Head-Hopping

Writers of fiction are sternly advised not to switch, in the middle of a scene, from one point of view to another. Doing so is called head-hopping. There are reasons why head-hopping is almost always a bad idea. Good writers do it occasionally, but if you’re going to do it, be careful: Do it for a specific reason, because it’s the best way to tell your story, not just casually or without knowing what you’re doing. Be aware that you’re doing it and consider alternatives before committing to it.

There’s another kind of head-hopping, though, and it’s absolutely essential. You must do it, often and thoroughly. You must inhabit the head of each of your characters in order to understand what each character is thinking and feeling. You may or may not want to show the reader the results of your private head-hopping. In fact, you’re probably well advised to avoid showing it. But you must do it.

This week I’m grappling with possible rewrites for a crime novel that I thought was finished. My main characters have told the police investigator a huge flaming whopper of a lie. And the question I ought to have asked myself, but didn’t, is, “Why would this seasoned professional investigator fail to see through the lie? Wouldn’t he at least wonder about it?” I wanted him to be fooled because that made it easier for me to build my plot — so therefore, he was fooled. It never occurred to me to look at the crime and the statements of the witnesses from his point of view.

I have no clear idea yet how I’m going to fix this, but if I don’t fix it, the book will have a glaring flaw. Writers who cut themselves a mile of slack because it would be too much trouble to fix flaws … well, some of them get published and make a lot of money, but that doesn’t make it okay.

Hop. Hop, hop, hop. Incessantly. You’ll spot any number of weaknesses in your story. And while you’re about it, don’t forget to hop into your reader’s head. “I mentioned that back in chapter 1” is not an excuse you’re allowed to give yourself. If five or six chapters have passed, have mercy on your reader! Mention it again. Your reader may be picking up the book again days or weeks later, and may not remember. So please — hop.

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