How Big of a Problem Is “Head Hopping”?

From Jane Friedman:

Question

I am a professional writer and former journalist, but I’m new to writing fiction. I’m wondering whether I’m guilty of “head hopping,” or of author intrusion, by allowing the reader to peek into the thoughts of minor characters of the story. If this is the case, is it a problem or is it the natural role of an omniscient narrator?

—Ready to Revise


Dear Ready to Revise:

I’m so glad you asked!

It’s natural for those new to writing fiction to revel in their ability to enter the mind of different characters in the story. It feels like a superpower, and it is: No other storytelling mode offers you the ability to enter into the point of view (POV) of the story’s characters in such an intimate and revealing way.

But like so many things with fiction, it’s important to realize that what’s fun for us as writers may not be fun for our readers. And that, like many things we admire in the work of our favorite writers, we may not yet have the chops to do these things well.

Yes, revealing what’s in the minds of minor characters is indeed a privilege of the omniscient POV. But the omniscient POV is an advanced technique, and therefore not something I recommend to those just starting out with fiction.

I’ll explore both of these in more detail, but first, an important distinction: When we talk about “head hopping,” we’re not talking about a story with multiple POVs. Rather, we’re talking about a story that includes multiple POVs within the same scene, without benefit of a line break or chapter break. “Head hopping” is what happens when an inexperienced writer fails to do it well.

Here’s why “head hopping” can be no fun for readers.

It can be jarring. Imagine cruising along in a story at top speed (we read fiction fast, in part because we feel like we’re really in the mind of the POV character, living the story), and then suddenly, it’s not clear whose head we’re in, or even what’s supposed to be happening.

For example, consider the following:

John perused the menu. That burger sounded good, but then again, he was trying to watch his weight—his wife was right, he wasn’t getting any younger, and Dr. Sykes had been warning him for years about his cholesterol. Maybe the salad? But then he’d be ravenous at his four o’clock.

All these finance guys always spent forever looking at the menu but then always ordered the same thing. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so stereotypical. Erik smiled, marshaling his patience. “Would you like me to come back?”

That second paragraph is likely to give your reader whiplash, because it’s not clear whose head we’re in—or even who Erik actually is (the server).

You want readers to read quickly, because that’s part of what creates what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream” of fiction.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

5 thoughts on “How Big of a Problem Is “Head Hopping”?”

  1. Maybe, just maybe, there’s an actual narrative strategy behind making the reader quickly look to another perspective on an event as it happens. Maybe, just maybe, the narrator (or viewpoint character) is unreliable. Or even just ignorant, and didn’t see the gun on the mantelpiece, but this transient viewpoint is the only one that can without descending into telling-not-showing. Maybe this is foreshadowing of a role for that perspective later in the work. Maybe it’s the subtext that matters.

    Maybe criticizing a specific narrative device or element, without its context, as a universal error is a fool’s errand — especially, but not only, using extreme examples that have no context but themselves and founder on a different error than the one being expounded upon (just substitute “The server” for “Erik” in the OP, and one discovers that the problem here is insufficient/inappropriate context-signalling and not head-hopping — largely solved with two words).

    Admittedly, I have Rashomon on in the background…

    Did I really need a <sarcasm> tag on any of that?

    • Nope.
      By not I think most everybody around here understands that “writing commands” are at best suggestions and at worst narrow minded narrative voice killers.
      Every ‘thou shall not” rule comes with a follow on “unless you have a reason”.

      “Head hopping” is no different: it’s only a problem if you’re sloppy and don’t understand what you’re doing.

      • Which was (part of) my point. If it’s not, in fact, a universal command, don’t present it as a universal command.

        The other part of my point was that the example presented in the OP doesn’t prove, or arguably even provide support for, the proposition because it has another, far-worse, problem. This is a widespread problem in “writing advice” (do not get me started on the inept examples in the “there are only x plots” guides that don’t maintain a consistent, let alone have a coherent, definition of “plot” or even “dramatic situation” — those literature seminars that didn’t end up with a completed dissertation will bury both of us). And as PG could confirm, it’s arguably worse in law; just consider that the vast majority of search-and-seizure cases, with those high-sounding principles, come from circumstances in which the accused is substantively guilty… leaving questions about “why wasn’t the necessary evidence available without violating other rights?” entirely unexamined.

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