No Headhopping Allowed

sol stein on writingWhat’s “headhopping?” Simply stated, it’s multiple points of view within one scene. It’s jarring to the reader, and it shows me, the reader, that the author doesn’t have a complete understanding of Point of View (POV). Mostly I read it in either poorly edited books or self-published books.

Blunt people would call it “headhopping.” Let’s say we’re writing a scene with three characters, Bob, Dick, and Sue. Headhopping would mean that we might start out with Bob’s POV, but about halfway through the scene we read a sentence or a paragraph of something from Dick’s POV, in other words, something only would know or think about at the time. Then, at the end of the scene, we might read something from a totally feminine way of thinking, that’s Sue. It’s confusing to the reader. I’ve read scenes like that. I used to write them like that – before I knew better.

Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, says, “The term point of view as used by writers is mis-defined even in good dictionaries. It means the character whose eyes are observing what happens; the perspective from which a scene or story is written.” Page 141 gives you a POV checklist in ten bullet points to help you examine your own work. I’ll give you a couple for free.

  • Is you point of view consistent? if it slips anywhere, correct it. If it isn’t working, try another point of view.
  • Have you avoided telling us how a character feels? have you relied on actions to help the reader experience emotion?
  • Is there anything in your material that is not likely to be known to someone with your character’s background or intelligence?

Here’s an example from one of the first Zorro stories I wrote three years ago for Fan I based my stories after the freeze frame that ended The Family Channel series that ran in the early 1990s. These short paragraphs are from the same scene, but they are excerpts.

Diego cleared his throat. He clearly needed to explain his fencing ability to his father, but he was nervous just thinking about it. Their relationship had improved a great deal this past year, as Diego tried to be more of a ‘man of action’ when needed.

Alejandro looked puzzled. He couldn’t understand the secrecy.

Diego ignored that, knowing he meant Zorro, but he wasn’t quite ready to tell his father that piece of news yet.

Although he was trying to understand, Alejandro found it difficult.

The scene is supposed to be Diego’s POV. But I guess I couldn’t resist trying to help the reader understand his father, Alejandro’s POV a bit as well. Let’s look at why this doesn’t work.

The first paragraph is fine. It establishes the scene and it establishes Diego’s POV, and how he feels about it.

But how would Diego know his father looked puzzled? What should/could have clued him into that? I should have put in some body language here, but I didn’t know enough about that at that point.

The line “He couldn’t understand the secrecy” is clearly Alejandro’s thought. Diego wouldn’t know his father’s thoughts. The same is true for the second sentence from Alejandro’s POV. The Diego statements are fine, because we’re in his head. But Alejandro is intruding, and like I said, wouldn’t know what his father is thinking.

It’s important to get this right. We can have great characters, a sizzling plot, but messing up the POV takes away the fictional line that is drawn when we read a story. Now that I’ve begun to recognize it in my own writing, I can sure see it in others. It irritates me, just a bit. I’d love to them, but I’m not that kind of person.

So, in lieu of that, I’m passing along what I’ve learned to you. Sol Stein’s book will help you draft a great novel.

What do think about this? Leave a comment and let me know.

2 Comments on “No Headhopping Allowed”

  1. I struggled with this last year. It was brought to my attention in critique group at LCW and I didn’t understand that what I had done was “head-hopping” because the characters were having a dialogue. Actually, it was more like one character was having a monologue while the other listened, but, apparently it was “head-hopping” because the listening character was the POV character. That part still frustrates me because I get that one character cannot read the mind of another, but they can HEAR when the other is speaking.
    Anyway, I spoke to an author about it at the one-day writers’ conference last year and studied other author’s writings until I am fairly confident that I finally think I get it and am very careful not to head-hop.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Kelly. We ALL struggle with that. I talked about my Zorro stories, because once I learned about it, I could see it. That’s why I’m trying to point out my mistakes, and hope to be helpful to others. Writing has changed so much in the past 10 years, I think. The dialogue can tell what the other character says, but not what they’re thinking, unless the POV character knows that person so well, he or she could think “I’ll bet they’re thinking that…” I’ve been called on head-hopping by contest judges on places I didn’t even do it! But that’s why I did this. So we can all be more aware. Thanks Kelly! 🙂 Great comment.


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