Person, POV and Head-Hopping

 

headhoppingFirst, let me say that you should write your story any way that you want to. That being said, these are guidelines, not rules carved in stone. Many great authors deviate from these guidelines and create wonderful works. Some readers are okay with head-hopping and some readers detest it. I’m sort of in the middle, but the more I learn about it, the more I lean toward NOT head-hopping in most fiction.

To understand head-hopping, you have to grasp point of view and person.

Most creative fiction is written in first person (I, me, mine, myself, us, our, we) or third person (Proper nouns, like names, and they, he, she) point of view.

With first person, the narrator is often the main character. (But not always, I read a book recently where a doctor was the narrator in first person telling someone else’s story.) This voice allows the reader to identify with the main character very closely. The reader can get inside the head of this person, know what she/he is thinking, and know everything the writer has let the character know. It is limited in that the reader only gets to know his/her feelings and thoughts, not those of the other characters. The writer can describe all of the ways his first person’s character’s five senses are affected, sights, sounds, smells, feelings, tastes, but cannot let you in on what others perceive except second-hand through the first person character.

Joey followed me into the bar. He must not have seen Janet sitting in the booth beside the door. He walked past the booth and ordered a whiskey. Janet blushed at the sight of him so soon after the incident.

In the first paragraph me, the main character, assumes (thinks) that Joey doesn’t see Janet. You are still in the main first person character’s head. The main character, me, sees Janet blush.

Joey followed me into the bar. He didn’t see Janet sitting in the booth by the door. He walked past the booth and ordered a whiskey. Janet felt embarrassed at the sight of him so soon after the incident.

In the second paragraph, there is head-hopping. How does me know Joey didn’t see Janet? He can’t know what Joey thinks. The writer has jumped out of me’s head and into Joey’s head. How does me know what Janet is feeling? The writer has jumped out of me’s head and into Janet’s.

A greater head-hopping problem is when there is head-hopping in the same sentence:

We went into the bar, saw Jane at a booth and she felt embarrassed to see Joey so soon after the incident.

That’s seriously problematic for a reader. The writer is inside three different heads in one sentence.

You can also have multiple POV in first person, usually separated by chapters for ease of reading. It has the effect of slowing the story down to examine each character’s perspective before moving forward, giving the writer’s story an ebb and flow.

With third person, you can have a limited POV (closed omniscient), or unlimited (omniscient).

Third person limited omniscient still restricts feeling and thinking to one central character in a scene. If this was third person omniscient limited (closed to Sam’s POV only) you could write:

Joey followed Sam into the bar. Joey must not have seen Janet sitting at the booth by the door. He walked past the booth and ordered a whiskey. Janet blushed at the sight of him so soon after the incident.

Third person omniscient doesn’t impose those restrictions on the scene. The narrator can show whatever any or all the characters know and feel. If this was third person omniscient you could write:

Joey followed Sam into the bar. Joey did not see Janet sitting at the booth by the door. He walked past the booth and ordered a whiskey. Janet blushed with embarrassment at the sight of him so soon after the incident. She grabbed her purse, arose, and headed for the door.

To totally avoid head-hopping, it is really best, even in third person omniscient POV, to have the thoughts and feelings of different characters separated at least by paragraphs, if not by scenes:

Joey followed Sam into the bar. Joey did not see Janet sitting at the booth by the door. He walked past the booth and ordered a whiskey.

Janet blushed with embarrassment at the sight of him so soon after the incident. She grabbed her purse, arose, and headed for the door.

Many new writers prefer third person omniscient because of the freedom to tell what any character is thinking or feeling, to be able to enter the minds of more than one character.  It still has to be done with care, or it comes off terribly confusing.

Separating paragraphs or scenes by POV eases the transition from one head to another.

I want to emphasize that head-hopping is NOT a cardinal sin. There are many experienced writers that use head-hopping very well. Stephen King is one who comes to mind. It has more to do with reader preference and writer technique.  It can be done well, or make a read impossible.

Here’s a chart I ran across that breaks POV down for people who follow a visual best:

POV

32 thoughts on “Person, POV and Head-Hopping

  1. I’m not a fan of head-hopping. I find it confusing unless it’s done well. I think that’s why it’s recommended beginner writers not use an unlimited omniscient viewpoint. On the other hand, I think it’s fine to tell the story from different viewpoints, just separate breaks in POV characters with scene or chapter breaks.

    Nice rundown!

    • Thanks Carrie. I so agree. Even in omniscient it helps a reader follow the character better when there is some separation. Horror is one genre where headhopping can actually be fun, but as a general read it doesn’t work well for me.

  2. Love the head hopping graphic at the top there! As an over enthusiastic newbie, this was one of my biggest faults! I think I got it under control eventually, though, thanks to some very honest writer pals of mine. Telling a story from different viewpoints can really add depth and interest to a story, but it has to be done well. I find it easiest to do this by using different chapters per pov… just to be on the safe side.

    • I have read some really good multiple POV pieces written in first person that did that using different chapters for each person’s perspective. Another person who used Multiple POV in third person was Sarah Cradit with her paranormal romance. She seems to have mastered the technique. When I wrote my crime novel, the POV in the first half was limited omniscient. There were two characters in different places so it worked well. When the story progressed to where both of these characters were together, I still kept scenes in one POV or the other.

  3. I think it takes time to figure all this out. I’m not a fan of head hopping, but have done it on purpose a few times. It’s best with a scene break. When there’s a chapter break, I don’t consider it head hopping.

    • Only writing in first person with multiple POV would a chapter break make sense.

      It’s not head hopping in third person omniscient, but it eases the read to have a paragraph or scene break. Too many POV in one block of reading overwhelms the senses of the reader with too much information.

      The key is consistency in POV if that POV is first person or limited.

      • I like to challenge myself with each attempt. In Will ‘O the Wisp, I wanted to use first person and never leave the point of view of my main character. I accomplished it, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

        • In my published book Part One is in first person and Part Two is in third. It was risky to change that up and I have had some complaints about that. Funny though, some people liked the first part best and some people liked the second part best, so I’m not really sure. I felt much more comfortable writing the second part as far as the narration went.

  4. If I’m doing a review, head hopping (especially when the pronouns are hard to sort out) can cost stars. But I’ll usually keep reading. It’s those repeated grammar errors that will make me give up.

    Great post and very helpful chart.

    • Oh yes, those pesky pronouns. I started to use “he” in my third person example for Joey in the second sentence and though better of it. If I can’t follow who is doing the thinking and or the acting I won’t even review it publicly.

  5. Thank you for publishing this flow chart on point of view – wow, never have seen one of those before. Your examples illustrate the tricky nuances of POV, including proper pronoun reference.

    • I liked the visual on the chart. POV has a lot to do with the senses. The character POV may or may not be limited or restricted. The key to a readable manuscript is to stay with the POV selected and create some sort of break when moving from head to head if you select omniscient.

  6. I think I enjoy books most when they stay with a single POV all the way through. It helps me identify with the character more closely. There are some advantages, though, in using multiple viewpoints. The reader is exposed to more than one voice, and that can be fun. A couple of good books I’ve read recently with multiple POV: The Arsonist by Sue Miller and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. They changed POV with each chapter.

    You mentioned a first-person narrator who is not the main character. One example would be Nick Carraway in The Great Gatspy.

    • That’s right! I had forgotten about The Great Gatsby. I’m good with multiple POV as long as it is done well. I like omniscient also, provided the writer pays attention to who is supposed to be thinking and feeling in the scene. There is so much about reading that is subjective. That’s why there is no such thing as a perfect book. 🙂 Thanks for your comments.

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