The general consensus nowadays seems to be that being in the head of more than one character is bad. We should be "on the shoulders" or "in the head" of one character, and one character only, if not throughout the novel, then at least throughout a "part" (chapter etc.). Often the POV change (note we have a POV concept,) occurs together with a geographic change - the characters we're following are in different places, experiencing different things.

However, I look at older literature, and find that this is not a universal truth. For example, in Les Misérables, we start the first part with Bishop Myriel. knowing both his thoughts and those of his sister, then we switch to Jean Valjean, then we have all three in the same scene, dipping into the heads of all three.
(I would have added quotes, but I only have the book in French. If anyone can edit in anything relevant, it would be appreciated.)

I say 'dipping into' as most of the time we are not in the head of anyone at all, we're not following any POV, but listening to an omniscient narrator, a sort of reporter who is a person unto himself, who tells us what we should know, and often comments on the occurrences, on the characters, or on relevant history and philosophy.


A more modern example, The Lord of the Rings, still has in the same passage (LotR II, chapter 3 - The Ring Goes South):

Frodo took only Sting; and his mail-coat, as Bilbo wished, remained hidden.

Frodo's POV, since he's the only one at this point who knows about the mail? Or omniscient, Frodo-centred?

Aragorn sat with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant for him.

Omniscient narrator, in Elrond's head.

Sam eased the pack on his shoulders, and went over anxiously in his mind all the things that he had stowed in it, wondering if he had forgotten anything

That's clearly Sam's head.

Right in the next scene (same chapter):

At first it seemed to the hobbits that although they walked and stumbled until they were weary, they were creeping forward like snails, and getting nowhere.

Collective POV?

Away in the south Frodo could see the dim shapes of lofty mountains that seemed now to stand across the path that the company was taking.

Finally, we're in Frodo's head! He's the MC, right? (Arguments about whether he or Sam are the MC should be held elsewhere, please. Not in the comments either.)


The above examples show that, (unless someone wishes to argue that Hugo and Tolkien didn't know what they were doing,) hearing the thoughts, feelings and knowledge of more than one character in the same scene is sometimes OK. (Is it head-hopping?)

When is it OK? What about the above examples (and other similar ones) makes it OK, whereas it is not OK under different circumstances?

My first thought was that maybe the older novels don't go quite as deep into characters' heads as we do nowadays. But then I saw this is not true: right in Myriel's house, Hugo goes deep into Valjean's internal conflict, to steal or not to steal the silver. Throughout the novel, Valjean's soul is not "dipped into", but laid bare before the reader. Similarly, Tolkien gives us Frodo's (and Sam's) thoughts and feelings, his internal journey.

What is the answer, then?


This question is related, but the answer it has is "head hopping is bad", whereas I am trying to understand the examples where head hopping is apparently not bad.

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    Be wary of assuming you can copy other authors, especially if they wrote it over 50 years ago. The usual writing tips are in many ways responses to recent changes in what readers seek. – J.G. Oct 6 at 19:44
  • More of an aside than an answer, but head-switching (omniscient pov or not) plays right havoc when the book is recorded as an audio book. If the reader doesn't insert decent pauses or other indication of pov change it can take me up to several minutes to figure out what's going on. Suggestion: include the name of the primary focus as the scene break. Eg. (Scene following Adam) --==Brenda==-- (new scene). That always translates to audio well. The worst is when the reader barely pauses even if the original text had a spacing break. A name though, they're required to read it. – Draco18s Oct 7 at 5:10
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    Just a little comment on the LOTR example - I see no "in the head" at all, in any of your examples; in fact I cannot actually remember any "in the head" in the whole series. It's simply omniscient, describing emotions of multiple characters in a detached, objective way. I would personally not even call that "over the shoulder", but more like "flying like an eagle" over the scene. ;) – AnoE Oct 7 at 9:29
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    Agree with @AnoE, "Bilbo wished… Elrond knew… Sam wondered… Frodo saw…" these are called Filter Words and they are the opposite of head-hopping because they "observe the observer" and create distance for the reader…. For real fluid head-hopping try Jane Austen's Free Indirect Style where the narrator is temporarily taken over by the emotional state of a character, adopting their world outlook and vocabulary. – wetcircuit Oct 7 at 11:36
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    The entirety of drawing of three from stephen king is literally and figuratively all about head hopping. – nurettin Oct 7 at 19:34
up vote 29 down vote accepted

It's fine if the switch is clearly intentional and well sectioned-off. It's fine to jump between POVs for say, chapters or whole scenes. What isn't all right is a book that mostly is one POV, but occasionally will be privy to the thoughts and feelings of another character for a single line/paragraph of a scene, then hops right back to the main character's POV. If you want the freedom to show any character's thoughts at any time, don't bother with a POV style at all, just write with an omniscient narrator.

