Head-Hop: Follow the Bouncing Head (& Writing Mistakes Book Giveaway)

This blog usually deals with books–new books, old books, and the reading thereof. And I am giving away a book today, of course.

But I want to talk about writing today, and one of my pet peeves. Those of you who are readers and not writers, I’d be curious to know if this is something you notice in the books you read, or if it bothers you. The “IT” is head-hopping (and, no, that is not a grand tour of European bathrooms).

All writers have heard the rule: Don’t head-hop. And we all know of at least two extremely well-known authors who’ve head-hopped their way onto every bestseller list known to humankind. It drives me freakin’ nuts!
So, what is head-hopping? It’s all part of that sticky subject called Point of View (in capital letters because it’s so important), or POV, and it most often crops up when internal monologue or emotions come into play–which means romance and YA authors are particularly prone to hopping due to the emo factor.
“But I want my reader to know what BOTH my characters are thinking,” you argue. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Multiple points of view within a book are great. Just not when you bounce back and forth between viewpoints within a single scene or part of a scene or, heaven forbid, within a single paragraph.
What does a head-hop look like? Here’s one adapted from a Famous Author Who Shall Not Be Named:
            Susie hesitated at his words and their significance. “Are you telling me you’re staying?”
            Bob smiled. “I believe your phrase was ‘you got it.’”
            She fell silent, unable to believe he was really going to stay when she’d asked him to go.
            Rising slowly from the sofa, Bob stared at her. In all his years as a gigolo, no woman had ever asked him to leave–much less for his own good. 
            Heat rose in Susie’s face at his expression.
What’s the problem with that passage (well, other than that it sucks)? It has a major head-hop! Let’s say this scene is supposed to be from Susie’s POV and take another look at it:
            Susie hesistated at his words and their significance. “Are you telling me you’re staying?” Fine–we’re in Susie’s head. We know what she’s thinking.
            Bob smiled. “I believe your word was ‘bingo.’” We’re still in Susie’s POV. She can see Bob smile and hear his words.
            She fell silent, unable to believe he was really going to stay here when she’d asked him to go. Great! We’re still in Susie’s POV. We’re hearing her thoughts.
            Rising slowly from the sofa, Bob stared at her. Still okay. Susie can see this.
             In all his years as an escort, no woman had ever asked him to leave–and for his own good. Oops–HOP alert. Susie couldn’t possibly know this was what was going through Bob’s head. We have hopped to Bob’s POV.
            Heat rose in Susie’s face at his expression. Oops–HOP alert. We have hopped back to Susie’s POV. Only Susie could feel the heat rise in her face and know that it was a result of Bob’s expression–Bob couldn’t know that.
 “But I want my readers to know what Bob’s thinking,” you might say. Absolutely–just not right now. Multiple points of view are fine as long as there’s a chapter or scene break to let the reader know you’re changing, and don’t do it more often than once per scene.
POV breaks often occur in love scenes, for example. In the first half of the love scene, we’re in the woman’s head, hearing and feeling and seeing and smelling what she does. Then, the author will insert some extra double-spacing or asterisks and will pick up with the love scene at the same spot, only telling it from the man’s point of view. That way the reader knows what both people are thinking, but never gets confused as to who is thinking what or gets whiplash from bouncing back and forth.
Just for good measure here’s another, more egregious example of head-hopping. The scene should be from Thom’s POV.
            Thom watched as Leslie lowered the straps of her gown, her eyes looking down in shyness, a pale blush coloring her cheeks.
            He looked so strong, so sure of himself, that it made her feel like a teenager again, and he wanted to be the one to awaken the passion he knew she’d been tamping down. She wanted it too.
Oy! Let’s look at it:
            Thom watched as Leslie lowered the straps of her gown, (Thom’s POV), her eyes looking down in shyness (Leslie’s POV–how would Thom know she was feeling shy–he might guess it but that’s not what this says), a pale blush coloring her cheeks (oops–back in Thom’s POV again–Leslie couldn’t see the blush on her own cheeks).
            He looked so strong, so sure of himself, that it made her feel like a teenager again (back in Leslie’s POV), and he wanted to be the one to awaken the passion he knew she’d been tamping down (back in Thom’s POV). She wanted it too (back to Leslie).
Feel like a ping-pong ball? That’s head-hopping. Does it bother you? If you saw either of these passages in a book (not factoring in the purple prose), would you notice? Would you care?
 THE GIVEAWAY: Tell me what you think of head-hopping for a chance at The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Writer’s Digest Books), by Jack M. Bickham of Setting, Scene & Structure fame. It’s a handy little reference! As always 1 entry for a comment, +1 for blog follow, +1 for Twitter follow @Suzanne_Johnson, and +1 for a Tweet or Retweet. Happy writing!
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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

25 thoughts on “Head-Hop: Follow the Bouncing Head (& Writing Mistakes Book Giveaway)

  1. Head-hopping will make me put a book down, but my biggest gripe is when an author liberally sprinkles the word ‘almost’ throughout a book. I hate almost, especially in first person POV. Either it is or it isn’t, but it should almost never be almost.

