Shifting Point Of View Without Head Hopping

How To Avoid Head HoppingIf you shift point of view within the same chapter or story, you risk being  criticized for “head hopping.” But often you need more than one point of view for your novel.

In fact, in some genres, such as fantasy, most readers expect it.

Plus, showing a story through more than one character’s eyes allows you to explore scenes, emotions, and knowledge that you couldn’t otherwise include that will intrigue readers.

So why is head hopping frowned on? And how do you change point of view without the dreaded head hopping label?

The Drawback Of Head Hopping

The biggest issue with shifting points of view is the risk of confusing the reader.

If not done well, the reader suddenly wonders why this character knows something they shouldn’t, or who exactly the viewpoint character is, or what on earth just happened. (That’s what usually results in complaints about head hopping.)

At best, the reader will go back to clarify what’s going on. If they can figure it out, they may keep reading. But if it happens too often, they’ll put down your novel and never return.

Also, you’ve just reminded them they’re reading a book rather than living in and experiencing your fictional world firsthand.

But you can avoid confusion. The key is to transition without jarring your reader. Some ways to do that are below.

You Need More Than A Break

Readers are more likely to understand a point of view change when it occurs after a scene or chapter break. But a break alone isn’t enough.

Cue your reader in at least one other way within the text itself. For example, if you’re writing in third person, include the new viewpoint character’s name and an internal thought or emotion in the first sentence:

Once she got out of the house, Eleanor raced to the DMV, afraid she’d missed her last chance to renew her driver’s license before it expired.

If the last scene or chapter was in Juan’s point of view, the above sentence quickly cues the reader that this one is from Eleanor’s, as we get not only her name and what she’s doing but why she’s doing it. And how she feels about it.

These types of cues can make all the difference.

You can also add the new POV character’s name in italics or parentheses below the Chapter title or number or after the scene break. But even if you do, I recommend cues like those above. Some readers (including me) tend to read right past chapter titles or parentheticals. You don’t want to lose them.

Switching Mid-Paragraph

Some literary authors switch points of view mid-paragraph. Here’s an example from my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice:

That she should have walked three miles so early in the day in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness—there was good-humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.

The above excerpt includes at least 3 points of view, which I’ve color coded. Elizabeth’s, Darcy’s, and Hurst’s. Note that the two men are named in the sentence before the shifts to their points of view and the author tells us they said nothing. The author then clearly states what each is thinking.

The vast majority of readers now, though, find switches like the above too jarring, as they are so rare. For that reason, if you plan to switch mid-scene, it’s better to do it when you start a new paragraph.

Shifting POV Mid-Scene

Using actions and emotion (the same type of cues as in my first example) helps any shift of point of view. If you are mid-scene, though, you want to be especially clear.

A few ways to do that include:

  • starting the paragraph with the new POV character’s name
  • beginning the paragraph with the new character’s dialogue followed by a tag with the character’s name
  • describing the new POV character’s movement at the start of the paragraph (using their name), followed by an internal emotion or thought

For example:

Juan slammed his hand on the table. “No way are you leaving.” They were in the middle of an argument, and he couldn’t believe his wife was rushing out without answering his last point. 

“I have to,” Eleanor said. She grabbed her coat. Her driver’s license meant everything to her. Without it, she’d never see her daughter again. Her ex certainly wasn’t going to drive a hundred miles to bring the girl for a visit. 

Juan blocked the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest and squaring his shoulders. He knew how much her daughter meant to Eleanor, but in the two years they’d been married she’d never made him the priority. He was starting to think she never would. And that wasn’t going to work for him. 

As you can see (I hope), these cues make the shift into a different character’s viewpoint less jarring and easier to follow.

I hope you found this helpful!


L. M. Lilly

P.S. For a refresher on points of view, check out these articles on Writing As A Second Career.

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