I recently talked about how to choose narrative perspective, but what happens when that perspective jumps around? It's not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a time and place to have those jumps and they have to be done in such a way that the reader can distinguish between the characters' voice. What's generally frowned upon is shifting the narrative point of view from one character to another without giving any indication that you’ve done so—that's a head hop.
So what’s the problem with head hopping? It can be abrupt, for one thing, especially if you’re deep into one character’s psyche and suddenly switch to a whole different thought process and voice, and can jar the reader right out of the experience of the story.
It also tends to come across as more tell-y than show-y (technical terms, those). By telling the reader how the character is reacting and not showing it through their physical and/or emotional responses, you’re limiting the emotional interplay between the two characters. There is a lot to be gleaned from staying in Character 1’s head when he declares his love for Character 2—we feel the anticipation of him waiting for a response and observing how he reads Character 2’s expression and tries to guess what they’re thinking before they answer.
Head hopping also takes away the reader’s ability to interpret the scene themselves, which is usually the reason why writers head hop—they want to make sure that the reader understands exactly how the other character whose head they’ve hopped into has responded to what another character has done. But this all comes back to what I talked about in my showing vs telling post—you have to trust the reader to make the connections you want them to make and give them enough information to do so.
How to avoid head hopping
- You can avoid head hopping entirely by having only one narrator. If you’re prone to head hopping, perhaps a first-person narrative would be useful for you to maintain only one POV for the entire book. (You could also stick with just the one perspective and put it in third person.)
- You can create very obvious shifts in the narrative to indicate that there will be a change in the narrative perspective by switching POV with clear section breaks or whole chapter breaks. You could even label whose head you’re in (usually done by creating a new chapter for each voice).
- You can make a shift in the middle of a section, though this is potentially tricky. I have seen changes in perspective in the middle of a section done so subtly that it’s barely noticeable (or at least not distracting) to the reader, but to do it well, you’ll need to have clear, distinct voices for each character so the reader will be able to tell whose voice it is when we jump into a different head. And if you’re going to move the narrative perspective within a scene or section, what’s the reasoning behind it? Is it necessary to show how Character 1 feels and then show how Character 2 feels about it and why? Has the character whose head you’ve been in walked out of the scene while others were talking, so you’ve picked up the narrative voice with another character in the room? Are you showing how connected two characters are by having their narrative voices so in sync that the POV seamlessly passes between them? Is showing the juxtaposition between two characters’ thought processes reflective of the jarring switch between their POVs?
There are good reasons to head hop sometimes, so it’s not a hard-and-fast directive that you can’t do it at all. Break the head hopping rule if you want and if it makes sense to—but just know that you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it.