Whose line is it anyway?

Somebody once said that writing a book makes you an expert – but only on writing that one particular book. In other words, every project is unique. Just because you’ve written a book or two, it doesn’t mean you’ve got the whole “writing books” thing down pat.

I have been reminded of this while working on my current WIP. All five books of the Pipe Woman Chronicles were written in first person point of view, and same character was always the narrator. I know some people don’t like to read books written in first person, but I have to tell you that it cuts down on the temptation to engage in some bad authorial habits – like, for example, head-hopping.

New writers sometimes wonder what’s meant by the phrase “head-hopping.” I read a blog post by Rachel Abbott this week that gives the best explanation I’ve ever seen. As Rachel says, head-hopping is writing from multiple points of view in the same scene. It happens when you, the author/narrator, are writing the scene from your own vantage point outside of the action – as if you were watching a movie – and focusing on the emotions and objectives of several different characters in turn. You end up bouncing in and out of each characters’ head, from one paragraph to the next, and sometimes from one sentence to the next. Besides being confusing to the reader, it also makes it more difficult to go deeply enough into your characters to make them come alive. What you should be doing instead is picking one character in the scene and telling the story as if you’re inside his or her head.

Here’s an egregious example of head-hopping:

Pat hid the TV remote. His favorite show was on at the same time as Mike’s, and Pat was tired of always having to TiVo his show. But Mike felt justified – all their lives, he felt, Mom had played favorites and always let Pat have everything he wanted. He thought Pat owed it to him to let him watch his show first, and he demanded that Pat cough up the remote, or else.

Kind of boring, huh? What if I wrote the whole scene through Pat’s eyes?

Pat hid the remote. He was sick of Mike playing the “Mom always liked you best” card. For once, Pat thought, he ought to get to watch his favorite show first, instead of having to TiVo it. So he was stoic as Mike yelled at him, with his face bright red and that vein throbbing in his temple, to cough it up or else. “Or else what?” Pat thought, trying not to sneer as Mike raged on.

And from Mike’s PoV?

Mike realized the remote was missing and saw red. He knew exactly what had happened. Pat, that jerk, had hidden it from him. He always acted like he was entitled to have everything his way. Even when they were kids, when Mike would call him on it, Pat would get this blank look on his face – just like the look he was wearing now. “I know what you’ve done!” Mike yelled, feeling his face grow hot. “Cough up the remote, or else!”

More interesting, right? Now, at least, I feel like I can take sides.

My new series has three main characters, and each one gets his or her turn as the main PoV character. Where I found myself head-hopping was in scenes that included more than one of the three. I would start off in Tess’s PoV, say, and then give the last line to Darrell after Tess had left the room. In the editing phase, that “final word” became a tip-off for me: if it didn’t come from the PoV character, I had head-hopped somewhere in the scene.

Things were so much easier in the Pipe Woman Chronicles, where Naomi did all the talking.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

39 thoughts on “Head-Hopping”

  1. This is great, Lynne. Even though I am pretty good at this I still get caught once in a while giving information that the person whose head i am speaking from could not know. It’s tricky and this explains it perfectly.

  2. Love your examples (and hate head hopping). Thanks for this post, Lynne. And I can go you one better. I’ve even seen a single sentence head hop. Obviously that particular book had some serious issues. 🙂

  3. Great post, Lynne! Head hopping is a particular pet peeve of mine and when I try to explain it to newbies they invariably come back with the old saw “but Nora does it” (meaning Nora Roberts). I usually come back with another old saw like “Yeah, well, when you’re as popular as she is (and, apparently she does POV shifts well) then maybe you can get away with it.”

    1. Thanks, DV! I don’t think I’ve read any Nora Roberts (or if I have, I’ve blocked it out 😉 ). Maybe she writes in 3rd person omniscient? If so, POV shifts can be done. But I think 3rd person omniscient tempts the author to commit a whole host of sins, head hopping being only one of them (and perhaps not the worst).

    2. Those who know me, and I’m basically talking about non-literary people here, know I like to read and in many genres; over the years, out of the many books I’ve been given, which some thought I might like, are three Nora Roberts books. I have not managed to finish one chapter and couldn’t quite put my finger on why; I’m not saying that’s the only reason (and I certainly wouldn’t mind her readership, so I guess she must have something) but I’m sure it would be part of it.

  4. Lynne, I’m glad you included some quick examples without getting too wordy. They illustrate your point perfectly.

    I enjoyed “with his face bright red and that vein throbbing in his temple”. Excellent visual.

    1. Thanks, Kathy! 🙂 What I found most interesting, while writing the examples, is that when I was looking through each character’s eyes, the physical details came almost effortlessly. And I think that’s true to life. I know that when I’m in the middle of an argument with someone, I’m not consciously thinking, “Wow, he’s really angry” — I’m noting his body language and reacting to it.

