Head Hopping Prohibited

OK—now that you know which point-of-view (POV) you need to write in and you have selected your POV character, let’s look at how POV is implemented.

Most people familiar with this subject will have heard of the expression: head hopping. Head hopping takes the reader into the thoughts, feelings, and motives of non-POV characters and is one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced writers. We will cover this issue at length. But POV covers much more than simply whose psyche the reader has access to.

We are going to walk through a series of POV elements that must be considered as you write each scene. To successfully implement these elements, you need to step into your character’s shoes.

The more thoroughly you—as the writer—become your POV character, the more accurately, convincingly, and engagingly you will implement his/her POV.

In this post, we will cover all of the following aspects of POV:

Only the first bullet applies to the Omniscient POV. All of these instructions apply to the First Person, Second Person and Third Person POVs.

1. Stay true to the POV subject pronoun.

This first point is simple: you may only refer to the POV character using the subject pronoun that applies to your chosen POV. As a refresher, here are all the POVs with the subject pronouns that apply:

Third person is probably the most natural POV for most people to write in and it’s rare that anyone would accidentally slip in an “I” or a “you” when writing about the POV character. But more commonly, when writing in first person POV, writers mistakenly revert back to using “he/she.”

So, let’s make sure we understand where this subject pronoun rule applies:

  • When writing narrative about the POV character, use the required subject pronoun.
  • When writing the POV character’s thoughts, do NOT apply this rule; thoughts must be written exactly as the character would think them.
  • When writing dialogue, do NOT apply this rule; all verbal statements must be written exactly as stated by the speaker.

In the following example, we are writing in First Person and Steve is our POV character. All sentences requiring the POV subject pronoun are underlined. All remaining sentences are thoughts or dialogue.

My stomach rumbled as I unlocked the front door to the house and rushed in. “Alice! You should have seen me at the game! I made eight 3-point shots and totally dominated Butch. You know how he thinks he owns the court. …Alice?”

“I’m right here, Steve. I really need your help.”

I could still hear the swoosh of the basket as I made the final, game-winning score. “I’ll be there in a bit. I gotta shower. Is dinner ready yet?”

Notice in this example that we would NOT write: Steve could still hear… In First Person, the POV character is the narrator and therefore always refers to himself as “I,” …unless, of course, you give your character the quirky habit of referring to him/herself in the third-person, as in this old Seinfeld episode, The Jimmy.

In this First Person example, the information Steve is sharing about himself is more introspective: his stomach rumbled and he remembered the sound of the ball slipping through the basket. So, introducing the information with “I” is appropriate. But to truly bring the reader into the scene so that the reader is looking out through Steve’s eyes, you should avoid stating what Steve is doing at all; state instead what he perceives is going on around him. The Write Practice has an outstanding article explaining the effective implementation of First Person POV.

2. Only reveal details known to the POV character.

Essentially, the POV character is the one who is relating the story to your readers. Even if you are writing in Third Person POV, where the “he/she/it” subject puts the narrator outside the shoes of the character, you are still sharing the POV character’s experience. As such, if any detail falls outside the knowledge or experience of the character, the reader cannot know about it.

Consider this from the perspective of your own life. God knows everything. You know in part. Seeing the big picture, God understands everything. Because you only see in part, some of your conclusions are correct and some are not. When you tell the story of your life, you can only share what you think you know.

As the author, you establish absolute truth in your story world. You know and understand everything. But your POV character knows in part and does not always interpret correctly what he/she encounters. Your character can only share what he/she thinks.

Resist the urge to ensure your reader knows the complete and actual truth!

The beauty of POV lies in the fact that your reader undertakes a journey of discovery with your character. Whether your character is coming of age, trudging through a mid-life crisis, or beginning to see the world in a new light, the reader will only experience the wonder of this transformation if you allow the reader to incrementally release the misconceptions and embrace the truth alongside your character.

Consider the following Third Person POV example with our POV character Steve:


Steve was still riding high after the game and he couldn’t wait to tell Alice. But, his euphoria was to be short-lived.

Steve has no way of knowing that trouble awaits. His euphoria must carry his actions through naturally until the point where he discovers the situation that shatters the bubble.

3. Reveal scene elements through the filter of the POV character’s knowledge, perception, judgment and assumptions.

No two people ever walk out of a situation with exactly the same experience. Our priorities, focus, background, biases, etc. affect not only what we notice or overlook but also how we judge everything in our environment. Everything the POV character notices must be presented from the perspective of his/her judgment—not what you, as the author, have established to be true.

We’ll talk more about developing scenes in future posts as we dig into plot arcs and setting. But for now, just note that once you have designed your scene to suit your purpose for the character, you then must decide which elements to reveal or hide, and how each revealed element is to be presented based on your POV character’s background, personality, circumstances, etc.

