Polishing Your Prose, Part 5: Head Hopping


I'm editing one of my favorite books right now. 

It's written by an author I've worked with three times before, and now we're on book four. The series is Christian historical romance, which is one of my favorite genres.

But even though it's good, there are still things to work on. This is proof that everyone needs editing. One of the main things I am going to be helping her with in book four is not "head hopping" (or, using multiple points of view* incorrectly).

*The phrase point of view from here on out will be shortened to POV.

Before I continue, I need to be clear:

-This is not a post about the different types of POV. 
-This is not a post on how to choose a POV for your story.
-This post is about how to not horribly mess up if you have chosen third person omniscient (ie. multiple characters)

Employing multiple POVs in a story can add depth and conflict when done well. This technique is used by some of today’s best-selling authors, such as Francine Rivers (The Mark of the Lion series), George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones), and Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). There is an art to the technique, however, and many authors fail when it comes to the simplest essential of POV knowledge. 

Here it is in a nutshell: in every scene, you must stay with one point of view--one character. You might be switching throughout the book, but each scene should only be viewed from one character's eyes. 

If you show more than one character's POV in a given scene, you are guilty of head hopping, and your own head should be chopped off.

So what does head hopping look like? 

Every time you change POV, the reader is inserted inside another character's head. The reader is able to see the scene through that character's eyes and hear his or her thoughts.

Here's an example: Stan watched Marsha pour herself a glass of water and thought, Man, she's hot.

This line of narration is from Stan's POV. Stan is the one watching Marsha; we're seeing this through Stan's eyes and hearing his thoughts.

Now, what if the line read like this:
Stan watched Marsha pour herself a glass of water and thought, Man, she's hot.  
I wonder if he notices me, Marsha thought as she peeked at him out of the corner of her eye.

Now you've got both Stan's and Marsha's thoughts at once. This is not only confusing but also takes away from the suspense of the scene. You want readers to attach to your story and your characters, but head hopping doesn't allow this. When the reader isn’t attached, they have less character empathy and less involvement in the story. This leads to the reader not caring what happens to the characters, which leads to the reader putting the book down.

Obviously this is not something that you, as a writer, want.

So here's what you need to do: 
If you choose to use what's called omniscient third person and show multiple characters' POVs, you must limit yourself to one character per scene. (Or chapter, depending on how well your scenes are broken up.)

And if you choose limited third person, then you must stick with only your chosen character in every scene--that means your character should never know anything he or she hasn't personally seen or heard about.

Unsure whether or not you're head hopping?
Look at each individual scene through one character's eyes. Is there anything your character didn't see firsthand? Anything he or she didn't hear firsthand? If so, those parts need to be cut or rewritten.

So that's head hopping in a very small nutshell.
Basically, don't do it, and your manuscript will be better off for it.

[Check out the previous four posts on polishing your prose HERE.]
Anonymous said...

Good post. I've never heard it called head hopping, but I like that. It's one of the most annoying things to encounter in a published book, that's for sure.

One point of clarification - sometimes it is really effective when you see the same scene played out from multiple points of view, like the scene of a crime or something. It's cool to see it from the criminal's POV, and the victim's, and the cops, and the bystanders, or whatever.

When you talk about keeping to one POV in each scene, I know this isn't what you mean, but I just want to clarify for anyone else who might be confused - it IS okay to show the same scene from multiple points of view but only gradually, and that means you have to write that scene three or four different times, or however many times you're going to switch POV.

Just wanted to make that distinction - you know, for your thousands of followers who read your posts as well as super-long comments beneath. :)


Amanda said...

@AudraThanks! Glad you liked it. Thanks also for the clarification. I wasn't sure how much to go into in the post, but I think your note helped a lot (me AND my thousands of followers!).