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Head-Hopping Gives Readers Whiplash

September 10, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 10, 2011

Yes, head-hopping can give your readers whiplash. And headaches. And lots of confusion.

Switching from one viewpoint character to another, experiencing the mind and heart of one character for a moment only to be forced to switch focus to another character a paragraph or two later, is disconcerting.

Head-hopping is what happens to the reader when a writer suddenly changes viewpoint character or POV. The practice abruptly pulls the reader from one orientation and thrusts her into another.

When one moment we’re enjoying Ginger’s viewpoint, seeing the world through her eyes, appreciating events through the filter of her experiences and expectations, and in the very next moment we’re watching events through Gunter’s eyes and sensibilities, we’ve head-hopped. And we’re shocked, shaken from our identification with Ginger and left scrambling to accustom ourselves to Gunter.

To be clear, head-hopping is not merely a switch in viewpoint character. It’s what happens when that change occurs mid-sentence or mid-paragraph or even mid-scene. When it happens repeatedly in a scene. When the switch is done without thought or planning by the writer.

It happens when a first-person narration suddenly flips to third person.

Changes in viewpoint character are easiest on the reader when they’re done with a scene change and with a clear announcement that such a change has taken place.

Thus, at a chapter break or a scene break, clearly marked in the text, readers are prepared for a possible change in point of view or viewpoint character. And when the writer introduces the viewpoint character in the first words—Gunter raced toward the car, knowing he was too late before taking the first step—readers can quickly acclimate to the change.

When the viewpoint character changes mid-thought or mid-paragraph, readers are instead slapped. The momentum of the story is stopped, and readers might need to read a passage several times to understand that a change has occurred. This pulls the reader out of the fiction and has her looking at the mechanics.

And if the writer neglects to name the new viewpoint character, merely using he or she, the confusion is even stronger. Readers may not catch on for several paragraphs, not until the character’s words or personality assert themselves and reveal that the focus has shifted to a new character.

The whiplash comes in when the viewpoint changes multiple times in a scene, either bouncing between two characters or switching to even three or four characters before a scene is finished.

I find head-hopping to be a true annoyance when I’m trying to enjoy a book. And if I don’t catch on right away, when the events or the character’s words suddenly don’t fit the character I thought I was following, my interest in the story plummets. I can forgive one such instance. But if the writer repeatedly yanks me from one character’s mind to another, that writer has lost me. I’m no longer involved in the fiction, believing it to be true and enjoying the story’s adventure. I’m instead quite conscious of the story’s underpinnings. If the story’s framework doesn’t remain hidden, I have no desire to lose myself in the tale.

The short and easy advice? Don’t head-hop. Don’t do anything to distract your reader from the fiction when you know how to prevent that distraction.

Keep to one character’s (or the narrator’s) point of view until there’s a logical place and reason to change.

Suggestions for changing viewpoint character and/or POV—

~  Keep the reader in one head, one heart, at a time.

~  Make the difficult decision and choose which character gets to present a scene. Showing every character’s thoughts and feelings isn’t necessarily the best option. Who has the most at stake in a scene? Consider him or her as the viewpoint character for that scene.

Do change POV or viewpoint character if doing so serves the story. But do it with purpose and not accidentally.

 ~  Keep the readers in mind as you write. Understand their investment in and identification with a character. Help them move between characters in a way that doesn’t shock them from the fiction.

~  Change viewpoint characters in logical places—at scene or chapter breaks.

~  You may have a great reason to change either POV or viewpoint character. Realize what you lose—the reader’s intimacy and identification with the first character—and weigh the benefits and costs of such a change.

~  Use action and dialogue to reveal the inner workings, the thoughts and emotions, of characters who aren’t viewpoint characters. Readers don’t need to be in his head to understand a character.

Head-hopping is not a sin; however, it can be lazy writing. It can also simply be bad writing.

The practice of indiscriminately jumping from head to head can definitely work against the rich imaginary world and fictional experiences you’ve taken pains to create.

Unless you have a purpose for it, don’t head-hop.

And if you do have a purpose for it, make sure that purpose is strong enough to overcome the negatives of whipping your readers out of one character’s head and into another’s.

Write with purpose. Change viewpoint character with purpose. Remain aware of what your choices mean to your readers.

If you want readers to identify with a character, to root for one character against all others, give readers a strong connection to that character, one unbroken by lazy writing.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

27 Responses to “Head-Hopping Gives Readers Whiplash”

  1. Nick Daws says:

    Great article. I see this mistake a lot in new writers’ work. I’ve also seen it described as wandering or promiscuous viewpoint, but head-hopping is a more concise and vivid alternative!

