Head Hopping

I didn’t really get into writing to follow rules. No matter what anyone tells you, there’s only one rule worth following and that’s don’t confuse your reader. Everything else is just icing, but if the reader can’t follow your story that book you spent so much time on is either going into the circular file or sent off in a cloud of zeroes and ones.

If you spend a little time digging you’ll quickly find out head hopping is a matter of great contention. Much like the Oxford comma and using certain fonts, some people get all frothy about the mouth when someone talks about head hopping.

Those people have far too much time on their hands.

So, what the heck is this whole head hopping thing and why am I researching it? As things would turn out, I’m working on the last Saxton story and was doing a bit of bouncing around in the first chapter. I’d heard of head hopping, but wanted to get a better definition and see what other people thought of it. If it’s one of those things that tends to confuse readers, then it’s a real no-no, but there’s not a huge amount of consensus about whether or not it’s strictly verboten or just one of those things you shouldn’t do, but everyone does anyway. Is head hopping analogous to getting drunk and dancing naked on a table at a four star restaurant or is more like picking your nose in public?

After reading a bunch of blogs on the subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one really knows for certain, but everyone seems to have a serious gut reaction to head hopping. In fact, head hopping is one of those things that, handled slightly differently, becomes third person omniscient, which everyone seems to agree is quite okay.

Head hopping, by definition, is swapping between two or more characters’ point of view without a distinct break and using the character’s own voice as the means of communication. Third person omniscient is swapping between two or more characters’ point of view without a distinct break, but maintaining the narrator’s voice as the means of communication. For instance:

Yee-haw, he thought, these cowpokes surely did know how to treat a lady right. She felt the affections of the lads at the cowboy dance were, while unwarranted, at least interesting.

vs.

The cowboy thought Yee-haw as he always did when he thought about women. It was just a way he had of exploring the world and his place in it in relation to the fairer sex. For her part, she felt the cowboys and their affections were a fascinating distraction from the ennui of day to day life.

There’s this thing called deep POV, where a writer delves into the psyche of a single character at a time and tells the story through that person’s eyes and voice. Head hopping is basically the process of implementing deep POV, but not limiting oneself to a single character at a time. Done right, deep POV can really draw a reader into a story by placing him or her straight into the character. This is similar to the way first person POV works, but with he/she said instead of I said. Done poorly, deep POV runs the risk of feeling stale.

Head hopping can cause issues for readers because it draws a reader into a particular place and then yells, “Ha! Your’re not really there, you’re here. And also, you’re not who you think you are! You’re not you, you’re actually Josef Stalin!”

If you’re deep into a character’s head and suddenly you’re in some other character’s head, the result is going to feel like hitting a fire road in Ferrari. And there you go, you just violated the cardinal rule and confused your reader. Your hard work was flung across the room or reduced to random bits on someone’s tablet.

Poof. Gone.

Does that mean you absolutely cannot head hop? Well, that depends on how you do it. It’s one of those things that can be done well, but swapping in bad p;laces – like in a paragraph – can be catastrophic. In the final analysis, it’s probably best to avoid head hopping, but if you’re gonna go ahead and do it, at least break paragraphs before you do it.

Of course, that’s just my opinion and, as I’ve already established, I don’t exactly truck with most of the rules of writing. Except that one important rule of not confusing the reader. Make your reader paranoid, terrified, hysterical. Make him or her laugh or cry or want to strangle a manatee in the nude. But make sure you don’t confuse them.

All this, of course, begs the question of why I would suddenly take interest in this. The Henchmen series is firmly in first person POV. The Saxton series has been largely third person deep POV. But, as I was working on the first chapter of the last Saxton story, I found it was helpful to bounce back and forth between a couple characters to compare and contrast the event and do a little bit of foreshadowing.

That lead me to wonder if I was head hopping or doing a bit of third person omniscient. I’m fairly certain whatever I’m doing is (or will, once it’s all edited) working. Still, I’d like a second or third or nth opinion on it. So here you go, the first chapter of the last Saxton book in all its raw and unedited glory. Drop a note in the comments and tell me if I’m way off base.

/********************************************************/

The woman screams. Her limbs strain against the metal bands that keep her secured to the cold metal table. Metamorphosis takes her body and twists it into sickening shapes. Her limbs grow longer and stouter, replacing her slim arms and legs with bulging muscle and thick bone.

She raises her head and gazes down at her naked body with terror in her eyes. As her muscles expand she remembers summers in Las Cruces and wonders where she went wrong. Her past dissipates like so much blue-gray smoke as pain wracks her body again. In her mind, someone is tearing her limbs off just like she used to tear the legs off grasshoppers before tossing them in ant hills.

The metal table is far from the nearest ant hill, but the withdrawal makes it feel like ants are crawling through her insides. She actually welcomes the pain of her body changing because it means she doesn’t have to focus on the incessant need.

