One of the first rules we learn when we first try our hand at this strange gig called writing fiction, besides “Show, don’t Tell” and “Write What You Know,” is “Don’t Head-Hop” between your characters. There are no qualifiers, no “unlesses” no “untils,” just don’t do it.
So, first off, before we can make an intelligence, informed decision whether to be daring and rebellious and head-hop anyway, or be obedient students, we need to know exactly what head-hopping is. What if I’m doing it and didn’t know I was? Well, it’s about time you found out.
Head-hopping is the switching of the point-of-view between at least two characters without a scene or chapter break. Think of it as the narrator being a mischievous spirit that moves from head to head through the people at a dinner party. If it isn’t done right, the experience could be disorienting and even downright confusing to the audience.
Think, for example, of the use of pronouns in your own writing and how difficult it can be to be clear when describing the interactions of two male characters. It can be excruciatingly hard to be clear who a particular “he” refers to. I know I have re-written countless scenes because the pronoun usage was not clear to the reader. Imagine how absolutely clear the writing would have to be to overcome the confusion inherent in shifting point of view without giving the reader more signposts to indicate where you are going?
Nothing destroys the “willing suspension of disbelief” in a reader more than confusion. When a reader feels he has to stop and go back to reread a passage to figure out what is going on, you are one step from losing him/her completely.
Confusion destroys the suspension of disbelief like a sledge hammer destroys a teacup.
Like most rules in writing—and especially fiction writing—the reason most writers should avoid head-hopping is simple: most of us (myself included) are not good enough writers to do it successfully. For us, when we wish to switch to a different character’s view, it is best to use one of the conventional signals to the reader, primarily scene breaks or chapter breaks. These conventional pauses allow the reader to mentally reset and be ready for a new beginning with a new point of view.
Now, that’s not to say it cannot be done, only that the writer must be very, very good. If you want an example of a writer who head hops with virtuoso skills, read Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. Not only doesn’t she use scene breaks; she doesn’t really use chapters, just three large “parts.” But the key point is that though the point of view often shifts between several characters over the course of the narrative, she executes the moves so seamlessly, it took me nearly a hundred pages to notice what she was doing.
Practical Magic is a great story, told well anyway. Well worth the read even if you don’t plan on studying Ms. Hoffman’s technique, but you should really watch how she handles point of view. It is truly remarkable.
But I am nowhere near as gifted a writer at this point as Alice Hoffman, so I think I will continue to avoid head-hopping until that changes.