Things That Make Me Head-Hopping Angry

AngerI get it. For every writing rule, there’s a writer breaking it and it WORKS, and that drives some people nuts. I’ve seen it; I’ve done it. My answer to “How many point of view characters can I have?” or “Can I write in second-person-plural-with-a-twist-of-lime?” or pretty much anything else except for the proper use of the semicolon [I love my semicolons; don’t make me come down there] is “It depends.”

Many writers have been taught that head hopping, or bouncing back and forth between multiple point-of-view characters, is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG and you should NEVER do it or we will all, as a body, smite you and take away your laptops. 

But let’s parse this out for a minute. And please remember that this is just my opinion as a reader and as an editor. Your actual mileage may vary.

There’s a danged good reason a point-of-view character is the cornerstone of a novel. We want someone to follow, someone to identify with. Even if we don’t like a character, if they are interesting enough and empathetic enough, we will be interested in the character’s fate. Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, Zombie, once made me care about a serial killer. She’s just that good. So go ahead and add another POV if you want. They can bounce off each other. Add a third, a fourth, a fifth…as long as your storyline can support them and you can make them clear, distinct, and purposeful.

A general rule of thumb is that a short story works better with one or two point-of-view characters. A novella might carry three, rarely four. A full-length novel gives you a lot of real estate, and more room for character development. But if you don’t give a reader enough of a reason to care about a POV character, or if a character does not go through his or her own transition during the story or in some important way help the main protagonists achieve what they want, why waste the words? Why squander that opportunity and lead readers in a deceptive direction when that POV character is only going to be in the story for three lousy paragraphs?

If you’re writing for readers (and I assume you are), try not to lose sight of the fact that when they open your book, they are experiencing your universe for the first time. You know a lot more about your characters than they do. You might know that Fred was a bartender and part-time exotic dancer in a sleazy dive in Singapore before he had a near-death experience and decided to devote his life to saving the Madagascar hissing cockroach from unsavory deaths as gross-food props for reality television. The reader doesn’t. You already know that Suzie ran away from her evil stepfather and fell into a life of reciting beat poetry on street corners for pocket change until a mysterious billionaire dropped a honking big tip into her hat and she pursued her dream of producing a TV show called “Eat Disgusting Stuff For Dollars.” So introduce us to them…gradually.

This is often why authors of writing books and blogs tell us to go slowly on the POV switching. That’s why they say to alternate chapters or at least scenes. It’s to help readers get oriented to your world. When we’re good friends, you might be able to mix it up a little, especially when the action gets fierce.

But this is a representation of what I’ve been seeing lately:

Fred thought Suzie was nuts for watching that trash on the tube and he might have told her so, but whenever she flashed those big, hazel eyes he lost his mind. But just then Suzie looked at him and felt weak in the knees, a sensation she hadn’t experienced since Watergate. Dr. Katydid wandered into the lab and wondered if he had any granola bars in his desk, because he was peckish from missing lunch owing to his wife’s emergency lobotomy, which he didn’t want to tell anyone about because he was on the verge of a huge breakthrough. Suzie wished he’d scram because Fred just looked at her in a really interesting way…

Are we confused yet? And we haven’t even met Dr. Katydid’s wife’s lawyer’s nephew!

Unless we are well grounded in the story and know these personalities, popping around like this runs the risk of kicking the reader out.

Working with a large cast of POV characters is a challenge. Make sure each of them gets enough time in the spotlight: one at a time.

Have you seen this in books you’ve read? Did it work?

12 thoughts on “Things That Make Me Head-Hopping Angry

  1. Tasha Turner says:

    I’ve read a few too many books that resemble that paragraph. And I do mean entire books written that way. It’s painful. But good head hopping is great fun!

  2. lynnecantwell7 says:

    Great post, Laurie. I hate the standard “different chapters for different PoV” advice. (This from a person who just wrote 7 books in 1st person. But anyway.) I do think it’s okay to include multiple PoVs in the same chapter, and even in the same scene — BUT. As you point out here, it needs to be handled carefully. You can’t grunch them all together in a single paragraph. And also — as you point out — the reader’s gotta be able to tell the characters apart by more than names and facial tics (or whatever).

    I wonder whether these misguided authors are aiming for 3rd person omniscient and getting 3rd person mishmash….

    Also: you can have my semicolons after you pry my cold, dead fingers off the keyboard.

  3. acflory says:

    -raises hand- I used to be a closet head-hopper. I think I was trying to reproduce that visceral quality you get in movies when the camera flits from close-up to close-up, catching those fleeting ‘candid camera’ moments.

    It’s a nice idea in principle but impossible to achieve with just the written word. We can sometimes fudge it by having the POV of the moment ‘see’ those tell-tale expressions on someone else, but like chocolate biscuits, too much of a good thing will make you sick.

    I am now a reformed head-hopper…

  4. JD Mader says:

    This is a great post. And I skirt this line pretty closely sometimes. You’re right, it can be done well, but it can be done so very badly, too. And I like semi-colons, too, despite my respect for Kurt Vonnegut. 😉

  5. Peabea says:

    As always, very helpful Laurie. I’m new to this and trying to work on editing one and finish another that I may or may not end up publishing. As you say, I know my characters in my head, but introducing them is tricky. I agree, Joe’ Cafe was easy to recognize each character and follow along with how they fit into the story.

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