A friend of mine recently told me that she could no longer read a book if it shifted points of view (or “head hopped” as it is also known) too frequently. More, that she had learned from her writing group that frequent point of view (pov) shifts are wrong and she could no longer write stories like that.
Using more than one pov in a novel, a short story, even in a paragraph is a technique. There is nothing inherently wrong or right about it. And yet I keep hearing people say that it is a sign of bad writing, especially in the US of A:
- Emma Bull protested over the head hopping, saying that it was sloppy style and removed all suspense from the scene. In a later discussion, Mely mentioned that the main point of romance isn’t suspense, and so the head hopping is perfectly fine in romance the way it wouldn’t be in mystery or SF/fantasy, which so often does rely on reader ignorance.
Which is to say that head hopping is a more common technique in romance than it is in mystery or SF/fantasy. It is not sloppy style! Besides, it can increase tension to show the different characters having completely different takes on the same situation. So i don’t even buy that it removes suspense.
Joseph Conrad was the master of head hopping. Famously he wrote paragraphs where the pov shifted from sentence to sentence. In one paragraph you get to jump into four or five heads. And he’s such a genius of a writer you have absolutely no problem telling them apart nor do you get dizzy. The only reason it’s not a great idea for a beginning writer to try this is that it’s really, really, really hard. But maybe that’s exactly why a beginning writer should give it a go. Just to see how tricky it is.
The injunction against head hopping is just part of a whole raft of prohibitions I keep hearing about. There’s also the words you should avoid.1 The parts of speech ditto: especially the humble adverb and adjective.
Most of these injunctions, when I press people about them, seem to stem from creative writing classes and workshops and various writers groups. This drives me insane not just because it’s a lazy way to teach but because it’s creating readers who dismiss very fine writing as bad or unreadable because it deploys techniques they’ve been told are wrong.
Let me repeat: no writing technique is bad per se. Sure, it can be done badly, but that’s an entirely different issue. Writing that obeys all the writing workshop rules and deploys not a single adjective or adverb can also completely suck.
When my friend submitted her first piece of writing to her critique group they jumped all over her for the frequent shifts in point of view. Instead of saying, “We were confused and could not tell the various points of view apart. You need to make them more distinct and the transitions cleaner. Or perhaps the multiple povs is getting in the way of your story and you should cut down to only one or two,” they told her that head hopping is bad writing and she should only ever use one. She didn’t learn how to shift povs cleanly; she learned to remove a technique not only from her repertoire as a writer, but also from her set of pleasures as a reader.
That makes me want to cry and not just because she’s a really good writer.
Or it would if I really believed it. But too many people who claim to hate head hopping then tell me that one of their favourite writers is Dorothy Dunnett, or Joseph Conrad. or some other writer who freqently shifts points of view.
“I like clean, spare writing,” they’ll tell me, “without any of those rubbish adjectives or adverbs.” Next breath they’ll be confessing their love for Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler.
- The list I cite of Margo Lanagan’s prohibited words is largely meant in jest. Her main point is not that you avoid those words, but that you think carefully about how you deploy them. I suspect that most writing teachers’ list of banned words operate in the same way. Unfortunately, some of their students take the wrong message from the lesson and seriously believe that “corruscating” is an evil bad word that only hacks use. Tell that to Angela Carter. [↩]
I admit that, as an editor, I have an aversion to head hopping—to me this term refers to arbitrarily shifting viewpoint for the sake of shifting point of view. Not to say that I don’t enjoy a book told from multiple viewpoints. I think it is a great technique. But it should probably be a choice made for the sake of the story rather than for the sake of simply using as many viewpoints as possible.
I see many, many, many beginning writers who switch viewpoints freely without the techniques that go with it. If I know whose head I’m in at any particular time, I’m happy. If I have to read three paragraphs to see that you’ve changed viewpoint and then go back and re-read–well, that’s where you need some editing.
Of course that isn’t referring to your work, Justine. You do a nice clean job of keeping your viewpoints clean.
I am making noises of profound agreement.
I have a book coming out next year in omniscient. You have no idea how many people I had to explain the concept of omniscient to, in detail, to get it into print.
I’m sure there will be whinging.
yes, yes, yes! though i have to admit, it took me a while to figure this out for myself. writing rules are just warning signs, not barricades.
i think the point is: do whatever you like, just make sure you do it WELL. oh, and don’t use fancy styles to cover up the fact that your story is boring.
on a related note: i hate bad creative writing teachers. at a recent talk i gave to a creative writing class, the students informed me that their teacher had advised them to do the following:
-avoid the word ‘said’. try other words. like ‘explicated’ and ‘inferred’ and ‘groaned’ and ‘squealed’.