  2. Nick, nice to see you. I hadn’t heard the term promiscuous viewpoint, but it’s certainly descriptive.

    I’ve even seen head-hopping in published books. When the change of viewpoint character is done well, multiple viewpoints bring richness to a story. But when the reader is bounced willy-nilly between viewpoints, the story loses its cohesion.

  3. Don Abdul says:

    Great article, very helpful indeed.

  4. Don, I’m glad you found something useful here.

  5. Sheogorath says:

    So the head-hopping between two characters I did in a story isn’t actually head-hopping because each viewpoint change is between paragraphs and not within them?

  6. Not exactly, Sheogorath. Between paragraphs is still midscene and thus still a problem. It’s not as distracting as if it were done midparagraph, but the change is still jarring. If you insist upon switching viewpoint characters midscene (and yes, many published writers do it), between paragraphs would be a better place to make your change than within a paragraph. Alert readers to the change in the paragraph’s opening words to lessen the chance of them becoming confused. And put your first midscene viewpoint change early in the story so readers get used to what you’re doing.

    If you’re unpublished and looking for an agent or publisher, it’s still best to refrain from jumping from head to head within a single scene. While it is done, the practice isn’t well received and unpublished writers may find that head-hopping keeps an agent or editor from taking them on. Why handicap yourself with agents and publishers and why create an unnecessary burden for readers when a few changes and some planning can create scenes that work for both characters and readers? Why not allow readers to enjoy their time in one character’s head for an entire scene?

    • Due to attitudes beyond my control: I need to ask, is it acceptable for me to make a comment here concerning the subject of Head-hopping?
      And, what are the rules concerning changing Point-of-View?

    • Sheogorath says:

      @ Fiction Editor Beth Hill: Valuable advice, thank you.
      “Alert readers to the change in the paragraph’s opening words to lessen the chance of them becoming confused. And put your first midscene viewpoint change early in the story so readers get used to what you’re doing.”
      Because the two characters’ views of themselves and each other are vastly different, I use that as the heads up on the viewpoint change. Also, the first change occurs between the first and second paragraph, with each paragraph thereafter being from the opposite character’s viewpoint. As to the rest of your advice, I’m not really looking to be professionally published, and this is the only story in which I’ve head-hopped thus far. In all the others, the scene changes are as clear as I can make them, and any viewpoint changes happen then. I only head-hopped for this one story because that’s what worked best, and I got away with it only because it’s a short story. I’m not so daft as to imagine it would be forgivable in a novel, people would soon tire of the back and forth.

      • Jack says:

        Sheogorath, I’m just becoming familiar with how this comment section works, and to clarify, I did not mean to post to you personally (although I am glad, as you responded most eloquently to my rambling). I meant my questions as general, so forgive me for the confusion. I do believe I see now how and where to leave a reply…:)

  7. Sheogorath says:

    @ Jack: Well, you didn’t actually reply to me, you replied to Beth. Trololololol!

  8. Sheogorath, I’m glad to hear yours is a short story rather than long fiction, but that back and forth might even be too much for a short story.

    The good news is that you can try anything. But do be aware of the ping-pong feel of going from head to head. The technique will keep readers from quickly identifying with either character and with a short story, you don’t get a lot of time to create links between reader and character. That should happen right away, but won’t with a story that jumps between viewpoint characters every paragraph. Keep in mind too that most short stories have only one viewpoint character. With two, you’ve effectively cut in half the opportunities to create links between the reader and one of the viewpoint characters.

    Are you trying for a particular effect? Why the need to switch viewpoint characters every paragraph? What do you gain? Does that gain make up for what you lose by not staying in the head of a single character for a full scene? Is it worth drawing the reader’s attention to the format of the story and away from the plot and characters?

    Just some considerations for you. If you get a chance, let us know how your story was received.

  9. Jack, feel free to ask your questions. What are you looking for specifically?

  10. Sheogorath says:

    “The technique will keep readers from quickly identifying with either character and with a short story, you don’t get a lot of time to create links between reader and character.”
    No worries on that score. The story’s a Silent Hill 2 fanfic, so the majority of readers are already quite familiar with the characters from having played the game.
    “Are you trying for a particular effect?”
    Yeah, I’m showing just how differently James Sunderland and Pyramid Head view the same scene because of the massive differences between them.
    “Is it worth drawing the reader’s attention to the format of the story and away from the plot and character?”
    The huge contrast between the characters’ viewpoints is part of the plot, and the comparison of them is revelatory.
    “Just some considerations for you. If you get a chance, let us know how your story was received.”
    815 Hits, 15 Kudos, 3 Comments, and 2 Bookmarks since it went live last month.

