Write This Way Wednesday: Head-Hopping. Oh, the Confusion…

Roughly a month ago, I was having a short story critiqued by my writer’s group for the anthology that we are working on. When I received my story back in hand and was going over the comments, someone had pointed out a couple of spots where I was apparently “head-hopping” and even referred me to a site that would explain the difference between that and writing in omniscient point of view. I was quite taken aback by this because one, I’d never heard of such a thing called “head-hopping,” and two, I had never, in anything I’d ever written and had published, been called out on it before. So naturally I’m mortified that I’ve possibly been making such a mistake and once I got home I went straight to the recommended website (http://jamigold.com/2011/02/what-makes-omniscient-pov-different-from-head-hopping/) to learn what this “head-hopping” was and how I could keep from doing it in the future. Honestly, it was only slightly helpful as the author was somewhat confused on the matter herself. However, I tried to decipher her understanding of it and this is what I came away with.
Basically, you have close third person and omniscient. With close third person, the story should be told in that character’s voice. With omniscient, the story should be told in the narrator’s voice. With omniscient POV, the narrator has insight to the character’s thoughts and feelings, and relays them in his voice, whereas with close third person, the story is told in the main characters voice, thus being unable to offer insight into the other characters thoughts and feelings. Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Wrong. Apparently, after being told that “head-hopping” is bad, we’re told that it can actually be done if it’s done correctly, i.e. not too often, using proper breaks and transitions, etc. So what is one to think?
First, I combed through my story while using Gold’s website as sort of a guide, and compared the parts that had been questioned as “head-hopping.” From what was being explained, there were only two small parts that could have actually been “head-hopping,” while the other couple of parts that were marked didn’t seem to really fit the bill. And what about everything else I had written that hadn’t been accused of committing “head-hopping”? By luck or sheer talent, had I just transitioned well enough between characters’ POVs that it hadn’t been an issue? Gaaahhh!!! The frustration!!
I decided to do a little more research on the matter. The very third search result (right after Jami Gold’s, coincidentally enough) was one titled “Is Head-Hopping A Myth.” (http://thewritepractice.com/head-hopping-myth/) In this quick post, the author, Joe Bunting, focuses on what head-hopping is not and states that head-hopping only applies to third-person limited omniscient. He uses the book Snobs by Julian Fellowes as an example of switching character POVs from a first person omniscient. He explains that first person omniscient is told from the POV of someone who is/was so close to the action that they can comment on everyone’s thoughts and feelings, but they are doing this in their own voice. He tells us that we are only breaking the rules if we are supposed to be writing in third-person limited omniscient.
Okay, so I was beginning to understand a little better…
My next choice on the list of research results was a blog post by Ellen Brock, titled “The Difference Between Omniscient POV and Head-Hopping.” (http://ellenbrockediting.com/2013/11/26/the-difference-between-omniscient-pov-and-head-hopping/) This one really did kind of bring everything else together for me. She points out that one of the biggest misconceptions about omniscient POV is that it lets you go into the viewpoint of any character at any time. She explains that omniscient POV has one viewpoint, that of the narrator, and the narrator doesn’t have to go into different viewpoints because he/she already knows everything about the characters. The narrator just chooses what information to reveal and when to reveal it.
At this point, I do feel like I have a better understanding of the whole “head-hopping” atrocity and somehow have managed to avoid it until this most recent piece. I’ve combed it over, time and again, and hopefully the final cut will be devoid of any instances of it. I’ve included links to all of the posts so you can read the pieces more in depth, as I only summed them up.

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5 comments

  1. Jami Gold · June 3, 2015

    Thanks for the shout out! 🙂 You’re right that the concept of head-hopping can be very confusing, especially as people use the term to cover many different situations. There’s definitely a difference between omniscient and 3rd/1st person when it comes to what we can share with our writing.

