This article doesn’t have anything to do with drug-addled frogs (or any kind of frogs, for that matter), mid-twentieth century actress and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, or some strange horror movie. Or some even stranger Addams Family-meets-Mitch Miller sing-along show: “Follow the bouncing head and sing along to….” (Man, that’s really weird.)
No, fortunately, head-hopping in the context of writing is a form of point of view (POV) shifting. What happens is the writer jumps from the viewpoint of one character to another within a scene or even a paragraph. This is an easy trap for new writers to fall into, although more experienced ones can do it too. They’re ripping along, telling a rollicking good tale from the POV of one character, and then, when their attention shifts to another one for a moment, they slip into that character’s POV. As often as not, they slip right back out when their focus returns to the first POV character.
This trap is easiest to fall into when a story is being told in close third-person POV, because the focus is so much tighter on individual characters’ viewpoints. Omniscient POV can seem to head-hop because the narrator can tell the reader what each character is seeing, thinking, feeling, etc., so it’s important for you as a reviewer to correctly identify each scene’s POV selection.
Here’s an example of head-hopping.
Alice tried to push the gas pedal through the floor, willing the old Chevy to go even faster than it already was down the two-lane State Highway 429. The 50-car freight train on the tracks to her right lumbered along, gaining speed as it cleared Lumberton. Sidesaddle Road crossed the tracks a couple miles ahead. It intersected 429 at an angle and she knew if she could just get there before the train did, she’d lose the sheriff’s deputy who was trailing them. From there it would be clear sailing. But it was going to be close. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she urged the straining sedan.
Sitting in the passenger seat, Alice’s partner Bob held the bag of cash they’d gotten from the Bank of Lumberton 20 minutes earlier closer to his stomach. He worried that she was going to take the Sidesaddle Road cutoff and that she’d forgotten about the big dip in the road just before it climbed to the railroad crossing. If they hit it wrong—if she hit it wrong—they’d look like some Fast and Furious movie stunt when the freight train punted them into the next county.
“We can do this,” Alice said. “I know we can. That big freight’s a girl’s best friend.”
OK, what’s wrong with that? In the first paragraph, we’re focused on, and in the POV of Alice, the driver. Same for the third paragraph. But in the second, we’re in partner-in-crime Bob’s head. Oops! It’s a natural thing to do, right? The author wants to show us how Bob’s reacting to what he thinks Alice’s plan is. How better to do that than to tell us what he’s thinking?
The idea’s fine. The execution? Not so much.
The fix is pretty straight-forward. All the author needs to do is to have Bob say out loud what she is telling us about. It might go like this:
Alice tried to push the gas pedal through the floor, willing the old Chevy to go even faster than it already was down the two-lane State Highway 429. The 50-car freight train on the tracks to her right lumbered along, gaining speed as it cleared Lumberton. Sidesaddle Road crossed the tracks a couple miles ahead. From there it would be clear sailing. But it was going to be close. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she urged the straining sedan.
Sitting in the passenger seat, Alice’s partner Bob held the bag of cash they’d gotten from the Bank of Lumberton 20 minutes earlier closer to his stomach. “You’re not going to take Sidesaddle Road, are you?”
She spared a half-second to glance at him. “You got a better idea? We’ve got to shake that deputy.”
“There’s that big dip right after you leave 429,” he said, his voice rising. “Hit it wrong and we’ll look like some Fast and Furious movie stunt when the train punts us into the next county.”
Her lips tightened, then parted into a ferocious grin. “We can do this, Bob, I know we can. That dip, and that big freight, are a girl’s best friends.”
There. The POV stays where it belongs and we stay out of Bob’s head. Or, if the author had wanted to stay in Bob’s POV for a while, she could have inserted a scene break (a blank line) after the first paragraph, spent some time with Bob worrying about Alice’s plans and perhaps wondering why he’d let himself get talked into this crazy scheme in the first place. The author would then follow this with another scene break and pick back up in Alice’s POV.
So as a reviewer, how do you detect head-hopping? First, keep in mind that it can happen at any time. Follow that up with a continuous awareness of whose eyes and other senses you’re experiencing the story through, whose emotions you’re feeling, and whose thoughts you’re hearing (through interior monologue) or being told about. If you detect that you’re bouncing back and forth from one character to another (and maybe to a third and a fourth), you’ve found a case of head-hopping. Then you can mark it and consider how the author could fix the problem. Scene breaks and dialogue are only two ways. Sometimes changes of description or action can do the trick.
Questions for You
Let’s turn those suggestions into questions you can ask yourself as you review a piece.
- What POV has the author selected: close third, omniscient, or something else?
- Who is the POV character supposed to be? Usually, this is the character who appears first in the scene.
- Does the
character I’m experiencing the story through change without there being a scene
- If so, how could the author lock down the scene’s point of view?
- Could they convert some of the narrative to dialogue in order to keep the POV to one character?
- Would one or more scene breaks work better, or could that make the story too choppy?
What techniques do you use to detect head-hopping? Hop on down to the comments box below to share your ideas.