This week’s shredding had a solid beginning. There was a brief moment of scene setting, just long enough for me to get grounded in the world, and then the conflict began right away. I could clearly see what the character wanted, though his true motivation lay intriguingly hidden. He was a bit of a bad-boy and the overall tone felt vengeful. By the end of the excerpt, I was invested in this character.
Too bad it wasn’t the main character.
Through the entire first scene, the POV character did nothing except watch the main action from the sidelines. He had nothing at stake in the main action and only popped in every few paragraphs to remind the reader that he was, in fact, still there. Rather than feeling like I was in the story, I felt like I was at home watching the whole thing on TV through the camera of the MC
All the immediacy of the first person POV was lost because the story was not about the POV character.
Your story must be about the POV character
This might seem like some facepalm advice, but I’ve seen this happen at least once in the majority of MS’s that have crossed my desk.
There are times when the limitations of first person POV traps a writer into revealing important information through eavesdropping. There are ways to make this work without resorting to a lazy cliché. But only if your audience has a reason to eavesdrop along with your MC, which means you are far enough along in your story that the reader is invested.
This is not the way to start your MS.
The first few pages are critical. They must introduce the primary character, establish normal, reveal goal and introduce the first conflict. They cannot do this if the focus of these pages is not on the POV character.
Evaluating your scene for correct POV
Ask the POV character:
- What is your goal/stakes at the beginning of the scene?
- What do you do to further that goal?
- What is the complication/obstacle/new information?
- How does that change things?
After you’ve answered these questions, repeat the process for any secondary characters in the scene. If another storyline is more interesting than your MC’s, you are writing the scene from the wrong POV.
What to do about it.
If you are writing in multiple viewpoints, no problem, just switch to the more interesting POV. But first person POV or limited third the problem becomes more complicated.
Marie Lu resorted to multiple POV’s in her sequel The Rose Society. Otherwise, she would not have been able to tell the complete story. Diana Gabaldon also introduced a second POV in her third installment of the Outlander saga. In these examples adding a new POV was critical for telling the entire story.
Before adding a second POV decide the scale of the story you want to tell.
If you are telling an epic saga about WWII, switching POV’s might add to the scale of the story. But if the focus is one person’s journey through that war, adding POV’s will only confuse the story’s purpose.
Avoiding the eavesdropping problem in a single POV.
There are plenty of clichés for getting an MC critical information: unconscious but can somehow still hear, peeking through the keyhole, stumbling across a forgotten diary, or an attic full of old letters. The trick to making these scenes work is keeping the focus on your MC.
- Keep the conversation between non-POV characters brief. No one can stand outside someone’s door for 8 pages and not get caught.
- If a character is eavesdropping, make it intentional. Add to the tension making the consequences for being caught severe.
- Don’t force your readers to TV watch the main action through your MC’s eyes. The MC must have something at stake in the events.
- Keep the focus of the scene on the MC. Give the MC a small piece of critical information, then move the focus internally as the MC deals with the implications of the new information and how it changes the original goal/belief.
During your editing process evaluate the goals of every scene and make sure your POV character is the focus of the narration. Use scene goals to restructure the action around your MC, and don’t let secondary character become more interesting than your MC, otherwise, your readers will wonder who the story is really about.