Just as I was working on my own Head Hopping post, I got the latest issue of Randy Ingermanson’s monthly e-zine (he’s the Snowflake Guy) and he had a great article on the same topic. He graciously grants reprint rights, so I’m going to step aside and let him have the podium today. Info on subscribing to his e-zine is at the end of the article.
Head-hopping For Fun and Profit
Reprinted with permission
When I was writing my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES a year ago, I identified six common viewpoints used in fiction. One of these, “head-hopping,” is a point of view in which the author gets inside the heads of multiple characters within a single scene.
The technical editor on my book objected to the term “head-hopping” on the grounds that it’s a pejorative term. He suggested I use a less objectionable word.
My response was simple: “Head-hopping” is a standard term. Everybody calls it head-hopping, and I can see no reason to call it something else merely because somebody might object to it. The reason it’s a pejorative term is because head-hopping is almost always a bad idea. If I were to call it something else, pretty soon, the new term would also become pejorative because it would still be a bad idea.
Head-hopping is one of the most common choices of POV by beginning fiction writers, and it almost always screams, “I am an amateur.”
Beginning writers often object, “But wait a second!
What’s wrong with head-hopping? Tom Clancy does it in all his books. Margaret Mitchell did it in GONE WITH THE WIND. Jane Austen hopped heads all the way from Netherfield to Pemberley. Any number of massively talented authors have hopped heads. If head-hopping is so bad, why are all these bigshot authors getting away with it?”
That does make things murky, doesn’t it?
We’ll start with the second question first. If the bigshots did it, why can’t you?
Let’s remember that many famous authors have been alcoholics over the years. Just because somebody with massive talent was able to produce books while crippling themselves with a destructive habit, it doesn’t mean that you can get away with it.
It’s possible that you, too, have massive talent. (Do you? Think hard before you say yes.) If you don’t, then hobbling your writing might prevent you from getting published at all. Even if you do have massive talent, why in the world would you want to put yourself at a competitive disadvantage with the hundreds of other massively talented writers in the world?
Now to the first question. What’s so bad about head-hopping?
The answer to that question is complex. There are cases, in fact, where head-hopping makes sense, although usually in those cases, it’s not actually head-hopping, it’s an omniscient point of view. We’ll get to that in a bit. But let’s consider first where it DOESN’T make sense and why.
The purpose of fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (I coined this term several years ago, and it’s rapidly becoming a standard term among writers, for the simple reason that it makes loads of good sense.)
The most common way to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience is to use your most devious arts of deception to persuade your reader that she is one of the characters. This is often called “reader identification.” You want to make your reader experience the story from inside the skin of one character, (the point-of-view character).
As the story moves along, every emotion that your POV character feels, your reader feels too. If you’re writing a thriller, your reader feels the terror of sneaking unarmed into the terrorists’ safe house to rescue his five year old daughter. If you’re writing a romance, your reader feels the thrill of her bodice ripping as she falls in love with the dashing hero. If you’re writing a historical, your reader feels the despair of being a slave in ancient Athens.
To do that well, you must get all the way inside the skin of that POV character. You must see what she sees; hear what she hears; smell what she smells; touch what she touches; taste what she tastes; feel what she feels; and think what she thinks.
You can’t do that if you’re in two heads at once. This is a prime example of the old adage, which applies in so many ways in fiction, “One plus one equals a half.”
If you want to create a Powerful Emotional Experience by getting inside the skin of a character, then stick to one POV character in each scene.
But there is more than one way to create a Powerful Emotional Experience. Tom Clancy is quite adept at giving the reader the God-like feeling of knowing everything. In many scenes in Clancy’s work, the reader sees all; hears all; smells all; feels all; knows all.
This can work on a big enough stage, where the stakes are high enough. On a battlefield this strategy works great. When there’s any kind of sequence of events that is world-wide in scope, this strategy also works great.
If something horrible is happening in an inanimate object, such as a submarine’s nuclear reactor, then this strategy is the only game in town.
When the stage shrinks down to a few characters in one room, this strategy reeks like a rat. Why? Because the reader doesn’t want to be some disembodied omniscient being when there’s a convenient body to inhabit.
Your reader doesn’t want to be two people at once.
That’s confusing and disorienting and just plain weird.
Your reader wants to be one person in each scene. It’s fine to be some other person in the next scene, but your reader wants continuity within each scene.
Not all readers can voice this. But they can feel it.
If you’re hopping heads, your reader’s head gets a little pop with every hop. That forces you to work that much harder to make the emotional connection between the reader and the character of the moment.
Yes, massively talented authors today still get away with head-hopping. Some of them also get away with abusing alcohol or beating their wives or never changing their underwear. The smart writer doesn’t copy bad ideas, not even from massively talented authors.
Your annoying mother really was on the right track when you were twelve years old and she asked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?”
The notion of Point of View wasn’t well understood in Jane Austen’s day. Neither was the notion of germs. In Austen’s time, if somebody had a fever, doctors bled them a bit. Today, doctors have a much better arsenal of tools, and a doctor who bleeds his patients is almost certainly a quack.
Authors also have many more tools now. Use them. Jane Austen would have been a better writer if she’d understood Point of View. So will you.
Even when you’re massively talented.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 20,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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