Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV

most common writing head-hoppingYou know you’ve moved beyond recreational storytelling to serious writing the moment you discover you’re hopelessly confused about POV. Other than perhaps show vs. tell, no fundamental principle of fiction dogs writers more than creating a solid narrative—which often begins by understanding how to avoid head-hopping.

It happens to all of us: we energetically send our story out for early critiques, only to have it returned to us covered in terse notes about “head-hopping,” “inconsistent point of view,” and “out of POV.”

In the beginning, these just seem like some more of those weird writer codes that make no sense to the uninitiated (and which we have a Glossary for, BTW). So to get us started today, let’s take a look at what these terms mean, why they’re such bad mojo, and how you can correct them to create a stronger story.

What Is POV?

Actually, first, let’s talk about “what is POV?”

This, of course, refers to the point of view in which your story is told. Through whose eyes will readers view the story?

Usually, it will be the protagonist’s. Sometimes, it will be multiple characters’. Sometimes, it will even be an omniscient narrator who doesn’t actually feature in the story.

The issue is further complicated, in that you can also tell your story in a first-person POV (using the pronouns “I” and “me”) or a third-person POV (using the pronouns “he/she” and “him/her”).

I’ve discussed all of these options in more details in the following posts:

For now, suffice it that POV must not be a random choice: indeed, it will be the “driver” that guides the entire journey of your story. As such, it must be consistent. And that’s where head-hopping becomes a problem.

What Is Head-Hopping?

This colorful term refers to uncontrolled narratives, in which the POV skips randomly from one character’s “head” to another.

For example:

Charlie gripped his leather-wrapped steering wheel as he evaluated the racetrack stretched out in front of him. He would have to overcome his horrible starting position. Lucy, at the head of the pack, chuckled to herself: she was poised to win! Meanwhile, Linus could feel the thump-thump-thump of his right rear tire starting to blow.

Whose POV are we in? Everyone’s and no one’s, right? The narrative jumps all over the place to peek into every available character’s head. The result is expansive, but also cluttered and perhaps even confusing.

Almost all authors start out defaulting to head-hopping. There are couple reasons for this.

One is that the author is all his characters. We see into everyone’s heads. We empathize with all of them—and, quite naturally, we want to share all our characters with all our readers all the time.

The second reason is that it seems so drastically limiting to keep a story in just one character’s POV. How can readers possibly understand what’s going on if they can’t see that the bad guy is thinking about betraying the hero right now in this moment?

Is it limiting? Yep.

Is it challenging to make sure readers get all the info they need when maybe the protagonist doesn’t know everything himself? Oh, yeah.

But that’s the whole point. The limitations of a good POV are what create its structure and streamline it into an experience that makes sense for readers.

The Problem With Head-Hopping

One of the reasons head-hopping is so difficult for authors to overcome is that it’s not always immediately obvious why it’s such a bad deal. When you’re reading a book with a well-done POV, the technique will be so smooth, you almost don’t realize what’s going on.

But an alert reader will always feel the effects of a poorly-executed POV. Not only is head-hopping often confusing in the moment (wait, whose head are we in now?), it’s also a sign the entire narrative—all the way down to the structural foundation of the plot—lacks focus.

A strong POV is all about narrowing the story’s focus to a red-hot point that tells readers this is what this story is about.

This is just as true in a story with an omniscient POV or multiple POVs. Even though both of these approaches widen their viewpoint beyond traditional single-POV narratives, they are still focused and purposeful. The POV has been carefully chosen to create a specific effect that brings the story to life in the most efficient way.

Head-hopping doesn’t do this. Head-hopping creates an undisciplined scattergun effect that whiplashes readers back and forth between characters—usually by means of very choppy transitions.

How to Avoid Head-Hopping in Your Story

Ultimately, learning how to overcome head-hopping isn’t actually about avoiding head-hopping at all. Rather, it’s about learning how to create and manage properly-constructed POVs. And POV is a vast topic (as you can see from the many posts I linked up above). There are many different approaches to POV, and which you choose to master depends on both your own preferences and the needs of your story. The requirements of a good deep third-person POV are very different from those of a well-done omniscient POV.

Your first step in learning to overcome head-hopping is to study the various types of POV and what makes them work when they’re well done.

