Monday, May 9

Real Life Diagnostics: POV and Openings

For some extra treats, the last two Real Life Diagnostics sent in revisions. If you’re curious to see what they did, pop on over and take a peek.

Showing vs Telling
Crafting an Opening That Draws You In

Today's diagnostic asks:
Is the POV working and how bad is the opening?
I got a chuckle out of that part, because I've asked the very same question on numerous occasions. Sometimes you just don't know if what you're doing is working or not, and that doesn't change no matter what stage you're at. Let's dive in and see how this author did.


Original Text
“Kora, you be a strong girl. I wish the goddess Isis will be kind to you than she has been to me.” Isadora was worried about her daughter’s future. She had prayed to the gods of Egypt for miracles at the tender age of thirteen when her heart was breaking. The gods had let her down. There was no other hope but to pray. Now she also prayed to Baal the god of Canaan for her daughter’s safety. She held Kora’s face in her hands who sat on her bed ready to tuck herself in for the night.
“Ma, I have you.” Kora kissed her mother’s hands.

Isadora forced a smile. In bed, instead of sleeping, she wept. Her life was almost over.

Their world was of rulers and the enslaved. Men, women and children were sold like cattle. Few women enjoyed a liberal life; often they were slaves in their own homes.

What is a woman’s life? A loveless life! If only there was a listening god. She thought as tears rolled down her cheeks onto the pillow. Later in her sleep, prayers poured out of her to God who hears all and takes action.

On that spring night, the heavenly bodies, countless miles away from the Dead Sea, were moving constantly and faultlessly as they had from the dawn of time.

Then unknown to the world below, momentarily the order of the universe was disrupted. A massive star that had reached the end of its life exploded and was on fire.

My Thoughts
My comments in purple. The author didn’t specific how tight a POV they were trying to do, so I’m using the default third person limited.

“Kora, you be a strong girl. I wish the goddess Isis will be kinder to you than she has been to me.” Isadora was worried about her daughter’s future. I’m guessing Isadora is the POV here. If so, the bold text is a place where the POV pulls away from her. This tells me she’s worried, so it feels detached from her. To be tighter, you might use internalization and show what she’s worried about specifically.

She had prayed to the gods of Egypt for miracles at the tender age of thirteen when her heart was breaking. The gods had let her down. There was no other hope but to pray. These bolded areas also pull away from Isadora’s POV a bit. “Tender age of” is a modern cliché, and probably wouldn’t be used in ancient Egypt. I also suspect 13 wasn’t young at that time, as women were probably married off then. Praying hadn’t worked at 13, so it seems odds for her to think praying was her only option. I like the “gods let her down” line though. Perhaps cut the bold areas and transition into the next line in a “so now she prayed for her daughter’s safety...” Like she didn’t get miracles, but she’s still trying for some help. Something that lets us know more about her as a character and understand what praying means to her.

Now she also prayed to Baal the god of Canaan for her daughter’s safety. You might consider adding a little internalization here that shows what danger her daughter is currently facing.

She held Kora’s face in her hands who sat on her bed ready to tuck herself in for the night. Looks like a missed word here, but this is another spot that pulls away from the POV. “who sat on the bed” describes this from afar. Isadora would just see her daughter on the bed. “Ready to tuck herself in” implies this is Kora’s thought, not Isadora’s, which shifts POVs. Though it’s a gray area phrase, because it is possible for Isadora to assume that’s what she wants. But combined with the “who sat,” it feels a tad more outside than inside in this context.

“Ma, I have you.” Kora kissed her mother’s hands.

Isadora forced a smile. In bed, instead of sleeping, she wept. Her life was almost over. The bold area was a bit jarring because we’ve suddenly gone from Kora’s beside to Isadora in bed and never see her move. Perhaps let the opening scene play out a little longer, show more of Isadora’s interaction with her daughter and the current problem their facing. Then either break the scene, or show Isadora going to her own bedroom.

Their world was of rulers and the enslaved. Men, women and children were sold like cattle. Is this the problem she’s worried about? This section could go either way POV-wise. It could be Isadora, it could be an outside narrator giving us information. If you add a line of internalization or something that ties this to Isadora, it would feel more in her POV.

