Saturday, August 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Third-Person POV Suspense Opening 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 it on the site. 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:

1. This is the first time I've written in 3rd person and past tense. Is it done correctly?

2. Do you get an emotional connection with the MC?

3. Does this opening work for a suspense novel?


Market/Genre: Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The remnants of someone else’s lunch floated around Iris’ desk, further distracting her from the pile of work she should finish before her vacation begins. A small garbage can nearby, topped with a burger wrapper and greasy french-fries prompted Iris to casually stretch her leg, moving the offensive odor. She stopped to study the heels of her black Manolo’s, wondering if closeted pregnant women were meant to wear stilts, maybe questioning why her sneaky husband lavished her with another pair.

At that moment, the natural light slowly disappeared from the doorway. She glanced over, saw her boss’ large frame fill the opening, and settled back into her chair. Iris always welcomed Giles' British humor but his furrowed brow sent off a different vibe today. He rocked on his heels, “The judge is releasing that wanker Washburn from prison.”

A flash of nervousness trickled through Iris’ fingers as she placed her pen on her desk. Had she ever seen him this ticked-off? She gestured to the only chair without stacks of client’s folders. He declined, folding his arms across his chest instead.

“The press is outside, Iris. This time, your gut instinct is completely off its trolley.” She sat straighter in her chair, stiffening with his accusation. As a doctor of social work, her job was to determine truth from fiction in criminal matters and this sometimes resulted in harsh reactions from the public. But never from her boss.

Giles pointed a finger in her direction, “If he kills again, this bloody rubbish will hit our department hard.” During the quiet moment that followed, Iris swallowed the hard lump in her throat.

She gathered her stack of documents and straightened them into a neat pile. She opened a folder, slid the papers inside, and held firm while flashing a gentle smile, “I’ll stand by my instincts. He’s taking the fall for someone else.”

And, as she folded her hands across her growing stomach, Iris thought about her husband and hoped - for once - her instincts were wrong.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The remnants of someone else’s lunch [floated around Iris’ desk,] I can’t picture what this means [further distracting] since I haven’t seen her distracted yet, this sounded odd her from the pile of work she should finish before her vacation [begins.] began A small garbage can nearby, topped with a burger wrapper and greasy french-fries [prompted Iris to casually stretch her leg,] feels told and explains her motive moving the offensive odor. She [stopped to] explains motive study the heels of her black Manolo’s, wondering if closeted pregnant women were meant to wear stilts, maybe questioning why her sneaky husband lavished her with another pair.

At that moment, the natural light slowly disappeared from the doorway. She glanced over, saw her boss’ large frame fill the opening, and settled back into her chair. Iris always welcomed Giles' British humor but his furrowed brow sent off a different vibe today. He rocked on his heels, “The judge is releasing that wanker Washburn from prison.”

A flash of nervousness trickled through Iris’ fingers [as she placed] makes it sound like she’s nervous because of the pen her pen on her desk. Had she ever seen him this ticked-off? She gestured to the only chair without stacks of client’s folders. He declined, folding his arms across his chest instead.

“The press is outside, Iris. This time, your gut instinct is completely off its trolley.” [She sat straighter in her chair, stiffening with his accusation.] These say the same thing As a doctor of social work, her job was to determine truth from fiction in criminal matters and this sometimes resulted in harsh reactions from the public. But never from her boss.

Giles pointed a finger in her direction, “If he kills again, this bloody rubbish will hit our department hard.” [During the quiet moment that followed,] feels tellish Iris swallowed the hard lump in her throat.

[She gathered her stack of documents and straightened them into a neat pile. She opened a folder, slid the papers inside, and held firm while flashing a gentle smile,] seems like a lot to do before she speaks again “I’ll stand by my instincts. He’s taking the fall for someone else.”

[And, as she] explaining folded her hands across her growing stomach, Iris thought about her husband and hoped - for once - [her instincts were wrong.] intriguing

The questions:

1. This is the first time I've written in 3rd person and past tense. Is it done correctly?


Mostly. You didn’t say what narrative distance you were aiming for, so I didn’t know if this was a tight third person or more of an omniscient third. It feels more distant to me, closer to omniscient than tight or limited third, however. Let’s dig in a little and look at the areas that felt detached or told:
The remnants of someone else’s lunch floated around Iris’ desk, further distracting her from the pile of work she should finish before her vacation began.
There’s nothing here to show or suggest she was distracted, so being “further distracted” feels like I missed a line of text. It’s also explaining that Iris is distracted, it’s not showing any signs of her being so. “Floated around her desk” is also an odd image, and I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be picturing here.
A small garbage can nearby, topped with a burger wrapper and greasy french-fries prompted Iris to casually stretch her leg, moving the offensive odor.
The “prompted Iris to” explains the reason why she moved her leg, though I don’t understand the connection between the trash and her casually stretching. I suspect the leftover lunch is in her trash and it’s smelling, so she pushes the garbage can away with her foot. But the focus in on her motive for acting, not on what she’s actually doing. And the words used don't mesh with what she does. A casual stretch is different from a purposeful push.
She stopped to study the heels of her black Manolo’s, wondering if closeted pregnant women were meant to wear stilts, maybe questioning why her sneaky husband lavished her with another pair.
“Stopped to study” suggests she ceased what she was doing, but she already pushed the garbage away, so there was no reason to stop. “To study” also explains her motive for stopping instead of just showing her spotting something on her shoes that drew her attention. It’s also odd why she stops to study her shoes in the first place. “Wondering, maybe questioning” also feels a little tellish, explaining that she’s thinking about these things, but never showing her doing it.
At that moment, the natural light slowly disappeared from the doorway.
“At that moment” feels outside watching the scene, not being inside Iris’s head. If this is omniscient it’s fine, but if the point of view is supposed to be tight in Iris’s head, it’s telling.
A flash of nervousness trickled through Iris’ fingers as she placed her pen on her desk.
There’s a stimulus/response snag here. “As she placed” suggests the flash of nervousness either happens at the same time she puts the pen on the desk, or as a result of putting the pen on the desk. But the reason she’s nervous has nothing to do with the pen, so the focus on the details feels off. She feels nervous because of her boss, and she sets the pen down. But since I never see her pick the pen up, and the last thing she was doing was messing with her shoes, I’m not sure where the pen came from, so there's a bit of a disconnect overall.
She sat straighter in her chair, stiffening with his accusation.
Sitting straighter in her chair is a reaction to his accusation, so “stiffening with his accusation” is a bit redundant and tellish. Perhaps try something such as, “She stiffened in her chair.” Show what she does with a word that suggest she was offended by what he said.
During the quiet moment that followed, Iris swallowed the hard lump in her throat.
“During the quiet moment that followed” draws attention to the pause where there is no action, which feels odd since it’s a normal conversation. Why mention he stopped talking if it's not unusual? It’s also telling a bit, explaining that the conversation has paused. But since there’s no dialogue, it’s clear that no one is speaking.

(Here’s more on show, don’t tell, and the things that affect it)

I suspect you’re picturing this scene unfold in your mind and describing what you see and what you know happened, so the details read correctly to you. But what’s happening, is that the action isn’t coming through and the attention is on the wrong things. The conversation is what matters, not the moments when no one is speaking. The smell of the trash bothers Iris, not the can itself. She's worried about her pregnancy, not why her husband is buying her heels.

I think you’re trying too hard to set the scene and explain what’s going on so you’re not showing what the characters are physically doing. Now that you know what happens, try revising this to show what they do, say, and think, and cutting out everything that explains motive.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

2. Do you get an emotional connection with the MC?

No, but I rarely do with a distant third person. It’s too detached for my personal taste (readers chine in here). But preference aside, I’m not sure there’s enough internalization or personal details to connect to her yet.

Since this feels detached overall, I’m not yet getting a sense of who Iris is or what she’s feeling. Is she happy about being pregnant? Worried? She’s being yelled at by her boss, yet she’s about to go on vacation, so the issue with the killer can’t be that important or she wouldn’t be leaving.

(Here's more on writing internalization with a tight point of view)

I’m also not sure what the focus of the scene is. Iris is pregnant, but that doesn’t seem important since she casually wonders about it. She’s going on vacation, but that feels more like an afterthought. There’s a press conference outside that could be very bad for her career, yet she barely reacts to it. She’s worried about her instincts, which is interesting, but there’s not enough there yet to know why (though it looks like that might be mentioned in the next paragraph).

Because I don’t know what matters to Iris, and what she wants in this scene, I can’t connect to her. She’s just a person sitting there doing random things. I’d suggest adding a little more internalization to make it clear what her problem is (the scene goal) and how this press conference (I gather) is going to be a problem for her.

(Here’s more on the narrative focus)

3. Does this opening work for a suspense novel?

The final line did intrigue me, and I’m curious what her husband and the killer have to do with each other. It’s interesting that she stands by her instincts while hoping they’re wrong, and I love that contradiction. Unexpected.