Having mostly a POV style and breaking consistency for a random moment, that is what's referred to as head-hopping. What you refer to is just multiple POVs or omniscient narration, which happens... pretty much everywhere. I myself wrote in dual POVs; a protagonist and deuteragonist, alternating with each chapter. That, I believe, is perfectly acceptable.

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    I was going to answer... but you pretty much said what I was going to say. And much more to the point, too. – Sara Costa Oct 6 at 21:18
  • In your “isn’t all right” sentence, you ended the sentence on a qualifying clause (“a book that...”) and never gave it a verb. – Wildcard Oct 7 at 10:20
  • @trichoplax: Why on Earth did you change "all right" to "alright"? – ruakh Oct 7 at 18:19
  • @ruakh because I needed additional characters to make the meaningful part of the edit, and the answer author could then accept only the meaningful part if they happened to have an objection to the drift in usage from "all right" to "alright". I don't have any strong opinion on the matter myself. – trichoplax Oct 7 at 18:25
  • Good spot, @ruakh – Matthew Dave Oct 7 at 18:32

Dune head hops the whole way through and is still held up by many as an example of a Sci-fi great. The rule to any writing mechanic is that it must be executed smoothly, consistently, in a way that does not confuse the reader. Finally that mechanic must be additive, in that it provides something to the story. In Dune, head hopping is is used to show how much everyone is willing to betray everyone else, which directly increases the tension. So, it is ok to head head hop.

When is it OK? What about the above examples (and other similar ones) makes it OK, whereas it is not OK under different circumstances?

The primary concern about head hopping is that it generates confusion and if done poorly breaks the fourth wall by getting the reader to think about story structure instead of the narrative put forth before them. A compelling omniscient third person narrator doesn't do this because he sets expectations early that he knows everything. Revealing a bit about a character in a moment of conflict is fine, so long as that character is seeing the thing that moves the story forward. Even if we sort of get the perspective of a specific character from our narrator, it's often still in the context of the greater narrative. You'd likely only accuse a 3rd person omniscient narrator of head hopping if he started providing details that weren't important just so that he could explain what everyone was thinking all of the time.

Frodo took only Sting; and his mail-coat, as Bilbo wished, remained hidden.

This is omniscient narration; not head hopping. We learn that Bilbo had a wish, but the POV doesn't change. POV, or point of view, is essentially where the camera in the scene is situated and whose mind-sounds appear as words on the page. There's nothing particularly Frodo in that sentence.

Aragorn sat with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant for him.

Again, these statements would simply be narration. Aragorn is described from a distance. We are told Elrond knows a thing; but this is a tell, not a show. It's still from the point of view of the narrator.

Sam eased the pack on his shoulders, and went over anxiously in his mind all the things that he had stowed in it, wondering if he had forgotten anything

This so far is your best example of taking on the POV of the character. Note, it's a pretty shallow dive into Sam. We don't get a description of the way the pack feels; but we do get some of what's going on in that head of his. It's still not full immersion though, it's still a tell.

At first it seemed to the hobbits that although they walked and stumbled until they were weary, they were creeping forward like snails, and getting nowhere.

Still omniscient 3rd. Why? Because every single reference is still having the subject be the person/group being described; Tolkien is transitioning, giving the reader a sense of where their viewpoint is.

Away in the south Frodo could see the dim shapes of lofty mountains that seemed now to stand across the path that the company was taking.

Nope, still 3rd. Tolkien is telling the story of The Fellowship of the Ring and the fellowship is a combination of perspectives, people. In order to make his story work he often describes what the different people in the fellowship are doing. In fact, most of your examples are just that. The POV almost universally 3rd, still; at least in the examples you've given. I'd be curious to see how he handled Shelob's lair, where it's just the one character present; but haven't looked.


