I recently attended an editing workshop hosted by a trad-pub romance editor who said, “Head hopping is fine! All the greats do it, and it works fine!” I didn’t catch much after that because of the steam whistling out of my ears, but I’m pretty sure we’d disagree on other fundamentals.
Then I came home and started reading a fantasy novel that I was pretty psyched about until Chapter 5, whereupon I had the damnedest time figuring out how the point-of-view character, who had specifically been described as telepathically “deaf,” was able to know what another character was thinking and feeling. I eventually deduced, after coming to a dead stop to read the page five times to unravel what happened, her impairment didn’t spontaneously resolve. The author simply decided to be done with that character and jump into another one with no transition, and his editor thought it was fine.
For those unfamiliar with the term, head hopping is a not-fine technique in which the point-of-view character changes without a scene break or chapter break to indicate you’ll be spending the next chunk of time cozied up with a new character.
Let me tell you when it can work before I rant about why it doesn’t.
The following is from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians © 1939). The book begins with alternating limited third-person POVs—the reader sees the world for each scene through one character’s eyes. Once all the characters gather together, a limited omniscient POV is introduced—the reader watches all of the characters moving around without getting into any of them.
The judge came and sat down by Emily Brent. Armstrong came up to Vera. Tony Marston strolled to the open window. Blore studied with naïve surprise a statuette in brass—wondering perhaps if its bizarre angularities were really supposed to be the female figure. General Macarthur stood with his back to the mantelpiece. He pulled at his little white moustache. That had been a damned good dinner! His spirits were rising. Lombard turned over the pages of Punch that lay with other papers on a table by the wall.
Rogers went round with the coffee tray. The coffee was good—really black and very hot.
The whole party had dined well. They were satisfied with themselves and with life.
The scene in which the above excerpt appears begins in the shallow, distant, observer POV except for one instance of “Vera thought,” which delves into the mind-reading capabilities of deep omniscient for one line. The first three sentences in the excerpt are in limited omniscient—simply observing from afar. The sentence about Blore seems like it’s trying to be deep omniscient by reading his mind but stops at limited omniscient because “perhaps” that’s what he’s wondering—the narrator doesn’t claim to know for sure. The sentences about Macarthur observe and then dive right into his head to extract his thoughts and the state of his spirits. Then back to distantly observing Lombard. Then the omniscient narrator inserts approval of the coffee (which is a straight-up intrusion!), and then back to mass mind-reading about gustatory and existential satisfaction.
Reading it was like having needles jabbing my eyeballs half a dozen times, but I kept going rather than saying, “I’m done with this incompetent crap,” which I would have done had I encountered this in most other books. Why does this one get a pass? Because the POV in this story, even when in third person and sustained for an entire scene, never gets more than half an inch deep and is used to convey information to the reader rather than being meant to instill empathy. Empathy is unnecessary in this story because the characters are secondary to the mystery. You’re clinically detached and reading to solve the puzzle, not to bond with any character. You are observing from a safe distance regardless of POV, so there’s no yank in transitioning from third to omniscient or shallow to deep, even multiple times within the same paragraph.
Most modern genre fiction, however, employs deep POV (either first or third person) because the goal is to have the reader identify with the character—not to “become” the character but to understand well enough to go along for the journey. This is especially true in romance, where feelings often lead characters to do dumb shit, and if you can’t follow their reasoning, however distorted it may be, that dumb shit is too dumb to keep reading. Thus, we get intimate access to characters’ history, thoughts, feelings, fears, secrets, etc. They are the filter through which we perceive everything in their story. We’re not gods looking down at a game board—we’re invasive parasites attached to their brainstems to co-opt their senses, thoughts, and feelings for our entertainment.
If you’re in one host long enough to get comfortable, being wrenched out and jammed into another without so much as a visual warning of the transition (such as a scene break or chapter break) is jarring. If you’re constantly being flung from one POV to another, you form no attachments and therefore don’t care about any of the characters you bounce through en route to the next.
Long ago, I heard someone refer to a carnival ride as the Herky Jerky Kidney Twister. Head hopping is the literary equivalent. One second, you’re comfortable with a certain view; the next second, your view, position, and filter have changed and you don’t know why or how, other than some arbitrary press of a button by the ride’s operator. It’s not fine.
That’s just Reader Me’s low opinion. When Writer Me sees head hopping, it signals the perpetrator doesn’t know what a scene is, and there’s no point reading further. In simplest terms, in a scene, Character X wants Goal Y, but Obstacle Z stands in the way, and win, lose, or draw, something changes so there’s no going back. Character X is the character with the most to gain, the most to lose, the most to prove, the most to feel, the most to change. That is how you choose a scene’s one POV character. If you think two characters have an equal interest, you should think some more. One of them will stab the other in the throat to win if really tested.
If three people want the last soda in the vending machine, have the ad exec who needs her afternoon caffeine fix argue with the accountant who needs it to prove to his angry girlfriend that he really does pay attention to the things she likes while the receptionist who poisoned the rim of the can before it went into the machine but has since learned new information that makes her less keen to murder someone silently freaks out and wonders how the hell to get out of this situation in her POV. Why? Ms. Caffeine’s motivation can be summed up in one line of dialogue: “I need my caffeine fix, dammit.” Mr. Lovelorn’s is likewise easily stated: “My girlfriend is going to leave me if I don’t prove I know she likes Diet Pineapple FizzBurp.” The receptionist plotted and initiated a whole damn murder scheme and subsequently developed second thoughts, and these idiots and their petty problems are standing in the way of aborting the mission. What are the stakes of failure? Respectively: flagging energy, getting dumped, and committing murder with all of the attendant consequences. What’s important in this break room? What’s worth spending words on? How do you justify, for even one paragraph, leaving a life-or-death situation to more deeply explore trivial bullshit? It’s not necessary. It doesn’t benefit the story in any way. It’s therefore sloppy writing, even when “the greats” who can afford to be lazy do it.
Is there secretly more going on than meets the eye? Maybe Ms. Caffeine wants the accountant to get dumped because she wants him (or his girlfriend) for herself. You know where would be a great place to go into deep POV about those motivations and stakes? A different scene! You don’t have to report every thought in every character’s head as it occurs. People (even fictional ones) have thought permanence. If she wants him (or his girlfriend) in Scene 6, she’s still going to want him (or her) in Scene 10. You set up the desire earlier, you wander away to do other things, and it’s still there even when you’re not paying attention to it. It’s subtext. Even if you don’t hop into Ms. Caffeine’s head to say, She fought ferociously over that can of soda because it was more than a can of soda to her—it was the key to breaking up the happy couple and reaping the spoils of war, the reader will get it because readers have thought permanence, too.
After the receptionist loses her scene, go ahead and switch to the victor, Ms. Caffeine, observing from afar while Mr. Lovelorn reports his failure to his ladylove. Ms. Caffeine pops open the can, takes a sip, and starts bleeding from the eyes. She collapses to the floor. The last thing she sees with her red-filmed gaze is the receptionist leaning over her to whisper, “You should have let me have it.”
Ms. Caffeine wins the POV battle this time because she has smug victory coming out of the previous scene, hope for her romantic future, physical suffering, being taunted by her murderer, and death. For this segment of time, nobody can compete with her, so they don’t deserve POV time. Giving it to them would dilute Ms. Caffeine’s experience.
As a general rule, don’t dilute by far the most interesting thing going on with less-interesting things. There’s a time and a place for a panoramic shot that captures everything and stars nothing, but for pure visceral drama, you need a tight zoom on a single focus—which, in novel terms, means one scene, one POV.