Why Head Hopping Can Hurt Your Story

head by pedrojperezA friend and I were recently reading the same fantasy story (which shall go unnamed, since I don’t want to single out the author; many people, myself included, have been guilty of head-hopping at one point or another). When I commented that I didn’t like the writing style due to its frequent head-hopping, he said that didn’t bother him.

He said that there were times when you want to show different perspectives in the same scene, and, in those moments, head-hopping is the only option.

But…does it have to be that way?

I agree with him, to a point. The author has to pick whose story he or she is going to tell. It may be all from one person’s perspective, or it may be a multi-faceted story, from many people’s perspectives, but you still have to pick and choose. In each moment, only one character can “be in charge.”

And I can understand the motives behind head-hopping. For example, when you get to the moment when the prince is about to kiss the princess, you want to show his thoughts–will she wake up from her sleep? Is she sleeping? Is she dead? Will she like me?

But you also want to show the princess’ thoughts after the kiss. Do I know you? Are you the man I wanted to wake me? or even I can’t believe you woke me up! 

So what do you do?

Well, you used to use a narrator. If the story belongs to him, we won’t be jumping around, but he can know everyone’s thoughts and feelings and still share them with the readers.

Problem solved.

Only now, we don’t seem to care for Omniscient Narrators. We like immediacy, and we don’t really trust those who tell a story for other people and know way too much about everyone’s lives.

And, if narrators are unreliable, we have to get the information directly from the characters themselves. Hence the head-hopping, or going from one person’s thoughts to another in the same scene.

It’s very similar to what one would experience with Third Person Close Narration. We might go from the prince’s thoughts, to a scene from some other part of the castle–maybe featuring a rejected suitor or the villain?–and then back to the scene with the prince and princess, only this time, we’ve switched to the princess’ point of view.

Once again, problem solved.

We pulled out of the scene, and when we come back, we can have a new point of view without any abruptness. But what if we don’t want any extra scenes or plot lines? What if we don’t want to visit the rejected suitor or the villain, but just focus on the prince and the princess?

That’s when we have a problem, and the head-hopping starts. We never leave the scene, so we can’t come back with a fresh start. Instead, the baton of perspective gets passed directly from prince to princess, without any warning.

As my friend pointed out, what’s the real problem here? Sure, it may feel abrupt to some people, but they’ll get used to it. After all, readers experienced similar switches under the Omniscient Narrator model without any trouble, right?

Yes…and no. The difference is, with an Omniscient Narrator, we never got that close to the characters. We were always seeing the scene filtered through the narrator’s perspective, as follows:

The prince made a mighty leap and landed on the top of the tower. If he’d been an older, heavier man, he would’ve spent the next five minutes, limping about the place and rubbing his back from the strain of climbing so many stairs…not to mention leaping at the end. But this fellow was young and spry, and so he dashed right up to the princess’ bed.

And stopped.

She was lying there, in elegance and beauty, and she took his breath away–as I suppose had been her intention. She’d certainly made sure she slept in a most decorous position. How many other young ladies, caught in their sleep, would have their hair perfectly arranged on their pillows, their skirts spread down to their ankles, their hands resting on their stomachs? But she’d had the fairies’ help, of course, and she was a pure maiden, free from such thoughts on how to ensnare the man who might, one day, enter her chambers. Even her dreams were gentle, like butterflies brushing against her mind, hinting that something pleasant would happen when she woke.

Thus, we seamlessly went from the prince’s perspective to the princess’, in a manner of speaking, but we never really got their perspective. We watched, from the narrator’s point of view, all the way through the scene.

Here’s how it that scene might read, with the narrator removed:

He sprang up the last step and landed with a thud. Dust puffed into the air, coating his precious blackened boots with grey, grimy fuzz. Great. His valet would be furious, not that he’d show it. He’ll probably carry them off with the tips of his fingers and spend hours repairing them.

Still, he refused to let this set-back frustrate him. He was young and still powered by his first cup of coffee. He was ready for anything. Brushing the cobwebs out of his way, he approached the bed, where a blonde in a blue dress lay, waiting for him. Blue. Why can’t maidens in these sorts of situations prefer red or black? Dramatic, vibrant, alluring…so much better than blue. But the fairies had said she’d been asleep for a while. Maybe blue was considered vibrant in her time. He bent over the bed and kissed her.

His breath doth stink. She fought back an unladylike desire to retch, and opened her eyes. There he was, the man of her dreams with black hair and deep blue eyes. She weakly smiled. My favorite color. He’d match her dresses and the tapestries, once she did something about his wardrobe. He was garbed in hideous black, with red peeking through the slashes on his sleeves. Hath he been wounded? Hath he been forced to exchange his garments of purity and righteousness with a soldier of my nemesis? Another thought, and she drew back in alarm. Perhaps thou art my nemesis in disguise!

The first and second paragraphs contrast sharply because these two characters view things so very differently. To one, coffee was an invigorating elixir. To another, a horrid stench. Their choices in colors differ, and their diction is from two different centuries.

Normally, you might not have such a contrast, but it illustrates the point.

With head-hopping, you have to keep things far more shallow. You can’t have one person describing the scene as lovely, reminding him of his childhood, only to have the next person, in the next paragraph, describing the same scene as miserable. Otherwise, the reader will get confused. Are the trees ominous or delightful? Do they loom or shelter? No two people see things the same way, and characters shouldn’t, either.

When you write prose in such a way that your word choices vary based on character, it makes things more interesting. The description furthers our understanding of the characters…they just have to take turns being in charge.

So take a break. Switch the scene up with a scene break, a picture, or emblem that tells us that this passage has come to a close. If you can, go to your subplot for a moment, and then come back. The reader will appreciate being able to return with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.

It doesn’t take much, but it can make all the difference for you, and the reader, freeing you so you can really focus on who the story belongs to, in that moment. And if, as you read, you can’t tell the difference between one character and another’s point of view…well, you might have another problem entirely.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by pedrojperez, Creative Commons

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