In Defense of Head-Hopping
This article originally appeared on February 7, 2015 in Women Writers, Women’s Books.
In writing, head hopping is defined as using an omniscient third-person narrator to hop from the head of one character right into another. This is thought to cause confusion for the reader and leave them wondering whose thoughts they’re supposed to follow now.
I understand that the idea of keeping a sharp line between the mind of one character and another is tempting. Many say this is essential, and to blur that line suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing as a writer. Your skill comes into question. It’s best, though, to remember that in good writing, there really aren’t any rules, as long as you’re keeping the reader firmly located in what’s going on.
I do a lot of head-hopping. My reason is simple. I want to promote the idea that all characters have a seat at the table – that they’re all equally valuable, none more than another. I could just use the third person voice to demonstrate this without head-hopping, but I want to further suggest the possibility that people can occupy a shared psychic space, even if they’re not fully aware of it. I don’t mean that two characters necessarily think the same thoughts at the same time, but if the boundary between them has lessened, and the reader flows from one soul to another, this is ineffably understood. The shared space holds those big life-changing experiences like loss, regret, guilt, and grief. These are what humans being have in common. Also joy, hope, love, and desire.
In my short story, “Where Love Lies,” (Issue 03 of Literary Orphans) an unlikely alliance forms between a woman and a man thirty years her senior. The woman, Dana, has fled an abusive marriage. Her friend, Bruce, is a widower. His late wife committed suicide when a man she’d fallen in love with refused her advances. Bruce understood the falling in love. He suffers from erectile dysfunction (and hasn’t caught up with the wonder drugs around to solve the problem). Bruce realizes he’s fallen in love with Dana. They’re drinking in a bar, and both are wondering if they’ll end up in bed together.
They each think back to their past relationships. Then they enter a shared space. “Dana thought that nothing was her fault. Bruce thought that everything was his fault.” While Dana experiences redemption, and Bruce guilt, they are reflecting on the same thing at the same time, though the specifics aren’t shared, only the inquiry. Dana and Bruce have joined a larger mass of humanity in that moment, and to an extent they have also joined each other, though the joining is short-lived.
My new novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, combines head-hopping with a fluid structure, moving through time from present to past and back again. Why the shifting eras? Again, to underscore the concept of commonality, or in this particular case, that there are eternal truths. One that’s key is the tough time mothers and daughters have understanding one another. Whether it’s 1929, 1960, or 2012, this is the case for my female protagonists. And these four generations of women share other traits, too. They’re all stubborn, yet given to wild flights of fancy. Their relationship with men is fraught with tension and disappointment. They’re all lonely. They all struggle with money.
Another theme in the novel which suggests fluidity is religion. Not one, but many, observed, experienced, assessed in a non-judgmental manner that makes it clear where I stand – none is better than another, none has unique access to divine truth. I tend to view religion almost from an anthropological standpoint. There exists a universal human to need to believe in something larger than ourselves, and I invite the reader to glide seamlessly among them, without getting distracted by tenets.
In sum, heading-hopping, layers of history, and an objective, fair approach to religion are my way of saying that what we have in common is far greater than what divides us.
I hope you’ll agree.