“You were correct, Colonel,” a man in a white lab coat says as he stares in wonder at the transformation. “She is strong. I would not have believed a woman could be this strong.”

Lieutenant Colonel Jannik Schäfer nods and frowns. “You must toss that old thinking aside, doctor. Women will be necessary in the New Order. We must rectify the mistakes of the past and one of those mistakes is relegating fifty-one percent of the populace to the dust bin.”

“Yes, Colonel,” the doctor says, hanging his head in shame.

The woman is barely recognizable as a human anymore. Her body has tripled in size, sucking resources from the tubes plugged into her veins to turn into muscle and bone. She has taken on a simian look, like a pale, hairless ape with a woman’s head on top of its massive shoulders.

“The face and head are the last, correct?” Jannik asks.

“Yes sir. The process works from the bottom up. We’re not completely certain why, but all the subjects have transformed from the feet upwards. We suspect it’s something encoded in the new DNA that says the body must have a solid foundation.”

Jannik nods, but otherwise doesn’t speak.

“This new strain of alien DNA is more robust than the previous strain,” the doctor says. He has the look of a kid on Christmas who’s just opened the best toy in the world and can’t resist talking about it.

“The old strain was decades old. I’m amazed it worked at all, Doctor Hess. You are truly a wizard. The Brotherhood is lucky to have you.”

Doctor John Hess blushes. He’s not used to dealing with bigwigs. Frankly, people baffle him. How can he explain the majesty of his work to someone who has never seen the things he’s seen? “Thank you, Colonel.”

Doctor Hess pauses, unsure if he should continue. “If I may be so bold, Colonel…,” he starts.

“Go ahead, Hess,” Jannik replies, never taking his eyes off the woman on the table.

Her face is changing. It hurts so much she can’t even scream anymore as the bones grow into a muzzle and the muscles tear and pop. The gnawing hunger is still inside of her and she buries herself in the pain. This isn’t the first time she’s wished for the eternal slumber of death. A painless end to a short lifetime of mistakes would be proof there is a loving God.

But the pain continues and the gnawing need continues to nip at the edges of her mind like rats burrowing into the raw flesh of a severed limb. Again, she screams. Again it does nothing.

“Are the rumors true, sir?” Hess asks. “Did the original DNA samples come from Dulce?”

Jannik snorts. “Somewhat. The samples came from one of our first labs. A deep, dark hole under Albuquerque. Early Operation Paperclip scientists were brought in to study the artifact. They drew the first bits of DNA. The new strain comes from a ship we stole from the government that was shot down late last year.”

“What about the, uh, other genetic code?” Hess asks.

Jannik straightens his black jacket and sighs. “Almost the same place. Have you had any luck with it?”

Hess is in his element. He turns to face Jannik, ignoring the woman screaming in the other room. “It is incredible and impossible. It’s not DNA, at least not as I know it. It changes, sir. It changes from solid to gas to liquid and back again. I wish I could take a piece and examine it more closely.”

The woman’s eyes roll back in her head so hard she wonders if she can see her brain. Through the red haze of agony, she prays laser eyes to shred the gray matter in her head and end it all. But the pain continues to grow. Her jaw elongates. Her teeth shift and grow and tiny movement feels like the worst toothache she’s ever had.

Jannik watches her through the glass. His eyes close focus on his reflection in the glass separating Hess and himself from the subject. In the glass he sees a ghostly reflection of himself. It’s not much of an image, but enough for him to know everything is perfectly in place.

“You must never examine the shadow outside of the confinement area,” Jannik says.

The unmistakable force in Jannik’s voice pushes Hess back a step. “But … why?”

Jannik tears his eyes from his reflection and the woman in the other room. Piercing cobalt blue eyes focus on Hess. The doctor takes another step back. “Because I told you not to,” Jannik says.

Hess swallows hard. He stared into the eyes of the demon and lived to tell about. One hand fiddles with his white doctor’s coat while the other one unconsciously wipes a bead of sweat from his brow. “Yes. Sir. Sir Yes,” he stammers. “Yes sir.”

In Jannik’s mind, the conversation is over. He looks back at the woman on the table and finds she’s still. “What is happening?” he asks, pointing at the woman. “Is it done.”

“No, sir. I guess the pain finally knocked her out.”

Jannik shakes his head. “No, that won’t do. I was told she must be alert and aware throughout the procedure.”

“Her brain has shut down, Colonel,” Hess protests.

“Restart it.”

“Sir?” Hess asks.

Jannik turns the full force of his eyes back on the doctor. “Restart it or take her place on the table, doctor.”

Hess takes a moment to process that. Like everyone else at the base, he knows Lieutenant Colonel Jannik Schäfer does not have a sense of humor. “Yes, sir.”

