You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “head hopping,” usually referred to as something that betrays an inexperienced writer at work. This generally happens when the writer is using third-person close POV, which means that at any given time, the reader is experiencing the story only through what a single POV character can perceive and think.

First, here’s what head hopping in that context means:

In a scene involving more than one character, the author puts the reader in each of the different characters’ heads at different times—meaning she reveals thoughts that only each character individually could know— switching around instead of staying in one character’s head for the entire scene.

Why is that so bad, you ask? Isn’t it more interesting to get multiple reactions to something that’s happening in the story? Yes and no.

First, effective storytelling involves keeping your reader immersed in what’s happening and avoiding anything that jolts them out of that immersion. Each time you change a POV character, it forces the reader to readjust perceptions a bit before settling back into the story. If you do this multiple times in mid-scene, you’re continually knocking your reader in and out of the narrative, which inhibits that deep absorption you’re trying to achieve.

But the benefit of multiple close third POV is that you can, indeed, give readers different close perspectives of events. The trick is to switch only between scenes or chapters so your reader can stay comfortably immersed in the narrative and take time to settle in when the perspective changes.

Of course, there are authors who manage head hopping brilliantly, and whose work deserves close study to see how. The first one I think of is Toni Morrison in Beloved. The reason she can flow easily from head to head within a scene or a chapter is because of the style she’s set up, the dreamlike trajectory of her masterful prose that deliberately knocks the reader off balance. It’s utterly brilliant.

But none of us is Toni Morrison.

Yet I can already hear the questions: isn’t doing what I describe as head-hopping simply third-person omniscient POV?

It’s not. Omniscient POV creates an unseen, invisible narrator who has an overarching view of what’s going on in the entire story. That narrator can indeed see different reactions within a scene, but the way those reactions are conveyed to the reader have a distinctly different style from the close-third POV, where we are listening in directly to a character’s thoughts.

Omniscient POV was popular in the 19th century—Dickens, Thackeray, Austen. Think of how authors like this sometimes directly address the reader, or overlay authorial irony on events. Think of Austen’s opening line in Pride and Prejudice, that “truth universally acknowledged.” Such a terrific line, dripping with irony, but it’s not spoken from the point of view of any character. In most screen adaptations, the writers choose to put that line somewhat awkwardly in Elizabeth’s voice, because movies usually try to avoid having an off-screen narrator.

It is still certainly possible to use omniscient POV, or even to use it occasionally in an otherwise close-third POV narrative.

The example here is Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow. The bulk of the story mirrors the protagonist’s confinement within the walls of a luxury hotel in Moscow and remains within his close-third POV. But occasionally there are events that occur outside, that the protagonist cannot possibly witness but that are directly bearing on or caused by what has happened inside the hotel. Towles deftly switches to omniscient POV to give the reader that view, and he does it seamlessly and with great panache.

Describing all this is one thing. But if you are still unclear, here are some (admittedly trite) examples:

1. Head-hopping (color-coded just to make it obvious—blue is Jane, orange is Alistair):

Jane came down the stairs in her elegant gown, the one she’d spent all her money to purchase, hoping it would pay off and gain her a proposal of marriage from a wealthy man. As she descended, she scanned the crowd, trying to spot her prey. An unfamiliar gentleman stared at her from far across the room. She couldn’t read his expression, but decided it was worth getting to know more about him.

Who is that? Alistair thought as he looked up initially to find out where the bar was and instead couldn’t tear his gaze away from the fetching creature gliding down the curving staircase on the other side of the room. Jane had to make her way slowly through the crowd, pausing to say a word or two to acquaintances without making it obvious she wanted to pass by them. At last, she found herself face-to-face with the unknown gentleman.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Jane said, noticing the large diamond ring on the man’s pinkie finger.

Alistair saw the tell-tale signs of fatigue in the woman’s eyes, as though she normally had to work hard or struggle in some other way. He took her hand. “Alistair Hastings, at your service.”

2. Same scene in one character’s head:

Jane came down the stairs in her elegant gown, the one she’d spent all her money to purchase, hoping it would pay off and gain her a proposal of marriage from a wealthy man. As she descended, she scanned the crowd, trying to spot her prey. An unfamiliar gentleman stared at her from far across the room. She couldn’t read his expression, but decided it was worth getting to know more about him.

As she made her way slowly through the crowd, pausing to say a word or two to acquaintances without making it obvious she wanted to pass by them, she kept the man she’d spotted in the corner of her vision. He was tall and lean. She expected he was an athlete, a swimmer perhaps. When at last she found herself face-to-face with the unknown gentleman, she noticed a large diamond ring on his pinkie finger. Oh yes, she thought. I must get to know him.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Jane said, putting her hand out to the stranger.

He took her hand in his and said, “Alistair Hastings, at your service.”

3. Same scene in omniscient POV:

All heads turned when Jane started down the curved staircase, the same one all the ladies in the room had descended before she did. More than one person below perceived her deliberate strategy of going last. It could have backfired. The company could all have already been immersed in conversations and not noticed her. 

But in the gown that shimmered in the glow of the enormous chandeliers, wearing borrowed jewels that caught the light and fractured it like ice chips, creating a veritable halo around her—no one could have hoped to ignore the unknown woman’s entrance.

That included Alistair Hastings, who had come to the event under protest, knowing that he would be beset by ambitious debutantes and their mothers, all looking to snag the most eligible bachelor of the season.

And of course, he couldn’t know that Jane was not one of them. She obviously counted on that, determined to play her part so well that she could break through the close-knit snobbery of the company and captivate a man from the upper crust before he had time to dig below her dazzling surface. To Alistair, the diamond ring he habitually wore was a business transaction, something to make his underlings understand who the boss was.

To women like Jane, it was an invitation.

I make no claim to literary mastery with these examples (the story of Jane and Alistair does not—to my knowledge—exist). I just hope they suffice to make you aware of the effect of these different uses of third-person POV.

By all means, write the way that makes the most sense to you. But be aware of what you’re doing, and do it purposefully. Mastering POV and being able to direct your reader’s gaze as she reads without jolting her out of the story is the sign of an accomplished writer.