  11. Sheogorath, it seems as if you’ve given your choice a lot of thought and that it’s working. It’s always good to hear when something unusual works the way we want it to.

    As for a line space, that is how you show a scene break. And a change of viewpoint character is considered a scene change (at least of a sort). Yet simply putting a line break in between back-and-forth viewpoint switching, something such as every other line or paragraph, doesn’t solve the problem of switching viewpoint characters. That line space and the constant switching would get highly annoying for readers. Plus it’s only a visual representation of the change. It’s necessary for scene changes, but its use doesn’t mean that shifting viewpoints is the right choice. Consider the line space as a cosmetic—it reflects the decision the writer has made, but its use can’t say whether or not the choice was the correct one.

    The best option is still to begin and complete a scene in the viewpoint of one character before switching to another.

    We wouldn’t jump to a new location or fast-forward ten years into the future without a scene or chapter break; changing viewpoint character is that same kind of drastic change, and so it shouldn’t be done midscene either. As we’ve said, there are exceptions and writers can and do make those exceptions work, but the result can be tough for readers to get used to. Yet they can get used to much, so if it can be made to work, that’s one more option for writers.

    Yet changing viewpoint characters in the same scene can simply turn into a mess. Much of the time the practice simply means the writer hasn’t decided who gets to tell that part of the story. That choice is usually made by deciding which character has the most at stake or most to lose in the scene. That choice should be consciously made, not glossed over by jumping from head to head to show everyone’s thoughts and reactions because the writer couldn’t decide whose scene it should be.

    And sometimes head-hopping is the result of a lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or a lack of understanding about the toll that shifting viewpoints midscene can take on the reader. A reader lost in the thoughts and emotions of one character who is rudely yanked out of that character and forced into the head and heart and experiences of another character without warning can be an unhappy reader. A distracted reader. A fed-up reader.

    Weighing options is one of a writer’s toughest tasks. There are often benefits to one choice over another, but their are drawbacks and limitations as well. The writer who understands the options and all their strengths and weaknesses is the writer who can make wise decisions for his story.

    A great discussion, Sheogorath. Thanks.

  12. Cyberia says:

    What if you’re writing in Omniscient POV?

  13. Sheogorath says:

    Then you wouldn’t be head-hopping at all, you’d be in the narrator’s head the whole time, merely observing the events of the story.

  14. Cyberia, Sheogorath is right—if you’re using the omniscient, you’re not head-hopping. Yet even with the omniscient, you can show what the characters are thinking. The omniscient narrator can peek into any character’s head and reveal what they’re thinking.

    But there’s more to the omniscient than just the ability to peer into the minds of all the characters, so the use of omniscient should be clear from the very first words of a story.

    The omniscient narrator will have described the setting in a way no character would or would have revealed information no character knows.

    In omniscient the narrator doesn’t stay inside the head of a single character for long stretches, as if a scene is being presented in deep POV or close subjective third. That is, the feel and the focus in a scene is different. Readers, even if they couldn’t point out the different POV options, should feel the difference between them.

    Because of the omniscient’s strengths and style, the narrator can pop in and out of multiple character’s heads at will, even in the same scene. Even in the same paragraph.

    Yet if the omniscient narrator stayed in one character’s head too long, for full scenes and chapters, that would create a different feel. And then a writer should start wondering why he’s using omniscient when what he probably wants is a deep third with multiple viewpoint characters.

    And even if the omniscient narrator doesn’t remain in only one character’s head for a full scene but does stay there most of the scene, only to give readers a single thought from a different character at scene’s end, that will cause problems. The omniscient’s ability to show character thoughts is not the same as the the subjective third’s ability to portray a scene from one character’s viewpoint.

    Think of the omniscient as a way to touch base with character thoughts—if you intend to even show their thoughts. It is very much the feel of an outsider looking in, a reporting of what’s going on in a character’s head. Think of subjective third as a way to look out at story events from inside the character. It’s an experiencing of what’s going on rather than a report of it.

  15. Mark Hoult says:

    Very concise summary – thank you. The most important thing is to decide which POV you intend to use in each snippet and make sure that you communicate that to the reader at the start of it.

  16. Calico Chase says:

    I have a question that pertains to this very topic. I would love any input.

    I have a novel that is 4 story lines all told from various POVs. For 99% of the book, I never head-hop. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific character, and I make sure I do not allow the reader to receive any information the character in that chapter would not have access to. However, the storylines converge and main characters share scenes as the book reaches its end, and that has presented me a problem: The ending scene starts with one character, and as the situation unfolds, the character who originally anchored the scene gets knocked unconscious, but two other main characters are still in the room, and the action is still taking place. It seemed bulky and unnecessary to add a scene break or start a new chapter in order to switch the perspective to the character who is “the second in command” of the scene, especially when the first character got knocked out (which is clearly stated) and the scene is at the height of the action. I guess my question is: If you are clear as to what is happening, and it would be more jarring to break the scene up, is it acceptable to change POV to serve the story?

