Writers are always searching for ways to bring nuanced social interactions to the page. People are complicated, and relationships mean more if readers understand exactly where each person is coming from. But that can mean narrating each character’s thoughts, raising the specter of head-hopping. Isn’t there a way to fit two heads in one scene without summoning this demon? There is; the question is whether it’s worth it.
What’s This Dreaded Head-Hopping?
When readers see character thoughts, particularly if the beginning and end of those thoughts aren’t clearly marked, they assume their experience of the story is shared with that character. This means the narration is simultaneously informing readers about what is happening in the story and what’s happening within the character. That includes what the character perceives, what they know, what they feel, and what they think.
Head-hopping is when this changes without notice, leaving readers off balance. Let’s look at an example from Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara. In it, Allanon (asshole Gandalf) is visiting the home of two brothers, Flick and Shea Ohmsford. Shea has just come in the door.
For the first time, Flick saw the hooded stranger take more than a passing interest in someone. Strong hands gripped the table as the black figure rose silently, towering over the Ohmsfords. He seemed to have forgotten they were there, as the lined brow furrowed more deeply and the craggy features radiated an intense concentration. For one frightening second, Flick believed that the stranger was somehow about to destroy Shea, but then the idea disappeared and was replaced with another. The man was searching his brother’s mind.
He stared intently at Shea, his deep, shaded eyes running quickly over the young man’s slim countenance and slight build. He noted the telltale Elven features immediately–the hint of slightly pointed ears beneath the tousled blond hair, the pencil-like eyebrows that ran straight up at a sharp angle from the bridge of the nose rather than across the brow, and the slimness of the nose and jaw. He saw intelligence and honesty in that face…
The first paragraph is clearly in Flick’s viewpoint. We know his thoughts as he watches Allanon stare at his brother. The second paragraph is in Allanon’s viewpoint, but readers won’t know that when they start reading it; they’ll think it’s still Flick watching Allanon. Once they realize this can’t possibly be Flick’s experience, they’ll have to not only stop, but also probably go back and reread previous sentences too. Everything in that paragraph has to be reinterpreted as what Allanon is thinking, not what Flick is.
Let’s look at another one that’s not quite as bad. This is from Tanya Huff’s Summon the Keeper, an urban fantasy that constantly jumps between heads. In this excerpt, the mage Claire is dealing with Dean, who has just seen something behind the masquerade for the first time.
When she turned, Dean had regained his position in the doorway. Her movement drew his locked gaze off the bed, breaking the connection. For a moment he stared at her, eyes wide, then he whirled around and managed two running steps toward the stairs.
There was power in a name.
He stopped, one foot in the air, and almost fell.
“Where are you going?”
Shoving his glasses back into place, he tried to sound as though he found dead women laid out in the guest rooms all the time. “I’m after calling 911.” His head was pounding so loudly he could hardly hear himself.
The first paragraph is obviously in Claire’s viewpoint; it reflects what she perceives. Readers only know where Dean is when she turns to look at him. After her first line of dialogue, the single-line paragraph “There was power in a name” indicates Claire’s knowledge and thoughts – she’s the one who used Dean’s name to stop him. But a couple paragraphs later, readers are in Dean’s head because Huff wants them to know how secretly terrified he is.
Even though this second excerpt probably doesn’t warrant going back several sentences, it still forces readers to reevaluate what they’re reading. When they’re doing that, they aren’t immersed in the story. Not to mention that these surprises are a bit unpleasant.
Since the issue is that readers receive no warning when the viewpoint changes, the solution is to give them advanced notice. But how do you do that without a scene break?
To switch heads, what you need is a transition that gently moves readers up and out of one head and brings them back down into another, just like if you were physically traveling from one place to another. How difficult this is depends on how much distance you have to cross.
In writing, “distance” refers to how far we are from a specific character’s perspective. When it feels like readers are hovering far above the city looking at the inhabitants below, that means the narration is distant:
The town was in flames.
The narrow streets leading to the moat and the first terrace belched smoke and embers, flames devouring the densely clustered thatched houses and licking at the castle walls. From the west, from the harbour gate, the screams and clamour of vicious battle and the dull blows of a battering ram smashing against the walls grew ever louder.
The distance is close when we are shown their thoughts directly through the narration:
With every jolt, every jerk, every leap of the horse, pain shot through her hands as she clutched at the reins. Her legs contracted painfully, unable to find support, her eyes watered from the smoke. The arm around her suffocated her, choking her, the force compressing her ribs. All around her screaming such as she had never before heard grew louder. What must one do to a man to make him scream so?
Both of these excerpts are from the same book, The Blood of Elves from The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. It’s pretty conventional for books to open with a distant omniscient viewpoint and zoom in until they are using close limited narration. However, the book’s opening shows that even that strategy can suffer the same fate as head-hopping.
