A young author recently asked me, “What is head-hopping and why has my writing group accused me of doing it?” Head–hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene, and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.
It’s difficult to know whose opinions are most important when all your characters are speaking in your head as you are writing. They clamor and speak over the top of each other, making a din like my family at any holiday dinner. But you must force them to take turns speaking, and make a real break between the scenes where the speaker changes, or each rapid shift of perspective will throw the reader out of the story. But what is Point of View other than the thoughts of one or two characters?
Point of view is a common literary term which some authors are a little unclear on. Remember, books, stories and literature in general, are a window through which readers look at the world. The way they see through that window, is though the eyes of the narrator: the point of view.
Writers direct their readers’ attention to the details, opinions, or emotions they want to emphasize by manipulating the point of view of the story, writing the narrative in one of three different ways: first-person, second-person, or third-person.
First-person point of view is fairly common, and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Remember, it is told from the view and knowledge of the narrator, and not of other characters. You ,as the author, must remember that no one has complete knowledge of anything. Thus, your protagonist cannot be all-seeing and all-knowing. The reader will find out the information as the protagonist does, which can be engrossing.
So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. ~~ Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Second-person point of view, in which the author uses “you” and “your,” is rarely found in a novel or short story. It is, however, commonly used in guide books, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, musical lyrics, advertisements.
For an author attempting to use it in fiction, it’s tricky to get right, so it doesn’t come off like a walkthrough for an RPG and for this reason, authors rarely speak directly to the reader in this way. However, it can work well, if the author is smart and really understands what they are writing. Successful use of Second Person POV can be found in: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984)
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
Third-person point of view provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they.” Third-person point of view is that of an outsider looking at the action, an invisible third person describing the events.
- The writer may choose third-person omniscient, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader, or third-person limited, in which the reader enters only one character’s mind, either throughout the entire work or in a specific section.
- Third-person limited differs from first-person because while we see the thoughts and opinions of a single character, the author’s voice, not the character’s voice, is what you hear in the descriptive passages.
- The Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) This is traditionally a form of third person POV, but I like to think of it almost as a fourth POV. Many of you have heard of it as third-person objective or third-person dramatic.
James Wood, author and literary critic, discusses this in the New Yorker (Books section Feb 28, 2011) in his review of Teju Cole’s Open City. Wood writes: …we also need a flâneur to see interesting things in the city, and to notice them well, and (Teju) Cole’s narrator has an acute, and sympathetic, eye. Sometimes he is witty and paradoxical, in a way that recalls Roland Barthes. Watching a park full of children: “The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.”
The flâneur is a voice that observes and comments but without actually becoming a character, a witness to the events. There is a downside to using the flâneur as your vehicle to convey your narrative:
- He is not reliable—he has his own personality, offering subtle judgments and unconscious opinions on the behavior of the characters. Therefore, just as in a first-person narrative, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the unbiased truth.
- The narrator tells the story without describing any of the character’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings; so the reader can only guess at character motivations, and must assume the objective observer truly is objective and has told the truth in that regard.
- It separates the reader from the intimacy of the action and slows the pace down.
Authors know what every character they are writing is thinking, and sometimes feel compelled to write from every character’s viewpoint. First we’re in Joe’s head, and then we are in Mary’s–rather like watching a tennis match. It’s critical that we don’t jump from head to head within a scene, as that will knock the reader out of the narrative and we don’t want that.
Joe’s experience can be explored and Mary’s can too, but make a solid break, or begin new chapter before you switch to Mary’s viewpoint. If a different character has something to say that is important to the narrative, I give them a separate chapter, even if it is a short one. That way my readers are not too confused about who is making the observations.
Remember, we avoid head-hopping and mental whiplash by not changing characters and point of view mid-scene.