If a character screams while off the page, does anyone hear them?


A friend recently asked me if I keep tabs on what characters are doing when they are not in the scene. The answer is both yes and no because it really depends on the character and what is happening in the storyline.

Some characters aren’t important enough to keep track of. There is no reason to track the off screen movements of very minor characters, obviously, but I also typically don’t keep track of reoccurring characters whose lives aren’t currently being affected by the plot. I can assume, if whatever crisis isn’t touching them, that during working hours they are at work and during home hours they are at home doing whatever it is they do in their off hours. Of course, everyone has more turmoil in their lives than that, but if I spent time tracking every single character who walked on the page, I’d never get a book finished.

For characters whose lives are being altered by the events of the plot, I try to keep up with a general idea of what is happening to them as the story progresses. I write from a single point of view in all of my books, so the reader only finds out information as my character does. That means there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes. The more change in a non-pov character’s life and the more important that character is to the plot, the closer I need to pay attention to what is happening to them while off the screen. This doesn’t mean I keep an extensive outline. In fact, typically the most notation I make is a reminder to myself in the scene’s note section that while main character is doing ABC that secondary character is doing XYZ. But often that isn’t even necessary except for the more major characters as long as I keep a realistic time frame in my head of what can be accomplished while those characters aren’t on the screen.

The one character I almost always have to write an off-screen outline for is the villain. As a writer I have to know 1) what my villains goals are 2) what steps he or she is taking to achieve those goals and 3) how the actions of my hero changes the villains plans and how he or she compensates and reacts. Now, when I say outline, I’m typically not talking about a scene by scene outline like when I plan a book, but a summary of the general course of actions throughout the book. Some areas have to be very specific though, especially if I’m following a more mystery format for the book and the main character has multiple interactions with the villain. The villain has to have time to accomplish certain goals, and as I writer, I have to make sure that he or she logically moves forward–even if my main character will never know all that occurred.

Now, as always, this is just my process. I imagine if I wrote from multiple points of view I’d have more off screen outlines because I’d have to know what POV characters were doing while I wasn’t in their heads.

So how about you? Do you keep track of your characters when they are out of the scene? Which characters and how do you keep tabs on them?


19 comments to If a character screams while off the page, does anyone hear them?

  • I’m reminded of something I always tell my players when I run a campaign. The rest of the world doesn’t stop because your characters do.

  • It’s true Daniel. ^_^

  • This post reminds me of the wonderful play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” which follows what these two small characters in Hamlet are doing during the long gaps between their short scenes. For those who care, there’s a movie version of it starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman that is equally delightful.

  • When I was writing multiple POV novels, I did have to keep a fairly detailed account of what each character was doing; or more precisely, what each set of characters was doing, since much of my work in those books bounced from venue to venue, each with its own set of characters. Now that I’m writing more stuff in single POV, or with a max of two POV characters, it is somewhat easier to keep track of everyone. As you say, there are certain characters — most importantly, your main antagonist — who warrant some attention even when they’re offstage. But for the rest it’s more a matter of discovering through the eyes of the main characters what they’ve been doing while off the page.

  • Nice behind the scenes look at writing, K. I don’t think readers put much thought into what characters are doing when they’re not on stage at the moment, but they instinctually know when someone appears when or where they shouldn’t have. And they’ll hold it against the writers, too. Best bet is to cover the bases, just in case.

  • For my novel with multiple POVs, I kept a spreadsheet with date/time/location/character and what they were doing. Otherwise, there was no way I could keep track of who was doing what, when. I tried to keep it in my head, but there was too much going on.

    In my single POV book, I kept fewer notes, more like what Kalayna mentioned. Since I’m always with the MC, I use his POV as the anchor and then just attach little notes like, “Commander M, doing X.”

    Still, there were characters that I should have had a better grasp on. Thanks for the reminder, Kalayna.


  • Kalayna, I have had a few close calls with off-scene characters back in the day. Thanks to a great mystery editor, all were caught. I hope. 🙂

    But yeah, I did the whole Character X is off fishing and dumping bodies while Character T is healing the sick and making pie. Like you, it was less an outline than notes in the outline. And I used to highlight the antagonist’s actions in a different color so I could track them. I’d often have blue highlight for the protag, and pink for the antag. And gray for stuff I might cut or that might need revision, and yellow for clues. My outline ended up being different colors for every book, with a legend at the top to keep it all straight. Fantasy is a lot easier at this point, but I can see that changing as a series continues. Nice post.

  • Stuart, I read that play years ago. All I remember about it now is one of the early scenes where they discuss probability and flipping coins.

