A Heads Up on Head Hopping

Head hopping. If you say those words in a group of writers – particularly if they all write in different genres – be prepared for a bumpy ride. Everyone has an opinion, and no two are alike.

First off, for those of you not blessed with the trial-by-fire education I recieved on the subject, let me clue you in on what head hopping is. It’s all about point of view – who’s “head” you’re in when you are reading the scene. Is it from the heroine’s point of view? The hero? The protagonist? When one head hops, you switch point of view in the middle of a scene without a break. (Yes, Virginia, switching between point of view at a scene break or chapter is okay. To everyone. Maybe.)

Anyway, on with our regularly scheduled argument…

So head hopping, to romance writers, is bad. Like completely unforgivable. Go to an RWA function and ask about head hopping, they’ll nail you every time. Go to a sci fi writers conference, and they probably won’t have the same opinion. Ditto for mystery or general fiction. They do it all the time. Oh, there is the odd duck who will argue head hopping is just bad craft, but it’s honestly not that big a deal with those folks.

So enter me, having grown up reading mostly sci fi, fantasy and mystery novels. When I wrote my first book, I wrote the sucker from an omniscient point of view (knowing all that is going on in all character’s heads) and with a good bit of head hopping. That’s what I grew up reading. Well, kind of. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to learn a little more about craft, I realize just how poorly written that thing is. Still, I have no issues with head hopping, as long as it’s done in such a way I can keep up with it.

So why am I waffling on about this today? (And it is waffling, since I can’t seem to type two sentences in a row today without someone needing something from me – does any of this make sense?) During son #3’s baseball practice, I was reading a book by a favorite mystery author of mine. She’s an amazing writer, and even though she writes in limited third (from the heroine’s point of view only), she’s so deep in her character’s head that I’m sometimes startled to find out she’s not writing in first person. She will occasionally – like once a book – do a little head hopping, but I can keep up with it so it doesn’t bug me.

Then in the last book I read, she jumped into our hero’s head – for one scene. Out of the whole book, just one scene. But I dismissed it and moved on. In the book I’m reading now, early on she wrote a scene from a minor character’s point of view. Again, just one scene. But what really got me thinking about point of view and head hopping was toward the end of the book, she suddenly switched into omniscient third – describing what the people at the table didn’t know was happening behind them. I stopped, re-read the page, and thought, “Where the hell did that come from?”

Totally threw me out of the story. That, in my definition, is bad craft. And saying that about this author kills me. Especially since she makes a helluva lot more money at this than I do. But still, her consistent and clean writing from her earlier books is becoming sloppier and with things thrown in to suit her purposes. The thing that really cheeses me is the omniscient paragraph was unnecessary. When X, Y and Z later happened, the reader would have realized what had gone on without the author  jumping out of the book and beating us over the head with it.

So did I just say in one post that head hopping is okay, but it’s not? No, not really. What the key is, I think, is consistency. If you are going to have a hero’s point of view, using it for one scene is kind of cheap and lazy, I think. And so is jumping to a totally different point of view just to get a point across that could be done in another way. Actors are told not to break character. The same can be said to writers.  If you’re breaking character to slip in a plot point, don’t do it. If the reader is thrown out of the story, don’t do it.

And if you’re a romance writer, God help you if you head hop!



Filed under Craft, It's A Writing Life

8 responses to “A Heads Up on Head Hopping

  1. sandrasookoo

    I use 2 POV’s. I either do one chapter with hers, one with his, etc., or I split each chapter and do half/half. Everyone else doesn’t get a POV. It works for me and I find excessive head hopping is very annoying and most likely, I’ll put the book down and never pick it back up. 🙂

  2. I’ll admit to trying something very different for me with Happy Medium – I am doing most scenes in first person from the heroine’s point of view, but peppering in some third-person from the hero’s POV. It’s just coming to me like that, and it well may bite me in the rump. Who knows?

    But I don’t head hop within scenes anymore. Makes more sense to me to change POV in between scene breaks, if I do it at all.

  3. Oh, I gave up on a specific mystery writer because she started doing that (which makes me wonder if it’s the same author)

    There’s another author who a lot of ppl claim writes romance but she says no, who mixes 3rd person with 1st person. It throws me off when she’ll end one scene in the heroine’s 1st person POV and then start the next section with the Heroine in 3rd person POV. *ugh*

    I think as long as you’re consistent you’re all right. Depending upon your editor of course. Mine? One POV per scene please. Until I make it to La Nora’s level that is. (Ha!)

  4. Oh, that would drive me nuts! The same character in a different POV? Oh heck no. That’s why my hero is always in third, heroine always in first, and I plan to make the transitions VERY clear.

    I’m still having palpitations about it, though. 🙂

  5. The discussion would be so much clearer if we used a term like “POV violation” instead of head-hopping, since head-hopping means, to some people, having too many POV characters per book, even if an author only uses one per scene. 🙂

    I read romance, sci-fi, mystery, whatever, and find that I notice POV violations only sometimes, but that if I’m looking for them later, the writing could always be stronger if the writer didn’t violate POV.

    Something I’m seeing lately (from older books, so it’s not a trend – just coincidence) that really bugs me is sort of a POV violation. I despise when an author, in the middle of a very close 3rd-limited scene, writes something like, “Of course he didn’t know at the time that he’d come to regret the decision, but Jim . . .” Argh! 😉

  6. I am so having this issue. I am having to go through and edit the head hopping problem from my first MS. I think I was writing from the omniscient POV, my husband might argue that I live like that too! 🙂 But it is certainly a challenge as a new writer to rework scenes written one way so that it is in one POV. However, despite my bellyaching I know my MS will be better for it!

  7. Oh yeah, I’ve been pinned many times on the HHing. And yet when I read HHing, usually… I’m not confused. I find the frequent switches in pov natural when I’m reading but here’s the kicker, IF, the transitions are smooth and the reasons for switching are good ones, not just random.

    We grow as writers though. That was my biggest weakness when I started toward publication. And I thought I’d never get the hang of it. Now, sometimes, as you pointed out, I recognize where it isn’t appropriate. And I think, wow, I’m seeing it. I might not have a year ago.

  8. Wow – what a great discussion! And welcome to the blog, all you newcomers!