3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

I wince at the memory of using each of these writing “no-no’s” in my early fiction (and critique partners still catch me in the act at times). Data dumping is fun for writers bursting to share their research or hard-wrought descriptions, but it’s a bane for readers who just want to get on with the story. Using filter words is a hard habit to break but one a writer should consider if the goal is to draw a reader closer to a point-of-view character. And head hopping? Let’s just say I’ve worked for weeks to destroy the chaos I brought to one of my first novellas.

This is another in my series of what-I-wish-I’d-known-then posts that include short lists with definitions and links for further reading.

Data Dump (also Information/Info Dump)

“There’s an important balance that has to be struck, between ‘intriguing information about this world’ and ‘overwhelming info dump about this world.’” ~ Stefanie Gaither

A data dump in fiction is an instance where a writer shares too much information (such as backstory, description, or history) all in one place. Coming upon such a weight might prompt a reader to skim a page (or more) until the action resumes. Data dumps also slow down the forward momentum of a story, often stopping it, and usually signal author intrusion. A better approach for a writer is to weave in pertinent information only when a reader needs it.

For more:
Jennie Nash: “Stop Info Dumps Before They Start”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “How (And When) To Stop Front-Loading Your Story”

Filter Words

Routine use of filter words—saw, heard, looked, felt, etc.—in describing a point-of-view (POV) character’s experience adds a subtle barrier between the character and the reader.

With filters: Jim saw the falcon dive from the crevice and felt a wing graze his cheek as the bird swooped by.
Without filters: The falcon dove from the crevice. A wing grazed Jim’s cheek as the bird swooped by.

According to Janice Hardy, filter words not only distance readers from the POV character, they “remind them they’re reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling [versus showing] or crafting passive sentences.” Without filter words, the reader “looks through the eyes of the POV character” at the world. With such filters, a reader “looks at the POV character” as the character looks at the world. And, “Remember, your POV is already filtering for you. There’s no need to remind the reader they’re doing it.”

For more:
Janice Hardy, Fiction University: “You’ll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words”

Head Hopping

When a narrative jumps from one character’s POV to another within a paragraph or scene, it’s called head hopping.

Joe Bunting gives the following explanation of why head hopping is discouraged for most genres*: “[W]hen the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it jars the reader and breaks the intimacy with the scene’s main character. Also, it’s good to give readers ground rules—such as a consistent point of view—for how the storytelling will work, and if we break those ground rules, we can lose the reader’s trust.”

Cynthia VanRooy adds, “Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”

Head Hopping vs. Omniscient POV
Head hopping might sound like the same method used to tell a story through an omniscient point of view (the all-knowing, outside narrator), but D. Wallace Peach explains the difference this way: “It comes down to ‘voice.’ Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene. But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner ‘voice’ to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.”

*In the romance genre, head hopping is more acceptable because the reader wants to know how the love interests feel at a particular moment. Romance writers might use multiple POVs within a scene, but separate them by paragraphs to avoid confusion.

For more:
Jodie Renner on Kill Zone Authors: “POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping”
K.M. Weiland, Writers Helping Writers: “Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV”

As a writer, have you ever dumped data, overused filter words, or hopped from one head to another? From a reader’s perspective, have any of these writing methods pulled you out of a fictional world?


For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs
Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring
Clichés, Point of View, Suspension of Disbelief

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27 comments on “3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping
  1. This is a wonderfully succinct description of three major writing problems that I also needed to learn as a new writer, Kathy, and even now, I’m vigilant for them. I tend to skim info dumps, I notice filters but can tolerate them if the rest of the writing is strong. Head-hopping… those books are DNF for me. I’m going to slot this for a reblog in a few weeks. :-) Thanks for the great post!

    • KL Wagoner says:

      Thank you and you’re welcome! There’s so much to learn. The truth is I don’t know what I don’t know (duh!) – just one reason I recommend joining a critique group with a good mix of writers at different levels of experience/expertise. My critique partners are awesome authors who give me honest feedback and help me grow as a writer.

      • Totally agree! I was in a face-to-face critique group for 5 years and learned tons! Eventually I needed more feedback than I was getting there and I moved on, but those group members are all still dear friends. :-)

  2. […] via 3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping […]

  3. Thanks for the good tips and peek inside the world of book writing.

  4. C.J. Stuart says:

    Really went down the rabbit hole on this one. Thanks. Also came across in my own travels a small book called, rivet your reader with intense point of view. Excellent bk.

    • KL Wagoner says:

      I’m glad you liked the post, CJ. There are so many great articles I could have referenced, but I forced myself to limit the links. Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll check into it.

  5. These are really helpful explanations – I’m afraid I’m a frequent head hopper, so it’s especially good to have the POV definitions explained! Great post!

    • KL Wagoner says:

      I’m glad you found the post helpful. The use of head hopping is an easy way to tell a story — for a writer — but it’s hard on a reader. Diana’s explanation of the difference between head hopping and omniscient POV was a great help for me too.

  6. I am reading a wonderful NA mystery book right now that’s almost ruined for me because of the long passages with head hopping. It really is a dizzying experience!

    Great post, thanks!

  7. Thank you for sharing this information.

  8. C.E.Robinson says:

    OMG…I’m editing the WIP now! First book, I’m a newbie. Got to find those trouble spots! Your reminder post came at just the right time. Thank you! Christine

  9. Thanks for the tips, Kathy! :)

  10. Thanks, KL for this thorough explanation of the three writing terms and the problems they cause. :) — Suzanne

  11. Wonderful post with three great reasons of why we’re always “practicing” our writing. If we don’t pay attention, we’ll data dump about something we’re fascinated about (but the reader won’t be), or we’ll get lazy and use filter words (ugh) or/and we’ll head hop. Interestingly, a lot of the classics I read every once in a while head hop. Back then, it was more acceptable. Now, it makes my teeth hurt. Glad Diana brought me over here. xo

  12. I’m a humor writer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write fiction. Every humor writer stretches the truth or makes things up to enhance her writing. And I am beginning to dabble in some fiction. So much to learn! Came here via Diana’s blog and found it so interesting and informative. I’ve got a new writing coach who pointed out a data dump recently in one of my essays – she didn’t call it that, but after reading this I know that’s what it was. And filters – what an eye opener! Show not tell, is always best.

    • KL Wagoner says:

      Writing humor is so hard — good for you! I think to write humor correctly you either have a talent for it or you don’t, otherwise it’s forced and not funny at all. I could certainly use some pointers, if you know of any articles that might be helpful. Thank you for stopping by!

      • I don’t know if writing humor takes a baseline of talent that is unique among writers, but I suspect there is some truth to it. You can definitely develop and improve on it with education and coaching. I’ve read a lot of humor writers to learn what I think is funny and now I’m working with a terrific coach who is helping me punch things up. You’re right – if it’s forced, it’s not funny.

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