    David, I’m curious, if I remember correctly, you’re a plotter. Since switching from epic casts to a single pov character, has your outlining and plotting practices changed dramatically?

    Thanks, Ed. I agree. Readers don’t think about it, but it’s just like backstory writers need to know but never reveal, most readers can tell when the pieces are missing.

    NGDave, wow! You are way more organized than me. I start spreadsheets occasionally, but then I don’t update them as things in the story change and they become obsolete.

    Faith, I’ve heard about your color coded outlining before. I’m impressed, and terrified. ^_^

  • How do you manage how much the characters do during the time they’re off-page.

    If they go and do something too huge off-page like kill each other, well, the reader may get a bit pissed off as you kept them away from important events.

    If they spend days off-page sitting on the toilet and watching the cartoon channel, well, that’s just silly.

    Do you actually look for that and make revisions accordingly, or do you just simply trust instinct to get you through?

  • Kalayna, if you’re a Netflix subscriber, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is available to stream. I highly recommend you watch it instead of reading it – plays are always better when you watch them. And this one is, as Stuart said, wonderful, and wicked funny.

  • sagablessed

    I trie to keep track of everything minor characters do. Why? because in a revision there might be something that I can expand on to use as plot development or create a subplot that feeds the story.
    But that’s just me.

  • sagablessed

    And “ACK!!” ‘Try’, not ‘trie’. I have a puppy who certain everything I type requires his paws on the keyboard.

  • Razziecat

    I love the title of this post. Answer: Yes, I hear them…and they are noisy buggers. While I’m writing the main characters, the other guys are hovering in the back of my mind, trying to get my attention. Sometimes I have to stop and make a note along the lines of “X is doing such-and-such”—> pointing to the appropriate place in the events, but mostly I know who is doing what, when. I don’t always work from outlines, but when I do, things change as I write so the outline ends more as a general guideline than a step-by-step, and that’s usually because of the characters doing something unforeseen.

  • “If a character screams while off the page, does anyone hear them?”

    Oh Lord, I hope not. I’d have to stop torturing themm!

  • Kalayna, one might expect that in moving to single POV from multiple that I would outline less, because there’d be less to keep track of. The opposite has been true for me. As I have moved to single POV, I have started outlining more, and I think that my new books are far, far tighter because of it. Why did I take this approach now, when, again, one might think I’d need it less? I think because in taking on a new kind of book, I felt less comfortable with what I was doing and so needed to feel that I had that safety net of the outline, if that makes any sense. Good question — I hadn’t really taken the time to think about it until you asked.

  • I definitely know what’s going on with POV characters who are “off scene”, because I’ve usually left them off right before the boring stuff starts–they’re doing the boring stuff! If I think of my writing like a Final Fantasy game, I write out all the stuff in the cities, and try to skim over 90% of the world map. Real, plot-driving action happens in the cities–the good stuff–and the world map tends to be just traveling from one city to another, fighting monsters over and over again for experience. Sometimes you come across neat stuff (like a moogle, or chocobo!) and that’s worth writing, but most of it is that “hobbits walking around in forests” feeling that doesn’t really fly in modern lit.

    Okay, that was not as clear as I’d hoped. XD

  • Roxanne, a general rule of thumb is that the viewpoint character always has the most to lose or to overcome in the scene. When writing from a single POV, that means the major plot altering action needs to happen with the main character in the scene.
    My bad guy will kill people off the page because the important scene is my character trying to puzzle out the murder scene. Detectives will do some investigating off the page because that is part of their job, but while they might bring back a tidbit, they can’t break the case while not in the scene.

    As far as do I let my instinct take over or look for what characters might be doing and make revisions, I’m a plotter, so I know what events have to take place to get to the end of the book and who will contribute to that end. In a second pass I often find places I can deepen and develop the story. It might be a complete re-visioning of the scene or just the realization that such and such character *could* do this or that and it would be even more interesting. But I don’t sit down and ponder what each and every character might be doing in every single scene (especially since I tend to write with really large casts.) Make sense?

  • Misty, I’ll have to look it up. Thanks!

    Segablessed, you are clearly far more organized than me. I keep track of main, secondary and some tertiary characters, but definitely no one more minor than that (because, well, that would be at least 60 or so characters with names and even more without.)

    –>”the outline ends more as a general guideline than a step-by-step, and that’s usually because of the characters doing something unforeseen.”<—
    How very true, Razziecat!

    LOL, Lyn!

  • LScribeHarris, all I can think of is, Yes, please no endless scenes of level grinding. ^_^