Storyville: What is Head-Hopping and Why Should You Avoid It?

When I was first getting started as a writer, some eleven years ago, I can remember some editing and criticism from my peers in workshop, and professors in my MFA. It had to do with head-hopping, and it’s something you should actively avoid when writing your fiction.

Head-hopping is when you fluctuate between more than one person or POV in a scene. It can be extremely disorienting for the reader, pulling them out of the narrative. Let’s dig deeper, and I’ll explain what I mean.

The good news is that this only happens in third person, never in first. Why? Because in first you never change POV within a scene, or chapter. If you start that scene with “I/my” (let’s say your protagonist is named Raymond) then the POV is always going to be Raymond's.

EXAMPLE ONE:

I wake up with marks on my arms, uncertain of what has happened. I head out into the night to earn my keep, bringing Natalie with me, and I can tell she’s worried. When we confront the gang of boys in the alley, Jacob their leader sneers as we saunter up, and I don’t like the way he’s staring at her. I know this is going to go south.

That’s all Raymond. But if you take those POVs and split them between three different people in that same scene, THAT is head-hopping. Let’s shift to third.

EXAMPLE TWO:

Raymond wakes up with marks on his arms, uncertain of what has happened. When he heads out into the night to earn his keep, Natalie joins him, worried about the stakes at hand. When they confront the gang of boys in the alley, Jacob their leader sneers and makes a mental note to follow the girl home another day, since she appeals to his primal desire. Raymond knows this is going to go south, and as Natalie says a silent prayer, Jacob summons the strength to kill again.

Head-hopping is when you fluctuate between more than one person or POV in a scene. It can be extremely disorienting for the reader, pulling them out of the narrative.

So who the hell is this story about then? Whose perspective, whose POV is this? No idea. It’s all three. We get INTERNAL on all three, and that’s a big mistake. How can you handle this differently?

The more complicated way to do this, in third person, is to break your story, or novel, out into those three perspectives. Raymond gets a scene/chapter, and then Natalie gets a scene/chapter, and then Jacob gets a scene/chapter. But you probably don’t want to overlap, as that’s too redundant. We don’t need to see the moment three times from all of their POVs (unless you’re writing a Rashomon). So most likely this scene would be told from Raymond’s perspective, then the story would be handed to Natalie to show us something else, something new. And then Jacob.

Do you see the difference between Example One and Example Two? We get nearly the same information, but what we avoid doing is getting inside the head of Natalie and Jacob. You can refer to their actions, their dialogue, even their expressions, but it must all be run THROUGH Raymond. He senses that Natalie is worried, because he knows her well. He doesn’t like the way that Jacob is sneering at her, because he recognizes that look—the gaze of a predator, marking its prey.

So how might you write this same scene in third person without head-hopping? In first person we had only the internal thoughts of Raymond. In the second example, we head-hopped, and jumped around, making for a passage that’s hard to track. Here is how I might handle that same scene in third person.

EXAMPLE THREE:

Raymond wakes up with marks on his arms, uncertain of what has happened. When he heads out into the night to earn his keep, Natalie joins him, and he can tell that she’s worried about the stakes at hand by the way she twirls a strand of brown hair in her hand, and keeps touching the crucifix around her neck. When they confront the gang of boys in the alley, Jacob their leader sneers in their direction, but his gaze is fixed on Natalie, and that’s not a good sign, Raymond notes, as he’s seen that predatory look before. Raymond knows this is going to go south, and as Natalie whispers a prayer just under her breath, Ray summons the strength to kill again.

So, slightly different, yes? But we stay with Raymond the whole time. This is all filtered through him. The difference between first and third is definitely something you can see on the page here. With this last example we can’t get any of Natalie’s thoughts or emotions, unless she shows them to us, the world, to Ray, and the gang. That silent prayer now has to be whispered, her actions (twirling a lock of hair, touching the cross around her neck) reveals her worry to Ray, because he’s known her for years, and these are her tells. We also lose some of Jacob’s internal actions, and have to resort to Ray recognizing that sneer, that gaze, that leer as something predatory, something to be worried about now, and later, when he might not be with her.

So, in conclusion, let me reiterate the ways to avoid head-hopping:

  1. In first person, there is no worry, so if you use multiple POVs, just shift between scene and/or chapter.
  2. In third, with multiple characters, never go inside the head of anyone but the protagonist.
  3. In third, if you WANT the internal actions of more than one character, you MUST break them out into a separate scene/chapter, and then carry that narrative through your entire short story or narrative.

You’ll notice that MOST of my short stories have a singular POV. When I only have 5,000 words or less, I find it difficult to split the narrative into 2,500 words each, or even less. You can do it—I’ve done it—but it’s definitely more difficult. In my novels, I always shift POV by writing a new chapter—whether it is first person or third. The most important rule to avoid head-hopping, IMO, is to never reveal the internal thoughts or emotions of anyone OTHER than your protagonist. That character's inner workings are the only ones you will get on the page. All other reveals from secondary characters must be shown through dialogue and action. Filter everything through your protagonist. That’s what makes for such a personal journey, us sitting in the protagonist’s head, feeling what they feel, seeing the world through their eyes, primarily.

Make sense? Shoot me any questions in the comments, if you like, but I think if you follow a few basic rules, you’ll be just fine. Good luck!

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Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Skipskatte's picture
Skipskatte May 3, 2019 - 12:09pm

Just like every writing rule, there's always a notable exception. Elmore Leonard will often head-hop sentence by sentence and it still somehow works. 
 

Karen Hanzel's picture
Karen Hanzel May 10, 2019 - 10:53am

Richard Thomas,  Good article.

Does head-hopping run true for script writing too?  I just gave up on an Amazon mini-series, The Collection, yesterday evening --one that I really wanted to like because of the setting and premise:  Right after WWII in Paris, a struggling fashion house tries to race to become the world's empire of design.

The filming in terms of interior scenes and beautiful period haute couture was compelling.  However, from the get-go we are bounced around to various characters who reveal some type of post-war mystery.  (I counted 9 total)  I couldn't keep up, nor did I want to.  All of these characters shot over and over with worried expressions were simply too exhausting.  I read some reviews for cross-referencing my impression, and apparently it never changes throughout the series.

Anyway--is this a form of head-hopping?

Karen

South Dakota

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies May 10, 2019 - 12:19pm

Skipskatte—can you post an example? I'm willing to bet Leonard stayed away from internal, but I could be wrong.

Karen, I don't know about scripts. That might be totally different. Not sure on the rules.