I just saw someone on Twitter ask a question about “head-hopping,” but it became clear they were actually asking about third-person shifting POV.* What’s the difference?
“Head-hopping” happens when the writer loses track of who knows what in the story. Not every character knows everything that’s happening. They know what they think, but they don’t necessarily know every other character’s thoughts, motivations, beliefs, and so on.
Multiple third-person POV, however, keeps the focus on one character at a time, perhaps chapter by chapter. Having more than one POV character is neither new nor uncommon.
It’s vital for a writer to keep characters’ thoughts in their heads, to be spoken by them when they decide to reveal them. Losing track can mean, for example, that the old woman on the street corner is thinking or saying things that only the young person down the block, whom she is observing, knows or would say. Let’s work with that for a moment. Sadie is waiting for the bus. She’s rolling things around in her head: the bus number, her destination, what she’ll do when she gets there. Down the block, the young person (male, female, enby, who knows, doesn’t matter right now) is watching for someone they’re supposed to meet. It may look, to Sadie, like they’re watching her. If she’s our POV character, we expect that her thoughts would reflect this: nervousness, perhaps fear, maybe curiosity.
If the writer has lost the thread, though, Sadie might unexplainably feel anticipation or excitement, perhaps as the person Jaden is meeting walks past her. She doesn’t know the person, nor does she know about the meeting. Sadie has no reason to react to the person. We’ve hopped heads. (This is a very poor, very obvious example. I’m not a fiction writer, nor do I claim to be. I’m hard pressed to remember a specific example of this issue; it’s been years, literally, since I’ve had to point it out to a client.)
It’s more than just a shift in perspective. It’s the information from one character’s perspective coming from a different character entirely, one who has no access to it. That is head-hopping.
If the writer has a handle on perspectives, the characters’ thoughts and motivations will stay in their own heads, as it should be. Perspectives can shift from chapter to chapter, but the characters still know what they know and not what each other knows. (Unless we’re in certain spec-fic settings, but that’s a different kind of post entirely. “Sense-8,” anyone?)
#AmEditing #HeadHopping #Craft #Writing #POV
*Edit: A few hours after I wrote and published this, I had a brief and pleasant chat with the Twitter user whose thread inspired it. As it happens, he was indeed asking specifically about intentional use of head-hopping. The commenters on that thread misunderstood and veered toward multiple POV, and a few of us were wondering aloud (as one does in tweets) what had actually been meant by the question. Regardless, this post is my perspective on the difference.