Head-Hopping: A Bad Thing

rabbit, fancy

Doesn’t matter how you dress it up, head-hopping is still bad (photo: Ross Little, creative commons license)

Fiction-writers struggle with the issue of point of view. Whose point of view should a story or part of a story be told from? What point of view will create the most impact for readers? Should it be first person (I/we), second (you, rarely used), or third (he/she/it). Should the whole story be told from one character’s point of view or several?

The mystery/crime novels I write tend to alternate points of view between scenes or chapters (victim-detective-victim-criminal-detective, etc.). And that’s what got me into trouble. I became so comfortable thinking in different heads, I forgot I shouldn’t combine them in one scene. Or I got to the point where I couldn’t tell when I did!

Jumping from the thoughts of one character to another within a scene is called “head-hopping,” and will earn an author severe black marks from prospective agents, editors, and publishers. Why is this important? Because it’s confusing for readers.

My editor was happy to point this out. I’m just thankful I couldn’t look into her head when she was marking up my manuscript. And here I thought I was p.o.v.-savvy (previous post)! I’m leading a discussion on point of view today, and here’s an example of head-hopping I developed for the group, taking one of my scenes and making it only a teensy bit worse head-hopping-wise than the original. I’ve underlined how you can tell whose head you’re in and inserted some explanations in italic.

      “Two men in Vatican maintenance uniforms and hardhats were setting up safety barriers marked “Do Not Cross” atop both sets of crypt stairs.
“What—?” Father Maratea looked up at them from the bottom of the steps. [Since we have his name, and, to him the others are the anonymous “two men,” reader will assume we are in Father Maratea’s head.]
“Good afternoon, Father.” The shorter of the two, a remarkably pale man, smiled broadly. “We’re here to repair the wiring under the crypt floor.” He spoke quickly, and turned serious. [Father Maratea could conceivably detect that the man turned serious, so this is still in his head, but getting iffy.] “Only a matter of time until—”
Father Maratea didn’t understand any of this, but he’d caught one unexpected word. “Fire? This building is stone. Stone doesn’t burn.” [definitely Maratea’s head]
“Sure, the parts we see are stone, but underneath there’s subflooring and sub-subflooring.” The man remembered another danger, and said, [oops! HOP!] “And, we have to do it today. We can’t expose hundreds of weekend tourists to the risk of a major combustion event, toxic fumes.”
The tall man nodded, impressed by Nic’s gift for invention. [oops! Hopped into the other man’s head.]
    AThey let Father Maratea think for about a half-minute [now you’re definitely in the thieves’ heads] before the first man glanced around and sniffed the air, as if a malodorous smoke might even then be curling up the crypt stairs. [could be either thief’s head or Maratea’s.] “The quicker we get started, the sooner we’re done.”
“Oh, all right,” the priest said, perplexed by the difficulties this posed. [the thieves might be able to detect that he is perplexed, so this gets only a caution.]
Father Maratea turned to them. “How long will this take?” His tone was peevish. Something about the pale man nagged at him, but the thought wouldn’t take shape. [Oops! HOP!!]

I’m sure my editor was tearing her hair out at the merry way I jumped around here. But now I’ve fixed all that and am moving smoothly ahead, no hops!

4 thoughts on “Head-Hopping: A Bad Thing

      • One of the most difficult things not to unconsciously do is head-hopping. The problem to me is that I know too many things in my head that I want to share with the reader. Consequently, when I’m focused on conveying plot points, addressing voice, and succinctly revealing details, I have to be careful not to slip and state something in a manner my pov character couldn’t have known or observed. Most difficult and frustrating once one realizes one did it. Ugh!

        • I’ve so been there! One of my (new) tricks is to reimagine the scene in first person. If I do that, then I stop myself from seeing something “I” can’t see or referring to another character’s thoughts “I” don’t have access to! It ain’t easy.

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