Point of View Whiplash: Head Hopping
When you sit down to write a story, you can start a lot of places—plot, character, setting—but very early you are going to have to make one basic decision: Who is going to tell this story? Who owns the point of view?
A lot of writers seem to have a hard time deciding on just one viewpoint character. They feel to tell the story properly they need to show it from a number of angles, and while I am not a huge fan of multiple point of view tales, I have no issue with them as long as it is made clear whose head I am in when.
Unfortunately, many times writers forget to do this—or switch back and forth between points of view so quickly that the reader gets a headache trying to keep up.
This is head hopping.
Here’s an example taken from my book Demon High and edited to add the hopping:
“Lucinda!” Where was that girl? She should have been home an hour ago. (Nana POV)
Inside the closet, Lucinda heard a thump, Nana’s cane hitting the floor. If Lucinda didn’t appear soon she’d get suspicious. (Lucinda POV)
Lucinda slid the lid onto the box and shoved it back under the floorboard. Then she reached for a striped stocking cap. Before pulling it onto her head, she glanced back at the floorboard and the book hidden beneath it. (Lucinda POV)
She hesitated. (Lucinda POV)
Nana pushed the door open. She was tired of waiting on the girl. “What are you doing in there?” (Nana POV)
Lucinda held up the hat. “I was cold.” (could be either)
Nana leaned to the right, putting her weight onto her cane. Her leg hurt, but she knew Lucinda was up to something. She looked past her granddaughter, over the contents of the stuffed closet. She didn’t see anything suspicious. She looked back at Lucinda. What was she doing with that hat? “Not that cold.” (Nana POV)
Lucinda glanced at the cap. It was gold and green with a tassel on the tip. She jerked it down over her ears. (Lucinda POV)
Shaking her head at the girl’s oddity, Nana tromped toward the kitchen. “Dinner’s soup, from a can. Tomato or chicken noodle. Your choice.” (Nana POV)
Now while this may not be terrible, seeing inside both characters’ heads can be confusing and it really doesn’t add anything to the story.
Let’s read it as it appears in the book, all in Lucinda’s point of view:
Nana was getting angry. There was a thump, her cane hitting the floor. If I didn’t appear soon she’d get suspicious.
I slid the lid onto the box and shoved it back under the floorboard. Then I reached for a striped stocking cap. Before pulling it onto my head, I glanced back at the floorboard and the book hidden beneath it.
The door flew open. “What are you doing in there?”
I held up the hat. “I was cold.”
Nana leaned to the right, putting her weight onto her cane. Her gaze darted behind me, over the contents of the stuffed closet. Apparently not seeing anything suspicious, she looked back at me and the hat. She wrinkled her nose. “Not that cold.”
I glanced at the cap. It was gold and green with a tassel on the tip. I jerked it down over my ears.
Shaking her head, Nana tromped toward the kitchen. “Dinner’s soup, from a can. Tomato or chicken noodle. Your choice.”
Anything important missing? No. In fact, leaving out Nana’s point of view adds a bit of mystery. Lucinda doesn’t know for sure what her grandmother is thinking and that lack actually adds to the story. Also, by sticking with just Lucinda, we connect to her more. She is our guide and we know that right from the get-go. We root for her.
When you sit down to write a scene, before you write word one, decide whose point of view this scene should be in. Who has the most to lose?
If you need to let the reader know what another character is thinking, do it from the chosen point of view character’s outlook. Nana wrinkles her nose. Lucinda sees that and so does the reader. We don’t need to hear Nana think that the hat is ugly and out of place for us to know that is what Nana is thinking. You can show us through her actions. To instead just slip into her head (hop) is, quite frankly, lazy.
If you do need to change point of view, find a logical place to do this where the reader will not be jolted by the change. Being a bit of a purist, I like to put in actual breaks when I switch point of view and try to stay in that character’s mind for at least a page or so. This isn’t, however, strictly necessary. The main thing is that you are aware of what you are doing and why and are not just free floating from one head to another. (Although I do still suggest you try limiting the shifts to scene or chapter breaks.)
If you think you might be head hopping, go back and read the scene again. Highlight all internal thoughts and then mark all of them out except those belonging to the character with the most to lose in that scene. Now replace those missing thoughts with actions or dialogue that give a hint as to what that character is thinking. While you are doing this, weigh how much you really want the point of view character to know for sure. Less really can be more. You may decide you want to keep a little more uncertainty alive.
Now re-read the scene. Is it stronger? Does the reader connect more strongly with that one point of view character and thus the story? I’m betting they will.