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I'm working on a novel that is told from a single narrator in third person. A number of subplots detail the stories of secondary characters.

My problem: From their point of view, I could easily write full-fledged scenes about the secondary characters and their respective stories. However, I would very much prefer to stick to my single narrator and have him, somehow, observe the story of the secondary characters.

Which brings me to my questions: How do I write a good, dynamic scene, when the narrator is a mere observer? Do I need to go to the trouble and give him a separate goal that is somehow related to the "real goal" of the scene - the goal of the secondary character? Or can the secondary character's goal support an entire scene?


Example: Meet Hannah. Hannah wants to be a dancer and works very hard to get accepted at the country's best dance ensemble. She's the narrator of the story, the main plot evolves around her struggle to get accepted. A subplot is the story of Hannah's mother, who's had a mild problem with alcohol for quite some time. She falls in love with a senior dancer in Hannah's group and decides to stop drinking. This has nothing to do with Hannah. Yet, for me, it could be a crucial element of the story. When I write the story from Hannah's point of view, how would I go about writing her mother's resurrection - the scene in which she proves that she can give up drinking for good? How can I make the scene about Hannah's mother, while it still is part of Hannah's story, too?

  • Read through the Harry Potter series. Harry is the central character, and other than the opening chapter of I think two books, he is in every scene. But there are numerous secondary characters who have important subplots. Study the books to see what Rowling does (aside from magical flashbacks like the Pensieve). – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Aug 14 '16 at 18:56
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    A single narrator writing in the third person is not a character. Do you mean that you have a single POV character? A POV character is not a narrator unless the book is written in first person. If you have subplots, however, what it the point of trying to tell them from the POV of a character that is not involved in them? What do you gain from this approach, which is obviously causing you so much difficulty? – user16226 Aug 14 '16 at 19:19
  • You could make it a story about how a Mother and her Daughter don't get along well. – Doctor Zhivago Aug 14 '16 at 21:15
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When you're writing a story from the POV of a single character, you're doing it because the story is about them. Of course, they do not exist in a bubble, and other side characters will have their own things going on. They will have their own stories unfolding in the background, and this is usually encouraged in order to have a more fulfilling story.

However, the thing to remember is that your story is not about the side-characters. They are just a part of your MC's story. So when the stories of the side-characters develop, you need to mostly explore how it affects your protagonist. Is Hannah angry that her mother is dating a fellow dancer? Is she happy that her mother is recovering from her illness? Which is more important to her?

Adding another POV character will mean that the stories need to be equally as important. There is no point in focusing heavily on another character just to flesh out the experiences of the first, their stories will have to be on a similar level to each other.

So it depends on the story you wish to write. Is it more a story about the relationship between mother and daughter, and how they both live their lives separately but fundamentally intertwine? Or is it mostly about the daughter's pursuit of becoming a dancer, and her mother is obviously a big part of that, but ultimately the daughter is attempting to be her own person?


As for a specific scene, you could set up throughout the story that the mother visits the daughter regularly, and she seems to be doing better with her alcoholism, but she thinks something is iffy, for example her mother is spending every weekend visiting as opposed to doing something for herself. Eventually she sees her kissing a fellow dancer, they have an argument and the mother storms off.

Then there can be a scene where the daughter is driving around, frantically looking for her mother making sure that she does not go off on a bender, and she is worried about her mother's safety, guilty because she feels as if she has affected her chances of recovery, but still angry at her for creating this situation.

So whilst this is clearly a huge moment in the life of the mother, you are still focusing on the daughter and how her mother's actions are affecting her. She may then choose to forgive her mother, or disown her, etc. but the story is still centered around the daughter and her feelings on the situation.

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I see two main options regarding the secondary character's story:

  1. Having the full-fledged secondary story told effectively changing the narrator for that chapter. This may be confusing if you don't make the fact that it is other character the protagonist for that block, but it can prove useful.
  2. Having the secondary story be something the secondary character narrates, maintaining the main character's point of view. You could implement this by either your main character explaining something that it has read/seen/been told.

Or can the secondary character's goal support an entire scene?

There are excellent examples of secondary character's goals supporting entire scenes. One of my favorites is the story of Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings. Gollum is a secondary character, but his whole story is told - at least in the movie - and it adds a lot to both the story as a whole and the depth of the character. In that particular case, one of the characters is telling a story he remembers.

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