Sunday, January 19

Real Life Diagnostics: How Point of View Affects Show Don't Tell

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: Five (+ 1 Resubmit)

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 1. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Am I showing or telling? Is it a good P.O.V? What audience is it best suited for?


Market/Genre: Undetermined

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The market place was hot, dry. Sand clung to Malakai’s skin and clothes and salted his red hair. The mercenary showed no sign of discomfort. Dressed in a dark grey tunic and hose, he leaned against a wall, eyes squinted in the shimmering heat. Illa, the capital of Charth, was a major slave city and was fabled to be as rich as it was filthy. Malakai’s mother had been a pleasure slave and he had little respect for traders and slave cities, but Illa’s decadent lifestyle was an attraction to many hired swords and killers.

Malakai sauntered towards a table set up in front of an inn boasting a hanging boars’ head as a sign, there were two men at the table, both greying but fit and strong, the older one was calling out to the passing traffic.

“Guards for the Emperor needed, to protect his grace at the Blood Games.”

Malakai stopped and frowned, the Blood Games were a vicious annual tradition. Slaves of all sorts were forced through a gruesome obstacle course, if there were a survivor they were ‘freed’.

But the pay the recruiters were offering was substantial and Malakai needed gold so he approached the table. The younger soldier looked him up and down with disgust,

“A mercenary, hmph, you’ll do.”

“I’ll do my job well enough for a rum price.”

They took his name and sent him behind the inn to where a cart was waiting, half full with the other hired guards. Malakai climbed on the back and sat between a blond beggar knight and an old mercenary. The older soldier climbed onto the front of the cart.

“I go by the name Kay and I’ll be your captain for the morrow.”

The blond knight turned to Malakai,

“I’m Cyrrus, second son of a branch of house L’angly, and you?”

“Malakai, a mercenary.”

Cyrrus was a talker and rambled on as the cart rolled its way to the palace, a white marble monstrosity intended to be a lily flower, which it little resembled.

As the cart rumbled through the gates Kay stood up and faced his troop of ragged soldiers. Malakai noted that none of them would last long in a real fight.

“You’ll eat and sleep in the great hall and report to me outside in the morning.”

Kay leaped down from the cart and strode off.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Note: What's considered telling varies depending on what POV is used, so I'm reading this with the assumption that the submitter is doing a limited third person (which is fairly standard).

The market place was hot, dry. Sand clung to Malakai’s skin and clothes and [salted his red hair.] Feels a little distant, as he probably wouldn't think of his own hair like this. [The mercenary showed no sign of discomfort.] Telling a bit, as this explains from the outside, not something the POV would think Dressed in a dark grey tunic and hose, he leaned against a wall, eyes squinted in the shimmering heat. [Illa, the capital of Charth, was a major slave city and was fabled to be as rich as it was filthy.] Is this his thought or the author explaining it? If it's his thought it's good, if not, it's infodumping. Love the simile though [Malakai’s mother had been a pleasure slave and he had little respect for traders and slave cities, but Illa’s decadent lifestyle was an attraction to many hired swords and killers.] Telling his past. How might you show his lack of respect in how he acts with the people there? What might he think to show that despite that, he needs a job and this is a good place to find one?

Malakai sauntered towards a table set up in front of an inn boasting a hanging boars’ head as a sign, there were two men at the table, both greying but fit and strong, the older one was calling out to the passing traffic.

“Guards for the Emperor needed, to protect his grace at the Blood Games.” Would the Emperor really hired random guards? Anyone who wanted to hurt him would just get a job protecting him

Malakai stopped and frowned, [the Blood Games were a vicious annual tradition. Slaves of all sorts were forced through a gruesome obstacle course, if there were a survivor they were ‘freed’.] If this is his thought, it's fine, but if this is the author breaking into explain what the Blood Games are, it's telling

But the pay the recruiters were offering was substantial and [Malakai] "he" if you want a tighter POV needed gold [so] Tellish. Don't explain why he approached the table, just show him doing it he approached the table. The younger soldier looked him up and down [with disgust,] Tellish. How does Malakai know the man feels disgusted? What outward signs is he giving?

