Head Hopping: The First Mistake New Authors Make

Let’s say that there’s been a steady influx of off-world officers onto your planet and into your town. You don’t know them, but they act authoritative and entitled. Now one of them accuses a friend of yours of grabbing his gun, even though it’s a patent absurdity. What do you do? How are you feeling and how is she feeling?

This describes a scene in the first act of my Red War novel. It came during the buildup to the war, when a peaceful situation took a disastrous turn. But how do you execute on something like that?

The following was my first attempt. These words were written in the first draft, dating from 2009:

Hector was stunned to silence. Such brave words flew out of her mouth, and well spoken at that, poetic even. As if to prove that point, the officer froze in a sort of limbo, unsure of what to do. He used this opportunity to help his friend out, even though it began to appear unlikely that she would need it!

“That’s complete garbage. I saw her, she just bumped into you from behind, she wasn’t looking as we were walking. She certainly didn’t grab your gun.”

The voice of a corroborating witness now pulled an older officer, clearly the younger one’s superior, into the mix.

“Son, you can’t just go around falsely accusing people of things.” The grey-haired officer attempted to scold the younger one. “Ma’m, I apologize on behalf of my partner, who is still learning, please, be on your way.”

Madeline was furious. She resented being accused in such an outrageous manner, and she seriously resented being told to ‘be on her way,’ even though the older officer was trying to clear the mess the younger one had caused. What right did he have to be standing here, a recent arrival from Earth, no doubt, and be telling her to ‘be on her way?’ It was a far less offense than his subordinate, but this still tweaked her nerve. Hector snapped her out of her thoughts by grabbing her on the shoulder and motioning for her to be off.

Do you notice anything wrong in that passage? Some of the wording is clunky, and I’ve since fixed it, but that’s not the most important mistake. I didn’t recognize it until years later, when I actually researched the industry and read more books in my genre from an author’s, rather than a reader’s standpoint.

Head hopping. That’s what you saw here. Head hopping happens when you abruptly jump from the point of view of one character to the point of view of another in the same scene.

It’s easy to make this mistake when you’re first writing, especially if you aren’t aware of industry standards or what authors are actually doing in the books you read. You just don’t think about it as much. You want to be entertained. But if you’re writing, you should look more closely at the books that are successful, or just the ones that entertain you. They usually don’t have head hopping in them.

This article is specifically about fiction writing, rather than non-fiction writing, but it might help you choose a steady perspective in writing non-fiction, too, so I suggest reading on.

CM Pink vs. Eddie Kingston
If CM Punk vs. Eddie Kingston were a novel, head hopping would come if the narrator jumped from viewing the world through one set of eyes to the other in the same scene.

Why is Head Hopping Bad?

Put simply, head hopping is bad because it puts a barrier between your audience and your character. Just when you begin to explore your character’s traits, motivations, and other inner thoughts in reaction to circumstance, you suddenly shift into the thoughts of another character, interrupting the flow of information.

In this case, we started with Hector’s thoughts. He watched in fear as he saw his friend get attacked by off-world agents, though he tried to get courage from her example. We then meandered into Madeline’s thoughts and her own, very different reaction to the incident.

Thus, you can’t get to know either one of them. Your attention is divided between the two of them.

Remember that your protagonist is your readers’ window into the world you create. They are supposed to empathize with that person and put themselves into your protagonist’s shoes. That is how they experience the world you made. Head hopping makes experiencing much harder.

What you basically saw was a bad attempt at the third person omniscient point of view. Many classic stories have used the omniscient narrator, but take heed not to do head hopping. I have since switched over to the third person limited point of view, for three reasons.

  1. It’s easier to keep track of your point of view character.
  2. It is a more powerful narrative technique, since it brings your reader closer to your character.
  3. It is more commercially viable. Most books published these days use limited, rather than omniscient.

I completed those drafts many years ago, which means as I’ve learned and improved, I’ve had to rewrite the whole thing. The initial draft of the entire Red War was over 1,200 pages. Even though it will be published in four separate parts, each part has hundreds of pages apiece.

I hope that gives you part of the idea of why this has taken me so long.

So don’t make the mistake I made. Avoid head hopping from the start. That means that you should have only one point of view character per scene. It’s so important that many writers limit themselves to only one point of view character per chapter, so that they know for sure whose perspective they’re writing from.

No publisher will go for head hopping. Even if you self-publish, your readers will probably pan your work.

How Do You Avoid Head Hopping?

There are two easy ways to avoid this mistake. The first is by writing in the first person. Even if you have multiple point of view characters or protagonists in your story (as The Red War does), a first person point of view will tend to make you stick to only one of those characters per scene.

Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a good example of the first person narration. It has only one point of view character – the mechanic Manuel “Mannie” Davis. The other major characters in the book – Wyoming Knott, Fernando de La Paz, and the supercomputer Mike, are important, but the story is not told from their point of view. Thus, the point of view remains consistent. There can be no head hopping because there aren’t other heads to hop in. Steven Pressfield’s The Virtues of War is another good example.

You can have multiple point of view characters in the first person, but it is harder, because it will be harder for you to reference who you’re talking about. You will need to make sure that your reader knows who is in the scene. Having only one point of view character per chapter and naming that chapter after it is a good shortcut.

In the third person, head hopping comes more naturally, because in my case, I’m referencing “Hector was” and “Madeline was,” rather than “I was.” When you do that, it’s easier to lose track of your point of view character. In your case, you simply need to map out who your chosen point of view character is in each scene or chapter and stick with that character. See things from that character’s perspective only, as if it were you. Even if you’re an omniscient narrator, you shouldn’t stray from one person’s thoughts and feelings to another in too short a space. That creates the very kind of alienation you’ve seen above. For a good example of how it should work, I would recommend Robert Conroy’s 1862.

Conclusion

Just keeping this in mind will help you to avoid the mistake so many new writers make and save you countless hours of rewriting. You’ll certainly need to rewrite for other reasons, but at least it won’t be because you’ve done head hopping, an entirely avoidable mistake.

Avoid greater mistakes – of character – by reading Lives of the Luminaries.

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