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What is Head Hopping?
Head hopping is what the readers call it when the author jerks the perspective back and forth between two or more character viewpoints within a short span of text. Because head hopping happens within a scene, a page, a paragraph, or even a single sentence, the readers get no warning that the viewpoint is going to switch. They receive no signal such as a space break to ease them into a pattern of alternating viewpoints.
Instead, they read along in one character’s viewpoint, and suddenly they realize that something is…off. Something weird is going on. They are receiving information that they couldn’t know from the point of view of the character they were following. It takes a second for the readers to realize that they are now in another character’s head. And, inevitably, as soon as they figure this out, they get tossed back into the first character’s perspective. Head hopping is jarring and destroys the readers’ escapism, and readers understandably hate it.
Why do authors even do head hopping?
Because they want to show what both characters are thinking right at that moment, but I question whether this goal is important. You don’t need to show a character’s actual thoughts when you can hint at his emotions and intent through the observations of the viewpoint character. Why not stay in the viewpoint of the character that has the most at stake emotionally? Keep the readers immersed in his viewpoint. Show through dialog and his observation of the non-viewpoint character’s body language how that other character is feeling. It is possible to show another person’s repressed anger, sublimated fear, and impending duplicity through a sharp-eyed viewpoint character.
How is head hopping different from omniscient viewpoint?
Head hopping happens in close third-person viewpoint – that is, when you are deeply inside the head of a character and receiving his thoughts and emotions perhaps even in sentence fragments that sound like the way he would actually talk. Omniscient viewpoint is much more remote. It takes a distant viewpoint on everything as if you are God, watching an epic battle such as Gettysburg from the lofty viewpoint of heaven. You see what is going on, but you are too focused on the big picture to experience the emotions and thoughts of the individuals involved. Therefore, the godlike viewpoint never changes even when the narrative dips briefly and shallowly into one mind and then the next to report that this person is afraid and this person seeks glory.
How do you know if you have written a passage that contains head hopping?
Read through it and ask yourself if you are receiving any thoughts, emotions, or information that the viewpoint character could not possibly know (unless he could literally read the minds of the other characters). Here is an example:
Mortified, Dmitri kept his face expressionless, but he knew that the Baroness would never forgive the inadvertent insult. The wind swept through the trees, trailing icy fingers through his hair as he calculated whether he should run. The long shadow of the Baroness on horseback almost touched him; she could ride him down before he could gain the safety of the trees. He wondered if she would kill him now. The Baroness’ stomach churned with rage. She would burn the entire village before allowing one lone peasant to show her disrespect.”
In the bold sentences are where the head hopping happens. In the first sentence, the viewpoint belongs to Dmitri. No one else can know what he is wondering, and so the reader is in Dmitri’s head. In the next sentence, the Baroness’ stomach is churning, which is something that can be known only to her. The author has just thrown the readers from one character viewpoint into another character viewpoint, and it is jarring, especially because we have started to identify with Dmitri and care about him.
How can an author alternate close third-person viewpoints without head hopping?
You should stay in each character’s viewpoint long enough to resolve a good chunk of action – for an entire scene or chapter. This allows the readers to spend enough time with each character that they will not feel disoriented at the viewpoint switch or cheated. Use a signal to orient your readers that you are about to switch viewpoints: usually a space break (one or two blank lines inserted between the last sentence of one scene and the first sentence of your next scene) or a center-justified symbol such as three asterisks (* * *).
You could also use labels with character names, locations, and dates. For example, “Chapter 1 – Dmitri, Transylvania, 1756” or just “Dmitri” as the header at the beginning of one scene and “The Baroness” at the next. This sounds as if it would be awkward, but in reality it sets a consistent pattern that allows the readers’ minds to glide over it, picking up the context they need while enjoying the escapist experience of reading.
Content copyright © 2014 by Val Kovalin. All rights reserved.
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