Some may call head hopping lazy writing, but let’s call it what it really is: a totally normal trap to fall into—especially if you’re a newer writer and especially if you’re passionate about a story. After all, when the words get flowing, it can be difficult to stop and really think, “Would this one character really know this? Or am I inserting details that only another character would know, or details that I only know as the all-powerful, omniscient writer?”
Unfortunately, while head hopping might not be all that apparent to you as the author, it’s incredibly obvious and distracting to readers.
Here’s how to avoid a head hop and stick with a singular viewpoint character throughout a single scene or story.
What is head hopping?
“Head hopping” occurs when a story or scene is told from the point of view of a single character, but then suddenly shifts into the point of view of a different character or the narrator. This happens when the writer accidentally include thoughts, observations, or details that the character at the current PoV can’t possibly know.
You’ll find head hopping sneaks in to your writing very easily, and even experienced writers often have to go back and sift through those moments during the editing process.
To understand how and why these moments happen, it’s important to talk about point of view and your pov character.
Point of view is just that—the point from which a story is told. Unless you’re dealing with a third-person omniscient point of view that’s separate from the events of the story, you’ll be telling the story from the perspective of one character at a time.
Regardless of if you’re telling the story from first person point of view (so your main character is describing the events happening to them and around them using “I” or “we”) or you’re telling the story from third person point of view (so the events are described with a slight step back from the main characters, with events described using “he,” “she,” or “they”), you’ll still be telling the story from those characters’ eyes and minds.
Because the story is told from those eyes and minds, the point of view is limited. Not every character will know everything going on in the story. They won’t know what the other characters around them are thinking.
(And if you’re thinking, “Yeah, sure, of course that makes sense—avoiding a head hop sounds easy-peasy,” just wait; we’ll show you some head hop examples that are all too easy to overlook and include.)
Why avoiding head hopping matters
Beyond just being jarring for the reader, head hopping also harms your story in a few key ways:
Head hopping takes away from the emotional impact of your scene
It’s critical that your readers form an emotional connection with your pov character (that’s why character arcs are so important!). However, establishing that connection is more difficult when you’re constantly switching between points of view and characters’ heads.
Make your scenes as powerful as they can be by allowing your readers to experience the scene through a singular pov character.
Head hopping makes it difficult for a reader to immerse themselves in your world
Great storytelling really immerses you in the author’s, narrator’s, or character’s thoughts. You can see what they’re seeing, hear what they’re hearing, feel and smell what they’re feeling and smelling.
However, just like head hopping takes away from the emotional impact of your scene, so does it also simultaneously make your scenes less immersive. How can a reader truly get into your character’s thoughts, when you’re constantly switching between points of view?
Make the reader immersion process easier by keeping things streamlined and singular for each scene.
Head hopping takes away from your story’s plot
An important part of developing an intriguing plot is creating a series of events that constantly leaves your reader asking questions. What’s going to happen next? Why is this happening? Why did that viewpoint character act that way?
But, if you’re constantly head hopping, letting your reader in on what everyone in a scene is thinking and feeling, it takes away from those questions. When a reader can know everything, there’s nothing to question. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a very fun reading experience.
Keep some things hidden from your reader, and only reveal key details and facts as it makes sense.
Head hopping may be a sign of a deeper issue
If you find yourself struggling significantly with head hopping, it might not be that you have just a head hopping issue. It might be a sign that there’s something more going on.
Have you considered that maybe you’re head hopping so much because you’ve chosen the wrong main viewpoint character—or at least the wrong viewpoint character for a particular scene?
Consider changing up your point of view. You may just find that what you needed all along was just a different viewpoint character to tell this part of the story.
Examples of head hopping
While it can be difficult to recognize head hopping in your own writing, it can be easier to see it someone else’s story. Here are a few examples of head hopping within the same scene.
Eleanore walked through the forest with trepidation, Jack beside her. She held his hand as she looked around, hoping not to see a beast between the trees. Did he feel the same fear coursing through his body?
Jack squeezed Eleanore’s hand as tight as he could without hurting her slender fingers. They had never held hands before, and the thought was as thrilling as the idea that there could very well be monsters in the woods.
This is about as basic as head hopping within the same scene can get.
You’ve got two characters in the same scene, but we’re in both their heads. We know what Eleanore is wondering, we know what Jack is feeling.
