Head Hopping: Why it's a problem and how to avoid it
Updated: Mar 16, 2019
Julia wrung her hands in eager anticipation and watched the stairs, afraid to even blink. She didn't want to miss the first glance she'd have of her son in over a year. After all the sleepless nights she'd spent worrying about Chase since his deployment, it still seemed surreal that he was coming home today.
A pair of sandy combat boots appeared on the stairs. Julia's breath caught in her throat and she bounced from one foot to the other. As the boots descended, Chase's face came into view. Julia smiled and ran to her son with a speed and exuberance she hadn't experienced since her youth.
"Hi, Mom," Chase said as she embraced him. He almost laughed at how tightly she clung to him, but considering the hell he'd put her through in the past fifteen months, the humor of the situation quickly faded. Chase hadn't failed to notice the new streaks of gray in his mother's hair and the worry lines etched in her forehead.
See what I did there?
That little segment shows an example of head hopping, which is what I want to address today because it's something I see frequently with new writers and even in published books. I will admit that this is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to stories. Other people might not mind so much, but when I see this crop up in a story (particularly if it happens multiple times in a single scene), I want to stop reading immediately.
What is head hopping?
Head hopping is when a point of view shift happens abruptly in a story without transition or any clear indication of why this is happening. In the above example, I started writing in Julia's point of view. You saw the situation through her eyes and got an inside look at what she was thinking and how she was feeling. Two paragraphs in, I abruptly shifted to Chase's point of view so that you saw the story from his perspective.
Head hopping typically occurs in limited third-person. This point of view takes us right inside the character's head. Sometimes, there is only one point of view character, like in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Other times, there may be multiple point of view characters, as in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. In either case, we are only ever seeing the story through one character's eyes at a time. There may be a shift in point of view, but it happens between scene breaks and chapters. This is an appropriate way to handle a shift in viewpoint. Head hopping is when that shift happens in a single scene (or worse - in a single paragraph or sentence).
Note that head hopping is different from omniscient point of view. In omniscient point of view, the story is being told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who can see into all of the characters' hearts and minds and let the reader know what each of them are thinking and feeling at any time. I think of it as being a little more "detached," since we're not truly getting inside any one character's head at any time. It is not considered head hopping when an omniscient narrator tells us what one character is feeling and then moves on to explain how a different character is feeling in the same scene.
Why is head hopping a problem?
Since limited third person puts readers firmly in a single character's head at a time, it can be very jarring to be thrust into a different character's head with no warning. You have readers happily reading about John's terrible day at work and how much he hates his boss when suddenly, the story jumps into the point of view of the lady in the next cubicle. What just happened? Where are we? Why? Just like that, you have readers paying more attention to the writing itself than to the characters and story. You've pulled them out of your carefully constructed world and reminded them that what they're reading is just a collection of words on a page. As a reader, it's frustrating to see this happen once or twice in a scene. It's exponentially more annoying when the point of view keeps jumping back and forth between characters for no reason.
How do you avoid head hopping in stories?
I know it's tempting to just jump between characters whenever you feel like it. Trust me - I know. You've got something Big and Important happening, and there are multiple characters who each have an important reaction to that scene. You want to show all of those reactions as the event is happening while still providing all of the intimate insight that a close third person point of view provides.
Guess what? Tough luck.
Writing is hard, and you don't always get to do everything you think you should if you want to tell a well-written and engaging story. It can be a hard habit to break, but here are some things that might help:
Commit to staying with one point of view character per scene. This way, you allow yourself to change point of view naturally at scene or chapter breaks.
Decide early on which point of view character you will use for a particular scene. This seems to be one of the hardest parts for me. I'm currently working on a fantasy novel with three point of view characters, and there are times when I struggle trying to decide whether a particular scene should be told from Character A's point of view or Character B's. I try to consider which character has the most at stake in that particular scene, which one will have the strongest emotional reaction, which has the most to say or think about, etc.
If you still have a hard time deciding, try writing the same scene from both points of view. I usually find that about halfway through, I'm able to see which one is going to work best.
Is head hopping ever okay?
Look, I'm not going to be the person to tell you that you should never, EVER do something just because I think it's The Wrong Way. I think it's perfectly valid to argue that head hopping is okay and even necessary in some cases. I believe this sort of thing is more accepted in certain genres such as romance, where readers want to know what each person in the relationship is thinking and feeling in the same scene. (I don't read much - i.e. any - romance, so I can't verify that 100%, but that's what I've heard.) Even if that's the case, there are still risks you need to evaluate before making the decision to head hop.
The bottom line is that if you're going to do it, you need to have a solid grasp of what you're doing and make sure that you have a good reason for doing it. You need to understand why some readers might be put off by the sudden shift in point of view and decide whether or not that's really the best way to tell the story. If it is, great - full steam ahead. The smoother you can make the transition, the better. That way, readers won't disconnect from the story as much as they might if you just hurl them right into someone else's head. Ultimately, the principle here is the same as it is for anything else in writing: Do what's best for the story and makes the most sense for the world and characters you've created.