Will Edwinson

Author & Storyteller

Head Hopping orJumping—Bad, or Is It?

Green Cabbage Head

Images courtesy of ddpavumba from FreeDigitalphotos.net

Blue Cabbage Head

I’ll start this post by saying I claim no expertise for my comments on the subject.  I speak only from my personal point of view (pun intended) and my observations.  The topic is one that I think many writers struggle with, myself included. Some of what I’m about to say smacks in the face of accepted conventional wisdom,  but then I’m known among my friends and peers for questioning  so-called conventional wisdom, so here goes. 🙂 I will be using the terms head hopping or jumping interchangeably throughout this post.

 Is head hopping bad or not so bad? I Googled several sources on this subject, and  what I was able to glean from those sources is that  there seems to be no fast rule on the subject.  The general consensus among these writers was that it  depends largely on which point of view one is writing in. Of the four available, third person- omniscient  allows the most latitude for head jumping because the narrator is all seeing and all knowing.   The general consensus was that even with this POV, head hopping without proper transition would be  taboo.

Some so-called experts and editors prefer third person-limited POV that says we should stay in one head for the entire scene because the narrator has limited sight and knowledge.  So, again, as I see it, it’s a matter of choice, depending on which POV the  writer chooses to tell his or her story from.

 Myself, I prefer third person-omniscient.  I like the latitude it gives my narrator.  Since the narrator is all seeing and all knowing,  I believe this gives him the right to show readers the scene from more than one character’s head, or perspective, if you will.  I think this adds a bit more color to a scene, provided  the transition from one head to another  is a smooth one.

One editor disagreed with this premise.  She pretty much stated that head hopping is taboo under any circumstances–unless your a best selling author, that is.  She went on to say that because one best selling author who she said is known for whiplash type head hopping, has sold a kazillion books, she can get away with head hopping.  Then in a very condescending tone she said:” BUT DON’t YOU TRY IT.”Well, hoop de do!  If that author has sold that many books, that tells me her readers don’t give a whit about her so-called whiplash head hopping.

To back up my  last statement, one other of the sources I Googled said one book he read(by another well known author) had so much head jumping it was like watching a ping pong match. In  spite of that, he said  the story kept him engaged, and he actually enjoyed it. I believe some authors have a natural gift that enables them to keep the story flowing well in spite of the fact they may be jumping heads.

We all know a story teller’s ultimate goal and responsibility is to keep his or her readers engaged. If authors can accomplish that while engaging in a bit of  head jumping along the way, then I say more power to them. We see this done frequently in movies where the camera pans from one character to another during a scene—usually more than once.  This, in my opinion, is equivalent to head hopping.

I’m not advocating hopping from one head to another every other paragraph, but I am saying  that I  think some head hopping might not be all bad.  I agree that head hopping   without  transition is not good, because it marks a writer as an amateur, and can sometimes–not always–be confusing to readers; but I also believe, properly executed, head jumping can, and does, work quite well.

This poses a dilemma for us lesser known authors.  Most manuscript doctors I have encountered say head jumping is the main reason manuscripts are rejected.  Sadly, I think this is probably true, especially for manuscripts from new authors trying to break into the field. I believe too many good manuscripts get rejected because when editors catch that first  head jump, they have a tendency to become so focused on looking for more head hopping that they ignore story.  Especially if they happen to favor third person-limited POV.

As evidenced by the whiplash story cited above, I believe  most editors fail to recognize that the average reader probably doesn’t read a story from the same perspective as they the editors do.  I’d wager  most  readers are not familiar with the head hopping rule, so they hardly notice it, unless it’s done without proper transition.  I contend it’s the lack of transition that jars them, not the head hopping itself.

Hemingway jumped heads several times in the opening chapters of Old Man and The Sea.  But it was done with such fi-ness that no one seemed to care, and Hemingway,  himself,  is alleged to have said that was his favorite work.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that the proper syntax of writing be ignored.  Quite the contrary.  We owe it to ourselves and our readers to produce a well written manuscript void of error in every other aspect.  With the advent of more and more authors taking the self-publish route,  however, I think we’re going to see more head hopping in the future.  Some will be skillfully executed, some may not be.

But we might just find that a lot of good interesting stories will come forth that wouldn’t have made it under the old rule, and a certain degree of head hopping may become more acceptable, thus changing the rule which will put it in the class of good writing. 🙂

There was a time when Hemingway’s style of short clipped declarative prose would have been declared mediocre, but he effected a change in the rules. Today, his style is accepted as good writing.

So my conclusion in all this?  We should read our own stories very carefully.  If we jump heads without confusing ourselves, chances are neither will our readers be confused.  If we tend toward head jumping, it’s best to write in third person- omniscient.  And if third person-omniscient is our chosen POV, the narrator should establish that in the first few paragraphs, or the first sentence.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity….

The Tale of Two Cities–Charles Dickens


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