“Don’t head jump” is a command that gets thrown around a lot of Creative Writing 101 classes. It essentially means, don’t allow your reader to view the thoughts and feelings of more than one character in your story, at least not in the same chapter. When characters are talking to each other, you don’t want to hear both of their thoughts or know exactly what both of them are feeling at the same time. This is good advice in many cases, but with great care and attention, you can pull off “head jumping” to add an extra layer to your narrative. The problem is that “don’t head jump” is an idea that often gets regurgitated with little thought or understanding, and without analyzing the story as a whole. That regurgitation often discourages new writers from exploring this technique altogether. Yes, it does require a more experienced hand to do correctly, but beginner writers should not be discouraged from ever trying to hone that skill.
To those who spout the “Don’t head jump!” command upon first instance, without bothering to read more, I ask, “Why not?”
All rules are meant to be broken, so long as you break them with purpose. This is the second “episode” in a series of posts I’m dubbing The Rebel Writer Series. First, I break down why a rule is in place, and then discuss how it can be broken to great effect.
(Read the first episode, Tell, Don’t Show: Properly Implementing Exposition)
Why Not Head Jump?
The answer behind the rule comes from the term itself. If entering into multiple characters’ minds within a single scene or chapter is done incorrectly, the reader feels like they’re being bounced around willy nilly. They become confused. Whose voice is this? Where did that come from?
This is because a lot of times, head jumping is done either unintentionally or on a whim.
When done unintentionally, the problem is more subtle. Here’s a common example thrown around writing courses. Imagine an author has been consistently using third person limited, telling a story solely from the main character’s perspective. Let’s call that character John. Then, all of a sudden, the author inserts a line like this without thinking: “John’s face was transformed with joy, his smile dazzling, green eyes glittering.” The problem (besides it being a little corny)? John can’t see his own face, so we shouldn’t see it either, unless he’s looking in the mirror. Same goes for writing first person. It’s a small break in perspective and narration, but it can still pull a reader out of the story, which you never want.
Inserting a head jump on a whim is far more destructive, wreaking havoc on the level of dropping a bomb inside the text. Imagine you’ve been reading a book for ten chapters. It’s a third person limited POV, centered around the main heroine. You know this woman. You’re rooting for her. You understand her feelings. You know how she thinks because the author has provided you with her direct thoughts. When she has to deal with her difficult mother, you hear her internal dialogue of what she’d like to say juxtaposed with what she actually says to her mother. Then, all of a sudden, 15,000 words in, during one of these conversations, you read the mother’s internal thoughts, fretting that her daughter is lying to her.
Whoa. Hold on. You’re going to stop, right? You’re going to ask yourself, “Did I read that right?” You’ll reread the line, maybe even the paragraph leading up to it. You’ve officially been pulled out of the story, and you’re asking yourself, “Why are we getting inside the mother’s head now? What’s the point? Why didn’t we hear her thoughts in the conversations before this?” Bomb dropped. Your reader is no longer in the story; he/she is analyzing your writing, and not in a good way.
Even in a third person omniscient POV, sporadic head jumps thrown in on a whim can be jarring. Imagine reading a book where the narrator zooms in on the lives of multiple characters and sometimes tells us how they are feeling, but never actually dives inside their heads and lets you hear direct thoughts. Then, all of a sudden, in one scene where two characters are arguing, the narration switches. You suddenly know exactly what the characters are thinking about each other. That’s going to throw you off. Similarly, if the author has been dropping you directly into a different character’s head in each chapter (think the Game of Thrones series, where the chapter is titled with the name of the character you’re being dropped into), but all of a sudden you get two characters’ perspectives together in one scene, you’re confused.
How To Properly Implement Head Jumps
You probably already have an idea about the key to successful head jumping based on the information above. Right? If you said consistency, you get a gold star. If you also said a third person omniscient POV, you graduate summa cum laude.
I don’t think anyone pulls this off better than Stephen King in Needful Things. For some reason, this is not a title commonly discussed when King is mentioned in conversation, and I think that should change. It’s in my top three King books. It’s the final installment in his Castle Rock stories. A tale about a small Maine town invaded by a mischievous, evil being who sets up shop on the main thoroughfare, lures in victims with their hearts’ desire, and tricks them all into pulling pranks on each other. Harmless pranks. Or so they think. The climax of this book is about twenty chapters of non-stop, nail-biting, gut-wrenching horrendous action of the most pulse-pounding sort, and I can’t get enough. It’s over 700 pages in paperback, small print, and I’ve read it twice in as many years.
One of the many things that makes this novel so great is masterful head jumping. We intimately know and care about (or loathe) a huge cast of characters because the omniscient narrator lets us know every single person’s deepest desires and fears. We know what they’re thinking, we know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, and we see the train-wreck coming but know everyone is powerless to stop it.
So, how does he do it?
Every chapter is split into sections, and for the most part, each section has a predominant character whose perspective we follow. However, all throughout the sections, from the very beginning, we get small, subtle head jumps. Like this:
Brian pulled his arm away. He hoped the gesture didn’t seem impolite, but he couldn’t help it even if it did. Mr. Gaunt’s hand was hard and dry and somehow unpleasant. […] But Mr. Gaunt was too much in earnest to notice Brian’s instinctive shrinking away. (31)
This section is mostly from Brian’s perspective as he enters Mr. Gaunt’s new shop for the first time. However, we get a tiny note from the narrator that tells us something about Mr. Gaunt. He’s so wrapped up in his sales pitch to Brian, he doesn’t notice Brian shrink from his touch. It’s a tiny head jump. More of an observation of the narrator’s, but it still gets us into someone else’s mind frame and it begins to get the reader used to head jumping so that when more stark examples occur as the action builds up, the reader is not pulled out.
