Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.