Why Head-Hopping Hurts Your Writing And How To Avoid It - An author leaps the gap between two characters' heads.

Why Head-Hopping Hurts Your Writing And How To Avoid It

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Have you ever been pulled over by the grammar police for head-hopping? It’s one of the most common editor pet peeves, but a device many authors swear by, claiming that their readers certainly aren’t complaining. Maybe not, but I’d still advise against it, and in this article, I’ll be telling you why.

First, though, we need to admit that ‘head-hopping’ is a confusing term, and one that often gets mixed up with other devices. To explain why it’s something you should avoid, I also have to explain exactly what it is.

How to spot head-hopping

The key to spotting head-hopping starts with knowing the difference between third-person limited and third-person omniscient point of view. Let’s take a look at the difference between the two and an example of head-hopping in each.

Third-person limited narration

In the third-person limited point of view, the narrator tells the story from one or more characters’ perspective without speaking as those characters, but the narrator sticks to using one character’s point of view within any given scene. So, if your book is written in third-person limited and you a) get inside multiple characters’ thoughts or b) see through multiple characters’ perspectives in the course of the same scene, you’re guilty of head-hopping.

Here’s a passage from Ann Cleeves’s White Nights, written in third-person limited. As I mentioned above, she uses multiple character perspectives to tell the story, but she keeps to one point of view per scene. Here’s the passage as written:

Shetland was all sky and wind. There were no trees here to provide shelter.

I love this place, [Hattie] thought suddenly. I love it more than anywhere else in the world. I want to spend the rest of my life here.

Mima had been pinning towels on to the washing line, surprisingly supple despite her age. She was so small that she had to stretch to reach the line. Hattie thought she looked like a child, prancing on tiptoes. The laundry basket was empty. ‘Come away in and have some breakfast,’ Mima said. ‘If you don’t put on a bit of weight you’ll blow away.’

The scene is told and shown entirely from Hattie’s perspective: every action, every thought, every observation. For contrast, I’ve rewritten the same scene with head-hopping:

Shetland was all sky and wind. There were no trees here to provide shelter.

I love this place, [Hattie] thought suddenly. I love it more than anywhere else in the world. I want to spend the rest of my life here.

Mima pinned the last of the towels on to the washing line, watching Hattie staring at the horizon. The girl was skin and bone. Mima bent to pick up the empty laundry basket. ‘Come away in and have some breakfast,’ she called to Hattie, thinking, If that girl doesn’t put on a bit of weight, she’ll blow away.

Wait, who is telling the story? Who is seeing the action and describing the events? Both Hattie and Mima. In one moment you’re in Hattie’s thoughts and the next you’re thinking about Hattie, watching her through Mima’s eyes. Can you see how we’re hopping between these two characters?

There’s a moment of disorientation for the reader when head-hopping occurs.Click To Tweet

When you switch from one character’s thoughts and observations to another’s, you’re changing the storyteller and disorientating the reader.

Omniscient narration

In contrast to third-person limited narration, a third-person omniscient point of view is characterized by an all-knowing narrator telling the story from a bird’s-eye view, while not participating in the events (usually, they don’t have a set identity). The narrator sees all, knows all, and can report on the thoughts of any and all characters at will from a distanced position.

This definition might sound inherently like head-hopping, but it’s not. In omniscient narration, head-hopping occurs when the narrator stops telling the story from this distanced perspective and begins to tell the story from the characters’ perspectives.

Here’s a passage from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which has an omniscient point of view:

On a couple of weekends that fall, Jason drove home to Chicago or some suburb thereof. For Henry these weekends were a source of relief and joy. He had a friend, at least till Sunday night. Owen would spend the morning reading and drinking tea in his plaid pajamas, sometimes smoking a joint or staring idly at the face of his silent BlackBerry, until Henry, with careful nonchalance, asked whether he might like to go get brunch. Owen would look up over his round-rimmed glasses and sigh, as if Henry were an annoying child. But as soon as they got outside in the autumn air, Owen… would begin to talk, answering questions Henry would never think to ask.