Another interesting technique of King’s is utilizing the third person omniscient narrator to give the reader thoughts of people who aren’t even currently in the scene. When a character named Polly turns up to Mr. Gaunt’s shop, Mr. Gaunt holds out a hand in greeting. Polly has to decline, explaining that she doesn’t shake hands because she has bad arthritis. Then we get these lines:
There were women in town who thought that Polly was actually proud of her disease; why else, they reasoned, would she be so quick to show it off? The truth was the exact opposite. (44)
We’ve jumped into other characters’ heads without even naming them. The transition is smooth and the detour is not long or stark, so we are not pulled out, but instead further conditioned to accept the head jumping.
When the plot heats up and characters start misbehaving in attempts to pay back Mr. Gaunt for their priceless treasures—their needful things—we start getting more obvious head jumps.
Now, I am selecting more vague moments from the following scene so as to avoid a spoiler, but you can still see the head jumping even from the more innocuous moments. Nettie Cobb has broken into Danforth Keeton’s house to perform her prank (which will point in the direction of someone else in town who Danforth hates). She hears him pull up to his house, runs for the door, and smacks into it because it doesn’t open. Then we get this:
Nettie’s frantic gaze, partially obscured by blood from her cut forehead, fell upon the thumb-bolt. It had been turned. That was why the door wouldn’t open for her. She must have turned it herself when she came in, although she couldn’t remember doing it. (278)
We are fully in Nettie’s head here. Next, Nettie runs out, Danforth enters, we get a note from the narrator that if he had gone further into the house he would have seen Nettie fleeing. That interlude from the narrator makes a smooth switch to Danforth’s perspective and his thoughts, and we get this (there is a redaction to avoid a spoiler):
The sight of all those [redacted] froze him in place, however, and in his first shock his mind was capable of producing two words and two words only. They flashed on and off inside his head like a giant neon sign with letters of screaming scarlet: THE PERSECUTORS! THE PERSECUTORS! THE PERSECUTORS! (278)
This is an obvious head jump between two main characters in the same chapter “section.” The two characters are equally prominent in the story and in the action of the scene. Thus, we are dropped into both their heads while they exist in the same space. This becomes more and more common as the book revs up to its climax. As the people of Castle Rock begin to clash, spurred on my Mr. Gaunt and his shop full of desires, the head jumps become more frequent and need no narrator-driven transitions.
Unfortunately, I can’t show you this fast-paced, open head jumping without using a vital scene in the book. I’m going to keep things as vague as I can, but the next scene I’m going to examine discusses the ultimate fates of two characters. If you don’t want to know, skip ahead to the spot that says End Spoiler Alert.
Two characters, Nettie and Wilma, have become the victim of “pranks” that push all the wrong buttons, feed their worst fears, and point in the direction of the person they hate most in town—each other. Even though neither of them has actually committed the prank on the other, they both think the other is responsible. The only thing that brings chronically anxious, shy Nettie true peace has been taken from her in an act of violence. Wilma’s self-esteem, self-respect, and delusions of superiority have been threatened. They meet in the middle of the road between their houses, Wilma wielding a butcher knife, Nettie a cleaver. A gruesome fight ensues, and both are mortally wounded. During the fight, we get both of their thoughts back and forth throughout the scene. Here’s one example:
Nettie felt the world beginning to pulse in and out in great, slow cycles—the color would drain from things, leaving her in a blur of whiteness, and then it would slowly come back. She heard her heart in her ears, great slow snaffling thuds. She knew she was wounded but felt no pain. She thought Wilma might have cut her a little in the side, or something.
Wilma knew how badly she was hurt; was aware that she could no longer lift her right arm and that the back of her dress was drenched with blood. She had no intention of even trying to run away, however. She had never run in her life, and she wasn’t going to start now. (292)
End Spoiler Alert
As the action speeds up, so does the head jumping. There is no transition between the two characters’ thoughts. We know exactly what each person is thinking rather than getting vague notions, as in the very first example. However, it’s interesting to note that King does not use what most people think of as “direct thoughts.” We don’t get italicized dialogue that sounds like the character talking to his/herself. We don’t get things like, I think she cut me, or If she thinks I’m going to back down, she’s got another thing coming!
Direct thoughts like these are very common in first person POV, and only slightly less common in third person limited. Now, you could use them in third person omniscient, but it is even more difficult to execute. If you have two characters’ direct thoughts back and forth as they interact in a scene, you have an intriguing, engaging dynamic, but only if it is 100% clear whose thoughts belong to whom. And, you must do it in every scene where main characters interact, or else it’s going to be jarring when it randomly happens at later points in the book. I made this mistake in a novel once. My narrator was third person omniscient, but I mostly only used direct thoughts of the protagonist. So, when another main character’s direct thoughts appeared, it was jarring, and I had a number of people note that in feedback.
If you don’t want to consistently use those italicized direct thoughts, I suggest sticking with King’s technique: when you drop readers into your characters’ heads, make the text read as though the narrator is telling readers the character’s direct thoughts, rather than allowing readers to hear the character’s internal voice.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Never played around with third person omniscient or head jumps? Try it out. Remember, be consistent, and establish how your characters’ thoughts will appear before you begin writing. Know the rules you’ve set for yourself, establish them early in the text, and stick to them. When you’re done, have someone read the story. Were they confused at any point? Revise. Keep practicing. Keep playing. Do what’s best for your story, rules be damned.