Monday, March 1, 2010

Head hopping is the work of the devil.

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, 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, 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.

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  1. One of the worst cases of head hopping I've read recently was in Feeling Safe by Sonja Spencer. For a while, it was happening in every paragraph... and included the cat. Really, the cat didn't have anything useful to add. :)

  2. Hi, Chris! Thanks for the comment. Any guesses as to why writers like to do this? I feel a little out of touch since I'm so much against it ...

    I do remember a Dean Koontz book (but not the title, unfortunately) where he told a chapter from the viewpoint of a golden retriever, and he did a terrific job.

    It was all "Oh, goodie! Oh, goodie! We get to go for a ride in the car and stick our heads out the windows! Oh, joy!" Whether this was anything useful to add, I don't remember, but it was fun!

  3. No idea why writers like to provide the pet's perspective. In this case, it was a little squicky, because the cat kept thinking about its "Daddy", which was really weird in amidst the sex scenes.

    I remember reading a review of Urban & Roux's The One That Got Away - the reviewer noting that there was a lot of head hopping going on. Interestingly, I didn't notice it as being disruptive either time I read that book. I guess it's a matter of how well the author handles the shifts.

  4. I can't believe Chris of all people would say a cat has nothing useful to contribute. For shame cat-lady, for shame.

    I'm one of those people who in general don't find head hopping all that annoying as long as it's not every single paragraph. Once I realize it's happening it seems to be natural for me to read it that way, I switch in head-hop mode I guess.

    I do find it annoying when in a sex scene every experience is given two perspectives. So that each experience has two paragraphs to explain how each one felt about each kiss, touch, etc. It's like having consecutive translation at an event. Drags it out twice as long. I can't remember where I read that, but I just wanted to skip every other paragraph and get on with it because really, it felt great to both of them, I got that.

    Your example of head hopping was fine with me. LOL I did write something that was mostly from one point of view with about 25% from the other. I ended up trying to erase the 25% because it seemed kind of weird to get most of the info from one guy and then just the odd glimpse from the other. I thought I either needed to strengthen the one or get rid of it and I couldn't hear it enough to strengthen it. Wrong? Not sure but I don't want to hear one thrown out thought from a character every 30 pages when the others are all from the other character.

    I can't really think of any I've read off hand with more than two or three. I think Chris' book had 11 so that would be extreme. Animals can be funny. Tory Temple did her Catching Karma with what the animals were thinking but it was in animal speak "fooooood" "fooooood" and the guy could hear animals thoughts to it made sense.

    I know though often people go "OMG, the head hopping made me crazy." and I'm like "Huh? What head hopping? I don't get it?" so I'm prehaps not the best person to comment on this topic. LOL

  5. "so I'm prehaps not the best person to comment on this topic. "

    Sheesh, you'll notice however that didn't stop me from rambling on. Sorry.

  6. But, see, now you're sensitized to it, Tam, so the next time you read it, it'll drive you batshit. :D

  7. Sigh. Probably Chris. Damn you guys for teaching me all this literary stuff. :-P

  8. Hi, Chris and Tam, thanks for the further comments. This is very enlightening!

    I tend to be somewhat against head hopping -- ha! ha! -- an understatement as you might have guessed from the post title. And yet you all don't seem to mind head hopping nearly as much as I do, or not at all. Clearly this is food for thought ...

    There must be a big range out there of acceptable writing for the readers even if I don't happen to like head hopping myself. I don't even like too many extraneous viewpoints, such as when a minor character suddenly provides a perspective and then is never heard from again. But I wouldn't pick on that in a review.

    Chris, you said, "I guess it's a matter of how well the author handles the shifts.

    That's the key. A truly skilled writer can break almost any rule.

    Tam, you said, "Sheesh, you'll notice however that didn't stop me from rambling on. Sorry. No, no, this is great! I love that you have this much to say and are this passionate about the topic!

