60. How to Avoid Head Hopping

Author: Nola Published: 15 days ago.
Tags: POV, point of view, omniscient, head hopping Category: Writing tips

No, we’re not talking about the transfer of nits (they can’t hop anyway). However, head hopping can be just as irritating. It occurs when you’re in the point of view (POV) of one character, but then switch to the perspective of another within the same scene. This is different from omniscient POV in which you have a god-like narrator who hovers over the action and is privy to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. (See my post on omniscient POV and the guest post by Adele Jones on head hopping.) The problem with head hopping is that it disorients readers and catapults them out of your story. Consider the following:

Celeste hadn’t handled a gun since her brother’s death. She should have engaged the safety catch. She should have checked for bullets. She should have done a lot of things, but it was no use now. Draper was closing in and she couldn’t hide in the dumpster forever. She angled the pistol above her head, finger on the trigger. Draper stopped and looked around. She had to be here somewhere. He peered in the dumpster. Celeste’s heart slammed in her chest. She fired.

The first few lines put you into Celeste’s head. She has a backstory full of bad memories. Someone is after her. She has to rise above her fears. And then … we’re in Draper’s perspective and the ending loses its punch. While head hopping between characters is the most common POV slip, subtle head hops can also occur when a character inadvertently takes the perspective of another (e.g. when your protagonist assumes what another character is thinking or describes things in a way that an outside observer would).

Here are some tips to help you zero in on your POV character and avoid the kind of head hop that jars readers:

  1. Ensure that each scene is told from the perspective of only one character. If you want to switch to another perspective, include a scene break or start a new chapter.
  2. Only mention what your POV character already knows or what they can experience through the five senses. If Celeste is hiding in a dumpster, she can hear Draper approaching, but she can’t see what he’s doing or know what he’s thinking.
  3. Use words your POV character would use (e.g. ‘gun’ rather than ‘Kimber Custom TLE II’) and address others by the name your POV character would call them (e.g. ‘Dad’ rather than ‘Mr Jennings’).
  4. If you do need to include material that your POV character doesn’t yet know, use other methods to provide her with the information (e.g. she could look in a mirror, hear something in dialogue, or read a relevant document).
  5. If you’re using multiple POV characters, mention the relevant character as soon as possible within the scene to avoid confusion. Consider the following:

    Brad sipped his watermelon smoothie. ‘That looks delicious,’ Janet said.

    Your reader will assume the scene is going to be in Brad’s POV and will be taken out of the story if you suddenly describe Janet’s thoughts and feelings. If you want the scene to be in Janet’s POV, it would be better to start with something like this:

    Janet licked her lips as Brad took another swig of his watermelon smoothie. ‘Mmm, that looks delicious,’ she said.

Head hopping can afflict even the most experienced authors. By following these tips, you can identify potential problems and fix them before readers catch you on the hop.

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