Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Head Hop - Being Talented Enough To Pull It Off

In fiction, the majority of editors and authors will tell you that head hopping is a major no-no (and this blogger consulted with some industry experts to corroborate that position and had excellent feedback regarding why head hopping is not reader-friendly and should be avoided. You should read that blog article if you're interested in learning more about the concept.).

Head hopping is one of the best ways to lose and piss off your readers, because they will struggle to follow along with your story and might even give up and toss your book aside, labeling you as a writer who doesn't know what you're doing, especially if the rest of your manuscript is sloppily written. In short, if you're going to head hop, you would be well advised to make sure you know what you're doing and are talented enough to pull it off. It takes years of practice and work to master this skill, and that's only after you've mastered writing for story, sentence structure, story structure, punctuation, showing vs. telling, character development, and grammar, among other writing skills. And even then an author might not be able head hop effectively.

My point being, you have to have an expert handle on your writing mojo to master the art of the head hop.

If you don't know what head hopping is, it's when you write in multiple characters' points of view (POVs) without breaking between POV changes.

Micah thought Samantha looked ravishing in the black, gossamer gown he'd given her for her birthday. How many times had he asked her to wear it, and yet she had coquettishly declined each time.
Her slight curves beckoned for his touch, and her green eyes sparkled as she smiled and shut off the bathroom light, leaving only the lamp behind her to cast her inviting silhouette into shadow that showed through the thin fabric.
He licked his lips, sensing her mood.
Samantha knew what she was doing to Micah, and with the way his gaze raked her body, it was clear her plan to surprise him had worked.
Maybe now she would be able to put that sexy smile back on his face. He had been coming home from work in much too brooding a state as of late.

Did you see it? I started the passage in Micah's point of view, but in the fourth paragraph, without warning, I jumped to Samantha's. Imagine if Micah's POV had gone on for several paragraphs or even pages before the beginning of this short example. You would have been good and seeped into his mind, following his thoughts, seeing everything from his eyes, and then out of nowhere, you're no longer in Micah's POV, you're in Samantha's. It might even take you a couple of paragraphs to realize the change has been made, and then you'll have to stop and backread to figure out where the new POV started, then shift your mind into Samantha's and beginning reading again.

Imagine if this happened over and over, and you had to stop reading, backread, and restart each time it happened? Can you understand why head hopping can become extremely frustrating to a reader, let alone disrupting to their reading experience? Because who wants to constantly be shattered out of their reading experience by these abrupt stops and starts? I don't.

I'll make a confession. About two years ago, I was a head hopper. I really struggled to understand the concept of point of view and will admit that this was probably THE hardest skill for me to learn. It took years for me to completely understand point of view, and until you understand POV, you can't understand head hopping. After years of working hard to understand POV, I finally figured it out after my first short story was published in an anthology. The light bulb went on and I suddenly "got it." It took years, lots of studying, and lots of research, but I understand it now. In talking to other beginning authors, it's become clear that I'm not alone. A lot of beginners don't "get it," either, when it comes to point of view. They want to call their POV omniscient and close third person, yada-yada-yada, and then the next thing I know, they've got themselves so confused (and me, too), they don't know which way is up. Poor things, and God love 'em for trying, because Lord knows, it can be confusing. My heart goes out to them, because I was once in their shoes, and somewhere along the way they've fallen into POV purgatory. I'll talk more about POV in my next blog post and see if we can't pull these poor innocents out of the muck, but for now, just know that until you understand POV, you shouldn't even go near head hopping.

I've had some indie authors get pretty upset with me during discussions about head hopping, because I think, at least at the indie level, there is a lack of understanding about POV and the head hopping concept (as referenced in my previous paragraph). In my opinion, which is based on a ton of research and studies with published authors and editors in two lengthy writing courses, authors should be clearly conveying to readers where the POV shifts from one character to another by inserting a blank line, asterisks, or even a chapter break. The argument of those who disagree with me is, "It's the author's book. They should write it however they want." My counterargument would be, "No, it's the reader's book. The author is simply writing it. As such, the author needs to make sure they write it in a way that allows the reader to easily follow along and in a way that doesn't disrupt their reading experience." When an author can't even grasp simple grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as sentence and story structure, it's safe to say they will not have the talent to pull off head hopping, and in the conversations I've been involved with where an author is defending another author's right to head hop if they want to, that has been the case.

