A lot of writers have never come across the term “head-hopping” or its definition. I was one of those writers when I completed my first novel (which is unpublished, and will probably remain that way forever.) That’s why I thought I’d take some time to explain it here.
Head-hopping is something that typically happens in stories written in third person. The writer fluctuates between the thoughts of one character and another within a scene. Head-hopping looks like this:
Josiah froze behind the bar of the saloon as Emmeline pointed a pistol directly at his heart. Hatred burned in her eyes, and he knew that she must have heard about what he did at the brothel. Holy mackerel, Bob thought, and stopped playing the piano. After all, the song “Git Along Little Dogies” didn’t seem like appropriate music to die to. Emmeline wondered if Josiah would try to come up with some excuse, and whether she should even wait to find out.
We’re in the heads of three different people in the space of five sentences.
The more generally acceptable way would be to pick one person’s point of view and stick with it. Here’s the whole scene rewritten so that we only have access to Josiah’s perceptions.
Josiah froze behind the bar as Emmeline pointed a pistol directly at his heart. Hatred burned in her eyes, and he knew that she must have heard about what he did at the brothel. Bob stopped playing the piano. Just as well, maybe — Josiah didn’t want to die to the sounds of “Git Along Little Dogies.” Would Emmeline even give him a change to explain?
Head-hopping does not refer to alternating points of view. If a scene from Josiah’s perspective is followed up by a scene from Emmeline’s point of view, that’s fine.
Plenty of novels tell their story from two or three points of view. If you have more points of view than that in the same story, you are giving yourself a big challenge as a writer, because it’s going to be difficult to get the readers to care about all of those characters.
With multiple points of view, you just need to avoid switching back and forth mid-scene. (Some authors don’t switch within a chapter, which keeps things very clean, but it can be difficult to write your whole story that way.)
It’s all right to switch a point of view once in the middle of a scene (though I wouldn’t do it in every scene.) To indicate a point of view switch, leave an extra space between the two paragraphs.
Whenever you switch from one point of view to another, you want to make the switch clear in the first sentence or two of the new point of view. Here’s an example of a mid-scene point of view switch from the novel I finished last month, The Phoenix Codex. In this scene, Cassie just tried to kiss Jonathan, but he backed off (even though he’s very into her) because he was afraid she had Stockholm Syndrome. This is in Jonathan’s point of view and then switches to Cassie’s.
She hugged her arms. “Okay, let’s stop talking about this. When people are telling me why they don’t want to kiss me, I like to keep the conversation short.”
Frustration rose up in him. “It’s not about what I want!”
She jumped. He was scaring her again. In a quieter tone, he explained, “Whatever you’re feeling right now is a response by trauma. Trauma I caused.”
“Right.” Her eyes flashed with annoyance. “Because my hitting on you has nothing to do with you being a good person or hot as hell.”
A smile crossed his face before he could stop it at the unexpected compliment. She said, “I know how I feel.”
Maybe she did. Maybe she genuinely liked him. His resolve was slipping, but he made a last-ditch effort to resist her. “You’ll feel differently later.” His phone buzzed.
Cassie mentally cursed whoever was calling for his shitty timing. Jonathan gave her a pained look. “I have to take this.” He answered it, saying, “Salam, Nic.” After listening for a moment, Jonathan said, “Yeah, I know.” He got up and strode into the living room.
Getting access right away to Cassie’s thoughts and seeing Jonathan through her eyes makes the point of view switch clear.
You’ve probably read novels with head-hopping. If you’ve read a lot of Victorian and Regency novels, you’ve definitely encountered it. So what’s wrong with it? Why do editors hate it?
Staying in the point of view of one character for a while means that you’re not just telling your readers a story. You’re allowing them to really experience it, through the thoughts and the perceptions of a character.
This helps them get completely lost in the story. It also makes them bond with your characters more strongly. Both of these things will make them love you as an author, and that’s what you really want.
Have you experienced challenges in handling points of view, or do you have any advice for others? Let us know in the comments! Thanks so much for reading, and happy writing!