How to avoid head hopping and point of view violations

What’s point of view (POV)?

Point of view (POV) is the perspective through which readers are viewing the story. Through whose eyes–and other senses–are readers experiencing the events of the story?

What’s a POV violation?

When you’re writing in third person limited POV, you are limited to one POV character per scene. You can’t write about things your POV character doesn’t see, hear, feel, or know. You can’t show us what’s going on behind your POV character or what the person on the other end of the phone line is doing while the POV character is talking to him or her.

You can’t show other characters’ thoughts or feelings, at least not directly. But of course the POV character can speculate about other people’s thoughts or motivations and can interpret another character’s body language and facial expressions. How far you can go depends on who your POV character is. If he or she is great with people and a good observer, maybe someone who works in a social or helping profession, you can get away with a bit more.

What is head hopping?

Head hopping is one type of POV violation. In third person limited POV, you can switch POV only when you start a new scene (some authors even prefer not to switch within a chapter). If you switch within a scene, that’s “head hopping” and can become very confusing to the reader. The main advantage of third person limited POV is that it strengthens readers’ identification with the POV character. But if we’re yanked from head to head, from POV to POV, it’s hard to identify with any character.

Example: 

Anna pushed open the door and glanced at her watch. She was early.

Lisa looked up from her desk, sensing Anna’s gaze on her. “Oh, you’re here already.”

“Sorry. I can wait outside.” She hadn’t wanted to be late, so she had left home half an hour early.

We’re going from Anna’s POV to Lisa’s and back to Anna. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting POV whiplash if I’m reading pages upon pages of this.

Readers do notice when something is wrong with the POV, even if most readers won’t be able to pinpoint it as a POV problem. It distances them from the characters and the story.

Examples for other POV violations:

Let’s assume for these examples that they’re all from a scene in which Anna is the POV character and Lisa is the non-POV character.

  • The irony of the thought escaped Anna. If Anna is the POV character, you can’t mention things that she doesn’t notice.
  • Anna’s expression turned cold. The POV character can’t see her expression. Instead, describe how she feels her muscles tighten or something like that.
  • Lisa eyed Anna, looking for any signs of a lie. Anna can’t know why Lisa is staring at her.
  • Teary green eyes locked with ice blue ones. This is switching into a distant, more omniscient POV. We’re observing both characters from the outside and are no longer in Anna’s POV.
  • Anna flopped down onto the bed and ran her hand through her silky black tresses. Unless Anna is a very vain poet, she would probably not think of her hair as “silky black tresses.”
  • Anna opened the front door and stepped into her apartment. Orange curtains suffused the living room in a golden light. In the corner was a desk piled high with books, files, and magazines. If this is her apartment, why is she paying so much attention to the furniture? She sees this every day, so she has no reason to look at it or think about it.

For more POV violations and how to avoid them, check out my book Point of View. It will help you to avoid head hopping and to pick the best POV for your book.

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