What’s Wrong with Head Hopping?
By, Dr. Bob Rich
Originally published in Bobbing Around Vol. 17 No. 1
Head hopping is when a writer reports the inner events of more than one character within a single scene, going back and forth from one consciousness to another. This includes things like bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, perceptions.
This is judged harshly in writing circles, because it gets in the way of inducing the reader to accept the reality of the story. The major tool in that is to have the reader “become” a character. As I read, I should feel as if I were the person in your story who is the witness to the current scene. Unless this person is telepathic, I cannot also know the inner events of another character. So, by showing me both their realities, you get in the way of me being able to identify with either.
So, how should you depict the emotions and thoughts of other characters in a scene?
In exactly the way it happens in real life. Read this short extract from Guardian Angel:
Alice looked across the dining table at her stepson and hid a sigh. His eyes were on her all the time, big cow’s eyes of admiration he was simply unable to hide. Fortunately, Bruce was too loving and trusting to notice, to ever believe that Peter could be infatuated with her. The young man, a year over her twenty-four, had returned only yesterday from droving a mob of steers to market, and she wished he’d go again. She wished he’d find a girl of his own and get over this silly business. Only, she knew, for him it wasn’t silly business. She very much feared that he thought of it as True Love. Forcing brightness, she said, “Bruce, have you noticed how remarkable that little Aboriginal girl is?”
When Bruce smiled like this, his eyes shone, almost with a light of their own. “Yes, longer than you have, my dear. She is a little angel, that one.”
“Which girl are you two talking about?” Peter was obviously doing his best to join in the conversation as he dragged his eyes off Alice and looked at his father.
“Alice’s new wet nurse has a little three year old daughter who is very special. It’s hard to realise, son, that you’ve been away during all our changes.”
“Oh yes, I’ve seen some new Aboriginal servants about the place. But what’s so special about this child?”
Husband and wife both started speaking at the same time, but with a little bow of his head and a wave of a hand, Bruce deferred to her.
“Well,” Alice answered, “she’s been here only a week. The rest of her family still speak broken English like all of them, but she’s been imitating me −− accent, tones of voice, grammar, choice of words −− and if you listened to her through a closed door, you’d swear she was a high-bred young lady of five or six, rather than a little native girl of about three.”
“Imitation is the biggest compliment,” Bruce interrupted. The glow in his eyes was for Alice now.
“And also, anything she hears, she remembers. The first day she was here, I mentioned, just speaking aloud to myself, that I needed to write down my appointment for Donald with Dr Horton at 10 of the clock of the morning on Friday. But what with Donald taking to Glindi so well, I forgot. And on Friday I was getting in a tizz because I couldn’t remember the time. And little Mary snapped out, “It was ten of the clock, Mrs Mac!”
Bruce took over. “Peter, you know my horse, Devil? This little girl is Mick’s daughter. And, you won’t believe this, that big brute who won’t let anyone but me and Mick close, breathed all over the girlie’s face like she was the best thing in his life. But Alice, I’m not at all surprised at her intelligence. After all, Mick is a bright fellow.”
“Oh. You don’t know… Mick isn’t the child’s natural father. I got it out of Glindi, because I was intrigued by the lighter colour of Mary’s skin and those green eyes. It was Richardson forcing her, may God forgive his soul.”
Peter said, his lips compressed into an angry line, “All too many of the men do things like that. I wish there was a law…”
Alice is the witness. We know what she thinks, and find out a fair bit about her on the way. Peter, Bruce, and less directly the people they are talking about, are described through her perceptions. Peter is just as well presented as if we hopped into his head from time to time. This is because Alice is intelligent and perceptive. We could also have fun with a different witness who “misreads” people. Of course, we all do that from time to time, but that’s a matter of psychology, not of writing.
About the Author
Dr. Bob Rich is an Australian storyteller with 16.5 published books plus some freebies. Five books have won awards.
He has retired from five different occupations, but is still a writer, editor, environmental activist, and professional grandfather.
Everything he does, works toward a sustainable society, and one worth surviving in.