Saturday, December 3

Real Life Diagnostics: A Question of POV and Voice

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s questions:
This is the first scene in my current WIP. It's a fantasy book, and I've been trying to integrate characterization and world building as unobtrusively as possible. Does this opening scene hook the reader? Does it make you want to keep reading? Am I staying consistent with the POV? I'm aiming for close third POV. Finally, what do you think of the voice? Is it at all like a ten-year-old boy's?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Dawn’s first rays had not yet lit the sky when Kollin heard the stirring of the boys to either side of him. A new day was upon them—the orphan boys of Nordaar. Time to rise and make use of themselves.

Kollin lay on his hard pallet still, though the commotion around him let him know that the orphanmaster would soon make his appearance in the common room. He felt his chest rise and fall in a deceptive rhythm. He was not asleep; only hoping to catch a few more moments’ rest before the arrival of a new work day.

He knew he should rise and make his pallet presentable. Like that was ever hard. He had only to pull up the thin, mouse-chewed blanket to the head of the pallet and he’d be fine through the inspection.

If he didn’t move soon, though, he’d be punished for sleeping in when there was work to be done. For his laziness. The sun’s not yet broken the city walls, Kollin thought bitterly. I don’t need him to give me another reason to deny me a meal.

As Kollin rolled off his pallet the short distance to the floor, he heard the other boys’ actions take on a frantic quality. Whatever they’d been doing, they were trying to finish quickly now. The orphanmaster was coming.

He pulled his poor excuse for a blanket into place and stuffed a leather pouch into a worn pocket. The wan, predawn light filtering through the cracks in the ceiling above and door at the front of the room let Kollin see the other boys lining up in front of their pallets.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Dawn’s first rays had not yet lit the sky when [Kollin heard] Filtering here. This tells me that he hears something, then describes that sound instead of just showing what he hears as if he heard it. the stirring of the boys to either side of him. A new day was upon them—the orphan boys of Nordaar. Time to rise and make use of themselves.

Kollin lay on his hard pallet still, though the commotion around him [let him know] Same here. This is outside looking in, not something Kollin would think. He’d hear/see the commotion, and surmise the orphanmaster was coming. that the orphanmaster would soon make his appearance in the common room. He [felt] filtering here as well. What does Kollin do and feel? “His chest rose and fell” “he faked sleep” his chest rise and fall in a deceptive rhythm. He was not asleep; only hoping to catch a few more moments’ rest before the arrival of a new work day.

[He knew he should rise] telling what he knows instead of showing it by his thoughts and internalization. “he should rise and…” and make his pallet presentable. [Like that was ever hard.] This sounds like a kid He had only to pull up the thin, [mouse-chewed blanket ] love this description to the head of the pallet and he’d be fine through the inspection.

If he didn’t move soon, though, he’d be punished for sleeping in when there was work to be done. For his laziness. [The sun’s not yet broken the city walls, Kollin thought bitterly. I don’t need him to give me another reason to deny me a meal.] The italics shows it’s his thought so you don’t need to say “he thought,” though this is a personal choice. For a close third, I feel it pulls the reader out of the POVs head, but not everyone is bothered by it. Opinions readers?

[As Kollin rolled off] Be wary of “as” statements, since they frequently read like someone watching the action, not the person doing the action. He rolls off his pallet and hears noise. Or did the noise make him roll off the pallet? As usually denotes simultaneous action. his pallet the short distance to the floor,[ he heard] filtering. What does he hear specifically? the other boys’ actions take on a frantic quality. Whatever they’d been doing, they were trying to finish quickly now. The orphanmaster was coming.

He pulled his poor excuse for a blanket into place and stuffed a leather pouch into a worn pocket. The wan, predawn light filtering through the cracks in the ceiling above and door at the front of the room [let Kollin see] filtering. He just sees what he sees. Saying why he can see it pulls you away from his POV the other boys lining up in front of their pallets.

The questions:
I've been trying to integrate characterization and world building as unobtrusively as possible.

