Friday, May 16, 2008

Head-Hopping Overload

Often, reviewers are asked, “What is your biggest pet peeve in books? What is the one thing that would make you put a book down, even if it was good so far?” My answer has always been the same: head-hopping.

Head-hopping is shifting point of view without a section or chapter break. For example:

Jane shook with panic as she stared down the barrel of the gun. She was sure Dick didn’t want to kill her, it wasn’t like him, but a fire burned behind his eyes that she never saw before.

“Stay where you are,” he commanded when he spotted her inching towards the door. He couldn’t let her get away, not after what she did. He watched as a single tear dripped down her cheek and he knew then that she needed to die.

While the entire passage is written in third person, we’re in Jane’s head one minute and in Dick’s head the next. Those shifts are jarring and pull me out of the story, enough where I need to put the book down. There has been the occasional literary novelist who is able to pull it off, but in genre fiction, I believe head-hopping to be the mark of amateur writing.

Unfortunately for me, there seems to be a surge of authors who head-hop throughout their novels, causing many partially read books to find their way into my giveaway pile. The last three books I picked up, had a jarring POV shift before page 50. And what’s very unfortunate, is that many of these books are well plotted and have interesting characters, but every time the point of view shifts mid paragraph, my reading is stalled, the flow halted. I’m not an unforgiving reader, if the story is keeping my interest, I’ll overlook one or two POV issues. But if the author continuously switches and head hops, reading becomes more frustrating than enjoyable, and I have to put the book down.

Head-hopping is something I learned about during my years at Columbia, but I was sure most writers figured it out at some point down the line. Has there been some change? Are they now teaching that it is okay to shift point of view mid-paragraph? Is it the writers that are head-hopping more and more or are the editors turning a blind eye? Before hitting the shelves, a book has to pass inspection by so many people, so I don’t believe the POV shifts are mistakes that weren’t caught.

Is it just me?

1 comment:

Quinn said...

It's not just you - truth be told, I tend to find multiple POVs to be annoying even when some other readers fawn over them (like in As I Lay Dying, for instance. Yeah, your mother is a fish, that's great, kid). In that example, I can't really say Faulkner didn't use the device well on a technical level, but I mostly found it disorienting and distracting, and more than a bit pretentious. Of course, he was writing in first person, which is a bit different than what you're talking about.

As with any literary device, you're only going to get away with using it if you have a damn good reason. If it's really important to your story or its underlying themes that we know what both Jane and Dick are thinking, maybe your readers will forgive a little clumsiness in conveying that; however, I think a lot of authors are afraid to let the readers fill in the blanks and use things like head-hopping to be absolutely sure they're not losing anybody.

This critical mistake - not trusting your audience - is at the core of a lot of weak writing, especially in film and television. I've struggled with it myself; chances are, I will continue to do so.