Okay, maybe I exaggerate when I call it satanic, but head hopping can be irritating, no question. First, writers, rest easy. There are no rules that weren't meant to be broken. No one, not even a reviewer like me, says that you must not have multiple viewpoints in your fiction. However, head hopping is different, and it's good to know why it's so annoying.
(A note on the advice to be found here. It is simply information on techniques that have worked for one published author (me). Only you can decide if my information will be helpful or not helpful to you.
For example, I point out clichés to avoid, and you can decide if you want to use them as they are, avoid them, or improve the terms with additional description. I personally love the cliché "flashing eyes," even though I know it is a cliche. I will go on using it in my writing.
Improving as a writer is all about experimenting. The only "ironclad rules" in writing fiction are the laws of physics and the principles of grammar, and even those can be bent, if you know what you're doing.)
It (head hopping) sounds like something drug-related, and it can feel similarly disorienting to the readers. Publishers (for example, Lyrical Press, bless their hearts) have been known to warn against it in their submission guidelines. If you're a very new writer, you might have heard the term head hopping without knowing what it means.
Head hopping is when you switch viewpoints randomly and frequently in your fiction. First, you describe the perceptions and thoughts of one character. Then you show things that realistically could only come from the mind of a second character. You've hopped from head to head and dragged the momentarily confused reader along with you.
Omniscient third-person viewpoint. How is head hopping different from omniscient third-person viewpoint? Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I almost never see omniscient third-person viewpoint anymore, which is actually fine with me. It seems to be something that went out with Dostoevsky and Melville.
To me, omniscient third-person viewpoint has a smooth, remote feeling. The godlike perspective cruises through the stratosphere, skimming the surface of all the characters' thoughts. By contrast, head hopping takes a deep viewpoint into each character. It's as if you're forcing the reader to dive into a swimming pool, climb out, run gasping and sweating down the block to the next pool, and dive into that one.
Behold my somewhat pathetic example of omniscient third person viewpoint. Here, I convey information from both characters' realistic viewpoints – and beyond, including things they couldn't possibly know. The effect is remote and distancing. It's hard to see Edgar and Yevgeny as having distinctly different personalities. If you write like this extensively, you may fall into the trap of telling the reader information rather than showing it through character action.
"The villagers would someday recover from their memories of the war. The first one would be Edgar who had romantic problems that took precedence. Yes, Edgar, who hunched his shoulders in despair against the sweltering heat as he walked home from the wheat fields. None of his neighbors had a clue that loneliness festered in his heart. If only he could know that another experienced his same piercing isolation! Even now, Yvegeny knelt in the church, praying for deliverance. He believed that his crisis of faith came from his service in the war, but unbeknownst to him he had been cursed by the gypsies …"
An example of head hopping. Omniscient third person viewpoint can cover vast physical distances such as from the wheat fields to the church. Head hopping happens when the characters are in the same scene and the author just can't resist dipping deeply into each person's mind. The deeper the viewpoint, the more jarring the hop for the reader.
"Edgar slapped the dust of the wheat fields from his hat and then sidled into the church, his heart fluttering at the possibility that he might see the handsome Yvegeny. The church itself, redolent of incense, made him nervous, and perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he was a werewolf. He'd never quite had the courage to inquire into the church's official position on werewolves.
Ahead, he recognized Yvegeny kneeling in front of the altar, his trim calves hugged by sheepskin boots. Those legs! A piercing sadness sank into Edgar's heart. That wide back! Why did Yvegeny drive him to such inappropriate thoughts in church? Those hips! Um … Flushed and dizzy, he lost his train of thought.
Yvegeny stood and turned around [and we readers think we're still in Edgar's viewpoint, but we could be in either viewpoint right now]. His heart sank as he recognized one of the farmers, and he felt even worse as he realized it was Edgar. The farmers all hated those like himself who had gone to war. Even though he'd sensed a strange darkness within Edgar that seemed a twin of his own malaise, he still avoided him. Now he noticed that Edgar stared at him strangely. It probably had something to do with the killing he'd done in the war …"
If you see nothing wrong with this example of head hopping, then maybe it really is just me (and Lyrical Press, ha, ha!) who dislike it.