Flashlight in a Dark Room

When you enter a room, you do not instantly see every detail, and there are some details you may never notice at all. If you are distracted, you will notice less than usual. If you have a disability, you may not be able to detect certain details at all. An unusual object or an altercation will attract your attention first. You will either get stuck on this one detail or you will begin to notice other things as the scene progresses.

As the author, you already know every detail of the scene. But, you are going to reveal each element as the POV character becomes aware of it—just as if the character were in a dark room describing each item as the beam of a flashlight passes over it. Many factors contribute to what we notice or overlook. Here are a few items to consider:

  • As any parent of a toddler can attest, physical stature affects what we readily notice. If your eyes are at knee level, you will notice items under the table that taller people may not pick up on.
  • Disabilities, like blindness or deafness, will limit what you perceive. Conditions like color blindness or tinnitus will affect how you perceive things.
  • Gender may predispose you to notice certain details, especially as they concern biological functions.
  • Professional experience may cause you to notice details that the general public would not recognize.
  • Distractions affect how much we notice. Taken to the extreme, you can sit in a busy room lost in thought and never notice anything that is going on around you.
  • Priorities determine which details stand out from the rest. For example, following a long drive with a super-sized beverage, you may notice only the restroom sign.

If your POV character is not aware of something, you CANNOT reveal it to your reader either. You may use another character to bring something to your POV character’s attention. But until the POV character knows it, the reader does not know it either. In the following example, the underlined information cannot be shared from Steve’s perspective.

Steve turned down the hallway to the bedroom, completely oblivious to his wife’s form huddled on the floor. “I’ll be there in a bit. I gotta shower. Is dinner ready yet?”

Remember: everything must be described as your POV character perceives it—not as it actually is. For example, if your POV character is color blind and cannot tell the difference between blue and green, then when he sees the bouquet of blue flowers on the table, you will say that the flowers are green. In truth, the flowers are blue. But your reader cannot know that until the POV character’s perception has somehow been corrected.

Details that are overlooked may not be important to the story, or they may be saved for later as clues are slowly revealed over time. Causing details to slip by your character unnoticed can also add tension to the scene. Consider the following example with our POV character Steve:

Steve turned the key in the lock and barely managed to open the door before barreling through. “Alice! You should have seen me at the game!”

He slammed the door behind him. “I made eight 3-point shots and totally dominated Butch. You know how he thinks he owns the court. …Alice?”

“I’m right here, Steve. I really need your help.”

Steve turned down the hallway to the bedroom. “I’ll be there in a bit. I gotta shower. Is dinner ready yet?”

“Steve! This can’t wait!”

Steve froze. “You know… Alice… why can’t you get into the stuff that’s important to me? Why does everything have to be about you?” He whipped around abruptly to find his wife on her knees and gripping her broken left arm against her side.

See how Steve rushed right by his wife without noticing her broken arm or the strain that was most likely in her voice? The reader also was not aware of her condition until Steve finally turned to see her. As long as we, the readers, are left in the dark, we will empathize with Steve’s side of the conflict.


Trauma, upbringing, cultural traits, etc. all color our world view, and our world view affects how we judge everything we encounter. Writing from the perspective of your POV character means describing every event, situation, and character through the lens of his/her opinions and judgments.

If, for example, the POV character is prejudiced, all the other characters will be presented and described from this prejudiced viewpoint—not according to who they really are. If your story aims to make a statement about how this view is wrong, then you must build a character arc that transforms your POV character’s perspective. As your POV character changes, so too will your description of the other characters. We will cover character arcs in more detail in a later post.

You will deliver your message by strategically designing the plot arc to transform your character until he/she understands the truth you want to communicate. Your POV character is not responsible for living this ultimate truth every step of the way. POV is responsible for producing the psychological and emotional journey for the reader.

Consider some of these famous characters. Do you have a positive or negative emotional connection with them?

  • Scarlett O’Hara
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Josephine (Jo) March
  • George Costanza, from Seinfeld
  • Oliver Twist
  • Romeo

Don’t shy away from presenting your story from the depths of your character’s struggles. Boldly describe the world through his/her eyes, even if this perception has been poisoned by wounds of the past. As you redeem your character, your readers will experience this redemption also.

4. Thou shalt not head-hop!

You may reveal actual thoughts, feelings, motives, fears, struggles, and ambitions ONLY for the POV character.

The inner psyche may be known for non-POV characters only if those characters verbalize it. Their actions and body language will convey their inner state in part, but these external indicators will again be presented through the filter of the POV character’s judgments as he/she observes them. If your POV character misinterprets another character’s slapping the table as anger instead of excitement, then the reader is going to judge the action through the eyes of your POV character who observed it.

Let’s turn again to our POV character Steve and see what head hopping would look like here. The underlined sentences have mistakenly jumped into Alice’s head.