Fundamentally, however, what you need to know is that avoiding head-hopping means you have to do two things:

1. Stay in one narrator’s head/POV per scene.

2. Keep the perspective and voice of each POV consistent.

For example:

Charlie gripped his leather-wrapped steering wheel as he evaluated the racetrack stretched out in front of him. He would have to overcome his horrible starting position. Lucy, at the head of the pack, would be difficult to beat, especially with those evil-looking spikes she’d somehow gotten away with putting on her wheel rims. Just in front of him, he heard the familiar thump-thump-thump of a tire about to blow. He scanned the cars and saw Linus’s green Chevy swerve. Good grief.

4 Ways to Optimize the Limitations of POV—Without Head-Hopping

I know, I know: If you aren’t allowed to head-hop, how can you possibly show readers what the other characters are doing and thinking? Fortunately, there are several great workarounds.

1. Don’t Worry About the Other Characters’ Thoughts

Yeah, I know that sounds hard at first, but staying out of certain characters’ heads is actually a tremendous opportunity for creating that magic ingredient of all good fiction: subtext. Plus, you might be surprised with how much you don’t have to tell readers for them to still get the point.

2. Include Multiple POVs

Remember, a multiple-POV narrative is not the same thing as head-hopping. In a multiple-POV narrative, you view the story through the eyes of several different characters—but only one at a time, one per scene. Instead of randomly switching from character to character in the same scene (or, worse, the same paragraph, as in our original example above), you consciously control the perspective from scene to scene, indicating the switch with a scene break or chapter break, so readers remain oriented in each POV.

3. Let the POV Character Infer the Other Characters’ Thoughts and Actions

You will also learn to rely on the inductive reasoning of your POV characters. Because you have limited the narrative to the powerful experience of allowing readers to discover the story alongside your narrator, that means readers get to learn things with this character. When he starts getting suspicious clues about another character, that’s when the story’s big picture unfolds for readers as well.

This is also true on the smaller level of character-on-character interplay. For example, if your POV character is engaged in a conversation with a non-POV character, you don’t have to jump to the other character’s POV in order to indicate what she is thinking or feeling. The POV character can read her body language—just as we read other people’s body language in real life–to infer the subtext beyond her words.

4. Utilize Eye-Witnesses to Inform POV Characters of Unseen Events

But what if there are important events your POV character wasn’t around to witness? No problem. You can utilize any number of tricks to keep readers informed. This might range from having another character who was present come visit your protagonist and tell him all about it. Or the protagonist might read about it in a letter, a newspaper article, or see it on TV. In certain stories, perhaps he might even have premonitions or dreams about it.

***

Although writing a story without head-hopping can initially feel limiting, it is actually an incredibly exciting challenge. Writing a cohesive, tight, focused narrative will create the foundation for an amazing story—one readers can trust to carry them securely and sensibly through your marvelous fictional world.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever struggled with head-hopping? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Ms. Albina says:

    Great article, I am using third person pov. I am rewriting the story for the fifth time but my written grammar is bad. I do want to improve on grammar mistakes. What do you do about grammar.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Grammar Girl is a good resource.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Thank you. I still need to write better paragraphs.

        Do you indent on writing paragraphs when you type it?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, you can just tab over.

          • Or if you are using Word, set up “style sheets.” Otherwise you have to go through and delete all the tabs when formatting for publication. Google “style sheets” for a ton of how-to.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Okay, Thank you. I am having two of the characters begin stories one of the creation story and the other about Ruben.

            Is their a way to make these stories shorter in dialogue?

            Priestess Merida now was talking about a creation story of how their planet was made. Leilani and Zane did not know how the planet was made.

            Priestess Merida had now cleared her throat. “Ten million years ago, our planet was in the Azurian universe was nothing become a blank canvas. Then there was the moon and the sun. The moon was female and the sun male. Then they joined together. Next after four days later, the moon gave birth to four gods-two were males and two were females. The moon gave them names Dylan, Aditi, Sol, and Selena,” She continued. “Together the sun and the moon’s children created the planets and then started having children of their own, three each.

            Selena and Sol had two suns and a daughter who’s name is Maia. When Maia was a full grown, she was named the supreme goddess. Maia was given creator powers. So she created a twin star system with nine planets and twin moons. Then Maia filled life into the planet.

