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.
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, as he is proud of climbing onto the swing and envisions flying, and then we are back to Kimball’s.
You can switch 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.
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.
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 schoolboys; 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.
In this example, the narrator is not at a distance, describing the scene as they see it and reporting on the various characters’ 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.
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.
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.
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