How to Spot and Correct Head-Hopping

What Is Head-Hopping

Head-hopping occurs when you bounce around from one character’s perspective to another, revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, without a proper scene break or clear signal.

Since it can cause the reader to pull out from the experience, wondering which character they should identify with, it can ruin your scene.

Example of head-hopping:

“Swing. Yay swing,” Brandon says running toward the playground. Kimball looks at his younger brother running off, sighs, and gives in to his fate: pushing Brandon on the swing forever. Why can’t his brother enjoy the slide more? There goes his idea of working on some homework. When Brandon reaches the swing, he climbs in and smirks. There, he can at least climb up. Looking expectantly at Kimball, he says, “Underdog.”  Then he closes his eyes and waits, envisioning going high like superman and making all the kids jealous. When it doesn’t happen, he opens his eyes and says again, “Underdog.” Kimball knows his brother just wants to feel normal so he smiles and says, “You got it, kid!”

 

At the start of the scene, we are in Kimball’s thoughts, seeing the scene from his perspective, but then we see it from Brandon’s, and then back to Kimball’s.

 

Switching character’s perspectives

 

You can switch character’s perspectives throughout the book, but not in a given scene unless you have a clear signal (although keep in mind it is best to stay in the perspective of one character for a good chunk of time before switching).

The scene above was short, so it wouldn’t work to switch perspectives mid-scene.

If you need to switch in the middle of a lengthier scene, use a clear signal. Some authors use *** or other signs to indicate the character switch.

Example of switching mid-scene:

The scene: Robert storming into the house of a family having dinner.

Since the author wants the reader to feel the fear of the family,  the scene starts in the father’s perspective.  In his perspective, we read about Robert stumbling in, the dialogue that ensues, and all that initially occurs for several pages. But then when the family realizes the guy is harmless, the author has a clear signal *** and switches to Robert’s perspective as he sits down and joins them for dinner.

 

Again you will mostly want to stay in the perspective of one character for the entire scene.

Occasionally some scenes may need the perspective switch, but you still need to stay with one character for a good chunk of time and give a clear signal.


How Head-Hopping Differs from Omniscient Narrator

Yes, there is such a thing as an omniscient point-of-view: where the narrator is all-knowing and can report the thoughts and feelings of any character.

But using an omniscient narrator has a different feel; the narrator is distant, giving the report from a bird’s eye view.

The omniscient narrator is not telling the story from a character’s perspective.

Example from The Scarlet Letter:

“Hester Prynne set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast.

“It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be […] agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.”

 

In this scene, the narrator takes us from Hester’s experience, to the schoolboys thoughts in the crowd, and then back to Hester’s experience.

However, this is not head-hopping but rather an omniscient narrator.

While we learn of Hester’s experience and the schoolboys thoughts, we see it at a distance. We are not intimately in the perspective of Hester and then the perspective of the school boys; instead, we are seeing the thoughts and feelings of the characters from the narrator’s perspective.

So we didn’t change perspectives; it is all still the narrator’s. The narrator just happens to have the ability to report on the thoughts and feelings of all characters.

If we were instead to use third-person point of view (the narrator telling the story not from their bird’s-eye perspective, but rather from the intimate viewpoint of one character) in this passage, it would result in head-hopping.

Rewritten with head-hopping example:

Hester walked towards the place appointed for her punishment. She was determined not to let anyone see any emotion. Without looking at the crowd, she held her head high and walked straight down the middle. She saw the schoolboys who ran ahead of her, but she paid them no attention. One eager schoolboy stared at her. So this is why we have a half-holiday? he thought. His friend next to him said, “Hey, did you see the big letter on her breast?”
“Yeah. It’s there because she was bad.” He wasn’t exactly sure what she had done, but his mom told him to stay away from her so it must be pretty bad. She didn’t look like a bad lady, though.
Hester wondered if the people could hear her heart beating and could feel the pain that went into each step. While she kept her face expressionless, she couldn’t completely still her heart. The market-place seemed even further than she recalled.

 

In this example, the narrator is not at a distance, describing the scene as they see it and reporting on the individual character’s emotions and feelings.

Instead, we are seeing the scene from the perspective of a particular character, in their voice, but then the perspective changes mid-scene, creating head-hopping.

If it is truly an omniscient narrator, it would be a distant narrator voice, not a distinct character voice.


How to Avoid and Correct It

In an attempt to avoid it, with each scene

  • Decide who will be your viewpoint character
  • As you write about the other characters in the scene ask yourself, Would my viewpoint character know this information without being in the other character’s head? Would this be something my viewpoint character could see and report on?

For example: If your viewpoint character is Jim, and he is in a scene with Pam, he can see Pam’s hand shaking as she writes her signature and conclude that she feels nervous.

So that information about Pam can be told from Jim’s perspective.

But Jim wouldn’t be able to say that Pam is worried her boss will find out that her son is the one who pulled the prank.

 

Correcting head-hopping

 

Most likely you will have instances of head-hopping in your first draft. It is a pesky thing, tricky to spot, and an easy trap to fall into.

As you go through your self-editing, just note when something occurs that the viewpoint character would not know about and either delete that part or reframe it from the character’s perspective.

Practice scene:

Jim reassures his boss it wasn’t Pam. The thought of shy Pam doing anything that outrageous almost causes him to laugh. But he dutifully takes the sworn statement to Pam’s desk. Gosh she is beautiful. Pam takes the clipboard and with shaking hands she signs her name. She wills her heart to stay still reassuring herself there is no way they can connect it to her son. She hopes Jim doesn’t see her shaking hands and jump to the wrong conclusion. Jim takes the clipboard, walks over to his boss, and says, “There are you happy!”

 

Fix #1: Deleting the information he wouldn’t know:

Jim reassures his boss it wasn’t Pam. The thought of shy Pam doing anything that outrageous almost causes him to laugh. But he dutifully takes the sworn statement to Pam’s desk. Gosh she is beautiful. Pam takes the clipboard and signs her name. She wills her heart to stay still reassuring herself there is no way they can connect it to her son. She hopes Jim doesn’t see her shaking hands and jump to the wrong conclusion. Jim takes the clipboard, walks over to his boss, and says, “There are you happy!”

Sometimes it works to just delete the information. But in this scene, we need to know Pam is nervous, so reframing it would be better. In fix #2, we learn that she is nervous. We don’t know why, so the author will need to reveal that later since Jim cannot determine the why. If it is important to know why she is nervous in this scene, then the author will need to rewrite the scene using Pam as the viewpoint character.

Fix #2: Reframing it from viewpoint character’s perspective:

Jim reassures his boss it wasn’t Pam. The thought of shy Pam doing anything that outrageous almost causes him to laugh. But he dutifully takes the sworn statement to Pam’s desk. Gosh she is beautiful. Pam takes the clipboard, and her hands begin to shake. She looks up at Jim, wide-eyed and panicked. Jim covers her hands with his, “Don’t worry.  We all know you didn’t do it. Ignore him and just breathe.”  Jim takes the clipboard, walks over to his boss, and says, “There are you happy!”

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