The opening as a whole, did not grab me, though. I didn’t understand enough about what was going on and why it mattered to be drawn in. There are inklings toward the end that Iris is worried her husband is the killer and the current suspect is covering for him. If so, that’s pretty cool, and I’d love to see the emotions that would no doubt go with that situation. If not, what problem is there that you could use to create a reason for readers to turn the page? Why should they read this book?

(Here’s more on creating story questions to draw readers in)

Overall, I think there’s potential here that’s not making it to the page yet. Suspense tends to be very personal—a person in danger—so a tighter point of view would work well with this type of story. I’d suggest revising with a tight third person point of view in mind and seeing this same scene through Iris’s eyes. Focus on what she sees and how she feels about it. Let readers into her head and see the things she’s worried about right now. I think you’ll find it easier to write in a tight third person, and get the more personal and emotional connection you’re after.

(Here’s more on writing a close third person point of view)

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.

11 comments:

  1. Is the stink of old garbage making Iris nauseous because she's pregnant? If that's the image, you may want to just come out and say so. When I first read the opening I thought people had eaten lunch on her desk and left their old wrappers sitting on top of her paperwork. This sounds a bit over-written to me. Sorry if I'm being harsh. I don't mean to be! I just think you're letting the build of atmosphere get in the way of understanding the story.

    For myself, whenever someone says a thing is over-written I get so discouraged, because I think to myself `but- if its already over-written and I try to fix it, won't I just be over-over writing it, like putting leftovers back in the microwave?' But I think in this case, it's more a matter of over-thinking. Maybe relax a little. Have fun. Be sloppy. If its not perfect, you can edit later. :) Good luck! Experimenting with a new tense takes bravery; you are already brave to have started.

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  2. I agree with Janice's feedback. I think the missing layer here is the protagonist's emotional reactions to the situation. The best advice I ever got was that readers care less about the details of what's happening and more about how the situation makes the protagonist feel. Thank you for sharing your work and best of luck with your writing!

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  3. I hope this author takes the positive push Janice has provided and confidently re-works this opening. It seems to me that some of the insecurity of writing in a 'new' POV may have gotten in their way.

    The 'floating' use was confusing enough that my mind found an image that would work, and then tried to cram everything into that image. The trashcan being moved ruined it though, as I couldn't get that into the image of the MC being on a space station,forced to work with really sloppy people who couldn't be bothered with the rules about leaving food floating about -- no matter how much fun it was to leave a sandwich hanging in mid-air until you're ready for the next bite...

    I also anticipated her to be equating her changing condition with the vacation -- different swim suit? last vacation with just the two of them? how far along is she and has morning sickness invaded, which could impact pending vacation?

    We don't know what she's working on at her desk, so are forced to develop our own ideas of how important the work might be. Vestiges of someone else's lunch might mean that she was just working with someone, sharing her desk. So, that person is well known to her we presume. A co-worker? A gal pal who stopped by to bring the MC's favorite burger -- only to have it then gross her out?

    When the natural light from the doorway is blocked, I wondered what kind of layout allowed that much natural light to come into a presumed office-type area. Also, when someone walks up to a door, it's rarely a slow blocking of the light -- unless her boss was sneaking...

    There are files everywhere -- and filling apparently multiple chairs, as only one chair is available to sit in -- which, to me, indicates an overworked person or very messy/disorganized worker or both.

    Put that with the meandering thoughts/actions and the character becomes someone who is distracted, sleepy, or suffering from pregnant-brain (friends have confirmed this state of mind).

    I then have to ask: is this really the character's frame of mind, that nothing is really that important or concerning?

    If she's passionate about her work, it doesn't show. If she's passionate about the pregnancy, it doesn't show.

    The exchange with her boss is confusing, if used to determine the status of their relationship. He seems to be blaming her for something she did, but it's not clear what she did. I had difficulty trying to imagine what she'd done, or what position of power she held, that would illicit such anger. Did she testify and allow a supposed killer to go free? Did the killer get convicted and she made a statement regarding his innocence to the press?

    Her reaction comes across as nervous and insecure. Coupled with the overall image of someone who is kind of nonplussed about everything, it doesn't give us a strong character to have feelings about.