-make your story more interesting by using an unusual voice – like second person!
-try to avoid the word ‘i’.
makes me angry.
It’s about time for omnisicient to come back into style. It’s been out for nearly a hundred years, but before that everyone understood each story to have a narrator, whether the narrator was hidden or right up front lecturing the audience directly.
Oh dear. Now they’ve done it. Soon we’ll have *legions* of books full of badly-done “head-hopping”! And all because somebody told writers, who are a curmudgeonly and stubborn bunch, that they “couldn’t” do something.
I want to find the person who told writers they “couldn’t” tell a story in present tense; because mostly they can’t, but now they’re *doing it anyway*.
As Captain Barbossa (Pirates of the Caribbean) said, “the Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”. Rather than applying a blanket prohibition, shouldn’t people be told WHY something often doesn’t work, so that if they do want to use it, they know what the issues are?
I was surprised by the comment about head hopping being fine in romance in a way it wouldn’t be in mystery or SF/fantasy. A lot of my favourite romances are quite minimal in their use of head hopping, whereas some of my favourite SF/fantasy authors use it very effectively. As well as Justine, a couple of names that come to mind are George R R Martin and Tad Williams. Also Lois McMaster Bujold – a particularly interesting case, as many of her early books were single perspective, and it wasn’t until her “head hopping” books that I realised just how much the authorial voice in her books was that of the protagonist.
I agree with David about books written in the present tense.
Sherry: I admit that, as an editor, I have an aversion to head hopping . . . I see many, many, many beginning writers who switch viewpoints freely without the techniques that go with it.
This seems to be the source of most workshop “rules”: Those in teaching and editorial professions see a disproportionate use of certain techniques in their students and submissions, and come to associate those techniques with inexperience (and with migraines). They wind up issuing blanket calls for cessation of said techniques, but these calls for mercy are misinterpreted by some as aesthetic edicts, as rules for “good writing”.
This result is understandable, given the motivations of everyone involved. (Editors don’t want migraines; writing students want to be published.)
But what’s odd to me is that tight third person has become so dominant in the US in the last few decades, while Oz and the UK readers and editors are more open to shifting POV. What’s up with that? Is it simply that there are more writing workshops in the US?
Elizabeth: I have a book coming out next year in omniscient. You have no idea how many people I had to explain the concept of omniscient to, in detail, to get it into print
I am randomly reminded of Philip Pullman’s favorite technique: hopping from close third out to omniscient and then back in again in the course of a paragraph or so. Delicious.
Hasn’t he written lovingly of the omniscient narrator?
As a point of clarification: I didn’t mean that multiple viewpoints shouldn’t be used. I love books with rotating viewpoints. I only mean that multiple viewpoints should be done consciously because they serve the story.
I’m one who confused head hopping with inter-chapter changes of POV. Mea culpa.
I’m sure there are excellent present tense books out there. But as a reader I often find it artificial, and somewhat distancing. If the writing is good, and/or I can see there is a genuine reason for using present tense, then it won’t stop me from enjoying the book. But it’s definitely become a bit of a hurdle. I can’t remember ever thinking “that is a fantastic use of present tense”. I’m more likely to just think “that is a fantastic book”. I probably have read present tense books I’ve loved, but I can’t think of any offhand – probably because the present tense was so well written and well integrated that I was all but unaware of it.
Harriet: Wasn’t just you. I started it by being unclear in the post and then we all slid around in the comments.
I reckon we readers mostly don’t notice the pov unless it’s not working for us. I certainly don’t. On a first read I’m caught up in the story and rocking along. If you asked me what pov the last few books I loved were in I bet I’d be scrabbling to remember.
I’ve decided that I don’t notice POV unless it’s not working for me, or else, working really well (like scotts the last days). a few weeks ago on my blog, i did a whole series on 1st person POV and I made a list of my fave FPPOV books and for a while I was like, wait, is Frankenstein REALLY in FPPOV? Why yes, yes it is.
I read a lot of chick lit, which is commonly in FP present, and I think present works just as well as past. it doesn’t feel artifical or weird to me at all. libba bray’s a great and terrible beauty is in present tense and it’s marvelous.
