Sunday, November 17

Real Life Diagnostics: How POV and Narrative Distance Affects Telling

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: Nine (+ two resubmits)

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 25 so there's a bit of a wait for submission feedback. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware.

This week’s question:

I have been told the opening of the story does too much 'telling'. Since the young man is alone, waiting for Friday when his girlfriend arrives, it's difficult to introduce dialogue. I like it how it is but...


Market/Genre: Ghost Story

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Background: A young couple have bought a deserted farm house at auction and begin to do-it-up, formerly occupied by an ancient husband and wife. He's puzzled about a wet patch of grass.

He wakes with a start. Eyes wide open, his heart pounding, teeth clenched, afraid to move a muscle. The house is still. Beyond the curtain-less window a nearly full moon shines brightly in a clear star-studded sky, a chill in the air. He listens hard holding his breath for something unfamiliar. Recently he’s begun to wake like this. A voice calling in the dead of night? He cranes his hearing but hears nothing he cannot identify. His heart leaps as a fox coughs somewhere close to the house; the hairs on his arms bristle; he shivers. Foxes and chickens? He drags the duvet over his head, lies still, counting his breaths and falls asleep.

Outside with a mug of tea in hand he stares out across the valley. In front of him he prods a bright green rectangle of grass with the toe of his boot. It draws water. He presses harder and draws more water. weird The whole area of grass is sodden, saturated, water logged. He’s afraid to step on the grass, not knowing if it could take his weight. He looks up and sees a crow launch itself from the beeches behind the house and battles the keen breeze to reach the telegraph wires; it alights clumsily tipping forward then righting itself. White exhaust pours from the rear of a mossy old Land Rover as it bumps and grinds up the track past the gate to Cymylu Ty, ‘Cloud House’. Sheep begin a chorus of bleating and make a b-line for the gate; a dog on the tail-gate barks with the regularity of a metronome. He’s sure the driver has seen him. He raises his arm but gets no response. He shudders; an involuntary shiver. ‘It’ll take time.’

My Thoughts in Purple:

He wakes with a start. Eyes wide open, his heart pounding, teeth clenched, afraid to move a muscle. The house is still. Beyond the curtain-less window a nearly full moon shines brightly in a clear star-studded sky, a chill in the air. He listens hard holding his breath for something unfamiliar. [Recently he’s begun to wake like this.] A bit tell-ish, explaining the situation A voice calling in the dead of night? He [cranes his hearing] Don't know what this means but [hears nothing he cannot identify.] Feels a little tell-ish His heart leaps as a fox coughs somewhere close to the house; the hairs on his arms bristle; he shivers. Foxes and chickens? He drags the duvet over his head, lies still, counting his breaths [and falls asleep.] A little tell-ish because someone else is telling he fell asleep. That's not something he'd be aware of doing

[Outside with a mug of tea in hand he stares out across the valley.] An odd transition. One moment readers are in his room, the next he's awake and outside with no sense of how he got here or why. In front of him he prods a bright green rectangle of grass with the toe of his boot. It draws water. He presses harder and draws more water. weird The whole area of grass is sodden, saturated, water logged. [He’s afraid to step on the grass, not knowing if it could take his weight.] Telling what he's afraid of doing [He looks up and sees a crow launch itself from the beeches behind the house and battles the keen breeze to reach the telegraph wires; it alights clumsily tipping forward then righting itself. White exhaust pours from the rear of a mossy old Land Rover as it bumps and grinds up the track past the gate to Cymylu Ty, ‘Cloud House’. Sheep begin a chorus of bleating and make a b-line for the gate; a dog on the tail-gate barks with the regularity of a metronome.] This is a long string of details with no context as to how they relate to the POV character, so they feel a little tell-ish. Why is he noticing these things? How does he feel about then? [He’s sure the driver has seen him.] A little tell-ish He raises his arm but gets no response. He shudders; an involuntary shiver. ‘It’ll take time.’

The questions:

1. Is there too much telling?
This is an interesting snippet to diagnose, because it's a great example of how point of view, narrative distance, and tense choice affect how a reader interprets the text. There's very little actual telling here, yet it all feels very told.

By its nature, third person omniscient often feels told, because someone is literally telling the story from outside the POV character's head. Without that character judgment to provide context, details can feel flat and unconnected, and actions have no sense of purpose. It's hard to know what's going on or why any of it matters.

The present tense adds an extra layer of distance so things feel outside looking in, and the third person omniscient holds the reader at arm's length. The combination creates a detached and distant feeling, like someone is following this man around describing everything he does as he does it. There's no sense of a character, just a watcher pointing things out.

(More on third person omniscient and narrative distance here)

Combine that with almost no internalization to center the reader inside the head of the character, and it conveys that told feeling. There's no sense of how the character views his world. Readers are told he's afraid, and are even given solid details to show that fear, but there's nothing personal from him to make readers feel it's his thoughts or feelings. He doesn't even have a name--he's just a faceless person we're watching from the shadows.