The doctor fiddles with a tablet in his hands. Without warning, the woman screams again and Hess feels it in his soul. To think, this woman, who was a runaway and a crack whore, was going through so much so that the formula could be perfected. He almost envied her. It’s not everyone who can say they have advanced science as much as she is doing right now.

Pain vanishes in a heartbeat, like someone flipped a switch. Her body collapses into the table and her eyes close. She can’t see herself. If she could, she’d start screaming again. Tiny insects crawl across her bare flesh, but she’s too tired to care anymore. The pain is over and that’s all she cares about.

Her name. What was her name? No matter, it would return or she could go search out the people that… What is the word? Created. Created her. They were there. Two people. One with short hair the other with long hair.

Why can’t she remember who or what they were?

Why can’t she remember herself?

“Sir, if I may be so bold, I’m terribly excited. The process has never gone this far.”

Jannik struggle to hold in his own anticipation. His heart is pounding in his chest. On the table, still strapped down, is a female ape with deep black fur sparsely covering her body. Even from here, he can see the confusion in the beast’s eyes.

“I must admit, Doctor Hess, I’m interested in the outcome myself. You’ve done wonders blending the samples,” Jannik says. “Have you reproduced the prototype serum?”

Hess cannot tear his eyes from the spectacle in the room. The ape is calm now. “Almost sir,” Hess replies. “I need a fresher sample of the shadow to finalize it.”

“Excellent work, doctor. If all goes to plan, you’ll soon have all the samples you need. You’ll be able to pull them straight from the source.”

The words slowly make their way into Hess’s mind. He tears his eyes from the ape woman in the next room and looks at Jannik. “How? If I may ask, of course.”

“As you know, the prototype is working for us. While he’s occupied, plans are in place to harry and then capture the shadow source.”

Jannik folds his arms across his chest and chuckles. “Did you know he actually has the audacity to call himself ‘The God of Dreams’? Such an arrogant thing.”

“Are you saying the sample came from a god?”

“That’s what he calls himself, anyway. We know he can do things regular people can’t. Personally I think he’s a liar and a charlatan. No matter. Soon this ‘God of Dreams’ will be in our grasp.”

Hess cringes at the thought of dealing with a god. “Do you think harassing a god is wise, sir?”

Jannik’s laugh echoes through the small chamber, echoing off concrete walls. “There is nothing to worry about Hess. He is nothing more than a liar trying to claim the throne of The Church of the Eternal Dreamtime. Pah! You will see. We have already hired a man who claims to be able to call this god. If the little man’s story pans out, we won’t even need to send troops; we will just wish him here and – poof! – he will be here.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Hess says. He still feels the gnawing in his stomach that usually tell him bad things are going to happen sooner rather than later.

“How is my serum coming along. Have you managed to figure out how to merge what you’ve found?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Hess says. “I need more samples from the god. We’ve managed to recreate the prototype’s information, but the god’s is significantly more complicated.”

“You’ll have your samples soon enough,” Jannik replies.

Both men stare through the one-way glass. The final effects of the serum are working into place. Her mind was largely wiped and it shows in her emotionless eyes. A once streetwise, drug abuser has just been transformed into the perfect soldier.

“Is it safe to go in?” Jannik asks.

Hess checks his tablet and nods. “Yes, sir. The change is finished. I must counsel caution, though, sir. She’s the first successful transform. She’s quite strong and her aggressive nature has been enhanced.”

Jannik doesn’t acknowledge the warning. He sweeps through the door and stands over the mutant ape. Her dark eyes watch him cautiously. He watches back, searching for any trace of humanity left behind the simian gaze. Nothing jumps out, just the blank stare and hint of rage of a caged animal.

“You’re magnificent,” Jannik says. “Soon, I’ll have an army of you. You and your ilk will stream through the world. Together, we will bring order to this chaotic world. We will bring unity and strength back to a people who have forgotten what it means to fight for something.”

Deep in her mind, a spark ignites. It’s not much, little more than the light of a single match in a pitch black cave, but it stays lit.

Jannik strokes the creature’s fur, marveling that something so amazing can have such a soft pelt. He flashes back to his grandfather returning from hunts around the world. On every continent, his grandfather hunted wild animals. They were always predators and usually alpha predators when available. After each hunt, the man would bring back the pelt and head. The heads were mounted in the family reading room. Animal after animal laid down its life for the eldest Schäfer until every free space had the head of a tiger or a lion or some other thing with teeth.

In his young mind, Jannik thought his grandfather was the strongest, bravest man in the world. He, himself, never took up hunting. At least not big game. He hunts homeless people, though; stalking them through the dark alleys and pipes they call their home. Pathetic creatures. Not worthy of being called humans.