The easiest way to fix this? Simply axe one of their points of view and decide which character you want to stick with for this scene.
I had written my first book with gusto and proudly showed it off to my husband. I waited all day for him to come home from work, the printed pages neatly stacked on the dining room table. When he walked into the room at five-thirty, he didn’t like what he saw. His fingers begged him to throw the sheets off the table, scattering them across the clean carpet.
This example seems a bit innocuous, right? But how could our first-person narrator truly know what her husband saw or what he thought about it? They can’t. We just head hopped.
Here’s another example.
I took a whiff of the cauldron’s innards and crinkled my nose. The cloudy liquid smelled of dead things and something botanical, and I didn’t like it one bit. My face looked like I would vomit if I hovered over the cauldron any longer and, beside me, Barry chuckled.
While this example likewise seems totally normal, think about it. The only time you truly know what your own face looks like is if you’re looking in a mirror or a similarly reflective surface. So, in this scene, the only person who would truly know what the narrator’s face looks like would be Barry. Hence, we’ve hopped into another character’s head.
How to avoid head hops
So how can you avoid filling your story with inadvertent instances of hopping between multiple viewpoint characters? Here are a few tips.
Don’t overextend your story’s povs
One easy thing you can do that will help you avoid head hopping? Don’t try to do too much with too many povs. Once you start getting into multiple point-of-view stories that include more than three or four main characters (think Game of Thrones, with all the characters you could ever want), it can be incredibly easy to start mixing up your povs mid-scene.
Maybe you’re telling a scene from one character’s mind, and they’re having a conversation with another person. You forget who knows what and you’re excitedly writing your story, and you begin sprinkling in one character’s thoughts right after the other’s.
Many writers hone their pov craft by writing a story from just one character’s perspective first, before moving on to more complex character casts that require a bit of agile pov juggling.
Limit povs to one per scene
Some types of writing, such as the murder mystery or romance genre, dig into the perspective of more than one character. Even if you’re using several viewpoint characters within the same story, however, make sure that you limit each scene to one character’s perspective. Consider the events of each scene and what character needs to be there most, or what character’s experience within the scene might be most interesting to your reader.
Sometimes, you may want to choose a specific character to experience an entire scene so that your reader won’t know what another character is doing at the same time (this is especially the case if you have a character with a big secret that you don’t want to reveal until later in your plot).
To indicate a scene or chapter break and point of view shift in your work, you can simply insert a scene break indicator in your text (the general standard in publishing is to insert a line break and the pound sign—#—centrally aligned, before starting the next scene on the next line). You can also end the chapter and start a new one, which also can indicate a new scene or a second viewpoint character.
Get a good sense of each of your characters’ viewpoints
Once you’ve decided on one character’s viewpoint that you’re going to focus on for a scene, it’s important to think about what exactly their viewpoint consists of. What does that character know? What do they not know? What can they see? What can they not see?
It can be helpful to make a list of these things as you’re writing or editing, to ensure you stay on track.
Things within my main character’s viewpoint:
All current and background knowledge
Things not within my character’s viewpoint:
Other characters’ knowledge
Other characters’ thoughts
Other characters’ emotions
Other characters’ sensations
As you make this list, be specific. Here’s an example.
Maybe your protagonist, Jan, knows that their love interest Doug’s best friend is dead. Jan is thinking about how sad it is and feeling how sad it is, but is also confused as to how the best friend died. She’s also experiencing all the sensations of the world around her. Maybe the air conditioner is turned up too high, so she’s feeling chilly while at the hospital, where the doctor delivers the news.
Doug, on the other hand, knows that he actually killed his best friend, and he’s thinking about how he can hide that from Jan. His emotion is pure panic, which means he’s burning hot, despite the overworked air conditioner at the hospital. Jan knows none of this.
But remember—just because you’re focusing in on a singular viewpoint for a scene, that doesn’t mean you have to make your secondary character a blank slate.
Jan may not know that Doug feels warm, but she can observe that he’s sweating. She can see his body language, and if he’s displaying any particular behaviors associated with panic, like nervously tapping his fingers or pacing. This allows you to feed information to the reader without a “head hop” into the other character.
Immerse yourself in your chosen character’s viewpoint
You want your reader to become immersed in your story—in your characters’ points of view. To achieve that goal, start by immersing yourself within your chosen character’s viewpoint as you’re writing.
