Friday, November 16, 2012

Is Head Hopping in Books the Same as Watching a Movie?

The other day, I posted about head hopping. One of my readers commented that head hopping wasn't all that bad and compared it to watching a TV show or movie, alluding that head hopping goes on all the time in movies and TV shows, so why not in books? I've been thinking about that comment every day since, trying to reconcile head hopping to watching a movie. I've even googled it (I didn't find anything substantial).

Being that I'm interested in all sides and want to look at all angles, I took this reader's comment seriously and have dug into this concept in an effort to either put merit behind it or debunk it, in a manner of speaking.

Before I continue, I will say that after reading other blog posts about this subject, I think a lot of people, authors and readers alike, misunderstand what head hopping really is. Head hopping is not when an author uses a break (either a scene break or a chapter break) to change from one character's point of view to another. That is simply referred to as a POV shift. Head hopping is where an author does NOT use a scene or chapter break and instead jumps from one character's POV into another's without warning the reader, oftentimes mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. Call it whiplash.

[NOTE: For those who try to say they're not head hopping but writing in omniscient, think again by reading this post by Jami Gold.]

I've always been told I think too much, but 1) I can't help it, and 2) how can someone think too much when we only use 10% of our brain power to begin with? and 3) I love thinking and debating sides in my own mind, which is why I'm thankful for the reader's comment on this subject.

I've heard this head-hopping-is-okay-because-they-do-it-in-the-movies argument before, and it has never sat well with me, stewing on my mind as I've tried to figure out what doesn't make sense about it. So, anyhoo, now that I've thought about this and read a bit more on the subject, and tried to give it an objective mind-scouring, here are my thoughts on how head hopping in novels is not the same as watching a movie:

To begin with, when we watch a movie, we are receiving input to one of our senses that doesn't get to partake as deeply when reading a novel, our sense of sight. While reading, we see the words, but that's as far as our sense of sight goes. With movies, our sense of sight is allowed to feast in a way it doesn't get to at many other times.

Following is an example of how powerful visual images in movies are:

A couple of years ago, I caught a scene of the movie, No Country for Old Men, as I was flipping through the channels. I ended up watching for about fifteen minutes, and I think only two lines of dialogue were said. Fifteen minutes of nothing but images on a screen, no dialogue, and no music. However, I knew exactly what was happening. I had never seen the movie before, and have yet to see the whole movie today, but through visual cues alone, I was totally transfixed and was able to figure out what was happening.
Why? Because the medium a film uses to convey the story is mostly visual images. Powerful visual images that show the reader exactly what to think. There is no guesswork. There is no need to ask, "Who's talking?" We see who's talking. We see who's taking off their shirt or loading the gun. We can deduce by the acting and film direction what the story is. But, if you take away the visual images and rely solely on just the dialogue and the sounds of that scene I just mentioned from No Country for Old Men, you'll have no clue what's going on.

With novels, the medium of communication is words, not visual images. Try doing in a novel what No Country for Old Men did in that scene, and take away the primary medium of communication (words). Try using no words whatsoever, only blank pages, to convey to your reader what is happening, and see how successful the book is. As with a movie where the visual images are taken away, readers won't have a clue what's going on if you give them blank pages, or even mostly blank pages with just a couple of lines of dialogue on them.

My point? Simple. My point is that readers read your words and create the pictures in their minds from what you tell them. If you can't paint clear enough word pictures, they will lose interest. We, as authors, must convey through the written word what is happening, because we don't have the luxury of visual images and movies in our books. We must paint that picture in our readers' minds through words alone. Otherwise, readers will not be able to see our stories, and they will not engage. Additionally, if you lose them through poor storytelling or poorly structured scenes, they will not engage, and a disengaged reader is bad, bad, bad, because they're the ones who don't finish your book and may never buy another one. And, like it or not, hopping from POV to POV is disruptive in the written medium, especially if it done poorly (see the link I've included below for more information).

As I was researching this topic for this post, I came upon a blog post written by Jami Gold, and she hit the nail on the head in more ways than one and said it better than I ever could:

Jami Gold - Why Is Head Hopping Bad?

After reading Jami's post, I found myself saying, I agree. Before I learned what head hopping was, I didn't consciously notice it, but I did subconsciously, and I remember being uber-aggravated by it more than once. I remember reading books where I got so lost in who was doing and saying what that I gave up trying to figure it out.

One of Christine Feehan's books did that to me, and I remember going back and re-reading several pages at a time more than once to try to figure out who was talking and doing the action. I never read another Feehan novel after that, because that one frustrated me so badly that I didn't think it was worth the trouble. I'm not even sure I finished that novel, but I do remember being extremely irritated. At the time, I had no idea what head hopping was, but I clearly reacted to it in a negative fashion. So, I agree, a reader doesn't have to know what head hopping is to be frustrated by it.

