Thoughts on Head-hopping PoVs.

If there is one writing “fact” that comes up again and again on blogs on writing and in writing groups and writing courses, it is this:

Don’t head-hop in a single scene.

Or to put the matter another way: stay with your point-of-view (PoV) character. Get inside their skull and stay there. See and hear and experience everything through their eyes and ears and thoughts.


Reasons to maintain a single PoV:

Because that’s how you make the character real to the reader. Because that’s the way you make the reader care about your hero — or hate your villain. You share the scene with a single person’s PoV, just as you experience in real life.

If you head-hop, intimacy is lost. Besides, it confuses the reader about who is thinking what, or who knows what. It can bewilder as well as annoy, because you often end up with an omniscient PoV, the author as god, inserting themselves into the story too much.

For example:

Take a scene like this: Character A walks into a room full of men, men experienced in her chosen career. She’s a novice photographer in a strange country at war. You are inside her head, experiencing her bravado, her nervousness. Then without warning you are in Character B’s (macho male) head, looking at her and assessing her and wondering how long she’ll last. Then the omniscient author tells you a bit about Character B, things Character A couldn’t possibly know. Then you’re inside Character C, proprietary male half in love with her who brought her there, and who is now worrying that was a mistake. Then you are back with character A and her embarrassment when she tries to deal with all the things going on. All in the space of a page, and the head-hopping continues..

Poor writing, right? Hmm. One would think so, and yet…

And yet:
What prompted me into wondering about this is the book I am reading at the moment: Tatjana Soli’s bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, winner of the James Tait
Black Prize for 2010,  and a New York Times Notable Book for 2010. It was also a finalist
for the LA Times Book Award. It had good reviews from top review sites. Over on Goodreads it has a huge number of ratings with 66% giving it either 4 or 5 stars, and only 7% giving it 1 or 2 stars. And Goodread readers are much harder in their ratings than, say, Amazon.

Must be a good book that really resonated with readers, right?

I’m about halfway through and I will definitely read it to the end. It’s a page turner, a poignant realistic love story, yet a book that deals with some really heavy issues. There are some heart-rendingly beautiful passages.

And the author head-hops all the time in a single scene. Which does annoy me. But I am wondering why it annoys me. Is it simply because I’ve been told so many times that it is bad writing? If I hadn’t been told, would I have even noticed? Or would I just caught up in the story?

Is head-hopping really so bad — or is it just another way of writing which, in the hands of a skilled narrator, becomes an asset?

What do you think?


Thoughts on Head-hopping PoVs. — 7 Comments

  1. Glenda, I am DYING to write an entire omniscient head hopping novel, but I don't think I have the skill just yet. Every time I read Frank Herbert's "Dune" (which is fairly often), I think: I MUST TRY THIS!

    But not yet. You're many books ahead of me, though, maybe you should give it a try!


  2. Dune, ah yes. I — 20 years after reading it — STILL remember that wonderful scene where Herbert takes the reader inside the head of all those at the dinner table, one by one, to hear what they were thinking. Oh, yes.

  3. I find head-hopping within a scene to be jarring and disconcerting. You are seeing the world through one set of eyes, and forming a view of the world through the senses of that character. That character becomes our avatar, to some extent, in the world, for at least that chapter.

    Suddenly hopping between different viewpoints gives a kind of mental whiplash, a disorientating shift in perspective.

    We experience the world through our own viewpoint, rather than many. Perhaps it's a way of inducing a kind of multiple-personality disorder!

  4. Hm, not something I have registered as happening although I am sure it must have, I read so much. Annalou mentions Georgette Heyer doing it and I have read all of her Regency romances a dozen times or so. Don't remember Dune, years since I read it, it was never that much of a fave with me.

  5. I like your analogy, Jason. "Mental whiplash" can indeed throw one out of the story for a moment… definitely happened to me a number of times in this particular book, but given its success, I wonder if most readers even notice?

  6. I suspect that head-hopping done well – so you know exactly whose head you're in – isn't a problem. The trouble is not everyone does it well and then it's jarring and distracting. That Georgette Heyer does it well so you don't even notice it proves the point.

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