Stop Watching!

Does your protagonist jump into trouble, take on opponents, and try to get things done?

Or does your protagonist hang back timidly–or sensibly–refusing to dip a toe in the quagmire of story problems?

When you read over one of your scenes, is the protagonist just standing there, listening to two other characters debate?

Or is your protagonist at the center of the action?

In evaluating your stories, always ask yourself these questions. If your protagonist is creeping around in the attic and pauses to listen in to what is–in your authorial mind–a “very important conversation that will have a vital bearing on events to come” then you aren’t really writing a strong scene of conflict. You just think you are.

The conflict between secondary characters is never going to be as interesting to readers as the conflict between the protagonist and someone else.

Beware the trap of sidelining your protagonist. The star of your story should be at the center of the action … unless you switch viewpoints. The star shouldn’t be sitting in the bleachers, watching other characters at work.

Consider if you were putting together a movie instead of writing a story. Let’s say that you’re paying your protagonist a hefty sum of money to perform, yet the script has put Paolo Protagonist in a chair beneath an umbrella with a cool drink. The upcoming story action is going to center on Sidekick Sam and Confidant Charlie. They’re supposed to be playing tennis but instead they’re arguing because Sam thinks Charlie has learned Paolo’s secret and is upset that Paolo would trust Charlie more than anyone else. So Sam is trying to wheedle the secret from Charlie, and Charlie refuses to spill it.

Back and forth they argue. It’s a good scene with directly opposing conflict. Paolo may enjoy watching it. He may laugh at Sam’s attempts to trick Charlie, and Paolo may be proud of Charlie’s loyalty. At the end of the scene, Sam stomps away, frustrated and angrier than before.

Do you think you did a good job, presenting that to your audience?


Why not? Because the audience wants to see the star perform.

You may argue that the scene was indeed about the star. “They were talking about Paolo the whole time!” you may insist.

Yeah, but it’s not the same thing. Consider this scenario instead:

Paolo needs to confide in someone. He shares his secret with Charlie, whom he trusts.

Later, Sam comes to him and berates Paolo for not trusting him. “How can you trust Charlie and not me?” he asks. “Why don’t you tell me the secret, too?”

But Paolo won’t. Whatever his motivation happens to be, for some reason he’s not trusting Sam with the information. At the end of the scene, Sam is angry and frustrated. He breaks his friendship with Paolo and withdraws his assistance from the important project looming ahead.

Now Paolo has managed not to spill his secret, but he’s lost a valuable ally.

Do you see the difference? Putting Paolo in the story action of the scene is going to be more interesting than merely having him watching and listening.

The protagonist–the viewpoint character–must participate in advancing the story.

Always check. You may find that you have some vivid and contentious secondary characters who are stealing scenes–and possibly the story–from your star. Don’t diminish them. Just give your protagonist a job to do.


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7 responses to “Stop Watching!

  1. Are there some preferred methods of developing non-narrator story lines in first-person novels? I was toying with having a character relate to the narrator off-stage events in order to have chapters, or parts of them, that are in effect told in a different voice.

    • None that I can think of unless you’re going for artsy and affected. Switching viewpoint in first-person can be done, but it’s particularly jarring to readers.

  2. I thought about Harry Potter spying on Lord Voldemort through the snake. At that point a reader is so far into the story the author can get away with it. But it ~was~ dull. Thanks!

  3. I recall an UF short story in which the “protagonist” hooked up with her ex on a desk while the nominal story problem was solved by people entering and leaving the room. When the “protagonist” was swept into action that affected the nominal story problem, I wondered why she bothered: the author had effectively announced the world ran fine without her involvement. I felt like it’d be more interesting to follow the less-powerful, more goal-directed side-characters who would be in more jeopardy solving the problem. Sigh.

    • Yep, this is why secondary characters can steal the story away from the protagonist.
      🙂 Deb

      • I often find secondary characters’ story arcs compelling, particularly as I consider how their stories will collide with or support other story arcs. Lots of balls in the air can be fun.

        But this doesn’t work because the main character sees it. It works because the reader spends time seeing things from the side characters’ point of view, unless the main character is so involved in these things that their story arcs are really about the protagonist. (In a first person, I’ve felt like this worked when the side characters’ disasters turned into disasters for the protagonist – and they didn’t work because the protagonist saw it and reported it, but because the protagonist got hit with it as a complication or the like.)

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