I think, in your case, the main thing to learn is that 3rd person omniscient is not what people refer to by head hopping. Narrations have similar scope ideas to programming (if you can make that leap; maybe, you are on stack); and head hopping literally means "point-of-view" shift. You are hopping from one head to another; seeing in a whole new way. If you move from being the programmer to the program, you've head hopped. If you go from knowing everything to knowing almost nothing except what one of your characters can see, you've head hopped.

When is head hopping ok?

When it doesn't spoil the read. When you set expectations early that you will do it and do it often and you've found an audience willing to accept that you will do that. And when it does something to improve the quality of the book. Never say never. There's a book that won a Hugo that has 2nd person narration, sometimes (you do this, you're thinking this, etc), Broken Earth. Someone will find a way to headhop gracefully, but it's that last word gracefully that matters. Write well and people will read you.

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    Dune has multiple characters who are actually able to know each other's thoughts due to either being extremely good at reading each other's speech patterns and actions (a consequence of Bene Gesserit training) or being actually omniscient, so (1) it isn't clear that what's going on is actually "head hopping" per se and (2) in a story that's actually about omniscience, using omniscient narrator techniques seems like a justifiable choice even if it's usually a bad idea. I therefore don't think this is a very good example, and these don't apply to most stories... – Jules Oct 7 at 6:58
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    @Jules I was going to bring up Dune if no one else had. First few chapters have plenty of examples of head hopping before any telepathy is introduced, so your criticism seems out of place. Frankly, I don’t think a plot line that twisty and mental with diverging plots and plans could be done so effectively without head hopping. – Wildcard Oct 7 at 10:23
  • Initial response was only first paragraph; I've expanded it to address specific examples and talk a bit more about the utility and downsides of head hopping. – Kirk Oct 10 at 14:12

Take a look at The Couple Next Door. There is a fair amount of the more traditionally-accepted head hopping and it works fine. It's a recent title.

The advice against head hopping is, I believe, because for a novice it is too easy to accidentally head hop. Learning how to effectively stay in viewpoint is (in my opinion) very necessary as a basic storytelling skill. PoV impacts so much of the experience. I'm about sixteen months into learning how to write novel-length fiction and I'm still learning lots of PoV details.

With the caveat that no rule is absolute, here are a few things I'm gathering from reading published fiction (3rd person limited, or 1st person):

  1. Never state the motivation of a non-PoV character except with the qualifier 'seemed to'. He seemed to be bothered. The PoV character is described in terms of motivation. He was bothered.

  2. Be careful when describing the PoV character's appearance, throughout. Fine to describe non-PoV character appearance--if done within correct point of view.

    Example: Consider a top model for the fashion industry, either of the president's former wives, a child, and a pimp. These people would each describe the First Lady's appearance differently. Depending on the point of view, the description shifts.

  3. Avoid describing details of body parts of the viewpoint character's actions, but it's fine to do so for the non-PoV character.

    Example: She opened the door is fine for either. She opened the door with the flat of her palm is more appropriate to the non-PoV character.

These sorts of 'rules' are in addition to the obvious PoV language that one uses. There are probably more small distinctions out there.

Head hopping is fine, but since it takes a little while to master PoV consistency, and perhaps since so many folks can publish so easily these days, the guideline to not head hop seems like a good 'training wheels' sort of rule to follow, until you feel ready to write in a more advanced way.

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    Not directly relevant to the question, but I'd distinguish between describing a PoV character action that is unconscious (she just happened to use the flat of her palm to open the door) and something intended to make a statement (she used the flat of her palm to open the door deliberately to indicate something). – trichoplax Oct 7 at 16:44

I am a scientist, and my first reaction to poorly argued questions is often to criticize the logic. Which I will do here, but before I do, I will say there is nothing inherently wrong with head-hopping if it is done right.