  2. Before I started seriously writing, I was only bothered by head-hopping if I had to stop and figure out who was doing the thinking. It’s not always done badly.
    But now that I am writing…sheesh! Drives me nuts. I have heard that a good way to write deep POV without head hopping is to write a scene in first person and then go back and change all the “I”‘s and “Me”‘s to the third person.

  3. @Chelle I’m not sure “almost” is on my radar (but I’m rushing back to my WIP to do a search–LOL). You’re right though–things are or they aren’t. It’s like being “almost pregnant.”

    @Teri Anne–I’m not sure I noticed it much before I started writing either. And the first-person switch is a great way to catch it. It also helps deepen POV.

  4. I agree with Nicole. Of course I had issues with writing head-hopping when I began, and before I “got it,” used to argue with my friends over it. Now I’m coaching younger writers and it’s payback time. Ah, gack, six times in one three page chapter is just too much, sez I. They don’t always believe it. But in my reading for pleasure, when I get lost is when I stop reading.

  5. I got scared when you started to explain head hopping. Then, Aw crap I think I wrote (an unpublished) novel with head hopping. And here I thought I was ‘safe’ from the disease. Crap. My latest trend in writing has been switching back and forth between character views or having a 3rd person omniscient narrator follow multiple characters around but I never thought I head hopped. Except in that one case but it was the first time I tried multiple POVs and in my defense I used different fonts for different characters.

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  6. Now that I’m a writer, I can’t stand it. It seems so lazy to me and I lose respect for the author. Before I was a writer…?

    It’s hard to remember exactly, but I do know that I always wanted to know whose POV I was in, and that head-hopping would force me to reread and try to figure out what was happening. When I’m taken out of the story, that’s not a good thing.

    I’ll stop now before I post a whole essay. 🙂 I think you might have inspired a blog post. I’ll link to you. 🙂

  7. @Nicole. Same here. I picked up, okay I’ll say it, an early Sherrilyn Kenyon book recently and was shocked to see all the head-hopping. I didn’t finish it but had always heard good things about the Dark Hunter series–are all of them head-hopped?

    @Ashley. It can be tough to spot until you get used to it! Try switching things to first person (just temporarily) and it might help.

    @Jami Head-hopping really is egregious when the reader has to stop and figure out who’s thinking what. But even in the more subtle examples it drives me nuts now!

  8. Head-hopping makes me crazy. If a scene is well written, a hand-off can work. Otherwise, don’t make me read something more than once just to figure out who is speaking. When it happens more than once, I stop reading. There are so many wonderful books to read, why waste my time reading lazy writing?

    As a new writer, I made the head-hopping mistake. My crit partner ground that bad habit of mine to dust…and I thank her for it every week! 😉

    ( +1 Twitter. Already following you! @ReneeRearden)

  9. Drives me nuts too, though I’m probably guilty from time to time–hopefully just in first drafts! LOL I try to remind myself that ANYTHING that pulls the reader out of the story, be it an anachronism, a 14 letter word, etc–is bad, and head-hopping does that faster than most.

    And while we’re on the subject of best selling authors breaking the rules, another author who-shall-not-be-named rants against adverbs while copiously (heh) marinating his novels in them!

  10. Fantastic post. I can’t stand head hopping!!! I just finished The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo. OMW -talk about head hopping. I’ve read one book fromt he One Who Shall Not Be Named, and never read another for the same reason. BUT, many people love her work and I think she’s a fantastic lady. That’s why we have choices. Everyone likes something different.

  11. Verrra nice! I like the way you pick apart each scene and discuss how to fix them – many well-established authors get away with mega-head-hopping. I didn’t notice it until I began writing myself and then the head-hopping began to bug me…a lot!
    Great post!

  12. Head hopping drives me nuts! I don’t like it. It makes me stop reading and it makes me write rejection letters. That said, there is a difference between head hopping and a well-executed viewpoint shift that occurs in the middle of the scene and without the double space or centered asterisks.

    In the workshops that I teach on point of view I teach a method for switching point of view which signals the shift, anchors the new point of view, and completes the hand off.

    The problem with head-hops is that they do not signal and they usually do not anchor the point of view in the new viewpoint. Head hops, like your examples, usually hop rapidly, in and out. A purposeful point of view shift usually happens, then the author maintains the new point of view for a series of pages.