    Perhaps she can be stressed about getting things done before vacation. She called in a co-worker for support, who ate lunch instead -- a gross lunch. She stares at the piles of files everywhere, feeling imprisoned. She sheds the high heels, aggravated that she's wearing them -- and only because they were a gift from her husband and wondering why he bought the bloody things. She taps a pen against her forehead, mentally calculating how much time she will have to spend to get things ready, wishing she were already on vacay...and then her boss shows up.

    If you set her up to be agitated, working hard, wishing for the vacation NOW, and showing a bit of anxiety about the pregnancy, then when the angry boss shows up, her nervous, jittery reaction is well-placed.

    Good start! Love the female protagonist! Many thanks for being in the spotlight so all can learn and progress. Best wishes to you!

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  4. There isn't much I can add beyond what Janice has already pointed out. I will agree—while noting the 3rd voice isn't specified—there's too much telling and not enough showing at times. As she did, I'd encourage you to explore a tighter 3rd. Genre aside, there were hints here and there that it'd be a good fit for your writing. If you've dismissed the idea you're selling yourself short.

    I wonder if some of the "incomplete" or "truncated" showing remains after drafting because YOU know what YOU mean. I say this because I do the same thing. I fly along in a desire to get the entire story down and big moments become shorthand. Later, I read through and my brain processes what I was thinking and not what I wrote. I'm learning to spot the problem and reading your passage actually helped. Thanks for that.

    In a similar vein is some of the confusing description/direction. The most pronounced, and the one that stopped me in my tracks, was "someone else's lunch." "Around her desk" suggested to me there were wrappers, etc. scattered on the surface, but then she spots those in the trashcan and I thought I'd misread. It seems minor in the story, but minor confusions are speed bumps in the flow.

    Most of this you can catch in editing, of course. Despite the issues, I sense an intriguing story here. Again, I encourage Deep 3rd with multiple viewpoints (if necessary). I could hear the voice trying to get out, as if your writer brain was pushing you in that direction. I see this as a rough passage written by a good writer. Having submitted this piece here shows you're on the right track.

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  5. interesting comments all around. I'd agree with the distance from the mc. But this part intrigued me, "wondering if closeted pregnant women were meant to wear stilts, maybe questioning why her sneaky husband lavished her with another pair." Made me think all was not good in this marriage.

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  6. Thank you so much for all of your great input. I appreciate all of you taking so much time and effort to help me become a better writer. It's funny, the things that nagged at me are the things everyone pointed out. I have to listen to my instincts, too!

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  7. A couple of thoughts: First, the beginning paragraph is not needed at all. I'd dump it. Then examine the rest of the paragraphs to see if they add to the story. Next, reread to see what needs to be added.
    Your concerned about the relationship to the MC is important. I agree that this treatment didn't quite make it. In Robert McKee's new book on Dialogue he talks about 'Writing in Character'. What he means is simple. Climb inside the character so you have all her skills and baggage around you. Feel her needs and fears. Then write from there. It helped me.
    If you're interested in what Mckee has to say this is his websitehttp://mckeestory.com/blog/

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  8. 1. I have to disagree with the other posters. Third person is a little distant, and more told than first. Aside from some style errors Janice pointed out in purple, i think the writing is ok.
    2. I did connect with her. She's in a very bad place, a lot of trouble on her head, i really felt for her.
    3. It surely works. A woman with a dysfunctional marriage, somehow connected to a killer who got free, and, of course, that last sentence that throws everything upside down. Great hook.
    One thing where i agree with everybody else is the first paragraph...awkward and overwritten.

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    Replies
    1. Saerguis, that is exactly why I've never written third person before and experimenting with this. You completely understood what I was trying to get across. Thanks for your comment!

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  9. I was thrown by the first sentence. I thought it might be about flooding, which would be interesting and timely. It was, though, florid prose describing something far more mundane...

    "The remnants of someone else’s lunch floated around Iris’ desk, further distracting her from the pile of work she should finish before her vacation begins."

    The word "floated" is wrong. In what manner are these bits of trash floating? Floating implies they are moving, bobbing, have the ability to traverse some distance on their own. That kind of miscue is all it takes to throw me out of the story and write a bitchy comment.

    If that wasn't enough, we move into the second sentence:

    " A small garbage can nearby, topped with a burger wrapper and greasy french-fries prompted Iris to casually stretch her leg, moving the offensive odor."

    Stretch her leg to move an offensive odor? She kicked something to have it move slightly? It doesn't make a lot of sense, and it shows us she's too lazy to get rid of the garbage properly. She's too lazy to bother with, essentially. She's another anonymous shlub in the Office Space whom I can't be bothered investing my valuable time in...


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