If you’re in the drafting stage, once you’ve decided which POV you’ll be using for a scene (or the entire story), really try to get into the head of that character. While you need to know all the details an omniscient POV might know while outlining or plotting, in order to tell an expertly crafted story (everyone’s secrets, backgrounds, motives, etcetera), while drafting, try to put that information out of your mind and experience the events of the story along with your character.
You may just find that, when you focus on one particular character, rather than focusing in on the plot structure only, you end up telling a story that’s more immersive and emotionally charged—while also avoiding head hopping.
Use your character’s limited POV to your advantage
Still bemoaning the loss of information that head hopping reveals to your reader? Maybe reframe your mindset and consider how losing the head hopping actually helps you develop stronger characters.
Think about it.
If you’re correctly sticking with just one point of view for a scene or story, then your character will be making natural guesses or inferences as to what those around them are also thinking and feeling. You can use these natural guesses to show your reader how your main character thinks, operates, and reacts.
For example, maybe you have a character with a traumatic background who has a difficult time trusting others. That character may not always trust the facial expressions of those around them. They might always be looking for signs of lying. Instead of inferring that another character smiling means they’re happy, they might wonder if the smile is truthful, if it’s genuine, or if it’s hiding something. They might overanalyze body language.
Likewise, you might have a character who always sees the good in things. In their limited point of view, they might end up missing key details that show someone’s a villain, or that something bad is coming their way. This would not only make your protagonist more realistic, but it would also help further the plot. Remember—in real life, our preconceptions keep us from seeing other perspectives all the time.
Still need to give your central character (and your reader) insight that they wouldn’t know unless you do a little head hopping? Look for other ways to deliver that information beyond just jumping into the nearest person’s brain.
Maybe your character glimpses a newspaper headline or they overhear something on the radio. Maybe someone in line in the grocery store is discussing a rumor or current event. Eavesdropping can go a long way to delivering information your character needs without the need to hop heads.
How to fix head hopping in your story
But what if you’ve already written a complete novel or short story? You can’t keep head hopping in mind and avoid it as you’re drafting, because you’ve already drafted the thing—and only now realizing you have a pretty hefty tome filled with a whole lotta head hopping.
The good news? You can fix it.
The bad news? It might take a little time.
Let’s take a look at some of our examples of head hopping above and how they could potentially be fixed with a little editing.
We’ll start with our first-person narrator with the rude husband who may not approve of their writing career.
While the first character cannot know exactly what their husband is seeing or how they feel about it, they can make a guess based on observation (and humans often do make observation-based guesses, accurate or not, as to what the people around them are thinking and feeling!).
Here’s how you might edit that passage.
I had written my first book with gusto and proudly showed it off to my husband. I waited all day for him to come home from work, the printed pages neatly stacked on the dining room table. When he walked into the room at five-thirty, I could tell by his scowl that he didn’t like what he saw. As I looked at his twitching hands, it was as if his fingers were begging him to throw the sheets off the table, scattering them across the clean carpet.
What about our first-person narrator who smells something nasty in the cauldron? That’s an example that’s easy to overlook, but also easily fixable. Here’s how.
I took a whiff of the cauldron’s innards and crinkled my nose. The cloudy liquid smelled of dead things and something botanical, and I didn’t like it one bit. I felt like I would vomit if I hovered over the cauldron any longer and, beside me, Barry chuckled.
While a character’s pov always comes with the limitation of not knowing what another character sees, they will always know what they themselves are feeling.
Head hopping versus an omniscient point of view narrator
“But,” you protest, “I’ve seen head hopping done in lots of classic literature! Why is it such a big deal?”
Chance are, you didn’t actually see head hopping in that piece of classic lit. Instead, what you probably saw was the author using an omniscient narrator.
Briefly mentioned above, an omniscient POV is almost a character all on their own. Unlike third-person limited, an omniscient POV knows everything about everyone. They usually have a distinct voice and will provide commentary about the various plot points and characters. They actively tell your readers the story.
You’ll have an objective or a subjective omniscient narrator. Objective omniscient narrators will not input an opinion into the narrative; instead, they only tell the story. However, a subjective omniscient narrator does indeed have an opinion, and isn’t afraid to share it with your readers.
