Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Adventures In Head-Hopping: What To Do, What Not To Do, And Should You Attempt It At All

Fellow writers, it's time we had The Talk.

You know the one I mean. It's the talk every writer has had at some point or another, either with an editor, critique partner, beta reader, or friend. It's the "time-to-take-yourself-seriously-as-a-writer" talk.

It's the Head-Hopping Talk.

Before we get too far, allow me to define this increasingly obscure literary phenomena for any who don't know what it is. Simply put, head-hopping is when the writer uses more than one character's point of view within one scene.

Now, then.

There are a lot of excellent articles out there about why you should never, ever head-hop in your writing. I agree with many of them. Head-hopping-gone-wrong is an epidemic in the literary community, especially with the explosive growth of indie publishing. Done badly, it's the mark of an amateur. Done well, it's still not for everyone.

But is head-hopping the evil stepmother we've all been told it is? I don't believe so. And while I realize this is not a popular stance to take, I'm going to attempt to defend it anyway.

I'll use my own journey as an example. That's right. I've used head-hopping in my own writing. I hardly consider myself an expert on the subject, but I have learned a few things about what doesn't work and what does. Because yes, it can work.

Many people are already familiar with head-hopping's pitfalls. Here are a few of the most common complaints:

- It's confusing.
This is often true. Some (usually novice) writers will use two, three, four different viewpoints within a single scene, sometimes within a single paragraph. I'll be the first to acknowledge this is maddening to read. It can also get real confusing, real fast.

- It's awkward.
Keeping track of multiple POVs within a scene is no easy thing, especially if the writer doesn't make it clear whose POV you're in at any given point. I can't think of anything more jarring than humming through a scene from the heroine's point of view, then moving to the next paragraph and finding the hero thinking about his cock. Or something.

- It prevents readers from bonding with the characters.
This is one of those truisms that gets trucked out so often, it's almost become a cliche. That doesn't however, make it in-valid. If you're continually bouncing between characters' POVs, it can be hard to get to know either or any of them well enough to care what happens to them.

- It's amateurish.
I saved this one for last because it's one I have mixed feelings about. Yes, head-hopping can sound amateurish. But so can every other form of writing if it's written by, well, an amateur. I find it difficult to accept a writer can improve at every literary device except head-hopping. Sorry. I just don't buy it.

This is usually where posts about head-hopping stop. Head-hopping is terrible, it has no literary value, it's impossible to do well. By now you probably realize I disagree with all those assessments. I promised I would defend my thesis. So here goes.

Most writers never learn to head-hop properly.

Did head-hopping fall out of vogue because writers don't know how to do it right, or do writers not know how to do it because it fell out of vogue? An interesting chicken-and-egg sort of question, but the point remains: many writers who head-hop are doing it wrong.

This post is about letting it all hang out. To that end, let me present an example from my first book, All That Glitters. I head-hopped with both intent and abandon in this book. The intent was not the problem (if you're going to head-hop, it should be a conscious, deliberate decision).

The problem was the abandon. See for yourself (POV shifts in red):

Case Study #1: All That Glitters (my first book)

She leaned in and pressed her lips to the letters.  He tasted like salt.  She looked up.  He was at rapt attention.  She raised herself to her tip-toes.

Ethan crushed his lips down over hers.  He needed this.  Needed her.  He hadn’t realized how badly until he’d watched the Bering Sea swallow her whole.  All the adrenaline that had built up in his system surged out.  He took everything she offered, and pushed her to offer more.

Ava ran greedy hands across his chest, over his powerful shoulders, up the back of his neck, and buried them in his hair.  Desperation clouded her senses.  

Yeah, I know. Risky move, calling out the faults in my own work. In my defense, the entire book didn't read that way. But a lot of it did. And it was because I hadn't learned some of the most basic rules of head-hopping.

So after an example like that, is it possible for "promiscuous viewpoint" to find redemption?

I believe the answer is yes.

I mentioned the Basic Rules Of Head-Hopping. Here they are, listed in what I consider to be order of importance:

Rule #1: Don't use more than two (2) points of view within a scene.
In romance novels, these are usually the POVs of your hero and your heroine. That doesn't mean you can't write from the POVs of your other characters, but you should NOT try to cram them all into one scene.

Rule #2: Make it obvious whose head you're in when you change points of view.
There should always be a cue when you leave one character's thoughts and enter another's. I'm relieved to say I always had a sense of this, which you can see in the example from my first book.

Rule #3: Don't change point-of-view more than once within a scene.
This could actually be an addendum to Rule #1. Too many POV changes within a scene is both confusing, awkward, and amateurish. Start with one character, change POVs once, and finish out the scene with the second. It flows much smoother and leaves less room for the reader to get lost.

Rule #4: Don't change point-of-view in an awkward place.
There are good places to change POVs, and there are bad places to change POVs. Where those places are is largely subjective, and depends on your story. But you're a writer. Odds are that means you have an ear for language. Use that ability to divine where a POV shift will enhance your story. Failing that, there's always voodoo.

Fortunately, I learned these rules before I put out a second book with the same mistakes as the first. Which brings me to:

Case Study #2: What The Body Needs (my second book)

Something close to panic started to build in her chest.  It barely dimmed when she unlocked her truck.  His eyebrows raised.  She stopped.  "What?"

"That's a lot of truck."

Jak stared at him.  "What's that supposed to mean?"

He shrugged.  "Means that's a lot of truck."

Jak climbed in.  "Nothing is going to happen to me at the city planner's office."  She looked down at him.  "Why don't you just take the rest of the day off?"  Give me some space to figure all this out.

Marcus gritted his teeth.  Damn it, she wasn't making this easy.  Not that he entirely blamed her.  His system still hadn't recovered from the shock of seeing her again.  "Can't do that."

He walked around the front of her truck to the passenger's side, mildly surprised she didn't try to run him over.  He tried the door.  Locked.  He rapped on the window, saw her smug look through the glass.  She started the engine.

This was the only POV shift that took place in that scene. It occurred at a pivotal moment between the two characters, and allowed me to explore their reactions after their unorthodox meeting. To break that interaction into two scenes would have felt clunky and contrived, and to only represent one side of it wouldn't have felt right, either.

That is what head-hopping can do for you. It doesn't have to be confusing. It doesn't have to be awkward, or amateurish. And rather than distance you from your characters, it has the potential to bring you closer to them while they develop at the same pace.

I realize this post isn't going to change everyone's opinion about head-hopping, and that's just fine. But if I've done anything, I hope I've inspired you to give this oft-misused  literary device another look. Maybe it deserves the bad rap it's gotten.

Then again, maybe it doesn't.


  1. You did a great job writing this article. Thanks for the information

    1. Thanks, Linda! I'm glad you found it useful :-)

  2. Interesting concept and I can't say I disagree.

    1. Hey Jackie! Thanks so much for reading :-)


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