Monday, April 18, 2011

Deep Point of View – How to Avoid Head-Hopping, Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2 of this topic, I gave examples of deep point of view or close third-person POV.

Here’s one more example: Say you’re writing a romance, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, showing her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. The hero, whom she’s just met under unfortunate circumstances, is angry. You’ll show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him at that point (What the hell is going on here? he thought. What’s she trying to pull off, anyway?), but by what the heroine is seeing and perceiving—his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.

The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.” Some writers go so far as to leave three asterisks (* * *) and spaces above and below to indicate a switch in viewpoint within a scene, but I think that’s too jarring and disruptive to the flow of action. Three asterisks, centered, are best reserved to indicate a shift in place and time.

So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?

According to Cynthia VanRooy, “When a reader becomes emotionally engaged in a book, he or she enters into the story. The reader understands the book world isn’t real, but in order to fully enjoy the story, he or she chooses to temporarily pretend otherwise, or to suspend their disbelief. […]

“Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that…they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”

And my advice is to take it one step further and make sure your character’s observations and reactions are written in the style that your POV character would use. If your viewpoint character is a 9-year-old boy, he’ll see and describe things around him differently than if it’s a 16-year-old girl, a 45-year-old man, or a 65-year-old woman. And I’m not just talking about their dialogue, which of course has to suit their age, background, social standing, etc. The narrative descriptions of what they’re seeing, hearing, and feeling
should be in that person’s words, to maintain the tone and mood and voice of that character. So in a scene that’s in the 9-year-old boy’s POV, don’t describe what’s going on around him with long, fancy words and complete, grammatically correct sentences.

Make sure each of your characters has distinctive speech patterns, and when you're in their point of view, describe their surroundings in those same speech patterns. That way the reader is able to really experience their world as they perceive it.

A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the highlighters or colored pens and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting or underlining sentences that describe scenes, people, perceptions, and emotions strictly from his or her POV.

Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.” Keep on writing!
© Jodie Renner,, March 2011
Resource for Part 3: “POV or: Whose Head Am I in, Anyway?” by Cynthia VanRooy

Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at

Posted by Maryann Miller who is always happy to be reminded about whose head she should be in. 

Bookmark and Share


  1. Great advice. I tend to use only one POV for each book, but I sometimes will have a secondary POV. For that second one, I start a new chapter.

    When editing, I find authors often head-hop. It throws the reader out of the story. Most of the time, the authors aren't even aware they've hopped back and forth.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Jodie. I know it can be jarring for the reader when authors switch POV too often and too abruptly, but there are some authors who do it so smoothly you can hardly tell he or she broke the rule unless you look at the passage with a critical eye. That doesn't mean I encourage writers to head-hop, but they do need to know that the guidelines in category books are stricter than those for mainstream fiction.

  3. As Maryann said, it's all in how well you handle transitions. There are many authors who can slide from one POV character to another without needing line breaks, scene breaks, or asterisks. (I'm not one of them, so I definitely use those flags for my readers)

    Suzanne Brockmann has some wonderful examples about moving from deep POV to shallow POV for one character, then shallow to deep for the next.

    As long as the reader knows whose head to be in, it can work. But I also agree--too often, and no matter how clear the transitions, you'll distance the reader.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Thanks for your comments, Helen, Maryann and Terry. I think it's more a matter of greater reader satisfaction if they can sink into one character's head to the point of losing themselves in that character's story and quandaries, and hoping along with them that they'll triumph over adversity and reach their goals. If we're in too many characters' heads through the course of a novel, all that gets diluted, resulting in the reader being less involved and more of an outside observer, rather than an eager participant.

  5. Thanks for eminding us not to play ping pong with point of view. Jodie your thoughts are always helpful and make it easier for the reader.

  6. Thanks Jodie. I'm getting better with POV now. But I still have problem with writing sexy scenes, as I always want to show the emotion and feeling on both characters then.

    My Darcy Mutates

  7. Yes, I know what you mean, Enid - and the female readers want to know what the hero's thinking about the heroine. You could switch halfway through a love scene, with a space, at an appropriate spot (change of position?). LOL

    Or alternate POVs for different love scenes, or show the lead-up in one POV, and the actual love scene in the other....

  8. I hate head hopping. I invest emotions in a book and don't enjoy switching back and forth too often.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Staying in the head of your main character for most of the novel mirrors real life - how we see the world around us. We only know what we can see, hear, smell, and otherwise perceive - we can't see others' thoughts or feelings "from above," only from their body language, words, facial expressions, etc.

  10. Deep POV is one of the most important techniques in a fiction writer's toolkit--you could even say that viewing a story through an interesting perspective is what fiction is all about. It's certainly what readers (including agents and editors) respond to. Yet it's greatly underutilized in the manuscripts I see. We have a lot of articles on it at this site, in addition to this series of Jodie's, that are well worth reading. Study up, writers: it will be your key to success!

  11. Very good post. I hate "head-hopping." It gives me whiplash!

  12. Great post, Jodie. I wrote my entire debut novel from the main character's POV. Doing that created another range of challenges though: how to tell the important details that happen while the main character is not present and that are important to the plot. I used letters, phone calls, etc. and it seemed to work.
    In my second novel, I presented three POVs but only switched with the start of a new chapter.

    Another challenge, somewhat related to different points of views, is flashbacks. I love them but they too can be jarring and pull the reader out of the story.


  13. Christa, it sounds like you met the challenge of first-person POV pretty well. First-person viewpoint isn't nearly as easy as it sounds, and it's hard to sustain the reader's interest for a whole novel, with just the one voice and all the "I"s. It's perfect for short stories, though.

    As for backstory and flashback, the latest issue of Writers' Digest magazine has three excellent articles on that. Good stuff!

  14. Jodie, I guess I didn't express myself clearly. In my first novel, I told the story in the third person but presented it through the point of view of the main character, something they call "limited point of view." Somehow, third person is easier for me to handle than first person.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...