I recently did some beta reading for a young writer hoping to submit her first manuscript for consideration. I thought the story had some great potential, but of course as this young writer is still testing her wings, there were definitely a few things she needed to learn about the craft.
This provided an excellent opportunity for she and I to discuss elements of writing, common concepts which all writers run into at some point or another. One concept in particular, which has been my own bane and can prompt my editor to bring out the riding crop, is the infamous problem of "head-hopping".
For those who may not know the term, "head-hopping" refers to a switch in POV, which can muddle storytelling by "hopping" around from character to character. In some styles of narrative, this is acceptable: it's called a "3rd-person Omniscient" point-of-view, the point-of-view you can take only if you are God. This is a point-of-view that can tell you what every character thinks, feels, sees, and how they react, at just about any time. It is good for much, much wider scopes and views of what is going on. A very "global" view.
However, I personally find that 3rd Omniscient is a very "distanced" point of view. You can peek into anyone's head, but you can't spend a lot of time there because you have seventeen other heads to peek into as well. That causes some sterilization, creating a more spartan view of each character. Perhaps that's why it isn't favored in genres like romance, where you want your readers to closely identify with the characters and experience a deeper connection to the story.
Probably the easiest POV for romance is 1st person, where the story is told exclusively through one set of eyes: those of the main character. Writing in 1st person really forces you, as the writer, to stay in one head. Some slips may occur, usually when your main character makes a statement about how another person feels ("She was angry at me today"). Quite often, the intent of the writer is that the character can tell another person is angry through cues such as body language or tone, but it isn't exactly stated. That's where most of the "head-hopping" comes in 1st person POV. It's a bit less likely, however, because when writing in the "I" format, the writer tends to be a little more conscious that their character—unless he or she is a mind-reader—can't know the detailed thoughts and feelings inside other characters' heads.
Growing in popularity, especially in romance, is 3rd person "limited" POV. 3rd limited keeps the narrative in the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally. However, 3rd Limited doesn't always restrict you to one mind throughout the whole story, like 1st person, but it can allow you an intimacy by keeping a consistent flow in one mind for a good length of time, and spread the whole narrative only to a couple of or a few characters' minds. (The fewer the better, or else you get back to that "omniscient" point of view).
The story I beta read was one written in 3rd limited. The kind of romance where the lovers share the storytelling: certain segments belong to the Lover—let's call him John—and certain segments to the Beloved—let's call her Marsha.
Head-hopping can occur a lot more when you're writing in 3rd Limited, because you aren't writing in the "I" format ("I woke up, I walked down the stairs, I slipped in pudding"), and it's much easier to want to report what John thinking when Marsha creates an opportunity to react. A segment which may start out in Marsha's head, explaining how the violent stir of emotions drives her to passionately kiss John, may suddenly pop over into John's head to explain what that action does to him. And just like that, you've shifted POVs.
My suggestion to the young writer who allowed me to beta read is this: you have to remember whose skull you are peering out of. In fact, really visualize it.
If you start your scene in the John's head, then see yourself firmly settling into place inside his skull. Realize you can only see out of his two eyes. Anything he can't see or feel for himself, you can't see, either, and you can't report it back to your readers.
But then, you say, how can I show what Marsha is thinking or feeling, without writing the exact same scene again through her eyes?
Here's a wonderful nugget of real-life wisdom that translates remarkably well to this concept: Communication is key.
John can't know what's going on inside Marsha's head, but he can see her actions, see her body language, hear her words. In many cases, her emotions or reactions can be easily communicated simply by having her state them.
"Oh, John...that feels so good!"
Nice. Now we know whatever John's doing, Marsha seems to like it.
You don't want her part in this scene to be all tell-tale dialogue, however, so some things you'll have to communicate through action.
"Marsha wriggled in his arms, kissing him with an eager sound."
Everything in that sentence is something John can either see, feel, or hear, but nothing that he can't see, feel or hear. He can report these things to us without breaking POV.
Finally, there will be moments where John is going to have to assume he can read what Marsha's feeling.
"He imagined she must hate him right now, for calling out another woman's name."
It may seem obvious to the writer and it should probably be obvious to John, too. But why couldn't that sentence read, "She hated him right now"? Because that shifts to Marsha's POV. John may be 100% sure he knows what Marsha is thinking or feeling, but he doesn't know, even if he's made an accurate guess. So, these moments need to be moderated by a sign to the readers that we are still in John's skull, and even if he happens to be right, he can still only guess at what Marsha's thinking.
On a related note, writers should remember that characters don't always know what the other is thinking, and they don't always read or interpret the signs correctly. One major complaint I've heard in regards to the Twilight series is that Bella always seems to guess exactly what Edward is thinking (and if you compare Twilight to the unpublished version told in Edward's POV, you find out she's always exactly right). One of the critics I've read calls this "cheating narrative". If you can't head-hop from Bella to Edward to find out exactly what Edward is thinking, well, Bella can provide you with a guess that is always completely right. This is just not realistic, and it really does cheat to get around the sin of head-hopping.
With this in mind, I check myself quite often to be sure my characters are interpreting things in a realistic manner...and this sometimes means misinterpreting them. And misinterpretations, incidentally, make for some really good plot turns in romance.
So that's my solution to the head-hopping problem: put yourself in your character's skull and don't move from it until the scene is over. For the duration of time you spend in that character's POV, remember that you can only report what is inside his skull, and not inside anyone else's.Learning how to avoid sudden POV slips can be a trial for some writers. I was even certain it would never be a weakness of mine, and yet I've had a whole manuscript sent back for a "Revise and Resubmit" because of head-hopping I didn't even realize was there. So it's a concept writers need to be aware of: what, exactly, can you be aware of?