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What Is Head-Hopping?


If there's one thing readers love, it's when a story is so immersive they're pulled right into it. When a book just flows so seamlessly and the hours slip away, and it's not until you've finished the last chapter that you realize it's somehow already half-past midnight.


That's only one of the reasons your writing needs to be smooth. A disruption of that pace can be jarring for readers and throw them out of the story. Rather than reading on, they must first reorient themselves in the fictional world they were so immersed in moments ago.


And perhaps one of the common examples of disrupting the flow is "head-hopping," a term used when the narration jumps between characters unexpectedly or without clearly defining the transition.


This is why books told from the first-person POV with multiple narrators often include the narrating character's name at the top of each chapter.


For example...

Chapter V

Minerva


Chapter VI

Elijah

Chapter VII

Minerva


This helps readers quickly and easily determine which POV they're in (it also helps to write each narrator's voice distinctly enough to ensure they won't be confused with one another, but that's a subject for another post).


Similarly, one thing I enjoyed about the style of The Babysitters Club was that each girl had a unique font assigned to their club notes, so you could easily tell Claudia's entries apart from Mary Anne's. In some instances, the POV would shift from first-person to third, if there was a chapter about a babysitting gig that book's narrator was not part of; e.g., the book itself follows Mallory but there's a chapter about Stacy watching Charlotte, and the Stacy chapter is told from a third-person POV because it's separate from Mallory, and is conveyed to the reader as though Mallory is reading Stacy's entry in the club notes.


In third-person narratives following dual (or more) protagonists, there are a few ways to differentiate the POVs. For example, some writers will keep the POV to one character per chapter and start a new chapter when the perspective shifts to the other's, or they could use visual cues like space between paragraphs or typography symbols known as dingbats to make that division clear to readers. That all depends on your style and the formatting of your manuscriptwhich, in all fairness, may not always be in your hands as an author.


Clarity is key.


Why Not To Head-Hop

Head-hopping can run the risk of leaving your readers feeling disconnected from the story. They've gone from one character's POV and are suddenly in that of another person without realizing they've crossed over.


Jumping between characters can also interfere with your pacing. Imagine you're curled up reading a book in your favorite genre. You're invested in the conflict and its protagonist—let's call him Jake—and things are starting to get intense. But just as you're about to turn the page, the focus swings from Jake to another character named Luna. All of a sudden, that tension that was built up with Jake might fall flat, especially if Luna is not another protagonist or heavily involved in the ongoing plot.


Think of it like a commercial break interrupting a TV show. As cute as the Geico Gecko is, he's standing in the way of finding out who'll be voted off at Tribal Council.


As a writer, you want to build suspense, which often involves leaving questions unanswered for long periods of time. There are ways to prolong the answers, but some work better than others. When readers are thrown into a new POV, they have to take the time to reorient themselves. When this new direction is not made clear, this can result in them getting lost.


The magic of reading lives in the moment you forget you're reading. When a story is so good, it consumes you, You aren't just staring at words printed on a page, but are envisioning the images and going on this adventure with the characters. Imaginary friends that feel wholly alive.

Head-hopping, as is the case with anything that reminds the reader that they are reading, risks breaking that carefully crafted immersion. Readers now have to regain their sense of balance and keep track of whose head they're in instead of watching the story unfold.

This was my experience reading A Gentleman Ought to Know by Jane Ashford.


Head-Hopping In Action (And Its Impact On Me As A Reader)

A quick note before we proceed: this is not intended to be a comprehensive review of Ashford's novel. Rather, I'm using it as an example of head-hopping and how it impacted my experience with the story and looking at it from a craft perspective. Any opinions expressed are my own and just thatopinions.


There will also be spoilers, especially for the ending!


A Gentleman Ought to Know is a Regency Era romance.

via Amazon

The blurb on Amazon reads as follows:


Charlotte Deeping needs something to keep her occupied now that she's back home after her first London season. She misses solving local intrigues with her school friends, but they've all gone off and gotten married. Then Laurence Lindley, the Marquess of Glendarvon, comes for a visit, and drops a mystery right into her lap.


When Charlotte's brother makes her promise not to interrogate the marquess, she agrees. But that only means she'll have to find subtler ways to learn about the mysterious marquess and his past. The more time they spend together, the closer Charlotte gets to finding answers, and to Laurence. That is, until Charlotte's digging rouses an old vendetta and Laurence has to delve into his own history to help the young lady he's come to love.


Although it did not end up on my DNF list for 2023, A Gentleman Ought to Know didn't land among my favorite reads for the year, either. There were some things I liked about it and some things that didn't work for meone of which was its habit of head-hopping.


Although it was not as frequently done as other books I've read, there was a fair bit of head-hopping in A Gentleman Ought to Know.


