1.30.2020

You Know What I Think?

An effective novel usually has an engaging narrator, even if that consists of different characters narrating different scenes. One of the keys of getting inside a character’s head is giving their opinion—on everything. Opinions are not facts, but the person reading the story tends to accept them as facts, depending on how much they like the character narrating the scene.

When you start a scene, your first job is to sit back, close your eyes, and ask yourself: what sorts of opinions would the point-of-view character give? Let’s call her Alice. What is her personality? When you have that set in your mind, then ask yourself: how would those personality traits make her opinions entertaining for the reader? Don’t worry about realism. You want someone who is going to grab the reader’s interest. At the very least, imagine this: Alice is having a crummy day and here comes some damned nosy parker customer with all her questions. What opinions does she tell the reader about the nosy parker?

The next step is, make her opinions into clues. Usually, your POV character knows other main characters really well, so if something is off in what they say, how they look, Alice should give her opinions about their off-ness. Let’s assume that in a scene just before a character collapses from poisoning, several suspects come by to talk to him. Alice, standing at a distance, can’t hear what they’re saying, but she gives her opinions on what is being said by gauging the facial reactions of the suspects toward the about-to-die victim. You can pull the same trick after the collapse. Just have Alice watch the suspects’ faces as they stare at the fallen body.

Those opinions are clues—without any evidence needed at all. She doesn’t even need to know the suspects well, but then the clues won’t be accorded the same merit. You could float a wholly boneheaded opinion to cloud a plot point. If Alice doesn’t give too many of them, we’ll still like her.

Another wonderful aspect of opinions is their lack of basis in fact. If the POV character floats an opinion that another character then declares is wrong, one question that is raised in the reader’s mind is: am I being tricked? In other words, in a story that is hopefully full of duplicity, the very source of the storytelling comes under suspicion. Is the opinion supposed to be covering up wrongdoing? Can I trust this narrator anymore? The fact is, if Alice wasn’t so opinionated, she wouldn’t have gotten herself into this fix.

Exercise: Review a scene that you feel is flat: all dull facts. Your assignment is to add an opinion by the point-of-view character at every turn. Nothing but opinions, and you shouldn’t rest until he’s delivered at least 10 opinions in that scene. You can always cut some of them later, but even two new clues would help your deceitful cause.

“I have an idea, and I have a perpetrator, and I write the book along those lines, and when I get to the last chapter, I change the perpetrator so that if I can deceive myself, I can deceive the reader.”
—Ruth Rendell

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

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