Elements of Writing: Headhopping

Originally posted Oct. 8, 2008

Greetings, all. Thanks for stopping by. Let’s talk about another element of POV, shall we?

I tend to be a little ol’ skool in some ways in that when I write POV, I stick to one person’s POV (one person’s head) at a time. The reasons for doing this are that it keeps me as a writer focused, and it allows the reader to really bond with that one character, rather than getting jerked out of someone’s head and flung into someone else’s. When you do that–jump from one person’s thoughts to another person’s thoughts and back again in the same scene (sometimes the same paragraph/sentence)–it’s called “headhopping.”

So come on down and let’s have a chat about it, yeah?

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing intrinsically WRONG with headhopping. If you’re writing in 3rd-person omniscient (or “omniscient”), you’re the detached narrator hovering overhead, seeing all, knowing all. For some forms of fiction, this works just fine. But for other forms–like genre fiction, especially–headhopping can actually work against you. Genre fiction (think mystery or romance) tends to require that the reader really get into a character’s head, since genre fiction usually features one or two main characters. And headhopping into every character’s head in a scene can make for some confusing reading and actually end up distancing your reader from your main character(s).

I’m also an editor. And I see a lot of headhopping from authors who are just starting out. Hell, I did it when I was a newbie to fiction writing. My earlier work is FULL of it. Which is probably one of the reasons that my earlier stuff isn’t published. Authors just starting out or authors who are unskilled at craft might fall into headhopping because it’s easy in terms of creating a narrative and plot and it allows you to throw all kinds of things into a scene that logically you couldn’t if you were in one person’s head consistently. If you’re writing in ONE POV at a time, then you have to really think about how the plot is going to unfold, and how your character is going to be able to figure something out. It requires getting into a role, if you will, and seeing the world through one person at a time, and filtering everything through one person. That can be difficult. But headhopping allows you to reveal things to readers that EVERYBODY’S thinking, which can do three things that maybe you don’t want:

1) it can defuse a build-up of tension, especially in genre and even romantic fiction, because your reader knows everything that’s happening, even things the MC (main character) doesn’t know.

and

2) it can create some confusion and awkward dialogue if you, the author, are trying to do that conversation between, say, three people in a room and you keep jumping into everybody’s head, which means you might have to resort to using names in dialogue, which doesn’t really make sense. How often do YOU refer to your friends by their names when you’re in a room with them talking? But when you’re headhopping, you have to resort to techniques like that to keep your readers from getting confused about who’s saying or thinking something.

and then

3) it can actually work against you if, say, you’re writing a murder mystery (a type of genre fiction). If you’re headhopping all over, then how are you going to keep the murderer a mystery (if that’s what you’re planning to do)? And if you do keep it a secret, then you’ve tossed your readers a red herring of sorts. Here you’ve been in everybody’s head, and readers know all the thoughts EXCEPT that one? It might end up being kind of a plot hitch.

So let’s have a look at something that has headhopping:

—–

Jenny avoided Mark’s gaze. She hated Mondays, hated meetings, and especially hated Mark, with his smarmy grin and slicked-back hair. He looked like a used-car salesman and the way he leered at her just made her stomach turn. Barry, on the other hand…now HE was a hottie, with his Calvin Klein model looks and most excellent smile. Thinking about him caused Joel’s droning about company budgets to fade into the background.

Mark licked his lips, watching Jenny as she stared at her paper. She was so fine, in her tailored suit and high heels. I’d sure like to have a piece of her. But she kept looking at that freakin’ metrosexual Barry, who probably took it from other guys. Mark scowled and tried to catch Jenny’s eye. I’ll show you a real man. Christ, this meeting was taking forever.

Lisa, Joel’s administrative assistant, entered the conference room. There was Mark, leering at Jenny, as usual. God, he was such a perv. Lisa knew that it was just a matter of time before he’d do or say something even more inappropriate than he already had. She placed the slip of paper with the phone message next to Barry. “Urgent. Call home.”

_______

Okay, so what’s up with this scene? Who’s our MC? Presumably, it’s Jenny, since the scene opened with her. But maybe it’s not, since we’re also able to get into Mark’s head AND Lisa’s. So either Lisa is not the MC, she’s psychic, or there’s some headhopping going on. To determine if something’s got headhopping going on, you need to be able to determine who the MC is in the scene. You should be able to do that from the outset. Then, using that MC as your focus, should that MC be privy to everybody’s thoughts? Unless she’s psychic and that’s the point of your story, then no. So how can we re-do this scene to excise the headhopping and still portray characterization? Let’s stick with Jenny as our MC.

________

Jenny avoided Mark’s gaze. She hated Mondays, hated meetings, and especially hated Mark, with his smarmy grin and slicked-back hair. He looked like a used-car salesman and the way he leered at her just made her stomach turn. Barry, on the other hand…now HE was a hottie, with his Calvin Klein model looks and most excellent smile. Thinking about him caused Joel’s droning about company budgets to fade into the background.

She glanced up from the handout to catch Mark licking his lips at her. Oh, God. She gripped her pen a little tighter, fantasizing about throwing it right at his forehead. Knowing him, he’d probably take it as a compliment. Her skin crawled and she scowled. He probably told women that he was a “real man.” Because all “real men” were sleazy, beer-gutted pigs like him. Guys like Mark hated guys like Barry, who always looked well-groomed, classy, and suave. Mark probably thought Barry was gay. She doodled a picture of a pig on her paper.

The door opened and Lisa, Joel’s administrative assistant, entered the conference room. She approached Barry, but her expression shot daggers at Mark. Interesting, Jenny thought. So I’m not the only one here who thinks he’s a perv. Lisa placed a slip of paper next to Barry, which he read. A frown creased his brow and he nodded at her and stood up, then followed her out of the room.

_________

Okay, so what’s happening? Well, we’re using Jenny as our MC, so everything gets filtered through her, which means we don’t know for sure what’s happening in any of the other characters’ heads. All we know is what Jenny sees and hears and how she interprets these things. Sort of like real life. You base your thoughts and opinions on what you THINK other people are doing/saying/whatever and through your conversations with them and your observations of their actions. In that sense, staying consistent in a POV is like acting. You’re a character, and your eyes are the camera for the reader. Did we lose anything by not headhopping? No. You still know that Mark’s a sleazebag, Barry’s attractive, and Lisa doesn’t like Mark, either. You also know that whatever was on the paper that Barry got, it required him to get up and leave a meeting, so it’s probably some kind of emergency. The difference here is that we got these impressions from Jenny alone. The scene is also better focused when we filter through one character.

Writing consistently in one POV per book, chapter, or scene allows you, the writer, to better control the focus and intent of the narrative. It also allows you to unveil things in a way that can build tension. See my initial post about POV and building tension for the reader. Here’s the link again.

Again, headhopping isn’t intrinsically WRONG. It just doesn’t necessarily lend itself to effective storytelling, especially for newer writers. The better you get at your craft, then you might actually be able to effectively use that omniscient viewpoint and you might be able to headhop seamlessly so an editor doesn’t notice. But don’t count on that. Learn to focus and streamline your writing by sticking to one POV at a time. Plus, it’ll help you as a writer really get to know your MCs.

Thanks for stopping by and happy writing.

Some sites that have more info about headhopping:

From Writing.com, Anne Marble (great stuff at this site)
Executive editor and writer Ray Rhamey’s Flogging the Quill.
From Romance Rules, a discussion about head-hopping.
And for another side, check Justine Larbalestier, who argues for head-hopping.

2 thoughts on “Elements of Writing: Headhopping

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