See how the narrator is telling you about both Owen and Henry from that distanced bird’s-eye view? You’re seeing these events, actions, and feelings not through any character’s eyes, but from the narrator’s perspective. Now for a head-hopping rewrite:

On a couple of weekends that fall, Jason drove home to Chicago or some suburb thereof. What a relief, thought Henry, at least I’ll have a friend till Sunday night. Owen would spend the morning reading and drinking tea in his plaid pajamas, sometimes smoking a joint or staring idly at the face of his silent BlackBerry, until Henry, with careful nonchalance, asked whether he might like to go get brunch. Owen looked up over his round-rimmed glasses and sighed. He’s like an annoying child, thought Owen. But as soon as they got outside in the autumn air, Henry could tell Owen felt better. He began to talk, answering questions Henry hadn’t even thought to ask.

See how the narrator descends from his god-like position and enters first Henry’s perspective on the events and then hops over to Owen’s thoughts, bouncing back to Henry at the end? It’s not just the direct thoughts, but that the distance has been closed – suddenly the narrator isn’t far away; they’re on Henry’s shoulder, recounting his inner life.

Why it matters

Editors don’t like head-hopping because it’s an inconsistent use of point of view – it sets fuzzy rules, so the reader doesn’t know what to expect or how to get comfortable. It’s disorienting, it pulls readers out of the flow of the narrative, and it can even cause them to have to reread passages. Engaged readers are the ultimate goal of good writing, and head-hopping stops them reaching this state.

Head-hopping stops readers from becoming active participants in the story. Click To Tweet

They thought you were telling them a story from a consistent and reliable perspective, but if they’re constantly having to shift between characters’ views of the world and of events, it’s hard to know who to trust. While readers might not be actively complaining about head-hopping, that isn’t really a comfort. After all, they’ve never seen a more consistent version of the story, so they’re more likely to suffer through the effects – not identifying with any particular character, or not getting into the story – than identify the cause.

Avoiding head-hopping

Now that you recognize head-hopping, what can you do to avoid it? You have to be intentional about weeding it out, because it’s a virulent pest that’s easy to miss.

First, decide what point of view you’ll use for your story before you even begin writing, and know why you’re using it; it should be an intentional choice that serves the story in some way. By keeping in mind your reasons for using that perspective, you can stay focused on maintaining it.

Reflecting on your writing choices makes you less likely to ignore them later. Click To Tweet

Next, every time you sit down to write, pause just before you begin, think intentionally about your point of view and why you’re using it. This habit can seem silly and unnecessary, but it’s a discipline that will help you keep point of view in the forefront of your mind as you write, and that can save you from head-hopping.

Finally, check for head-hopping during your revision and editing phases. Put it on your checklist. Make it a priority to find those errors and fix them.

Correcting head-hopping

When you do find head-hopping, how can you correct it? In third-person limited, it’s helpful to figure out which character’s perspective is most essential to a scene. The scene from White Nights above is told through Hattie’s eyes because the book is about Mima’s murder. Cleeves allows readers to see the woman from Hattie’s perspective before her death so we can form an impression of her, which will inform the investigation. If you find you really need to tell a scene through multiple characters, you can avoid head-hopping by using a line break, scene break, or even chapter break in certain instances.

Removing head-hopping in omniscient narration can be a little trickier. A technique I find helpful is to think about your narrator as a camera. Envision the camera hovering above the scene and looking down on it. Head-hopping moves the camera so that it’s looking out through a character’s eyes. To fix head-hopping, imagine the camera resuming its overhead position, and then try rewriting those lines or that scene where you slipped out of the bird’s-eye view.

Head-hopping is a sneaky problem. Most of the time, writers don’t even notice they’re doing it, but by taking the time to identify this habit, you can improve your reader’s experience and their ability to invest in your story.

What tricks do you use to avoid head-hopping in your writing? Tell us about a time you read a novel that committed a head-hopping crime and how it affected you as the reader. For more on writing perspective effectively, check out Your Complete Guide To Writing Perspective: Who, When, How. Or, if you’re worried you can’t catch head-hopping yourself, try Your Complete Guide To Getting Useful Criticism and ProWritingAid Road-Tested: What You Need To Know.

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23 thoughts on “Why Head-Hopping Hurts Your Writing And How To Avoid It”

  1. When using third person, I would like to find information on when it is necessary to put “thoughts” in italics. I feel, if I am in one person’s head, the reader understands everything is coming from that character’s head and thus I should not need to italicize thoughts, opinions, observations, etc., except for, perhaps, a few significant comments one might say aloud. Do you have any advice or information relative to this? I for one find it intrusive to see italicized thoughts throughout a story.

