“Head hopping” happens when you inadvertently “lose” your point of view and hop from one character’s head to another.
This is a problem when you’re trying to maintain either a 1st person POV or a 3rd limited POV. In any given scene, you should have ONE POV character to “anchor” the narration. A different character can be the narrator in the next scene but you shouldn’t “hop” around within a single scene.
Why is this a problem? Because it can confuse your reader, and you don’t want to confuse your reader. It’s just not nice…and then they stop reading.
Let me give you an example to help you identify POV head hopping.
Say you are writing a scene in which the main character “Molly” is trick-or-treating at Halloween. You start the scene from Molly’s viewpoint. You might describe what a big scary house she is approaching. Then she rings the doorbell. An ancient hunched over man opens the door. He stares at Molly, and then she notices that the old man scrunches his face up and tears begin dripping down his cheek.
To reveal the “real” reason he stares and is upset would require a POV shift. Maybe he’s upset because Molly’s costume reminds him of his daughter who died from cancer many years before. Molly wouldn’t know this. If you’re writing from her POV, you can only reveal what she sees and her interpretation of it. To describe the cause of his sadness in this same scene would require a POV shift, or head hopping.
Example #1 – In the following passage, try to identify the POV slips.
Susie walked into the classroom and went to her seat. She set her backpack on the ground and slumped into the chair. “Pop Quiz” it said on the board. She hadn’t done any of her homework. [Perfect – it’s all in Susie’s 3rd limited POV.]
As soon as Derek walked into the room, she looked at him, her eyes big with her fear. If she failed this test, she wouldn’t be eligible to perform in the play this weekend. [POV shifts to an omniscient narrator – Susie wouldn’t know what her own face looks like.]
Derek tried not to show his disgust. He knew she would pass. She always made such a big deal out of everything. [POV has now slipped to 3rd limited and Derek’s POV.]
Example #2 – Try it again with this next passage, but I’ll put the “key” below, so you can identify the shifts and then check yourself at the end.
When Susie looked up and saw Derek enter the classroom, she smiled as he came toward her. He was HOT. But he stopped and sat next to Claire. Susie had her drama face on today. He decided he couldn’t deal with her right now. It had already been a tough day.
“You’re seriously going to sit there?” Susie snapped, her voice hard and angry.
“I’m going to sit wherever I want to.” He turned and faced Claire, his face red with annoyance.
Susie fumed. He was not going to get away with this. She grabbed her backpack and moved across the room, as far away from Derek as she could.
- This passage starts in Susie’s viewpoint but switches to Derek’s halfway through the first line when Susie’s “drama face” is described. She wouldn’t know what she looked like. The problem in the 2nd paragraph occurs with the description of her voice. She wouldn’t know that her own voice was “hard and angry.” In the 3rd paragraph, Susie wouldn’t know if his face was red if he wasn’t facing her. By the last paragraph, we’re back to Susie’s POV.
Try it yourself. Revise the above scene from Susie’s POV and then try it again from Derek’s POV, either 1st or 3rd limited. This can be fun to play with as you begin to realize what you can and cannot include based on the POV that you chose for any given scene.
Remember that you use POV to allow your readers to get to know your characters. So choose your POV wisely…and then have fun with it.
Do you struggle with “head hopping”? Share any of your thoughts on POV in the comments below.