Saturday, October 26

Real Life Diagnostics: POV Issues in a Romance Opening

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 it 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: Ten (+ two resubmits)

Please Note:
As of today, RLD slots are booked through December 28 so there's a bit of a wait for submission feedback. The Sunday diagnostics will bring that down some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware.

This week’s questions:

1. Is 450 words too soon or too late to switch to her POV? I’m worried about a rejection based on head hopping or failure to identify the female protagonist early enough.

2. I realize that “He shifted his stance to resume ignoring.” is a tell, not a show because it tells intent. Later in this scene, he fails to avoid the bartender. In this case, due to the fact that it was a failed intent, is it acceptable to tell instead of show?

3. Can you identify Paul as the hero and Benny as the sidekick based on context clues?

4. Linda’s introspection 200 words later provides the setting as small town Wisconsin. Is this too late to provide the reader with a where?

5. Should I have their last names in there?

Market/Genre: Harlequin American Romance


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:


“Did you see her?”

Benny Heck craned his neck, hoping to catch a better look at the attractive stranger in the long blue denim skirt with the matching blouse buttoned up to her neck and the shiny, new cowboy boots. Benny always kept his back to the bar. That way he could loiter around for most of the night without getting kicked out for not buying any drinks.

“You mean the brunette sitting in Weldy’s booth?”

Paul Stone didn’t really need to ask. Everyone else in Jonah’s Bar was a regular. They had become more like fixtures. The same faces sat in the same places and talked about the same things every time he came in here. They were all human furniture. All except for her. She was different.

“How do you do that?” Benny risked turning his head just enough to look at Paul.

“Do what?”

“Know whenever there’s a hottie nearby. You didn’t even turn your head. You got some kind of radar?” Benny made the mistake of looking up and accidentally made eye contact with the bartender. He shifted his stance to resume ignoring. “Or have you made a deal with the devil?"

“It's called peripheral vision. Try using yours some time.”

"Why do you suppose she’s dressed like that?”

“Looks like she’s fishing for a cowboy. That costume is the bait.”

“Are you gonna bite?” Benny waved away the bartender.

“Why are you so concerned about my romantic endeavors?” Paul asked.

“I have fifty bucks riding on you to take her home at closing time.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[“Did you see her?”] Who says this? It's ambiguous if it's Benny or if Benny looks in response to this.

Benny Heck craned his neck, hoping to catch a better look at the attractive stranger in the long blue denim skirt with the matching blouse buttoned up to her neck and the shiny, new cowboy boots. [Benny always kept his back to the bar. That way he could loiter around for most of the night without getting kicked out for not buying any drinks.] Fells a little tellish because this explains why he's keeping his back to the bar instead of letting readers figure that out by what he does

[“You mean the brunette sitting in Weldy’s booth?”] Also ambiguous. Perhaps put the tags on the same lines as these first two lines of dialog so it's clear who is speaking.

Paul Stone didn’t really need to ask. Everyone else in Jonah’s Bar was a regular. They had become more like fixtures. The same faces sat in the same places and talked about the same things every time he came in here. [They were all human furniture.] Not sure you need, as it repeats fixtures. Though you could combine it with that All except for her. She was different.

“How do you do that?” Benny risked turning his head just enough to look at Paul.

“Do what?”

“Know whenever there’s a hottie nearby. You didn’t even turn your head. You got some kind of radar?” Benny made the mistake of looking up and accidentally made eye contact with the bartender. He shifted his stance to resume ignoring. “Or have you made a deal with the devil?"

“It's called peripheral vision. Try using yours some time.”

"Why do you suppose she’s dressed like that?”

“Looks like she’s fishing for a cowboy. That costume is the bait.”

“Are you gonna bite?” Benny waved away the bartender. This is good moment to have Paul think something like "One of these days Benny was going to have to actually buy a drink" to show he does this on purpose.

“Why are you so concerned about my romantic endeavors?” Paul asked.

“I have fifty bucks riding on you to take her home at closing time.”

The questions:

1. Is 450 words too soon or too late to switch to her POV? I’m worried about a rejection based on head hopping or failure to identify the female protagonist early enough.


450 words is only a few pages, and it's common to have entire chapters be in one POV before it switches. Unless the imprint you're writing it for has rules about how quickly you need to switch POVs, that should be fine. For me personally, I'd say 450 feels too soon, because readers will barely have any time to get to know Paul before it switches.

I'd guess the brunette that just walked in is the female protagonist, so not seeing her right away wouldn't bother me as a reader. But I don't read category romance, so again, if there's a rule in that market about this, I'd say adhere to the rules. (Category romance readers please chime in here)

This reads like omniscient third person POV to me, and it's already head hoping (readers are in both Benny's and Paul's heads here). If you're doing omni, head hoping is more common, but since you identified this snippet as being in Paul's POV, I suspect you're not doing omni. If so, then there are some telling and POV shift issues here you might consider addressing.

For example:

Benny Heck craned his neck, hoping to catch a better look at the attractive stranger in the long blue denim skirt with the matching blouse buttoned up to her neck and the shiny, new cowboy boots. (This reads like Benny's POV. Paul isn't even looking, so he couldn't describe her with such detail. He also wouldn't know Benny was hoping to catch a better look. He might be able to guess, but he'd probably phrase it a little differently to suggest that)
“How do you do that?” Benny risked turning his head just enough to look at Paul. (This feels like Benny's POV and explanation of his motives.)

