Are your readers bouncing from one character’s head to another in the same scene? You might be head-hopping. This article shows you how to spot it in your fiction writing, understand its impact, and fix it.
Rebus pushed open the wrought-iron gate. No sound from its hinges, the garden to either side of the flagstone path well tended. Two bins – one landfill, one garden waste – had already been placed on the pavement outside. None of the neighbours had got round to it yet. Rebus rang the doorbell and waited. The door was eventually opened by a man the same age as him, though he looked half a decade younger. Bill Rawlston had kept himself trim since retirement, and the eyes behind the half-moon spectacles retained their keen intelligence.
‘John Rebus,’ he said, a sombre look on his face as he studied Rebus from top to toe.
‘Have you heard?’
Rawlston’s mouth twitched. ‘Of course I have. But nobody’s saying it’s him yet.’
‘Only a matter of time.’
‘Aye, I suppose so.’ Rawlston gave a sigh and stepped back into the hall. ‘You better come in then. Tea or something that bit stronger?’
‘Sugar?’ Rawlston asked. ‘I can’t remember.’
‘Just milk, thanks.’ Not that Rebus was planning on drinking the tea; he was awash with the stuff after his trip to Leith. But the making of the drinks had given him time to size up Bill Rawlston. And Rawlston, too, he knew, would have been using the time to do some thinking.
Anaylsis: Tight third-person limited narration
Rebus is the viewpoint character. That means the internal experiences we access are limited to his. For example:
We cannot get in Rawlston’s head. All we can do is consider his internal experiences via his observable and audible behaviour, and his dialogue. For example:
What head-hopping would look like
Here’s what that excerpt might look like if there was head-hopping going on:
Rebus pushed open the wrought-iron gate. No sound from its hinges, the garden to either side of the flagstone path well tended. Two bins – one landfill, one garden waste – had already been placed on the pavement outside. None of the neighbours had got round to it yet. Rebus rang the doorbell and waited.
Bill Rawlston walked down the hall and peered through the peephole. Rebus. Same age as him, though he looked half a decade older. He opened the door.
Rawlston had kept himself trim since retirement, and the eyes behind the half-moon spectacles retained their keen intelligence.
‘John Rebus,’ he said, a knot forming in his stomach as he studied Rebus from top to toe.
‘Have you heard?’
The question riled him. Was Rebus stupid? ‘Of course I have. But nobody’s saying it’s him yet.’
‘Only a matter of time.’
‘Aye, I suppose so.’ Rawlston begrudged letting Rebus in but stepped back into the hall. ‘You better come in then. Tea or something that bit stronger?’
‘Sugar?’ Rawlston asked. ‘I can’t remember.’
‘Just milk, thanks.’ Not that Rebus was planning on drinking the tea; he was awash with the stuff after his trip to Leith. But the making of the drinks had given him time to size up Bill Rawlston.
Rawlston had used the time to do some thinking, too. Rebus turning up here after all those years – it pissed him off.
Analysis: Confused narration
Notice how we bounce between the heads of Rebus and Rawlston. Now we have access to the internal experiences of both.
In that butchered version, the reader is forced to play a game of ping-pong on the page.
Why head-hopping spoils fiction
Here are 4 reasons to hold viewpoint rather than head-hopping:
1. Head-hopping renders a story less immersive
In Rankin’s original prose, we are limited to the world of the novel as Rebus experiences it. That’s powerful because every word on the page is a step we take with Rebus, as Rebus. I get to be a male, Scottish detective for a few hours rather than a female, English book editor!
In my butchered version, I take that first step with Rebus but then trip and fall into Rawlston. Because I’m bouncing between those characters’ internal experiences, I don’t have time to invest in either. And so I stay as lil’ ol’ me.
I do like being me, but when I buy one of Rankin’s books I want to immerse myself in its world for a few hours at a time and dig deep under the skin of the viewpoint character. I can be me without paying fifteen quid for the privilege!
2. Head-hopping diminishes suspense
In the original text, Rankin keeps the suspense tight by allowing us to access only Rebus’s senses. Rawlston’s sombre expression, twitching mouth and curt responses make Rebus (and us) think, Does he want me here? Does he begrudge my presence? What’s going on in his head?
Those questions demand answers and we seek them in the clues offered by the limited narrative. Because the limited viewpoint requires Rebus and the reader to make assumptions based on what’s observable and audible, there’s uncertainty. That’s what provides the suspense, and it compels us to keep reading in the hope that the truth will be unveiled.
In my head-hopping version, the prose is flat. There are no questions. We know what everyone’s thinking because we’re in everyone’s head. Readers aren’t called upon to use their imagination – both characters’ internal experiences are spoon-fed to us.
3. Head-hopping is less authentic
Head-hopping reminds readers that they are in a story written by an author. We don’t get to suspend belief because the writing won’t allow us to immerse ourselves that deeply.
In Rankin’s original prose, we walk through the world as if we are Rebus, and Rebus alone. That’s what happens in real life. I know only what I’m thinking, feeling, seeing and hearing. I can’t be sure than another’s perception is the same. Audio-visual signals help me make reasonable assumptions but I’m only ever in my own head … or Rebus’s if I’m reading a story about him because Rankin knows how to hold viewpoint.
In my mangled version of the excerpt, there’s a reality flop. Now I’m everyone, which is ridiculous of course. Authenticity has fallen off a cliff.
4. Head-hopping can be confusing
When a writer head-hops, the reader has to keep track of whose thoughts and emotions are being experienced. When a reader doesn’t know where they are in a novel for even a few seconds, that’s a literary misfire.
This is what happens in the head-hopping excerpt. For example, Rawlston walks down the hall and identifies Rebus through the peephole. We’re right with him, in his head. But what follows is jarring. That he reports on his spectacles sitting in front of keenly intelligent eyes is oddly self-aware.
Of course, it’s not Rawlston’s perception; it’s Rebus’s. And once we realize that, the prose makes sense. But working that out is not where Rankin wants the reader’s attention. He’s telling us a story and he wants us to read it. That’s why he holds a tight limited viewpoint throughout.
Make a list of the characters in a chapter or scene. Identify the viewpoint character.
There can be more than one viewpoint character in a book but most commercial fiction authors separate them by chapters or sections.
Here’s a quick way to check whether you’re holding viewpoint.
Viewpoint characters: What the reader can access
Non-viewpoint characters: What the reader can access
Some examples to show you the way
Even if your readers don’t know what head-hopping is, by removing it from your novel you’ll give them a more immersive, suspenseful and authentic journey through the world you’ve built.
Plus, you’ll ensure they’re reading your story, not trying to work out who’s telling it.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
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