Head hopping confuses readers and pulls them out of story faster than ill-begotten grammar. It always forces the reader to crunch up their face and ask, “What!?” They will go back and re-read the passage several times before they realize just what happened. Head hopping is one of the leading causes of story death.
Let’s talk Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series is almost always shown in Harry’s head.
Let’s examine Book #5. Harry is lounging in Aunt Petunia’s flower bed outside the window. He’s listening to the television for clues about Voldemort. The story is written in 3rd person–he, Aunt Petunia, Dudley, they–But we are still experiencing the story in Harry’s head. We are reading his thoughts, sensing his feelings, experiencing his views on the events around him.
Harry is rarely alone (ironically). He is almost always surrounded by Dudley, Vernon, Snape, Ron, Hermione, and the Weasley’s. That’s a lot of heads to be around. We could experience the story in any one of those perspectives. But Rowling chose Harry’s head. Why? Because he is the most interesting. Because the series is called “Harry Potter.”
Let’s jump ahead to Book #6. The first scene is told in Mrs. Malfoy’s head. We experience her despair, her worry, her fears. We can only guess at what Snape is feeling.
Anytime a scene is played out, we can experience the events in anyone of the characters present. By the first sentence, an author has communicated to the reader which head we are in.
Now, here is where the writing can lose us. It is an unspoken rule that once you enter the head of a character, you can not leave the head for the remainder of the scene.
Books are not like movies. In a movie we are in no one’s head. We are in our heads witnessing events. We can’t identify the emotions of anyone in the scene. We can witness clues.
Let’s look at Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. The grief in Leia’s eyes when Hans is frozen in carbonite. They courage of Hans as he looks lovingly upon Leia. The agonizing roar of Chewy as Hans is frozen. We have no idea what anyone is thinking. We can only guess at what everyone is feeling based on the faces we see. We are in no one’s head.
In books, we are in someone’s head. Not being in anyone’s head is called omniscient. The book is like a movie and we are reading no one’s thoughts. We are experiencing no one’s feelings.
Books are like pensieves. They allow us to enter the minds of characters. Back to Harry Potter Book #5. We slide into Harry’s mind. We can feel the heat on that summer day. We can feel the panic, the worry, the anticipation. We have the added bonus of hearing his thoughts because, hey, we are in his head after all. We listen as Harry ponders about Voldemort, thinks about Ron and Hermione, feels relief about hiding from Vernon and Dudley.
Let’s change perspective (not point of view). What if Rowling had written the scene from Petunia’s perspective? She’s in the kitchen making lemonade. She passes the glass to Vernon who she admires lovingly, thinking how handsome and muscular he looks. She sits down into the perfect furniture of her perfect home and fans herself while the news hums in the background. She then thinks about how precious Dudley is and what she’ll be making for dinner. She may be concerned about her gardens in the heat and curses the water ban. She may be preoccupied with the latest gossip from next door. Suddenly, she sits up and starts talking to Vernon about how so-‘n-so from next door has just planned a holiday to Bermuda that summer. She feels pleased when Vernon grumbles about not having to hear their lawn mower all summer. On a whole, Petunia’s perspective is rather mundane and boring.
There is a crack outside. Petunia jumps, spilling her lemonade all down her front. She looks out the window and there is “that boy” holding out his… oh, I can’t say it, she thinks. Vernon is up, strangling the boy. “Put that thing away!” Meanwhile, all Petunia can think about is her precious flower bed being crushed by that boy.
A moment later, the boy is gone, Vernon has settled back into the chair, and Petunia sits the day away fanning herself in the heat. A few hours later, Dudley comes through the door and vomits.
On a whole, Petunia’s perspective is uneventful. So we follow Harry’s thoughts instead. We settle into his mind. We take in the emotions and worries. We hear the crack and know its a wizard apparating. He has his wand out before anyone can swoop down and kill him. Where is he? Harry thinks. Is it a death eater? Is it Voldemort? Has he come for me?
Oh, no! My flowers, Petunia thinks, pressing her hand to her mouth. That boy’s gone and crushed them all.
It’s jarring to settle into one mind, one perspective, then to be ripped out of that head and dropped into another… Most transitions aren’t smooth or clear. We keep reading thinking it is Harry who has said, “Oh no! My flowers!”
Wait! What? Now we’re thinking about the writing and the grammar, and not what that sudden crack was. We stop being on Privet Drive. We’re back on the bus, holding a book, while the driver pulls over and a group of people shuffle off.
How do I fix this?
A common trick authors use is to write the character’s name at the top of the scene. This serves as a reminder which character you are experiencing. It will be easier to spot when you stray from that character.
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