The POV seemed to shift mid-paragraph, without a clear division, and it would take a moment for me to realize we had gone from Charlotte to Glendarvon. When this happened, I would have to stop and reread the passage and, as mentioned above, needing to reorient myself would take me out of the story. The flow was disrupted.


A Gentleman Ought to Know is the fourth book in a series of five, so there is occasional mention of Charlotte's friends who were the protagonists in the previous installments and are now happily married. One, Cecelia, appears as a secondary character with her now-husband. At the time of writing, A Gentleman Ought to Know is the only book of Ashford's The Duke Estates series I've read, but I was able to learn about the other leading ladies in the series alongside Charlotte.


I love when this happens, and it's something I plan to implement further down the line. I have so many plans stashed in the corners of my mind of how I can bring my current protagonists back in a supporting role, side characters I plan to put in the spotlight, and how certain stories are unrelated but also connected by small threads. I have a writing friend who likes to call this the "Avril Cinematic Universe" in the vein of Marvel.


However, there were some instances in A Gentleman Ought to Know in which Ashford's approach to this didn't work for me.


There were a few instances of the narration would be pulled away from Charlotte and Glendarvon to Cecelia and Tereford, the protagonists of the first The Duke Estates book, The Duke Who Loved Me. While getting this look into the lives of the past protagonists and where they are now was neat, and likely a treat for those who had read The Duke Who Loved Me and were already familiar with Tereford and Cecelia, the hops between them and the main storyline following Glendarvon and Charlotte were distracting to me as a reader.


But perhaps the most bothersome of these cutaways came on the very last page.


One of the central conflicts of A Gentleman Ought to Know revolves around Glendarvon's lingering trauma after witnessing the murders of his parents when he was a small child. His mother shoved him into a wardrobe for his protection, which is the root of his claustrophobia.


In the closing scene, Glendarvon and Charlotte hold what one might compare to a Viking funeral and burn the wardrobe in a bonfire, symbolizing Glendarvon being able to put the past to rest. It's something they had once quipped about doing midway through the story so seeing it actually come to pass was rewarding and made for a striking, fitting conclusion. I thought it was brilliant, actually!


But that was not the final image. Rather, there's one last cutaway to Cecelia and Tereford where she tells him she is with child.


This pregnancy announcement was the last sentence of the entire book.


To me, this detracted from the end of Charlotte and Glendarvon's story. The focus was taken away from them, the protagonists, and shifted towards secondary characters and their personal goings-on. Kind of like if the best man at your wedding used his reception speech to propose to his girlfriend (without getting the okay from you and your new spouse first). It interrupted what should have been an emotional moment for the main characters by putting the spotlight on someone of less importance.


In some ways, those scenes with Cecelia and Tereford felt extraneous, halting the romantic tension between Glendarvon and Charlotte—especially since aspects of their relationship felt under-explored to me as a reader.


How To Avoid Head-Hopping

Here's the thing, writerly friends: I've done my fair share of head-hopping, too.

In the early drafts of Bound to the Heart, there were a few instances of head-hopping. This was my first time playing with an omniscient POV that let me get into my characters' heads as opposed to observing from a distance and reporting on the facts, so missteps feel inevitable in retrospect. That's just part of trying something new!


One in particular is the scene where Eve visits Sophia and reads aloud from the novel she's brought for her to borrow. At one point, even though we're in Zach's POV as he's eavesdropping, there was mention of how rapidly Sophia's heart was pounding as Eve comes to a suspenseful bit.


A small hop, but a hop nonetheless.


It wasn't until one of my first beta readers pointed out these sudden swaps that I realized the head-hopping was even happening! And since then, I've been able to rein it in.


How?


Focus on one character at a time—and stick with them. Who is your viewpoint character? What are they experiencing? How much information do they have on any given matter?


With the bit from Bound to the Heart, unless Zach has supersonic hearing I'm not privy to, he wouldn't be able to hear or feel his sister's pulse.


Instead, he might remark on Sophia's knuckles turning white as she clutches a pillow to her chest or how still she is as she appears to be holding her breath. These are things he can realistically see.


This can be an interesting way of developing your characters, too. The things they specifically notice or how they perceive them not only help with worldbuilding, but they give your reader a sense of who that character is and how they think.


If you're not sure if something you've written involves head-hopping, ask yourself How would that character know that? Is this something they are experiencing or feeling? Would they reasonably have this information?


Lastly, when you do want to change POVs, make that transition clear to readers. Whether that's through formatting options or including the narrator's name at the top of the chapter, this is one of the times you must tell your audience things directly.




Head-hopping is something you might not realize you're doing in your writing—take it from yours truly! I feel like this is especially common in first drafts where one of the main objectives is simply getting the information down on paper.


But once you become aware of head-hopping in your writing, the easier it is to reel the focus back to your viewpoint character.


And by doing that, your readers will be able to go with the flow without hitting any rapids and enjoy the ride that is your story.



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