Overwriting is an issue for the authors of all sorts of manuscripts, whether fiction, prescriptive nonfiction, or memoir. But one very frequent cause true only to fiction is overwriting point of view. If you’re the author of an uncommonly long novel, this could be the issue you’re struggling with.
And that, of course, raises an obvious question: What could the perspective from which you tell your story have to do with overwriting?
Welcome to the second installment in our series about overwriting.
(Missed the previous articles in this series? Start here.)
Third-Person Omniscient Point of View
There are several different approaches to point of view in narrative storytelling, and one of the most frequent is third-person omniscient. Third-person omniscient casts the author basically as the god of their world, able to explore and relate the perspective of any character at any time. It’s that kind of freedom that makes third-person omniscient so popular and effective, especially in stories with a particularly wide scope as is often the case in thrillers, fantasies, and science-fiction.
But it’s tough to be a god. That level of omnipotence and possibility can be difficult to control.
It’s a lot like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The concept is spectacular—a variety of delicious foods, and as much as you want—but the execution varies. Maybe you love the honey chicken, but in your zeal to try the steak and the omelet and the flounder and everything else you only manage a few small bites of that chicken, making the whole meal mediocre. Or maybe you only discover the honey chicken after you’ve already nearly filled up on everything else. Either way you probably end up overstuffed.
If you’re not careful, that’s exactly how a third-person omniscient point of view works.
Unnecessary Points of View
One of the most challenging aspects of telling a story is knowing what to reveal to the reader and when. Third-person omniscient point of view, in inexperienced hands, can compound that problem: The more perspectives you use, the more likely you are to introduce points of view you don’t need.
Last year I edited a draft of a novel featuring a terrific science-fiction concept and a group of compelling characters. But point of view would shift routinely to characters whose roles in the story were at best peripheral—minor figures with no impact upon the narrative, or law enforcement officials in whom readers were not particularly invested. When all was said and done, I was able to guide the author in cutting nearly 20 percent of this manuscript, almost all of it unnecessary point of view, without impacting a single plot point. The writing was perfectly good in most ways—it’s just that the story gained nothing from examining the perspective of every single character, in much the same way your buffet experience is not bettered by sampling every dish just because it’s there.
More recently I worked on the second draft of this same novel, and it showed dramatic improvement. By streamlining point of view and eliminating perspectives readers didn’t need, the author not only made the story tighter and more engaging, but also a lot clearer. With readers knowing less about the world, they could relate more effectively to the protagonist, and experience conflict and tension exactly as he did. It was a far more satisfying meal.
Redundant Points of View
Sometimes a passage in a character’s point of view can and should be removed even if the character is important. And this, too, relates to the question of what you reveal to the reader and when.
For example, suppose your protagonist walks through the door of her apartment and stumbles onto a surprise party planned by her best friend. If your goal is for readers to feel exactly what your protagonist feels, then around this time you’ll want to limit readers’ access to the best friend, even if he’s a major character. Otherwise, readers know in advance that the party is coming and can’t experience the surprise. When you reveal things early, or from a less dramatically effective perspective, you gain in word count but lose in impact.
Where you also want to be wary, and this is something I see a lot from inexperienced writers, is in repeating information within different points of view. Suppose the focus of your story is some mystical quest. Certainly each character who joins our protagonists needs to know what the quest is about, but if we actually see on the page the full explanation of the quest every single time, or see the same information from each perspective, the result will be redundancy.
The real audience for any passage in a novel is readers, not the other characters, and readers hate to be told the same thing twice. If potentially redundant information absolutely needs to be conveyed to a character for the scene to progress, you can convey it indirectly—they told him about the quest, for example—but steer clear of lengthy explanations of what readers already know. And this isn’t true only of dialogue. If information is overlapping between multiple points of view, then you need to cut something out.
The best solution to such issues is focus. Consider these questions for each new point of view:
- What new information do you want to convey to readers?
- Has this information already been written or implied?
- What’s the dramatic impact of revealing this information now?
- Would this information be more effective from a different character’s point of view?
If you focus on the reason you choose each perspective—that is, not consuming everything on the buffet table just because it’s there—you’ll be in a very good position to streamline your narrative and let go of those unnecessary perspectives forcing your manuscript to word count extremes well beyond the natural length of your story.
We’ll talk more about focus in the third installment of this series next month as we consider other possible causes for an overlong manuscript. In the meantime, let me know in the comments below if you’ve experimented with third-person omniscient points of view or if you’ve found it difficult to decide which points of view, or POV, to keep and which to lose.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.