An example of one limited third-person viewpoint. If you stick with just one limited third-person viewpoint, you do lose range of vision. It's a trade off. You can't do as quite as much with just one viewpoint, but it's easier to write the scene and to keep the reader under your spell. Often, you can convey more than you think you can by hinting around in one close third-person viewpoint.
"Yvegeny's knees ached as he knelt on the cold flagstones to pray in front of the altar. Then he heard a footstep further back in the church, and he stood and turned around, his heart pounding. His survival instincts, left over from the war, remained strong. Edgar stood there, probably viewing him with the same suspicion that all the farmers reserved for those who had fought the war that destroyed the croplands. Edgar's eyes glittered and his face had grown flushed. For an instant, Yvegeny thought he might have a fight on his hands – and inside the church, no less! Then he noticed the softening of Edgar's mouth and the heaving of his chest as Edgar gulped the incense-laden air. Could Edgar be infatuated with him? Stranger things had happened …
Why do writers try head hopping? People who are just learning to write fiction might do head hopping without realizing it in their rough drafts as they explore the reactions of each major character that comes into the narrative. Mostly what I see as a reviewer are writers deliberately doing a more refined version of this.
In m/m fiction, it often happens in the sex scenes. Guy #1 experiences the sensations of either doing or receiving some sexual act and suddenly we're in the mind of his partner Guy #2 who simultaneously feels his own set of sensations. New writers may assume that a detailed peek into each mind amps up the excitement quotient.
In my opinion here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, the reverse happens because the reader gets jolted out of the fantasy by encountering the awkward and unrealistic device of a sudden switch in viewpoint. Often the easiest and most reliable way to keep readers immersed in a fictional world is to keep the reading experience simple. Keep it as close to real life as possible. Consider limiting yourself to one character viewpoint at least until you make it through the scene, if not throughout the whole story.
Multiple third person viewpoints. What if you have your heart set on creating multiple viewpoints? It's your fiction, and you can do whatever you want to. Consider some helpful guidelines. Often, but not always, the shorter the fiction, the less room you have for more than one viewpoint. If you want multiple viewpoints without the disorienting effects of head hopping, establish a pattern.
Switch viewpoints only by chapter or only by scene, both of which are natural transition points. Using this system, you can either alternate viewpoints in a consistent order (Guy #1, Guy #2, Guy #1 again) or you can do it at random (Guy #1, Guy #1, Guy #1, Guy #2). Either way, we readers have a pattern by which to navigate: every scene break or chapter introduces the possibility of a new viewpoint.
What about those sex scenes where you want to show how much fun both partners are having? In my opinion, you can do that more effectively in one viewpoint. Pick the viewpoint of the character that will be the most emotionally affected by the sex scene. Stay in his mind and have him observe his partner closely throughout. Often it can be far more emotionally moving and exciting for the reader to see the non-viewpoint character through the eyes of his lover who is trying to please him and who already feels a range of emotions towards him.
In sex scenes and in general, often the viewpoint character can see things for the reader about the non-viewpoint character that Guy #2 doesn't even know. Then you can show the reader false perception, self-delusion, or attempts at deception. This introduces an entirely new level of information in a way that is still more realistic and engaging than head hopping.
Note: There is more! Because the website traffic is so high on these "how to write" articles, I have expanded two of them from the roughly 2000 words per article that you see on the website/blog to 15,000 words each. I am offering them as Kindle documents on Amazon, if you are interested. Here are the links if you would like to have a look and download a free sample.
How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces
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How to Write Descriptions of Hair and Skin
(Just so you know, this 14,900 word book contains the 2000-word article HT Describe Hair from my blog plus the 600-word Hair Color list from my website. The other 12,300 words in the book are all-new material.)
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