Saturday, June 1

Real Life Diagnostics: An Opening in Third Person Omniscient and Present Tense. Does it Work?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Nine

This week’s questions:

Does this work as an opening?

Am I showing the story or simply telling it?

I think this is mainstream fiction. Do you agree? If not, why not?

Is there a point of view? I am thinking everything is from the storyteller’s omnipotent perspective. Do you think I’m on the right track?

Market/Genre: Mainstream


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Adrift on the Pacific, Elena Reyes draws her twins, Felipe and Felipa, close. The names sounded so cute, they looked so adorable when Father Rivera baptized them. Now they shiver and whimper as the brine creeps ever deeper.

Elena whispers thanks to God for the blackness of the hold. When the storm passes and the relentless sun again permeates the planks above, the agony will be all too clear; the enervated faces of her beloved twins will again be her universe.

A slosh of rain and a haze of light enter as the hatch opens and legs descend. Not enough light to see faces, but Elena glimpses a specter-like images of her suffering companions seated in the filthy water along the hull. The ethereal images confirm her conviction the 7-year-olds cannot survive another day. Their adults are a day or two behind.

Continuously sobbing, she silently laments her chant for the umpteenth time, “Todo era para ellos. Todo era para ellos.” (“It was all for them. It was all for them.”)

The bailing detail descends and a new one starts out before the hatch closes. They stumble through the dark hold trying to avoid nearly submerged legs. She hears her name. “Elena?”

“Over here.”

Eduardo sits beside her. His exhausted body makes a small wave that briefly swashes her thigh. “We can’t keep up.”

“I know,” she murmurs. “Where are Leandro and Jeronimo?”

“They’re on deck with the schoolteacher.”

“What’s going on?”

“There’s a fishing buoy just off the bow. The schoolteacher wrote a note and sealed it in a bottle. Leandro and Jeronimo are swimming out to tie it to the buoy.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Adrift on the Pacific, Elena Reyes draws her twins, Felipe and Felipa, close. [The names sounded so cute, they looked so adorable when Father Rivera baptized them. Now they shiver and whimper as the brine creeps ever deeper.] This sounds like Elena thinking this, but there's nothing to suggest she actually thinks this so it feels ungrounded. 

[Elena whispers thanks to God for the blackness of the hold.] Feels a little told. It's a good spot for some internalization from her about how she feels and what's going on. Why is she thanking God? When the storm passes and the relentless sun again permeates the planks above, the agony will be all too clear; the enervated faces of her beloved twins will again be her universe.

[A slosh of rain and a haze of light enter as the hatch opens and legs descend.] Readers see the results of the hatch opening before they see the hatch open, so this feels a little told Not enough light to see faces, but Elena glimpses a specter-like images of her suffering companions seated in the filthy water along the hull. The ethereal images confirm her conviction the 7-year-olds cannot survive another day. Their adults are a day or two behind.

[Continuously sobbing, she silently laments her chant for the umpteenth time,] This feels a little told, and you show her do it next.Todo era para ellos. Todo era para ellos.” (“It was all for them. It was all for them.”)

The bailing detail descends and a new one starts out before the hatch closes. They stumble through the dark hold trying to avoid nearly submerged legs. [She hears her name.] Telling, and you show it next by someone using it “Elena?”

“Over here.”

Eduardo sits beside her. [His exhausted body makes a small wave that briefly swashes her thigh.] Telling a bit. It explains what his body does and the result “We can’t keep up.”

“I know,” she murmurs. “Where are Leandro and Jeronimo?”

“They’re on deck with the schoolteacher.”

“What’s going on?”

“There’s a fishing buoy just off the bow. The schoolteacher wrote a note and sealed it in a bottle. Leandro and Jeronimo are swimming out to tie it to the buoy.”

The questions:

Does this work as an opening?

Yes and no. I like the idea of the mother and twins in danger and something frightening going on here. I'm curious about where they are and what put them on this boat. These people are in a lot of trouble and there's intriguing aspects about it that hook me.

What isn't working for me is the third person present tense, because I feel like someone is standing beside me describing a scene as they watch it. It's hard to connect to any character with that level of narrative distance. (Readers chime inhere as this is a matter of taste)

Once it gets to the dialog it picks up, but the first several paragraphs left me feeling ungrounded.

(More on openings here)

Am I showing the story or simply telling it?
Third omniscient (especially present tense) often gives everything a told feel because everything is being told. The narrative distance is so big that there's no sense of a character. It's clearly someone outside the story. This is common to third person and some readers enjoy that distance, others don't.

