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Head-hopping

Recently a writer working on her first novel sent her first chapter for one of my single-chapter edits. She admitted to being very new at it, and was open to learning. One thing that jumped (hopped?) right out was “head-hopping”—sudden shifts in point of view within a scene while in the close third person.

I’ve always been opposed to this, but back in the early days of my blog, Flogging the Quill, I wondered if I was I taking the wrong stance—there are romance novels in which it is common, although I know a romance acquisitions editor who hates the practice. So I surveyed a number of New York publishing pros—mostly editors, but agents and reviewers, too–and asked for their views.

It peeves an executive editor of a New York publishing house:

I share your peeve about “head-hopping”—apt term. So thanks for letting me blather on about it.

I think it’s OK to do it so long there is only one point of view per discernible section. (RR: italics mine.) That is to say, so long as there’s something to represent to the reader that there has been some kind of jump. A chapter or a space break or something.

But when it happens in the middle of continuous action, it’s a serious problem. Basically, if you tell your story with recourse to everyone’s head at all times, you’re basically throwing out all the rules and permitting yourself everything. And if you are permitting yourself everything, then you also forfeit the right to hide anything of narrative importance—who the killer is, for instance—without cheating in a major way.

I’ve always tried to tell the writers that I work with that some kind of consistency of point of view—some ground rules that the reader can grasp—is an essential element of what is an epistemological problem. How does the reader know what he knows? Of course the author knows everything in advance—after all, he came up with the story. But he has to maintain the illusion that the reader and the narrative are on the same footing, discovering at the same time what the author has cooked up. After all, once the reader knows everything, the narrative is over.

Mystery stories are great examples of this kind of narrative epistemology. I always pointed out to the writers I worked with that all the Sherlock Holmes tales were narrated in the first person and by Holmes’s friend, for very sound reasons. Had Doyle used third person, a reader might well ask, “If you are employing the omniscient narrator, then you know everything, including the killer’s identity. In which case you should tell us!” Whereas by using Dr. Watson, he shields himself from this accusation. Dr. Watson can’t possibly know the outcome in advance, and so he reports on the action and shares with the reader the process of discovery. Watson knows enough to introduce Holmes to the reader, but once the story starts, he knows as much as the reader does.

With the advent in the twentieth century of close third person, the objection on the basis of omniscience is less relevant. A writer can use a kind of limited omniscience narrative. And I think that’s OK. Provided nothing is hidden. Agatha Christie used to use a Dr. Watson-like device for her Poirot novels, but then got rid of it, no doubt when she realized that simply following Poirot in close[-enough] third person was sufficient.

Still, that doesn’t excuse her gross violation of this principle in The ABC Murders, where she expands her omniscience but nonetheless hides crucial elements from the reader merely as a ploy to keep the mystery going.

So I think it’s very important, in head-hopping, to keep the points of view distinct through the use of clearly demarked boundaries—space breaks, chapters, etc.—and also to make sure that each point of view is seen divulging the entirety of its knowledge of the narrative. (RR: I think of this approach as “point-of-view shifts” rather than “head-hopping,” the former being clearly signaled breaks limited to reasonably long, discreet segments of narrative and the latter sudden, unrestricted, unmotivated jumps in the midst of action.) .

Nonetheless, I do see many bestselling works of fiction that practice “head-hopping” in continuous action, and no one seems to care. Well, not “no one,” but nearly—I thought I was it until your email came along.

Perhaps in terms of encouraging writers, it’s best to focus on what consistency in use of point of view can deliver, and get away from what it’s meant to avoid. The masterpieces of unreliable narration, from The Aspern Papers to The Remains of the Day—not to mention Ron Howard’s adaptation of A Beautiful Mind—all attest to the power of point of view. In other words, don’t make point of view just a vehicle of narrative, make it a partner, or a driving force, in narrative.

A top Writers House literary agent wrote to say…

I am in absolute agreement with you. People do it, but, for the most part, it doesn’t work (I’m not going to say never, because this is fiction we’re talking about, not algebra). “Hopping,” as you’ve put it, distances the reader from the close emotional connection with the central point-of-view character in the scene, it draws attention to the fact that writing is an artifice (destroying the “suspension of disbelief” that reading a novel usually though not always entails), and it generally just plain sounds awkward. Unless it’s masterfully pulled off, it usually signals a lack of control of authorial voice, to my mind.

Technically speaking . . .

Here’s something on the subject by Canadian author and professor Crawford Kilian that describes “episodically limited third-person omniscient pov,” a viable alternative to a single close third-person narrator.

Whoever is the point of view for a particular scene determines the persona. An archbishop sees and describes events from his particular point of view, while a pickpocket does so quite differently. So the narrator, in a scene from the archbishop’s point of view, has a persona quite different from that of the pickpocket: a different vocabulary, a different set of values, a different set of priorities. As a general rule, point of view should not change during a scene. (RR: italics mine) So if an archbishop is the point of view in a scene involving him and a pickpocket, we shouldn’t suddenly switch to the pickpocket’s point of view until we’ve resolved the scene and moved on to another scene.

Bottom line: I think these comments tell you that maintaining a consistent point of view within a scene is the best craft, but that a novelist can change point of view from scene to clearly differentiated scene if well done. Like many authors, I use different points of view from chapter to chapter and sometimes within chapters in my novels. I don’t believe that a novel must have only one point of view—my ire only rises over caroming from skull to skull within a scene or a moment.

For what it’s worth.

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About Ray Rhamey [1]

Ray Rhamey [2] is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He's also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com [2], offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray's books at rayrhamey.com [3].