Ever wonder what your story would be like without perspectives? What if the reader could view your world completely objectively, devoid of the filter of a certain character, or even you, the author. Perhaps if you used an omniscient narrator, never went into someone’s head, and were really good at suspending the reader’s disbelief, perhaps it could be achieved. But as long as there’s a viewer, there’s technically a perspective.
There now, I was about to get philosophical. Well, the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of perspectives when it comes to writing: in fact, every character that isn’t a cardboard cut-out should have one. It just comes down to a matter of whether or not you want to explore that perspective.
There’s no escaping perspectives, so you might as well make use of them in the most consistent way: you don’t want to feel like Brandon Sanderson is telling you a story, you want to feel like you’re following every step of Kaladin’s journey right down to his very thoughts. You want to feel that it’s real, and perspective is part of that reality.
I made a post about metagaming a while back, and head-hopping does something similar. Like metagaming, head-hopping isn’t as jarring as jagged prose or corny dialogue, but once the reader picks up on it, they can become really annoyed. However, even if the reader doesn’t actually spot it, they’ll still report that something feels off.
But what exactly is head-hopping, you ask? Head-hopping, simply, is an abrupt and unwarranted perspective change mid-scene. One moment you’re in Jon’s mind and he’s inwardly lamenting his itchy woolen sweater, and the next you’re in Jane’s listening to her think about what she had for dinner last night. Like I said, the reader will smell that something’s off even if they don’t recognize it right away.
Often perspective is gauged by two things: hearing a character’s thoughts and the mentioning of facts only that character would know or bring up. Both are things that are unique to a person’s perspective, so by changing those facts or making them non-exclusive to one person gives the reader the suspicious feeling that you may be head-hopping.
Now, there are instances in which it’s okay to switch perspective, but it needs to be so gently underhanded that the reader doesn’t realize what you’ve done. It also needs to be used sparingly: like when a viewpoint character leaves a room, for example. You want to continue the story after the viewpoint character left, so you shift the perspective.
But even then, even head-hopping gently can get you into trouble. Instead, try the technique of Disposable Viewpoints: once a viewpoint character ceases to be able to give their impressions to the reader, you can fool the reader for a short time by switching the perspective to a Disposal Viewpoint.
If Desmond, your viewpoint character, leaves the room, you are compelled by the laws of perspective to follow him out into the hallway. This can be bypassed by doing a quick-but-subtle “John stood up, yawned, and headed for the door. He closed it behind him with a bit of a bang, and the other four men were left dozing in their chairs. Peter rubbed his chin…” And bang, just like that, you have successfully transferred to a Disposable Viewpoint.
A Disposable Viewpoint is there to be as objective and unfiltered as possible: in the brief moments that you’re using a Disposable Viewpoint, you don’t want to give the reader the impression that you’re in someone’s head, because you’re not. Where one character might describe Peter’s chin as “uncivilized” instead opt for the much more objective “unshaven”.
The reason why it’s a “Disposable” Viewpoint is because you only want to use it for a few hundred words. Not having that interesting character filter can quickly make a further scene devolve into a wooden stretch of prose. But sometimes things happen outside of the viewpoint character’s knowledge, and you need the reader to know it for…I don’t know, foreshadowing purposes or something.
Head-hopping is generally pretty easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. If you know whose viewpoint you’re writing from, just ensure that the reader sees everything through those lens until that person falls asleep, leaves, or dies. Unless otherwise specified, the person whose perspective you begin writing from is the one who holds that perspective until the end of the scene.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!