My other observation about head hopping in movies is that I really can't see how it's possible. We are the fly on the wall watching those characters on the screen as the action unfolds. We aren't inserting ourselves into one character's head and then into another's and another's and back-and-forth we go. We are made aware of only what the director or writer of the film (because, yes, movies start off as written scripts) wants us to know when they want us to know them. We are led by visual storytelling, not word storytelling.

Additionally, movies do have scene breaks. Equate them to chapter or scene breaks in a novel. Both movies and novels flow from one scene to the next and so on. And when those scenes break, oftentimes, a different character's POV becomes more dominant than another's, both in books and in movies. John McClane in Die Hard is likely the dominant POV character in the scenes he appears in, but he still interacts with other characters in those scenes and can deduce by their actions and words what's going on. But that is not the same as head hopping. Dialogue with those characters is not head hopping, nor is watching another character unbutton her blouse or answer a telephone call, which is more a result of POV, not head hopping.

In fact, we lose more POV and inside information in movies than in books, which, if head hopping were taking place, would not be the case. This is one of the biggest complaints of books-turned-into-movies. How many times have you heard someone say, "The book was better."? They say it was better because they were able to see more of what was going on inside the character's or characters' thoughts in the book than in the movie.

So, you can look at this a couple of ways: If you believe head hopping is going on in movies, and yet books are more often than not better-received than the movies they're made into, then obviously head hopping doesn't work very well. Or, head hopping really isn't taking place in movies, and the clearly defined POV shifts in books work better to tell the story.

Let's look at Twilight as another example, because it is both a book and a movie, too, much like No Country for Old Men. The book was written in first person POV, from Bella's perspective. In the movie, we get to see her POV come to life, and we get to see the action, whereas with the book, we could only imagine it.

So, is the movie still in Bella's POV or not? Are we, in fact, head hopping in the movie, whereas in the book we were firmly fixed inside Bella's head?

No, I don't think we are head hopping. What is happening is that we are seeing in the movie what Bella saw in the book. We aren't hopping into Edward's head and changing POV in the movie. We are merely seeing the action how Bella saw it, hearing the conversations with Edward and Jacob and everybody else the way Bella heard them. That is not the same as head hopping, otherwise Edward would give away to the viewers immediately that he is a vampire and we would never get to the big scene in the woods where she finally announces that she knows what he is and he says, "Say it. Out loud." Pause. "Say it!" then goes on to call her his own personal brand of heroin after the cat's out of the bag about his vampirism. If head hopping was going on in the movie, we'd know all about Edward early on, and the climax of the big announcement would be more or less a tiny squeak of insignificance.

There is a scene in the movie where we get to see the trio of bad vampires kill Charlie's friend, but again, that is not the same as head hopping. Bella couldn't see this scene in the book, but she was made aware of what had happened by talking to her father and Edward, so we were able to find out in the book from her POV that this had happened because Edward and her father told her. In the movie, we actually get to see that scene rather than just read about it through conversations with characters who know what's going on.

Christine, by Stephen King, is another book-turned-movie. Written from the first person POV of Dennis, Arnie's best friend, there are certain scenes in the movie that weren't "really" in the book, because Dennis wasn't present during those scenes. But the author's vision can come to life and take a few liberties in film, showing viewers what had actually happened in "real time" through visual images rather than through conversations between characters "after-the-fact," which is how it's usually done in books. However, once again, this is not the same as head hopping.

So, does head hopping really happen in movies or not? I don't think it does, and I don't think using that as support for head hopping in books is a good argument. Furthermore, comparing film techniques to book techniques is like comparing apples to oranges. Both films and books are ways to entertain people, but each goes about creating that entertainment in two very different ways. What works in movies won't work in books and vice versa, because each uses extremely different media to entertain.

In five or ten years, the rules might change and head hopping could be all the rage in fiction, but I'm not betting on it at this point, simply because I firmly believe it takes real talent to pull off the head hop without disrupting the reading experience for the readers. But that's just me. If head hopping becomes the vogue thing to do, I doubt I'll be able to do it. Like readers who love to seep themselves into a good book, I love seeping myself into the POV character I'm writing from. It's fun, and I use POV as my "twelfth man," as I wrote about in my last post, working POV like an extra character to elicit specific reactions from my readers and to reveal things in a logical sequence for the best effect.

Opinions? Thoughts? Can anyone show me an example of head hopping in a movie (I'm an avid movie-goer and can't think of any where actual head hopping occurs)? If anyone has other knowledge that I'm not aware of, I am greatly interested in seeing it. Thank you.

Happy reading and writing.


