On Writing

Writing Pitfall #5: Head Hopping

 

In today’s article, #5 in our series on writing pitfalls for new authors, we will deal with head hopping. Head hopping stems from a lack of understanding of third person perspectives. To properly understand head hopping, we must first review the different types of point of view (POV).

Like the first person POV, third person limited is a close perspective that is told in the voice of a character from the story. In the omniscient POV the story is told via a character who is not an actor in the story—the narrator. Generally the narrator in an omniscient POV is neutral. This is not the case with third person limited and first person. What further separates third person limited from omniscient is voice.  Third person limited is told in the voice of the perspective character. Omniscient is told in the voice of the narrator. Both third person limited and omniscient can focus on multiple characters, whereas first person POV focuses on one character.

Let’s look at some examples of perspective.

First Person

A total swagless poser with slicked back hair and shiny-white kicks, which are probably five minutes outta the store, sidles up next to my girl Cindy and proceeds to hit on her without an ounce of game. She flips her hair and gives him the universal, one fingered sign for “beat it” before walking away. When I see him coming in my direction, I decide to bounce. I don’t want any part of that.

Third Person Limited

A total swagless poser with slicked back hair and shiny-white kicks, which are probably five minutes outta the store, sidles up next to Sam’s girl, Cindy, and proceeds to hit on her without an ounce of game. She flips her hair and gives him the universal, one fingered sign for “beat it” before walking away. When Sam sees him coming in her direction, she decides to bounce. She doesn’t want any part of that.

Third Person Omniscient

A lanky kid with dark, slicked back hair and white shoes, which are obviously new, approaches Sam’s friend, Cindy, and proceeds to ineptly hit on her. She tosses her hair and flips him off before walking away. When Sam sees the kid start in her direction, she walks away quickly. The last thing she wants is to be cornered by that creep.

Can you see the difference in the voices? The examples of first person and third person limited are told in the strong voice of a character in the story. The omniscient example is told in the more proper voice of the narrator, which tends to be the voice of the author—but isn’t always.

Now let’s look at our examples of third person POV with some head hopping thrown in.

Third Person Limited

A total swagless poser with slicked back hair and shiny-white kicks, which are probably five minutes outta the store, sidles up next to Sam’s friend, Cindy, and proceeds to hit on her without an ounce of game. Cindy wonders just who this jerk thinks he is. She’s not some skank. Cindy flips her hair and gives him the universal, one fingered sign for “beat it” before walking away.  Back to the loser circle, she thinks. When Sam sees him coming in her direction, she decides to bounce. She doesn’t want any part of that.

Third Person Omniscient

A lanky kid with dark, slicked back hair and white shoes, which are obviously new, approaches Sam’s friend, Cindy, and proceeds to ineptly hit on her. Cindy wonders where this jerk came from. She’s way out of his league. Cindy tosses her hair and flips him off before walking away. Back to the loser circle, she thinks. When Sam sees the kid start in her direction, she quickly walks away. The last thing she wants is to be cornered by that creep.

It is implied in the beginning of the scene that the focus of the scene is Sam by the use of “Sam’s friend.” Because of this, the reader will automatically assume in a close perspective that the scene is being told through Sam’s perspective and in her voice. And in an omniscient POV, it is assumed that the focus is on Sam.  This makes any additions from Cindy’s perspective head hopping in both points of view. This bit of head hopping can be fixed quite easily with a paragraph break and removal of the focus on Sam.

Third Person Limited

A total swagless poser with slicked back hair and shiny-white kicks, which are probably five minutes outta the store, sidles up next to Sam’s friend, Cindy and proceeds to hit on her without an ounce of game. She wonders just who this loser thinks he is. She’s not some skank. Cindy flips her hair and gives him the universal, one fingered sign for “beat it” before walking away.  Back to the loser circle, she thinks.

 

When Sam sees him coming in her direction, she decides to bounce. She doesn’t want any part of that.

Third Person Omniscient

A lanky kid with dark, slicked back hair and white shoes, which are obviously new, approaches Sam’s friend, Cindy and proceeds to ineptly hit on her. She wonders where this jerk came from. She’s way out of his league. Cindy tosses her hair and flips him off before walking away. Back to the loser circle, she thinks.

 

When Sam sees the kid start in her direction, she quickly walks away. The last thing she wants is to be cornered by that creep.

While the Divas do not recommend switching perspective from paragraph to paragraph, you can use a paragraph break to indicate the shift in focus. It is much better to switch perspectives between paragraphs than it is to switch mid-paragraph. That said, it would be better to tell the entire scene through one character’s perspective or with the focus on one specific character.

We’ve included an example of this below. Since Cindy’s perspective is stronger we are going to stay with her throughout the scene.

Third Person Limited

A total swagless poser with slicked back hair and shiny-white kicks, which are probably five minutes outta the store, sidles up next to Cindy and proceeds to hit on her without an ounce of game. She wonders just who this loser thinks he is. She’s not some skank. Cindy flips her hair and gives him the universal, one-fingered sign for “beat it” before walking away.  Back to the loser circle , she thinks.

 

When Cindy sees him moving in the direction of her girl, she decides to help her out. Sam doesn’t want any of that any more than she does.

Third Person Omniscient

A lanky kid with dark, slicked back hair and white shoes, which are obviously new, approaches Cindy and proceeds to ineptly hit on her. Cindy wonders where this jerk came from. She’s way out of his league. Cindy tosses her hair and flips him off before walking away. Back to the loser circle, she thinks.

 

When Cindy sees the kid moving toward her friend Sam, she quickly intervenes. The last thing Sam would want is to be cornered by that creep.

Head hopping pulls the reader out of the story. It creates an environment in which the read has to slow down and think about which character is leading the scene. At best it’s confusing; at worst it’s jarring and annoying. To keep from jumping in perspective, pick a focal character and write the scene with that character’s view of everything  (in omniscient POV) or through that character’s perspective and in their voice (in third person limited).  Above all, you must know what point of view you are writing. When you understand that, you can keep the voice of the narrator true.

Next Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #6: Mary Sue

Previous Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #4: Mundane Detail 


Comments

  1. GREAT ARTICLE! In the book Starcrossed it’s written third person, and then it switches to first person, then back to third person. What about if it’s a series, and it’s only told in two point of views throughout the entire book, but alternates per chapter, like chapter one One POV, then Chapter Two the other POV, and so on within the book

  2. Hi V,

    There are various reasons why an author may choose to switch perspectives or narrative types. An author has to weigh those reasons against the flow and tone of the story. In a 3rd person omniscient narration, the voice of the narrator doesn’t change, even if the focal character does. This is not the case when switching narrative types or dealing with alternating perspectives.

    It’s a very hard thing to maintain an even flow in a story when you are dealing with a series of narrators who think, perceive, and relate things in ways that may not be compatible with one another. Another risk an author runs into when switching perspectives is that both characters could have the same voice. This is just as bad, if not worse, than the characters having incompatible voices. The last issue you run into when switching perspectives is the loss of mystery. This is especially detrimental to a romance. When all the mystery is stripped away from a story and the readers know everything the characters are thinking and feeling, what is left to keep them reading?

    If writing in the first person best suits your needs and it is necessary to show both side of the story, so to speak, then it is best to limit the perspective switches to chapters instead of scenes–in my humble opinion. 🙂

    Shay

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