Hippity Head Hopping

By Joe Moore

I teach workshops on a regular basis to mostly beginning writers. A common issue that often shows up in their first drafts deals with point-of-view shifting; specifically what’s called “head hopping”. Most of the time it’s done without the writers even realizing it. They want to make sure enough information is passed on to the reader for the story to make it clear and move forward. I’ve found that even after pointing out the problem, it’s a bit mystifying and confusing to new authors. It takes practice to understand where they’re going wrong. Unfortunately, head hopping comes with some undesirable side effects which I’ll cover below. First, here’s an example of POV head hopping.

Agent Miller watched his partner, Agent Cobb, as they suited up for the assault. Why was Cobb so secretive when he showed up at the staging area? Why had he seemed reluctant to talk about his upcoming promotion? Cobb always confided in him with personal issues. After ten years together, it wasn’t like him.

“You decide to take the gig,” Miller asked as the two suited up for the assault.

“Not sure,” Cobb said and turned away, not wanting his best friend to know that the promotion meant he would soon be Miller’s new boss.

Here we have the inner thoughts of both men. There are two points of view.

It would be easy to conclude that this is omniscient point of view. The omniscient narrator simply knows what both men are thinking. Technically, it is. But there’s a good chance the author didn’t use omniscient POV on purpose. If anything, it was out of inexperience. Omniscient POV is not used much in popular fiction these days. Its heyday came years ago when writers like to play god—all knowing, all seeing. In order to maintain an omniscient POV, the narrator had to know everything about everybody all the time. It’s an oppressive writing style that dilutes the mystery and personal conflict of the plot—one of the side effects I mentioned.

The biggest downside to head hopping is a lack of close, personal connection with the main characters. Readers love to get “inside” the heads of the protagonist and antagonist. They want to see and feel what the characters feel; what makes them tick. With head hopping, it’s more distant and somewhat sterile. Even cold like a documentary where the voice over narrator tells everything in a matter-of-fact fashion. In contemporary fiction, the reader desires to see the story through the character’s eyes, not the narrator’s.

So what’s the solution to head hopping? As an example, let’s rewrite the scene with the two agents. Pick a POV character, usually the protagonist and route everything through his eyes and thoughts. As the writer, put yourself in the character’s head. You’re not a psychic, clairvoyant or mind reader. You can only determine another character’s attitude through their actions, reactions and speech.

Agent Miller watched his partner, Agent Cobb, as they suited up for the assault. Why was Cobb so secretive when he showed up at the staging area? Why had he seemed reluctant to talk about his upcoming promotion? After ten years together, it wasn’t like him.

“You decide to take the gig,” Miller asked. He knew Cobb always confided in him about personal issues.

“Not sure,” Cobb said and turned away.

It was almost as if Cobb was hiding something about the promotion. Something that embarrassed him.

The basic information was revealed in the second version. The difference was that an element of mystery, even conflict emerged. It pushes the story forward and tells the reader something about both characters’ motivation.

So how do you manage multiple POVs?

It’s called the “handoff”. Sort of like when the quarterback hands off the football to the running back. The focus is now on the new character with the ball. In order to shift POV, you must hand off the POV from one character to the other. This can be done with a “drop” or scene change where the first POV character leaves the scene thereby “handing off” the point of view to the remaining character. An even better method is to always stay in a single POV per chapter, shifting only when the new chapter starts.

Shifting POV should be for a specific purpose, not random. Not doing so violates the most important rule of writing: never confuse the reader.

How do you deal with POV shifts? Any additional tips?


shield-cover-smallComing soon:THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

11 thoughts on “Hippity Head Hopping

  1. For me, a line space is the easiest and most effective way. Not as substantial as a chapter break, it lets the reader know something is different. They’ll see it’s the POV right away, and will come to expect it the next time they see a line break.

    There are two primary benefits to multiple POVs is a story, when handled well. You can hold information back from the reader without cheating by cutting away from the POV of the character who will find something out before he finds it out. On the other hand, the reader can know things some characters do not, which can increase suspense when tat character is about to do something that makes sense to him, but the reader knows it’s the wrong thing to do.

  2. Spot on, Joe. I’m glad you mentioned that “head hopping” is really Omniscient POV, but 99.9% of the time it’s because a new writer (sometimes even a vet) is not careful and is straying from close POV.

    The weakness I see in some manuscripts that use multiple POVs is that one or more of the POV characters is weak. The writer has to realize that each new POV has to be able to stand on its own merits. Not easy.

    • This is a good point, Jim, that amplifies Joe’s point. Multi-POVs can be wonderful…and some stories are complex enough that the writer really needs to go this route. But you are so right in that each POV must be able to stand on its own. Almost always, there is a dominant POV in a multi-pov plot that is more compelling, richer and better executed. (much like a single voice can shine in a quartet or a ballerina can stand out in the corps). And when THAT character leaves the stage, the reader can feel a let-down, thinking, “Okay, I’ll listen to this guy for a while but I really want to go back to that first fellow.”

      I think we, as writers, fall in love with some characters and then just sort of like others. It shows up in our handling of the POV at times. As you said, you have to really know what you’re doing with multi-povs.

  3. If I have multiple POVs I tend to give them their own chapters – so it’s clear. It also enables me to nail the character’s voice rather than it getting muddled as shifting POVs within a scene. I think you have to make sure when using this approach that you don’t stall the action – each chapter must therefore move the book along even if it is from a different POV.

  4. Great post on POV, Joe. I usually stick to one POV per scene & tend to pick the character with the most to lose. (My stories often have multiple character POVs, even though there may be one main character.) In my recently finished project, I have my male FBI profiler in first person, with all other characters in third person. To keep my main guy scenes clear, I have his name centered on the page as his scene starts. That way the reader doesn’t get lost. I wanted the intimacy of a diary when it came to his part since this is a mainstream psychological thriller.

    In other novels, I’ve broken my own rule on single POV per scene when I thought I needed to switch mid-scene. I did it by physically sweeping the action from one character to the next by noticeably handing off something through a glance, a touch, or having one character give something to the other. But then I stick with that second character for rest of scene. I rarely do this & usually for good reason.

    By using one POV per scene, a writer can better utilize elements of mystery by their choice on which character view is chosen. Red herrings planted in the POV from an unreliable narrator, for example, can be a fun way to keep the reader guessing.

  5. Thank! I spent the better part of a year trying to untangle the hairball of POV, and here you explained it clearly in a short post.

  6. I’m in the middle of a revision on my first completed novel and am dealing with this problem. While not a “new” writer, I am new to taking my fiction serious and have discovered that revisions are not as easy as one would think. Overall, the story isn’t too bad but there are sections that head-hop at a dizzying pace (gotta love first and second drafts).

    The Kill Zone is a great resource of advice and ideas from a talented group of respected authors – thank you for sharing your stuff. Your timely topic is now printed and tacked on my cork board for reference.

  7. I have read head hopping when it wasn’t jarring. You can get away with it If you’re brief, a sentence or two.

  8. Joe–
    Your students are well served by such wisdom. I stick with the one POV per scene approach. But instead of having a character leave and a new scene begin, it’s legit to use a visual cue that signals to the reader a shift is about to take place. A double-double space, for instance, or asterisks. That said, I still agree with you: one POV per scene is the best policy. If it forces the writer to think a little harder, all the better.

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