Ultimately, it's the decision of the author, so I bow out of discussions pretty early where it's clear the author's mind has been made up that they will arbitrarily change the POV from paragraph to paragraph if they want to. I've read scenes like that in books, and I get so frustrated that I either skip the entire scene or toss the book aside, because I can't keep up. On occasion, I will power through and will go back to read and re-read over and over until I can figure out who's talking so I can understand the action. Sometimes I can piece it together and sometimes I can't. Either way, as the reader, I shouldn't have to work so hard to follow a story, which should flow easily and seamlessly in a way that I can follow along and immerse myself in the plot.

However, there are authors who can pull off the head hop. They are talented enough not to lose the readers, and they can head hop almost from paragraph to paragraph.

Sylvain Reynard is one of these authors. I'm currently reading his book, Gabriel's Inferno, which a friend recommended to me, and I'm just blown away by his talent. From what I understand, he started out more-or-less as an indie author, but true to cream rising to the top, he has been noticed by the big publishers and has made the jump to the big leagues, and rightfully so. It's not often that I find an author who head hops with such ease that I barely notice it. But, as I've said, head hopping smoothly takes talent. And talent seems to be something Mr. Reynard has in spades.

Not only does he head hop, but he seemingly breaks all the rules of fiction writing, using an abundance of adjectives and adverbs, as well as big words I would normally need my dictionary to look up, and creating an obnoxious character, who, by all rights, I should hate.

However, Mr. Reynard's talent is so incredible, he's able to head hop smoothly, to the point that my reading experience isn't disturbed in the slightest and so that I can remain deeply immersed in the unfolding tale. The excessive adjectives and adverbs are barely noticeable and contribute to the visual image created in my mind. The big words are clearly represented and defined from the context of the sentence or scene, and I find myself falling in love with the obnoxious character for the subtle, you'll-miss-them-if-you-aren't-paying-attention hints as to just how vulnerable and likable he is under his thorny armor. My heart goes out to this obnoxious man, Gabriel, and my inner cheerleader is waving her little pom-poms: Gimme a G! Gimme an A! Gimme a B!...

At any rate, this blog isn't necessarily about Mr. Reynard, despite his genius and talent in the fiction realm. It's about head hopping. I'm only focusing so much on Reynard, because he is the kind of author all indies should aspire to be like, and because he has mastered the head hop where 99 out of 100 authors who try to, can't. It's obvious he works hard at his craft and meticulously hones each sentence, not rushing his books in an effort to build a back list fast so he can make lots and lots of money at the expense of quality and reader trust. No, Mr. Reynard comes off as the type who savors each scene, crafting and weaving them together so that the story unfolds bit by bit, drawing me further in.

Furthermore, it's clear that Mr. Reynard understands grammar, story structure, sentence structure, punctuation, and can spell. It's clear he edits and proofreads his work ad nauseum. In other words, it's clear he knows the rules of writing, which is the first requirement to breaking the rules. Only when you understand how to walk can you learn how to skip or shuffle your feet. But when you try to skip before learning how to walk, you'll fall flat on your face.

And therein is the lesson to be learned here. An author must first learn the rules of writing, whether they intend to later break them or not. Until they have grasped the basics and all the rules the basics entail, they can't successfully break them without repercussions.

I think this is the biggest issue indie authors should concern themselves with if they want to be successful: Learn the rules and practice them until they know them inside-out. Too many try to move into the advanced class before finishing the remedial one. Think about school and jobs. You don't start off in fifth grade, do you? You start off in first grade and learn everything you need to progress to second, then third, then fourth, then finally to fifth. If a child skipped and started right off in fifth grade, they would be lost. They have to learn all that comes before to succeed at the higher grade levels. Same with a job. I didn't get hired on as an executive assistant straight away. I progressed from receptionist to administrative assistant and finally to executive assistant, learning more from each role to prepare me for working as the right hand of the president, director, or owner. I needed the basics before I could progress to an advanced level.

Same with writing. Authors must know the basics before they can write at an advanced level. In other words, head hopping (as well as other advanced techniques) need to be honed before they are employed.

Just to note: In comparison to Mr. Reynard, I'm also reading a Nora Roberts book, and in it, she also head hops. Sorry to say, her head hopping isn't as seamless as Mr. Reynard's, and I wish she would take a lesson from the latter, because when she does it, it jolts me every time and I have to take a second to mentally shift gears into the new POV. So even well-written authors struggle with the head hop, not just those who are starting out.

