Head-hopping means that the viewpoint shifts between characters without a proper transition (in other words a scene break).
Switching from one viewpoint character to another, experiencing the mind and heart of one character for a moment, only to be forced to switch focus to another character a paragraph or two later, will throw the reader off balance.
This practice abruptly pulls the reader from one point of view and thrusts her, unwillingly, into another.
When one moment the reader is enjoying Veronica’s viewpoint, seeing the world through her eyes, appreciating events through the filter of her experiences, and in the very next moment the reader is forced to watch events through David’s eyes and sensibilities, we've head-hopped. Readers are shaken from their identification with Veronica and left scrambling to get used to a totally different point of view (David's).
Thus, at a chapter break or a scene break, clearly marked in the text, readers are prepared for a possible change in point of view or viewpoint character.
When you introduce the viewpoint character in the first few words...
"David took a step back so that Roger wouldn't see him."
Readers are able to quickly acclimate to the change.
Changing the viewpoint character in mid-paragraph is like slapping your reader upside the head and shouting, "Hey! Look over here now!"
The momentum of the story is stopped. This pulls the reader out of believing the fiction she bought the book to enjoy.
When the reader does not catch on right away when the events or the character’s words suddenly don't fit the character she thought she was following, her interest in the story crashes. If we repeatedly yank the reader from one character’s mind to another, she's just going to give up and find another book.
The brief and simple advice? Don’t head-hop. Don’t do anything to distract your reader from the fiction. Keep to one character’s point of view until there’s a logical place and reason to change.
- Choose one character to present a scene. Showing every character’s thoughts and feelings is not a good option. Who has the most at stake in a scene? Consider him or her as the viewpoint character for that scene.
- Change POV or viewpoint character ONLY if doing so serves the story.
- Keep the readers in mind as you write. Understand their investment in and identification with a character.
- Change viewpoint characters ONLY in logical places, at scene or chapter breaks.
- Make sure you have a good reason to change either POV or viewpoint character.
The practice of indiscriminately jumping from head to head can definitely work against the rich imaginary world and fictional experiences you've taken pains to create.
>>> Here’s an example of head-hopping viewpoint by an amateur writer:
“David walked into the room. Kathy sat in a green chair, feeling sad and crying. David was curious, but when he stared at her she didn't want him to know how sad she really was so she turned away. David wondered what was making her cry. Kathy knew, but she couldn't bring herself to tell him. David was confused.”
See how you’re yanked back and forth by that scene?
>>> Here’s a correct version, from David’s viewpoint:
“Walking into the room, David saw Kathy sitting in her old green chair, weeping. He felt pity for her and he wondered what was wrong. But Kathy turned away quickly, and David realized that she didn't want him to see her tears. She was probably trying to spare him the pain. Still, as he stared at her back, David was confused.”
>>> Or, from Kathy's viewpoint:
“David walked into the room. Kathy was sitting in her favorite old green chair, feeling sad and crying. David looked curious, but when he stared at her, she didn't want him to know how sad she really was so she turned away. She knew David probably wondered what was making her cry. But she was determined to keep it a secret, even if it did confuse David.”
Your viewpoint character can experience his own internal processes, and observe and make guesses about other people and their motivation and thoughts and attitudes. But that is all he can do.
- Readers see what he sees and nothing more.
- Readers know what he knows and nothing more.
- Readers hear only what he hears and nothing more and
- Readers feel only the emotions he can feel and nothing more.
When a cranky writer asks me, “Why can't I change viewpoint within a scene?”
I say, “Sure. You can do that the ﬁrst time you prove to me that you have spent even one instant out of your own single, restricted viewpoint in real life.”
And that’s not just my point of view.