#30: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a mostly-fan sometimes-original fiction author who generally has a clear idea about plot and story beats and so on, but an issue with an unfinished NaNo project has me a bit stumped. It’s original fiction, a time-travel transhumanist romance between characters whose first names conveniently start with A, B, and C.

For the first part of the story, our point-of-view character is B, a female graduate student who has been sent to the distant past and who hooks up with A, a man of some privilege there. She makes a copy of his brain pattern on her computer (with his consent) and returns to C, her genderqueer ex, who helps her load up A’s mind on a computer. Eventually, A will be restored to a physical form with science magic and they will all live happily ever after together, but before I can write that I have to figure out a very basic question: Whose point of view do I write the next section of the story in?

I’ve written everything so far from B’s POV and I intended to write the rest of the story that way, but there’s a lot going on between A and C that she won’t be witness to. On the other hand, it could be that all of C’s diagnostics aren’t actually interesting or relevant to the story. I’d almost decided to write the next section in A’s POV, but something inside me is rebelling!

What can I do to narrow down my options and figure out why I am hesitant to commit to an actor for my next few thousand words?

Thank you!

—Aris Merquoni (she/her)

Dear Aris Merquoni,

Questions about point of view are really questions about what story you’re telling. If you’re not sure whether to switch POV, you may not be sure what your story is. Is it B’s story, or is it A, B, and C’s story?

If it’s B’s story, stick with B’s POV. Lots of things happen that characters don’t know about, or only hear about. That’s part of life, and is perfectly fine to include in fiction. Instead of trying to fix it, have your characters react to it. Does B wish she’d been there, or enjoy being there vicariously? When A and C tell her what’s been happening between them, does she notice inconsistencies between their versions that suggest all might not be well between them, or that foreshadow future conflicts? Does she find out later that some of what she’s been told is wrong or incomplete, either through deliberate misinformation or because they just didn’t realize she’d care? There’s a tremendous amount of story potential there.

If you want to write almost all of the story from B’s perspective except for one A-POV scene, that sounds to me like there’s some crucial bit of information you need the reader to have that B isn’t privy to. But you can probably figure out some other way to convey it: A relates it to B, or B discovers some evidence of it, or C finds out about it and tells B, or it’s clear enough from context that the reader can fill in the blanks. (Trust your readers. They really don’t need to be told everything.) Or write the story without that scene and see whether it all still holds together.

There may also be something nagging you plot-wise that you won’t be able to figure out until you know what happens between A and C in that scene. In that case, do write the scene, or at least outline it, so you can get it out of your head and untangle whatever knot you’re stuck on. Then finish the story so you can see how the characters’ behavior depends on those events. You may be able to simply cut the scene once all is said and done, or you may need to take a little time to figure out other ways to convey the information that’s in it, but either way, you’ll have something you can work with.

If you’re telling the story of how this triad came to be, you have more POV options. One is omniscient, but since you’ve already written a chunk from B’s perspective, that’s probably out. Another is switching around, in which case you’ll probably want to give the three characters approximately equal time to share their perspectives. If that sounds like way more work than you feel like doing, stick with telling B’s story. You can always go back later and write a tie-in from A or C’s perspective (the way John Scalzi did with Zoe’s Tale or E.L. James did with Grey) to explore the things that B didn’t get to see.

The limitations of limited POV can be both blessing and curse. You’ve run into one of the curses. But remember the major advantage of it: the gaps in B’s knowledge are gaps in the reader’s knowledge, which gives the reader room to draw conjectures and make guesses. Readers love doing that, and it keeps them engaged in the story. You get to play along by dropping red herrings and leaving hints, challenging the reader to figure out what’s going on before B does. I wrote about this a bit in my post on constructing a satisfying mystery, which may be useful even if you’re not writing in the mystery genre, because every narrative has some mysteries. Unanswered questions keep the pages turning. And as a fanfic writer, you know how much fun it can be for a reader to find those narrative lacunae that headcanons and fanwork can fit into, so leave some for your own readers to enjoy. Less work for you, more fun for them, everyone wins!

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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One thought on “#30: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

  1. This brings to my mind the scene in Jane Austen’s Persuasion where Anne (the heroine), after spending weeks thinking her would-be hero is in a relationship with another woman, finds out through the grapevine that he’s very much single. It’s one of the most fun, memorable scenes in the books because she gets the information from a third party whose wandering conversational style makes him take FOREVER to share this news with her, and it really ramps up the suspense. Once Anne has the information, the story is set up for the climactic scene–one of Austen’s very best boy-wins-girl-back scenes in her entire oeuvre, in my opinion!

    So yes, if it’s B’s story, which it sounds like it is, use the gaps in your protagonist’s knowledge to set up the story for satisfying “big reveal” moments that both make the reader feel all the feels AND move the plot forward. But I love the idea of writing the offstage scene(s) just so you can understand what they’re about.

    Like

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