Last updated on May 13, 2017
I’d like to discuss a problem that I see a lot when I’m wearing my editorial hat and that I try to avoid when I’m wearing my writer hat. It’s actually two problems—head hopping and slips in point of view (POV)—but they stem from the same cause. Let’s start with head hopping.
What Is Head Hopping?
In fiction, head hopping is a POV problem.
To clarify, I’ll start with a little explanation of third-person POV. Third person uses pronouns like he and she to describe the main characters instead of I (first person) or you (second person). (I cover these in more detail in my series on point of view.)
To break it down further, third-person omniscient allows the author to hover above the story, dipping in and out of the minds of all the characters and showing all the action and thoughts as if she is an all-knowing goddess.
Jackie approached the alien craft, sweat beading on her forehead and dripping down into her eyes. From his craft, Jo Ahl watched her approach, double-checking that the doors were sealed tight. They were terrified of each other, but they did not know that their meeting was ordained. Without it, the future of the very universe was at stake.
In contrast, third-person limited shows the story through the eyes and experiences of one or more characters and does this one character at a time. This is a very popular POV today. It gives the author the flexibility of moving between characters if he wishes while maintaining the intimacy of first-person POV.
Jackie stepped up to the ship and laid a hand on the cool metal. Her heart pounded as she added the other hand and searched for a crack or a button, anything that would show her where the door was. This was the first sign of life she had found since her pod had crash-landed on this rock. Nothing. It was like a giant metal egg, except she could see the little window ten feet above her head and the landing gear that held it steady on the uneven ground.
To use third-person limited POV effectively, the author must set limits on how often she will change POVs. In my experience, the smallest POV division should be the scene. The most common divisions are either scenes or chapters (that is, sticking to one POV per scene or per chapter).
Some authors use the paragraph as this minimum division, but it’s harder to pull off and can often be confusing for the reader. At worst, it can feel like the author can’t make up her mind about which type of POV she wants to use and keeps slipping into omniscient.
Head hopping, or moving inappropriately between one character’s head and another, comes into play when the author either doesn’t know how to use different gradations of POV or does it inconsistently. The reader is happily following the adventures of Jackie when suddenly he is tossed into the head of Jo Ahl without any warning, such as a scene or chapter break.
Jackie began pounding on the metal with her polymer-covered fists. “Who’s in there? Come out, please! Maybe we can help each other,” she yelled.
Whoever was in the ship must be stranded, too. She had seen nothing for miles on this barren planet. There were no spaceports or anything. She made her way around the pod, pounding her fists like drums against the hull. It was giving Jo Ahl a headache, but she kept going.
To prevent head hopping, have a plan. Decide on your point of view before you begin to write. As you plan each scene or chapter, decide who will be your POV character.
What Are POV Slips?
Head hopping is a POV slip, but some slips are more subtle. They often involve sensory transfers, a lack of thought about a character’s presence within a particular setting, or big assumptions on the part of your POV character.
The temperature was mild, and a light breeze blew, but Jo Ahl refused to leave his ship.
In this example, no evidence is given to the reader that Jo Ahl has ever been outside. As far as we know, he’s been locked up tight since he landed. How does he know what the temperature is? Fix this by adding a little information.
The console still worked and told Jo Ahl that the temperature was mild and there was a light breeze blowing. He still refused to leave his ship.
Alternatively, just cut the offending phrase or make it clear that the character is making assumptions.
The few leaves on the spindly trees in the distance fluttered fitfully, and the ship had remained an even temperature since he had powered it down. Still, despite this evidence of a possibly friendly atmosphere, Jo Ahl refused to leave his ship.
The Bottom Line
The basic rule in limited POV—first person or third person—is this:
If the POV character cannot see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it, or think it, throw it out.
Remember that unless he is a mind reader, your character cannot know what other characters are thinking, feeling, or sensing. So, when you are writing from his POV, stay out of other characters’ minds and bodies.
What tools or reminders do you use to maintain consistency in POV?
The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley
“How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming),” K. M. Weiland, Helping Writers Become Authors
“Deep POV—What’s So Deep About It,” Beth Hill, The Editor’s Blog
I stop occasionally and ask “Who is telling me this? Is it the character or is it a narrator? Who’s calling her tall and attractive? etc. It gets frustrating when I see traditionally published authors head-hopping and getting away with it though.
There are definitely genres where it is more prevalent, romance being one of them. I believe that a tight POV can bring readers in close with the characters and give them a more satisfying, intimate reading experience.
As a proofreader, I see this problem quite often. If I get confused I know others will also. Head hopping drives me crazy. Thanks for explaining the differences.
Yes. Point of view problems are probably one of the most common errors I run into when I edit as well. It’s so important to pick a POV before writing and stick to it. It makes the story not only easier to understand but often more interesting and connected.