  5. “My new series has three main characters, and each one gets his or her turn as the main PoV character. Where I found myself head-hopping was in scenes that included more than one of the three. I would start off in Tess’s PoV, say, and then give the last line to Darrell after Tess had left the room. In the editing phase, that “final word” became a tip-off for me: if it didn’t come from the PoV character, I had head-hopped somewhere in the scene.”

    So using your example above: Did it not come off as more than than a bit arbitrary to you by choosing to “give the last line to Darrell after Tess had left the room…” ????

    if this was a typical example of how you handled POV, throughout your book, wouldn’t it have been more effective to integrate the POV selection within the framework of your plot so that the selection of the POV for each particular chapter would yield the maximum effect on the reader?

    We can’t really get too much from the TV remote example, because that only works while discussing the “mechanics” of the scene.

    An example that might suggest the possibilities is a scene with three people, character A has had sex with Character B, who is married to Character C, and Character A is not sure if Character C knows… but he suspects Character C has just found out.

    The selection of Character A as the POV can be very suspenseful as character A wonders about every move Character C. Incorporating your example above by having Character C utter the “the last line,” should still be done with the same POV — character A. Character C’s line should be a mystery for character A as it is for the reader for maximum effect.

    If we were to change the POV, and make it Character C’s POV, then the tone could be profoundly changed, for instance, it becomes like the “Talented Mr. Ripley,” where we are seeing the scene from Character C either knows or suspects Character A of having sex with character B and is… in the middle of a plot to do something about it.

    It’s the context of the scene… the plot lines… that dictate the use of multiple P.O.V. And by using it cleverly, the multiple POV can add to the enjoyment of the story being told. But it shouldn’t be looked at as “easier” or “harder” than the “I” POV (the “first person” has its own comparative strengths and weaknesses). The multiple POV should be looked at as a writing opportunity to be matched with the right story, and the right storyteller… and always… the “right opportunity.”

    The so-called “hopping head” thing becomes an issue when a writer hasn’t clearly thought out their plotline… characters… how best to tell the story… then executing a narrative that just arbitrarily plugs in any POV without thinking about how to maximize the reader’s enjoyment.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Richard.

      We may be talking apples and oranges here. You seem to be focused on my phrase, “as if you were watching a movie,” and extrapolated that to mean that I *am* writing a movie. But I’m not. 🙂 I’m writing a novel. They’re somewhat different beasts.

      I don’t know anything about screenwriting, never having done it. What I *do* know is that the book I’m working on now is the first of a trilogy. I deliberately chose to have three main characters from different backgrounds who have to work together. Part of the fun for the reader is going to be watching them stumble their way into becoming a cohesive team. So yes, each of the three needs to be a PoV character, and no, my choice wasn’t arbitrary.

      I agree with you that first person PoV has weaknesses — a big one being that any time a major plot point develops, you’ve got to figure out a way to either get your PoV character in the scene, or have another character who *was* there provide a summary of the action without it sounding like an infodump. In fact, each type of PoV has both pluses and minuses, and sometimes it’s useful to rewrite a scene — or even a whole novel — from a different character’s point of view.

      1. No, I did not get it wrong… I knew you were talking about books… and my comment applied to books. And I really believe wrote is important.

        Thanks for your reply to my comment.

  6. Thanks Lynne! Nice article. One of many areas I personally struggle with, as I tend to imagine scenes like I’m watching a movie, and then write it as such.

  7. Great article. I actually prefer first person in reading as well as in writing. When I read first person, I feel more in touch with the character(s) speaking. Does anyone know why it gets such a bad rap? I’d love to know.

    1. Thanks, Melinda! 🙂 I enjoyed writing in first person more than I thought I would. A whole lot of urban fantasy is first person, which is why I chose it for the Pipe Woman Chronicles.

      I’m not sure why some people hate reading it, other than that some narrators just aren’t likeable. Sounds like something I should look into for another post…

      1. From what I’ve heard, Lynne, that’s about it. First-person all the way means spending 80K words (or an entire series) with one narrator. If a reader doesn’t like a particular narrator (well, not “like” all the time but at least “relate to”), it can be irritating. Personal taste, and your mileage may vary, and all that.

          1. I never saw “Herman’s Head”, darn-it.
            Seriously, I remember reading “Sybil” and I was amazed at the author’s ability to handle all the split personality manifestations. I’m guessing it was handled one at a time, as you describe above.

  8. Excellent article, Lynne, and good, clear examples. I’ve done a lot of first person also; only one 3rd person so far (two more currently being worked on though). To be honest, Lynne, I hadn’t given head-hopping much thought; I don’t think I’m guilty of it but, because I haven’t really thought about it, I’d have to say that would be more good fortune than planning. I’ll now be more mindful. Thank you Lynne.

  9. Great post Lynne. As the omniscient narrator, it’s all too easy to start telling what we see – in head after head. I still get caught out at times but I’m learning to see the danger signs – and that last word thing is a dead giveaway.

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