Alright, this is a bit of a tough technique to write about because it’s been addressed extensively in writing-tip-giving circles. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen the question of POV shifts and head-hopping come up at least a dozen times in different discussion/critique groups. The difficult thing about this topic is that there are actually two different issues being confused and blended together. So, here, let’s determine which issue is actually applicable.
“Is it okay to shift between different characters in my story?”
- First Person
- Second Person
- Third Person Omniscient
- Third Person Limited
The lines get a bit fuzzed in the third person options, but those are the most common options.
In longer works, some authors pick different characters whose version of the story it would be interesting to tell. They often shift to a different character at a scene break, or a chapter break, and resume the story with another character as the focal point (or narrator in the case of First Person POV).
Now, there are a whole lot of people willing to weigh in on this subject, and with a little reading, the tips really demystify the technique. Look below for a list of very helpful posts on the subject of using this creative tool.
I would say only one thing: remember why this advice is being given. The only reason anyone is stressing about doing this well is that, done badly, this can ruin the experience for the reader. They get lost, they feel cheated, or they lose interest. Simple as that. So, if you worry this might happen, read the posts. … I’m serious, someone has talked about almost every problem writers have, so do yourself a favor and research a little bit. It’s not hard. I’ve got a mini library down there on this subject alone.
On to the other potential concern…
Is head-hopping going to ruin my story?
Just to differentiate these concerns, I’m going to stick to using “head hopping” as the grammatical term it is. This is a legitimate grammar rule, and a great run-down can be found in the head-hopping section of the links. To summarize the “for dummies” version, in English sentence syntax, only one of the three main POV styles should be used in a single sentence. There are illustrative examples in the link.
Now, they’re careful to point out that this is a grammar rule which, like all others, can be broken, but only with a specific purpose. Most rules for creative things are like this. Just always remember the “why”. Yes, that means considering the readers first.
Writing (specifically work intended to be published) is an entertainment industry. Any industry of this kind relies completely on gaining and maintaining an audience. The attention of readers is hard to catch and easy to lose, especially since they seem to have the patience of distracted children. A writer’s final product is, essentially, a playground. If the offering is not to the reader’s taste, why should they stay? There are a whole lot of other options pitching for their favor.
In answer to the initial, recurring question voiced by writers all over the world: It depends on what you mean. Yes, different characters can give a unique view into your story, which can add color and enrich the work in exciting ways. And yes, manipulating POV to “head hop” is possible, though it’s a risky business.
If just writing for personal satisfaction, play away. However, be warned. Readers have been known to be sensitive creatures, and uninformed decisions with this tool have been shown to turn off large portions of the general audience.
Double check the work. Swallow pride and find alpha readers, beta readers, and editors. Tests and revisions are the fastest and most effective way to find out what is serving or sabotaging the story. Don’t stop at just one or two. It can help to aim for 6-10 external reads, by people who read in the genre regularly (though eventually it’s up to the author to decide when enough is enough). It’s a precious thing to have a reader who will give specific feedback! It has saved many writers from putting out good stories that flopped from poor decisions.
Now follow the links and read up on the subject! Great advice here, and all effective when followed!
Character Shifting Links: