There’s a certain bestselling writer out there who’s a head-hopper. That’s right. He’s hopping heads like nobody’s business, and I see only a few readers calling him out on it. It’s one of the most infuriating and disorienting writing mistakes in fiction today, and it’s becoming a plague—particularly in independent and self-published books. I have a feeling that a lot of authors don’t really understand that they’re committing a fatal error. Because head-hopping is a sin that can spread like a cancer into the brain matter of even our most highly regarded authors.
Head-hopping is also called perspective shifting. It’s when a writer is telling his tale from the point of view of one character and then abruptly switches to the perspective of another character, and you’re seeing the story continue through another person’s eyes.
Now don’t get me wrong: This kind of perspective shifting—from one character’s point of view to another—can be an invaluable tool in fiction. Problem is, it’s often misunderstood.
For one thing, a lot of authors seem to get its usage and power wrong, and for another thing … well, a lot of readers don’t seem to like perspective switches. They prefer to stick with one character—a straight-ahead narrative told from one, solid perspective, whether a linear first-person narration or a one-point-to-the-next third-person limited omniscience. My wife is among those who prefer a single narrator, and I don’t fault her for it.
But it’s my contention that readers don’t like perspective switching because so many authors get it wrong! I read a lot of books, and I see a lot of third-person limited omniscient narration, and although it’s undoubtedly the most effective method for multi-character genre novels, it’s often utilized poorly. And it’s high time someone spoke up about it!
(Don’t even get me started about classic third-person omniscience, which is just a ghastly fly-on-the-wall free-for-all. Well, I jest. Mostly. But for the purposes of thriller writing, I’d go so far as to say third-person omniscient—which drifts above characters’ heads, occasionally dipping in without going too far—isn’t a good fit at all. Omniscience is fantastic for the authorial perspective, the god-like narrator commentating upon his creations willy-nilly, and it’s not the best methodology for connecting with characters, which I believe is essential in crime fiction. Personally, I like my characters to be complex, flawed, opinionated … and classic omniscience gets in the way of expressing that.)
So, third-person limited omniscience is the way to go, and it’s what you see the most these days in genre fiction. Problem is, in today’s crime novels, there’s an awful lot of head-hopping going on. Again, that’s when you’re toolin’ along through pages and pages of one character’s perspective and then suddenly—clank!—in the middle of a chapter or even in the middle of a paragraph, you’re privy to another person’s thoughts. You’ve been thrown out of your protagonist’s head and into another—say, to learn something that only that character knows, or to surprise you with the sudden presence of someone new in the scene.
But it’s not playing fair with the reader.
How about an example? Let’s say you’re reading a scene in which a man (let’s call him Roger) is about to be brutally beaten with a baseball bat by Udo the goon. (Hey, I dig what I dig.) Roger has heard stories about Udo, but this is the first time he’s seen the mythical thug in the flesh. As Roger writhes like a bug on the ground, he ponders the choices he’s made to get him to this point, and he thinks about his own helplessness in the face of the violence about to be visited upon his flesh, and maybe he spares a thought to his poor kids at home, and even his woman who’s pretty much fed up with him, but he loves her anyway, with all his heart, and he silently vows to change his ways and, if he comes out of this alive, do everything in his power to win her back. Roger winces in anticipation of the first blow about to come from Udo the thug—and then abruptly you get this line: Udo rears back with the bat, pondering the assignment and wondering if the payment will come in cash or blow.
The author has just head-hopped, and the result is that readers are disoriented. Until that last line, we’ve been firmly anchored inside Roger’s brain, following his thought process, engaging with him emotionally—and suddenly we’re yanked out of his grey matter and into Udo’s thick skull. No, it won’t do.
The essential thing about perspective shifting is consistency. An author needs to establish certain points of view concretely—say, from chapter to chapter, with no head-hopping allowed within those constraints. Sometimes, it’s OK to wander from head to head within a chapter, but it has to be done carefully and logically. Personally, I prefer chapter-to-chapter perspective shifts, and that’s what I went with in LOSER BABY.
I’ve always been fascinated by multiple perspectives. It’s something I’ve been exploring in my writing for a long time but particularly throughout my BLOOD horror trilogy. For this latest book, switching from horror to crime fiction, I really wanted to do something fun.
One of my driving goals with LOSER BABY was to explore a single event—over the course of a single day—from the points of view of a dozen characters. In doing so, I wanted to give all those characters back stories, to flesh them out, and to show how their idiosyncratic histories have affected key plot events from moment to moment, and ultimately impacted the resolution of the story. And so writing LOSER BABY became a delicate balancing act: maintaining the breakneck pace of a crime thriller while providing individualized sketches of its major and minor players. Rather than disorienting, I wanted the perspective switching to be strategic, seamless, and even thrilling in and of itself.
Done effectively (and I hope I’ve done so), third-person limited omniscience can enhance suspense and—also ideal for thrillers—turn the story into something of a puzzle box. It can play with not only point of view but also time and place. It can toy with the very nature of the space time continuum!
Most of all, with a consistent sense of perspective—with controlled points of view—an author can encourage empathy in a reader. And maybe empathy is something we need a lot more of these days.