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« Hey you, reader, HI THERE!: Author Intrusion | Main | Award Extravaganza! »

Head-hopping: How to Make Your Reader Dizzy


The world is spinning!

Photo by jetsandzeppelins (click pic for link)

Have you ever read a book that jumped from one person's thoughts to the others so quickly it made your head spin?

Most of us are writing in one of two kinds of POV.  Many of you, especially you YA writers, are taking on first person.  And then the rest of us, most likely, are using deep or limited third person POV.  Omniscient 3rd person (where the narrator knows all things and everyone's thoughts)  has gone out of fashion for the most part--except maybe in some epic fantasy stories.  This means that if you are using 1st or deep 3rd POV, the writing should be in one person's head in a scene.  

In 1st person, this is a little easier to achieve because, well, you only have one head to work with.  (Although, you're still at risk for Author Intrusion, which I'll talk about tomorrow).  But if you're using 3rd person and have multiple characters offering POV (which is the joy of writing in 3rd), then you have to be careful.  Take this example:

Jane narrowed her eyes and glared at him as he took a bite of the massive hunk of chocolate cake.  How could he be such a jerk?  He knew she was on a diet and couldn't have any.  Joe smiled and licked a glob of icing off his fork.  He could tell Jane wanted to kill him, but he didn't care.  He was determined to get her off this ridiculous diet of hers.

Okay, so my writing is stellar, I know, but hopefully the example gets the point across.  In the same paragraph we hear both characters thoughts and motivations.  This is disorienting to the reader.  If we're in deep POV, the reader is seeing things through one person's eyes.  If you keep hopping into different heads, the story becomes hard to follow.  It also will screw with establishing the voice of your characters because they'll all be intertwined.  Here is the example with no head-hopping.

Jane narrowed her eyes and glared at him as he took a bite of the massive hunk of chocolate cake.  How could he be such a jerk?  He knew she was on a diet and couldn't have any.  Joe smiled and licked a glob of icing off his fork, as if taunting her.  Her knuckles turned white as she gripped her coffee mug tighter.

When I'm critting other's work, I see this head-hopping pop up most in kissing or love scenes.  We're so excited to tell our reader what each of our characters is thinking, but that totally ruins the moment.  Tension is built out of the mystery of not knowing all things and thoughts of all people at all times.  It's okay to switch POVs, but you have to do it with thought and planning.  

Some tips:

1. Aim to keep one POV per scene for most scenes.  This will keep things clear and easy to follow for your reader.
2.  If you do need to switch in a scene, do it only once per scene and do a double return (extra spacing) in your document to show that the POV has changed.  This is common in romance, and readers know that when they see that break in lines, that we've switched to the other person's POV.
3. Be in the POV of the character that has the most at stake in that scene.
4. Pretend that when you're in a character's head, you have to put on their outfit.  So if you switch heads, you have to change clothes.  This can't be done at breakneck speed and and on a constant basis.  You have to plan a break so that you can slip into the new costume.

Alright, hope that helps, intrusion.

Have you read books that head hopped all over the place?  Have you found yourself wanting to tell the reader everything?


**Today's Theme Song**
"Headspin" - Lukas Rossi
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)



Reader Comments (34)

Great advice. I know I'm always trying to avoid head hopping.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatti

In my first novel, I had no idea about 'head-hopping'--sure wish I had read this way back then.

My current project is first person, which makes it much easier to detect.

Great topic! I look forward to the next...

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjbchicoine

This is such a great post! I usually write from first person because I tend to write my characters in the voice with which I would normally speak. I did find during multiple edits on my finished MS, however, that I often injected too much of my own dialogue that didn't fit. An easy fix, but definitely a problem for the betas.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Switching POV was one of the biggest problems I had in my early work.

Excellent points!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTamika:

Roni, great post!

I wasn't familiar with the double return rule--I guess I don't read enough romance--but it's good to know.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJon Paul

good post - i'm pretty good about catching it in my own and other's work.

A modern example, though, of someone who breaks this rule is Stephen King. To be fair, he won't switch POVs in the same sentence, but he does in the same scenes.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFalen

I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo last month. The omniscient POV narration drove me nuts. I wasn't able to fully embrace any one character because each time I started getting into one head I was bounced into another. My favorite multiple POV technique is when an author gives each chapter to a different character. The POV shift happens only when the next chaper begins.

Great post, as always!
((hugs)) Nicole

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole Ducleroir

I do want to tell my reader everything. I want some of my characters to react to my POV's thoughts. So I do. I make my characters be able to read minds, and then they can react to things that aren't spoken. And yes, I write speculative fiction, and it has to be done well, but that's what I do. Because I can. ;-)

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElana Johnson

I'm w/ Nicole -- had trouble w/ TGWTDT too. The only multi-POV shifts I enjoy are ones where they're enumerated by chapter (e.g., GRRM's series)

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBane of Anubis

I'm jumping ahead for tomorrow but i get the author intrusion thing sometimes for stuff like "He was trying to distract me." (from first person MC)

I guess I should say "He was trying to distract me, I thought." but I hate doing that because a lot of times its just part of my characters voice.

