When writing a synopsis for your novel, are you allowed to hold back information, or must you spoil the surprise for your editor by telling all? That’s the first of two questions we’ll look at today.
Alice posted two questions on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have a question about writing a synopsis for a mystery novel. Should you try to leave at least a bit of a mystery unsolved in synopsis (like, who’s the bad guy) or should you reveal all the secrets? What bothers me is that mystery novel is supposed to be a mystery and if the publisher knows everything right from the start, could it be that it won’t be interesting for him/her to read that novel?
That question concerns not just mystery novels but all other novels that may have a surprise in the end. Should you reveal it in your synopsis or can you hide it?
I have also another question that got me into an argument with my friend. If your POV character doesn’t notice (for different reasons) something that is important TO THE READER (not the characters) to know, can the author peek over his shoulder and show the reader what the POV character can’t see? I think the author can do that, but my friend argues that it will ruin the mood of the scene and that the reader would be more immersed in the story if they are not shown stuff POV character fails to notice. Problem is, her POV character fails to notice quite a lot of stuff that I, as a reader, would like to see and that quite the contrary irritates me and prevents me from getting the feel of the story.
Randy sez: Editors wear two hats at all times. All editors are readers. All editors are editors. (I’m sure this is not terribly surprising.)
When wearing the reader hat, the editor likes to be surprised as much as anyone else does.
When wearing the editor hat, the editor wants to know that you can deliver a good story. That means that she wants to know how the story ends. If you know who the bad guy is, you need to tell your editor. If you’ve planned a super-cool, extraordinary, knock-their-socks-off surprise ending, you need to tell your editor.
There is a loophole here. If you look closely, you’ll see that I used the words “If you know.”
What if you don’t know the ending? Well then, you can’t tell the editor, can you?
What if you think you know the ending but when you go to write it, an even better one weasels its way into your brain? As long as it’s a better ending, your editor will forgive.
What if you tell the editor an ending that makes sense, but you’re holding in reserve an even better ending? Well then, you’d better be able to fib Xtremely well to your editor and convince her that you never had an inkling the real killer was Throckmorton until you got to the last chapter and there he was with a bloody knife in his hands and only then did you realize that it wasn’t Fredholm after all, even though his fingerprints were all over Griselda’s iPod.
Now for Alice’s second question, is it ever legitimate to tell the reader something that the POV character doesn’t know?
This question is a little like asking, “Is it ever legitimate for an elephant to be a tiger?”
Go ahead and try to answer that question. Neither “yes” nor “no” seems to be appropriate. An elephant CAN’T be a tiger, so questioning the legitimacy of an elephant being a tiger misses that essential point. Let me unpack that a bit.
You have several different choices for the point of view of any given scene. One of those is called “omniscient POV” and it allows for you, the narrator, to tell the reader things that no character knows. In “omniscient POV” you don’t actually have a POV character. You can get inside the heads of your characters, but none of them is “the POV character.”
The reason is that in order to have a POV character, you implicitly make a decision that the scene is being filtered through the senses of one character. If you show part of the scene in some other way, then you are breaking POV.
Is it legitimate to write a scene in omniscient POV? Of course. Many fine novels have been written in omniscient, but there is no POV character when you make this choice. Instead, you have a “focal character.” (Tragically, the word POV is being asked to do double-duty here, as both a noun and an adjective, and that makes things seem more ambiguous than they actually are.)
It’s also legitimate to choose first person, third person, or even second person (this is rare). In any of these, you have an actual POV character. But when you make this choice, BY DEFINITION, you have chosen not to show the reader things the POV character doesn’t know.
It’s legitimate but fairly uncommon to use the “objective third person POV,” in which there is no POV character, there is only a “focal character”. (Again, the word POV is being used as both a noun and an adjective in the above sentence, which explains the apparent paradox.) When you write a scene this way, it’s perfectly fine to show the reader things the focal character doesn’t know. In fact, it’s common to do so, because the only way you can show emotion is by showing the physical responses of the character (like they do in the movies, where you also can’t get inside the character’s head). Most of those physical responses are not visible to the focal character.
One final question is whether the “head-hopping POV” is legitimate. In this choice, you get inside the heads of multiple characters in a scene. This is quite common and accepted in the romance category, where many readers want to experience the thoughts and emotions of more than one character in the same scene. I know good writers who claim this is legitimate. I know others who consider it the very work of Satan.
Personally, I don’t like head-hopping, but I think if it’s done well, it can get the job done. When the author skips back and forth between heads, never giving the reader the chance to identify with any character, that seems to me a clear case of bad head-hopping and there’s no POV character. When the author makes smooth transitions, it seems to me that the scene is simply being written with one POV character in one part and a different POV character in another part.
It seems that Alice likes omniscient or objective third person. Her friend likes first-person or third-person POV. Those preferences are a matter of taste, not a matter of legitimacy.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.