    There are plenty of reasons to change point of view within a chapter or even within a scene. The key is learning to manage the shift so that you signal the reader that you are going to shift, then you anchor the shift, then you complete the shift. If you do this, the shift happens smoothly. It’s like making a lane change on a busy interstate. If you signal that you are going to change, you look to make sure you are clear to change, then you move into the new lane you can do this smoothly and efficiently and without causing a pile up. If you do it without signaling, without looking to see that the lane you are moving into is clear, you will likely cause an accident.

    It’s how you execute the change that is important.

    I have a whole workshop full of lessons on point of view (which includes lessons on how to change point of view) on the Black Velvet Seductions website at: http://www.blackvelvetseductions.com/writers_stuff.html I hope they prove useful for someone.

  13. That’s a great distinction, Laurie–thanks for visiting! Everyone should check out Laurie’s links and also take a workshop from her if you get a chance. I’ve taken two of them, and they’re awesome! She will teach you how to blow up your scenes–and that’s a good thing 😉

  14. I was going to say exactly what Laurie said. She said it so well :)Head-hopping – no, especially if it’s anything like your examples. POV shifts – yes. A writer can change POV smoothly with clear indications and the reader knows exactly what is happening.

    Sometimes a shift in POV within a scene is marked by a blank line or a scene break in a book. Personally, I don’t like this method. It throws me out of the story even more than a head-hop. Give me a clear POV shift and I’m happy. If it’s a new scene and new POV then a scene break is fine.

    Readers often don’t notice head-hopping. I certainly didn’t before I became a writer. It’s when we become writers and are informed of all the rules that we get extra picky. 🙂

  15. POV was my first writing lesson, and one I’m hyper-sensitive to. Unless you’re writing omniscient POV, which isn’t too common these days, you really need to keep in mind that every time you switch POV, you’re causing the reader to have to stop and think. Stopping is NOT what you’re looking for.

    I write deep 3rd POV, and because I write romance, it’s expected that I show both hero and heroine’s POV — but the switches shouldn’t be frequent, and they should be clear. If not a scene break, then a clear transition. Suzanne Brockmann has an excellent article on how she handles it.

    (Oh, and I have Bickham’s book — and made all 38 of his mistakes–so you don’t need to enter me in the drawing.)

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  16. What a great subject. When I first began writing, I was a POV purist! Now, if it’s done well, I hardly notice. When I read my favorite author, I have to toss my editor hat into a dark corner to try and convince my mind that her story and characters is all that counts. Sometimes it works. 🙁

  17. (hmm, I tried posting this but it didn’t show up — I hope this isn’t a duplicate!)

    As a writer, I really don’t understand the constant strictures against “head-hopping.” Because, as a reader, many of my favorite authors and books include plenty of “head-hopping” [and NO, they don’t include Nora Roberts ;-)]

    “Head-hopping,” aka POV shifts, don’t bother me in the least — as long as they’re handled skillfully so the reader isn’t confused.
    It’s easy enough to eliminate all POV shifts, or limit them to some arbitrary number, like “2 per chapter” or similar. But I think it’s worth learning to write POV shifts well, because they can add so much to a scene — depth of emotion, tension, humor, etc.
    IMO. FWIW.:-D
    Deb Mc.

  18. Well, I’m kind of obsesive when I write and I always check for “head-hopping” after I’ve finished writing a chapter. I only write from one character’s point of view but I still manage to make a lot of mistakes of that kind.

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  19. When I write I like to stay with one main character’s POV, and when I read, it bothers me when the author head-hops. Even when it’s done the “right” way as a new chapter or scene, because it disorients me for a few pages until I get used to it.

  20. I don’t think I have problems with head-hopping so much (I’ll have to re-read!) in my own writing, but I struggle with the DPOV so thank you for the link Laurie! This was a very good post though! It drives me crazy when established authors do this and I have to stop reading for a moment to figure out who’s head I’m in. Ugh! Nothing is more aggravating! If the plot is good, I want the story to flow and I want to keep reading! That will make me put a book down pretty quick. Excellent examples with the color coding. 🙂

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  21. I would actually have to disagree. I have seen head hoping done before, in third person. Where it was acceptable. Bob Mayer even talks about how you can use this. In Omniscient style, you are even able to do this to an extent. I don’t see a problem with head hoping, so long as it fits the style.

  22. Head hopping did’t bother me before I started learning about writing. Now, I’m making sure I don’t have any in Lethal Inheritance because it bugs so many people and mostly you can show what the other person is feeling by showing what they are doing / looking like.

    POV changes are necessary though and it’s good to hear you say that changes in POV can be done without the line gap. I find they pull me out of the story. I had them in mine, but don’t like them.

    Thanks, Laurie for the tip on making smooth changes. I’ll check I’ve done that, then I can get rid of the line gaps.