            The ninth planet was called Avanaria, which was eighty percent water and twenty percent land. There were a hundred islands. Maia created the magical creatures and the humans and the realms on the planet, where they lived, which took a fortnight. She chose the heights for the magical creatures-dragons being large with scales on them in different colors, trolls-four feet to about 7 feet tall, elves and fairies-varied in all sizes, shape shifters being six feet tall, and the mer-people-the females six feet tall and the mermen were six feet to six feet seven inches tall depending on which family you were from.

            Seven of the islands were named and the sea also.

            Planet Avanaria had seven islands that were named Harmony, Cosmina, Serena, Oracle, crystal, and Elda Lamore, and Lunaria. Some of the seas were turquoise, sapphire, indigo, and Lunarian.

            Maia created the realms for the elves and fairies, humans, dwarfs, shape shifters, dragons, mer-people and trolls. Immortals also lived there.

            The realms with the magical creatures had invisible force field that were different colors-turquoise, sapphire, emerald, amethyst, pearl, and opal,”

            Then she ended her tale. Then Priestess Cara told about Ruben the evil sea deity’s.

            “Once upon a time on an unknown island lived a small kingdom. The king and queen were getting older. After many failed adepts at getting pregnant finally the queen became pregnant. The pregnancy was very difficult. She gave bright to a son whom they named Ruben,” She continued. “He was loved by his doting parents. As time had passed he was full gown and well educated. Then one day, the king went hunting and then injured his leg. So the maid traded some food for a sing bird with multi colors feathers and gave it to the king,” Cara replied. “The bird helped the king who became angry who was in bed all the time. Then one day the bird had stopped and then the queen and king became ill with an unknown sickness. After that the king and queen had a fever, coughing and also spiting up blood then eventually their skin turned to yellow-green. They had perched five days later. Ruben had returned no one was alive in the kingdom except for an old woman who told him what had happened. He had searched for the maid who left the ill bird. Ruben finally found the maid and he destroyed her after finding out the name of the name who she got the bird from whose name was Raphael Lucian. He wanted to destroy all of Raphael Lucian’s descendents. Raphael Lucan eventually was in a boat traveling somewhere then suddenly a sea monster with shape shifting abilities bit him and gave him a blood poison. Ruben killed a lot of people of three unknown islands-large to small humans while looking for Raphael Lucian but he died. As Ruben became bitter then eventually he became the evil sea deity this being granted by his master,”

            After hearing about the evil sea deity Leilani and Zane wanted to know if he would come here.

            “No the evil sea deity will not come here,” Priestess Merida said. “Because the supreme goddess put an invisible force field around the island so no evil could come in,”

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I would question whether most of this is necessary to the story, since it doesn’t directly advance the plot. You could summarize the story in one or two sentences.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            How would I summarize the story in one or two sentences? Can you give example?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:
      • Agreed, I’ve been listening to Grammar Girl for a while now and learn something pretty much every show!

  2. I need to find a time machine again. My first book was full of POVs that were all over the place. I had four main characters and while they shared the same goal, it didn’t work. Your suggestions would have made it much better.

  3. Linda Boberg says:

    I think this is my problem with my current WIP. You’ve helped me understand it better. Thanks

  4. I´m using 3rd person POV fairly consistent, but this reminder is a welcome one. So thanks.

    One question about POV: what is it called when the narrator isn´t the protagonist itself (in 3rd person), but does sympathize with the protagonist, even mimics him/her? E.g. when the protagonist is in a rowdy and foul-mouthed mood, the narrator is too.

  5. Great article, very comprehensive read like all the other ones. Your recipe for storytelling and character arcs is kind of my Bible these days. ^^

    One question though. You wrote:

    “The issue is further complicated, in that you can also tell your story in a first-person POV (using the pronouns “I” and “me”) or a third-person POV (using the pronouns “he/she” and “him/her”).”

    What about second-person POV? It’s underused and underappreciated, harder to write than first- or third-person POV, but when it’s well done the strength of narration is incredible. Jay McInerney and Italo Calvino are proof of that! ^^

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, I just left second-person out for simplicity’s sake, since it’s used so seldom.

    • Febe Meyer says:

      I agree! But I think its so risky if you don’t do it well. It’s either superb or a massive fail. Second person does have its place though. In my opinion it is wonderful for placing the reader directly into the storyline. I played with it recently in a magazine article for children where I was discussing agricultural revolutions. By painting scenarios and placing them in it as if it was them, dry history came to life in a riveting way. It gave me freedom to create fictional scenarios in a non-fiction article… so it is pretty powerful indeed!

