Head-Hopping

This month (all 8 days of it) I started transcribing my last Harlequin Temptation —STORYBOOK HERO—so I can put it out as an e-book. That book was published in 1989, before I started writing for Bantam’s Loveswept line, before my editor there chastised me about “head-hopping.”

For anyone not familiar with this term, head-hopping is when you’re in one character’s “head” or point-of-view (POV) in one paragraph and in another character’s POV the next paragraph. A really bad example is when the writer “head-hops” within the same paragraph.

Now there are published books where you’ll find the writer switches from one POV to another on a page and you have no problem following who’s speaking (or thinking). Often, but not always, these books were written by new writers. Head-hopping isn’t something that will ruin a story, but it’s a method that weakens the connection between the reader and the story.

This is what my Loveswept editor pointed out.

When a writer switches back and forth, the reader doesn’t have a chance to feel as close to the character. Switching creates a barrier, whereas staying in one POV, either for a scene or a chapter, allows the reader to feel closer to the character. For that scene/chapter you are in that character’s head. You know her thoughts, her fears, and her hopes. You understand his motivation, know if he’s being honest or sarcastic.

First person POV, of course, is the closest POV a writer can choose. Since it’s the only POV used, there’s no head-hopping. That may be why I chose first person POV for my “Crow” books. I wanted the reader to understand P.J.’s fears and experience everything through her eyes (and thoughts). It’s worked out well for those books, but first person POV is limiting.

Which is why so many books are written in third person POV. The writer then can include other characters’ POVs, convey information that might not involve the main protagonist. It’s a good way to built suspense. (We, the reader, know what the villain is about to do, but our poor protagonist doesn’t.)

If the writer uses a close third person POV, it’s almost like being in first person, except rather than writing:

I saw the man coming toward me, knife in hand. Instantly I went into fighting mode, my heart beating like a jackhammer.

You would write:

She saw the man coming toward her, knife in hand. She went into fighting mode, her heart beating like a jackhammer.

Head-hopping in third person would be something like:

She saw the man coming toward her, knife in hand.

The woman was alone, an easy target. He picked up his pace.

She went into fighting mode, her heart beating like a jackhammer.

He almost laughed when he saw her take a martial arts pose.

With first person and third close POV our poor female’s situation becomes immediate. We want to know what she’s going to do next. We have no idea what the man will do next, what he’s thinking, or why he’s coming at her with a knife. With the head-hopping, we become a spectator. It’s like watching a tennis or ping-pong match. (Which is why it’s sometimes called a ping-pong POV) As we bounce back and forth, we’re not as engaged with either character. We may still want to know what happens next, but we don’t care as much as we might with the single POV.

In STORYBOOK HERO I head-hop. I’m in her thoughts, then his, then hers, then his. That Loveswept editor was right. I don’t feel as close to either of the characters as I think I would if I’d stayed longer in one POV or the other.

So am I going to change it? No, I’m afraid not. To switch from head-hopping to POV changes by scene or chapter would take too much rewriting. I have fans who loved this story as written, so it will go out as an e-book as written. (With a few changes. I have found a couple of missing words and typos in the printed book.)

But thank you, Elizabeth Barrett for making me stop head-hopping.

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6 Responses to Head-Hopping

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    Head hopping is something we all can improve on. I keep working on it even after being published. You’re right that it happens in even best-sellers and it takes away from the connection. :)

  2. Enid says:

    Now I will go re-read Storybook Hero, which in not in THIS house,darn. I will be looking for these “voices”. And, I will read my current bedtime mystery with fresh eyes. (Just a random book from our senior center library).

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Enid, I know you’ve been taking some writing classes, so I’m sure you now look at books with “fresh” eyes. When I started writing I began looking at books in a different way. How did the writer make that scene into a page turner? Why did the writer use that POV? I’ve also become more tolerant of typos and missing words. I now realize how easy it is for an editor or writer to miss those minor flaws.

  3. Diane Ktaz says:

    When I wrote my books, there was a bunch of head hopping in them! That’s why it’s taking me so long to edit them. Writing is a craft that some are born with while others need to learn. I’m the latter writer and I’ve learned so much from taking classes and reading books with a writers eyes. Thanks for sharing!
    Diane

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Diane, I’m with you…I’ve been constantly learning the craft of writing and still am. I’ve learned from reading and analyzing the books of writers I admire, from “How to” books, from editors, critique partners, attending conferences, and from listening to readers and hearing what turns them off.

  4. Head hopping is one of those things I find I can’t see when I’m writing, but when I go back and edit it sticks out!

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