Tuesday 5 January 2016


Words The Purple Pen written in purple
Head-hopping is a term used when a writer jumps from one character’s point of view to another character’s point of view within a single scene, so the reader witnesses the thoughts of one character and then another characters about the same event or moment in time.

Head-hopping is considered to be an indication of a novice writer and not good practice. I came across it when an editor pointed out that I was doing it.

Historically, writers either stayed with one character throughout an entire novel, or used an omnipresent point of view – meaning a narrator who follows all the characters and knows what everyone is doing.

But as with everything, times change and even writing styles go in and out of fashion. Just 12 years ago my writing tutor told me it was not possible to change from first person to third person to follow two characters within the same novel, but today it is – in fact it is now common practice. Although the character point of view changes from chapter to chapter, not within the same scene.

Recent examples of these types of novels: 

‘Black Wood’ by SJI Holliday. This rather marvellous thriller follows the main character in first person, and a second main character in third person, enabling the reader to follow them both. 

‘Gaea’s Chosen’ by CaraMichaels. This is an action packed science fiction series written in first person. Each novella in the series follows a different character, so as the story develops the reader sees it from different viewpoints, but all written in the first person. The third novella then takes it one step further by swapping the point of view between two main characters from chapter to chapter, again in first person. This was achieved by each chapter title giving the name of the character being followed.

Head-hopping differs from this type of view point change in that it occurs in the same paragraph or scene, which can confuse the reader. They are distracted from the story by the interruption of a second character’s thoughts and feelings, which can also disrupt the flow, making the story difficult to follow and possibly result in the reader disengaging from the story and giving up on the book.

Here is an example I found in my own writing:

Kate gave Michael a slight frown when he glanced over at her. She had never seen him falter as he was being introduced before - and she had seen him introduced to a lot of people. It only lasted a second, but it bothered her and she made a mental note to ask him about it later. For now she wanted to get the conversation going, so she opened the topic of the interior design for the club and what sort of style they were looking for, and Michael started talking about Brunswick Street and what he had seen that he wanted to emulate.

The longer the conversation went on the more relaxed Michael became, and soon he felt like he was chatting to an old friend, with laughter and jokes flying around. Donny had a very quick wit and was good at one liners that had both Kate and Michael in stitches, but Michael also had his own retorts to some of them, which got Donny laughing too. It was during one of these moments that Donny gave Michael a quizzical look, and said, “Are you sure we haven’t met before?”

This caused another nervous flutter in Michael’s stomach, but he just said, “I don’t think so, unless we’ve crossed paths at a function or something, or in a club or bar.”

In the first paragraph we are following Kate, experiencing what she is thinking and feeling. And then in the next paragraph we jump to Michael and experience his emotions, in the same scene. When we start the second paragraph we are still in Kate’s head, and until the second part of the first sentence we are still following her, then there is a reference to how Michael feels. It is only at this point that we realise we have ‘hopped’ over to his head. 

Best practice is to pick one character and stick with them throughout the scene, preferably until the next chapter.

But should you wish to change within the same chapter, it needs to be treated like a scene change and indicated by using an extra line space, or putting three asterix marks.

Also the opening line of the new paragraph should clarify who the reader is following. In the case of the above example from my writing, the second paragraph would start with: Michael felt himself relax as the conversation grew. 

Point of View 

Head-hopping occurs most in third person writing. In first person, it is clear if the story slips into another character, because they can’t both be written as ‘I’. And the same applies to second person – ‘you’. Second person is used rarely, as it is as though the main character is talking to someone all the way through. Omnipresent is a narrators viewpoint, but it can be used in first person (the narrator is a character in the story), or third person (the narrator follows one main character). But even when writing in omnipresent changing character viewpoint is usually done from chapter to chapter or with a clear scene change marker.

How do you tackle head-hopping or character viewpoint change? Let me know in the comments.

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