There’s one surefire way to put a book on thin ice, and that’s head-hopping. It’s jarring, nonsensical, and calls into question if the author has some bizarre vendetta against scene breaks.
Head-hopping occurs strictly in a limited viewpoint (i.e. not omniscient, so when we’re experiencing a single character’s thoughts/feelings/perceptions for a given scene or chapter). A limited viewpoint focuses on one point of view at a time. Head-hopping suddenly shifts that POV to another character in the same scene, usually between paragraphs, but sometimes in the same paragraph! Here’s an example:
Stacy loved eating soup. Loved how it warmed her mouth with every bite. Loved how the saltiness dried her tongue. Eating soup with her boss was another story. Every time she lifted her spoon to her lips, his curious eyes gave her pause. Was she eating too fast? Too slow? “Is something wrong?” she asked. Tom smiled. “Not at all.” Sally eased a spoonful of broth into her mouth. She closed her eyes, escaping Tom's gaze to indulge in the savory flavors. Tom looked down, sneaking in a bite of his sandwich. It felt too creepy to watch her with her eyes closed. There was this majestic quality to the way she ate soup. It put her beyond approach, transforming her from a mere data analyst into a princess. His stomach fluttered with romantic feelings he never felt at the office. He was soupstruck.
We start the scene in Stacy’s head, experiencing the world through her. In the last paragraph, we shift to Tom. If we finish the rest of the scene in Stacy’s head, we will have head-hopped into Tom and back out to Stacy. (Arguably, one could use Stacy’s eye closing as a creative device to signal POV shifts, but let’s not get overly complicated). Now, you may ask: what’s the difference between head-hopping and an omniscient point of view?
Voice. I didn’t have a lot of time to build unique voices for Tom or Sally above, but the longer the story goes, the more unique their voices read (ideally).
Omniscient is more neutral. Indirect dialogue is less pronounced or non-existent. We hear the thoughts of all the characters, see what they see, etc. but it’s presented with a neutral narration (barring a narrator who serves as an additional character). Head-hopping occurs when the writer flips back and forth between characters with unique, detailed voices without clean scene/chapter breaks. This creates the following four issues:
- The longer we stay inside one person’s head, the more jarring it is when we’re ripped from their viewpoint and thrust into another body/mind. Well-written prose eases us into how individuals view and respond to the world. It’s one of the things that makes books special compared to other storytelling mediums. The more times we’re ripped out of a person’s head, the less we’ll commit to immersing ourselves in the future. A person will submerge themselves less and less frequently in an inviting pool of water if it always ends with a shock.
- It’s confusing. Is person A telling us what their seeing or doing through their internal dialogue, or is it person B? The more often these switches happen, the higher the chance of confusion. Good writing is clear.
- Key opportunities are lost to build tension and character. If we’re only privy to Sally’s side, we may believe Tom doesn’t like her. The writer may later hint that Tom is developing feelings for her. As we’re seeing this through her eyes (but are still unsure of what’s going on with Tom), we get a feel for her thought process. We get to experience the uncertainty of her life, because we too don’t know the answer either. Further, this dynamic can create an opportunity for comedy given how differently Tom acts when Sally eats soup, whereas in the office he is a consummate professional, never thinking about crossing work boundaries. Much of this goes away when the reader has been spoiled with the answer.
- The story’s pacing can suffer. Keeping in-depth tabs on multiple characters in a single scene blows up its length. Instead of one person commenting/dwelling on an event, now there are two or three. “Good” head-hopping tends to limit this by picking a character for who the event is most relevant, but contextualizing every character’s thought process properly necessitates some overlap. Remember, good writing is concise. Head-hopping is the antithesis of brevity.
Note that the first two are negatives, whereas the last two are opportunity costs. Even if a writer manages to weave between multiple characters’ POVs without jarring the reader and preventing confusion, I’d argue it still results in a worse piece of literature. These opportunity costs of tension, character, and pacing are drawbacks that may not immediately point to head-hopping as the culprit, but they’re there.
Head-hopping: don’t do it. It’s an antiquated technique, and I’ll die on the hill that head-hopping is a sin that has no place in modern literature.