If you have an omniscient narrator, then, yes, they can get away with a lot of the taboos that would be considered bad writing otherwise. However, before just deciding you have an omniscient POV and allowing that fact to cover a host of head hopping sins, really think about your story. Ask yourself…
Does your omniscient speaker have their own distinct point of view?
Does the narrator have a point of view that differs from that of the characters’?
Is your story told in third-person (which is necessary for an omniscient narrator)?
If you answered “yes,” to the above, chances are good you truly do have an omniscient narrator.
If you’re considering using an omniscient narrator in an upcoming work, also consider reading a few books that feature third-person POV characters so you’re accustomed to the style. Popular books that you may have even already read that feature a third-person omniscient narrator include…
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Here are some examples of how these books use omniscient narration.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This iconic first line from Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen is not the opinion of any of the book’s characters, but, instead, that of the all-seeing narrator.
Check out this example from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, in which the narrator directly addresses the audience.
As young readers like to know “how people look,” we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within. It was a comfortable room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture very plain, for a good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home peace pervaded it.
How do you pick the right point of view?
As you’ve probably realized given all of the above, picking the right point of view for your story is one of the most importance choices you’ll make as a writer—especially if you want to avoid head hopping.
Pick the right POV and you’ll end up with a stellar story that grips a reader’s attention and heart. Pick the wrong POV and you might just end up rewriting an entire manuscript.
There are several types of POV that you could choose from, and POV in and of itself is an entirely different conversation. However, here are the POV questions you’ll want to ask yourself if you’re specifically trying to avoid head hopping.
Can I tell this story through just one character?
First-person POV is told from a singular character’s point of view. If you know you struggle with head hopping currently, this voice may be the most difficult for you to write in. You’ll be stuck in one character’s head for the entire duration of the story.
However, while single-character, first-person POV comes with its limitations, it’s also easier for some to write in. It doesn’t require juggling multiple characters in the same paragraph and you can really immerse yourself in a single character’s viewpoint.
Benefits of a single POV:
Greater emotional connection to the main character
Greater development of the main character’s voice
Disadvantages of a single POV:
You’re stuck conveying the entire plot through one single character and one character only
Do I need an all-knowing narrator at the helm of my story?
But what if you need a narrator who’s going to tell it all and know it all? You might go with an omniscient third-person POV, as discussed above. Again, this comes with its pros and cons.
Advantages of an omniscient third-person POV:
You can reveal anything and everything to your reader, whenever you want, no head hopping or head hopping work-arounds necessary
You can develop your narrator as a voice and identity separate from your cast of characters, if you so wish
Disadvantages of an omniscient third-person POV:
Nailing a distinctive omniscient voice can be tricky
With great power comes great responsibility; is your craft finely honed enough that you will know the exact right times to reveal information to your reader?
Do I need a mix of multiple characters’ viewpoints?
Most likely, you’re going to say ‘yes’ to this head hopping-related question on viewpoint. Many books are written using two POV characters (or more), as it allows for a writer to work with multiple characters and their viewpoints, picking and choosing what viewpoint to use and when. This is called “third-person limited POV.”
Advantages of third-person limited POV:
You can pick and choose which character POV will best serve your plot’s purposes in which scene
You can introduce your reader to a range of character POVs and plot information in a way that you just can’t with a first-person or third-person singular POV
Disadvantages of third-person limited POV:
This is the POV where you’re most likely to fall into head hopping without realizing it
Is head hopping ever okay?
Despite all of the above, some writers will still argue that head hopping isn’t a sign of poor writing, especially when done in small quantities. Some will even say that head hopping is acceptable in some genres—like if you write romance and are already be splitting your story across two points of view.
However, while head hopping might not always be completely noticeable to some, there are still better ways to write and passages that currently include head hopping can be improved upon. Consider head hopping one of the basic rules when you write fiction, and only break it if there’s a good reason.
The final word on head hopping
Head hopping is one of those writerly obstacles that can seem insurmountable when one first begins writing. However, as one becomes more skilled in their craft and learns to detect the nuances of point of view, character building, and plot, it’s easy to see how head hopping is a detriment to your writing rather than a convenient way to convey information.
With the tips above, you can start drafting your next story with a clear idea of what perspective you want to use, and how to stick with it—or, if you’re editing a previously written story, you can star recognizing instances of head hopping and, with a little work, edit and polish your story to perfection.