Caution! Off scene events may affect your story.

 Written by Neil Sehmbhy

What happens when your Main Characters are not in the scene, can affect your story. How do you make sure this doesn’t cause problems?

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Art: By Sven Auer

Point of View is an important part of your story. The character or the narrator of a scene has a particular spot from which it views the events taking place. It does not matter how many points of view (POV) you include, it is not viable for you to capture all of the events that might influence the story. Even simple children’s stories have unanswered questions:

Why didn’t the little pigs go back to their mother? 
Who told Humpty Dumpty that sitting on the wall was a good idea?
What was Red Riding Hood’s Mother doing, whilst she was running around  the forest being followed by the wolf?

So what constitutes “off scene” action?

Basically anything that impacts the actions that you see, but which you are not actually shown in the narrative.
It can be in the form of a motivation (in the Humpty Dumpty’s Example), background (why the pigs were not welcome back at home), or merely filling in the missing details of what other characters are up to (Red’s Mother).

Does it  even matter?

Not all off-scene action matters, but it ought to be considered. Selecting the narrative, helps you decide what the reader needs to see, know, and what information they need to come away with as they leave a scene. But within a writer’s mind, there is always more of the story bubbling away than what is revealed. These threads link to characters backgrounds and can influence reactions and events that play out latter on in the story.

How can Off-Scene events affects On-Scene events?

Hardly any story takes place in a vacuum. There are always outside influences.

From the examples above, how does the tone of the story change if Humpty Dumpty had been sent to sit on the wall to keep a look out for the invading King’s army? What if the King’s men were trying to put him back together again to get information on the rebel uprising?
In the Three Little Pigs, maybe the mother Pig had sent the pigs away following a pact she had made with the Wolf to save her own hide? What if she was due to inherit a fortune if they perished? 
In the Little Red Riding Hood example, you have a more basic question to keep in mind: is the character’s absence and reappearance believable? In this case it is, since Mrs Red sends her daughter out on an errand, as she is busy at home. The more common problems of this type tend to pop up in thrillers. When you drop a mountain on top of an antagonist, and then he pops up a few chapters later, readers are going to be A) surprised and B) suspicious. It’s a fine line to walk between casting your antagonist as a persistent threat and making him a believable one.

Including off-scene action

Sometimes things that are not shown are still essential to your plot. These may be sections that need trimming or boring filler parts, excluded when editing. If one of your secondary characters goes missing; if someone shows up with a new plot device or does something unusual for their personality; or even if there is a major event that changes character’s priorities or mindset… these need to be pulled back into the main story thread. To what degree is up to you.

Narrative – Using narrative is a good way to update the reader but probably the weakest and easiest way.

The coat that Devon wore was so new that the embroidery stood out on the burnished silk material. It was slightly long in the sleeve and cut in the style of a Rishu nobleman. A small hole stained with a dot of blood was barely visible upon the right breast, where Tayl’s stiletto had helped him relieve the previous owner of both coat and other posessions.

Narrator – If your story uses a narrator at all, this is actually appropriate fare for that voice. The narrator fills the reader in on outside goings on that the characters may be aware of (or not), without having to devote a full scene to it.

It was obvious that Tayl had been up to his usual tricks. The coat was too fine for his usual ware, expensively cut silk tailored in the Rishu style and lavishly embroidered to boot. Tell tale signs of his misdemeanours became apparent when he walked closer and revealing a tiny hole and a spot of blood staining his right breast. Noticing that he showed no sign of injury, I figured that he must have used that blasted stiletto blade again to mug some unsuspecting nobleman. 

Dialogue – It is easy to confuse both the reader and the characters by the information you are trying to portray.
To avoid this have them work out these off-scene occurrences among themselves:

“Tayl, what’s that you’re wearing? You finally find out who your father was then?” Matrim asked, eyeing the expensively cut coat that his friend was now wearing.

“Ha ha! Naw, boosted it off some dumb Rishu nobleman whilst he was using the privy .” Tayl replied. He smoothed the fine silk down, frowning slightly when his fingers traced over a tiny hole spotted with blood on his right breast. Patting his Stiletto blade hanging from in it’s battered leather sheath, he flashed a toothy grin. 
“Only had to prick him a little with Betsy, before he let me have it.”

What  is essential is that you keep track of all the events that happen in a master directory.

If you’re looking to create a fully immersive world, especially one that might spawn offshoots, sequels, or prequels, knowing the ins and outs of what goes on elsewhere as your story takes place can be a great help.

Generally you want to keep track of what happens off-scene and be mindful in case there are any plot holes that need filling. If the framework is good then in most cases a hint here or there will do. As long as there are no jarring questions from the actions, off-scene events can help with foreshadowing. 

The point at which the reader begins to question whether your plot is full of holes or that they begin getting the wrong ideas about characters or events – that’s when you need to pull in details from outside to smooth things over.

I hope this helps, it certainly was useful to myself when finishing my first novel.

Neil Sehmbhy is a self confessed geek and the author of the upcoming Sunder, Beyond the Gate novels.  He’s thinking about writing a zombie horror book as well, if thinking involves writing 5 chapters and debating whether to carry on.

Follow me on Twitter @neilsehmbhy

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