But They Got Away with Head-Hopping?

One of the pieces of advice modern writers are regularly given is to avoid “Head-Hopping,” or changing the point of view in the middle of a scene. The idea is that, once you pick a character, you side with the character all the way through until the scene break. Here’s what you’re trying to avoid:

 Sally tossed her hair. The television was running in the background, and she watched George with the corner of her eyes. He was always so unreasonable. The slightest request made him irritable and sullen and quiet. It was the quiet that bothered her the most.

George kept his eyes on the television, watching the game without caring anymore. She had to do this to him, waiting until his team was playing to make her announcement. It wasn’t a request; it was a demand disguised by battled eyelashes and a smile.

 Supposedly, this sort of thing confuses the reader by going from one person to the other, and even if the narration is third person omniscient, the omniscient narrator isn’t supposed to switch sides in the middle of the same scene.

The strange thing is, authors supposedly do it all the time.

Since I started looking for it, I’ve found definite, repeated instances in Henry James and Louisa May Alcott and P. G. Wodehouse and Ernest Hemingway where we start with one character and then hear from another. Yet this is supposedly an error to make, an editor’s pet peeve, and we are told to avoid it, especially if we hope to ever see our works published. So how did they get away with it?

I think part of the confusion has resulted from trying to combine the best features of both omniscient narration and third person limited/first person, and we’ve only succeeded in making an awful hybrid.

In my example above, we are in third person limited. I’ve given no indication that someone else is telling this story—like their all-knowing pet cat, for example—so I shouldn’t go from one character’s perspective to the next. That puts the reader in the middle of the unhappy couple and is just about as irritating as trying to hear two people tell “their side of the story” at the same time.

In third person limited, an author is encouraged to put readers in the skin of a single character, adding sensory details (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) along with the usual thoughts and feelings. When a reader gets that close and becomes accustomed to having everything filtered through a character, it’s rather jolting to transform right in the middle of the action. It’s like asking the reader to shape-shift, morphing into someone else’s viewpoint when they’d much rather just finish the scene and see what happens next, and many readers resent it because it overloads them with information.

Thus, the standard convention: we have to stick with the person who brought us into the scene until he or she turns us over to another character, which is usually signaled by a scene or chapter break. Otherwise, we are guilty of head hopping.

In omniscient narration, the situation is quite different, because the narrator is supposed to know and strategically share how each character feels and thinks. This doesn’t mean the author can get away with head hopping just by calling it a different name. To make the sharing of many character’s feelings work, an author has to pull out from the scene, zooming out, so to speak, so she can tell the story from the perspective of the omniscient narrator.

In James’ A Portrait of a Lady, for example, it feels like we are sitting next to James himself, in an invisible bubble, watching the characters interact, listening to his commentary on the scenes as Isabel Archer makes her choices. It is much the same with Wodehouse and Hemingway and all the other omniscient narrators. They may be self-effacing or have a distinct voice, but in every case, we don’t get too close to the characters who are personally involved in the story’s action.

The only way to head hop in omniscient narration would be to leave the original, omniscient narrator behind and hear what the other characters think of this narrator, in the middle of the scene. But I have yet to see that happen. Instead, we always stay with the narrator, whisking by their character’s heads, catching stray thoughts here and there.

We are never submerged in their minds, and that’s why it works. We hear the thoughts they whisper to themselves, but we don’t actually hop heads, because we always stay with the narrator, our tour guide though the tale.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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