What the protagonist knows

Steven Amsterdam standing in front of a body of water
Steven Amsterdam
13 December 2013
Steven Amsterdam

How often do you sit down and start writing in the voice that feels comfortable, only to find yourself stuck with big questions like, “How can this articulate hamster know that the neighbours are running a swingers club if she’s never left her cage?”

Who is in charge of the facts? Who will reveal them to the reader? The choice of narrative voice is every bit as important as the story itself, but it is often overlooked. Here’s a quick techniques for finding out what the protagonist knows…

Secrets and Lies-ercise

Pick a scene from something you’re working on where one character knows something that the other character doesn’t. Information or intention must be hidden. Someone may be about to make love or commit murder (or confess to one of the two) but the other person or people in the room doesn’t have a clue.

Whichever viewpoint is privileged, change it. If we are seeing it through the eyes of the innocent, rewrite it from the point of view of the one who knows – or vice versa. If both views are known, write it from the perspective of a none-the-wiser bystander (a waiter bringing them tea, perhaps). Whatever the alteration, the exercise adds depth to your understanding of the scene.

About Steven Amsterdam

Steven Amsterdam’s debut novel, 'Things We Didn’t See Coming', won 'The Age' Book of the Year and is currently on the VCE English reading list. His second book, 'What the Family Needed', has been nominated for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.