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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Confessions of a Closet Head Hopper

Back in the dark ages, when I first started writing, I took classes and read books on writing and tried to learn the craft side of the art. One of the basics that seemed pretty clear at the time was point of view. The most likely candidates for me were first person, third person, and third person’s cousin: omniscient. I understood most of the advantages and disadvantages of each and I usually felt most comfortable using third person omniscient. I liked having the ability to let my reader know what was going on in the minds of multiple characters.

Fast forward to the present. I’m still writing and trying to position myself to make a serious run at getting published. I’m following blogs and listening to other writers and I run into the phrase, head hopping. Head hopping, as I understand it, is using the third person omniscient POV to move in and out of multiple characters’ minds and is considered a definite no-no. Slightly confused, I go back to books I’ve particularly enjoyed reading and study the POV. I find an assortment of POV’s, including some that seem to be guilty of head hopping…but that are hugely successful. Of course, I then discover that one of the exceptions to the rule on head hopping is Nora Roberts and some of the books I’ve been re-reading are JD Robb’s In Death series (is there anyone out there who does not know JD Robb is Nora Roberts?). But as a reader, I still enjoy a certain amount of head hopping.

So I’m still working on my re-writes and I’m focusing on the POV and cleaning up some random head hopping and I get to this scene: Four people are sitting at a table having a conversation. POV is on person A. Person A leaves the table for a minute and something is said by person B to the other two before person A comes back and the scene continues. I want the reader to “hear” this comment but not person A. From the omniscient POV, I should be able to do this but since person A is not present to hear the comment, I believe this constitutes a head hop. Unfortunately, the most common solution – splitting the scene – would create an awkward break in the flow of the story.  Now I'm sitting here scratching my head, trying to decide what to do?

I’ve reached a point where I’m getting absolutely paranoid on the subject, so I’d like your input. As a reader, do you like some forms of head hopping or does it hamper your enjoyment of the story. As a writer, do you think there is such a thing as an acceptable head hop? Where do you draw the line?

I'm currently enjoying: Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais

Quote of the day: We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. ~ Ernest Hemingway


Stacy McKitrick said...

I read the book "How Not to Write a Novel" and discovered the difference between head hopping and omniscient POV.

I don't care for head hopping. I like distinct POVs (yet I read Stephen King & Dean Koontz, two big omniscient writers). But if you really look at the authors that do the head hopping, you'll see they are hugely popular. I wouldn't suggest doing it to get into the business.

Dru said...

I'm still confused by the head hopping phrase, but I love, love, love J.D. Robb and if that's what she does then I like it.

But then again, I might not like it in other books.

Could you give me an example of non-head hopping and head hopping with the same paragraph?

Linda Leszczuk said...

Stacy - I'll try that book, thanks. I've read a lot of conflicting advice of POV. And while I'm not brave enough to buck the system, I can't help but wonder if those hugely popular authors get away with head hopping because they're hugely popular or if they're hugely popular because somebody out there actually likes that writing style.

Dru - I'll pull a couple samples. Forgive the delay.

MaryC said...

My understanding is that head hopping is when you are switching back and forth between characters' points of view. Standard convention seems to say it's fine to use multiple points of view as long as:
1) you limit it (generally to two main characters unless the structure of the novel requires something different - like those books that are written by a rotating cast of say 4 friends); and
2) you don't head hop within a scene. I've always read that you need to determine which character has more at stake in a scene and write that scene from his/her POV.

That said, like you, I've frequently read books where authors head hop. I suspect this is a case of needing to know the rule before you break it. IMHO, headhopping can be done carefully, sparely, and only when it won't pull the reader out of the scene.

Just my 2 cents. ;)

Linda Leszczuk said...


Your 2 cents is very much appreciated.

Maria Zannini said...

Mary got it right.

Back in the 70s omni was HUGE. I rarely picked up a book that wasn't written in omni and didn't head hop like crazy. I grew up on it.

Imagine my surprise when I started writing that it was generally frowned upon by today's current standards.

Some authors can do omni. The trick (I think) is to identify the pov character without being obvious.

I like to do multiple pov characters and if they MUST be in the same chapter, I include a hard scene break and immediately introduce the new speaker in the first sentence. That way the reader isn't confused.

Strangely enough, even though I grew up reading omni, I find it distracting now.

Linda Leszczuk said...


Well, that probably has a lot to do with my dilemma. I started writing in the 70's - when omni was the standard. It's kind of ingrained. Now I need to get it "un-ingrained".

What makes it a little harder is I still like it as a reader. Old fashioned taste, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Head hopping doesn't bother me. I prefer it, rather than staying with one or two persons for the entire book. In my book I use five main characters and a few minor ones to tell the story. Keeps things fresh and offers readers perspectives impossible to communictae through only one or two characters.

Stephen Tremp

Linda Leszczuk said...

Thank you, Stephen!!! It's so good to know I'm not the only person left in the free world who likes a little head hopping.

Unfortunately, as an unpub trying to get a foot in the door (or a page in the mail) I guess I'd better obey the current acceptable standard. Back to my re-writes.