The bad logic here is arguing that because famous, one in a million authors have done something, it is fine for me to do it too. JK Rowling uses "-ly" adverbs all over the place, and she's the richest living author. Dan Brown's writing is heavily criticized, he's in the top 10. If you accept the logic that if something is in a million-seller book, it must be alright to do that, then we can find all sorts of terrible passages and practices in million-sellers that put together, would simply never sell. They are excused because the mistakes are overwhelmed by the imagination of an ultra-genius story teller. And 99.99% of us, including me, are just not in their company.

That said, the problem with head-hopping is not cheating the reader, or leaving the reader feeling like they have been cheated. The same problem with omniscient, the same problem with even a single POV inside the character's thoughts and feelings.

When you expose the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, there is an implied understanding by the reader that you will expose any important thoughts and feelings of those characters. Or, if your POV jumps by chapters or geography, that while you are in a POV, you will not conceal anything important from us about that character's thoughts and feelings.

I know there are exceptions, but in general, once most readers finish a passage on what Joe is thinking, and another on what Mary is thinking, they feel "privileged" to such knowledge, and if they find out later Joe or Mary had an important secret (a plot point, a reveal, etc), they feel cheated. They were supposed to be informed of any important thoughts Joe or Mary might have, and finding out later Joe was the villain all along feels like a cheat by the author.

As other posters here have said, you have created a "contract" with the reader by the narrator revealing the thoughts and feelings of character X: Obviously the narrator always knows, so failing to report something important to the plot and story or guilt or innocence of X feels like a lie of omission, an intentional deception. Or when it comes out, it feels to the reader like an ass-pull.

These "contracts" with several or all main characters make writing some stories rather difficult, because so little can be kept from the reader without violating the contract. Sticking to a single POV character (or one at a time) with a limited narrator (not omniscient) has two advantages: In the modern market, readers like character driven stories, and identifying with the characters, or at least their struggle. IRL we are not omniscient, and that is the source of many problems. We don't know what is truly in other people's heads. We don't know what will happen or how an experiment will turn out, like a truly omniscient narrator might reveal.

So it is actually easier (IMO) to write single POV stories, and stick to the discipline that requires. It feels more intimate and I can have things going on my MC doesn't know about, so it is easier to develop surprises, twists, and have failures occur that the MC (and reader) do not see coming.

So head-hopping can and has been used successfully, but because of the implicit contract you create with the reader, it is extremely easy to screw up and create a story the reader wants to throw against the wall. Don't point at masters for your justification. Like any art, they are masters because they were successful at something extremely difficult to pull off, and on top of that, it was in their time and for their audience, both of which may be extinct!

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    @ruakh No, it is not fine, and that is not just my opinion, but the opinion of the vast majority of writing instructors and professional writers that discourage the use of -ly adverbs. They are a shortcut and sloppy writing. However, my point is that despite this flaw in her work, she is wildly successful due to other stellar qualities of her imaginative work. My point is that citing JKR's success as an excuse to use -ly adverbs is dumb, they are seen as defects by agents and publishers, defects that SHE offset by excellent work on imaginative plotting, characters, and settings. – Amadeus Oct 8 at 9:53
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    I appreciated the insight about the implicit contract with the reader, and also the whole point about "not looking at the masters for justification" is a solid advice. – Liquid Oct 8 at 10:01
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    Mmm, "not looking at the masters for justification" is solid advice, agreed. Looking at the masters and trying to figure out which parts are bad writing that's being excused, which parts are a tool that's hard to use right, and which parts were fair for their day but are no longer useable because the audience is different - that's not bad though, right? (An example of the last would be Victor Hugo's 100-page description of the map of Paris in Notre Dame de Paris. Today we would just stick a map there - picture worth 1000 words.) – Galastel Oct 8 at 14:21
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    @Galastel I didn't know about that. I'd guess according to Hugo, a picture is worth 100 pages! (That should be at least 25,000 words). – Amadeus Oct 8 at 14:25
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    Hugo tended to be wordy... He still holds the record for the longest single sentence in French literature - 823 words. Yet another thing I'm not going to copy from him. :) – Galastel Oct 8 at 14:30

I would say, that here are two main factors:

  • today's popularity - it is not much popular now and to make exception, you need make exceptional work. So it is not recomended, if you are starting, as take mainstream approach is far safer. (Hard to make big mistake, but also hard to stand out.) So consesus say, that you do not do it. (But all big works somehow went against concesuses and norms valid at their time, otherwise it would not be so big.)