    Thank you for any consideration given to this question.

    • Calico, I think you can definitely try what you’re suggesting. Before I got to the end of your comment, I thought you were going to say that you were intending to show that scene through the eyes of four different characters, four characters that you had used throughout the story as viewpoint characters. That might be tricky, but I’d like to see something like that work.

      What would make this hard is if you’re using a deep POV for most of the viewpoint characters. Switching viewpoint characters midscene is hard if you’ve got readers so deep inside a character that they imagine they are the character. When you change viewpoint characters under these circumstances, you’re telling readers that they aren’t the character they’ve been imagining themselves to be. You are breaking the fictional bubble they’re immersed in. And all it would take is the insertion of a line space to mark a change of scene to keep the fictional bubble intact. Readers understand what that space means and they can flow right along with it.

      In your case, you may want to switch viewpoint characters before the first gets knocked out, if the second knows what’s going on. The first character may be worried or fearful, maybe entering a room without knowing who’s inside. Rather than show him or her getting knocked out from that character’s own viewpoint, switch viewpoint characters just before that moment and let the second character report (to whatever degree you intend) what happened to the first character. It may only be to point out that the other character is suddenly missing, if no one yet knows what has actually happened. Or maybe this second viewpoint character sees another character doing something and is moved to investigate. Maybe it’s that third character who knocks out the first.

      Since I don’t know the details of the scene, I can’t recommend anything specific, but I’m sure you get the idea.

      So there are considerations, but, yes, you should be able to do this without too many problems. Make sure readers know that both viewpoint characters (or all, if you’ll use more than the two) are present in the scene before you need them and then make sure readers will catch on immediately when you change viewpoint characters—name the new viewpoint character right away and show him or her in action. You don’t want there to be any doubt about a change in viewpoint character.

      A lot of writers actually pass off viewpoint duties by having the first viewpoint character touch the second, like a passing of the baton in a relay race.

      ————

      However, if you’re only going to use the two of them as viewpoint characters, you could insert a scene break. It depends on how much of the scene you’re showing through the eyes of each character. At a story’s end, you want action to move quickly, and one way to show a story moving is through shorter chapters and scenes. Breaking the scene into two scenes or chapters might create the feel you want.

      Maybe you’ll let us know what you decided to do.

  17. Richard says:

    I am a successful screenwriter – (Optioned three scripts) – just moving into writing novels. I am adopting several of my screenplays in the process. I’m used to writing for the camera – which is completely omniscient and objective – and yet in a screenplay you CANNOT write a character’s thoughts – only what they see, say or illustrate through action.

    So choosing POV has been a bit of a struggle. Until I was reading a copy of Dan Brown’s “Inferno” – another Robert Langdon novel. (Played by Tom Hanks in The Davinci Code and Angels and Demons)

    It’s a typical fast paced puzzle piece, with Robert Langdon rushing around Florence searching for clues with a beautiful young accomplice, pursued by various bad guys.

    As I read, I was struck by how ‘cinematic’ the flow of the story was. The pace of the scenes, the LENGTH of the scenes. Some chapters were only one page. And the viewpoint would often change within a chapter from one character to another – utilizing a centered ‘line’ ___ between the paragraphs to denote a change in POV.

    __________

    This is EXACTLY how a screenplay is broken up. “CUT TO” lets the reader know the camera is in another location, showing us what is happening with a different character. Dan Brown has no problem going into the character’s thoughts – (Always in italics) and showing us what the character sees and does – before jumping back to the other scene CUT TO – and we’re with Robert Langdon again.

    In fact, on pages 206/207 during an ‘action sequence’ – there are three such breaks – denoting the action as seen and experienced within three different points of view.

    I think that the modern reader – more accustomed to the fast paced rapid cuts of the syntax of film – won’t have much trouble at all following a rapid series of changes – as long as you follow the rules set out above – which are the same as in screenwriting. SHOW us the ‘cut’ or break – The underscore for example. In the opening line of the next paragraph – give us the ‘SLUG LINE’ – where are we? Who are we with? In screenwriting it looks like this. CUT TO:

    INT; BOB’S HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY

    Bob paces back and forth holding a gun

    You get the luxury of florid prose in a novel, but the goal is the same. Let the reader know where they are, who they are with, and the viewpoint they are experiencing – without confusion – from the moment of the cut – and they’ll follow you anywhere.

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