Head-Hopping Hurts Readers’ Heads

Even in our fast-paced digital age, readers are still looking for stories that encourage, engage, and entertain them in the midst of a changing world. What makes a good story hasn’t changed, and on the flip side, what ruins a good story hasn’t changed, either.

In this series of three articles, I will focus on the three main problems I see with novel manuscripts from my day-to-day work as a book editor, which will hopefully give you some food for thought when it comes to not only self-editing your story, but also writing it as well.

Take a look at this piece of prose:

“Would you like to sit down, Sammy?” Mary asked. She really hoped he didn’t, but politeness came first, after all.  

Sammy looked at her, trying to read her intentions and wondering if she wanted him anywhere near her.

“Sammy?” she said. Now she felt butterflies in her stomach. Why wasn’t he answering?

“Oh! Sammy!” Nora said, bursting through the kitchen doorway. “When did you get here?” she asked as she remembered that she never took off her dirty apron after baking cookies.

“Uh … I  … Uh,” Sammy said. That did it. He could barely think of hanging around with just Mary, but Nora, too? No way. “I  … um, I need to be going. Bye.”

Okay, so that seems like some decent writing, right? Punctuation looks good. Grammar (at least for fiction) is solid. Even sounds like an interesting scene with some obvious tension and lively characters. So what’s the issue?

Answer: Abrupt jumps in point of view (POV)—head-hopping.

(Note: When referring to POV here, I am referring to it only in terms of character perspective-not whether you’ve chosen first, second, or third person as the main narrative voice in your novel.)

So, let’s look at the above writing sample again. First, we’re in Mary’s POV, as indicated by our ability to “see” the scene through her eyes and even “hear” her thoughts-we’re in her head, so to speak. But, in the next paragraph, we’ve jumped into Sammy’s POV ,” and then back into Mary’s, and then into Nora’s,  and finally back into Sammy’s.

In other words, it’s harder to follow than a game of Twister.

Why is this such a problem, though? Simply put, if you have a lot of head-hopping, you as the author are crippling any real narrative intimacy you’re building with the reader. Good stories resonate with readers and let them escape into a reality in which they experience the story world through various characters—but that’s best done one character at a time for however many POV characters you may have throughout your story.

When readers begin to feel connected to a character and you suddenly jump POVs, you’ve broken that sense of growing intimacy. Conversely, when you stay in one character’s POV for each scene, you allow the reader to get familiar with the character and to eventually know him or her. Then, whether it’s a protagonist or antagonist, the reader feels a strong sense of connection-of intimacy-with the character.

Still, you may say, “What’s the big deal? Haven’t some best-selling writers gotten away with this?”

Not many, but, yes, I know a few have. More often than not, though, these superstar writers have employed subtle POV shifts without making abrupt jumps from one head to another within a scene. Stephen King and the late Michael Crichton come to mind as being quite adept at this. Even in these instances, though, such subtle POV shifts are typically restricted to the beginning or end of a scene, when the author is zooming in on or out of a scene.

Okay, so that’s the problem, but what’s the solution if you find yourself prone to hopping heads?

If you use the common third-person narrative voice, then a great way to make sure you’re staying in one POV in each scene (and to build even greater intimacy with the reader) is to write-or rewrite, if you’ve already finished a draft-the whole story in first person for each scene’s POV character. (Don’t worry, you’ll switch it all to third person when you’re done.)

This exercise will accomplish two goals. First, you’ll be forced to write from the mind of each POV character in turn and thus you will get a good sense of learning to remain in one POV. Second, you will also pull the readers deeper into the story by making the characters more personal to them.

As I said, when you have finished writing or rewriting the story in first person, you then change it to third person, which mainly means switching out the pronouns and names, and changing verbs along the way to make sure they agree with the subject. With this simple method, you’ll really enhance the “flavor” of your story-and you’ll stay in one POV for each scene.

So, do your best to avoid giving your readers a headache by saying “No!” to head-hopping. Your readers will be grateful-and so will you.

Next in this three-part series-Part 2: Too Much of a Good Thing Isn’t So Good.

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