Yet another thing to eradicate when he seizes the world. In Jannik’s mind, if a person can’t muster the wherewithal to take care of themselves, they were worthless. Worthless things needed to be excised if the world was going to be rebuilt stronger.

“Hess,” Jannik calls over his shoulder. “Release the clamps.”

“Sir, I strongly suggest we do that in a more controlled space.”

“Hess,” Jannik repeats. “Release the clamps.”

Hess sighs loud enough to be heard from the other room. He quietly closes and locks the door. “Yes, sir.”

Jannik smiles as the steel bands slide silently from the limbs of the beast. She clenches her fists and sits up. When she rises, Jannik feels a pang of nervousness. It was one thing to admire her from the comfortable blanket of safety, but not that she’s free he realizes he’s alone with a monster he helped create.

The tiny flame in her head flares brighter briefly. This was one of the creatures that hurt her. Her mind is still a jumble and she lacks the mental processing power to realign her new neurons. Still, she knows enough to want to hurt the thing in front of her.

She rises to her full height and relishes the power of this new body. Images intrude on her simple mind – summers and first kisses and the heady taste of meth filling her mouth and lungs. The pictures make no sense. Why would she need summers or kisses? But the feelings that came along with the images are tinged with melancholy regret.

As quickly as it flared up, the tiny flame shrinks back down and there’s only the animal left. She wonders if she can bat the little thing aside and leave. There are things to hunt and conquer out in the world. All she needs is to escape and then it will a glorious, lifetime-long hunt.

A single fist in the creature’s face, then she can run free. She draws back her arm, ready to sweep aside the tiny creature with the strange hair and no fur.

“Did you embed the inhibitors?” Jannik calls over his shoulder.

Hess’s voice sounds tinny and nervous over the old speakers in the transformation chamber. “Yes, sir. She should already to reacting to your presence.”

Jannik stands his ground and stares. He knows enough about human behavior – and this thing still has similar instincts – to know that backing away is equivalent to backing down. She’s strong enough that a punch from that fist will probably go right through his head. He makes a mental note to push Hess to finish his serum. That special mixture of prototype and god will make him the most powerful thing on Earth, but for now he’s just a weak, pathetic human with an indomitable will.

He grits his teeth and sets his jaw as the ape-woman rears back. A lesser man would run and cower, but that same lesser man would be easily hunted and smashed by this newest creature. She was specifically chosen for her street smarts and general resiliency. It took a team of three of his soldiers to bring her in and she smashed one’s jaw in the process. Another will likely never have kids. And all that was before Hess fed the soldier serum into her veins. The mere fact that she survived it means her mental toughness is amazing.

The tiny creature in front of her stands its ground. It should be running, but it waits patiently. A thought from the tiny flame of her former self screams to smash the little man, but a larger thought bounces through her skull telling her he’s not to be touched. Screw it, she thinks. Her muscles tense and she longs to feel his bones break.

But that large thought won’t give up and he won’t run. There’s no fear in his eyes and it gives her pause. Her mind is torn between the tiny voices echoing through her head. Kill him. Don’t kill him. He is weak. He is strong. He must not be harmed. He is the future.

Her arm slowly drops. She won’t kill him. Not now at least. For now, the voice screaming to kill him will have to wait.

Jannik watches the hairy arm fall and slowly exhales. He wasn’t even aware he’d been holding his breath. His mouth breaks into a grin, slowly at first so as not to threaten the creature, but rapidly spreading as she doesn’t attack. It worked. It actually worked. The process successfully created a monster that could be controlled.

He mentally reminds himself that there’s no guarantee she’s completely controllable, but the initial results are positive. Tomorrow he’ll put up her against the two guards that he found asleep at their post. If she kills them and he can still keep her in check, then he’ll consider the experiment a success. If only they had finished her before the operation started.

“Hess,” Jannik says. “You are a miracle worker.”

Hess doesn’t answer for a long time, longer than he should wait and Jannik makes another mental note to give the scientist a stern talking to about responding. “Thank you, sir,” Hess finally says.

Jannik reaches up and touches the creature’s face. Her pull back briefly, revealing teeth that could chew up a cue ball, but she leans her face into his hand and actually purrs. The problem, Jannik reflects, with human soldiers is they have complex emotions and are inherently unpredictable because of that. This creature has simplified emotional responses. Anger and love are powerful emotions, but they’re far more predictable.

An army like this will be unstoppable. Especially once he himself has been transformed and can lead from the front of the battle lines. Jannik pulls a phone from his pocket and pushes a button on the blank face. “This is Jannik. Echo team, you’re clear for Operation Mjolnir.”

The creature’s eyes are closed and it’s switched from a simian purr to the quiet chirping the aliens made when they were content. The sound makes his hair stand on end, but like everything else he’s endured in life, Jannik Schäfer will learn to endure this.

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