just how deep and complex those emotions go, I barely skim the surface for each of them. It prevents the reader from really feeling their pain or empathizing with their struggle.
So, what’s the take away from this post? That’s easy. Take a good, hard look at your writing—or, even better, get a trusted beta reader or CP to do it for you—and determine if you’re guilty of this writerly faux pas. If you discover you are? Great! That’s the first step to fixing the problem. Because, trust me, once you figure out what head hopping is, it will become glaringly (and painfully) obvious from then on out. Because, yes, if you’re ignorant to it, stomaching a read rife with head hopping might not appear distressing. Which is often why writers guilty of this argue that it’s okay to do, because readers who aren’t writers and don’t understand the rules won’t care.
But here’s the thing, folks. Just because someone doesn’t know something is wrong doesn’t mean it won’t affect their read, or their perception of the words they’re ingesting. The facts stated above will still remain. Your readers will get confused, and they will struggle to connect to the characters and the story. So, save yourself, but most especially, save your readers and avoid this writerly snafu at all costs.
Until next time,