Tag Archives: head hopping

Transitions and Point of View #amwriting

I had to quit reading a book published by a Big Six publisher last week, as the narrative was a little too confusing. The head-hopping was too much and I didn’t want to waste time trying to sort it out.

Head-hopping: an author switches point of view characters within a single scene or even a paragraph. This can be quite confusing, like watching an unbalanced tennis match.

The problem could have been resolved in the revision process if the author had an editor’s eye on their work prior to publication, which I doubt they did.

Point of view must be consistent throughout the narrative but doesn’t have to be solely that of one character. However, it should only be shown from one character at a time.

In my own work, each of the major players has a story. Sometimes they have something to say that advances the story, so yes, the narrative switches to a different character. I give them a separate chapter so there is no doubt about who is speaking.

Also, I limit the number of characters who are allowed to speak to the reader.

In many of my favorite novels, the aftermath of an action scene becomes an opportunity to show the antagonist’s story line through their eyes. That’s a good strategy, as we need to show why the enemy is the enemy.

When shifting point of view from one character to another, the points where you change from one scene to the next are crucial to the story.

These are transitions.

Good transitions make a well-paced narrative, a piece that has a kind of rhythm.

  1. processing the action,
  2. action again,
  3. another connecting/regrouping scene

Regrouping scenes make logical transition scenes. These are opportunities to move the plot forward through conversation or introspection.

These transitions allow the reader to process what just happened at the same time as the characters do. This is where we justify the events that just occurred, making them believable.

Transitions are also opportunities to ratchet up the tension.

Unfortunately, these are also places where it is easy to accidentally jump into the headspace of a  different point of view character.

For this reason, in the revision process, it’s important to pay attention to who is talking and make sure we are only in their head for the entire scene.

One useful kind of transition is introspection. It offers an opportunity, a brief segue in which new information important to the story can emerge.

  1. Introspection also allows the reader to see who the characters think they are. This is critical if you want the reader to bond with them.
  2. Introspection shows that the characters are self-aware.

I do suggest you keep the scenes of introspection brief. If you use italics to set thoughts off, I would consider not having your characters do too much “thinking.” A wall of italics is hard to read, and we want the reader to stay with the story.

Characters’ thoughts are like conversations. They must be purposeful and serve to illuminate motives at a particular moment in time. Idle thoughts waste time and bore readers.

So, in a conversation between two characters, introspection must offer information not previously discussed.

Something else to consider—internal monologues should not make our characters seem too wise and all knowing. If you show them as a bit clueless about their flaws, strengths, or even their deepest fears and goals, you make them seem more approachable, real, and human.

I do recommend that each character should speak uniquely. Small habits and things make them individuals. I’ve seen books were the author dumped the conversations into a blender and poured out a string of commentary that made everyone sound alike.

Without speech tags, it was impossible to tell who was talking.

In regard to speech tags—please don’t get fancy. It’s best for me as a reader when the author avoids obscure words that take me out of the narrative. You want them to blend in and go unnoticed because the information imparted in the conversation is the important thing.

We want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head. One way to do that is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by showing the thought processes of the narrative character, along with their actions and conversations.

Wikipedia says: Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character’s thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation.

This is a difficult device to do well. It is why James Joyce’s work is a difficult read for most people. The only time I have used it was in a writing class.

I sometimes use the first-person point of view to convey intimacy. With the first-person point of view, a story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within his or her own story.

I use this point of view most often in short stories and find it easy to write.

I usually write my longer work in a third person omniscient voice. In that mode, the  story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

A way to convey intimacy when writing in third person omniscient is to use the third-person subjective. This mode is also referred to as close 3rd person.

I like this mode and frequently use it. At its narrowest and most subjective, the story reads as though the viewpoint character were narrating it. This is comparable to the first person in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonist’s personality but differs as it always uses third-person grammar.

It is easy for me as a reader to form a deep attachment to the protagonist when a story is written in this mode. This is also a good way to avoid the first draft curse of “head hopping.”

In the revision process, we work to ensure consistency in our narrative mode, especially in regard to point of view. Making good revisions can actually take longer to complete than writing the first draft did.

But the reward is a smooth narrative, which is worth putting out extra effort.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Stream of consciousness,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stream_of_consciousness&oldid=934342441 (accessed January 28, 2020).

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Chapter Length and Point of View #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long a chapter should be. A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but it worked for me when I was reading it.

I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length. One keeps them at 1,500. One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character’s storyline separate and flows well. I personally have found that for my style of storytelling, 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length.

In a book, each chapter should detail the events of one scene or several related scenes. Chapters are like paragraphs, in that cramming too many disparate ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected.

One of my forthcoming books has longer chapters, as it is really a collection of short stories that take place over forty years of one character’s life. It follows the chronological order of his life and the chapters are vignettes detailing large events that changed him profoundly. These long chapters do contain hard breaks.

Conversations make good transitions to propel the story forward to the next scene, and they also offer ways to end a chapter with a tidbit of information that will compel the reader to turn the page. Information is crucial but should be offered only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something the characters are only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. They reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown.

Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black at the end of a scene can make the story feel mushy if there is no finite transition.

When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to wind it up with a firm finish and a hook and start a new chapter.

Having said that, if you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. I agree, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult. Sometimes more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown but readers will thank you if you limit point of view changes.

One of the problems some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is the way he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was. Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime story lines.

I’m a dedicated WoT fan, but even I found that exceedingly annoying long about book eight, Path of Daggers. I was halfway through reading that book when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do.

At that point, I kept reading because the world and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs or end the chapter.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers, or give each chapter a name?

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.

Whichever style of chapter heading you choose, numbered or titled, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

To wind this up: Limit your point of view characters to one per scene. Limit each chapter to show events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated events.

When it comes to chapter length, you must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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