Below are the paragraphs between those excerpts showing a distant bird’s-eye view and close perspective.
[The town’s] attackers had surrounded them unexpectedly, shattering the barricades which had been held by no more than a few soldiers, a handful of townsmen carrying halberds and some crossbowmen from the guild. Their horses, decked out in flowing black caparisons, flew over the barricades like spectres, their riders’ bright, glistening blades sowing death amongst the fleeing defenders.
Ciri felt the knight who carried her before him on his saddle abruptly spur his horse. She heard his cry. “Hold on,” he shouted. “Hold on!”
Other knights wearing the colours of Cintra overtook them, sparring, even in full flight, with the Nilfgaardians. Ciri caught a glimpse of the skirmish from the corner of her eye – the crazed swirl of blue-gold and black cloaks amidst the clash of steel, the clatter of blades against shields, the neighing of horses—
The omniscient bird’s-eye view abruptly changes to Ciri’s viewpoint, creating a jarring experience. This happens even though her viewpoint is still relatively distant, making use of internal actions such as “thought” or “felt.”
If you’re going to move from one head to another, you have to zoom out from one head and then zoom back into another carefully the whole way. Rather than moving all the way from close perspective to close perspective, it’s easier to stay as distant as you can the whole time. That way, you only have to zoom out just a bit and then zoom in just a bit. What’s more, staying distant throughout a story also helps set reader expectations.
That’s exactly why it’s easier to cover the thoughts of multiple characters in omniscient narration. That narration style is defined by an outside narrator who knows everything. Since characters don’t know everything, that already means the narration is mostly outside of their heads. However, this choice of distant narration comes at a cost. It is less immersive, less tense, and less personal.
For instance, take this except from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Adams stays remarkably distant as he covers thoughts.
[Ford Prefect] looked about the cabin but could see very little; strange monstrous shadows loomed and leaped with the tiny flickering flame, but all was quiet. He breathed a silent thank you to the Dentrassis. The Dentrassis are an unruly tribe of gourmands, a wild but pleasant bunch whom the Vogons had recently taken to employing as catering staff on their long haul fleets […]
It was because of this tiny piece of information that Ford Prefect was not now a whiff of hydrogen, ozone and carbon monoxide.
Adams summarizes that Ford is breathing a silent thank you rather than spelling out the words he is thinking. Then, instead of offering information about the Dentrassis and Vogons from Ford’s perspective, Adams starts expositing as the narrator. You can tell it’s the narrator because this information is stated like straight facts from the titular guide, and even more so because it’s in present tense, whereas Ford’s summarized thoughts are in past tense. If Adams wanted to do something similar for another character in the next paragraph, he wouldn’t have any issue.
Like most writers skilled in omniscient, Adams gets away with this level of distance because his narration is so playful. But it’s not the intimate experience that many writers want when they narrate thoughts. That’s probably one reason why Tanya Huff kept using close narration in Summon the Keeper, even though she could have sampled everyone’s thoughts more smoothly with some distance.
Luckily, writers don’t have to stay quite as distant as Adams does to switch heads, particularly if they give themselves a little time.
Some omniscient writers do dive into heads and start directly recounting thoughts as though they are in close perspective. The trick is that they don’t generally do it for very long, and then afterward, they usually either break the scene or just stay out of anyone’s head for a little while. With additional time, readers let go of the expectation that the narration is in someone’s head.
Terry Pratchett gets away with this quite a bit because most of his narration is focused on external actions. The Discworld books have lots of dialogue and not much internalizing. Pratchett also uses scene breaks frequently. Take this example from Guards! Guards!
The Patrician was thinking: if it can talk, it can negotiate. If it can negotiate, then I have it by the short—by the small scales, or whatever it is they have.
“And they are said to be silver tongued,” said Wonse. The Patrician leaned back in his chair.
“Only silver?” he said.[Almost a page of dialogue passes.]
“Yes, sir. Permission to leave, sir?” [Vimes]
“Very well. But I shall expect progress by tonight, do you understand?” [Patrician]
Now why did I wonder if it has a lair? Vimes thought, as he stepped out into the daylight and the crowded square. Because it didn’t look real, that’s why. If it isn’t real, it doesn’t need to do anything we expect. How can it walk out of an alley it didn’t get into?
Pratchett is consistent in marking character thoughts by stating an internal action: thinking, remembering, wondering, deciding, etc. This tells readers when the narration is diving into a character’s head. But after doing it once, he generally uses a light touch, often narrating their thoughts directly instead of stating more internal actions.
For the Patrician in this excerpt, the extended time spent in dialogue without any internal narration resets reader expectations, especially since his thought paragraph is short. Right after this segment, Pratchett includes another paragraph of Vimes thinking directly, and then he chooses to break the scene instead of slowly transitioning away. It’s also not uncommon for Pratchett to stick to the thoughts of one character per scene, even when his narration is fairly distant.
