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Marginal Notes

To Absent Friends

Within the last week, I've had two clients with the same problem, a sign that I've found a good topic for an article. (They've given me permission to use them as examples -- thanks, guys.) What was tripping them up was that they both had to keep the focus on a key character when there was no easy way to put that character on stage.

One of the manuscripts is a historical novel set in the early 14th century and centered on two women. One is Margaret, a noblewoman who's left in charge of her husband's castle when he rebels against King Edward II. The other is Edward's queen, Isabella. For reasons I can't get into now, the castle is besieged by Edward, and Margaret is captured and sent to the Tower of London with her children. Isabella is put in charge of her captivity. For much of the book, we watch Margaret struggle to keep herself and her children sane and to gain her freedom, with few glimpses of Isabella. But late in the story, Edward summons Isabella north, then essentially abandons her. She is nearly captured by Robert the Bruce, almost dies while escaping, and finds that Margaret's capture was part of a scheme Edward was running behind her back.

The natural structure of the story is the parallel between the two women, who start off with a serious imbalance of power and eventually grow to see that both are under the control of narcissistic husbands with little leeway to determine their own fates. The problem is that, when Margaret is in the Tower, there is little reason to include scenes from Isabella's point of view, and when Isabella leaves London, Margaret can do little in the Tower except wait for her to return. Readers don't really have a feeling for who Isabella is before she leaves, and they lose track of Margaret when caught up in Isabella's adventures. (Incidentally, after the events of the story, the real-life Isabella has Edward assassinated.)

The other novel centers on Sarah, a thirteen-year-old in the south in the mid-1950's. After her stepfather forces her mother to abandon her and move away with him, she has to take care of her two younger brothers on her own. When the three are eventually put in an abusive foster home, Sarah engineers their escape, and they ride the rails to St. Louis looking for their mother. The climax of the story is the exposure and trial of the abusive foster father.

The problem here is that the story naturally proceeds through various fairly discrete episodes -- the kids on their own, in the foster home, going to St. Louis, coming back, and the trial. The glue that keeps these various incidents from becoming a series of short stories is how they affect Sarah. She is smart, resourceful, and asked to do a lot more than a thirteen-year-old should be expected to do. But she would not be present for most of the trial, so the character holding the story together has to drop out at the climax.

How do you keep the reader's focus on a character who cannot easily be on stage? The easiest first step is to take advantage of every opportunity you have to focus on the main characters. Margaret has an audience with Isabella earlier in the story, which I suggested be rewritten from Isabella's point of view, to give readers a glimpse into her head. I also suggested adding a handful of scenes from Isabella's perspective at key points in the earlier part of the story. Sarah testifies at the trial -- the only scene where she's present in the courtroom. I edited that scene so as to make her internal struggle more prominent.

But even if you take advantage of your opportunities, those opportunities are still limited. How do you bring key characters into scenes where they can't actually appear? One way is to write the scenes from the point of view of characters who have the key character's interests at heart. With Sarah's story, I recommended that the trial scenes be written from the point of view of a social worker who knows and supports her. As the trial progresses, the social worker was able to be shocked or relieved on Sarah's behalf. Readers were aware of how events affected Sarah even when Sarah wasn't there.

You can keep your absent character in your reader's minds if you make stakes of the scenes clear before the scenes begin. Part of the reason I suggested including earlier scenes of Isabella -- particularly the scene showing her judging Margaret -- was so readers could see just why Isabella felt the way she did about Margaret. That way, when Isabella goes through her own humiliation and danger because of her feckless, uncaring husband, readers will realize that her experiences are opening her up to mercy toward Margaret. I also suggested that the author include a bit of interior monologue during the escape scenes in which Isabella realizes this as well, to help keep Margaret front and center.

I also edited the scenes from Sarah's point of view before the trial to show more clearly what she expected and needed from the verdict. This was the moment that validated whether or not she could trust the adults around her. Because readers had a clearer sense of what's at stake in the trial, they are aware of Sarah's reaction even in scenes where neither she nor the social worker are present. Sarah's not in the scene, but it's still about her.

That's the key -- learning to see what your scenes are actually about. Scenes are more than the characters who take part in them or the tension that happens in them. They have a ripple effect up and down the story, even for characters who aren't there.