Sunday, October 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Bringing Out the Emotion in First Person POV

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.

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This week’s questions:

Does this point of view fit the story? Is the main character someone you can feel sympathetic for? Does this make you wonder who stabbed him (and why), and why the sentries are so feared? Can you get a sense of the panic he's facing (such as him thinking short thoughts, worrying about something not that important, etc.) Most of all, does it make you want to read on?


Market/Genre: Young adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Blood. Lots of it. Gushing everywhere from the open wound, pulsing as it rushed out. I was so dizzy, trying to rush out before he could finish me off. The nerve of him! To think I’d trusted him all these years. I opened the door and rushed out, free from the threat for now. I had nowhere to go, but I’d rather take my chances with the Sentries than here.

I stumbled out of the building, not even able to take my belongings as I fled. I clung to all hope that I had at least left my Night Pass in the pocket of my cloak. Quickly, I checked the contents and as I had feared, it was empty. I groaned, and then wheezed. Dust from the unpaved ground gathered in my throat, but I knew I couldn’t stop moving. My head was pounding. Thumping. I could hear it. It wouldn’t stop. I needed it to stop. It was so dark. Where was I now? I couldn’t tell. I had a feeling I was lost. How long had I been running? I could see blood on my hands. All I could think was how difficult that would be to wash off. I tried applying pressure to the wound, yet it wasn’t helping. Nothing was helping. I saw the outline of a building; getting closer to it, I realized it was an inn. Hope surged through me; maybe I could spend the night there. Better to die in a bed than ripped to shreds at least. I panted as I walked through the door, the innkeeper looking at me with eyebrows raised.

“Sorry, we’re closed.”

My heart sunk.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Blood. Lots of it. Gushing everywhere from [the open wound] the word "the" doesn't make it clear that it's the narrator's wound or someone else. Perhaps use "my"?, pulsing as it rushed out. [I was so dizzy, trying to rush out before he could finish me off.] Feels a little tellish The nerve of him! To think I’d trusted him all these years. I opened the door and rushed out, [free from the threat for now] if he's no longer in danger, it steals the tension. I had nowhere to go, but I’d rather take my chances with the Sentries than here.

I stumbled out of the building, not even able to take my belongings as I fled. I clung to all hope that I had at least left my Night Pass in the pocket of my cloak. Quickly, I checked the contents and as I had feared, it was empty. I groaned, and then wheezed. Dust from the unpaved ground gathered in my throat, but [I knew ] could cut to be tighter in his POV I couldn’t stop moving. [My head was pounding. Thumping. I could hear it. It wouldn’t stop. I needed it to stop. It was so dark. Where was I now? I couldn’t tell. I had a feeling I was lost. How long had I been running?] Feels a little too much, so instead of being tense it's dragging for me [I could see blood on my hands. All I could think was how difficult that would be to wash off. I tried applying pressure to the wound, yet it wasn’t helping.] Feels a little tellish Nothing was helping. [I saw the outline of a building; getting closer to it, I realized it was an inn.] A little tellish Hope surged through me; maybe I could spend the night there. Better to die in a bed than ripped to shreds at least. I panted as I walked through the door, the innkeeper looking at me with eyebrows raised.

“Sorry, we’re closed.”

My heart sunk.

The questions:
1. Does this point of view fit the story?

This is a very subjective question, but it looks like fantasy, and first person is very common in YA fantasy, so yes it fits the tale.

However, even though it's first person I'm getting a tellish vibe from it, because it's describing things more from afar than through the protagonist's eyes, so I'm not yet getting the emotional level I believe you're going for. It's a tense and exciting scene--a guy has just been stabbed and betrayed by a friend and is on the run, hurt, bleeding, worried about sentries and not being able to find a safe place to stay--but the POV is keeping me from feeling it.

(Here's more on filter words)

Some examples as to why:
Gushing everywhere from the open wound
If you hadn't mentioned in the questions that the narrator had been stabbed, I wouldn't have realized it until almost the end of the snippet where he puts pressure on it. "The" makes it seem like he stabbed someone else, as does the lack of any mention of him hurting. "My wound" would pull it more into his head, as would a few details about his physical state--does it hurt? Where's the injury? Why did he get stabbed?
I was so dizzy, trying to rush out before he could finish me off.
This is telling readers he feels dizzy and wants to rush out, but there are no details that show him being dizzy (the room spun, I stumbled, etc) or feeling rushed. This is a good spot to rework for a tighter POV and more emotion. It's also a good spot for a little setting to ground readers where this happens (unless this is a later scene and that has already been made clear).
not even able to take my belongings as I fled
He seems very aware here that he can't take his stuff. If he's bleeding, worried someone is going to kill him, and rushing so fast he's dizzy, he's probably not going to be this aware of what's being left behind. It also says he's free from the threat, so why can't he grab what he needs? If he is thinking about this, then perhaps it's one thing he wants to grab as he rushes out and can't.
I clung to all hope that I had at least left my Night Pass in the pocket of my cloak. Quickly, I checked the contents and as I had feared, it was empty.
He also feels too aware and rational here, though if he needs that pass or something worse will happen to him outside, then it's a good detail to worry about. Perhaps he sees the sentries and makes a desperate search of his pockets for his pass. I assume these two details are connected?
I knew I couldn’t stop moving.
Tastes vary, but since this is first person, everything he relates to us is what he knows, so "I knew" in this situation feels told to me. "I couldn't stop moving" is an internal thought same as "the nerve of him."
My head was pounding. Thumping. I could hear it.
Same here. Perhaps tighten like "My head pounded in my ears" or the like.
It was so dark. Where was I now? I couldn’t tell. I had a feeling I was lost. How long had I been running?
There are a lot of auxiliary verbs here (to be verbs) which give this a passive feel, so instead of feeling tense and in the moment as he's lost and confused, it drags a little. It also shows he might be lost by him thinking "Where was I now?" so " I had a feeling I was lost." is redundant and tells. You might try making it more active overall, such as "I ran through the dark--for hours, minutes, I couldn't tell. Nothing looked familiar. Where was I?" (adjust for your voice of course)

