Breaking viewpoint to make artificial suspense

on Tuesday, January 24, 2012
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My wife is an avid reader of just about everything (she reads lots more than I do), and lots of time I get to hear comments on the books she is reading. Last night after finishing a particular young adult fantasy novel (which I will not name here), she turned to me and said, "Don't ever, in your books, make it so a viewpoint character has an amazing plan to save the day and then somehow doesn't tell the reader."

The general idea is that at some point in the book, our viewpoint character concocts a brilliant scheme to solve the problem. However, since the author doesn't want to spoil the surprise of that scheme ahead of time, the viewpoint character somehow doesn't think about the details of the plan at all until it is taking place. Even when it is being executed, he or she doesn't bother thinking a single step ahead (at least, not where the reader can see) in order to keep the suspense up.

This is far more common than you'd think, which is stupid because I think it's crap.

I can understand sometimes breaking viewpoint for the sake of the story. It's jarring, and technically "bad" writing, but sometimes a scene demands it. But basically blocking the reader out of a certain area of a character's mind simply to build fake suspense? That's just absurd.

There are ways to pull it off. If a character says something like "I have a great plan!" and then you cut scene to when they are actually pulling off the plan, a reader might be willing to suspend their disbelief and admit the viewpoint character might have discussed it extensively off camera. However, the longer time has passed between the concocting of the plan and the actual execution, the thinner my disbelief is spread. It's cheap, and it happens quite a bit in YA books. So stop it.


On a completely unrelated note, Death's Aria is almost finished! Yay! I figured I have about six chapters left (we are going to say 6-8, giving my need to be wordy) before we can close the book on this one (hur hur hur). I'm excited to see it resolve, and have added a few twists that even my wife doesn't know about (mwahaha), so here's hoping it all fits together wonderfully.

And after re-reading the first chapters they aren't as bad as I remembered, but I might just have rose-tinted glasses. They still need some work, which will happen after I finish the book, but I'm going to try and get it out to alphas sometime next month.

And that was all he wrote.


Rebecca Major said...

The problem isn't only when we have third person limited POV where we can hear their thoughts and yet they keep a huge secret from the reader (though that is a particularly glaring POV break), it also happens often with POV characters whose thoughts we are not privy to.

For example:
"I have this fantastic plan!" He told them the plan. "It's literally the only solution to our incredibly tricky problem!" cut scene.

Narrative summary just doesn't cut it there. Even if it's done very subtly, it's still vexing as a reader.

Jordan said...

I ran into this exact problem while listening to the newest book from one of my favorite authors. It made me so mad that I nearly stopped listening. It's amazing how many pros pull these kind of cheap tricks and get away with it.

Adam Meyers said...

It's a movie trope. Because of the nature of a visual, fast-paced narrative, there's a rule that I've never seen anyone break:

If you tell people the main character's brilliant plan, then the plan must go wrong.

If you don't want their plan to go wrong, you must not tell the audience the details before-hand.

I'm sure you can break that rule in a novel due to having such a longer time-frame, but it's a movie trick we've grown up on and I can see why it'd be hard to break. Just throwing that out there.

The Other Mary said...

A very good point. That's why Homes had Watson and Poirot had Hastings!

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