Why ‘head-hopping’ in books is risky

Deciding which viewpoint to tell your story from? Or have your readers told you it’s hard to connect with the characters in your story?

The viewpoint of your book can be a tricky thing to get right. In this post, we’ll chat about what viewpoint is, how to figure out what point of view may suit your story best, as well discuss why too many viewpoints can potentially negatively impact your reader’s experience.

What is a story’s viewpoint?

Whether you’ve started drafting out your story, or are deep in revisions, your story needs a point of view. A point of view is the lens through which your readers access your book. It’s how (and through who) the world of the story, its sights, smells and events are interpreted.

A single perspective

Some writers choose to have one of their characters provide their readers with their perspective on the story. The reader is in a single characters head, experiencing the world of your book, using that character’s eyes.

An example of this is The Hunger Games which is told from the perspective of Katniss, in the first person. Readers follow along with her story, thoughts, and the way she experiences the world she’s in. This enables readers to emotionally invest deeply in her journey throughout the entire series. This point of view is one of the most common in commercial fiction.

Your single perspective point of view may however be separate from the characters in the story, such as through an external narrator. The Book Thief is an example of this, though some may argue that in many instances the narrator can become a character of their own.

Though the examples above use first person (I, me) language to tell the story, a single perspective story can be told in the third person too (they, them) an example of this is the Harry Potter series. The series is still from the perspective of Harry, even though it’s written in the third person.

More than one perspective

Sometimes, writers tell a story from the perspective of more than one character. This can give a writer lot of flexibility in terms of story and character movement. The story is then woven together with these various viewpoints intersecting in the book. It can make for an extremely engaging read when done well.

A common way many writers opt for more than one perspective is by using dual (two characters), or more perspectives, often with alternating chapters. While many books do use more than two perspectives, it can be tricky to get right. If you opt for this perspective you’ll want to keep in mind some of the risks we’ll talk about soon.

Some examples of dual or more perspective books:

Aurora Rising, The Heart Principle, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, Redeeming Love, And Then There Were None, A Little Something Different.

The exception to this is an omniscient narration (all-knowing and all-seeing narrator) but this doesn’t tend to be as fashionable with commercial fiction in recent years. (That’s not to say you can’t do it!)

Why do so many authors choose to use a single perspective?

Using a single perspective to tell the story does several things, usually to the advantage of the reader’s experience.

  1. It allows for deeper investment in the character. Particularly in stories that are about a single character’s journey and growth, it often makes sense for the point of view to be from that character. This gives readers maximum opportunity to invest emotionally and get to know the character they’re reading about.
  2. It mirrors the reader’s experience. In real life, we can’t see the world from an infinite number of people’s eyes. We’re all living life through our own eyes. So by mirroring that experience in fiction, readers will likley acclimatise to the story quickly.
  3. Consistency and avoiding confusion. By having just one perspective, writers are able to maintain focus in the story, and avoid confusing readers by ‘head-hopping’.

What are the benefits & risks with more than one perspective?

Benefits:

When executed well, including more than one perspective in a story can offer a broader narrative experience. It can be particularly compelling if the story follows a group of characters, or a pair, where readers attention is toward their story as a collective whole or couple.

It allows the author the opportunity to highlight a different aspect of the story and potentially add another element to the reading experience.

Multiple perspectives can definitely be a worthwhile option to consider, depending on your story.

But… beware of head-hopping

If it’s not done well, your readers can feel disconnected, jarred and disengaged emotionally from your story.

This can often be because of unclear transitions between perspectives, or a lack of distinct character voice to similarly cue the reader that the perspective has changed.

Readers are pretty cluey and may also tire of a story if the perspective shift does not appear to have an apparent goal or add something to the overall reading experience. Shifting perspectives just for the sake of it will likely irritate. It can feel to the reader as though they’re ‘hopping’ from one head to another.

Tips to combat head-hopping

  • Read books written in the perspective of your story, whether single or multiple perspective. Read as a writer. Make note of how the author transitions between character perspectives effectively.
  • Focus on ensuring overall emotional investment in your characters, by your readers, over quantity of story-telling perspectives. If you’re unsure if multiple perspectives are working, dive deep into a single perspective first.
  • Get feedback from fellow writers, or beta readers to gauge if the perspective you’ve chosen is working. Make revisions with the greater good of the story in mind.

What perspective should your story be from?

While there’s no right or wrong perspective to share your story in (writing is art, after all!) there is a possibility that there are some perspectives that are going to make for a more engaging read for your readers.

Consider if Pride and Prejudice was written from the perspective of Mister Bennett, rather than Elizabeth. As readers, we’d likely spend a lot more time in his study, rather than being judgy and romantic toward Mister Darcy. We wouldn’t get to witness the scenes between the sisters, or disastrous marriage proposals.

Anyway, all that to say, whatever perspective you tell your story from, it should be interesting and engaging for readers.

Save The Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody poses the question when thinking about perspective – Which character(s) in your story have the furthest to come in the book? Who will change or be impacted by the events of the story the most?

The answers to those questions are usually a good starting place for beginning to consider what perspective to use in your book.

It’s possible that after thinking about it, you discover the story would be more interesting from a different perspective to the one you initially considered! Which means you may have to think about making a change during revisions…

Final Thoughts

For all its risks, many of my favourite books are written using multiple perspectives. When it’s done well, it can elevate a story and make it truly memorable.

What perspective is your favourite book written in? Let me know in the comments!

Haven’t had enough books? Come say hi to me on social media by searching @stephhuddlestonwriting or by clicking the buttons below.

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