(More on narrative distance and telling)

Being in Elena's head a tad more could help here, though. There are some lines that could be her thoughts, or could be the omniscient narrator's. Right now it's hard to tell because the narrator is overpowering the story. But if there's a visual clue that the next lines are Elena's thoughts, then it pulls it down to her a little closer when it needs to.

For example...
Adrift on the Pacific, Elena Reyes draws her twins, Felipe and Felipa, close, and sighs. Their names had sounded so cute, and they looked so adorable when Father Rivera baptized them. Now they shiver and whimper as the brine creeps ever deeper and she can do nothing.
A few words, but they signal to the reader that Elena is thinking these things. It's "their" names because she's referring to her own children, not "the" names which is an outsider looking in. The sigh brings the reader's attention to her head, which signals she's about to think. She sees them suffering and has a reaction to it by thinking "she can do nothing." Tiny changes, but it can help separate what Elena is thinking versus what the omniscient narrator is describing.

(More on third person internalization here)

I think this is mainstream fiction. Do you agree? If not, why not?
Based on this snippet and the background you sent in the email, I'd agree. There are no genre elements driving the story or plot. It might even be verging on literary fiction, as it seems to be more personal journey than external plot.

(More on determining your genre here)

Is there a point of view? I am thinking everything is from the storyteller’s omnipotent perspective. Do you think I’m on the right track?
Yes, it's done in an omnipotent view. If your intent is to have it feel as though someone was sitting with you telling you a story, then you nailed it.

However... (and this is a majorly subjective thing)

Third person present tense is extremely difficult to pull off well. It can work for a short period of time, but the odd narrative distance and the sense that the author is whispering into your ear usually gets awkward very quickly. It's a tough sell for a lot of readers (and agents). You see it more in literary fiction than anything else.

Since this is a personal story from Elena's POV, I'd suggest shifting it to third person limited on her, in past tense. The conflict is all hers and she has a personal journey to make. Readers will need to connect to her and want to see her win and survive, and I think that will be harder if they're kept at a distance. It'll also be harder to convey her personal struggle if readers are looking at her more than being with her in her head.

If you prefer to keep this POV style, then I'd suggest adding more internalization so readers can get to know Elena better and get that connection another way. If they don't care about her and her struggle, they won't read on.

(More on omniscient view here)

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.

5 comments:

  1. Chiming in as requested! : )

    I'm not a big fan of present tense narrative because it feels contrived. With a past tense narrative, something happened, and someone related those events in a written account--either the person who experienced the events (first person) or someone else (the author). With present tense, the events are unfolding in real time, which makes no sense in a written narrative. I especially loathe the stories told in present tense where the protagonist dies! How does that work?

    OK, so my take is more literal than that of others. But for me it's necessary to be able to suspend disbelief, and if the story is taking place in real time, part of me is aware of and bothered by it. My rule of thumb is that there has to be a good reason for the choice of narrator and distance, and I haven't heard any convincing arguments for using present tense. (I don't buy the theory that it makes it "more immediate.")

    That being said, I have read stories by exactly one author who most often uses present tense but who somehow does it so skillfully that I am able to forget or don't even notice the tense. As Janice mentioned, it's very hard to pull off, AND it's a matter of taste.

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  2. It certainly read as a mainstream read. But this is small sample so anything could happen from him.

    I'd agree that the present-tense and omniscient positioning of the writing, created a lot of distance which made it harder to connect with any of the characters. I gathered they were in a bad place, but I couldn't quite develop sympathy for their predicament because I felt detached.

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  3. I like the opening of a mother and her twins drifting in the ocean. But imho you have too many sentences that can be deleted without harming the story moving along. For example, you can cut out sentence 2 and 4 and so on ... But the start is strong and I like to know what will happen to the mom and her kids.

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  4. Present tense, I find, especially as the character spoke Spanish, lends a translator air to the story.
    Rather than being an outsider to the scene, I feel that someone is currently translating it into my language.
    I am more used to having deaf languages signed near me.
    Just stepping up to defend the urgency of present tense.

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  5. This third person present tense issue is really interesting to me because I've read two excellent books lately that use it: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (and presumably Bring Up the Bodies as well?) and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which makes me wonder whether this is the direction historical fiction will take in the future. It's an interesting choice. I was distracted by it in the first few pages of Mitchell's book, which I read first, and then I stopped noticing it altogether. While one can argue that it's extremely difficult to do well, I'd say it has more to do with what readers are already acclimated to. I'd be curious to know why Mitchell and Mantel (and others) made that choice. All of which is to say, I don't think it's off the table for this writer either.

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