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