Head-Hopping

Writers of fiction are always advised not to switch from one viewpoint character to another within a given scene. This mistake is called head-hopping.

The reason it’s frowned on is because it yanks the reader out of the story, at least momentarily. Our own experience of the world is that we spend our whole lives within a single head. When we read a story in third-person limited viewpoint, we’re projecting into somebody else’s head. Finding ourselves dropped without warning into a different head is not just unnatural; it calls attention to the fact that the writer is manipulating our perception of the fictional world.

There are several other ways for the writer to betray his or her presence as “the man behind the curtain,” in Frank Baum’s memorable phrase. Some of them are more obvious than head-hopping, but head-hopping is perhaps uniquely disturbing to the reader’s sense of immersion.

Needless to say, we’re talking about third-person narrative here. I don’t think you could possibly head-hop in a first-person narrative, unless you were writing some sort of science fiction or fantasy scenario in which changes in consciousness were part of the plot.

And yes, that has been done. Consider this brief passage from the first page of Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels: “I lay on the floor naked as a shedding snake, and we contemplated our situation.” Because I made the mistake of reading this book first (it’s the middle of a trilogy), the constant shifts back and forth from “I” to “we” were driving me crazy. I was several chapters into the story before I figured out that “I” was Matthew himself, while “we” was an entirely separate entity, a bunch of them really, that were living in his head.

Somebody on Facebook suggested I try Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve. It’s a four-novel series, but after reading 5/6 of the first book I’m not sure I’ll bother even to finish it, much less go on through the series. Reeve is clearly writing for younger readers. They may like Mortal Engines a lot: It’s action-packed, that’s for sure. But the steampunk technology is preposterous, the geography and history are inexplicable, and the social structure of the world is not much better. Really, it reads very much like a comic book turned into prose.

On page 216 of Mortal Engines we’re in the midst of a tense scene between Tom and Hester, and we encounter a paragraph that begins like this: “He turned to Hester in the hope that she would take his side, but she was lost in her own thoughts, her fingers tracing and retracing the scars under her red veil. She felt guilty and stupid….”

The first part of the scene has clearly been in Tom’s viewpoint, and indeed in the first part of the first sentence above we’re still in his viewpoint: We’re being told about his hopes. But then in the second sentence we have head-hopped, suddenly and with only a half of a sentence by way of transition, into Hester’s viewpoint. Her viewpoint continues for the rest of the paragraph, and then we follow Tom as he leaves the scene.

I have head-hopped within a scene in my own work more than once. I do it carefully, and seldom, and only when it’s necessary for the structure of the story. The desire to tell the reader what a second character is feeling, as Reeve does in this passage, is, I would say, not a strong enough reason — and doing it within a paragraph is close to being an absolute mistake. A literary author, perhaps a James Joyce, could conceivably get away with head-hopping within a paragraph, provided there’s a sound literary reason for the switch, but in plotted genre fiction, I would go so far as to say it cannot possibly be justified. At the very least, start a new paragraph!

In one scene in The Leafstone Shield, I head-hopped between the first half of a long scene and the second half. Alixia has run away from her father, whose plans for her are really nasty, and he has sent a couple of goons to find her and bring her back. At the start of the scene we’re in the viewpoint of one of the goons. They spot Alixia, they snag her, and they march her homeward through the streets of the city. During the march, which occupies several paragraphs, there is no interior viewpoint at all — the prose is strictly a movie camera, showing us an exterior view. We then arrive at her father’s mansion, where they drag her into her father’s study and then leave, at which point the rest of the scene is in her viewpoint as she confronts her father.

This is one continuous action sequence, so there’s no convenient place to break it off and switch to Alixia’s point of view. That’s the first point. Second, the viewpoint switch is necessitated by the action itself, not by a mere desire to show that Alixia is scared and furious. Third, the transition is handled using several paragraphs of external viewpoint, so that it’s smoothed over, and not (I hope) jarring.

If you’re writing a scene with head-hopping, are you handling it that carefully?

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