      1. Thank you! I’ve read so many different pieces of “advice” on this issue, and the recommendations vary drastically. I will add this to my arsenal for those who disagree with me, LOL.

  2. All my characters talk. They all have a point-of-view. If they see something, write something, you know it, if I want you to know. Because I write using historical facts, a narrator does not give them to you, a character leads you to them in one way or another. Possibly reading from a log, or newspaper, a conversation between characters. If there is a narrator, it is the prologue, done in many books and movies. On occasion I use an epilogue or write it in as part of the scene at the end. I do not like letting my readers guess at what happened to the strings left, or interesting characters they might like, or to the location the story took place.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for telling us about your book. I’d be interested to see this approach in print and get a feel for how it affects the reader’s experience.

      Paige

      1. Hello Paige, my name is Lair. I have been writing a story, my first, for about three years. I am on my sixth or seventh revision. I belong to a small writers group of about 25 writers. We meet once a month at the local library. I finally submitted my first dozen pages for critiques from the group. Several of them commented I am ‘head hopping’, which brings me to your website and explanation of HH. I am not formally educated in this field. I have explanations on HH, including yours and still face a blank. Any suggestions? Lair.

        1. Hi Lair,

          It sounds like you’ve been introduced to the basics of head-hopping, which is great. A next step for you might be to ask your writers group for deeper feedback. Ask which sections in your manuscript stand out to them as being problematic, and then work on those sections to correct the head-hopping. By actually doing the work of correcting the problem, you may gain deeper insight into how to recognize head-hopping and avoid it in your writing.

          I hope you find this approach helpful!
          Paige

  3. Very nice article. I’ve never thought of this as a named problem but when it had happened to me it would stick up on later reads. With this, it’s even easier to avoid.

    What I’m doing though, is to change from Third person limited or point of view, to omniscient narration, or kind of. The narration parts are limited to one of the sub-stories that make the whole. It follows the misadventures of a creature that it’s supposed to feel mysterious and alien, opposed to the other human characters, to whom the reader is supposed to feel closer. Albeit the external narrator works more as a camera, since the reader won’t know what the creature is thinking, (if it thinks at all), or how will it react to a certain situation.

    What’s your opinion on this device?

    1. Hi Maxo,

      What an interesting approach! I’d have to see it in print to provide detailed comments. But based on your description, I’d say this could work as long as the omniscient sections are very clearly separated from the third person limited sections, and as long as the voice of the narrator is noticeably different from your POV characters’ voices.

      Wishing you all the best with your book!
      Paige

  4. Hi Paige,
    Thanks for your article. You describe omniscient POV as having no more access to characters than a camera hovering over them, but modernists like Joyce combined omniscient POV with free indirect style. So I’m still confused about if or how and when an omniscient narrator can go inside the heads of characters without becoming inconsistent or head-hopping.
    I would really appreciate your help.
    Thanks,
    Joe

    1. Hi Joe,

      Great question. Maybe the trouble is in the wording of my overhead-camera image. Omniscient, by definition, means the narrator knows all characters’ thoughts and feelings and can report them. Head-hopping occurs when the omniscient narrator reports those thoughts and feelings in a character’s voice (i.e., narrates the story from inside his or her head).

      Voice is key to recognizing the difference. The omniscient narrator’s voice is separate and distinct from every character’s voice; if information suddenly comes in a character’s voice, you know you’ve left your omniscient perch. Consider the side-by-side comparison from Jami Gold’s article (https://jamigold.com/2011/02/what-makes-omniscient-pov-different-from-head-hopping/):
      –Omniscient: She didn’t know what to say. The unexpected call from her ex with the news that he was dying left her uncertain how to react. A cough interrupted his next sentence, and he prolonged it for effect.
      –Head-hopping: She didn’t know what to say. How the heck was she supposed to react when her ex called out of the blue to tell her he’s dying? He coughed a couple times and then a couple more, just to stretch out the interruption and make her squirm.

      Does that clear things up, Joe? I’m happy to keep the conversation going if not.

