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Head-hopping ... huh?

Confessions of an Editor pt 2. What is head-hopping and why should you avoid it?

Personal tales from yours truly, on my writing journey, editing, and occasional outpourings from my brain. You have been warned!

With my editing and tutoring hats on I see a lot of head-hopping, mostly from beginner writers, and it made me wonder - why? Is it a natural way to write when you start out? What drives writers to do it ... did I do it??

The quick answer, is yes, dear reader - I did!

But before I share the piece with you, in all its grisly glory, let's talk about point of view, and what head-hopping is.

One Point of View Character at a Time

A quick and dirty recap on character Point of View (POV)

1st: everything written is from the viewpoint of the character, using I, me, myself, etc.

2nd: doable, but strangely personal, instructive, and weird.

3rd: everything written is from the viewpoint of the character, using he, she, they, Emma, etc. This is key, as head-hopping tends to rear its ... err, head, in third person POV.

Beyond character POV we have omniscient, where the story is told from an all-knowing narrator's perspective. By way of an example, let's say we have a main character, in a book written in 1st or 3rd, in the shower. They have no way of knowing there's a killer silently climbing the stairs. We are as surprised as they are when the door is flung open.

An omniscient narrator could tell us the killer is coming, and we would see and feel both the main character's feelings and those of the killer. Which seems like a good thing, right? Added value? Except, less is often more - with the use of this omniscient power, you, the author, lose the ability to connect your reader in the headspace of your main character, quite as firmly.

Very few books are written in omniscient, those that are, are either old or, as far as children's fiction is concerned, writing legends (see Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman for more details).

To sum up, children prefer to inhabit characters, and children's fiction generally sticks closely with 1st or close 3rd (I'll talk more about close and distant POV in another blog).

OK, so what the heck is head-hopping?

Head-hopping happens when 1st and 3rd person POV get tangled up with omniscient. One minute we're in the head of our protagonist, the next we're hearing the personal thoughts of someone else. Narratively speaking, we've hopped from one person's headspace, right into that of another. And it's confusing, especially for a child reader.

And here's how it's done (kerrrrr-inge):

Sephie had no idea what Curly was saying about angles and light but she nodded anyway.
'That's really good advice, thanks Curly. I'll go and practice now.' And she scurried back up to her nest. 'You're a great friend!' She called back down to Curly.
Curly felt bad. She kicked at a piece of bark on the ground, disturbing a jewel beetle who frowned at her at scurried off. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t been more supportive of Sephie, her words had just sort of, come out.

This is a story about Sephie and it's told from her POV, in close third (allegedly). So we can't know that Curly feels bad, or that she's not sure. In fact, we can't know any of this as Sephie has left the scene!

This is classic head-hopping, written by me in around 2015. So there's hope guys!


So, why do we do it?

Here's my theory - and it has to do with the way we consume stories.

More and more, we experience them as told through visual media - TV and movies, mainly. We see scenes unfold, not from the characters' POV, but from the camera's. That's our omniscient narrator and it's not confusing because we have all these other clues to help immerse us in the mindsets of the cast: music, light, angle, camera position.

But books are not movies, although, I'll also add that I'm seeing more and more books with action scenes that feel right out of a Hollywood blockbuster. Books serve a different purpose and require a different set of skills. And a deep dive into character is one of those skills. I suspect that visually experiencing stories is easier to internalise, and it's my feeling that this is why head-hopping pops up more and more in my inbox. Like I said - this is my theory, I'd love to know what you think!

If you'd like me to review your characters' POV, and turn an eagle-eye to headhopping, click 'Hello' below and sign up for a free first-page edit, or take a look at my complete services.

Happy writing!


From EmDashED Freelance Novel Editing


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