(More examples of third person omniscient here)

But watch what happens when I change it to first person and cut out the more tell-ish parts:
I wake with a start. Eyes wide open, heart pounding, teeth clenched, afraid to move a muscle. The house is still. Beyond the curtain-less window a nearly full moon shines brightly in a clear star-studded sky, a chill in the air. I listen hard, holding my breath for something unfamiliar. A voice calling in the dead of night? I hear nothing. My heart leaps as a fox coughs somewhere close to the house; the hairs on my arms bristle; I shiver. Foxes and chickens? I drag the duvet over my head, lie still, counting my breaths.
Still feels a little distant, but it doesn't feel as told as the original. The simple act of changing the pronoun pulls the reader closer to the POV's head and changes how readers view the text. Instead of a nameless "someone" conveying these details to the reader, it feels like the character is doing it.

(More on narrative distance here)

Let's look at it again in third person past tense:
He woke with a start. Eyes wide open, his heart pounding, teeth clenched, afraid to move a muscle. The house was still. Beyond the curtain-less window a nearly full moon shined brightly in a clear star-studded sky, a chill in the air. He listened hard, holding his breath for something unfamiliar. Had a voice called in the dead of night? He heard nothing. His heart leapt as a fox coughed somewhere close to the house; the hairs on his arms bristled; he shivered. Foxes and chickens? He dragged the duvet over his head, laid still, counting his breaths.
Same text with minor tweaks, but even this feels a tad more shown, even though it's still distant without much internalization. But the past tense gives it a different feel because it could be the man telling his own story. It's happened, and he's relaying it after the fact.

The truly interesting part of this--if the submitter wants to do a distant third person omniscient, there's nothing really wrong with this from a technical perspective. It's clearly an outside narrator relaying the life of this man as something odd happens to him in his new house.

However, since the submitter is getting comments that it feels told, I suspect what it actually means is that readers are not connecting to the character or being drawn into the story because it feels so distant. They feel like they're being told a story, not experiencing the story along with a character. Because they are. That's one risk with an omniscient narrator. (Readers chime in here)

I'd suggest more internalization so readers can connect with this character. Let them inside so they have a chance to understand what's going through his head and how he feels about the world around him. Not only will this give readers a better sense of the character, but they'll know what his goal is and what the stakes are. This will all help them care about this man and what he's about to go through.

(More on internalization here)

For funsies, let's look at the opening paragraph one more time with some internalization added in:
He wakes with a start. Eyes wide open, his heart pounding, teeth clenched, afraid to move a muscle. The house is still, but there's...something...wrong. Beyond the curtain-less window a nearly full moon shines brightly in a clear star-studded sky, a chill in the air. He listens hard, holding his breath. Did a voice call? He hears nothing. Maybe it is nothing. A fox coughs somewhere close to the house and his heart leaps. The hairs on his arms bristle and he shivers. Foxes and chickens? He shakes his head. There's nothing out there. He drags the duvet over his head and lies still, counting his breaths and waiting for nothing again.
I added very little, but already there's a stronger sense of a character here and even a bit of a goal, as he's lying there waiting to hear what woke him before.

For double funsies, let's change this to past tense:
He woke with a start. Eyes wide open, his heart pounding, teeth clenched, afraid to move a muscle. The house was still, but...something...was wrong. Beyond the curtain-less window a nearly full moon shined brightly in a clear star-studded sky, a chill in the air. He listened hard, holding his breath. Had a voice called? He heard nothing. Maybe it was nothing. A fox coughed somewhere close to the house and his heart leapt. The hairs on his arms bristled and he shivered. Foxes and chickens? He shook his head. There was nothing out there. He dragged the duvet over his head and laid still, counting his breaths and waiting for nothing again.
The past tense draws the reader closer still, because it's a familiar style readers are used to.

Overall, it all depends on what the submitter wants to do with this story. If they want a closer POV or more personal feel, changing the POV and/or tense will bring readers closer. If they want to keep the distance, a few more personal moments will help readers connect (and care) more.

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.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Janice
    Great diagnosis, thanks.
    The POV discussion is one I'm still in the early stages of. I have a natural way of writing, based in the third person, that just sort of happens, and feels natural so far. It mirrors the books I've spent my life reading so certainly makes sense.
    I've just finished writing a YA romance novella, my NaNoWriMo challenge, in the first person, purely as an exercise in doing something as different as possible to my normal style. I think it's probably bad enough to never see the light of day, but it was great fun, and a great challenge. It also helped me to get a better handle on what it is I like about third person (and writing stuff with dragons in)! :)
    This post is a great example for picking apart the key ways one can alter POV and affect the whole tone of the piece, so thanks, useful stuff.
    cheers
    Mike

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  2. Wow, what a great analysis, Janice. I really enjoyed following all the combinations of tense and distance.

    To the writer, it's a interesting premise. I have nothing to add about the style but only ask why your MC suspects there's a fox lurking around the chickens and then just rolls over and drops off to sleep - instead of defending his birds. (Or maybe that just shows my lack of knowledge about foxes and farmers).

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