    I totally agree with you about the sex scene in two perspectives -- it does slow everything down and makes it weirdly artificial. As you point out, we readers are smart enough to get it and realize that both partners had a good (or even mind-blowing) time.

    What you say here, "Once I realize it's happening it seems to be natural for me to read it that way, I switch in head-hop mode I guess" I'm unable to do real well as a reader. There just doesn't seem to be a pattern to head-hopping, and so I'm always trying to regroup when it happens and figure out where we are and if we even need the information ...

    "But, see, now you're sensitized to it,"

    Damn you guys for teaching me all this literary stuff. :-P"

    Ha, ha, ha! The simultaneous curse of reviewing while writing!

  9. Heh, I'm thinking particularly of some books that Tam and I read recently in which the guys' names were dealt with weirdly. She mentioned it, I then read the books and it drove me nuts and ranted about it, then she read something else and couldn't stop focusing on the names, etc.

  10. I think I may love you Val. I mean I already *knew* I did but this post is pure gold.
    Pure Gold.

    I may need to link to it evermore even.

    Head hopping is often a sign of a new writer. Not always as I know of several writing duos that still can't keep their heads straight but you almost always see this in debut authors. A lot of times you can forgive it but this is something that has made me put down a book and simply can't finish.

    For example the head hopping in Cut & Run is so bad I couldn't finish the book. I was so frustrated with the paragraph by paragraph (and sometimes line by line) POV shifts I had a headache trying to figure out who was saying what.

    This is so important and I wish editors would make this much more of an issue to correct. I realize authors don't always realize they are doing this, but more and more this is almost a cardinal sin. Certainly one that can be forgiven on a case by case basis but best to be avoided.

    Thank you again!

  11. Hi, Chris and Kassa! Thank you for the comments.

    Chris, you reminded me of something with names. It can drive me nuts when an author switches back and forth between given name and surname. I think Emerson should have said, "A foolish INconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

    And Kassa, you said, "I think I may love you Val."

    Ha, ha! Thank you! I guess it's not just me and Lyrical Press united in our mutual dislike of head-hopping. How gratifying that you feel as strongly about it as I do. :)

    I haven't yet read the book you mentioned, but POV shifts LINE by LINE? Eeek!

  12. Yes, yes, yes!!!

    Headhopping drives me nuts, especially when it's so jarring that it pulls you out of the story and makes you have to back-track just so you can get it right as to whose head you are in.

    I've just read a book by a new author where the headhopping was rife and even minor characters got in with the headhopping action. I can understand swapping between the two man protags, but to include minor characters as well was really annoying.

  13. I think new writers do it because they don't realize it's something they shouldn't do. And then they keep doing it when they don't have an editor who will send back their work with a note telling them to fix it. (Or they don't read articles like yours that warns them against it.)

    I don't buy head-hop novels because I like to snuggle right down into one character's pov for a long stretch of the story or even the whole story. Alternating points of view work fine, as long as we're in one point of view for a big meaty section before we switch to another. Switching sentence by sentence is, as you beautifully describe it, like being dunked into consecutive pools with no chance to catch your breath. Head-hopping pretty much ruins a story for me. I wish more editors would encourage writers to stretch out the point of view and give the reader time to dwell in one soul at a time.

  14. You're right about it often being the sign of a new writer, Val. It's also the sign of a very lenient editor. I did it in my early het romances and was never corrected.

    There is a difference, though, between multiple POVs and head hopping. If a writer has an "ensemble cast," so to speak, wherein all the characters carry equal weight, or it's important to present the storyline from both protags' viewpoints because they have different perspectives of equal value, the swtches can be done. They just have to be done sparingly and with appropriate breaks, as Jen and Mara said.

    Hippity-hopping between or within paragraphs is generally considered a major no-no. Yet a lot of readers don't seem to mind. (Look at how many fans Urban & Roux have!) The practice actually doesn't bother me too much if I find the story and characters engaging. Like Tam, I simply "switch into head-hop mode." :-)

    I recently read an excerpt from a very highly regarded author in which the narrating character subtly kept stepping outside himself, if you know what I mean. So breaking from POV doesn't always take the form of head hopping.

