Recently I read two manuscripts with compelling plots that were hurt by the writer’s decisions concerning structure and point-of-view. While plot is king in commercial fiction, the novel’s structure must augment it. Similarly, the question of “whose story is this?” is a vital one when it comes to determining point-of-view.
Structure refers to the timeline of events in your novel. The first aspect to determine is where the story starts. Often answering this question is where some writers get into trouble. The story does not start when the protagonist is born or first notices boys. In screenwriting, the plot point which kicks off the story is called “the inciting incident.” Novels also have an inciting incident, but sometimes it can be buried in a pile of character description and other details. Sometimes it’s buried so deep the writer herself doesn’t know what it is.
Ask yourself, “What is this story about,” and give yourself only a sentence to answer. From a strict plot perspective, the answer should be constructed as such: it’s about a PROTAGONIST who wants to do X, but she keeps getting stopped by Y. The inciting incident is what happened to make her want to do X. So if the story’s about a woman trying to find her kidnapped daughter, the inciting incident is, yes, the daughter getting kidnapped. Start the story a few pages before that happens. Give the reader enough time to get to know the protagonist and her daughter, but not too much time, or the opening will drag.
A surprising number of new writers will start the story way too early. Maybe when the protagonist meets her husband, then there’s the wedding, the wonderful news of the pregnancy, the daughter’s early years, etc. These are all lovely details but they really have nothing to do with the story. What’s worse, they force the writer into trying to find ways to describe the passing of months, seasons, years. And while Five for Fighting did a wonderful job singing about it in “A Hundred Years to Live,” that song lasts only about three minutes. There are just no intriguing ways to describe the routine passage of time.
But wait! What if important details happen in those years? What if the kidnapper were there all along? Well, that’s why flashbacks were invented.
Know your story. Know when it starts. Know when it ends. And know whose story it is.
As for our mom with the kidnapped daughter, is this her story? Maybe she’s spending all her time at home crying while her daughter is doing ingenious things to try to escape. In that case, it’s really more the daughter’s story, and should be told from her point-of-view. Or perhaps the mother is just as compelling – it’s her story and her daughter’s, and the writer can choose to tell both those stories. And even the kidnapper’s, too. Just remember that when choosing to show that character’s point of view; even if he’s the kidnapper, he becomes the protagonist in that section. He has goals, thoughts and feelings, and they are valid to him, even if they are creepy to the rest of us.
The point-of-view character should be the one whose actions drive the plot. This seems like fairly obvious advice, but writing from the POV of the best friend/observer seems to be a trap that many new writers fall into. It may have worked for F. Scott Fitzgerald in creating Nick Carraway, but generally readers want to follow the person driving the car, not the passenger. Imagine if the Harry Potter series had been written from the point of view of Ron or Hermione. I know a lot of people love those characters, and Harry certainly couldn’t have defeated Voldemort without them, but the series is his story.
Decisions about structure and point of view should be made during the planning portion of the novel. While some “panters” writers may object to having to plan anything before sitting down to create, knowing what the story is and whose story it is are fundamental questions that cannot wait until a third or fourth draft to answer.