By Kevin Paul Tracy
There is a joke which has been apocryphally attributed to various famous sculptors:
HOW TO SCULPT A BIRD: Chisel away all the parts that do not look like a bird.
As a joke this is worth a chuckle. As a fundamental truth about sculpting it leaves something to be desired. For example, I would submit that a sculpture of a bird, alone, is interesting only insofar as I am curious about the physiognomy, the outward appearance, of a bird. But what if I want to know more: Where does he live? On what does he feed? What are his interests, his passions, his pursuits? A sculpture of a bird alone does not tell me any of this, and is therefore of only passing interest to me.
There are those who will tell you, in regards to writing, to chisel away all those parts of your story that do not directly relate to your plot. Like most such rigid axioms about writing you are going to have to develop an instinct for when to break it before you become fully ready to publish. A novel about its plot and nothing but its plot is a very stiff, mechanical, utilitarian thing and while perhaps entertaining to read, isn’t very enriching or memorable.
If I were to rewrite the joke above to pertain to writing, I would put it:
HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL: Think of a story, then write down only the interesting parts.
Rather less like a joke, still it says what I want to say. Sometimes, some of the most interesting parts of a story do not necessarily relate directly to its plot. For example, in Jurassic Park, one of the most fascinating parts of the story is how Dr. Grant, a man with no experience of and no real interest in children, is forced to not only interact with, but to protect and even to comfort two young children during the course of the story’s events. Some refer to these as subplots, so be it. These are the things that enrich a story and make it memorable.
Go ahead, don’t be shy, say it: “But some of the most interesting things about my plot happen off-stage, out of sight or knowledge of the protagonist. How can I relate these parts of the story without violating the “One-and-Only-One-POV” rule?” The rule that says you must only portray the point of view of a single character in your novel, period. The answer is simple: violate the single-POV rule! But learn how to do it well and to good effect. For example, “head-hopping” is jumping from one character’s POV to another in a single scene. To a large extent this is not a good time to break the rule. One POV per scene still, by and large, holds true, though I have read some rather effective tales in which a scene is told more than once, each time from a different character’s POV. Still, as a rule, only shift from one POV to the next between scenes, or at least between narrative breaks.
Also, even if you shift from one POV to the next between scenes, still try to keep the number of POV’s in a single novel to a close few. We don’t need to know what every character thinks about every situation. Remember, we are writing only the most interesting parts of our story, and we are only shifting POV to provide a means to do so. Anything else is chiseled away.
Next, remember that subplots are like any other plot, they need to go through the same stages: the inciting incident, the complicating factors, the black moment, and the denouement. Even though a subplot is, by definition, less critical than the main plot, if it is left unresolved by the end of your novel it is a loose end, and bad form. So be sure to bring your subplots along on a pace with the main plot and resolve them at some point prior to the resolution of the main plot.
Remember, all of this is in service to writing only the most interesting parts of your story. If at any point you find yourself bored with what you’re writing, it’s a good bet your readers will be bored as well. Chisel it away!