    (And there’s no such thing as 3rd person limited omniscient or 1st person omniscient unless our main character is god-like. Omniscient literally means all-knowing. We as the author–or we as the narrator–can be all-knowing about the story, but our characters can’t be all-knowing (again, unless they’re god-like). The term “limited” refers to the fact that the writing is limited to the that character’s point-of-view. So with that referenced article, no wonder you’re confused. O.o Anyway…)

    Since I wrote that post, I’ve found it easier to think in terms of WHAT could a character know and HOW do they know it. If we’re *trying* to write in omniscient (meaning, that we or a narrator are telling the story and we’re not deep into our characters), we can get away with sharing what we want in most cases. If we’re trying to write in 1st person, 3rd person limited (limited to their perceptions only), or 3rd person deep point-of-view (deeper into the character experience than limited), we can share only what that point-of-view (POV) character would know.

    So a sentence as innocent as “Sally watched Roger load the rifle to get ready for the next set of zombies” *could* be flagged by some as out-of-POV if written in 1st, 3rd limited, or 3rd deep. (In omniscient, that would be fine.) In one of the more limited POVs, Sally can see Roger load the rifle, but how can she know his motivation? Maybe he’s getting ready to kill HER for all she knows. 😉 In omniscient, the author or narrator would obviously know the motivation, so it’s not a problem to state it outright.

    Obviously, no matter the POV style, most readers would skim over that phrase and think the motivation obvious if they’ve seen the characters just survive one wave of zombies and they’re regrouping now. However, I’ve seen (and HAD) editors flag sentences like this. (Writers and editors tend to be pickier than readers would be on this issue. 😉 )

    In a 3rd limited style, we could make an easy fix by *showing* HOW Sally reaches that conclusion: “Sally watched Roger load the rifle to get ready for the next set of zombies. His gaze repeatedly flicked to the barricaded door. No sign of them yet.” With that extra info, the reader understands that Sally’s not reading Roger’s mind about his plan, but rather she’s making an educated guess (and one the reader would agree with).

    Another easy fix (and the choice I usually make) is to cut the potentially out-of-POV phrase and just give the evidence. This leaves the motivation in the subtext, but if all the clues are there, readers will pick up on it. “Sally watched Roger load the rifle. His gaze repeatedly flicked to the barricaded door. No sign of them yet.”

    So I’ve learned to focus on avoiding out-of-POV issues. Sally can see him load the rifle and keep an eye on the door. Does she know for sure what his motivation is (“to get ready”)? No, but readers would come to the same conclusion she does, so there’s no issue with talking about things she couldn’t know.

    (My friend Janice Hardy has a guest post on my blog and several posts on her own blog with more about deep POV. Credit goes to her for the inspiration of using a zombie theme for examples. 🙂 )

    And sorry for taking over your comment section. LOL! But I hope that helps! 🙂

    • mylitlife · June 3, 2015

      First, I want to thank you for responding and commenting on my little ‘ol blog! I’m seriously beaming right now. Second, OMG is this whole head-hopping thing ever confusing. You would not believe the different thoughts I found on it, as the ones mentioned above are only a smidgen of what I looked through. Everyone seems to have their own opinion and thoughts on it, and that just makes it ever more confusing. The information in your comment is definitely very helpful in coming to understand it even more. Like I said, I had never been called out on this type of thing before, and that’s why I was so appalled when I saw those comments. Head-hopping is definitely one of the more confusing topics I’ve been faced with in writing. Once again, thank you so much for commenting and providing more information!

      • Jami Gold · June 3, 2015

        You’re quite welcome! I think I’m going to take my comment and turn it into an updated blog post. LOL!

        And I agree that people’s explanations and use of terms makes this more confusing that it should be. That’s why I’ve stopped thinking in those head-hopping terms and just focus on “can the POV character know this, and if so, is it obvious to the reader HOW they know it?”

        Honestly, because this issue is confusing, it’s entirely possible that the person was wrong with their comments too. *ponders* If I do a post with this (it might be tomorrow’s), I’ll let people post a couple of lines in the comments to get feedback on whether it’s problematic or not–because I’m sure you’re not the only one with this question. Thanks for the idea! 🙂

  2. mylitlife · June 3, 2015

    You’re welcome! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Point of View: What Does Your Character Know? | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

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