There are some nice details in this, but I’m not getting a unique sense of the world or the character yet. I’d suggest picking details that Kollin feels strongly about in some way and do both world building and characterization at the same time. How does he feel about his life? The room? The other boys? For example, how might an orphan kid in this world describe and feel about a mouse-bitten old blanket? “poor excuse for” feels older, and not something he’d say. How would he see the “wan, predawn light?” What words would he use to describe them, and why would he notice them? If this is his POV, then what he sees and why he relates it to the reader is important. He’ll notice things for a reason.

You might describe the room by show what Kollin sees the other boys doing to hurry up and get ready. Or what he himself does and why he does it. Does he stand in the sunlight because the room is cold? Avoid it because it’ll draw attention to him and it’s better not to be seen? Does he notice any of the boys doing something that’ll get them in trouble? Is there anything in the room that provides important information about this world that Kollin can remark on?

Does this opening scene hook the reader? Does it make you want to keep reading?
I’m not hooked yet because I’m not getting a strong sense of a character with a problem. Kollin doesn’t seem to want anything or be in any trouble, so there’s nothing to make me wonder might happen next. I don’t really know him as a character so I’m not worried about the orphanmaster coming in and doing anything mean to him, though I’m sure he’s a mean guy.

I’d suggest adding something to give readers a sense of things about to happen. If the orphanmaster coming in a bad thing, maybe let Kollin oversleep and not be ready, and dreading what’s about to befall him. Or maybe show that happening so he’s immediately in trouble. Or perhaps another boy isn’t ready and Kollin’s torn on whether to help him or not (you could characterize Kollin by how he treats his fellow orphans this way.) What do you want readers to wonder about in this opening? Look for ways to make that story question stronger.

Am I staying consistent with the POV? I'm aiming for close third POV.
You are consistent, but it reads more like third omniscient to me due to the filtering/telling words, like felt, heard, thought, knew. I felt outside looking in instead of inside Kollin’s head and seeing and hearing what he did. I’d suggest editing to get rid of those filter words. Think about what Kollin sees and feels and how a ten year old boy would think about them. Does he feel his chest rise and fall, or does he slow his breathing and fake sleep? From his perspective, what is he doing?

Finally, what do you think of the voice? Is it at all like a ten-year-old boy's?
Overall the voice was very formal and aloof, like a narrator hovering over the scene and relaying it to the reader. There was only one line that sounded like a young boy to me. The rest seemed more aware of the situation, using phrasing and vocabulary a young orphan boy probably wouldn’t use. But it does have a melancholy tone to it that works well with the sadness of the orphaned boys.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. In my opinion, "he thought" is okay the first time, since it indicates to the reader that itatics equals thoughts, but after that, it varies.

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  2. All I can add, and what struck me most, was how things were often said more than once - the dawn light, the need to get up for work, the description of the bed.

    It might be a good exercise to see if you can describe the same scene with just half the words. That would pull the readers in more quickly to the story.

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  3. In my opinion `he thought' can be useful to add beats to a sentence, kind of like a `he said' changes the rhythm by giving a pause. Really depends on what you're going for.

    I thought the `poor excuse for a blanket' line sounded off, mostly because as far as I know he has nothing to compare it too. Did he used to have nice blankets before he was an orphan? If this is the only bed he's ever slept in then he might notice the holes, but he's not going to think much of it. That would just be the way life is.

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  4. This is great!! Thanks! As I read your remarks I tried to tie them in to my WIP.

    So much to learn....

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  5. I think you should move the action right up to the first paragraphs. Eg. He wakes up to two eyes staring down at him - the orphanmaster's. All the world building and characterisation can be done through his reactions to what the orhanmaster does to him. 'Poor excuse for a blanket.' hit me as telling and repeating becasue we already know that it is mouse-bitten (nice!), also a 'worn pocket' can be shown like his finger sticks through the hole or whatever. Thanks for this Patti, it really helps me see my own work through different eyes.

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  6. I have a small bone to pick, though it's not related to any of the questions you asked...

    Starting with a character waking up and rolling out of bed is considered a cliched/overused way to introduce the character, the scene, and the world.

    Just something to think about! :)

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