Benny made the mistake of looking up and accidentally made eye contact with the bartender. He shifted his stance to resume ignoring. (This also feels like Benny's POV and explanation of motives)

If this is indeed Paul's POV, then these Benny moments are POV shifts. Paul can't know these things. If it's omniscient, then they're fine, though you could make them stronger by showing a little more. If you want them to be in Paul's POV, then I'd suggest rephrasing so it's things Paul can observe and comment on.

(More on POV shifts here)

2. I realize that “He shifted his stance to resume ignoring.” is a tell, not a show because it tells intent. Later in this scene, he fails to avoid the bartender. In this case, due to the fact that it was a failed intent, is it acceptable to tell instead of show?

It's your book, you can always decide when you want to tell vs show. A distant narrator is more common is omni third, so if that's the case it's fine. But you can also just change the "to" to "and" and fix it. "He shifted his stance and resumed ignoring." Or you could also change the wording a little to better show it. He's not actually ignoring the bartender because he's very aware of what the bartender is doing. But he is actively avoiding the bartender. "He shifted his stance and resumed avoiding."

Often, it doesn't take much to turn a tell into a show. A word change here and there is all that's needed.

(More on show vs tell here)

3. Can you identify Paul as the hero and Benny as the sidekick based on context clues?

Yes and no. Benny doesn't come across as an alpha male so he does feel more like sidekick than hero, but most of the focus of the scene is in his head. He's driving things here, so he comes across more like the protagonist in that regard. Paul is barely here and readers get very little from him. I don't think this will confuse anyone, but it is a red flag that the protagonist might not be doing enough to drive the scene.

I'd suggest adding some internalization for Paul to help establish him as the protagonist, let readers get to know him better, and help shift the POV into his head more. He can judge Benny's actions and get a lot of that information across to the reader without dipping into Benny's head. (if you do indeed want the POV to be Paul's)

(More on internalization here)

4. Linda’s introspection 200 words later provides the setting as small town Wisconsin. Is this too late to provide the reader with a where?

No. The location plays no bearing on the plot yet. I can tell it's a bar, and a popular one where everyone hangs out and knows one another.

However, the words " Linda’s introspection 200 words later" does set off a red flag for me. You were worried about head hoping, but unless the scene breaks or chapter changes, moving to Linda's POV so she can be introspective sounds like another POV shift. Based solely on your comments and the text in this snippet, you might consider reexamining what POV you're doing and how you're organizing your scenes. If you don't want to head hop, omniscient third is probably not the POV you want to use. Clearly defined scenes with scene breaks and single POV characters in each scene would fix that.

(More on omniscient POV vs telling here)

5. Should I have their last names in there?

Your call. That's a matter of personal preference. If the characters would use last names in that scene's context, then sure. If they wouldn't and you want to be tighter in their POV, then no.

Overall, I suspect the POV is giving you troubles on this one, and once you clarify what you want it to do, many of your concerns will go away. What type you want is up to you, there's no wrong answer here, but it sounds like what you want to do is conflicting with the current POV style.

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.

8 comments:

  1. I liked the "human furniture" line; I'd suggest deleting "fixtures" and keeping the other. And I'm guessing this is just me, but I found Benny's description of the girl's clothing a little long.

    It felt like Benny's POV to me, but I don't really read romance. Gotta admit, now I'm curious to see him deal with the bartender!

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  2. I'd like to see the writer establish both the setting beyond the bar and the time period earlier. I actually picked up a non-contemporary, 'western' vibe from this with the exception of the word hottie. A single line showing the guys drinking a local Wisconsin brew could work.

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  3. I suspect the POV would be an issue. I don't read a lot of category romance, but most (all?) of the non-category romance I read and write are deep 3rd person. The only time I've seen romance head hop is in a love scene, where the author wants to show both of their reactions in the same scene.

    This also felt like Benny's POV to me, as he's the first named character (in addition to the head hop issues). I'd guess this to be a beta hero story who struggles with romance in the shadow of his playboy friend.

    In short, almost every issue here comes down to POV. Read Janice's posts on that. She's my go-to genius on the topic. :)

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    Replies
    1. Aw, thanks! And thanks for lending your romance eye to the submitter.

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  4. I agree that this felt like Benny's POV. He feels like the main character because you start the scene in his head. Additionally, I think it is a little too telling. For example: Benny shifted his stance. The bartender stared hard at him, lifting a bottle of aged whiskey. Benny fingered his light wallet and turned his back against the bar.

    Paul smirked. Benny, always the cheap ass.

    I would use italics for the Benny comment. These are very little things, but do consider the impact. I think this will be much stronger once you solidify your point of view. Good luck!

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  5. Thank you all for the wonderful advice. You've given me a lot of ideas on how to rework this scene. A special thanks to you, Janice Hardy for taking the time to break this scene down for me. You're right, avoiding is definitely the magic word here.

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    Replies
    1. Glad it was helpful. I'm always awed at how subtle writing can be. Word choice can totally make or break a sentence. Good luck with your edits!

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  6. This is rushed especially considering question #3. No way to establish one as a "hero". Let me finish my drink already :) This is nicely done all together, I would like it a bit more "spelled out" because I'm not good at subtly. Please dress that woman in more than just clothes, it would help me see her more fully.

    ReplyDelete