  15. Hi, Jenre, Mara, and K.Z.! Thanks for the comments!

    Jenre, you said, "Yes, yes, yes!!!. I love the emphasis! I assume that means you're standing with me and Kassa and Lyrical Press on the issue, ha, ha! I know just what you mean about the minor characters chiming in. I almost want to tell them to butt out and leave me alone with the main characters!

    Mara, you said, "new writers do it because they don't realize it's something they shouldn't do." That must be it. And maybe they acquire a fan base really fast in genre as new as m/m romance, and then the ones coming behind them are using them as role models.

    You said, "I wish more editors would encourage writers to stretch out the point of view and give the reader time to dwell in one soul at a time." Absolutely! You raise an important point, which is that it's impossible to form a connection with a character if you don't stay in their head long enough. And I'm glad you enjoyed my swimming pool analogy!

    K.Z., you said, " It's also the sign of a very lenient editor." Oh, gosh! Or maybe even a new one that doesn't know any better?

    You said, "There is a difference, though, between multiple POVs and head hopping ... the switches can be done ... sparingly and with appropriate breaks" Very good point that there is a right way and a wrong way to do those POV switches! And the wrong way definitely would be the Hippity-hopping between or within paragraphs."

    This ... "the narrating character subtly kept stepping outside himself, if you know what I mean." OMG, I'd love it if you came back and gave us an example! I think I know what you mean, but I'm not sure.

    You mean something like, "Edgar knew that he had to get the best possible deal in the sale. No one could run down a bargain like Edgar could because he was the smartest man in the building"? Where we're given extra information that would sound conceited or weird for him to actually think (as well as him not being able to know if he really is the smartest man in the building)?

  16. Val, your Koontz book is called WATCHERS. It's one of the few I've read.

    The worst case of head-hopping I've encountered is in Sherrilyn Kenyon's DEVIL MAY CRY.

    I had a head-hopping problem when I first started. It's a hazard of the way we write.

  17. Hi, Angelia! Thank you for the comment (and the title -- that was going to be rolling around in the back of my mind, trying to get me to remember it).

    You said, " It's a hazard of the way we write." That sounds about right. It must be some unconscious thing that arises in the early drafts from the writer trying to explore the characters one at a time as they show up ...

  18. Actually, I was thinking very specific we, as in Naomi and me. The Role-play/chat format we use means I am in both heads but I have to limit the prose PoV.

  19. Ohhhh, I see what you mean! That is a unique situation!

  20. As an unpublished writer I can see how head-hopping can get started. You have to BE all of YOUR characters and sometimes you forget whose POV you are writing. So instead of "Grace watched Donovan walk across the room and climb gracefully onto the bed, smirking knowingly at her as he stripped and showed her what naughty thoughts he was thinking” You might end up with “Grace watched Donovan cross the room and climb onto the bed. He smirked at her, thinking of what he wanted to do to her.” This is a very quick example that I can think of and I am sure if I were to rewrite it, it might sounds better but I think it proves my point. Although I agree head hopping can be lethal to a book, it is possible to do and my preferred method is change characters each chapter.

  21. Hi, Stourmy, I think your approach is good -- change POV chapter by chapter. Even scene by scene is fine by me so long as there is a space break and a consistent pattern gets established for us readers.

    I started reading The Client by John Grisham the other day (my first Grisham book ever), and in the first few pages, he was head-hopping even though he'd established a pattern of changing POV scene-by-scene with a space break.

    Then, in a single scene, he gives us the kid's POV and then suddenly the lawyer's POV. I'm thinking, OMG! Grisham is head-hopping!

  22. LOL! And you wonder how it got to be a movie

  23. It definitely makes you wonder. ;)


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