8 alternatives to head-hopping

OK, now that you’ve all indulged me in my head-hopping rant, it’s time to explore some skillful alternatives to head-hopping. I also want to make clear that when I write about head-hopping, I’m talking specifically about point of view shifts within the same scene. I have no bone to pick with books having multiple points of view; that’s as good a way to tell a story as any. So, how DO you reveal all necessary information without resorting to head-hopping?

  1. Dialogue. Of course, there are MANY cases in which it’s inappropriate or unbelievable for one of your characters to say exactly what he’s thinking. But I’m amazed at how many times I’ve read a manuscript where head-hopping is involved to convey information that the characters could have just as easily said out loud–or at least, eluded to out loud. This is an especially viable option if you find yourself head-hopping for only one paragraph or two in a scene that is otherwise shown from the perspective of a singular character.
  2. Body Language. Writers often use head-hopping to convey the emotions of more than one character in a scene. But no matter how hard we try to hide it, our bodies often put our emotions on display. If your non-viewpoint character is getting angrier and angrier the longer your viewpoint character talks, describe that in a way that’s observable to your viewpoint character and that, therefore, allows you to stay with one point of view while still conveying the perspective of the other point of view. For example: Jack noticed that as he continued to describe the situation, Jill’s fingers had slowly curled into fists. (Even an effort to conceal emotions comes with its own set of body language.)
  3. Your viewpoint character’s knowledge of your non-viewpoint characters. If your viewpoint character knows the others in a scene well, she can often correctly and believably interpret their emotions or thoughts without the need to head-hop. For example: Jill knew Jack would be unresponsive to her proposal to go bungee-jumping; he’d hated anything that had to do with heights since he’d fallen down the hill.
  4. Scene breaks. This one is pretty basic, but it works wonders. If you’ve been writing from one character’s point of view and want to switch, leave a couple blank spaces or another visual cue to your reader that there’s going to be a transition. This method can be employed even when the scene “technically” stays the same. For example, if you’re writing about a dinner party and you wrote the first two pages from Jack’s perspective, but want to finish the party off with Jill’s, leave a couple blank spaces to signal to your reader that there’s a shift before picking up with Jill. AND cue your reader immediately that the new section is coming from a different character’s viewpoint, so your reader doesn’t scratch her head about why those blank lines just showed up in the scene. (Of course, if you’re employing this technique every couple paragraphs throughout the whole story, you really ought to reexamine the story’s structure.)
  5. Flashbacks. If you want to examine two characters’ perspective on the same scene, you don’t have to head-hop within the scene to do it. Instead, write the scene first in one character’s point of view, and then have your second character flashback to the scene at a later time to convey Character Two’s perception of events.
  6. Reflection. Similar to #5, a reflection is like a “flashback lite.” Usually when head-hopping occurs, it’s because you want to convey just a bit of information from your second character. This bit of information is easy to slip into the story elsewhere, when you’re in the second character’s point of view. For example: As Jack did the dishes, his mind drifted back to his conversation with Jill. He couldn’t believe she had the gall to suggest they go bungee jumping!
  7. Eaves-dropping. I’m not above eaves-dropping, and your characters shouldn’t be, either. Just because a secondary character might not say something to your viewpoint character doesn’t mean she won’t say it to someone else or write it in her diary. Just make sure you don’t overuse this one; you want a protagonist who participates in the action at least as much as she spies on it.
  8. Head-flowing. Use this one with caution, as there’s a fine line between head-hopping and head-flowing. In this case, your scene has provided a justifiable bridge from your viewpoint character to another character. For example, maybe your viewpoint character has passed out, or left the scene, and rather than follow her into dreams or the next room, you’ve decided to keep your camera trained on the current setting. In this case, you’ll need to find another viewpoint character to pick up the slack when your primary one has left. Especially skilled authors can also get away with flowing between character perspectives in a way that isn’t jarring or disorienting, as though their moving their camera gently from one character to the next.  But the majority of the point of view shifts I read in unpublished work are not this kind of skillful, masterful command of all characters and point of views in a scene.

Sometimes head-hopping happens so unintentionally that you might not notice it until a reader points it out (that’s why writers’ groups are so handy). If you have a tendency to head-hop, read over a scene (or rewrite a scene, if it helps) as if your viewpoint character in that scene were telling it first person. You don’t have to change the “She’s” to “I’s”, but at least imagining this will clue you in to the specific limitations of your viewpoint character’s perspective, and therefore what pieces you may have to pick up from another perspective later in the story.

Further Reading on Head-hopping

An Executive Editor’s Take on Head-hopping

Headhopping, Authorial Intrustion, and Shocked Expressions

PoV Mechanics