I don’t notice headhopping unless I can’t follow it. I don’t notice anything unless it’s bad. If it’s good I’m too busy gobbling.
that being said, i like to write with clear delineations, because i’m anal like that.
Language/style critique is like MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN: You start out trying to say something reasonable, but soon enough you’ll face a chorus of fanatics: “The shoe!” – “The gourd!”
as a reader, i don’t notice headhopping. it had to be explained to me several times before i understood what it was, in fact.
Among readers I’ve talked to, a great, greeeeeat many appear to be completely unfamiliar with omniscience (clearly, they don’t read Conrad.) Thus, they tend rightly to criticize shoddy, confusing POV-switches, but they also criticize intentional, omniscient POV-switches, without realizing that they’re not both accidents.
I think that the real problem is establishing switches in viewpoint without having established a default narrator, so that the poor reader is flitting from brain to brain as if to stand outside a brain for a moment were to cease to exist. I can think of many classics of American SF literature that use omniscience — Dune, e.g. — so it’s a very recent phenomenon. I would have said it was a bottom-up phenomenon as well, based on my discussions with readers, but the audience and the editors are giving/getting the same message.
There’s a fair bit of term slipperiness here. Entirely my fault. I doubt anyone would say my books head hop. Each pov has its own chapters. When the term “head hopping” is used it usually refers to going from one character’s pov to another’s within the one chapter. Or even as Joseph Conrad so famously did—within the one paragraph.
Elizabeth is right that it’s omniscient that allows you to do this. As Sherwood says a hundred years ago omniscient was the dominant pov. The writer was god and could go wherever they wanted. I am all for the writer being God. 🙂
Lili: Those writing rules are like the exact opposite of the MFA rules in the US. That’s hilarious.
I must confess that I am a fan of second person (when done well). Black Idol by Lisa St Aubin de Teran is fabulous. And the proscription against using anything but “said” has gotten crazy and led to a real blandness in certain MFA driven adjectiveless, adverbless, “said” overloaded books.
David and Harriet: There are some wonderful present tense books out there. Most, if not all, the stories in Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen are in present tense and they’re awesome.
Never say never. There’s a present tense book out there you’ll love. In fact I bet you’ve already read and adored one.
Scott: You know, I think you’re right about it being a US of A thing. I’d never come across the anti-head-hopping injunction before I spent time there.
Sorry for confusing the POV issue Justine. Omniscient POV works in certain circumstances. I’m all for experimenting with different techniques. “Rules” are of course meant to be broken if you can do it well. And there are times when omniscient works well. What I’m saying I guess is that when you break the rules, you should be aware of what you are doing and why.
When I first starting writing, there was someone in my critique group who insisted that first person POV was amateur and that I should never, ever, use it. She got so hung up on the fact that most of my stories were first person, that she ignored all of the other things that she might have commented on and ranted about it every time. I tried to point out that a lot of new young adult literature was written in first person, but she wouldn’t budge. It was very annoying.
In the end you just have to write your story the way you feel works best. You can always change it later if it doesn’t work. It isn’t like a painting where it is harder to fix things when you mess something up. A writer can always rework something.
Veejane: I’m not sure I agree with your second point. The only people I’ve ever heard bitching about head hopping are the ones who’ve been taught that it’s bad.
i think it’s a good idea to take many creative writing teachers so that writers get completely different perspectives on issues of technique (and whatever else). in some situations (like small universities) this is hard, because there might not be that many teachers to choose from. but read different books or articles about writing, talk to other people about what they like, and you’ll always hear something different. i would never ever recommend taking what one or a few people say as canon, because different readers like different things. and, like many people have said, anything can be appealing if it’s done well. that seems to be the key- do it well. 🙂
i recently read a book that used head hopping, and it bugged the crap out of me, because it did leave me disoriented and wondering who the hell i was listening to now. it was a mess, but i’ve read others that did the same thing, did it well, and didn’t bother me at all.
Rebecca: I would never ever recommend taking what one or two people say as canon
Except me, of course!
except you. 😀
Yeah, but where are they getting the idea of head hopping being bad from? It’s coming from somewhere. And I reckon it’s from folks being taught it’s bad. A friend telling you it’s wrong is still them teaching you. Critiques of fanfic saying it is also a form of teaching. This stuff spreads and spreads.
I never ever came across that idea until I met people in the genre writing community here.
