Head-hopping: Good? Bad? Something else?

  • by

When it comes to the concept of head-hopping, I have a cartoonist’s advantage. Working in multiple panels, I can draw two characters, provide an accumulating dialogue as the story advances one panel at a time, and supply my characters with exaggerated facial expressions and body language to communicate outward emotions and inner thoughts. I can even make sweat beads sparkle in the air next to one character while adding imaginary steam coming out of both ears of the other.

No head-hopping here. In fact, if needed, I can, literally, have my characters switch heads as the story evolves.

Which brings us to fiction writing and the tyranny of point-of-view (aka, POV).

I don’t hold a degree in creative writing, but I’ve always been able to spin a story. Seeking to hone my craft, I’ve joined writers’ groups, studied books on the writing craft, and attended a seemingly endless array of workshops and seminars. And, I’ve endured critical comments from my peers, encountered instructional testimony in writing textbooks, and absorbed workshop presentations—all of which draw attention to the issue of POV and the related condemnation of head-hopping.

Ideally, to aid the reader, an author might adopt a single POV. A story can be written from the standpoint of a first-person narrator—using “I” as the guiding pronoun. Rarely is a modern tale written in second-person where “you” is the operative pronoun. Generally, third-person is the weapon of choice. This approach opens up a world of possibilities including such versatile notions as “he,” “she,” and “they.” But writing in third person tends to lead to head-hopping.

Choosing POV and sticking with it might be a textbook approach to writing. The challenge arises when POV is allowed to terrorize the narrative. Consider this excerpt from the draft of one of my upcoming mystery novels:

Trinidad padded downstairs in his stocking feet to stand quietly behind his wife. She’d been working on her novel for hours and he was burning with curiosity. Peering over her shoulder, he reviewed her writing and offered a gentle critique.

Anne looked up from her typewriter and stared at her husband, unable to comprehend his unsolicited evaluation. “You’re accusing me of head-hopping?” she demanded.

“What I’m asking,” he explained, “is how can your character know that the husband padded downstairs and that he’s curious? How does the wife know his criticism is meant to be gentle? First, you’re in his head and suddenly you’re in her head and then back in his again,” he pointed out. “If that ain’t head-hopping I’m a monkey’s uncle.”

The POV police might suggest that this scene needs to be edited. If we remain exclusively in Anne’s head, the writing will definitely change. Here’s one possible revision which keeps us in Anne’s head throughout:

Without looking up, Anne heard Trinidad padding downstairs and supposed her husband was in his stocking feet. He’d probably heard the sound of her hammering away at her vintage Remington. She imagined her mischief-loving spouse couldn’t resist tiptoeing into the sunroom to hover behind her. So, she continued typing and guessed what was coming.

Arising before dawn, she’d been at it for hours and she supposed he must be burning with curiosity. Anne didn’t turn around, she kept working. As she labored, she could almost feel his eyes sweeping over her evolving narrative—constructed letter-by-letter; each keystroke burrowing black and solid into a snowy expanse; the virgin paper pinned between the bail and the rollers of the heavy manual typewriter. She was weaving a tapestry of words etched in place and permanent as a stone carver’s mark. What would her husband, her staunchest supporter and most unswerving critic, think of this, her first draft?

Peering over her shoulder, Trinidad cleared his throat. She sighed, paused, and placed her hands in her lap, signaling that she was ready to hear his critique.

I began this piece as a condemnation of the tyranny of POV. Is it possible that the latter paragraphs—designed to keep the reader exclusively in Anne’s head—are superior to my former adventure into the realm of head-hopping from husband to wife and back to husband?

If nothing else, recognizing the hopping has compelled me to explore other avenues. Which one serves the reader best? I’ll have to think about that one, so pardon me while I hop into my head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.