  1. I agree that head hopping doesn't happen in movies like people claim.

    If the head hopping (in books) is so bad that I have to reread everything twice to make sense, sure it’s annoying. But most of the time I don’t have a problem knowing who’s thinking what and so forth. It’s all in how you word it.

    If an author wants to tell me what one person is thinking in one sentence and what another character is thinking in the next, I don't mind as long as it is clear that two characters are involved.

    I think this is one of those “rules” that can be broken depending on style and reader. I lump it in with “show vs. telling,” “said-isms,” and the like, none of which bother me if not over done.

    Your reference to the future makes the point for me. I think this is a rule passed down by a certain style reader/writer. There are other styles out there. Any style you pick has unwritten rules to work from. You will likely annoy some readers no matter how well you write in a certain style. How you write is as much dependant on your own style as it is with your audience.

    1. Good points. I'm reading a book right now where head hopping occurs sentence-to-sentence at times, but the author has the talent to pull it off. On the other hand, I've read books (even ones by famous authors, as pointed out in the post) where the head hopping is so prolific and poorly done that I can't keep up and growl ominously at the book as if it had better prepare itself to be thrown against the wall.

      What I don't like is hearing this rote response of "it's done in the movies, so I should be able to do it in my book." I've heard several authors defend their right to head hop by saying this, and I think it's a poor argument at this point, now that I've taken the time to really think about it and do some research. Because a movie and a book are not the same thing and aren't presented the same way, nor should they be. I just want to tell these authors: "Fine if you want to head hop, but don't use 'head hopping in movies' as your primary argument to defend your right to do so, because that just makes it look like you don't know what you're talking about."

      But I'm glad that reader made that comment, because it made me look into this subject more deeply to dissect why it had always bothered me. But I was prepared to accept this possibility if I had found any evidence to support it, which I didn't.

      Thank you for stopping by today. :)

  2. EXCELLENT post! Those folks who say head hopping is done in movies haven't got a clue what head hopping really is. All of your points were spot on. You've debunked that movie theory quite thoroughly!

    When people say to me that they should be able to have head hopping in their book because it's done in the movie I just say "well, when your book becomes a movie, go for it!" That usually shuts them up.

    1. That's good advice. LOL. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Great blog! I've read both types, where the head hopping happened without scene breaks. It really depends on the author if it flows well enough to pull it off. I have had several books go sailing across the room, never to be found again, due to confusion. In fact, I think I might have read part of that same Feehan book, LOL.

    As far as the movie stuff goes, unless the character is narrating the movie, we don't get into their head at all, like we do in a book. So for me, there are very few POV shifts in a movie. It's like you said, Fly on the Wall. We get to see all the characters, but it up to the actor to give us a visual representation of their feelings, vs. a book being able to dig into characters brain.

    Krystal Shannan

    1. Hi, Krystal.

      I agree that it depends on the author's talent as to whether or not he or she can pull off hopping around from POV to POV.

      I've been researching this whole POV idea even more now that I've piqued my own curiosity about it. LOL. I'm such a writing nerd, aren't I? I'm planning on writing a series of post about, specifically, the omniscient POV as it compares to 3rd person and head hopping. I'm finding some interesting information about this topic. Should make for a few interesting posts once I wrap my mind around all of it. Whew! No wonder so many writers get confused about POV.

  4. Hi Donya,

    Excellent article to understand the difference between writing and watching. I agree with you head-hopping is bad. But rules are made to be broken if it is going to improve reader's experience.

    Also I need a help from all u guys, I have just started writing a novel. I got the storyline from start to end in my mind, however i am new to writing. Can you please suggest where i can get advice to correct my mistakes. For eg. couple of paragraph from what i have started writing is given below, can you please advice whether my approach is correct.

    Why do warriors have to suffer through their pain silently?
    Is it unbecoming of a warrior to cry even when one is in extreme pain?
    Mara did not know what will happen to him once he gets inside the cave. He was sitting on the muddy ground at the right side of the cave waiting for his turn. There was no moon and the winter night was pitch-black. The fluttering flame of torch which was behind his back will soon be out. The swaying of trees, the rustling of leaves and the howling of wind were trying to subdue the all-encompassing silence. One of the "brothers of secret oath" Kuttuvan who had just come out of the cave was sitting next to him.

    [Describe how he looks] Even in dim light Mara noticed that Kuttuvan was shivering. His clothes were wet. He was wearing wrap around cloth above his loincloth. His upper body was covered in cloak. He was also wearing turban. He was gasping heavily. His mother was sobbing and rubbing his back. She was blowing into his wounded palm to relieve the pain. The nauseating smell of burnt flesh meant that the wound was deep. His hands were shivering and his legs were shaking.

    Mara and other "brothers of sacred oath" wear clothes similar to kuttuvan. Generally they carried bow, short sword and catapult, as weapons. Today they were stripped of them.

    Thanks in advance.