Pick a head and stay there

If you’re in my writers group, or if you’ve ever received a critique from me, you can skip this post, because you’ve heard me harp on head-hopping before. This is definitely one of my hang-ups as an editor, and it’s also probably the mistake most often made by new writers; I’ve only read one or two unpublished, third-person manuscripts in which head-hopping wasn’t an issue.

Head-hopping is when you takes your reader inside more than one person’s head in a single scene. A scene can be written from a distance, in which everything described is something that a third party could observe. But the minute you get inside someone’s head–by revealing his direct thoughts, motivation, or perception of events–you really ought to stay there. Here’s why:

  • Head-hopping makes your reader dizzy–or it gives her a head-hopping headache. She’s reading along, seeing the world approximately the way your character Tom sees it. But then, wait a minute, now she’s seeing the world the way Jamie sees it. But not for long, because now she’s seeing it the way Tom sees it again. Imagine if you were actually inside your characters’ bodies, and you literally jumped out of their body every time point of view shifted. It’s jarring and exhausting. Worst of all, it makes your reader have to work harder than you want her to. You may have put great effort into writing your story, but you  want it to be effortless to read.
  • Head-hopping decreases your reader’s intimacy with your characters. We read fiction because we identify with at least one character and want to see that character succeed. But if you’re only giving readers short peeks into different characters’ points of view, the intimacy you want your reader to feel with your characters quickly disintegrates. You want your reader to feel “right there” with your character, as if she is your character. And jumping out of your viewpoint character’s perspective shreds that sense of intimacy.
  • Head-hopping decreases dramatic tension. The constant question on your reader’s mind should be, “What happens next?” By revealing the inner workings of more than one character in the same scene, you’ve robbed your reader of the thrill of wondering. Your reader should wonder, “Wow, why is Jamie acting that way?” By hopping into Jamie’s point of view mid-scene, you burst the bubble of dramatic tension that’s key to the success of your story.

Now, I know every writer likes to think her story is the exception to the rule. Here are some common justifications writers give for head-hopping.

  • “Such-and-such published writer head hops all the time!” For every rule in the book, you’ll find a published writer who breaks it. But until you’ve mastered the craft enough to consciously rule break, or until you have an editor with a publishing house who is giving her blessing to your rule-breaking, make your story as easy to read as possible. And that means, nix the head-hopping.
  • “My story is told third-person, not first-person! I can get into as many heads as I want in a third-person narrative.” Technically, this is true. But it’s still not a good idea. Third-person narratives still have protagonists, and you still need your reader to identify with at least one character. Just because it’s not an “I” narrative doesn’t mean your reader shouldn’t still feel like she’s the “I” of every scene.
  • “I need to use multiple perspectives in the same scene to convey all the information necessary in that scene!” To this, I say, Stop being lazy. There are a lot of ways to convey the information you need to convey; utilizing every character’s point of view in key moments is just the easiest way (after all, if all your characters have a piece of the puzzle, jumping into everyone’s head is a sure way to allow the reader access to all those pieces). But the easiest way is not necessarily the best way.

I’m quite passionate about this topic, but as this post is getting quite long, I’m going to wrap it up here. Tomorrow I’ll follow up with viable alternatives to head-hopping, especially as it relates to the “conveying necessary information” excuse.