  • difficulty to make it right - the reader should not be confused, what happens and should not feel cheated by hidding informations.

In the other question is in one comment mentioned Death Note scene where the focus (or POV) is really fast changing from one character to another and we hear (or read in suntitles) what they are thinking. The fact is, that there are really good indications, what is POV of which character, with long detailed visualisation of details (eyes movement, legs, fists ...) which also are used to concentrate focus on the character, which is "just now" acting (talking, thinking, looking, doing nothing).

In writing each of that focus shift would be granted at least long paragraph (or two or more), probably started with actor name

Ryoga sudently turned to Light and whisper .... while intesively staring at his face from few inches.

next paragraph

Light was deeply shocked, but managed to not change expression ...

after long internal monologue and movement (or lack of that) in few paragraphs

... He calmly turned to Ryoga.

next paragraph

Royga was still intesively staring at Light, waiting to see his reaction.

next paragraph

Light said in controlled voice: ...

But it works here, as the author plays from start with "open cards" and we hear all internal monologue of main actors and we know, what they do not know and why. Only few "tricks" are played out of screen (=secret), but as we do not follow those actors 24/7, there are spaces for their internal thoughts. And in the scenes, where "hidden agenda" could be potentially revealed, are much more immediate conflicts, so even if we "hear" actors thoughts, the actor would not think about the "hidden agenda" at that point as there is something else, which needs his attention and it does not touch the "hidden agenda", which is then revealed much later, when its effects are visible to us and actors have time to think/talk about it.


On the other hand it is totally possible to use either third person, or POV of main charater and occassionally jump to POV of another one, as long, as it is clear, who's POV it is now and you are fair with proper information revealing.

Yours examples from LoTR makes clean, who is in POV now and all important thinking he have (usually just one sentence about the mood of this scene, than actual wording and the sentence sumarised the scene better, than long talking about all (unimportant) details, which would send the same message to the reader).


Theare (at least) two reasons for "jump to someone's head":

  • describe something internal to actor
  • describe something external to actor

The internal view is about motives, plans, personal history and such and there applies "not cheating" as @Amadeus explained in his excelent answer. (Adam remembered "I distrusted Betty from the first moment I met her ...")

The external view is about what is visible or known in the world and used as the way to communicate it to reader - this "dips" are much less personal and "secret agenda" does not need to be opened without the feel of cheating (

Everyone in the party was stunned by the magnificient view that opened before their eyes - all the forests, rivers, lakes, vilages and cities ... (and now you can describe the feelings, that the country eminated and such, without forcing characters to spoke it aloud.

Adam (our hero) found a script and now talks in pub with Cyril. Adam: "You know Wizard King?" Cyril noded: "Yes, but it's just a legend." Every village had such legend he remembered how their version described to details the big fight ... now you can present the local variation of common legend, which is simillar to all others and normal adult would not really beleive it, the less recite it in capital town pub in full. But reader now know the legend too and so Adam and Cyril can just talk about the script and relevant fragments of the legend and find, that Cyril's "common knowledge" does not fits Adams, but explains part of the script suprisingly well.


It is also possible to hide "secret global agenda" in scenes, where is some kind of conflict/action immediately at hands, which steal the spotlight of the actor minds to just the one particular point, not related to the hidden agenda.

In example above Adam and Cyril are both discussing the Wizard King, so if there are some other agendas (say Cyril wants to find, who killed his family and Adam is traveling world, as he do not like to live with his father, who still brags, how many people he killed in all those wars - and actually even Cyrils family was in that count) it may be not mentioned here, as none of them IS actually thinking about that.

It may came out later, when they travel together some time and Adam shows some knowledge about hills around Cyrils village, which he had from his father and Cyril realised, that Adams father must be there about the right time, so he starts to consider, if Adams father can be related to that murder...

Rules are meant to be broken.

The rules for anything creative, writing, painting, even programming, are there to guide you on a safe path that many others have explored before you and found to be sound.

But if you know the area very good, you can leave the safe path and take a shortcut, and you might see sights that others don't. A great author can break all the rules of writing and create a fantastic novel. The art is in knowing when to break them and how to break them right - or you end up in a swamp.

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