How to avoid head hopping in your novel

Updated: Nov 10

This post covers:

  1. what head hopping is

  2. why you should avoid head hopping

  3. how to avoid head hopping

Head hopping is a big problem for many new writers and a bit of a problem for more experienced ones. But don’t worry – with a little bit of practice and craft knowledge, you can avoid head hopping.


It occurs most often in novels written in the third person when we have limited access to the thoughts and feelings of non-viewpoint characters.


If you’re lost already, here’s a quick recap:

  1. A viewpoint character is a character from whose perspective a scene, chapter or novel is being told.

  2. The main options for point of view in fiction writing are first person and third person. Third person POVs can be limited (to viewpoint characters) or omniscient (God-like). In third-person omniscient narratives, we refer to focus characters instead of viewpoint characters. You can find more information on POV here.

What is head hopping?


Now, head hopping is when we jump into the heads of several different people in a scene. For example…

Jamie entered the spaceship and glanced at Bob, who was wearing the ring they had bought him. Bob followed Jamie to the hydroponics bay, and as Jamie arrived, nostalgia and excitement washed over them. “Hi, Billy,” Jamie said. Billy smiled and returned the greeting. He was jealous of Jamie’s relationship with Bob and could see them gazing at Bob’s ring. Bob looked over at Jamie and was excited to see them again. He hated Billy and wished he’d just leave the spaceship. He imagined an escape pod being accidentally activated, simply sucking Billy into space.

In this paragraph we jump from one person’s perspective to another.


Confused by all this jumping around? I know I am!


Viewpoint character

Sentences written in their POV

Jamie (they/them)

Nostalgia and excitement washed over them

Billy (he/him)

He was jealous of Jamie’s relationship with Bob and could see them gazing at Bob’s ring

Bob (he/him)

[He] was excited to see them again. He hated Billy and wished he’d just leave the spaceship


Why avoid head hopping?


A benefit of head hopping is that it is quick and easy to write when drafting. We can instantly get an intimate sense of what each person is thinking. But the negatives massively outweigh the positives. For example, all that jumping around:

  1. can confuse the reader

  2. can be jerky

  3. can break reader immersion

  4. can make it difficult for readers to get to know the viewpoint character(s)

In general, Western readers are more impatient these days as they are used to consuming a lot of short-form content online, and they often want or expect deep immersion in a world, story and perspective. This keeps their attention.


Now, a reader won’t tell you, ‘I hate this novel because of the head hopping.’ Instead, you are likely to hear that the novel left them feeling dissatisfied, or that they couldn’t relate to the characters.


Head hopping can manifest itself as MAJOR issues with POV in a novel (oftentimes with new writers), or as a kind of subtle but irritating slip (not uncommon with more experienced writers).

Major issues with head hopping usually result from the author not having worked to maintain POV across a scene, chapter, or novel (switching POV mid-scene is not a good idea). Some authors find it very difficult to spot because they are so close to the text. But major head hopping is a serious issue that would almost certainly lead to an instant rejection if querying your manuscript with traditional publishers. This is why it is important to understand and resolve. And if you opt to self-publish, you don’t want to leave readers feeling dissatisfied.


A cultural moment?


As immersion and partial perspectives (over omniscient POV) have become more popular, editors have increasingly flagged head hopping as a problem in fiction – twenty or thirty years ago, occasional head hopping was not treated as such a serious issue.


So how can you avoid head hopping?


To avoid head hopping, or fix any head hops, you will need to rewrite these sentences to maintain a consistent viewpoint. In many places, this is a relatively easy tweak to make.


Most head hopping can be resolved through:


1) Describing behaviours instead of reporting thoughts and feelings

2) Letting the viewpoint character make intuitive guesses about what the others are thinking and feeling

3) Rephrasing sentences using words like ‘seemed’ or ‘appeared’ (use this one with caution as it can reduce the impact of your words)


For example:

Viewpoint character

Comments in their POV

Possible fix

Jamie (they/them)

Nostalgia and excitement washed over them

Jamie was fidgeting with a wistful look in their eyes

Billy (he/him)

He was jealous of Jamie’s relationship with Bob …

Jamie was sure Billy was jealous of Bob …

Bob (he/him)

​[He] was excited to see them again.

Bob seemed excited to see them again.


Final tip:


It’s worth learning the basics of POV consistency and then watching out for head hopping at the editing stage. Don’t worry about head hops when writing first drafts though.

For more on head hopping, check out:

  1. Point of View by Sandra Gerth

  2. The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley




***

Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.


He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.


You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!


Photo by Dattatreya Patra on Unsplash

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