Steve turned the key in the lock and barely managed to open the door before barreling through. “Alice! You should have seen me at the game!”

He slammed the door behind him. “I made eight 3-point shots and totally dominated Butch. You know how he thinks he owns the court. …Alice?”

Oh, thank the Lord! Steve’s home. “I’m right here, Steve. I really need your help.”

Steve turned down the hallway to the bedroom, faintly annoyed at Alice’s lack of interest. “I’ll be there in a bit. I gotta shower. Is dinner ready yet?” All I need now is a juicy steak to top off this perfect day.

Alice couldn’t take it anymore. Steve treated her like a pair of socks to put on when he felt like it. Did he even see her as a human being?

In this example, we’re in Steve’s psyche as he contemplates the steak and judges Alice to be uninterested in his news. We are also in Alice’s head and heart as we see her initial relief and subsequent struggle with what she perceives to be Steve’s disregard of her as a person.

Third Person POV does allow for multiple POV characters, but only one POV character per scene. If you want to select multiple POV characters for the story, you need to fully develop both POVs through the end of the story and select only one for each scene.

Notice that if we were to remove Steve’s annoyance and the sentence about the steak, this entire scene could actually be told from Alice’s POV because she is aware of all the other details. So, which POV should you select for this scene? Ask yourself the following:

  • Who stands to lose the most?
  • Who is most emotionally invested in the scene?
  • This scene is intended to accomplish a critical shift in which character?

First and Second Person POV marry you to one person’s perspective, no matter what. Third Person POV provides some flexibility. So, select your POV character (1) to execute the necessary transformation in the character arc, and (2) to deliver the maximum emotional impact.

5. Only reveal the POV character’s traits to the degree that he/she is self-aware.

While the reader need not learn every single characteristic of your POV character, your character will have to be fully developed to the extent that such details are pertinent to the story. Whether you are revealing your character’s outer appearance or you are outwardly demonstrating the character’s inner state, these characteristics may only be revealed as they enter the character’s consciousness.

Inexperienced writers tend to paint the portrait of their POV character so the reader knows exactly what the character looks like. This is a huge no-no! Unless your character is deliberately describing his/her features to someone who is not in the room or has recently gone blind, he/she would never take a mental stock of every attribute.

When you feel the need to reveal anything about the POV character’s appearance, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the character consciously aware of this attribute right now?
  • If yes, then what caused this attribute to interrupt the character’s focus on the events of the scene?
  • If another character brought this attribute to the character’s attention, why was this attribute singled out?
  • Is focusing on this attribute actually important for the progression of the story?

Let’s look at two examples with our POV character Steve:

Steve’s towering 6’7″ frame filled the doorway as he entered the house. His mop of unruly red hair resisted the constraints of a neon green sweat band that deepened the green of his eyes but clashed horribly with his khaki gym shorts. “Alice! You should have seen me at the game!”

As Steve entered the house, he was fully engaged with his memories from the game, and his foremost intent was to tell Alice about them. He wasn’t thinking about his height, hair color, or attire, so these details cannot be shared from his perspective.

Steve rushed through the front door, narrowly missing the top of the door frame with his head. “Alice! You should have seen me at the game!”

Alice shook her head and chuckled. “Did you really wear that neon green sweat band for the game… or anywhere else in public for that matter? It does amazing things for your eyes, but with those khaki shorts, it looks atrocious!”

Here, Steve’s unusual height broke through his consciousness because he nearly hit his head. The sweat band and shorts were then brought to his attention by Alice. Now the question is, does this interchange advance the scene along the plot arc? If not, then leave these details out.

This self-awareness rule applies the same for gestures and body language, feelings, attitudes, etc. The more activity we have going on around us, the less self-aware we tend to be. The more we struggle emotionally, the more introspective we become.

While the inner state will be revealed through thoughts, dialogue, actions, and body language, these elements can only be used as they naturally reach the point of the character’s consciousness. If the character would not normally think it or say it, don’t be tempted to insert thoughts and dialogue as a catch-all for everything you want the reader to know about the character’s inner state in the moment.

Also, it is important to realize that we do not achieve the same degree of connection with everyone we meet. The more introspective people are, and the more fluently they communicate what is in their hearts, the more we are able to connect. Some of the more sociable temperaments tend to be less self-aware; our relationships with such people are generally more shallow.

So, if you create a POV character who has difficulty digging into his/her own heart, you should only include minimal periods of introspection. The readers will not connect as deeply in this case, but that’s perfectly natural. If you have a non-POV character who is intuitive about the deeper motivations of other people, you may use your non-POV character to make your POV character more self-aware and consequently take your reader a little deeper as well.

Whew! This has been a bit of a marathon, but hopefully you now have a solid grasp on how to properly implement POV. When we return, we will work through a series of posts on the ins and outs of characterization.

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