In general, the more time you have between being in different heads, the better. However, all of that between time has to be outside anyone’s head so you can reset reader expectations. If this outside narration contains dialogue, that might work in your favor by quickening the pace. Otherwise, immersion and engagement will probably take a hit. Unless you’re already writing in omniscient, it’s not something you’ll want to do for long stretches of your story.
But what if you want to use a little close narration from two people and you can’t afford to spend a page in between?
Can you just tell readers you’re switching viewpoints? Yes and no. Simply saying, “Hey there reader, we’re in Dean’s head now,” would be pretty intrusive, but transitions can have a similar effect. Like anything else, they come with their own constraints. Let’s start by looking at an excerpt that dearly needs better transitions.
This is from Never Mind, the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. I found it via this twitter thread remarking on how cringey it is.*
Patrick wanted to move, but the power to move had deserted him again. He held his breath and the footsteps stopped.
In the corridor David was torn between visiting Eleanor, with whom he was always furious on principle, and going to have a bath. The opium which had taken the edge off the perpetual ache in his body now weakened his desire to insult his wife. After a few moments spent considering the choice he went into his bedroom.
Patrick knew he was not visible from the top of the stairs, but when he heard the footsteps pause he had tried to push back the idea of his father with concentration like a flamethrower.
This is a great demonstration of why simply writing in omniscient doesn’t grant writers leave to bounce between heads like a ping-pong ball. St. Aubyn is clearly interested in delving into the inner lives of his characters rather than focusing on external actions, and he wants to intermix character thoughts paragraph by paragraph. The result is disorienting, but I don’t think it had to be.
The clearest transition St. Aubyn is using is the perfunctory “in the corridor,” which doesn’t even have a comma afterward to add emphasis and slow things down. Not only that, but the narration isn’t just jumping heads, but also space and even time. David’s footsteps stop in the first paragraph, in the second paragraph David resumes his journey through the corridor, and then in the third paragraph St. Aubyn takes readers back to the moment David stopped.
Basic transitions like “still hiding downstairs, Patrick knew…” or “a moment before, when he heard the footsteps pause…” would have made this passage more comfortable. This means adding words, and usually not particularly creative ones, but that’s a small price to pay for an immersive reading experience.
In contrast, let’s look at an excerpt with better transitions. Surprisingly, it’s from L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Every story has strengths.
For context, preceding this excerpt is dialogue between the two characters. It is not in the head of Char, the security chief, so Hubbard is transitioning into Char’s head in the first paragraph and into Terl’s in the second.
Char looked at the empty door. The security chief knew no Psychlo could go up into those mountains. Terl really was crazy. There was deadly uranium up there.
But Terl, rumbling along a hallway to his room, did not consider himself crazy. He was being very clever as always. He had started the rumors so no questions would get out of hand when he began to put into motion the personal plans that would make him wealthy and powerful and, almost as important, dig him out of this accursed planet.
The man things were the perfect answer. All he needed was just one and then he could get the others. His campaign had begun very well, he thought.
In comparison to St. Aubyn’s quick “in the corridor,” Hubbard’s “rumbling along a hallway to his room” is much longer. Hubbard isn’t immediately diving into Char or Terl’s thoughts; he narrates an external action first. Then he uses an internal action to cover their thoughts while keeping distance: “knew” and “consider.” Finally, he starts showing thoughts directly. By using prominent transitions and not diving in all at once, Hubbard moves smoothly between heads with remarkable speed.
In both the St. Aubyn and Hubbard examples, the characters are not in the same room. That means moving to a new character is obviously departing the other character’s head. And since readers are moving to a new location, you could even argue these are mini scene changes. That’s what gives the writer an excuse to make a clean transition.
Luckily, what’s important isn’t the room change; it’s that the reader can clearly see the narration has left one person’s head before it enters another person’s head. That could mean:
- The narration has moved out of a character’s perception with a transition, such as “At the table behind Char, Terl frowned petulantly at the security chief’s back.”
- There is clearly an outside narrator, perhaps because the narration starts offering facts that the character doesn’t know.
- The character faints or falls asleep, yet the narration continues.
However, this transition technique still won’t work if readers get cognitive dissonance just because the narration isn’t in the main character’s head anymore. Please don’t try it with first person. Please. Even with third person, if you’re consistently in a close viewpoint of the main character, it will be jarring when you start narrating what happens after the main character passes out. On the other hand, if you use more than one viewpoint or spend part of the narration in omniscient, then leaving the main character’s head is more viable.
Like for dialogue, I doubt mixing viewpoints in one paragraph is a good idea. But if the narration is careful, smoothly switching paragraph by paragraph is possible. However, unless you really need it in your story, taking these kinds of pains probably isn’t worth it.
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