With all that said, if you're an author and want to see how a talented author works the head hop, pick up Gabriel's Inferno. Be warned, it is a long book, and it is not the typical erotic romance. About 1 in 7 readers who reviewed it hated it, but the 6 out of 7 who liked it, LOVED it. But it's a great example of someone who understands the craft of writing very well, and for that reason alone, I think it should be required reading for every indie author.

Happy writing and reading!


  1. Thanks for the great post. I agree with you completely. Writers need to learn to play by the rules, learn their craft before they try to break them. I see it as a combination of laziness and hubris those who insist they know better than everyone else how to write a book. Listen, learn, read, read articles on writing and write, write, write, but don't tell me you're good enough to break the rules when you're a newbie.

    1. Amen! :) Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Jean. I know I don't know all there is to know about writing. I know I still have much to learn. But I do like to pass on what I do know so that others can learn, as well, and I continue to read and study from those who are more knowledgeable than I am so I can continue to improve my writing.

  2. Head hopping doesn't bother me in the least. I saw exactly where you did and continued on reading your excerpt. I "saw" it because I was looking for it.
    We get head hopping in every tv show and movie we watch and yet it's ok there. Somehow the viewer isn't ripped from the story.
    I don't head hop in my books - my editor won't let me. But I see nothing wrong with it. I can follow the story along just fine.
    Life moves in a pendulum and at the moment the pendulum is on the no head hopping side - who knows 5 years from now we'll all be doing it.

  3. You are correct. In five years, head hopping might be the new way to write. Ten years ago, authors did a lot of head hopping. At least that's what I'm finding as I read old Sherrilyn Kenyon and Nora Roberts books, as well as a couple of others. Nowadays, it is viewed as taboo. I can understand why. I can tell from my experience reading both the head hopping and non-head hopping styles that I seem to have better reading experiences with the latter, for the most part (Mr. Reynard excluded). I just can't seem to get as steeped into the story when head hopping is utilized, and editors do say that is one of the strongest arguments against it. But, for some readers it's not as big if an issue, and then again, for some authors it's not that big of an issue, either. However, some writers really struggle with it, especially at the indie level. For them, I think they need to refrain until they get a better handle on it.

    Also, in visual shows, such as on TV, it's different. We can follow the story visually. In books, we can't do that. Our sight has doesn't get to partake except through what we see in our minds, and what we see in our minds is a direct result of what we read. So the writing has to be clearer about what is happening, who it's happening to, who is embarking on the action, etc., because we can't rely on our sight to tell us that.

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting today. :)

  4. Plus, had I not told you in advance I was going to head hop, you might not have been looking for it, and it might have been more disruptive, especially in a larger work than in the sample I wrote here. The key is, you knew up front I was going to head hop so you were prepared for it. In books, the author will never say, "I'm going to head hop in a minute. Look for it."

  5. I should have read this post before the other one I commented on. I agree with just about everything you said.

    However, you example of head hopping didn't bother me either, but as I inferred in my other comment, I'm not a picky reader.

    If there's a group of people in a room and as the reader you need to know what each of them are thinking (or at least the author thinks so), head hopping seems to be the way to go.

    I agree with the fact that head hopping is an advanced technique. Use it if you know what you are doing.

    1. I guess I'm better at head hopping than I thought I was. LOL. Oddly enough, though, I find it hard to write like that now that I've finally figured out the confusing world of POV. I get so entrenched inside one character's head as I'm writing that I feel like I'm seeing everything from their POV and can't jump out of it even if I want to. I guess you could say I'm one of those writers who goes deeply into, what did I see it called? Close third person? :)

  6. I don't get all the fuss about head hopping. To me, it's a natural way to write. I don't have any trouble understanding different POVs. "Joan thought..." and then "Bob said..." What's the big deal? The author is clearly spelling it out for you. Danielle Steel headhops and I have no trouble following what the characters are saying or thinking. I just don't get what all the big fuss is about. If you can read you should be able to follow the story. Just my humble opinion.

    1. I think you're confusing head hopping with third person POV, which is perfectly fine.

    2. To clarify my comment further, the examples you listed for head hopping were not head hopping. They were third person POV. Head hopping is where you are inside the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the character, thus, inside their head, and then all of a sudden you're inside the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of another character. Head hopping usually happens sentence to sentence or paragraph to paragraph and is extremely jarring to a reader. Very few authors can head hop "seamlessly." I've read just a couple who can, but most just can't do it without losing the reader.