Few women enjoyed a liberal life; often they were slaves in their own homes. This feels like an outside comment on the life of these people, not something Isadora would think. She’d be more likely to think about the specific things she doesn’t like. You show this better in the next line, so perhaps cut this one.

What is a woman’s life? A loveless life! If only there was a listening god. She thought as tears rolled down her cheeks onto the pillow. The bold section is outside looking in, so it pulls away from the POV some. If you want a tight POV and close narrative distance, you would cut this (you show the thoughts so you don’t need to say she thought it). If you wanted a more distance narrative distance you could leave it.

Later in her sleep, prayers poured out of her to God who hears all and takes action. This is outside of her POV. If she’s asleep, she can’t know what’s going on. Someone else is relaying this information.

On that spring night, the heavenly bodies, countless miles away from the Dead Sea, were moving constantly and faultlessly as they had from the dawn of time. Same here

Then unknown to the world below, momentarily the order of the universe was disrupted. A massive star that had reached the end of its life exploded and was on fire. And here. These last lines are all things Isadora doesn’t know.

Let’s answer the specific questions first:

Is the POV working?
That’s a tough call since I don’t know what POV the author is trying to achieve. There are a lot of distant markers here (the words/phrases that pull me away from the character) and then there’s a clear outside narrator at the end. It’s possible this is trying to be third omniscient. If so, I don’t think it’s quite there yet because I’m not getting a solid sense of a narrator. Information is being told to us, but right now it reads more as the author explaining, not someone who knows all telling this story. If this is supposed to be a tighter limited third person on Isadora, it’s also not quite there yet because of those same markers. It’s pulling away frequently enough that I don’t yet feel in Isadora’s head.

To fix both, I’d suggest making it clear who the narrator is. If it’s Isadora, try getting more in her head and showing this world as she sees it, not as the author knows it is. Let us get to know her as a person so we care about her and her problem. Take those bolded distant phrases and put them in her voice. Like how the thoughts were shown in italics. That showed her feelings on the topic without stating it right out, so it felt like her.

How bad is the opening?
I don’t think the opening is bad, but I it isn’t grabbing me yet. Part of that is due to the lack of a solid POV character, but more is due to not enough information about what problem these characters are facing. I can see that the pieces are there, so I doubt it will be hard to fix. A mother worried about her daughter’s safety is something we can easily relate to and sympathize with. If we knew more about what immediate problem Kora was facing, that would give us something to worry about and let us hope that Isadora can save her child.

I think fixing the POV issues will fix the opening issues, because we’ll be more in a POV’s head and have a character with a problem we can related to and want to see solved.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this piece for me to poke at. If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

5 comments:

  1. Yes, this did not grab me either, partially because of the POV but also because the characters seemed very passive and weak. If I'm going to be reading a book, I want characters that won't break down and pray whenever life gets tough. I want them to be characters of action.

    Now it might be that these two women end up being the Arnold Schwartzenagers of Egypt...but this open suggests the opposite to me.

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  2. I wholeheartedly agree about the distant and unclear POV. As Janice pointed out, some internalization will help tremendously here. I'd also like to know a bit more about the characters. How old are Isadora and Kora? Is Kora about to enter a marriageable age? Where is Kora's father?

    This kind of reads like a prologue (to me, anyway). Isadora says her life is almost over, which leads me to think that Kora will take over the story at some point. If that's the case, then why not begin the story from Kora's POV? If I'm completely on the wrong track, then please ignore me. :)

    Nit-pick: a star is a big, burning ball of gas, so technically it's always on fire. At the end of its life, it either explodes or collapses, so the 'on fire' comment isn't necessary.

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  3. It doesn't work for me at all, but it's all tell and little show and we don't know why we should care yet. I'd like to get a little more into the story instead of skimming the surface.

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  4. Thank you to the poster who submitted this. I've read a lot of blogs helping with PoV but for some reason FINALLY the 'she thought' thing has sunk in!

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  5. Sarah: Oh good, I'm glad it clicked for you! Thanks to everyone else who offered additional feedback for your brave volunteer.

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