I’ve also heard from several American editors that one of the things they change in UK and Oz books they buy is to make the authors rewrite to reduce head hopping which means that readers aren’t as exposed to good head hopping which just increases their insane idea that all head hopping is bad.
It’s deeply depressing.
wot? re-write perfectly functional books (I’m assuming, since they probably already sold in uk or oz) to reduce head-hopping?? that is ridiculous. i mean, changing ‘lift’ to ‘elevator’ is already quite dumb, but re-writing the whole thing? pardon?
The only people I’ve ever heard bitching about head hopping are the ones who’ve been taught that it’s bad.
Oh, no—it’s all over, e.g., the reading community of fan fiction. Some of whom have taken writing classes (for good or ill), but the vast majority of whom have not. I think they generalized too broadly from a good beginning, from “shitty head-hopping must go!” to “all head-hopping must go!”, but, that is fanfic for you.
Oh crikey. I head-hop like crazy even when I’m not writing books. It’s the way I think. I’m a wild, unstoppable head-hopping machine.
But seriously, I think in this day and age I expect multiplicity, I expect to be able to see things from more than one point of view. It’s sort of what separates us from the monkeys, isn’t it? Even if a narrative doesn’t head hop (I love that term, I might have to introduce it into my daily vernacular)…a story is in and of itself already being told from at least three points of view: the author, the narrator, and the reader. We are much more conscious now than we ever were of the unreliability of any narrator.
I’ve started doing a Masters in Creative Writing and it’s very interesting being back in a classroom after working in the industry for so long as an editor and then as a writer. I must admit I am not sure these people are actually being taught to be better writers though 😐
Penni: You and me both, darls. I’d love to hear if any of these stupid rules come up in your masters course. Are Australians being taught this ridiculous anti-head hopping rule? Or is it as I suspect a purely American madness?
Oh no, if anything it quite goes the other way. Head hopping is in, anything that draws attention to the artificiality of the narrative is very acceptable. Narratives themselves however are actively discouraged. Apparently NO ONE writes to tell a good story any more. It’s all po-mo and po-po-mo. Sadly no one at Uni of Melbourne is into kid’s books either—they just don’t get kids or YA, it’s definitely seen as ‘lesser’ writing, not worthy of serious attention.
So in workshops when I talk about character development, and ask editor type questions like ‘what’s at stake?’ or (gasp) mention the four letter P word (plot), they look at me like…well, like I’m head hopping. And something I’ve observed is that it’s led to a lot of confusion, because most of these people still write fairly conventional stories, but don’t understand how to construct a narrative—there’s often no climax or shift or character development (and of course while you don’t need all of these all the time, there needs to be some point to telling a story).
Bloody hell. What rot. No wonder Australian “Literature” is apparently dying while Oz young adult books are going from strength to strength.
A couple of belated notes: (1) My recollection differs slightly from Oyce’s: I think Bull was criticizing the presentation of a single scene from two different viewpoints in sequence, rather than headhopping, which I would define as jumping from character to character within the scene without being sufficiently clear about the changes, or omniscient pov, for which see your next post. Doing the same scene from multiple povs can get you Rashomon, but it can also get you redundancy and slowness and an audience who is convinced you can’t figure out how to get the necessary information across in the pov you chose for most of your novel. One of the deceptively easy things about first and limited-third is that it controls the author’s angle of vision, so that they know precisely what they can say (they can say what the character would); the disadvantage is that they can’t directly say things the pov character doesn’t know, and a lot of authors can’t figure out how to convey something the audience should know but the character shouldn’t.
And, yes, this is complicated by the number of people who don’t seem to know what omniscient pov is.
(2) I myself find first and limited third really easy and omniscient amazingly difficult (my attempts at omniscient tend to slide into limited third whenever I’m not paying close attention), but it’s an individual preference, like everything else. I have friends who find limited third backbreaking and omniscient a cakewalk.
You note that Conrad performed head-hopping
within a paragraph. I’m trying to find this,
with little success. Can you direct me to
which of Conrad’s works had this?
Robert Qualkinbush: I’m sorry but I can’t. I’ve googled around trying to find it without success. I read it a long time ago and do not have access to my books (they’re in storage).
Anyone else know?
Great blog. I just finished writing my first book… or so I thought. I’m currently looking for an editor to polish it up and the first comment I recieved back is “you head-hop”. I guess it’s not just the USA but here in Canada that this is a bad thing to do. Is there a guide that actually explains this technique without frowning on it altogether?