Q&A

Should I Use a “Throwaway” POV to Add Tension?

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I’m a noob writer. I’ve always written short pieces recreationally, but am now tinkering with something longer, and it’s a really humbling learning process. I’m sticking with a single main POV, particularly because I’m so new to this. But I’m struggling a little bit when I want to add tension without drawing the character into it right then and there – for instance if my POV character was being stalked. I was wondering is there such a thing as adding “throwaway” POVs. Like my character leaves a party and the POV changes to someone else leaving and being attacked and eaten by a monster. I feel like I’ve seen Christopher Moore do that with some of his horror and in some other places. Is this advisable as a technique for creating suspense?

– Chris

Hi Chris,

Don’t worry, your problem is a common one. I discuss some solutions in this article: Four Ways to Jump-Start a Slow Beginning.

Throwaway POVs are one option. They definitely exist and are used by pro writers, but they come with enough downsides that I recommend avoiding them unless you really think it’s the right solution for your story. They are most common in horror stories, so if your story is horror, that makes them a better match.

Here are the downsides of using them:

  • In the writing medium, there’s an expectation that viewpoint characters are important, particularly near the beginning. Readers can get emotionally attached to them and then get mad when they die.
  • Usually the audience is in the head of the viewpoint character because that makes the scene more engrossing. But for maximum threat, you want your antagonist to remain mysterious. You don’t want reader to see what the throwaway character sees. You can get around this by using omniscient point of view for those scenes, but it makes the writing feel less immediate.
  • Threats don’t mean as much when they aren’t impacting the protagonist.

I did a critique of I Am Number Four that you can read here. The first chapter has a throwaway character hunted down by the main threat, and it uses omniscient narration. The second introduces the protagonist and makes it feel like he is personally in danger. While the first chapter does establish the threat okay, it’s ultimately unnecessary. It just delays the readers from getting to know the main character.

What you probably need for your story is some ominous foreshadowing. You can get some ideas from The Why & How of Foreshadowing and How to Make Your Villain Threatening. I also discuss ominous foreshadowing in Five Ways to Restore Tension.

Chances are good that your story will get stronger if you find ways for your main character to be peripherally involved in the early tragic events. What if your main character left the party with the throwaway character? Outside in the dark, the protagonist hears a strange noise, turns around, and suddenly that other person is gone. Or maybe events unfolding at the protagonist’s school or workplace remind them of tragic and mysterious events from their past. Give your main character some unsettling experiences they can’t fully explain.

Happy writing!
Chris

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Comments

  1. Brigitta M.

    While the majority of the advice is sound, I get wary whenever I hear the “connected to events in the protagonist’s past” because that often leads to “plot-convenient amnesia.” Granted, traumatic events will often (but not always) lead to blank spots in a person’s life, but written by someone without any experience with PTSD it not only comes across as insensitive, but sloppy as well.

    Worse case scenarios include characters that have “forgotten” that their parents or other significant people in their lives were killed by the evil big bad– or even killed at all. Traumatic memory is often spotty and disconnected, but to forget that important people were killed is unlikely.

    If the story requires that a similar event be in the protagonist’s past, then either have them remember it fully, or be younger than 2yo when it occurred, so at least it’s before most individual’s verbal memory when something would truly take hold.

    • Chris Winkle

      Oh I hear you on that one. I’ve seen lots of writers withhold information the protagonist should know because they think it would make for a cool reveal later. That’s usually misguided. In this case, the goal is to set tension, and knowing what bad things happened in the past would do that more effectively than hiding it.

      Writers can make it mysterious simply by having the protagonist not see everything that happened clear or by witnessing something they didn’t understand. They don’t need amnesia.

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