Posted July 9, 2010on:
Head-hopping is a term used to refer to scenes getting described from the points of view of multiple characters without any notice of a transition between them. It’s the lack of transition that bothers people, or at least, bothers writing coaches.
I never took a writing course, or had a coach, though, so I have my own take on head-hopping. I would argue that all three of the forms I will display here are inevitable and even necessary for stories written the way mine are.
I started writing by sitting down and writing. I followed the characters and wrote down what they did, what they thought, and what they perceived. Not necessarily what they saw. I hate description and don’t want to do it, so by focusing on what a character perceives in a scene, I can dispense with all the unnecessary descriptive clutter. He wants to pee, so who cares about whether the tree is an oak or an ash or whatever. Certainly not me, and that saves me the trouble of researching oaks and ashes so I can tell them apart.
Every scene I write is written from some character’s POV, not my own. I am not giving you an account of what Gavin experienced in the arbored dell with innocent Emily, followed by what Emily experienced with virile Gavin. I am telling you what Gavin said and thought and did, in order, even if they overlap sometimes. Nothing annoys me more that a supposed conversation between two people where one character finishes an entire paragraph of dialog before the other character gets one thought in edgewise. If Emily has a sudden revelation because of something Gavin says, you can bet I’m putting that sudden revelation right where it belongs, and not three lines down after Gavin finally shuts up.
I do not write scenes with people moving around in them. I write people and the experiences they have. If two people are talking, then I will present the conversation as it comes, a series of thoughts and perceptions and emotions and sensations all jumbled together and affecting each other. What he says is not always what she hears, what she hears may cause her to think of something totally different, which will result in a physical reaction that he totally misinterprets. I even invented a punctuational style to indicate when a character is thinking while speaking. There’s no realistic way to portray this if I limit myself to he said-she said. So I don’t. Here’s a bit from Unbinding the Stone, dialog-free:
This was just three people with some kind of magic, not an avalanche! And he was a Hero, not a villager. Comparing himself to someone like Tumagir was rank discourtesy, to himself as well as Tumagir. It was–what had Khan called it?–unbecoming of him. He saw it, like watching himself from above, and the god was right. It was funny, and he laughed.
She looked at him, a sour, dyspeptic look on her face. She’d won. This worm should be groveling, wetting himself with fear, not smirking at her, as if she were a child learning to walk. She was not a pet with a new trick! Anger moved skittishly over the veneer of her mind, a surface emotion for a depthless soul.
Tarkas saw her face twist, and could guess at its cause.
There is another type of head-hopping I occasionally employ, which is when multiple people are perceiving the same scene. In the example above the perceptions are serial. Tarkas thinks, Tarkas laughs, she gets pissed, and so on. (Feel free to get the book, and find out what happens when the lady gets pissed.) But sometimes it’s important to know what several people perceive of the same thing, at the same time. In the example below, Deffin is Tarkas’ pet/comrade, but the clansmen around them can’t be allowed to know that, especially the one Tarkas is fighting. I still wonder if I should have used the parentheses.
Tarkas leapt, defending his erstwhile foe with phenomenal courage. (Deffin fell away, confused. Then, somewhere in his keen nizarik mind, a concept emerged and approached cognition: ‘play’.) With an inhuman scream of rage, the beast flung Tarkas away like a toy, and the heroic visitor lost his sword. Then the thing was upon him, clawing at his back and tearing at his throat with his fangs. (Deffin held to his parent, wrestling with him in cub fashion, a relic from a cubhood denied him.) His sword gone, Tarkas gripped the hellish being hand to hand. With phenomenal strength, he forced the demon back, where it stepped off a small abutment and fell into the gloomy wood behind the camp. But the valiant guest was not spared. In a last, vengeful ploy, the grotesquerie grabbed his outstretched arm and pulled him down into the darkness with it. But unseen was not unheard, and the gathered clans could hear the sounds of their struggle, fading into the distance as Tarkas led the beast away from the rest of the camp, long into the night.
In this scene the crowd perceives one thing while Deffin perceives another, even though they are all seeing the same physical situation. There is a third type of head-hopping, where the participants are both perceiving the same thing, each from their own standpoint, a state I call a ‘shared vision’. In this scene from A Warrior Made, both Tarkas and Irolla are contemplating their relationship in a moment of repose:
A discreet tap heralded an inaudible thump, as a tray of light snacks settled outside her door. Her servants well knew not to interrupt them during one of his rare visits. She stirred herself to get it, treating him to the sight of her in motion and herself to the sight of him in repose.
For his part, Tarkas moved himself only enough to watch, hand propped upon pillow and chin propped upon hand, as she moved with her usual grace across the floor, over to the door, which she opened with such flair. It wasn’t flair, of course; he knew that she knew no one was about, but it still seemed so daring.
As she desired. She could feel his eyes, his total concentrated attention on her, and she could feel…other things as well, even from across the room. His aura fairly burned, and then, when it flared–!
She was so beautiful, so…alive. At times like these he could almost imagine what she must feel and know every day of her life in this place, and almost he envied her. Still the woman he had known in Kwinarish, the only outward changes he had noticed in all their time here were in her hair and her eyes, which had changed color slightly. Otherwise she still looked like a young woman of…how many seasons? By the Gods, he had been a Hero longer! Still so delicate, none of the calluses, the scars, the muscles that the women of their old home would have had by now. His fingers rubbed together, unseen. His calluses. And his scars. He felt so rough. She was like he used to be; being with her was like being the self he had once been and still wanted to be.
She felt it, just then, heating and cooling and prickling along her back and side as she knelt to get the tray, so she was not at all surprised when she turned back to see his needs so plain on his face beneath the careful mask. He was so soft, she knew, beneath all the hard places time had given him. She had none and mourned the lack. Without them she felt caught, trapped in an endless childhood for which she had no love. He was like she longed to be; being with him was like living the life she should have led and still hoped for.
It was all an illusion, of course, the ramblings of a tired and jealous mind. He had known nothing, so long ago, for all his learning, his prospects had been similarly barren of real accomplishment. Holding out a hand, he noticed the scars and scratches his life and labors had placed there, swords and claws and thorns leaving their traces as he had left his, in the remains of the monsters he had slain, and evil he had vanquished. In his friends in Querdishan and other cities of the realm, learning slowly to trust in him and the magic he brought. His life was hard, but good.
She took his hand, feeling the warmth surging through it and from it, balancing herself against his strength as she lowered herself and her burden to the surface of her bed. His scars were an illusion, she knew, and her lack of them equally so. His work left them, hers did not, at least, not where she could see them. Her servants were one scar, her fortress another. Her elementals flowed through her constantly, marking her soul as she marked their doings, soothed their hurts, and corrected their errors. Of the other Lords, only the Lord of Earth suffered similarly. She could well understand how their predecessors had fallen. It was a good life, but hard.
Releasing her hand, Tarkas took one of the items from the tray, as she did the same. With identical, unplanned motions, they each lifted their offerings to the other’s lips.
So what’s the point? Well, aside from giving a lot of examples of my writing, which hopefully will inspire you to go out and get copies of my work, my point is this: Head-hopping is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the way the author writes. One person, a judge in a contest, described my style as ‘third person that reads like first person’ (that’s not the exact quote, by the way), which is pretty accurate. Standard third-person wouldn’t allow me to do what I do, which is OK because I don’t write in standard third person. I never learned how.