  6. Abby Geiger says:

    One of the best bits of writing advice I have ever read, not only previously but also now. I will never consciously make the mistake of head-hopping again. Thank you for helping me keep my characters’ brains singularly guiding the reader as best I can.

  7. K.M., I needed this. You made me realize that my head-hopping isn’t artistic; it’s amateur. I will rewrite to keep the focus on the main character. Thanks! Great Peanuts example, btw – it took “good grief” for me to get it.

  8. Thank you so much for your awesome posts! They’ve helped me so much. I’ve been reading Helping Writers Become Authors for just a few weeks now but wanted to comment and say how thankful I am for everything you do. I’ve been using your Outlining Your Novel Workbook the past couple weeks and am having a ton of fun!

    Thank you for this post! My earlier stories were full of head-hopping–I’ve found writing tight, focused narratives are definitely better.

    Madi

  9. Thanks for the post. I realize POV choice is a personal decision and they each have their benefits/drawbacks. I wrote in 3rd person limited past because it’s the most common, plus I write young adult fiction and wanted a single narrator with whom I hoped readers would connect. I avoided 1st person because it’s even more limiting and became sort of trendy in YA, particularly in present tense. I never considered multiple POV’s for various reasons, one of which was I thought it would be too difficult to execute well. Using some of the techniques you described I had no trouble sharing important info the viewpoint character hadn’t personally seen. While bestselling authors rarely fail the head hopping test, they often fail to create distinctive enough voices for their different POV’s. What informs your decision to use multiple POV’s? Like, in what scenario would you find multiple POV’s superior to a single narrator? Is it that certain genres/stories just necessitate it, like crime novels (see: Silence of the Lambs)? Do you consider multiple POV’s more “advanced?”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Over the years, I’ve become more and more dedicated to a limited number of POVs. I try never to use more than three and to avoid antagonist POVs at all costs. Otherwise, it’s pretty much just a matter of determining what focus I want to give the narrative and what characters are necessary to present a rounded view. I talk more about these decisions here: How to Choose the Right POV.

      • Chris brings up a good point here. Are most YA novels expected to be written in 1st person nowadays or is 3rd person still acceptable, especially in romance stories?

        Love the character names you chose, by the way. Your little story snippet sounds like The Peanuts Family meets Ben Hur. 🙂

  10. My book series is close third person POV for the protagonist. I used to head-hop as a child, but I’ve gotten much better at not doing that.

    In the series, different chapters are devoted to different characters for story purposes. They are few and far between, though, and most stay with the protagonist.

  11. Just to add something for people who know a bit about music. Switching POVs is like switching keys in music.

    You can’t just do it like you want. That will sound horrible.

    You can either do it after fixed parts. Many pop songs actually do this in their C-Part. But even then you can’t just switch to ANY key. The new key has something to do with the old key, mainly having a major part of the same notes. In writing it’s the same. Even if you switch POVs at the end of the chapter you can’t just take anybody. That new POV must contribute to the story.

    Or you can pass the key by preparing something in the old key and then taking that part and redoing it in the new key. There is the danger of head-hopping just as there are many ways to make wonky key switches in music. Head-hopping however is something different than in-scene POV-switching. Funny enough it was a fanfic that I recently read which did this really well. Basically the first POV described something, be it a feeling about a certain event or an action they performed. As preparation the author squeezed out the question that the just passed part answered. Once the question was posed and shifted slightly so it would fit on the other character, the other POV came in and answered that question.

    It helps to step back from the one craft one does and to search an image somewhere else, then draw parallels to the original task.

  12. Great article. Head hopping – together with a massive abuse of adverbs are my main problems and I am struggling to get rid of them.

    What is your view on multiple point of views distributed in different chapters (or scenes). Do you think it is still annoying for a reader as it would be an in-scene head hopping?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s fine to include two or three POVs in one chapter/scene, but I’d do it sparingly–not in every chapter.

  13. My gossiping hens in the coop, each vocalising a chaotic stream of thoughts and talking over one another, continally headhop in a rapid exchange of POV. This has of course, nothing to do with me.

  14. Thank you for your hints on Head-Hopping in working with POV. I lost count of how many times my critique group excoriated me for doing that very thing. POV is definitely my weakest point. But I’m working on it.

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