What does "head hopping" mean?

| Monday, August 22, 2011
Today's Tune: The Lazy Song


When sharing your work with other writing partners or receiving critique, you may hear someone use the term "head hopping, " as in, "You head-hopped from Character A to Character B here and it took me out of the narrative."

But what does that MEAN? Shouldn't you be able to tell the audience what every one of your characters is thinking and feeling at a given time?

Yes and no. It largely depends on which POV (point-of-view) you use, and even then, there are rules. Here's the thing: your ultimate goal should be to create a situation where, no matter how fantastical your story becomes, the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. However, even when writing fiction, there are certain things that will yank a reader out of the story and make them go, "Wait a minute, that's not right."

Head hopping is one of those things. "Head hopping" is a term that refers to a sudden and unexplained point-of-view shift. In other words, it's a situation where either the current POV character makes an observation they couldn't possibly know, or the reader suddenly finds themselves "hearing" the thoughts or emotions of a different character in the scene. It's a form of "authorial intrusion," or when an author lets their own knowledge show through in a situation where it doesn't work.

This is especially jarring in first-person POV, because first-person automatically indicates that we are inside one particular character's head. Therefore, that character can't make observations like, "Mrs. Anderson pursed her lips and wondered if I'd forgotten to do my homework again." There's absolutely no way for the narrator to know what Mrs. Anderson is thinking. Unless they're a mind-reader, but for the purposes of this post, we're assuming telepathy is a non-issue.

Third-person grants a little more leeway, since omniscient narration is possible. Still, it's usually a good idea to stick to the POV of one particular character in a given scene in order to prevent confusing your reader. However, if you're writing in close-third (aka, following one and only one character throughout the majority of the novel, as in the Harry Potter series), then you can't head-hop at all. When we were in Harry's POV, we didn't know what Ron or Hermione or Dumbledore or Snape were thinking or feeling. We only knew the actions Harry observed from them, and drew our own conclusions alongside him.

It is possible to pull off head hopping within a single scene, but it's incredibly difficult to do well. More often than not, the head-hop is a casual throwaway mention that the author didn't really intend, as in the Mrs. Anderson example above. Just be mindful of whether you're revealing a non-POV character's emotions or thoughts in a situation where it's not possible for your MC to know those things. Always remember, the MC can make subjective observations about a persons body language, speech, word choice, or actions, but they can't "know" what they're thinking.

Here's an example of head hopping:

"Keith clenched his teeth and punched the wall in frustration. With a howl of pain, he gripped his hand to his chest. The knuckles were bleeding. Great. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Marcy stood there, completely disgusted and wishing she'd never agreed to go out with him. Keith thought about trying to explain the situation with Dad and Jake and their whole stupid fight, but he knew it'd be useless. She'd already made up her mind."

Here, we're in Keith's POV, but we're "hearing" some of Marcy's thoughts. Although this is third, we're still in close-third to Keith, and there's no way for him to really know what she's thinking. He can only assume based on her actions.

Here's the same scene without the head hopping:

"Keith clenched his teeth and punched the wall in frustration. With a howl of pain, he gripped his hand to his chest. The knuckles were bleeding. Great. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Marcy stood there with a grossed-out look on her face. Keith thought about trying to explain the situation with Dad and Jake and their whole stupid fight, but he knew it'd be useless. She'd probably never go out with him again anyway."

As you can see, very minor changes. He sees the grossed-out look and assumes she'll probably never go out with him again. We remain in Keith's head the whole time.

I'm planning on writing a companion-entry to this one about multiple-POV novels, so keep an eye out for it! So, dear readers, have you ever seen an incidence of head hopping that you felt totally worked? What was it?



7 comments:

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: August 22, 2011 at 5:33 AM said...

At the end of the first part of THE CURSE OF THE WENDIGO, a suffering doctor is reported (in the 1st person narration) as lying - as in "Yes," he lied.

Yancey's set up in the series is that Will, our currently 12-year old narrator, has drafted these stories when he is much older. Presumably he is trying to capture both the horror of the situation and the shock of the boy-that-he-was at the time.

Because of his perspective - the narrator knows how the story ends - he's able to pull off this particular bit of contortionism.

But I have to say, it still threw me in the moment.

{ Jen } at: August 22, 2011 at 6:49 AM said...

This is a great post, Steph, but now I need to go and rewatch Arrested Development. I love Tobias!

{ Margo Lerwill } at: August 22, 2011 at 8:06 AM said...

Great explanation of head hopping (POV shift/slip, as I've always called it) and a good, simple example of how to fix it!

{ Robyn Lucas } at: August 22, 2011 at 9:36 AM said...

Love this post. Head hopping is so confusing, not to mention jarring to the reader. It takes me completely out of the story.

{ Emy Shin } at: August 22, 2011 at 12:40 PM said...

Great post! Head hopping can pull me out of a story very quickly. The only writer I've read who does it well is Laini Taylor. However, the majority of the times, she switches between PoVs during scene changes.

{ Brooke R. Busse } at: August 22, 2011 at 4:50 PM said...

I'm going to have to watch for head hopping in one of my WIPs. I'm writing it in third person, with certain scenes written from the POV of other characters.

I await the multiple-POVs post.

{ Christine Danek } at: August 23, 2011 at 2:42 PM said...

Great explanation of head hopping. I tend to do this sometimes and I write first person, usually present tense. It is something to look out for and I don't always see it until my CPs point it out.
I'm in your group for the campaign. Hi. I look forward to reading more of your posts especially the multiple POVs.
THanks.

Post a Comment

Hi. You're so pretty. I like your hair. Let's be friends.

 

Copyright © 2010 maybe genius