      Paige

      1. Maybe you can help me, too. I struggle with this concept, especially after a self-professed editor pointed it out to me. I visualize my scenes like a Hollywood movie, where the camera generally doesn’t stay focused on any one character in a scene (unless that’s the only person present). The main difference is that facial expressions and actions are far more interesting visually. It allows the audience to discern the characters’ motives through their actions and dialog. But insight into the characters’ motives is almost necessary to keep the written description of facial expressions and body language from becoming very dry. I tried that once. It results in very uninteresting, repetitive narration.

        I mostly write omnisciently, like your first example. But the last sentences of your examples are where I get confused, and my editor friend and I would clash. I see no difference in voice between them. They both describe what he did and why; one is just more wordy about his motives than the other. The first one is also quite vague as to what the intended “effect” of coughing was—discomfort or sympathy? Not only that, it’s arguable that the second example isn’t head-hopping at all, and the last sentence reflected what _she_ assumed of his motives.

        I understand that it is possible to prevent head-hopping by using scene breaks or separating shifts between characters by chapter (which I’d argue makes it third-person limited). But how do you do this when the piece of critical insight into a character’s thoughts or motives is only a small paragraph or less? Or worse, what if they aren’t witnessed by the character you’re following? How do you write it so that you don’t have to repeatedly recount a specific event through every character’s point-of-view to convey all of their thoughts/motives? How do you keep it from becoming disjointed with too many breaks?

  5. Hi Paige,
    Thank you so much for your reply, and please forgive me if I’m being a bit dim but I’m still confused.
    You say that the omniscient narrator’s voice is separate and distinct from every character’s voice, so I’m still unsure how this accords with the use of free indirect style – in which the narrator assumes (or mimics) the voice of the character.
    James Wood, the literary critic, says in his book ‘How Fiction Works’:
    “Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language, too. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”
    An example of this can be found in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ (a novel written from omniscient POV):
    “She knew herself to be of the first utility to the child; and what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others!”
    I understand the concept of omniscient POV, as you have outlined, but it seems many canonical authors do indeed meld the author’s voice with the voices of the characters, so I don’t understand why they’re not described as either writing in third person limited or accused of head-hopping.
    Thank you again for your patience and I really appreciate any help you may be able to offer.

  6. Hi Paige,
    Thanks for your reply and thanks again for your patience. I promise I will make this my final question.
    You accept that free indirect style can be used in omniscient narration if used intentionally and skilfully ‘to draw a reader in, to give them access to essential information in the intimacy of a central character’s mind without the barrier of the omniscient reporter.’
    It could be argued that your earlier example of head-hopping is in fact an intentional and skilful use of free indirect style that does just this:
    ‘–Head-hopping: She didn’t know what to say. How the heck was she supposed to react when her ex called out of the blue to tell her he’s dying? He coughed a couple times and then a couple more, just to stretch out the interruption and make her squirm.‘
    Indeed, there is little difference between this example – in terms of intention or skill in providing access to the character – and the example of free indirect style I provided from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’:
    “She knew herself to be of the first utility to the child; and what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others!”
    Or am I wrong? Is there a marked difference that I am not getting?
    Thanks again.
    Joe

    1. Hi Joe,

      I so appreciate your questions and your desire to understand the difference between head-hopping and use of free indirect style.

      You’re right that the intention and skill of the line from Jami Gold’s article seems similar to the Austen line you quoted. However, I’m not ready to comment on whether Jami Gold’s example is head-hopping OR an example of intentionally using free indirect style for effect because it was an isolated example that I can’t view in context. And to me, that’s what this whole discussion hinges on–context.

      However, I am happy to give my opinion about the example you quote from Austen’s Persuasion after reading it in context. It’s been a long time since I read Persuasion! I’ll spare you a full analysis of the scene and just say that I see Austen giving readers special insight into Anne’s voice in that scene for dramatic effect. That one line written in free indirect style serves to show Anne’s true feelings and desires to the reader in a scene where her desires are totally disregarded by everyone else involved. It’s interesting to note that the disregard of Anne’s desires is a theme of the whole novel–another reason it deserves special attention and reinforcement.

