Why Not Head Hop?

In addition to working on getting my current WIP, Speak No Evil polished up and ready for submission, I have been working with several authors and guiding them through the same process, and reviewing other manuscripts and providing assessments. While assessing the manuscripts, I’m looking at voicing, structure, flow, the strength of the work, including active vs. passive writing. One item which seems to frequently crop up is POV (point of view) strength and depth. Whether the work is written in first person or third person (putting omniscient viewpoint aside for this discussion), it’s important throughout the scene to stick to the same POV and not slide into someone else’s. In other words:

NoHeadHopping

Why is a strong POV important? Why can’t we give the reader the thoughts and feelings of the non-POV character? Doesn’t the reader gain more by having everyone’s thoughts and feelings? The simple answer is NO. Here’s what can happen by head hopping.

  • Potential for confusion — If the POV is sliding from one character to the next, there is always the possibility the reader will become confused, have to stop reading, track back and figure out who just spoke or had a thought. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been cruising along with a book, getting hooked by the story only to trip on a POV change I didn’t make with the book. Wait … What??? I have to stop and go back, and the last thing we want the reader to do is to stop reading because they have become confused.

  • Lessens the connection the reader has to the POV character. I know all the objections … the reader only becomes confused if the POV shift hasn’t been handled well, but if you do it well, you can get away with it. Ummm, I’m not trying to get away with anything (which implies we’re somehow trying to cheat or game our reader), but rather make sure I’m presenting my story in the best way I can to the reader. I want the reader to connect to my POV character. I want them to care what happens because that is going to keep them turning the pages. If I take time away from my POV character to give to a secondary character, no matter how well I’m doing it, I am pulling the reader briefly out of the story and making them get settled into another viewpoint.

  • One of the side effects that happens with head hopping is dilution of tension. If you have a scene and have set up the reader expectation that you are in and out of all of the characters thoughts, and need to build some mystery surrounding something one of the characters knows the others do not, how do you do it? If you have a strong POV, there is no problem because in a strong POV you only have the thoughts and feelings of a single character. And if you dilute your tension too much, the reader has no reason to keep on reading.

So how do you ensure you’re not head hopping? Comb through your manuscript looking for tell-tale signs.

  • Target all sense words. If someone other than your POV character is seeing, feeling, hearing, touching, noticing, watching, etc. you have changed POV.

  • Watch for what they didn’t do. One common error I see all the time is, “I/He/She didn’t notice …” If your POV character didn’t notice something then you cannot put it in the book because they have not experienced it. That particular error is a slide into the omniscient viewpoint because it isn’t a specific character POV, but an unseen/unknown narrator telling the reader what the POV character didn’t notice.

  • Also the POV character cannot notice someone else not noticing something. Or not seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. Check all thoughts and determine WHO is thinking them … if it isn’t the POV character, then bring it out another way.

Does all this mean that you can never have multiple viewpoints in a book? Of course not. But make your selections wisely and with purpose and make sure you’re only changing POV at structured scene/chapter breaks.

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