Him stumbling around in the dark is also a good opportunity for you to add a little setting. Mixing setting details in with the internalization and movement can help break it up some and give you that panicky sense you want here.
I could see blood on my hands. All I could think was how difficult that would be to wash off. I tried applying pressure to the wound, yet it wasn’t helping.
Some telling here as well, with the "could see" filter and saying "all he could think about" when readers don't see him think that. It's also an odd thing to think about if he's bleeding heavily and running for his life (though you did mention him thinking inappropriate things, but this isn't working for me in that context). "Applied pressure to the wound" also feels clinical and detached, more like the author saying it not the character. Maybe he's in the medical field in some way and would think like this, but I get the feeling he's an injured guy on the run.
I saw the outline of a building; getting closer to it, I realized it was an inn.
"Saw" and "realized" are more filter words, which again give that detached sense. The occasional filter word doesn't jump typically out, but a lot of them combined with the detached tone make this feel more distant and told.

A little goes a long way in a scene like this. You might try fewer details and think more about what he's feeling than what you know as the author is happening. You clearly have a solid sense of how this plays out, so perhaps shift that knowledge deeper into the POV's head and see what he sees.

(Here's more on showing internal thought)

2. Is the main character someone you can feel sympathy for?

I don't know him well enough yet to know. He was in a fight of some type I gather, and is on the run, but I don't know the circumstance or any details for me to put this into a larger context. At first, it read to me like he had stabbed someone, maybe in self defense, but then it's more clear that he was injured. You might try adding a line or two about where he is (I really liked the details about the sentries and him needing a pass to be out at night) and who he is.

I don't know if this is the opening or a scene later in the book, so maybe readers will know more details by now. If they already know him and like him, they'll probably worry about him here. If not, I don't think there are enough personal details about him to care quite yet (readers chime in).

(Here's more on creating sympathetic characters)

3. Does this make you wonder who stabbed him (and why), and why the sentries are so feared?

Not yet, because I have no context for what's going on here, and I don't know anything about this person except that a stabbing was involved. I was curious about the sentries and the night pass on an intellectual level, but not enough to hook me as a reader since they're only mentioned once.

Instead of focusing so much on his physical details from the outside, trying looking on the inside--what's he thinking, how does he feel, what's he trying to do? He briefly mentions the sentries, but then doesn't think of them again. If he's caught between two big threats--the person who stabbed him and sentries who might do X to him--then you have a lot of fear to play with and reasons for him to think about his situation and try to figure a way out. Is he trying to get somewhere safe or just running away? Is there anyone he's running to or might go to for help? Is he reeling from both the pain, blood loss, and discovery that a friend just stabbed him? There's a lot of great stuff here to work with, so don't be afraid to let the readers in and see some of it.

(Here's more on creating story questions)

4. Can you get a sense of the panic he's facing (such as him thinking short thoughts, worrying about something not that important, etc.)

Yes, but there's a little too much of it and that's creating the opposite effect for me. I feel like he's telling me this story after he's survived it and he's relaying the information matter-of-factly, not being in a panic as it happens. That sense of immediacy is missing. All easy to fix with a slight shift in POV though.

(Here's more on adding emotion to a scene)

5. Most of all, does it make you want to read on?

Not yet, but I think the pieces are there to hook me (readers chime in here). Much of it will also depend on where this takes place. As an opening, it's still missing some critical details to set the scene and ground a reader to what's going on, but a later scene might be fine.

(Here's more on hooking your reader in the opening pages)

Overall, I'd suggest a slight shift to more inside the POV's head looking out, and a little more information about where this is, who he is, and a hint of what he's doing. Not enough to give it away if you want a mystery there, but is he running from someone trying to kill him, a partner in crime who just double crossed him, a victim he was trying to hurt who got the better of him? He could be a good guy or a bad guy and I don't know yet, and I don't have enough details to build any type of opinion about him. Toss in a few more personal details and readers will be able to start figuring out who he is and what he's doing, and better still, wonder and worry about what's going on.

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.

3 comments:

  1. Dear Writer:

    Janice gave you terrific advice. I particularly benefited from her thoughts on "filter words." I hope my sense of this helps you: Whenever we write using this style we create a kind of psychic distance between the pov character and our readers -- which shows the writer's hand, and in turn becomes telling. Practice her advice on closing that gap. I did find your piece interesting; a tighter pov could make it intriguing.

    Continued luck.

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  2. hmm will try this again - net ate my post... :D

    First, thanks for sharing. This is such a unique venue for checking a story start.

    You're now armed with great advice, so don't give up.

    I'll mention (my editor brain talking here) that I got a little caught up in all the 'rushing' about and had no idea if the main character was male or female, but that was probably just about to become clear in the inn scene.

    Telling is such a universal issue and I've discussed it with many of the authors I work with - a conclusion was formed that we writers all 'tell' our story to ourselves, sometimes over and over, as we work things out. Then, if the story is to be first person POV, we suddenly have to shift gears and stop telling our story and have our character live it instead. I think that this is something everyone learns to do - eventually - but sure reminds me of the mental equivalent of patting the top of your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.

    Keep at it - let us see what changes you've made too! You have a built-in cheering squad...

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  3. If the blood is spurting out doesn't that mean they hit an artery? Sorry- that is what I thought as I was reading; how is he still alive?

    ReplyDelete