The Pros and Cons of Head Hopping

In order to talk about head hopping, we need to talk more generally about point of view. What is point of view and why does it matter in writing? Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. Generally this perspective is provided by one or more characters, or a narrator, who serve as the eyes, ears, and voice of the story. Hence we usually talk about point of view characters.

I tend to write from the third person limited point of view (POV). Sometimes I will have two to five POV characters in a novel, and sometimes I will have only one POV character. Third person limited POV means that you refer to your POV character as she or he (or by their name) and when you are in that POV you can see, hear, and know only the things that your POV character sees, hears or knows. This is distinguished from first person limited where you refer to your POV character as “I” and place the reader right inside the head of the character.

When you are writing from multiple POVs, there are no rules for shifting from one POV character to the other, but there are conventions. The three most common, and in my opinion appropriate, conventions are:

  • shifting POVs between distinct chapters,
  • shifting POVs between distinct scenes demarcated by a glyph or a line break, and
  • shifting POVs within a scene using a camera panning out/sliding method whereby you start in one character’s head, pan your camera (or words) out to be in almost a more omniscient POV, and then slide into the other character’s POV.

Everyone has different opinions with regard to the best approach. I prefer the first two, but third one, when done properly, is okay too. The important thing, from my perspective, and from the perspective of many writers, is that the writer signals to the reader somehow that they are shifting POVs and remains consistent with the conventions they set out at the start of the novel.

The Rise of Head Hopping

Increasingly though, I am seeing many novels that shift third person limited POVs via head hopping. Head hopping is when the writer simply jumps from one character’s head to another character’s head within a scene and does not employ the camera panning out/sliding method described above.

Note that head hopping is not the same as the omniscient POV where there is a distinct narrator who has some sort of access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters—in true omniscient POV, you are supposed to be in the narrator’s head, and while you know some of the thoughts of all of the characters, you are not supposed to be right in their heads. In omniscient POV, the story is told from a wider, more god-like lens and voice, NOT the voices of the characters. In practice, to the reader, unless the narrator has a distinct personality and the reader really knows what they are looking for, the omniscient POV may seem like head hopping. Moreover, I have seen many writers and readers confuse third person limited multiple (which is, as stated above, when the writer writes from multiple third person POVs but shifts POVs from chapter to chapter or by scene to scene) with head hopping. It is not, but this does show the level of confusion that can be out there regarding POVs.

There are techniques for head hopping that signal the POV shift subtly, such as shifting POV from paragraph to paragraph, or starting the sentence with the name of the character whose POV the writer is now writing from, or moving the first POV character out of the room (and in effect out of the scene for a few minutes). For these to work, they must be applied with absolute consistency, and even if it is done perfectly, it can, in my opinion, still make for a murky reading experience.

I was taught never never to head hop. But whenever the topic of head hopping comes up, defenders generally point out writers who apparently do it well, such as Nora Roberts and Stephen King. Moreover, although most writers will notice when another writer is head hopping right away, many readers do not even appear to be aware of it, or care. Because head hopping is increasingly being utilized, I decided I needed to reassess the pros and cons of it. Remember head hopping is not the same as omniscient, and it is not the omniscient POV that is under examination here.

Pros of Head Hopping

  1. By moving from one character’s head to another, you can reveal anything you need to (characters’ motivations, knowledge and experiences) at any point and you don’t need any contrivances to get your POV character into the right place to learn necessary information. Thus, it can allow for the provision of information in a more natural way. For readers who want to know everything that is going on at all times (which some do), the head hopping technique may be preferred. If you are not head hopping, you have to be inventive. Nathan Bransford points out that in Harry Potter (which is written for the most part in third person limited—although some argue it is omniscient), the invisibility cloak and pensieve were creative ways to allow Harry to know things that he otherwise would not be able to.
  2. Done well, you can let the distinct personality of all the characters shine by sharing their internal dialogue. Readers can develop a relationship with multiple characters and care about their feelings and perspectives. Villains may seem less villainous if their thoughts and intentions are known. Sidekicks can become more entertaining.
  3. Sometimes, when a reader does not identify with, or like, a certain POV character, or just wants a break from them, head hopping allows them to be in another character’s head for a while (however I would argue that this is just as effectively accomplished through a straight third person limited with multiple POVs that are switched between chapters or scenes instead of within a scene). However, if you are writing a series, head hopping can allow you to try out multiple characters to see which one readers identify with more for future books in the series, without the same commitment to those characters you would have if you went with a more conventional third person limited with multiple POVs.
  4. When you don’t head hop and you have multiple POVs, you must choose the POV from which you are going to show a scene or a chapter. Sometimes this is a difficult choice because the details and information you can convey from the selected POV character are different. I have had to rewrite several chapters or scenes in some of my novels when I did not feel that the POV character I originally selected to show the scene was the best choice.


Cons of Head Hopping

  1. Part of the reading experience is the close bond that readers can develop with the characters, and in particular the POV characters. Being in a character’s head helps readers to empathize with those characters and take the journey with that character. But you can only really experience a close bond with a few characters, and too much head hopping breaks this bond because there are too many characters competing for the reader’s attention and empathy. It can sometimes be unclear in head hopping books just who the main character is.
  2. Allowing the reader to only see the unfolding of events through the eyes of a single character at a time allows for more mystery and surprise. Although some readers want to know everything at all times, there are advantages to letting the reader learn things and be surprised right along with the POV character.
  3. Because the transitions from one POV to another are subtle (or not apparent at all), readers sometimes miss the switch and become confused whose POV they are in. I have had to reread passages several times in head hopping books to figure out whose eyes I am seeing the scene through. This jumps me out of the “narrative dream” and makes me focus on the mechanics of the passage, rather than the story.
  4. One of the challenges of writing from a single POV and NOT head hopping is showing the emotions and thoughts of non-POV characters. Writers must do this through their body language, actions, and statements—they must show the reader. Doing this in an effective way is truly part of the art of writing. When you can head hop, there is greater temptation to simply state what the other characters are thinking and feeling because you can simply jump into their minds. This can make the overall piece more telly than showy. While I am not an extremist on the telling versus showing front, and believe that there are many instances where telling is preferred, I still believe that overall, the writer should lean towards showing, and head hopping might just make it a little too easy to favor telling.
  5. Generally, the POV character for the scene determines the nature of the scene. Everyone sees events from their own perspective. They will observe even the same item or situation differently and pick up different details. A glorious bluebird day could be gloomy from the point of view of someone who is depressed or has just experienced something horrific. A character with OCD will be more focused on the potential fingerprints on a doorknob of the front door than the trim color or size of the house. The overall flavor of the scene should reflect the particular characteristics and outlook of the POV character. When you are head hopping you do not have precisely the same opportunity to paint the scene, and you do not want to continually be repainting the scene as you jump heads.

Reviewing the pros and cons in more detail has made me more comfortable with my preferred styles: third person limited with multiple POVs switched between chapters or scenes, and third person limited with a single POV. However, I now more clearly understand the potential pros to head hopping and why some writers wish to utilize it as a technique.


Categories: Writing Tips.

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