“A mercenary, hmph, you’ll do.”

“I’ll do my job well enough for a [rum price.]” Love this.

They took his name and sent him behind the inn to where a cart was waiting, half full with the other hired guards. Malakai climbed on the back and sat between a blond beggar knight and an old mercenary. The older soldier climbed onto the front of the cart. How does he feel about all this? There's little internalization from him understand who he is

“I go by the name Kay and I’ll be your captain for the morrow.”

The blond knight turned to Malakai,

“I’m Cyrrus, second son of a branch of house L’angly, and you?”

“Malakai, a mercenary.”

[Cyrrus was a talker and rambled on as the cart rolled its way to the palace, a white marble monstrosity intended to be a lily flower, which it little resembled.] Is this Malaki's view and thoughts, or the authors? There's no personality behind these descriptions, so it's hard to know who they belong to

As the cart rumbled through the gates Kay stood up and faced his troop of ragged soldiers. [Malakai noted that none of them would last long in a real fight.] Why? What does he see that makes him feel this way? And if they're guards, why would men who can't fight be hired?

“You’ll eat and sleep in the great hall and report to me outside in the morning.”

Kay leaped down from the cart and strode off.

The questions:

1. Am I showing or telling?


A mixture. There are places where it feels like the author explaining, but also areas that feel like they could be Malakai's thoughts. He doesn't show a lot of personality yet, which makes it hard to hear his voice in the text. It's possible that's just his mercenary no-nonsense attitude, though.

You might consider giving him a little more voice to make it clear what lines are his thoughts and what ones are the narrative. Tweak the text so it feels more like things Malakai is thinking and judging. How does he feel about this job? Is this normal, hiring random strangers to guard an Emperor? Isn't that a huge security breach? What would he look for in this situation? How would he see these people? Why does he need the money?

There's a lot of interesting things here, so perhaps dramatize the scene a little more to let readers get to know Malakai before he takes this job. Maybe show him looking for work, interacting with people, show his distaste for them but also his need for work. If there's a lot of work, he might have options, and he choose this job. Why?

This would allow you to show his characters as well as set the scene and do a little world building all at the same time. You'd also get to establish his goal and stakes more so readers worry about him.

(More on how narrative distance affects telling here)

2. Is it a good P.O.V?

"Good" POV is subjective, as what one reader likes another might dislike. It's also hard to judge without knowing what POV the author was trying to do. For example, an omniscient third is much more tellish because the narrator is outside looking down, while a limited third is tighter and more shown, looking out from within the character's eyes.

Take a look at the opening paragraph line by line:

The market place was hot, dry. (This could be an outside narrator or Malakai's opinion on the market. It's stated as a fact, but there's no judgment words or sense of character here, so it could go either way.)

Sand clung to Malakai’s skin and clothes and salted his red hair. (The first half could also go either way, as someone might think about the sand clinging to his skin and clothes, but then the second half of the sentence pulls away and makes the entire sentence feel distant. "Salted his red hair" doesn't sound like something someone would think about his own hair. This feels more like an outside narrator commenting on Malakai's appearance.)
The mercenary showed no sign of discomfort. (This feels outside looking in, as Malakai wouldn't refer to himself in this way. Someone else is telling readers how he feels)

Dressed in a dark grey tunic and hose, he leaned against a wall, eyes squinted in the shimmering heat. (This is right in the middle. It's a little distant, but it's not uncommon for third person limited characters to describe what they're wearing. Writers do need to get information to the readers after all)

Illa, the capital of Charth, was a major slave city and was fabled to be as rich as it was filthy. (I hear the most voice in this line, so this feels more like a Malakai thought. It also matches his rum price dialog in personality, so I can see him making this comparison, judging the city in this way. Oddly enough, without knowing more about Malakai's voice, this could just as easily be the author's, and that makes it feel more distant)

Malakai’s mother had been a pleasure slave and he had little respect for traders and slave cities, but Illa’s decadent lifestyle was an attraction to many hired swords and killers. (This is explanation told from the outside. He knows all this and wouldn't think about it, he'd just react to the city around him however someone who felt this way would react.)

