Pick a head and stay there

If you’re in my writers group, or if you’ve ever received a critique from me, you can skip this post, because you’ve heard me harp on head-hopping before. This is definitely one of my hang-ups as an editor, and it’s also probably the mistake most often made by new writers; I’ve only read one or two unpublished, third-person manuscripts in which head-hopping wasn’t an issue.

Head-hopping is when you takes your reader inside more than one person’s head in a single scene. A scene can be written from a distance, in which everything described is something that a third party could observe. But the minute you get inside someone’s head–by revealing his direct thoughts, motivation, or perception of events–you really ought to stay there. Here’s why:

  • Head-hopping makes your reader dizzy–or it gives her a head-hopping headache. She’s reading along, seeing the world approximately the way your character Tom sees it. But then, wait a minute, now she’s seeing the world the way Jamie sees it. But not for long, because now she’s seeing it the way Tom sees it again. Imagine if you were actually inside your characters’ bodies, and you literally jumped out of their body every time point of view shifted. It’s jarring and exhausting. Worst of all, it makes your reader have to work harder than you want her to. You may have put great effort into writing your story, but you  want it to be effortless to read.
  • Head-hopping decreases your reader’s intimacy with your characters. We read fiction because we identify with at least one character and want to see that character succeed. But if you’re only giving readers short peeks into different characters’ points of view, the intimacy you want your reader to feel with your characters quickly disintegrates. You want your reader to feel “right there” with your character, as if she is your character. And jumping out of your viewpoint character’s perspective shreds that sense of intimacy.
  • Head-hopping decreases dramatic tension. The constant question on your reader’s mind should be, “What happens next?” By revealing the inner workings of more than one character in the same scene, you’ve robbed your reader of the thrill of wondering. Your reader should wonder, “Wow, why is Jamie acting that way?” By hopping into Jamie’s point of view mid-scene, you burst the bubble of dramatic tension that’s key to the success of your story.

Now, I know every writer likes to think her story is the exception to the rule. Here are some common justifications writers give for head-hopping.

  • “Such-and-such published writer head hops all the time!” For every rule in the book, you’ll find a published writer who breaks it. But until you’ve mastered the craft enough to consciously rule break, or until you have an editor with a publishing house who is giving her blessing to your rule-breaking, make your story as easy to read as possible. And that means, nix the head-hopping.
  • “My story is told third-person, not first-person! I can get into as many heads as I want in a third-person narrative.” Technically, this is true. But it’s still not a good idea. Third-person narratives still have protagonists, and you still need your reader to identify with at least one character. Just because it’s not an “I” narrative doesn’t mean your reader shouldn’t still feel like she’s the “I” of every scene.
  • “I need to use multiple perspectives in the same scene to convey all the information necessary in that scene!” To this, I say, Stop being lazy. There are a lot of ways to convey the information you need to convey; utilizing every character’s point of view in key moments is just the easiest way (after all, if all your characters have a piece of the puzzle, jumping into everyone’s head is a sure way to allow the reader access to all those pieces). But the easiest way is not necessarily the best way.

I’m quite passionate about this topic, but as this post is getting quite long, I’m going to wrap it up here. Tomorrow I’ll follow up with viable alternatives to head-hopping, especially as it relates to the “conveying necessary information” excuse.


6 Responses to Pick a head and stay there

  1. Jenna says:

    What is your opinion of the way the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” books are written? Third person, but it follows four characters. Separate scenes, yes, but they switch within chapters.

    I’m also curious as to what your opinion of “Leap Day” by Wendy Mass would be – the narrative “leaps” through the heads of many different characters, even itty-bitty minor ones (such as the pizza delivery guy!) It also switches between first and third person. Sounds like a train wreck, but Wendy makes it work and I LOVE that book.

    I’m not challenging you, by the way, because I totally agree that it’s very confusing and annoying to read books with that kind of sloppy writing.

  2. It’s been a long time since I read “Sisterhood,” but as long as point of view switching isn’t happening within the same scene (i.e.: there’s a “spacial” break, a setting change, or some other obvious indicator of a transition), I think that’s fine, regardless of the number of viewpoint characters used. If there’s at least a visual break or an obvious event in the scene that justifies a PoV shift (i.e.: the current viewpoint character passes out), I think that’s fine because you’ve adequately “prepared” the reader to get out of that head and into another. I’m going to talk a little bit more about this tomorrow. 🙂

    I haven’t read “Leap Day”, but that sounds like a story in which head-hopping is very consciously employed as part of the narrative voice or even the story arc. There’s a Virginia Woolf novel floating around out there that does something similar, but I can never remember which one it is. In any case, I think that with that level of intention applied, head-hopping becomes artful rather than lazy. It seems more as if the narrative might take a “flow” through different characters’ heads rather than bouncing around. Although I’d have to read the book to see if this is really making sense. Now I’m curious. 🙂

    And don’t worry, your comment definitely came across as dialogue-y and not challeng-y. 🙂 (Ha, maybe a future post can be about getting away with fake words. ;))

  3. Jenna says:

    I guess “Sisterhood” is written that way because the four girls are almost never together anyway. But I was always a little impressed that it was written in third person and were done well as a split narrative. (And actually, now that I think of it, the prologues of each of the books are written in first person.)

    I am curious about the Virginia Woolf novel, if you ever think of it.

    Oh, please read “Leap Day.” I’ve never read anything written that way before and I adored it. When I told Wendy that it was my favorite of hers, she was pretty psyched because she feels that book doesn’t get enough attention. (She called it her “red-haired step-child”.)

    Good – I’m glad that you got it was dialogue-y. Sometimes it’s hard to convey tone in blog comments! (And I am in full support of spending a post on the art of using fake words effectively. ;))

  4. Keir says:

    If I remember right, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” was full of head-hopping. It kind of annoyed me as it took some getting used to, but I loved it at the same time. So much is thought and never said. Expanding writing to include thoughts beyond one character’s, to see what everyone else is thinking, seems almost essential in many cases. There are so many situations in life where few words are said but the thoughts of many people fly around like a dialog of their own.

  5. This is true, and I think it can be done well by a disciplined and gifted writer. I’m reading “Mirror, Mirror,” right now, and I notice that some of the chapters have a bit of head-hopping in them. But Gregory Maguire’s “head-hopping” and Frank Herbert’s are nothing like the jarring, dizzy-making head-hopping of less skilled writers. It takes a lot of discipline to stay with “one character,” and I think most writers need to learn that discipline before they can master flowing between characters’ perspectives within the same scene. I’ve read lots and lots of junk where that discipline wasn’t there, and the head-hopping was just a matter of lazy writing. But there are a few writers out there who can do it without the reader even noticing, or noticing it in a pleased way rather than a confused one. I think that’s because those writers have a high enough level of discipline that their head-hopping is more what I think of as “head-flowing” — very intentional and disciplined and not willy-nilly.

  6. […] I didn’t blog about it here, a few weeks ago I queried The Writer magazine about a head-hopping article. Unfortunately, they didn’t bite, but now I’ve still officially submitted to two […]

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