If a flashback is a backwards jump in narrative time, and a time jump is a forwards jump, then head hopping is usually a sideways jump. Another possibility is to have two or more narratives running concurrently, often from different time periods. We’ve all read novels in which these techniques have been used successfully, which encourages us to have a go at them ourselves. This isn’t always advisable.
I have seen responses from editors, agents and publishers that have indicated a blanket dislike for anything that isn’t a simple, linear narrative. Head hopping seems to be particularly frowned upon. So why are publishers so often dead set against switches in perspective, and why do writing courses generally advise against them? Probably because they’ve seen them done so badly in the past.
An ordinary linear narrative featuring the perspective of one character is difficult enough to get right. As soon as you bring other timelines or perspectives into play, you are making the storytelling that much harder for yourself. You are also courting the risk of losing your reader’s interest. Once you have established a narrative and got it ticking along nicely – hopefully building momentum and encouraging the reader to keep turning pages – you need a very good reason to interrupt that.
For inexperienced writers, it is almost never a good idea to break up your narrative momentum by adding a flashback, or switching to the perspective of another character. Flashbacks can inserted into a Prologue without much difficulty, and a forward time-jump can usually fit comfortably into an epilogue. But when you try to shoehorn them into the fabric of the novel you often run into trouble, unless you have considerable experience. If there is information about the narrative past or about a character’s thoughts and feelings that you need to convey in order to move your story along, there are other ways to do it. Dribbling that kind of information into the text by means of dialogue and back story can be very effective.
‘Dribbling’ is the operative word here. It is seldom a good idea to hit your reader with a thick wedge of dialogue that exists for no other purpose than to catch the reader up on the back story. The same goes for big blocks of retrospective in the narrative. As soon as you do that, you are straying into the territory of the information dump, about which I have written more here.
There are certain genres where time jumps and head hopping are inevitable. If you write romance, for example, you will have noticed how fashionable it is to use dual perspectives to give the reader insight into the emotions of both halves of a romantic couple. One way to do this is to add a minor cliffhanger to the end of each person’s chapter. This leaves the reader wanting more and feeling reluctant to leave that particular character’s section. Then you start the next character’s section on a strong and intriguing note so that the reader immediately becomes immersed in their world. That way you keep up a nice tension between eagerness and regret as the reader flips from one character to another. As long as the reader keeps turning pages, you are doing your job.
If you have more than one perspective, make sure your characters ‘speak’ in different voices. This applies to first-person narrative, but also to deep third-person. Your characters’ interior lives should not be indistinguishable from each other. They should each have their own distinctive phrasing and ways of reacting to situations that mark them out as individuals.
Epic fantasy and inter-generational sagas are also almost impossible to sustain without multiple perspectives, different locations, and a sweep of decades, or even millennia. Again, mild cliff-hangers can leave the reader wanting more. But if you are abandoning a time period for good, make sure you have ended it on a satisfying note, trying up most of the loose ends. At the same time, try to leave some unanswered questions that pertain to the next time period. These should be intriguing enough for the reader to want to follow you into that time period, rather than putting the book down to watch Game of Thrones instead.
Chapters are the obvious way of breaking a story up into sections, but ‘Parts’ come into their own when time jumping and perspective swapping are involved. A great way to separate your Victoria era from your 21st Century, for example, is to divide your book into a Part 1 and a Part 2. ‘Parts’ should be used sparingly however, and only to create a more significant break than that indicated by a chapter. If you overuse them, they lose their effectiveness and degenerate into glorified chapters.
As always where writing fiction is concerned, there are no rules, only guidelines. But it is a good idea to know where those lines are before you decide to colour outside them.