Watching and Waiting

Most novelists realize the importance of keeping the protagonist continually in front of the reader. Since most novels are written in the third-person narrative voice, the danger of your star disappearing among the multitude of characters and plots requires deft planning. Having the lead appear every other chapter might be considered a minimum of the attention that needs to be paid.

Since the main plot revolves around the main character, he will take control of the novel after a certain point. Yet a plot takes awhile to develop, and in the early going its urgency is not as compelling. As the different sides, both good and evil, raise their stakes, an author may be forgiven for deeming this beginning segment an ideal time to make the character truly unique.

Yet the push and pull between character and plot is not easy to control. If a subsidiary character needs to establish a plot stake, in order for the protagonist to later react to it, that supporting character is doing something interesting. Killing someone the star cares for is a common early ploy. What, however, is the star doing in her next chapter that can command equal attention from the reader?

This problem becomes more pronounced when a plot line is wholly divorced from the protagonist’s. Any novel requiring the hero to take a journey will likely contain such a plot. What if the reader becomes more interested in the plot gaining steam in Shanghai as opposed to the star’s roosting grounds in San Francisco?

An additional complication is the well-known fact that evil acts are more interesting than those of the good. The malefactor may dazzle to such an extent early on that the reader longs for his return, even after the hero is seen to make progress. This places your protagonist in the awkward role of trying to wrest control of her own novel from a character who clearly deserves to be punished.

Unless you are writing a literary novel, the only solution is giving the lead character the best thought-out plot planning. Let’s say the hero, in order to establish his character, learns early on his sister was abused by her husband. The steps he takes to rectify the situation determines how interested the reader will be. If, for example, in the scene right after the villain commits a murder, the hero confronts the husband, I’ll be interested in seeing the repercussions. If, on the other hand, the scene consists of the hero’s wringing his hands at his kitchen table, I’ll award the point to the villain. You’re in charge. Make sure your plotting matches your desire for a deeper portrayal.

Exercise: You can chart the developments of your different plot lines. Review each scene and write a 1-2 sentence description of the plot advance that was achieved. Look for corresponding weights. A murder, for example, requires a major counterbalance. A villain’s threat, on the other hand, might be answered by the hero’s hand wringing.

“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”
—Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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