Tips for Avoiding Reporter Syndrome-author toolbox
Showing gone wrong
The writing advice circuit loves to spout the Show, don’t tell, adage. But just because you are showing something, doesn’t mean the reader wants to know. Writers can often fall into the trap of showing everything and overloading the reader with useless information. One of those traps is the Reporter Syndrome
Reporter syndrome happens when the point-of-view (POV) character becomes a third party to the action in the scene. Rather than being a direct participant in the action, the POV character watches the other characters and reports their actions to the reader.
Here’s an example:
I ate my Cheerios while my parents argued over whose turn it was to take out the trash.
I stood next to the King while he questioned the prisoner.
If either of these lines were expanded into an entire scene, then the POV character would not be a participant in the action.
These kinds of scenes can be boring to read.
Because the POV character has nothing at stake. No stakes means no interest for the reader.
How to fix it
The simplest way to fix this problem is switching the POV to the character that has the most at stake. Decide which character has the most to lose/win from the situation and rewrite from that POV.
Single POV Stories
If you can’t switch POV’s follow these tips:
Is this information necessary?
In other words, does it cause a change for your POV character. Does it cause them to act? Does it increase the stakes? Does it complicate their problem? Does it cause them to change an opinion or belief? If the information doesn’t cause a change for your reader, dump it. You are not John Steinbeck. You are not allowed to write an entire chapter about a turtle crossing the road. If it isn’t adding anything to your story, you need to cut it.
Restructure the Scene
If the information is necessary, then you will need to restructure your scene in a way that puts the POV character in an active role in discovering the information. The most common method is sneaking around and spying. If you choose to do this, make sure the reader is keenly aware of the stakes of discovery. Otherwise, there will not be enough tension. There are plenty of other methods for getting information. Have your POV character question the prisoner, not the king, and make sure there are real consequences if your POV character fails to get the answers she needs.
If your POV character can’t take an active role, make sure to make the focus of the scene the POV character’s reaction to what is happening. If a child’s parents are arguing, make sure you show the reader how that argument is affecting the child. What change is the event causing in the POV character? Make this the focus of the scene.
Restructure the Plot
If the character needs the information, but not till later in the story, you may have a larger structural problem with your plot. Information needs to have immediate relevance to your story; otherwise, it looks out of place. (Mystery writers get some leeway on this, since readers expect to get clues that will fit together later. However, mystery writers also know to engage the reader with stakes and hooks.)
What to do
Restructure the plot so that the information is revealed when the character can make better use of it. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to sprinkle it into another scene. This will only succeeded if the information is also relevant to that scene. Irrelevant information will confuse the readers.
You can delay the significance of information by having a character make an incorrect assumption, and later the true meaning is revealed. Again, this takes careful planning. Go back to your outline and make sure your reveals flow in a logical progression. If you are a pantser, you may have to write a synopsis or scene list to make sure your plot is continually moving forward.
Your POV character shouldn’t be spending her time telling the readers what everyone else in the scene is doing. This is her story. Keep your POV character in the center of the action.
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