Is Head Hopping Necessary?

         Much of the writing advice I’ve seen over the past few years has heavily discouraged the practice of head hopping–or jumping around between POV characters. There are many valid reasons why. For example, most information revealed via head hopping can be done via the main POV. The writer just has to figure out a way for said POV to plausibly encounter that information. Head hopping is also, so they say, a mark of an amateur writer because it can easily become a crutch to avoid addressing larger structural problems. If a writer uses head hopping, they should do so in a clear pattern such as switching POVs every chapter or using some kind of star or dash symbol to clarify to the reader that the POV is switching. Finally, first-time authors should not expect that they can get away with head hopping (if they are traditionally published) because they have not yet shown that they understand the rules well enough to break them. Established authors are given more leniency since the publisher is already confident that they can get their money’s worth.

That’s the gist of the advice about and arguments against head hopping. I agree with most of it, actually, and often stick to one POV in my own work; however, I don’t think head hopping is something we should avoid for all eternity. After all, A Song of Ice and Fire and many other novels and series switch POVs all the time.

Like first-person present tense, head hopping is a stylistic choice that, in my opinion, only works for very particular types of stories, yet so many writers want to use it in their own. This makes total sense because film and television use head hopping all the time, and many writers (myself included), take inspiration from these visual mediums. Head hopping is actually a very basic, conventional structure for TV shows. Each episode of something has an A story, a B story, and perhaps a C story. Obviously, not all TV shows do this, but in that world, it’s certainly a fundamental way to structure stories.

But the written word is a different medium. While I can easily follow along a TV show or play that follows around different characters, I get confused if I’m well into a book and the POV switches in the middle of a paragraph. I experienced this recently when I was reading the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of it so far, but there are some random POV switches in the middle of some chapters that I don’t think are necessary. In books two and three, he makes those switches clearer, but I still feel that what he reveals by venturing outside of Tal or Milla’s heads could have easily been done within the POV structure he had already established. Now, to be fair, he’s also writing for children and I can see how some children would read a chapter from the Codex’s point of view and then feel more engaged/excited later on knowing something that Tal doesn’t yet know and waiting for him to figure it out. I can see that Nix was maybe going for some dramatic irony there, although I still think Tal figuring out that the Codex is trying to talk to him would’ve been more exciting if we didn’t already know that the Codex could even do that. So, there are many instances of head hopping in Seventh Tower that I’m not sure are necessary.

A Song of Ice and Fire is different, in my opinion. While I’ve only read A Game of Thrones so far, it’s clear that each character’s own ambitions drive the story. Martin’s head hopping between different members of the Stark family reinforces the theme of familial loyalty. They also have their own separate storylines. In this case, the book’s structure has clear connections with a larger, conceptual point that the story is trying to make. Martin gives us a few non-Stark POVs, which one could easily say is setting a precedent not only for head hopping, but also house hopping. From what I gather, Martin chooses a different set of POV characters in each book and it seems to be largely designated by house. That’s understandably jarring and can certainly make the books difficult to follow, thus implying that maybe Martin’s head hopping isn’t necessary either. Even so, I think Martin’s use of head hopping is at least more clearly aligned with the themes he’s writing about and makes sense with the kind of story he’s trying to tell. In other books, this type of POV switching doesn’t seem to add anything or contribute to the theme. At the very least, Martin follows a consistent pattern in his head hopping. He changes POVs every chapter and never sooner. Furthermore, the POVs don’t repeat the same events or information, nor do they reveal major plot points in a way that erases tension.

So, I don’t think the question is “Should I use head hopping?” I think it’s better to consider if that type of structure is what the story needs or if that structure is somehow connected to the themes or characters in the story.

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2 thoughts on “Is Head Hopping Necessary?

  1. I find that the style really fits A Song of Ice and Fire. Seeing the world tinted through the bias of these incredibly varied characters can be very interesting. The characters have distinct ambitions and notice entirely different details. The character jumping also serves the plot well. Westeros is huge, and news takes a long time to travel. This is especially true in the later books, as the characters travel around. It gives a great sense of the immensity of the world.

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