writing

The Perils of Head Hopping

I don’t have a lot of absolutes when it comes to the writing style of things I read. I’ve heard people say they won’t read first-person narration or present tense, etc. I generally try to give everything a chance and let it come down to how the book works for me. For instance, I’m not a huge fan of second-person narration — “you do this” — but I’ve read a few stories where it works.

One thing that does come close to an absolute for me, though, is indiscriminate head hopping. That’s third-person narration in which the point of view character changes frequently — not just from chapter to chapter or scene to scene, but within a scene, and going back and forth within the scene. For instance, two characters are having a conversation, and when one character is speaking, in that paragraph we also get his thoughts. But then when the other character speaks, in that paragraph we get her thoughts.

This is different from omniscient narration because with that, we have an all-knowing narrator with a perspective on these events. That narrator may dip into everyone’s head at various times, but what we see in that character’s head is presented to us through the viewpoint of the narrator. This was common in 19th century literature. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens often used it. We might get glimpses into the heads of all the characters in a scene, but we weren’t so much seeing through those characters’ eyes as we were seeing what Jane or Charles thought about what the characters were thinking. Some of the cases I’ve seen of people writing head hopping today seem to be authors trying to do this but without realizing that omniscient POV works better if the narrator really does have a perspective, to the point of being an offscreen character.

I find it really hard to get into books that head hop because I can’t sink into any one character’s head, and that makes it really hard to get a grasp on the world and the people involved. If in one scene I’m switching among all the characters, I don’t get into any of them and I’m not sure what to think about any of them. It works better for me if I spend some time in one head, seeing all the characters through that person’s perspective, then in a different scene go into another person’s head and see everything through their eyes, and so forth, and then I can figure out all the characters by putting all this information together.

I will generally put a book down if I have too many instances in the first chapter or so in which I have to backtrack to figure out whose head I’m in. If I’m going along in one person’s head and then with no transition I’m suddenly seeing that person from the outside for a paragraph and it takes me a while to figure out that’s what’s going on, that I’m in another person’s head now, I find that very annoying. It’s worse when the author has point of view breaks on top of it, where the character is thinking things about himself that most people don’t think, so sometimes it’s just a POV break and sometimes it’s an entirely different perspective. For instance, if I’m in my head and reading something that astonishes me, the way I’d describe my reaction would be more internal — I might gasp, my pulse might speed up, I might get a knot in my stomach, etc. I probably wouldn’t think about my green eyes growing wider.

I just started reading a book by an author I’ve been enjoying, but the previous books were all first-person POV. This book is doing multiple character third-person, and I don’t think this author has a good grasp on that. We’re getting a lot of “her green eyes widened” type stuff from within the characters’ POV about themselves, but then the next paragraph will be another character thinking about what that first character’s reaction means, and then a paragraph later we’re back with the first person. I have to keep going back to figure out whose head I’m in. I’m really intrigued by the story situation, but it’s taking me forever to get into this book.

I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule about what works here because I know of a lot of really popular books/authors who do this in a way that bothers me so much that I couldn’t read their books, and obviously it didn’t hurt them with a huge number of readers. My rule as a reader is that if I notice it in a way that hurts my enjoyment of a book, you’re doing it wrong for me.

One Response to “The Perils of Head Hopping”

  1. Diane K.

    Oh my gosh, YES! This annoys me to no end as well! I have also stopped reading certain books with shifting POVs because it bothered me. I bought the first book of a series and loved the premise, but the shifting POVs were so overwhelming that I couldn’t even think about getting the second one. I felt bad about it, because I thought the second one sounded really interesting.
    I never really noticed this until I started writing more stories and then I REALLY became aware of it when I started doing RPGs online. I had to be hyper-aware of what my character was doing/saying and how he/she was responding to others, if only because I had to be careful not to step on someone else’s toes. After doing that for a few years, I started really getting annoyed by ‘head hopping’ in books.
    The one thing that I have discovered is that some of the ‘mystery’ of the scene is taken away by shifting POVs. I’d rather have one character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene, reading about their reactions and wondering about things like why someone’s eyes were widening (borrowing your example) and let myself wonder about it too. It seems like when I get to another scene where the reasoning is explained, it allows a fuller explanation of what that second character was feeling or thinking when their eyes widened.

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