For some reason this confuses me, so I can't wait for tomorrows post! Very helpful info - as always.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

Interesting. I would've never thought about it that intensely! But true.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjenheadjen

Great post. I am doing dual POV with my current WIP for the first time. Fun but challenging. 13 Reasons Why does it so well shifting from line to line, as if they are conversing. I’ve never quite seen it done that way, but that set up is obviously very different. Mine changes from chapter to chapter.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenniferWalkup

I've had a problem with flipping POVs in the past. Hopefully I've gotten better at what I do with them. I think changing them at chapter or section breaks works well most of the time, but it's still a tricky feat.

Great topic and great post. Thanks. :)

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersarahjayne smythe

This is an excellent post. POV is a common thing to struggle with. My first novel was written in third person with two main characters, and it was hard work to make sure that I stayed in one person's head for the whole scene.

On the first person POV side, I personally found The Time Traveler's Wife to be confusing, even though the scenes were clearly marked with which character was narrating, both characters sounded the same (to me, anyway). But that's another issue entirely -- how to make your characters sound different from one another.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelley

I know I am guilty of this in my writing, and I can't wait to see how this is received when I finally finish and allow betas. I try not to switch to often, and sometimes I try to use a device, saying "Laurel didn't see this happen..." or "what Laurel didn't know what that so-and-so felt that..." which can easily be overdone, so I try to limit it is only the occasional reference of events or thoughts my mc wouldn't have known about.

POV makes me crazy sometimes.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Tidd Murphy

As always, Roni, this post is filled with wonderful info. I'm bookmarking it. :-)

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon O'Donnell

I just read james Pattersons The Witch and the Wizard. Every other chapter was a different charachters thoughts. Evey once in a while he would change the chapter but keep the same persons thoughts. Got a little annoying. Good book though, if you can get past that!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristiejolu

excellent post, luckily writing memoir, I don't have to worry about this. Thank God. I have enough going on with just where to focus my readers.

much love

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterstaceyjwarner

This is something, thankfully, that I don't really do. I have often thought about writing a story in each character's POV (two main) and then later deciding who has more at stake and switching that way. I just think, for me, it's better to stay in one person's head at a time. Otherwise, head-hopping is such an easy trap to fall into. Awesome post! Yay for having Roni back!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

I once read about that hopped from one character to another constantly. And most of the characters were in different countries. Once, they hopped from A to B to C over the course of one page. One page. It got so annoying that I lost any interest in the book and gave it up for a bad job.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

I've always been a first person type. Its easier to delve into their feelings and, in my opinion, get deeper emotions. Plus, I always convert from third person to first person without realizing it. I guess its sort of like some annoying, freaky reflex.

But still, I totally agree. I've read a few books that make me stop and go "Whoa! Who am I reading?!"
Great tips! (As always)

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

POV has been one of my main struggles. I have to make a real effort to stay in one characters thoughts. I love they way you put it.

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Lynae

I guess that makes what I'm writing epic fantasy then! I'm doing omniscient third. Fortunately I'm only hopping between two protagonists at the moment, and then only infrequently.

Only infrequently, okay?!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPostman

I'm rewriting a book changing from third person to first person and weeding out a lot of author intrusion. I'll look forward to tomorrow's post, too. Thanks, Roni!

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Greci

Patti, you and me both.

JB, my first novel was in first person, that's the only thing that saved me, lol. By the second novel I knew about head hopping.

Melissa, I write in that kind of voice too, but I found deep 3rd very similar to 1st.

Tamika, thanks.

Jon Paul, yes, I believe the double return rules works across the board, but I've seen it most in romance (and some mystery).

Falen, Stephen King can get away with whatever he wants, lol. And switching in a scene is okay, but I've read that more than once a scene is not preferred.

Nicoel, I haven't read that book. But I agree that having each chapter have a certain POV works well.

Elana, cheater! ;)

Bane, y'all are really not making me want to read that book, lol.

Julie, there are other ways to avoid author intrusion than I thought, so definitely tune in tomorrow. :)

Jen, I apparently think about everything too much, lol. Bad habit.

Jennifer, yeah, 13 reasons why was awesome the way they did it, but that was such a unique situation since one POV was on a cassette tape. Terrific book.

Sarahjayne, yes, definitely tricky and easy to forget.

Shelley, yes, i agree, it's frustrating when all the POVs sound the same.

Amber, you may want to stop by tomorrow. The device your describing is a form of author intrusion unless you're using 3rd omniscient.

Shannon, thanks, love being bookmarked!

Christie, switches can definitely work when done well.

Stacey, lol, one less thing to worry about! yay for that :)

Tina, glad yo have you back too!

Dominique, that would totally make me give up on a book too

Oddy, I hate that who am I reading feeling, too.

Amber, thanks, hope this helped. :)

Postman, lol, dudes seem to love the omniscient third. Maybe y'all just enjoy playing God? j/k

Paul, it seems a lot of bloggers are rewriting and switching POVs in old manuscripts. Must be an epidemic going around. :)

February 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

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