But it wouldn't take much to shift this more into Malakai's head:
The market place was hot, dry. Sand clung to Malakai’s skin and clothes and hair, itching like the devil. Only foreigners scratched though, so he forced his arms still as he leaned against a wall, eyes squinted in the shimmering heat.

Had he really sunk this low?

Maybe. Illa, the capital of Charth, was a major slave city and was fabled to be as rich as it was filthy. If the smell was any indication, he'd make his fortune within the week.

He could put up with anything for a week.
Obviously I don't know the story and I just made up some details here from things suggested in the text, but hopefully it shows that looking at the world through Malaki's eyes and getting inside his head some brings the POV much closer and makes him more interesting.

(More on using POV here) and (More on third-person internalization here)

3. What audience is it best suited for?

I don't know what audience the author wants to reach, but it reads solidly like adult fantasy. It's a fantasy world with a fantasy-sounding plot so far, and the protagonist is an adult with an adult problem he's likely going to resolve in adult ways.

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.

7 comments:

  1. Great tips, Janice! I want to point out another reason why a clear POV (one way or another) is so important in the opening lines.

    "Sand clung to Malakai’s skin and clothes and salted his red hair. The mercenary showed no sign of discomfort."

    The POV character is more likely to notice sand clinging to their skin unless they're truly filthy, so I read the first line as deep-ish POV (as you mentioned, the salted hair with a specified color is more distant). But then the second line names "the mercenary."

    He wouldn't think of himself by that label, so when I first read this, I thought he was facing off with another character--a mercenary. I read it as a contrast: he was uncomfortable from all the sand, but this tough mercenary dude he was dealing with was cucumber cool. :)

    Your suggestions perfectly *show* that he's a mercenary without having to tell readers the label. That helps immensely with the POV, voice, and clarity.

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  2. "The market place was hot, dry." From working with my writers' group, I can tell you that first lines are hugely important. This one is pretty meh. Further, the information within the line can all be conveyed elsewhere, more interestingly. You may want to consider starting with the sand clinging to Malakai (dry), move to him scanning the marketplace (setting), stoically ignore the sweat trickling down his back (hot).

    I'm not buying that the emperor would haul soldiers off the street to guard him during the Blood Games. He's the EMPEROR, he should have a standing army! I'd buy more readily that he has slaves bred and trained from birth to guard and die for him.
    Unless Malakai's going to be bribed to kill the emperor, I'd suggest finding a different pretext for getting him where he's going.

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  3. What if it was intended to be omniscient?

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    Replies
    1. Then most of the places where I said it felt distant, or Malakai probably wouldn't think of himself that way, could be left as is. The areas that felt told would still feel told, but with a little tweaking could work. It would depend on how much explaining was also in those areas, as a little telling in omniscient isn't noticeable, but a lot close together stands out.

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    2. I felt, it was meant to be omniscient (mor like a camera looking from the outside at the character), but you are right, it is not made clear from the beginning, so in either ways it needs some adjustments.Thank you for your explanation and this example, how perspective affects Show don´t tell, it was very useful for me !

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    3. It's hard to tell sometimes, especially when the submitter doesn't specify. But most folks who ask about POV are trying to get tighter, so I went with that. If they want omni, they usually say so.

      It does make for a nice example though. Shows how subtle it can be and how just a few word changes can alter the POV.

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  4. I'm with Jamie in that I thought the mercenary was a different person. I actually thought Malakai was a girl at first, I think because I'm used to girl's names being more likely to end in vowels. I missed that he was being hired to guard the emperor. I thought he was hiring on to be part of the blood games and help entertain the emperor. Which, I guess, means I didn't read as closely as I should've.

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