By Douglas Owen
The comments range from ‘introduced too many named characters too fast’ to ‘shifted points of view too often’. Some commenters say that the episodes have too much detail and it was distracting, while others say they were confused.
They were confused? Bet it made your head swim.
It’s happened to every writer. We hammer out a great story, only to have critiquing readers give the above feedback. None of us are immune to it. Heck, I get it from those who critique my work all the time. It makes you believe that rethinking the whole story is the only way to go. And that’s a chore when the work is hitting over 70,000 words.
There is a solution, but it will not work for everything you write.
Frame the Story
Have you read Arabian Nights? The stories are a lot of self-contained anecdotes gathered together over centuries, and linked together by a common narrator. Poor Scheherazade. The stories center on her need to captivate the sultan’s interest each night—or be beheaded. Not an easy task.
Think you suffer for your craft?
Scheherazade starts and ends each narrative in the first person, making an opening and concluding anecdote. We never forget she is telling the stories.
Steal her idea, and make it your own. Here’s how:
The ‘I’ Voice – First Person Narration
Introduce the narrator by having them talk directly to the reader. This makes them generate a vested interest in the tale. The reader will become comfortable with this and get pulled into the story.
Oroonoko, published in 1688, is a short work of prose fiction by Aphra Behn (1640–1689). The story begins by addressing the reader: “Reader, I was myself an Eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down!” Don’t dare argue with a lady from the 17th century. This opening causes us to trust her, and draws us into a story. Unfortunately, we find out she is a liar.
Once they’ve bonded with the first person narrator, the reader considers them reliable and will continue with their tale. New characters can be introduced, clarifying the point of view and apologizing for dumping a lot of information.
Let’s apply this trick to a problem story.
What’s in a Name?
There’s Jarred, Michael, Lee, Grady, Pat, Flint, Nick, Randy, David, Walt, Anna, Yolanda, Charles, Zed, Barbara, and Unis all sitting at the bar, ordering drinks.
A steadfast rule is to not present more than three named characters per scene per episode. Have you ever been to a party where people just introduce you to everyone? After the third person, your head is swimming. How do you remember all those people? Now, take away their faces and just introduce them. Did that work for you? No? Imagine what your reader feels like when you dump a whole bunch of names on the page for them.
Don’t get me wrong: some novelists introduce casts of thousands, but just about every reader forgets the names by the second chapter (if not before the end of the first).
Note, introducing each character with a mnemonic device will allow the reader to remember them. Give characters a signature, like a twitch, or have them mumble a greeting.
An even better device is to not name your secondary characters at all. Just give them labels, like ‘the barman’, or ‘the guy with the big nose’. They fade into the background after being introduced, anyway.
But what if you need to introduce a lot of characters? The scene is a murder or something, and all the people present, suspects. Heck, have the narrator apologize for all the name dropping. You could even make it a little humorous: “Hell, I heard all the names as well, but damned if I remember them.”
So, there is a fix for all those people you just dropped on the reader. Try it, and get away with introducing all those dwarfs to a lonely hobbit, Mr. Tolkien.
Abrupt POV Shifts
So you need to switch POV, and you need to do it now. Why? Who cares? Bev has a problem and you want to show John having a problem halfway around the world. It’s your story, right? There’s no obvious plot link yet. So how do you get away with the transition?
Let your narrator do the work!
Thomas of Reading (1590) is littered with it, but Homer seems to have invented it. The slide from one character’s head to another. It works. Their stories contain dozens of different, diverting anecdotes that never confuse the reader.
The narrator does the work by coming right out and saying, “I must now leave Brenda in her desert bivouac with great reluctance…” and thus, the POV changes.
The suggestion, though, is not to do it unless you have a number of manuscripts accepted. Such a release may cause readers to not want to finish your work.
It’s all in the Small Details
Have you ever researched a book before? Been tempted to just DUMP all the information you discovered on the reader? Many of us have. And believe me, it is not something that you want to do all the time. It’s called info dumping, and it can kill your manuscript’s pace. It is equivalent to saying you’ve done your homework. But if your writing is clean, the reader will already know you’ve done it.
Try this for an example:
Gregory turned left onto the dirt road known as Mnt Albert Road and gunned the old Malibu Classic’s big 357 V8 engine. Stones kicked as the Goodyear Tiger Paw tires (size 175 86) dug deep into the loose gravel. He smiled and wrestled the plastic steering wheel into submission. He passed McCowan Road, another loose gravel path the farmers had named after that street in the borough of Scarborough and made famous by the building of the small town centre located on the crossroads of Progress Avenue and McCowan Road.
Bored yet? And the guy is not even close to the highway he’s going to!
Yes, sometimes you need to have the details, but when to draw the line? First, let your narrator do the talking, not your research. Unveil everything in a manner that allows you to paint the picture, but not reveal every frame of the movie.
Fix info dumps by directing the reader to look where you want them to. Believe me, this will be important for your writing. Oh, don’t do a direct “Look here!” type of deal. Just make your narration gently direct their eyes to the area you want them to see.
When you take your first draft “problem” story and frame it through rewrites, you can fix the little problems. Change the POV shifts to a character assumption, remove names of lesser characters, trim down the info dumps, and point the reader to the right area of study.
This is your time to shine in the reading, so take it as you can.