Bunnies hop. Feet hop on hot pavement. Toddlers can hop and hop and hop . . . Dr. Seuss likes to “hop on Pop.”
But readers should not be forced to hop between characters while reading a book. This is called head hopping, and it is one of the first mistakes emerging authors will make. And nothing, I mean NOTHING, screams “amateur” like head hopping.
So what is it? After all, the average reader tossing that book against the wall will not give it a name, they just know they cannot follow the story.
First, let’s identify a viewpoint character. A viewpoint character is the person whose head the reader is in during the scene.
Head hopping, then, is when the writer changes viewpoint characters within any given scene, usually with no warning.
Now, for an example:
John looked into her eyes. They were beautiful and clear, and he lost himself in them. She caught her breath, wishing to lose herself in his eyes, wanting his kiss. But all he wanted was to study her eyes, for he had seen none like that in his college courses, and, after all, he was going to be the best optometrist to ever walk the face of the earth. But when he looked away, the laughter bubbled from her throat. Who did he think he was anyway?
Clearly, the viewpoint jumps from John to the woman and back again, leaving the reader nothing but confused and ready to go find another book.
The problem for authors, of course, is that it is not unusual for books to have multiple viewpoint characters. So how can an author ensure they are not head hopping?
Tip #1: Have a clearly defined goal in each scene for your viewpoint character.
Not only should it be clear within the first two sentences which character’s head the reader is now in, but a clearly defined goal for that scene should be stated as well. Of course, the viewpoint character is the character that is battling an antagonist (person, fate, nature) that is keeping them from achieving that particular goal in that scene. Their thoughts, decisions, or even reactions to outside forces are driving that scene forward. They are the ones that will have the disaster happen at the end of the scene and will have to readjust their plan to reach their overall goal, thereby keeping the reader engaged to the next page.
An example from Breaking Promises:
Annie curled her fingers around the bills only because she did not want them fluttering to the ground. What could she do to convince him to take her along? She was desperate to get to Katie.
Clearly, this scene is vastly different from the example near the top. This one is from Annie’s point of view. She has money in her hand she does not want drifting to the ground, and she needs to convince David (who carried the previous scene as the viewpoint character) to take her to the backcountry (also defined in the previous scene) to see her sister, Katie, making David the clear antagonist who stands between her and what she wants to do.
Tip #2: If unsure who to use as the viewpoint character, write the scene while head hopping, but edit it out as soon as possible.
Oftentimes when writing the rough draft, I am unsure which character viewpoint I wish to use. I am not certain, at that point, which clearly defined goal is best used with a previous disaster, or which character’s viewpoint drives the story forward in a faster, clippier fashion. Because of this, I will oftentimes find myself writing the draft and head hopping quite by accident. (My mantra at that point is just get the *#@*# thing written). This is actually an effective technique, especially in particularly dramatic scenes when I am unsure what each character is thinking. Keep in mind, however, that head hopping ONLY applies to the rough draft, and eventually must be edited to one viewpoint character.
Tip #3: Use the viewpoint character who has the MOST to lose in a scene.
Eventually, authors need to choose one or the other character, especially if you want your writing to be take seriously. In such instances, choosing the character that has the MOST to lose in the scene is the best character to use. The thoughts of the other character can be placed in another scene as they think back, or they can oftentimes be shown through the dialogue or action/expression tags during the scene.
Tip #4: Ensure the reader is aware of a viewpoint character change.
Finally, it is expected that between scenes and/or changes of viewpoints, three asterisks are used, or a new chapter is started, or a fancier first letter is used, or a curlicue is placed between the sections. This signals to the reader, in a subtle way, that there will be a change.
And now, for all of us, back to our works in progress!