An Off Stage Question

I was wondering about the point in the last post where David Nicholls mentions the impact of having important event happen ‘off stage’ and their impact being made greater when viewed from the perspective of their subsequent impact on characters’ lives — the example he used was a wedding in One Day.

It raises an interesting point about the distinction between author and narrator and the limits of narrative voice. A narrator can act as voice that’s independent of the author — being a first person fictitious character or unreliable or a different gender or even a wine bottle (in the case of Joanne Harris’s Blackberry Wine).

But it’s the author who makes the crucial decisions about which parts of the characters’ stories are related in the text — such as where to start and end, the timescale of the novel, which plot events and interactions with other characters are represented and so on. These decisions are crucial for all novels, but the plots of genres such as mysteries and detective fiction hinge on precise choices about what the author shows. For every saga that stretches over decades, there are novels that concentrate action into one day, like Ulysses.

There’s a huge amount of debate in creative writing classes and on writing blogs about narrative voice but sometimes it seems these underlying structural elements are less discussed, perhaps because they’re much more abstract and can’t be illuminated by textual analysis. The plot itself gets a fair amount of attention. Although it’s more difficult to teach by analysis of passages in novels, the principles of plotting and the enigmatic narrative arc can be found discussed in plenty of books and blogs.

But having an established plot is not quite the same as deciding how to show the plot action to the reader. David Nicholls, once he came up with his concept for One Day made it fairly simple for himself — he showed events that happened on that one day, even though life-changing plot points occurred on other dates. For most novelists, the decisions about what to reveal to the reader are much more potentially difficult to choose.

This might be my biggest problem at the moment — that I can write at such length about so many incidents that are connected to my novel’s plot that I end up combining the detail of the novel-in-a-day approach with the scope of the saga (well, I don’t see my plot lasting longer than a year or so but that’s still a lot longer than a day).

I’m not convinced about the ‘less is more’ approach to this sort of dilemma, which seems to be the standard sort of advice that’s given but I’m sure a lot harder to apply successfully as it depends on the recipient of the advice having the skill to retain all the ‘more’ while discarding all the ‘less’ . If I cut out everything that’s not directly plot-related then I’d lose a lot of what I enjoy about the writing, such as humour, and it would be a different sort of book entirely. It looks as if I’m going to have to resign myself to producing a long-ish book.

While I’ve been musing about how the novel seems to be lengthening overall, there is a particular issue that I’m wondering about that relates to both point-of-view and revelation of plot. I alternate point-of-view between two characters, male and female, although not equally, probably about 60-40. This has its issues in terms of ensuring that important plot events can be witnessed or experienced feasibly by the character whose point-of-view is being used. It can also, however, be used to withhold information.

I’m wondering if it’s acceptable to use this withholding of the reporting of direct experience for one character to allow its discovery later in the plot by the other character’s point-of-view.  It’s not crucial to the overall narrative arc but I’d like to introduce a temporary relationship for one of the characters which the reader will know has happened but only through the perspective of the character who isn’t involved in that relationship (if this makes sense). Then later this character discovers more about what happened — and this has a bearing on the overall plot.

My question is simply whether the reader would be satisfied by this selective revelation of information through use of point-of-view. Would they say ‘If we were told her point-of-view about event X then why didn’t we find out about event Y at the time — and not later?’

My instinct is that this is probably OK and selective revelation like this occurs all the time in books I read but, obviously, don’t analyse in this sort of depth. But if anyone has any ideas about this, especially if it looks like ‘cheating’ then I’d be fascinated to read any comments.

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