Alright, so we’re going to discuss something I like to call “Character-Reader Synchronization.” There may be other, easier terms for it. Sometimes I feel like there’s little that hasn’t been named three times over already. But this is my name for it.
Basically this is an extension of the “writing POV” talk we had a while back, and it’s something to think of when you’re writing to keep the drama in your work. What it boils down to is: don’t let your reader know more than your character knows.
Let’s explain: say there’s a character (strong female type. Played by Glenn Close or Jodie Foster). She has to run to the store and leave her two young children with her teenage daughter from a previous marriage while she’s gone. When she returns only ten minutes later, all three are gone. The remainder of the story then is her trying to find them. Sounds dramatically interesting to me. We could go inside the characters mind and hear all her suspicions about who might have done it: her ex-husband? Her father-in-law? The older man that hit on her daughter at the park two months ago? Who knows?
Well, you do. Or you should. But the character doesn’t. You know who else shouldn’t? The reader.
In a story like this it’s obvious why the “camera” or “narrative focus” should stay on your main character. If you showed what happened to the children as it was happening, there’d be no drama to the remaining scenes in which she tries to figure it out. The reader wouldn’t be invested and trying to figure it out with her, you’d already know. Clues the author places wouldn’t be dramatic, they’d make the reader bash their heads at the stupidity of the character and go: “How can you not see the answer?”
There are lots of examples of this type of writing. There’s a Star Trek: Voyager episode called “Macrocosm” that’s particularly famous for it. But mostly in literature the issue comes about in non-science fiction / horror genres. Most action-oriented genre writers have learned these rules by the time they reach a point in their craft that they’re being published (although we still get a lot of submissions with it). No, mostly in published fiction it’s cases where the author feels this rule does not apply to them. The fantasy and romance and general fiction writers.
Wake up: it applies.
Good drama is the one universal need for good fiction. There’s no way around it. And the above example destroys good fiction. The story might still be good, it might be well written with good dialog, and people might very well still enjoy it… But it’s lost the essential element that would have made it dramatically pleasing and amazing.
This is a one of the only rules I’ll press. Only exceptionally avant-guard authors should even attempt to subvert it, and even then… Probably not.
Keep it in mind.
Never Look Back