One of the criteria for inclusion in the Awesome Indies listing is that the book has no point of view (POV) confusion, specifically, no head-hopping. I rarely see head-hopping in the traditionally published books that I review, but I do see it quite a lot in Indie books, and many don’t make it here because of it. It’s a tricky area, one that many readers and writers know little about, so in this article I hope to help everyone understand why no head-hopping is a criteria for inclusion in the Awesome Indies list.
Many readers don’t notice head-hopping unless it’s really chronic, but writing is generally better without it, and it’s a common trap for new writers. Head-hopping in itself doesn’t mean that a book is bad, but it does mean that it could be better and that the writer could do with some more lessons on the subtleties of their craft. Some writers maintain that whether or not you head hop is a personal preference rather than an indication of quality, but that isn’t true, head-hopping definitely does weaken the writing. Read on to discover how.
The different points of views that authors use are—
First person – written from the perspective of one person. This POV uses the pronoun I. eg I ran down the street. The person cannot know other peoples thoughts, emotions and motivations except as they see it reflected in the other persons’ expressions and actions. They can assume, but they can’t think someone else’s thoughts. Neither can they know what is hiding around the corner or what it is in a place they haven’t been to before.
Second person (rarely used in fiction) – addresses the reader. This POV uses the pronouns you, your, and yours. We use these three pronouns when addressing one, or more than one, person. Second person is used for e-mail messages, presentations, and business and technical writing. You may also see it used in blog posts.
Third person – written from the perspective of a third person. This POV uses the pronouns he, she and they. eg He ran down the street. There are two kinds of third person writing
- Omniscient—written from the perspective of an all knowing narrator. They know what everyone is thinking and feeling and what is hiding behind the corner. Omniscient POV is not often used these days because it keeps the reader one step removed from the feelings of the characters. It is most often seen in epic fantasy.
The important thing to understand when writing in omniscient POV is that should be only one voice, that of the narrator.
- Third person close, limited or intimate—written from the perspective of a character and in that character’s voice but using the pronoun he, or she, to refer to him or herself. The language used is what that character would use if they were telling the story, so the reader sees the action through the character’s eyes.
This is used when an author wants to be able to show more than one perspective on the story, but wants the reader to identify more deeply with a character than is possible in omniscient. For this reason, it usually involves changing from one point of view to another and is where it’s easy for authors to fall into head-hopping.
What is head-hopping?
People aren’t always clear about what head-hopping means, so it’s important that we clarify that. Let us start with what head-hopping isn’t.
The term head-hopping does NOT refer to point of view changes that occur
- chapter by chapter ie one chapter in one POV and another chapter in a different POV
- scene by scene changes in POV with a blank line (or several centred stars) between the scenes.
- as one clearly delineated, additional POV within a scene, ie a switch from the POV of the main character to a secondary character—and back again if necessary. This is common in romance novels where it is important for the reader to understand the different perspectives of the man and the woman. Clearly delineated means that the change is marked by a blank line and/or a smooth baton change, that makes it clear that the POV has changed. However, if the switch is only for one sentence, or involves several different characters, then no matter how well it’s done, it’s head-hopping.
- a narrator telling the reader what a character is thinking in omniscient point of view is not head-hopping so long as the writing remains in the omniscient narrator’s voice and it is clear whose perspective the narrator is relating. In true omniscient POV there is only one voice, that of the narrator, although this all knowing voice of the narrator knows what everyone is thinking, they don’t write it from the character’s perspective ie from inside the characters’ mind/head. Eg George wondered why Henry was running away with his arms flailing, is a narrator’s voice, and therefore is not head hopping in omniscient POV, whereas, George wondered why the hell Henry was running away like an idiot, is in the character’s voice and therefore is not omniscient POV but third person close. As such it runs the risk of being head-hopping if the paragraph below also applies.
The term head-hopping specifically refers to non-delineated changes of POV within a scene that move quickly between characters (ie one sentence or a short paragraph, then back again or to another character), especially if it’s between more than two characters, happens often, or uses the POV of minor characters who have limited POV throughout the rest of the story. Valid changes of POV are limited to main characters and are clearly delineated with a smooth baton change.
How to achieve a smooth baton change between POVs
- The first POV character turns their attention to the second character in some way, either through thoughts, gaze or action. Alternatively, the first POV character could leave the scene.
- And the first sentence of the new POV mentions the new POV character’s name and their thoughts or feelings about something. They should be distinctly related to the new character so there is no possible chance that these thoughts could be attributed to the previous character.
- A blank line between changes, though not absolutely necessary, is preferable as it does make the change very clear.
- A paragraph or more of omniscient POV is also a way to create a break between different third person close POVs.
What’s wrong with head-hopping?
Even if the reader doesn’t notice, or if they do and it doesn’t bother them, head-hopping still weakens the writing.
- Head-hopping can result in readers having to reread passages to work out whose point of view (POV) they are currently following; this drags them out of the story, thus they lose engagement.
- Reading many people’s view points of one scene can make the writing less immediate and engaging by
- slowing down the action
- taking the reader away from the main point, thus watering down the impact of the scene
- creating a barrier between the reader and the story. It’s as if you’re always dodging around the action instead of meeting it head on.
- using the thoughts of a variety of characters as a way to tell the reader things instead of showing them through the eyes of the main character. It’s another form of ‘lazy’ writing.
- giving the reader a general sense of confusion or lack of clarity about the scene.
- Head-hopping often gives the reader more info than they need which bloats the scene, and leaves little to the reader’s imagination. This dulls the writing.
Usually the scene and all the characters feelings can be effectively described or at least sufficiently hinted at through the point of view of the person the reader followed into the scene. If a change of POV is needed to give insight into a secondary character, then it should be only one other character in any one scene and there should be a clear delineation between the views. Either with or without the blank line, the first sentence must make it very clear that the point of view has changed. Even when the change flows smoothly, it is preferable that it happens only once in a scene (ie change to secondary character and back again).
Can head-hopping be done well and therefore be acceptable?
I have never found a book with true head-hopping that couldn’t be more effective without it—so why have it?
Is the question of whether head-hopping is acceptable one of personal preference, or does it simply show a lack of craftsmanship?
Post by Tahlia Newland. My primary reference for this article is chapter three of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne & Dave King. Other sources are my studies with Australian author & editor, Selena Hannet Hutchins, and blog posts by Kirsten Lamb and Jamie Gould. Thanks to these three ladies for their tireless efforts to educate authors.