A little while ago, I was reading fan fiction online. I quite enjoy doing that. My enjoyment was spoiled in one of the stories I was reading. The author switched the point of view character several times in the piece I was reading. Ordinarily, that isn’t a problem, but this particular author was writing in the first person. They did so for both point of view characters and didn’t do the head hopping particularly well. I never finished the story because I was confused about who’s point of view I was in at any given time. There was no warning, just suddenly the “I” person didn’t make sense anymore for the character I thought was the viewpoint character.
Such point of view shifts are fine as long as you make sure that you give adequate clues to the shift. That said, I will say it’s easier to do in the third person. Some authors do it by naming the point of view character at the beginning of the chapter, as a heading. That works well when writing in the first person and leaves the reader in no doubt who’s head they are in. Third person point of view is easier in that you can name the viewpoint character within a sentence or two from the start of the viewpoint switch. The idea is to give your reader a head’s up on the switch. If you do that, they won’t be confused and disoriented.
That said, you need to be very careful when leaping from viewpoint to viewpoint. Make sure the viewpoint is indicated as clearly as you can. That way, you won’t confuse your reader to the point that they close the book or toss the story aside in disgust. Head hopping is bad writing if you don’t clearly indicate you are doing it as soon as you do it. Take the next two paragraphs for example.
Jim wasn’t sure what Sandy meant when she complained he didn’t listen. He heard every word she said.
She didn’t understand why Jim couldn’t see what he was doing wrong.
In that example we jumped from Jim to Sandy without a clear signal. Now consider this.
Jim wasn’t sure what Sandy meant when she complained he didn’t listen. He heard every word she said. They just didn’t make sense to him.
Sandy was irritated. Jim didn’t even try to understand what she wanted. She’d thought she’d been plain. She didn’t like it when he just dropped by. He should call first.
The transition from Jim to Sandy worked better in the second example because we named Sandy when we mentioned how irritable she was. The technique is simple enough, but it is better to stay in the same viewpoint in a scene or chapter. That makes it even clearer.
Of course, ultimately, you should try to stay within one character’s head if you can. Limit the unnecessary narrator shifts. If you really need to make a shift in your narrators for the purpose of providing information to the reader, check and see if you can present the information in a different way. Have another character gossiping about whatever the information you need to give to the reader. That always works well and doesn’t confuse the reader. For the most part, though, do your best to avoid head hopping if you can. Your readers will thank you.
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