He Said, She Said: Head-Hopping for Dummies
by Robert Michael
Rules are made to be broken. Writers do it all the time: incomplete sentences, dangling participles, split infinitives, jargon, buzz-words, clichés, and use of omniscient point of view intermixed with third person. Writers get away with these writing taboos because the essence of writing is clarity—the ability to communicate ideas, emotions, and details about our world among other things. Most folks are usually forgiving of these narrative and grammatical choices authors make, especially when standards are being ignored or deliberately mauled in order to invoke a style, or create a tone.
However, from time to time, I come across writing taboos that make me grind my teeth to fine porcelain dust. Okay, to be fair, I was raised in West Virginia which is not known for water with high fluoride content. The point is, though, that sometimes writers and readers impose expectations on novel writing that are not “rules,” as such, but rather suggestive of best practices.
One of those expectations for me as a reader is that in a novel with multiple points of view, each point of view will be separated by a chapter or section break. Instead , what has become common in modern literature is the tendency for authors to hop from one character’s head to another’s in the same scene. This technique is used indiscriminately. I have seen it in some of the most popular writers’ work. Authors like Steven Erikson, Ken Follet, and James Patterson fall prey to this technique.
I will admit that I may be in the minority on this particular peeve. Some readers will possibly not notice the hopping from head to head. Indeed, they may even find it preferable to a scene change.
My personal preference as a reader is to have the author change scenes or to devote an entire chapter to one person’s point of view. Several authors who use multiple points of view use this technique: George R.R. Martin, Nicholas Sparks, and William Faulkner, to name a few.
The point of POV is for a reader to feel immersed in the scene. When an author chooses to change heads, he or she may be using the technique to reveal information that the original character’s POV would not be able to reveal. This can be a seemingly harmless decision on the part of the author and done in a manner that is seamless in terms of the narrative. However, the reader is left sometimes with the sinking feeling that their resolve to “willfully suspend disbelief” is beginning to wane.
Anti-head hopping is not a writing rule. Most editors recommend that an author should re-write the scene. It is a suggestion, a best practice…and for me as a reader, it is a heart-wrenching plea to please stop doing it. Take the time to love the POV you are with (dangling participlehere, but, hey, it is a song lyric). In which camp do you find yourself roasting marshmallows? Do you notice the change of POV? Does it bother you? Or do you prefer it to scene or chapter breaks?
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Genre – Horror / Suspense
Rating – PG
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