When Heads Hop

The wisdom du jour among those who teach fiction writing is that one should not “head-hop.” Head-hopping is considered poor technique.

I write today in defense of head-hopping. Not heedless head-hopping, to be sure. You should do it only when you actually need to do it, and when no other technique will serve as well.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, head-hopping was considered normal. Most of the fine novelists hopped from one character’s emotions or perceptions to those of another character, sometimes within a single paragraph. Nobody ever objected to it! But in those days, the novelist was considered a storyteller. The novelist’s own voice, as storyteller, would intrude from time to time as well. If you don’t believe me, try reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. It’s jam-packed with commentary from Fielding himself, in his own voice and addressing the reader directly. He also head-hops, and he does an enormous amount of telling rather than showing. A few scenes are dramatized, but much of the story is not.

But that was then, this is now. Today writers are advised sternly to stick to the point of view (POV) of a single character throughout a scene. Show only what that character sees and hears; tell only what that one character thinks and feels. All other characters should be seen externally, through your POV character’s eyes. The POV character may guess what another character is thinking or feeling, but the careful writer will show the signs that allow the POV character to guess — Laura’s hesitation before she answers, or Steven’s clenched fist. Just as often, the writer is well advised to show Laura’s hesitation or Steven’s clenched fist without bothering to mention what the POV character deduces from it. The reader will have no trouble figuring it out!

The reason to stick to a single POV is immersion. One wants the reader to feel fully immersed in the scene — to experience it almost as viscerally as the lead character does. When the writer head-hops, the reader has to pause momentarily to recalibrate. It can be disorienting. It can be confusing. It can distance the reader from the action, and pushing the reader away from emotional involvement is not what the writer hopes to do. Not in today’s overheated fiction market, anyhow. Grab ’em by the short-and-curlies, don’tcha know?

If it’s necessary to show the action from two or more different points of view, the writer is advised, these days, to start a new chapter (if possible) or at the very least to leave a blank line to show the reader that there is a break — that it’s time to recalibrate mentally.

This is quite often the right technique. But it’s not always the right technique. There are occasions when the best available option is to head-hop. If that’s what’s needed, and if you’ve honestly convinced yourself that all of your other options are less desirable, then go ahead! Head-hop and be damned!

In my Leafstone series (those books up at the top of the blog! They’re amazing! Buy them! Read them! Enjoy them! Tell your friends!), there are three places where I did some head-hopping. Maybe four places, in a story that’s half a million words long. I’m convinced I made the right choice in each case.

The main reason to head-hop, I think, is to maintain a continuous flow of action. If the action is continuous, one does not want to interrupt it in order to shift to a new POV. If the whole action scene can reasonably be depicted from a single POV, that will almost always be the right choice. But that isn’t always possible.

You want specifics? We got specifics.

In one action sequence, Alixia has escaped from her father’s house, her father being an evil wizard. She is being pursued by two of his apprentice wizards, whose charge is to capture her and bring her home to daddy. With the help of her friends, she has escaped from them the first time. She and her friends, being the good guys, don’t want to kill the apprentice wizards, so they temporize by leaving them tied up in a stable. And gagged, so that they can’t utter any magical incantations.

Naturally, this doesn’t work. The apprentice wizards soon escape, and they’re back on Alixia’s trail. The first part of the chapter is from the POV of one of them, because that’s the important action. We don’t want the reader to have to guess how they got loose. They then figure out where she must have gone and hustle across the city. Sure enough, they spot her. So one of them sneaks around to the other end of the alley, and they grab her before she can run. This is all from the POV of the apprentice wizard.

They then march her across town to her father’s mansion. During this transitional passage, the reader is not actually in the POV of anybody. The author (that would be me) has switched unobtrusively to external POV. Alixia is furious and frightened, and we see this externally; the camera is looking at her, and at them, from the outside.

When they reach her father’s house, the wizards hustle her into her father’s study, where he is sitting smugly behind his desk. He tells them to leave. They leave. The door closes. And at this point we drop into Alixia’s internal POV, seeing the remainder of the chapter through her eyes, privy to her thoughts and feelings.

Interrupting this continuous flow of action would have been just plain bad writing. Having the apprentice wizards escape from the stable offstage, without showing how they did it — again, bad writing. The action is continuous, and therefore the text is continuous.

There are, I’m sure, other situations in which the writer needs to head-hop. I offer this only as an example that I feel is clear enough to be understood. Could I have done it without head-hopping? Sure. But I try never to write while imagining that an anonymous editor is hovering over my shoulder brandishing a ruler, prepared to smack my knuckles if I do something naughty.

I have a hard enough time satisfying my own criteria for what makes a good story, without being forced to kowtow to anybody else’s.

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