Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More on POV : Head Hopping

I'm cringing as I type this, because I know with every word, I'm getting closer to showing you examples (the how-not-to-do-it variety) of head hopping. And they're bad. Oh, so bad.

We talked last Friday about writing scenes in "deep 3rd POV." If you missed it, you can find it by clicking here. In that post, I said that you shouldn't be on the character's shoulder, but inside their head. This means we, the reader, are viewing the world through their eyes. It means everything is shaded with the point-of-view character's background, world view, education, and prejudices.

It also means we don't get to know what other people think. When you hear people talk about "head hopping," that's what they're referring to - telling the reader what other people are thinking and feeling instead of limiting our experience to the point of view character.

Sometimes head hopping is extremely obvious. Like the passages I've marked in red below. These are all pulled from the dandelion story, which I wrote as a junior in high school, and this scene is supposed to be from Paige's POV:

Paige was scanning the room for him.  Her eyes searched for the familiar floppy brown hair but were not successful.  Her search did not go unnoticed by the class.  They knew that she was looking for Carter and they also knew that she would not find him in that class.
Here's another scene:

"It's great to see you too," she told him.
"Where did you move to?" Kyle asked, pretending he didn't know.  The truth was he had no idea what to say to her.  He had no idea what to say to this girl, this stranger.
There was a time when the above would have been acceptable (not the clunky prose, but the POV issues). As I mentioned on Friday, you'll read head hopping not just in the classics, but also in current books by bestselling authors. I don't know why that is. I routinely hear agents and editors griping about head-hopping. You can fight them on it, or you can learn to write deep POV.

If you were to rewrite those scenes in deep 3rd, the way to do it would be like this:

Paige scanned the room for familiar floppy brown hair. Did anyone notice the way her gaze kept sweeping the room? If so, they likely knew who she was searching for.
And the other one:

"It's great to see you too," she told him."Where did you move to?" Kyle asked.Paige bit her lip. Surely, Kyle knew where she had moved, right? So why had he asked? Was she more forgettable than she had assumed, or did he just not know how to talk to her anymore?
The trick to avoid head-hopping is to have your character questioning it, and to leave it open-ended. Like, "they likely knew" or "it seemed like" or something along those lines.

Sometimes I did it correctly in the dandelion story:

Carter kept a hold of her hand, but held it carefully, as if he thought she might break.

"As if" is what makes it okay to share his thoughts. It makes it clear that we're still in Paige's head, this is what she's experiencing, and that she thinks this is why.

The thing you have to watch with this is you can try too hard to broadcast the other character's feelings, which keeps it from ringing true. Like:

Kyle touched her sleeveless arm as she walked by him.  It was as if he didn’t believe she was there and had to make sure his best friend wasn’t an illusion.

It's too much, isn't it? It's clear that I'm trying to tell you what Kyle is feeling, and it's distracting. Especially when read in context.

The technique of suggesting what a non-POV character is feeling works best when you leave a bit of a question in the reader's mind. Raise the question, but leave it open for them to decide.

Sometimes head-hopping is kind of murky. Like, is it head-hopping to say, "Kyle looked at her with disgust"? This is a much-debated topic among writers. One camp is in the "Yes that's head-hopping because how can she possibly know what feeling he has when he looked at her?" The other camp is, "Come on. You can't seriously expect me to write 'Kyle looked at her with what seemed like disgust,' every time, right? That's so clunky! Can't we just trust our readers to 'get it'?" Which side do you agree with more? Or do you have another opinion to offer?

On Friday, we'll be talking about writing in first person, how the POV rules still apply. Also, if you haven't gotten yourself entered to win a copy of Amy Deardon's The Story Pillar, you can do that by clicking here. And the Go Teen Writers Facebook group is up and going, so join in the conversation by clicking here.


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post, Stephanie! Hanging on your every word as I read, because this is something I haven't mastered yet.

    I find a lot of head-hopping in the 90's narratives I read. A LOT. (The other night, one sentence was in *her* head, and the next sentence was in *his*) I'm beginning to think this was some kind of trend that published writing went through back then, but I'm no historian. I'd love to know, though, when it switched and if there was a breakthrough author who suddenly made his writing more "alive" by staying in deep 3rd. :) Of course, that sounds more like a story idea than what probably actually happened.

    I think I'll vote for the "non-clunky" camp. I can tell when my brothers look at me in disgust for some lame blond thing I I think that readers would "get" it. I hope. :) Still, I believe I'd rather write, "Kyle's left eyebrow hit his hairline and his mouth curled in a grimace." than just "with disgust."

    And thanks so much for starting the Facebook group! Totally fun!

  2. I'm cringing as I write this comment too, because I know I'm guilty of head hopping one too many times. It's hard for me as the writer to remember that my MC doesn't know everything, because I do. I know my hero isn't avoiding my MC because he's a jerk. More he's not sure how much space she needs and how she wants to handle their relationship anymore. But my MC doesn't know any of this. It's hard for me to separate at times everyone's view on the same issues.
    As for which side I'm on, I'm gonna have to go with the second camp. I mean, really, I'd rather go against the rules of POV a tiny bit than make my story clunky and harder to read... :)

  3. Oh, my goodness I do this SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much. You mentioned that so many time in my story. I cannot believe how many times I do it and not even realize it. I did the "Chelsea spun around disgusted" so many times in my story. I wish I had known I was doing it before I finished writing it, because then I wouldn't have to go through and change practically everything.

  4. Rachelle, it WOULD be interesting to know. I'll start asking some veterans in the biz when I have a chance. And, yes, you should write "Kyle said in disgust" in that lovely Rachelle way you have!

    Clarebear, I spend a lot of time during my second draft rethinking conversations and actions because in the first draft I don't do a good job of thinking through the character's different feelings. Or thinking through who knows what and who doesn't. But I'm getting better!

    Princess, I assure you we ALL did it. POV seems to be one of the last things that clicks for a writer. And you could say, "Chelsea spun around, clearly disgusted," and be just fine, in my opinion :)

  5. I'm with Rachelle on this one. It's okay to say, "he looked at her with disgust," but not, "he was disgusted by her," because you can SEE expressions on peoples' faces, but you can't know what they're thinking unless you're head-hopping. Good post, though. :)

  6. Great post! I mostly write first person, but I'm definitely bookmarking this for future reference. As for the "Kyle looked at her with disgust" question, I don't think that's head-hopping. I agree with Rachelle and Becki -- you can usually read people's expressions, especially when it's something as strong as disgust.

    Rachelle, I love the way you wrote that!

  7. For the head-hopping question -- I certainly hope that's okay, because I might be at a loss for description after a little while! Haha, "His pimples went red, which always happened I said something that disgusted him." My lame attempt of the moment trying not to head-hop. :P

    What a great post!

  8. PS I think I may have to re-activate facebook just so that I can join the group!:P

  9. Hahahahahaha! Emii, that's HILARIOUS!!! It's so totally awkward, but certainly descriptive. :D

  10. This is something I never thought about til now...but now I've found out about it I have a big problem :\ Oh well, I guess there's something to be done in the 3rd draft :D

  11. Emii - reactivate!

    Sananora - sounds like an excellent project for the third draft :)

  12. I just changed my POV in my Nano novel from third person to first person. I'm so glad I did, because it feels so much more comfortable and it fits the story so much better.

    Thanks for the post, it was just in time! :)