Lesson 1 – Head-hopping (Amateur Writing Mistakes)

Welcome to lesson 1 in my blog series on common amateur writing mistakes. This lesson I am focusing on the problem of ‘Head-hopping’.

What is it? Head-hopping is when an author is writing from the viewpoint of one character and then writes from the viewpoint of another without a clear break to indicate to the reader that he or she is doing so. Here is an example…

***

Sarah picked up the apple and noticed the small round bite mark in the juicy flesh. “Amy. Have you been getting into the pantry again?”

She followed the sound of giggling and noticed the shape of her small daughter concealed behind the curtain.

Amy heard her mother’s footsteps approaching and focused on staying as still as she could, wondering if she could blame her brother for the apple.

***

Why is it bad?

You can see in the example above that I wrote about the scene from both Sarah and Amy’s viewpoints. In a short passage like this, it’s not too hard for the reader to work out who the viewpoint character is, but if it happens all the way through a book, it can confuse readers and lessen their enjoyment of the story.

It can also lead to a lack of connectedness between the reader and the main viewpoint character/s, and for me, being able to connect with characters is what makes the difference between a ‘good’ book and a ‘memorable’ book.

Head-hopping can result in a tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ what is happening in the scene. The author is telling me what the character is thinking rather than showing me through the things they say, their actions and expressions. If the viewpoint flicks around and I know what the characters are thinking all the time, there is no mystery, there are no surprises and there is no reason to keep turning the pages.

What can I do to fix it?

I was writing a romantic scene for my new novel and found myself head-hopping. I sought some advice from a more experienced writer who told me to focus on using dialogue, body language, behaviours and actions to show what other characters are thinking or feeling.

Here is my passage – before and after.

BEFORE (spot the head-hopping)…

“What am I doing? she thought, and stepped back out of the embrace.

“I can’t do this Zac… I can’t…” Alana’s frustration gave way to tears. Not wanting Zac to see her cry, she ran up the stairs and shut herself in her bedroom.

Zac stood there stunned. It wasn’t the first time Alana had run away from him. He remembered back to that time in high school when they had their first fight and she had run home in tears. Back then he had felt terrible about what he’d said, but this time he was clueless as to what he had done to upset her. There was something going on with her and he would get to the bottom of it, even if he had to wait outside her door all night.

***

AFTER (no more head-hopping)

“What am I doing?” her inner voice alerted.

“I can’t do this Zac… I can’t…” Alana stepped back from him abruptly.

“What is it Alana? I thought you felt the same way that…” She could hear the hurt and confusion in his voice.

Her frustration gave way to tears and she turned and ran up the stairs, not wanting him to see her cry. She pulled her bedroom door closed behind her. As she stood, her back pressed against the door, she heard his footsteps on the stairs and down the hallway. They paused outside her room and there was a gentle knock on the door.

“Alana. You need to tell me what’s wrong.”

“GO AWAY!”

She heard his deep sigh from the other side of the door. “NO! Alana, I’m not going anywhere. We need to talk and I’ll wait outside your bedroom all night if I have to.”

***

Do you like the AFTER version better? I think it is a lot more dynamic and allows me to build more conflict into the scene.

Where can I find out more?

Here are some links to other blogs and websites that provide some information and advice on this pesky problem.

Stay tuned for more amateur writing mistakes!

http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/09/10/head-hopping-gives-readers-whiplash/

http://jamigold.com/2011/01/why-is-head-hopping-bad/

http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/headhop.shtml

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5 thoughts on “Lesson 1 – Head-hopping (Amateur Writing Mistakes)

  1. You didn’t include an option for “I like head-hopping – it allows me to see the same scene from someone else’s point of view”! I think it’s like a lot of other writing tools: used appropriately, it’s valuable. But you don’t use it for every job.

    I actually liked the first version of your scene better: the second scene is all about Alana and what she wants and what she feels; actually, in the second scene I don’t like her – she comes across to me as a spoilt brat. Poor Zac ends up looking both insensitive and faintly creepy.

    In the first scene, we get to see why Zac has reacted the way he has, and that he’s not insensitive and creepy – he’s a guy who’s had enough of his girl running out on him instead of staying to discuss the problem in an adult, mature way, and he’s determined to – gently – get to the bottom of the problem rather than let her run away from it. Again. And it also works better for Alana – I get the impression of someone who actually has a real problem rather than a girl who’s just thrown a tantrum because she hasn’t got her own way.

    But yes, if you’re always hopping back and forth, the reader gets confused – and doesn’t get to know either character well enough for the head-hopping to show its advantages. Just because a tool isn’t the best one for every job doesn’t mean it should be discarded completely!

    Which goes to show that writing’s a more thankless game than many, I guess – even when you think you’ve got it right, someone’s going to think exactly the opposite!

    • It’s funny that you picked up that Alana is whiney – I guess out of context it does look like that. There are about 10 chapters before this scene that paint the picture of why Alana is feeling sorry for herself (with good reason).
      I hope I haven’t misled anyone – I’m not saying that change in viewpoint is wrong. It is good to have multiple viewpoint characters. Head-hopping is more of an unannounced change in viewpoint that leaves a reader disoriented.
      Thanks for visiting and all the best with your writing.

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