Head hopping – that most derided of narrative blunders

When I was about six years old, one thing scared me above all others – watching my brother play Aliens on the Commodore 64. It was terrifying, and I remember it vividly to this day. Sure, the graphics don’t exactly cut the mustard these days, but in 1988, it was the stuff of nightmares.

Two things about that game got me hiding behind furniture. The first was the sound of the motion tracker beeping quietly when an alien was nearby, rising to a continuous klaxon when one was in sight, as my brother panicked to move the cross-hair over the attacking monster.

But whenever I mustered the courage to have a go myself, it was the game’s central mechanic that got my skin tingling with fear. The player takes control of Ripley and the marines Hicks, Gorman, Vasquez, as well as the android Bishop and heartless corporate stooge Burke, all at the same time. Not that the characters had specific traits. They were just conduits for terror.

But you could only see through the eyes of one character at a time, so you had to flip between each one when their names started flashing a warning or their health began to plummet as they’re being mauled in horrendous pixelated ways. Soon enough, all their vital signs would flatline, their cameras would show only snow, and your last living character’s motion tracker starts blaring.

The march of progress

The concept of head hopping made for intriguing and terrifying gameplay, but it has rarely made an appearance since. Games have moved on, to a much more immersive, story-driven world with blistering graphics and much more emotive character arcs. Christ, look at Max Payne, or the Bioshock series.

Fiction, too, has largely done away with this omniscient approach to narrative. Rarely do we read stories in which the narrator knows what all the characters in a scene are thinking, or what all of them can see, or what knowledge they hold.

We call this “deep POV”. The concept is simple, though hard to master. The narrator is locked to the perception of one character in the scene, to their thoughts and feelings, their senses, and no one else’s. For stylistic effect, filter words are removed – “he thought”, “he saw”, “he realised” – leaving only the thoughts of the person, mixed with the third person description of actions.

We still see plenty of head hopping, though, but it is usually done between the end of one chapter and the start of another. Take Game of Thrones, for instance. Each chapter is taken from the perspective of a different character, and in a shameless marker, each chapter takes its name from the character chosen. This makes the contents sound like a character list as remembered by Dory (of Finding Nemo fame).

But it works. The voice of the narrator changes subtly between each chapter, playful and naïve for the children’s characters, wordy and metaphorical for the learned among them. And we discern their motivations and intentions from their thoughts and memories.

However, a certain level of trust comes into play, when dealing with head hopping. I bring this up having received some crtique on Scribophile that marked parts of my story with the heinous crime of switching perspectives mid-scene.

Damn their eyes!

Here’s the excerpt in question, during which the narrator, Jaclyn, has arrived on the dance floor of a pounding dub-step club with her little brother, Oscar.

Oscar’s eyes were closed, his body pulsing with the rhythm. He shook his head with each second beat, his hands cutting the air in knife-edge palms, the bathe of lights ushering shadows around his face in a frenzy of unnatural colour.

He was having a good time.

Apparently, the last line there is deemed head hopping.

But I beg to differ.

Jaclyn is assuming Oscar is having a good time by his actions. You may call this redundant, for we might easily assume the same, having read a description of those very actions. But it’s important for Jaclyn, at this point in the story, to see her little brother enjoying himself. They’ve been through some tragic events, and this release is cathartic, for him and the narrator.

And there’s my point; deep POV necessarily assumes a level of trust in the author, that what is written is the assumption of the narrator, not a signpost to what another character is thinking or feeling. We take it on trust that it’s the narrator’s assumption.

Fair game

Of course, sometimes the author does get it wrong. If the narrator jumps about from person to person, to different rooms and different voices, the structure of the piece comes a cropper and we lose our close relationship with the mind of our storyteller. And that’s no good for anybody.

It’s not wrong, of course. No art or narrative structure can be deemed “right”, or another “invalid”. Children’s books often take the perspective of the omniscient narrator, for instance – knowing all, seeing all and describing all from everyone’s viewpoints.

But in modern adult fiction, head hopping and the omniscient narrator are just out-dated, the medium has moved on – just as it did for computer games through the 90s and beyond. We’re closer now to our characters, hanging right there in their mind – but always one mind at a time.

5 thoughts on “Head hopping – that most derided of narrative blunders”

  1. Writing is very much like art. You even go through the same process, diligently researching your subject, working your way through several draughts before hitting on the right one. But don’t count on your audience always reacting to your work as expected. They may not feel empathy for a character in the way you intended. Everyone brings their own beliefs and experiences to a piece, be it art or the written word. Their opinion doesn’t invalidate the piece, in many ways it makes the work stronger; makes it multilayered.

    Recently, I exhibited some work. Like all artists I know, I kept well away from my own pieces. When you bare your soul you don’t want to witness someone else’s reaction to it first hand. At least with writing you don’t have to watch the reader’s face as your story unfolds.

    Anyway, a woman kept returning to my work, so I felt honour-bound to go over to her. I gave her the backstory to my sculpture and explained what everything represented. When I’d finished she looked at me and said it wasn’t necessary to know all that in order to enjoy it. She loved it regardless of my intentions and had her own interpretation of my work.

    This also applies to writing. All you can do is start a dialogue with your reader. They have to bring something to it. And if they don’t follow the exact path you laid out, but enjoyed it anyway, does it matter? Sometimes they find their own way between the lines.

    There are several methods of writing, who’s to say which is best. I think you should just write in your own style and not worry about what’s in vogue. Fashions come, fashions go. A good story will always be a good story. The world of literature would be a very boring place if everything were to be written in the same style.

    CR Smith

    P.S. For the record, Tim, no way is that sentence head hopping.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right, absolutely. Fashion changes, and usually goes full circle. No doubt we’ll have omniscient epics a la Tolkien reemerging in the near future. We just have to write how we feel is most effective – that’s the crux. Tell your story, in whatever means necessary.

      I’d love to see a picture of your sculpture, by the way.


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