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  • Writer's pictureKristin Noland

Head Hopping Whiplash

How to find it in your novel and stop reader whiplash.

Head hopping whiplash definition: Jumping from one character to another’s thoughts or intentions, making the reader to try to focus on two characters in one scene, causing whiplash.

As an author, you are a mind reader. You have to be because you know what each character thinks and their intentions.

But when you're writing in 1st person or 3rd person, the narrator can’t tell the reader multiple characters’ intentions, thoughts, or experiences. For characters other than the main one, these need to be shown.

Shift from One Character to Another

I was heading downstairs to ask my mom about my outfit for the school dance. Hearing the sizzle of something frying, I headed for the kitchen. “Hey, mom. I was wondering what you think about this for the dance tonight.”

She turned from the skillet to get a good look. “Ah…” she said, disapproving of her daughter’s sequined miniskirt and halter top. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. Where did you get that outfit? I know I didn’t buy it for you.”

Where's the shift?

It's where the mother's intentions and thoughts are revealed.

The narrator, in this case, the main character knows why her mother turned, 'to take a good look' and that she disapproves of her clothes.

Let's take a look at a possible fix.

She turned from the skillet, and her eyes raked over my sequined miniskirt and halter top with that disapproving look. “Ah … I don’t think that’s appropriate. Where did you get that outfit? I know I didn’t buy it for you.”

These shifts are easy to write and easy to miss, because you know everything about the characters.

Shift Example 2

Jim was so excited to tell his husband the good news. When he heard Sam pull into the driveway, he ran to the door and opened it wide. He couldn’t wait. He grabbed him in a fierce hug, almost knocking both of them over.

“Whoa.” Sam said, wondering what caused this attack. He pulled back from the hug. He’d had a rough day, and while he enjoyed the greeting, he just wanted to get in the house and sit down for a moment.

The shift?

Here we are told both Jim’s and Sam’s thoughts, as well as what both experienced before they were in the scene.

Of course, you know what Sam’s day was like and you want to tell your reader why he didn’t react in a certain way to his love's excitement. But this will could be revealed by dialogue instead.

Possible fix.

“Whoa.” Sam pulled back from the hug. “Can we talk about whatever you are so happy about inside? I had a rough day, and I just want to sit down and relax for a minute.”

Example Head Hopping Whiplash Example

Eisla scanned the vendor's postcard display. Should I get dad the one of the beach or one of the pier?

Her friend bumped her shoulder and chuckled. "Your dad would like the girls in bikini's." He's always checking me out.

The hop?

It occurs when the narrator gets into her friend's internal thoughts. These shifts can be hard enough to cause whiplash and push the reader right out of the story.

We want to keep readers in the scene for as long as possible.

You’ve created an immersive escape for your readers and little things like these can shove them back into reality.

How to spot shifts.

  • Dedicate one editing round to spotting this issue.

  • Read closely to see where the narrator tells or shows more than one character's thoughts or intentions per scene.

  • Look for places where the reader is let in on something the main character of the scene can’t know, taste, smell, touch, see, or hear.

Head Hopping Can:

  • Cause whiplash.

  • Push the reader out and back into reality.

  • Possibly confuse the reader enough to stop reading your novel. :(

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