Confessions of a Head Hopper

The last time I read an excerpt from my third person novel at my writing group I was told by those who have my best interests at heart that I might want to check my point of view.  It seems that at times I HEAD HOP.  I checked it out and they are right.

From what they said and from what I gathered in my further research even in omniscient third person writers should stick to the POV of one character, usually the main character and only impart what that character is thinking or feeling at any given moment.  The thoughts and feelings of other characters should be conveyed through description, dialog and reaction.  The consensus was DON’T HEAD HOP – it confuses the reader and detracts from the flow of the story, making it choppy and disjointed.

HOWEVER, at the time I was also reading the historical novel QUEEN BY RIGHT by Anne Easter Smith, her fourth novel in her English “War of the Roses” series (Lancaster/York, you remember), which I very much enjoyed.  I also liked the writing very much and hoped it would rub off and inspire me to write well.  So, following my rebuke I turned to the book and sought solace in her fine example.  And there it was – the paradigm of head hopping; not between two characters, but at least three.

It is 1429 the MC, Cecily, soon to be a duchess, has just been robbed in the woods.  A squire has captured the robber, Piers, and brought him back to the scene while Cecily’s brother, Richard, and her fiancé, Dickon, also return to the scene.  Cecily is pleading with her brother to let Piers go.  Here is the excerpt:

She glanced now at Piers, who was looking in adoration at this angel of mercy with her porcelain skin, blue eyes and sweet voice.  The sun glinted through the leaves and into her waist-length fair hair, making her appear ethereal.  He thought her a vision, for she was the way he had always pictured the Virgin Mary when he prayed to her each night. He crossed himself reverently.

“Mother of God, help me,” he begged her. “They will brand me or even hang me.”

Cecily touched the lad’s tousled head. “God have mercy,” she murmured. “Perhaps the Holy Mother will hear your plea.”  She was taken aback when he prostrated himself mumbling an Ave Maria.  Staring at his quivering body, she was aware for the first time of her power, and it made her brave.  Suddenly she imagined [Joan of Arc] facing the Dauphin Charles and all his court, and she was inspired.  She turned back to her brother and tried again. “Richard, I beg of you, have mercy and give him another chance.”

Dickon could see tears in her eyes, and he wondered briefly if they were conjured up to soften her brother’s heart or if they were genuine.  Whichever way, he was impressed.

For a moment, Cecily thought her brother would not bend, but all of a sudden, his face softened and he chucked her under the chin. “Certes, Cis. How can I resist such a supplication?” He turned back to Piers and told him to rise. “You owe your freedom to the lady Cecily. I hope you will not make me search you for the treasure you took from her. Return it immediately before I change my mind.”

Dickon was amazed at the change of heart in this stiff-necked knight. He was also struck by Cecily’s charity for this sniveling peasant. It made him think.

Phew! That’s a lot of back and forth inside people’s heads with added back story, and imagination. The only person whose thoughts the reader doesn’t specifically hear are those of Richard, but his opinion is aptly conveyed in the description of his face and actions.  So, why does this head hopping work?

First, because, as a reader, I want to know what the characters are thinking.  It is a scene of CONFRONTATION.  In confrontation people DO NOT reveal what they are thinking through their conduct or in what they say.  In fact, they often try to hide what they are actually thinking in such a situation, so the usual substitutes to head hopping don’t work.  Also, in this particular scene the characters are making choices that will define them and it is important for the story that the reader understand why they make those choices.

Another instance when head hopping appears acceptable or even necessary is where a character has a SECRET that s/he does not want to reveal to another character in the scene but which is important for the reader to know.  This happens at another point in QUEEN BY RIGHT.  In fact, head hopping occurs a lot in the book and as a reader, I have enjoyed delving into the minds of the characters.

Second, the author attaches the thoughts and feelings to dialog to anchor the internal revelation.  The character speaks, then he or she thinks or feels, so that the head hopping is in a cohesive package rather than instant back and forth.  The presentation gives the reader time to adjust.

So, I went back to the excerpt I read at my writing group, and sure enough it is a scene of confrontation and a defining moment (as scenes of confrontation often are).  I am grateful to those who made me aware of my head hopping, and will edit and revise the manuscript with the perils of head hopping in mind. But now, to me, that doesn’t mean a blanket ban.  The judicious use of head hopping can be an important and useful tool to tell a story and inform and engage the reader.

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Head Hopper

  1. The Fear of Head-Hopping seems to be a modern concern.

    I adore some of Astrid Lindgren’s more obscure children’s novels and I find she does it constantly– often several times on the same page.

    I try to take care of my readers. All of whom are quite modern, it seems. So I avoid head-hopping. But it doesn’t bother me too much when I read older works. Because I was never taught that it SHOULD bother me.

  2. By the way, I came looking for some of *your* work. I figured you must write, too, since you entered the 24-hour contest on WritersWeekly! 😀

    Many people in my writing group enter that contest. Next Tuesday, we’ll all present ours. Do you enter with your group, too?

    • Thank you for your comment. As a reader head hopping has never really bothered me. I entered the contest to avoid doing other work. It was fun and got me writing. I found it through Twitter. I don’t have a group although I am considering taking a course in Flash Fiction through the local continuing ed. just so I can get some feedback and hear what other writers are up to. Then there’s NaNoWriMo starting up soon. There’s a local group active with that, they have write-ins.

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