Head hopping. You’ve probably heard the term, but have you been accused of it? Do you know what head hopping is and why you want to avoid it? How to avoid it?
When you sit down to write a story, you can start a lot of places—plot, character, setting—but very early you are going to have to make one basic decision: Who is going to tell this story? Who owns the point of view?
Head Hopping. What is it?
A lot of writers seem to have a hard time deciding on just one viewpoint character. They feel to tell the story properly they need to show it from a number of angles, and while I am not a huge fan of multiple point of view tales, I have no issue with them as long as it is made clear whose head I am in when.
Unfortunately, many times writers forget to do this—or switch back and forth between points of view so quickly that the reader gets a headache trying to keep up.
This is head hopping.
Here’s an example taken from my book Demon High and edited to add the head hopping:
“Lucinda!” Where was that girl? She should have been home an hour ago. (Nana POV, note that we know we are in Nana’s point of view because this is Nana’s thought.)
(Head hopping coming…)
Inside the closet, Lucinda heard a thump, Nana’s cane hitting the floor. If Lucinda didn’t appear soon she’d get suspicious. (Lucinda’s point of view, because we are thinking as Lucinda and seeing things from her perspective)
Lucinda slid the lid onto the box and shoved it back under the floorboard. Then she reached for a striped stocking cap. Before pulling it onto her head, she glanced back at the floorboard and the book hidden beneath it. (Lucinda point of view)
She hesitated. (Lucinda point of view)
(Head hopping coming…)
Nana pushed the door open. She was tired of waiting on the girl. “What are you doing in there?” (Nana point of view)
Lucinda held up the hat. “I was cold.” (could be either)
Nana leaned to the right, putting her weight onto her cane. Her leg hurt, but she knew Lucinda was up to something. She looked past her granddaughter, over the contents of the stuffed closet. She didn’t see anything suspicious. She looked back at Lucinda. What was she doing with that hat? “Not that cold.” (Nana point of view)
(head hopping coming…)
Lucinda glanced at the cap. It was gold and green with a tassel on the tip. She jerked it down over her ears. (Lucinda point of view, although this one could be argued. Someone else, such as an omniscient narrator, could see Lucinda glance at the cap and then that other narrator could observe its color. But, really, it reads like Lucinda here.)
Shaking her head at the girl’s oddity, Nana tromped toward the kitchen. “Dinner’s soup, from a can. Tomato or chicken noodle. Your choice.” (Nana point of view, again this one is subtle. This could be an omniscient narrator or it could be Nana’s, but as written it can’t be Lucinda’s. For that we’d need a “Lucinda assumed…” or similar.)
Now while this may not be terrible, seeing inside both characters’ heads can be confusing and it really doesn’t add anything to the story.
Let’s read it as it appears in the book, all in Lucinda’s point of view:
Nana was getting angry. There was a thump, her cane hitting the floor. If I didn’t appear soon she’d get suspicious.
I slid the lid onto the box and shoved it back under the floorboard. Then I reached for a striped stocking cap. Before pulling it onto my head, I glanced back at the floorboard and the book hidden beneath it.
The door flew open. “What are you doing in there?”
I held up the hat. “I was cold.”
Nana leaned to the right, putting her weight onto her cane. Her gaze darted behind me, over the contents of the stuffed closet. Apparently not seeing anything suspicious, she looked back at me and the hat. She wrinkled her nose. “Not that cold.”
I glanced at the cap. It was gold and green with a tassel on the tip. I jerked it down over my ears.
Shaking her head, Nana tromped toward the kitchen. “Dinner’s soup, from a can. Tomato or chicken noodle. Your choice.”
Anything important missing? No. In fact, leaving out Nana’s point of view adds a bit of mystery. Lucinda doesn’t know for sure what her grandmother is thinking and that lack actually adds to the story. Also, by sticking with just Lucinda, we connect to her more. She is our guide and we know that right from the get-go. We root for her.
How to avoid head hopping from one point of view to another:
When you sit down to write a scene, before you write word one, decide whose point of view this scene should be in. Who has the most to lose?
If you need to let the reader know what another character is thinking, do it from the chosen point of view character’s outlook. Nana wrinkles her nose. Lucinda sees that and so does the reader. We don’t need to hear Nana think that the hat is ugly and out of place for us to know that is what Nana is thinking. You can show us through her actions. To instead just slip into her head (head hop) is, quite frankly, lazy.
Need to change point of view?
If you do need to change point of view, find a logical place to do this where the reader will not be jolted by the change.
Being a bit of a purist, I like to put in actual breaks when I switch point of view and try to stay in that character’s mind for at least a page or so. This isn’t, however, strictly necessary.
The main thing is that you are aware of what you are doing and why and are not just free floating from one head to another. (Although I do still suggest you try limiting the shifts to scene or chapter breaks.)
If you think you might be head hopping, go back and read the scene again. Highlight all internal thoughts and then mark all of them out except those belonging to the character with the most to lose in that scene. Now replace those missing thoughts with actions or dialogue that give a hint as to what that character is thinking. While you are doing this, weigh how much you really want the point of view character to know for sure. Less really can be more. You may decide you want to keep a little more uncertainty alive.
Now re-read the scene. Is it stronger? Does the reader connect more strongly with that one point of view character and thus the story? I’m betting they will.
Lori Devoti is the multi-published author of romantic comedy, paranormal romance and urban fantasy. She also writes the Dusty Deals Mystery series under the pen name Rae Davies. Look for her workshops at Write by the Lake (DCS University of Wisconsin), at RWA conferences and meetings, and here at the How To Write Shop. For more information, visit her website.