Sarah Potter Writes

Pursued by the Muses of prose, poetry, and music.

Head-hopping: A Cardinal Sin, Says Who?

I just awarded one of my favourite Nordic Crime authors, Karin Fossum, four stars for her novel Black Seconds on Goodreads, despite the frequent shifts of viewpoint between her characters within individual scenes. If not for this, I would have awarded her novel five stars as it was brilliant in all other respects. You can read my review here

The difference between me and Karin Fossum — apart from the fact she’s Norwegian and I’m English and head-hopping in novels isn’t such an issue for many of the Nordic writers — is that she’s a published novelist and I’m not. I haven’t read her earliest novels, so have no idea if she has always head-hopped, or has become lazy, although the latter is most unlikely as she’s a disciplined and talented writer with a meticulous eye for detail.

As I surmise in my review, maybe head-hopping doesn’t bother  non-writing readers in the way it alarms, if not infuriates readers who also write. I’m trying to think back to the time before I knew about the absolute no-nos of creative writing. Did I even notice if novelists broke the rules? Perhaps it only effected me on a sub-conscious level, in that I became bored with a book or kept losing concentration whenever head-hopping impeded the flow of the text on the page.

In attempting to weigh up whether readers’ expectations always match those of authors, I’m interested to hear what others think about this, so please spare a second or two to respond to my poll below.

 

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13 thoughts on “Head-hopping: A Cardinal Sin, Says Who?

  1. If head hopping is done well, the shift in POV doesn’t draw attention to itself. If you notice it right away, then it’s not done well.

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    • Yes, I suppose that’s right, Deanna. It’s all about an author writing seamlessly, so that only someone setting out to critique the novel after reading the whole thing would notice some skilful rule-breaking had occurred.

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  2. Sarah — nice food for thought. The Nuts and Bolts of writing sometimes are so different from the reading it can get weird. Head hopping can be a really useful tool, but if used too much, unless it is a key mechanism in the book (fantasy, scifi?) it can get tiring for me to read. It’s all in the context and the story. I would have voted, but there was no “sometimes” button.

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    • Richard, that’s interesting what you’re saying about it sometimes being a really useful tool. I guess that the Karin Fossum’s novel I mentioned wasn’t in the least tiring to read. In fact, I read it for relaxation and at every opportunity I could get when I should have been working.

      The more I think about it, the more I don’t think I minded at all about head-hopping before I started writing seriously myself. It’s probably only becomes annoying to readers if a novel breaks too many rules at once. Also, if writers do decide to break the rules, they must know why.

      Hee, hee. There was me thinking I’d come up with all the possible questions on my poll. There’s always one clever clogs, isn’t there? 😉

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  3. Rules are made to be broken – provided you know the rules in the first place, and know when they can be broken artfully. J. S. Bach wrote the rules for writing fugues – and then proceeded to break all of them. But because he was Bach, and a composer of consummate skill, the daring breakage adds to the pleasure. From the sublime to the ridiculous, remember Les Dawson and how he used to make deliberate mistakes playing the piano, for comedic effect? You have to be a terrifically good musician to make mistakes like that on purpose.

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    • Ah, that’s why my piano examiners always wrote “wonderfully expressive playing but most imaginative timing”.

      Thanks for those musical examples, Henry. They’re most interesting and an exceedingly good example of rule-breaking with great creative effect.

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  4. Head hopping is annoying when it is done badly – eg just a writer chuntering along with no particular direction in mind. However I read a book where groups of up to about 6 characters formed a single character by sound communication. It was superb and headhopping between 6 characters was handled well and to effect.

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  5. I love this Poll idea Sarah. Even before I started writing, head-hopping distracted me. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. I’m posting the link on Twitter and FB for you to gain more votes!

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    • I only just realised that when I upgraded this blog to .com, the ability to carry out polls was one of the perks that went with it. Doubtless there will be many more to follow this one.

      Thanks ever so, Pamela, for spreading the word by sharing the post 🙂

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  6. Sarah, I’m sorry to say, and quite ashamed that I have no earthly idea what head hopping is…

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    • It’s when you’ve a group of people in a scene in your novel and instead of staying in one of the character’s heads and seeing everything through that person’s eyes, you keep jumping viewpoint to the other characters and seeing things through their eyes, too.

      In real life this would be impossible as you would need to mind read everybody in a group situation.

      Therefore, in a story, head-hopping can give away too much at once. On the other hand, it would be rather fun if you were purposely demonstrating that each person was thinking one thing but saying something else.

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    • Thinking further about your question. It needn’t be a group of people. You could just have two people in a scene — say a romantic encounter — and head-hopping happens between them, which might be quite interesting if you wanted, for instance, to portray the Venus versus Mars points of view.

      Ultimately, I think it’s better for an author to stay in one point of view for a scene, or it can cause the reader literary whiplash, unless that’s the author’s intention!

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