      Head-hopping is often used to describe the way an author abandons consistent use of POV to jump willy-nilly into the head of whatever character he or she chooses. That’s not what Austen is doing here. I hope by looking at Austen’s example in context, you can see what I mean by using free indirect style for intentional effect as opposed to an author who indulges in head-hopping by going into multiple character’s voices without regard for its effect on the flow of the story.

      Paige

  7. Darlene Franklin

    I’m seeking to grow in my understanding of handling POV shifts. I recently reviewed a book chapter that had six scenes and POV characters within 1200 words. To me, that was too many in a short time. The author lambasted me for saying so, that I didn’t understand. The POV changes were clearly delineated, but to me a scene with 2 50 words or less hardly qualifies as a scene. In spite of the clear scene breaks, it felt like head hopping. Help me to understand better. I write romance, where there are usually two POV characters, and I either hear from both sides in a s ingle chapter, or alternate chapters. I don’t understand other genres as well. Thanks for your help!

    1. Hi Darlene,

      Obviously, there are no absolute rules in art, and it’s possible the book you mention had a uniquely effective approach or had earned the technique it utilized.

      In Richard Stark’s ‘Parker’ books, for example, the first and last third tend to focus on the titular protagonist, but the middle third changes characters every chapter, using disparate viewpoints to control what the reader sees and understands. It might also be the case that a book which has used multiple protagonists throughout has a need to hop more frequently when they’re all brought together at the end. In that case, it’s probably not the most compelling way to write, but it might be justified by what the device offered earlier in the story. Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Rant’ is another example; here, the story is told through fragmentary ‘interviews’ with the various characters, and their short, first-person accounts are often combined or juxtaposed. As with most ‘rules’ in art, though, ‘Rant’ isn’t effective because it coincidentally breaks with tradition, it’s effective because it’s a story built around that break. I’d be surprised (though not unbelieving) to encounter a story that uses this device effectively without having it as its raison d’être.

      That said, from what you say, I’m inclined to agree with you that so much character-switching over such a short space of time indicates poor planning on behalf of the author. Reviewers can only give their honest opinion and present their evidence, and the last person in the world who can be expected to agree is the author in question. I don’t think their disagreement is a sign of a lack of understanding on your part, but rather a relatively healthy aspect of the reviewer/author dynamic.

      Best,
      Rob

  8. from what I understand, the omniscient helps the character think and tells whatever they would say apart from when it’s a conversation. Better still, the bird eye should use the external expressions and actions of the character to tell what he is thinking. If one out of two or three characters most think it must be just one person and that makes it third limited.
    Am I on track with this? help a first time writer.

  9. Velma F. Stewart

    Is having a character (not the POV character) reveal his feelings in conversation to the POV character still considered head-hopping?

    1. Alexandra Ligethy

      No, head-hopping is a change of POV or narration. Dialogue isn’t affected. So if you revealed your non-POV character’s feelings for your POV character by having the reader see his thoughts that would be head-hopping as they should only be privy to the thoughts of your POV character. If your POV character figures it out on their own or if they are told directly then that’s just part of the plot told through their POV.

  10. I grew up on novels that had extensive head-hopping and scene hopping; and it never confused me. Why do I need to assume that my reader is easily confused?

  11. Alexandra Ligethy

    So I am writing my first book; a drama that may eventually turn into a tragedy. It has 2 main characters and I am planning to dedicate my chapters to one of them at a time in the third-person-close to create an emotional narrative and hide certain secrets from the reader by swapping the ‘lens’ at the right time.

    I am currently in the stage of listing all my scenes, deciding them into chapters and choosing the character best to be followed in the chapter.

    However, in certain parts, I am now struggling to decide who to pick as there are important but short events that might be happening simultaneously in the presence of another character that is not worth dedicating a whole chapter for but would be good to convey to the reader even though my focal character is not present.

    Any advice on how to proceed? Should I just add a line break here and there and hop over to the other character then break and return to the one in focus? I wouldn’t do this more than once in a chapter.

    Or should I line break and narrate as an omniscient narrator before jumping back?

    Am I overthinking this? I am trying to pay attention to this sort of thing in the books that I am reading but so far I have only read one book that is written in this style; (The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell) where it’s third-person limited with each chapter dedicated to one of two characters so I don’t have a lot of examples.

    I would appreciate anyone’s advice.

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