“Point of View and Head Hopping”

English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns - I– A guest post by Stefan Vucak

Everybody is getting excited these days about head hopping in writing, and everybody is telling you how that kills a story. Perhaps, and then perhaps not. For inexperienced writers, it can be a trap, but if you know what you are doing, it can enhance your writing, making it more vibrant and powerful. I am not going to dwell too much on this as there are endless technical articles you can pick up that trash this topic to death. But I thought a summary would be good. Some definitions.

What is Point of View? Most of today’s fiction is written in limited third-person. With this technique, the writer can develop the story using several central characters, each contributing a segment to the novel, adding depth and richness. Pure third-person is when the entire work is narrated from one character’s point of view: ‘he did’, ‘she did’. Short stories are often written in first-person: ‘I did’. But if the writer is good, he would use the limited third-person. Beginning authors often use the first-person approach to tackle their first book or two, as the technique is easy to apply and the author can get on with telling the story in a straight-line sequence. Call it a writer’s training wheels. Writing using any of these three techniques is a Point of View.

When using the limited third-person technique where all characters are referred to by a personal pronoun (she, he, they), and each scene is told from one character’s viewpoint, purists will tell you that you must not shift points of view within a scene or paragraph, but do it by creating a new scene or chapter break. Most of the time, that is sound advice. But those same purists would lead you to believe that this is a grammatical rule that cannot be broken, whereas in fact, it is merely a convention that has grown over the years—one that many famous published authors ignore…to some extent.

I’m not going to talk about the omniscient third-person, where the unseen narrator/author knows what all the characters are thinking all the time—and writes sentences from a different character’s POV. This is getting too close to what is referred to as head hopping, and when done badly, really confuses the reader.

The reason an author wants to shift his Point of View is obvious: to let the reader know what each of his main characters is thinking, doing and why. It provides clarification and understanding of character behavior and motive, and brings density and texture to writing. Unless the author is really skilled, it is difficult to describe every character’s feelings, moods, and behavior from a single character’s viewpoint. The reader can miss a lot by not knowing who did what to whom and who got paid. Of course, this problem can be tackled by using appropriate dialogue and describing body language.

This is where we come to the sinful part—head hopping. A reader identifies with a character the author introduces at start of a chapter or scene, and expects to stay with that character until the scene or chapter changes. This enables the reader to link with the character, sympathize or hate the character. It provides continuity. Head hopping is where the author jumps from one character to another within the same paragraph or scene without first alerting the reader that he is now dealing with a different character’s point of view. That can be disconcerting, confusing the reader, making him wonder what is going on. The key words here are ‘without first alerting’! Remember those purists? Encountering a head hopping paragraph or scene would make them see red, and most of the time I wouldn’t blame them. If the author states he is using the omniscient third-person, it is merely an excuse for bad writing.

Here is a simple example:

Morton lowers the gun, waiting for Chris to emerge from the doorway.

Crouching, Chris listens, not wanting to expose himself.

Pursing his lips, Morton steps away from the truck.

In these three sentences, the author is head hopping, shifting from one character to another, not allowing the reader to relate to either one.

Okay, so how do you handle a shifting point of view? In any story, it is sometimes necessary to change a point of view from one character to another in order to maintain smooth continuity and enhance tension or drama, or simply provide an explanation from two characters for what is going on. To achieve that shift by introducing a scene break as the purists demand can be awkward and just as jarring to the reader as head hopping. Why? The reader must wait for that scene or chapter break! What you need to do is make a smooth transition from one character to another by clearly identifying the new character to whom the point of view has shifted, and not returning to the previous character again within that scene. That way, you will carry the reader, leaving him satisfied and understanding what is happening. In other words, shift your point of view once and leave it at that. Doing it more than once, unless done skillfully, will be head hopping and the reader will revenge himself by dropping your book.

Another thing. If you are going to shift your point of view, it must be done for a significant purpose. You will not be showing off your skill by constantly writing what each character is thinking or doing. Most editors will allow POV shifts in your writing without having a scene or chapter break, but you have to execute it well and rarely, or the editor will tell you about it.

Don’t head hop, really!

Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award.

Website: www.stefanvucak.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/StefanVucak

Twitter: @stefanvucak

Have you found Stefan’s comments helpful? Do you agree with the theme of his article? Do you want clarification for the points raised?

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3 thoughts on ““Point of View and Head Hopping”

  1. Someone actually commented about one of my books, that at times it seemed as the narrator was telling the story. As opposed to waiting in the car? Maybe I am old school, but unless I am writing non-fic, the narrator, me, tells the story. What was the POV of the Wizard of Oz? Or any “Once upon a time, there was. . .” I even had God weigh in for one story.

    The “Tommy closes the door” ? YA maybe or anyone under 16.


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