How to write a book

Point of view shifts and head-hopping: always bad?

4585943478_351eb03f76_zI’ve had this interesting question from Robert Scanlon:

‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).

Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?

All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.

Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.

It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)

Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.

However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)

Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.

He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.

But also … he might have got it right!

The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.

Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.

Two ways to shift point of view

tulip2New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.

Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:

  • Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
  • Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.

(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)

What we leave out

One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.

All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.

Control is everything

Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.

Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.

Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.

Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one

Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!

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26 thoughts on “Point of view shifts and head-hopping: always bad?

  1. I head-hop all the time. If it’s disciplined and controlled it can be an effective tool to have three or more POVs on collision course. The reader sees the trap set, and then the victim walking innocently into it. The author, of course, doesn’t exist.

    1. Discipline and control – that’s exactly it, David! And I love that phrase of yours – ‘the author doesn’t exist’. In the kind of story you’re describing, the reader is not aware of an author. Just a finely balanced tightening of tension. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Next time “head-hopping” comes up in a discussion, I’m pointing people here. I’ve heard too many people take “never head-hop” to heart, and when I point out works like Bleak House and Mrs. Dalloway to them, they say, “Oh, but not in contemporary writing,” so I point out Cloud Atlas and other works, and they try to claim those are exceptions.

    It really is all about control and focus.

    1. Thanks, Katherine! I have a knee-jerk reaction to the term ‘never 🙂
      And I’ve heard perfectly daft advice from people who learn writing rules but don’t understand what underlies them.

  3. Great post – it’s something that always comes up in our writing group, partly because once you’re keeping an eye out for it, the POV shift just leaps out at you. I thought the best point was about establishing the convention. Jonathan Franzen constantly plays with POV, with incredible control… but only possible because he sets it up early on. On the flip side, Ian Rankin’s “Knots and Crosses” has two egregious jumps in viewpoint late on in the novel, after you’ve got used to spending the whole time in Detective Rebus’ head. Utterly dented my enjoyment of/immersion in the story.

    1. Hi Will! Great observations and examples there – both good and bad. You’re right – once we’re tuned to notice the problem, we realise what it is and it becomes obvious. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I’ve just learned about telescopic penetration which is sort of a camera that opens up the scene then slowly focuses on one character. A omni pov switching to third person. This allows you to describe your characters without putting them in front of a mirror.

  5. Thanks for shedding more light on my question, Roz!

    I think in the Stephen King case (and I’ve now noticed it in the last 3 books I’ve read – I’m on a King-run haha!), he is fairly subtle, will do it mid-scene, and perhaps I only notice it because I’m now writing and looking out for these things. It really did not interfere at all with the story (and in the current one there is an omniscient narrator as well, who hopes in and out all the time!), which may be why an editor left it that way.

    So the real answer is: Does it serve the story; do I do it with fabulous control, and will the reader both not notice it and enjoy the story more because of it.

    (Which for me means: stay clear, Robert! You are not ready to attempt such advanced writing!)

    Thanks again, Roz.

  6. Roz, great responses to a good question. My rule of thumb on POV is to stick with the same POV character’s perspective throughout a scene and it should be from the character that is most affected by what takes place in the scene. That said, I am constantly criticized by my writing group for getting too deep inside the heads of my characters, which I suppose is a form of head hopping. It’s to the point where I am reconsidering my technique of writing in “close third person.” It can almost cross that dreaded line from showing to telling. The idea is that readers don’t want you telling them what’s going on inside the heads of your characters, though traditionally published writers I admire do it all the time. Your advice on POV is sound. What’s important, as you point out, is to not disturb the flow and confuse the reader.

    1. HI Chris! How interesting that you’re pulled up for getting too close. So many writers I edit have the opposite problem, where they don’t clue us into what matters to the characters. However, you still have to filter carefully and it’s easily possible to overwhelm the reader. And you’re right that pulling away can become telling – although sometimes distance is appropriate. But you won’t go far wrong if you think in terms of flow. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I appreciate everything you said in this post! I’ll be storing it away in my brain for future reference.
    Megan Whalen Turner does brilliant head-hopping in the Conspiracy of Kings. The story is told 1st person until the story catches up to where the MC meets the recipient of the story, and it becomes 3rd person until they part again. It was beautifully done! I wish I had such creativity. It totally sold the book for me. 😀

  8. I read a lot of works from both indie authors and traditionally-published authors. I’ve concluded that POV shifts are something that seriously benefits from the perspective of a professional editor. In general (not always), POV shifts (and errors) are glaring in the indie works and virtually invisible in the traditionally-published works. So, I think you are right. POV shifts are fine when handled properly.

    I write in the combination first/close-third style you mentioned. To mitigate the potential problems with POV shifts, I followed three main rules: don’t shift POV within a scene (I only shift at a chapter break), don’t rehash the same scene from two different points of view, and do follow a strict POV character hierarchy (i.e. if two POV characters are in the scene, always show it from Character A’s perspective). So far, no one has complained about “head hopping,” so I must have done something right.

    I don’t think the rules I used are the only way to handle POV. I made those rules for myself because I didn’t trust my inexperienced hand to attempt a more subtle treatment. I’m sure more experienced writers can “get fancy” without causing problems.

  9. I was told by a critiquing agent that I head-hop, but I haven’t yet found a method of switching POV’s I like. Great article, though–I linked back here on a book review I did today where I noticed the same thing.
    Hemingway is another famous head-hopper who is said to have done it right, in case anyone wants to learn from the greats.

  10. I’ve been rereading some classics lately, including Light in August (Faulkner) and if you want to see POV hopping (and tense hopping!) read that book. What I find with any book with a quirk (if we can call it that in Faulkner’s case) is that it can take a few chapters to get used to, but then, like reading Shakespeare, you suddenly can do it with ease when you’re in the right rhythm. In our current publishing climate, I think only established authors can get away with such things. It’s harder for aspiring/debut authors to get a publisher to take a chance on an experimental book. Though, it can be done if the stars align. 🙂

  11. Hi Roz. A timely post as my WIP has three main characters, all of whom have secrets I’d like to keep from the reader and thoughts I’d like to share with the reader. The only way I’ve been able to deal with this is to switch my close 3rd person narration from one t’other. I wasn’t particularly pleased with this (being a fellow who likes to follow convention), so I made sure I had section breaks to demarcate the switch. However, my thoughts are tending towards an old fashioned omniscient narrator who favours one character but has no reservations about explaining what another character’s motives are. This would be similar to a history book, following William the Conqueror’s exploits but happily jumping about to explain what King Harold was up to. My main concern with this is that a modern reader would be expecting a close 3rd narration and try to force the narrative voice to fit that expectation.

    1. Hi Jon! Good question. This omniscient approach has fallen out of favour, although that doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong’, simply that readers are less used to it. Once they tune in they should have no problems following omniscience if it’s well handled. The problem is, omniscience does not have the intimacy of close third, and readers these days may find that too distanced. It depends what you’re aiming for. Distance and completeness may suit your material.

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