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Saturday, March 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Writing a Close Point of View

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 we 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.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 30.

This week’s questions:

1. I am still struggling with close third POV, would you point out where I go out of close POV? And if there are spots that are right or close, could you point a few of those out too?

2. Is a clear character voice coming through, or is a lot coming out somewhat bland?

3. Is there enough description to follow? Or do I need more?

4. Is there enough interest to read on?

5. Is there enough magic or hinted at magic to indicate it's fantasy?

Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

The buildings all looked the same to Wendell. All except for the dilapidated mess dumped at the end of the street Seth had described with little detail, but with accuracy. Barricaded windows. Peeling brownish paint hardly distinguishable from the dried, packed mounds of earth surrounding it.

The door rattled and swung open before Wendell could knock a third time. A small balding man ducked out the opening and peered in all directions--including up. His hand darted out, snatched Wendell by the shirt, and yanked him inside. The strange fellow shut the door with care, then set to turning multiple locks lining the jamb. He picked up an everlit lantern previously hidden by the open door and traced one of the warded symbols along the metal base. A soft shade of blue blossomed from it.

Wendell straightened his shirt. “I was told you sell alicorn?”

"Shhh! You weren't followed, were you?" The man whispered.

"No. I don't think--"

"Arrgh." The man pulled Wendell down a hallway and waved a hand at a thoroughly disorganized room. “There’s a stool. Sit. And don’t… just don’t touch anything.”

A few weak beams of sunlight, coming in from the ceiling, guided Wendell through the maze of boxes and stacks of paper till he found the stool. Click-creak, clack-clack-clack. Was he really checking for unwanted visitors again?

Wendell needed to stay calm with all the fire hazards strewn about and stacked up like kindling. It wouldn’t take much… Wendell clutched his now warm hand to his chest. Where was that lunatic with the alicorn?

My Thoughts in Purple:

The buildings all looked the same to Wendell. All except for the dilapidated mess dumped at the end of the street [Seth had described with little detail, but with accuracy.] I like this line, but I don’t know if it refers to the mess or the street Barricaded windows. Peeling brownish paint hardly distinguishable from the dried, packed mounds of earth surrounding [it.] Structurally, this refers to the paint, but mounds of earth surrounding peeling paint doesn’t seem right. You could also go tighter in his POV by adding an internal thought here

The [door] what door? rattled and swung open before [Wendell] he would bring it closer in his POV could [knock a third time.] I think you mean he rapped three times, but “knock” implies three attempts to gain attention, so picture him standing there knocking and no one answering. Which is the opposite of what I think you mean here A small balding man ducked out the opening and peered in all directions—[including up] nice detail. His hand darted out, snatched Wendell by the shirt, and yanked him inside. How does Wendall feel about this? He has no reaction The strange fellow shut the door with care, then set to turning multiple locks lining the jamb. He picked up an [everlit lantern previously hidden by the open door and traced one of the warded symbols along the metal base. A soft shade of blue blossomed from it.] First sign of a magical, fantasy world

Wendell straightened his shirt. How does he feel right now? “I was told you sell alicorn?”

"Shhh! You weren't followed, were you?" [The] the man whispered.

"No. I don't think--"

"Arrgh." The man pulled [Wendell] him for a tighter POV down a hallway and waved a hand at a thoroughly disorganized room. “There’s a stool. Sit. And don’t… just don’t touch anything.”

Good spot for some internal thought of Wendall wondering where the stool is and how he feels about this situation A few weak beams of sunlight, coming in from the [ceiling], from holes or a skylight? guided [Wendell] him for a tighter POV through the maze of boxes and stacks of paper till he found the stool. [Click-creak, clack-clack-clack.] I don’t know where this sound is coming from Was he really checking for unwanted visitors again?

Wendell [needed to stay calm] telling. Show his worry for a tighter POV with all the fire hazards strewn about and stacked up like kindling. It wouldn’t take much… [Wendell] He for a tighter POV clutched his [now warm hand to his chest] Clue of his magic. Where was that lunatic with the alicorn?

The Questions:

1. I am still struggling with close third POV, would you point out where I go out of close POV? And if there are spots that are right or close, could you point a few of those out too?

Most of this is feels distant because we’re never really in Wendall’s head. It’s an outside observer watching him and relating what’s going on. But adding some internal thoughts, showing some emotion, and just changing a few Wendells to pronouns will help pull the POV tighter. Right now I'm watching Wendell, I'm not experiencing this all from inside his head looking out.

(Here’s more on crafting natural sounding internal thoughts)

Think about what Wendell sees and feels as he walks down the street and into the room. The seller is clearly nervous and this looks like an illegal transaction, but Wendell never shows any signs of fear or worry until the end, and even then, it's fear for his power not the sale. He seems more annoyed at the man’s caution than anything else. Maybe this isn’t risky, but the man’s actions suggest that it is and there’s nothing from Wendell to prove or disprove it.

(Here’s more on understanding point of view)

2. Is a clear character voice coming through, or is a lot coming out somewhat bland?

A few hints here and there, and I liked those, but overall it’s bland, because Wendell isn’t “here” in the story yet, and voice comes from what the character is thinking and saying. I suspect once you tighten the POV and add more internal thought and judgment on what he sees, his voice will pop out. There are glimpses of it, so I doubt it would take much to bring it out.

(Here's more on developing a character's voice)

3. Is there enough description to follow? Or do I need more?

There were a few confusing moments, but mostly I followed along. (Readers chine in here, and I have a preference for sparse descriptions). I was unsure how he got from the street to the door, and a few sentences were unclear. A few more details wouldn’t hurt, though. Until the man turns on the lantern, this could have been anywhere. I’m not yet getting a strong sense of this world.

There’s no hint of what alicorn is or why Wendell wants it. I think a little more there would help set the scene a bit better and show some of the stakes, as well as why Wendell is there. It rings of “illegal drug deal,” but there’s not enough to fully get what’s going on. You don’t need to explain all of it, as that’s part of the hook, but a bit more would help. Even just showing Wendall’s thoughts and emotions on how he feels about this buy would help establish what he’s doing there.

(Here’s more on writing POV and descrition)

4. Is there enough interest to read on?

I think so (readers also chime in here). I’m curious about Wendall’s quest for alicorn. His warming hand and worry about setting things on fire suggests his problem and that’s likely tied to the alicorn. I feel like the story is going somewhere and what Wendell is doing is “wrong” in some way, so I’m curious to see where it goes.

(Here’s more on hooking your readers in three easy steps)

5. Is there enough magic or hinted at magic to indicate it's fantasy?

The everlit lantern and the wards say magic, as does Wendell’s warming hand, but that’s all that suggests magic or fantasy. To readers who read the cover blurb and know it's fantasy, that’s probably enough, but for those who hadn’t, or had read it a while before they opened the book, they might be a tad lost.

There were details in this page that work for our world as well as a fantasy world. The street with dirty buildings, peeling paint, and barricaded windows could be any city. There's no sense of how tall these buildings are. There are multiple locks on the jam. Wendell worries about fire hazards, which is a fairly modern thing to think about. Wendell and Seth are also modern “normal” names. This is all easily fantasy, but also not fantasy if someone wasn’t reading closely. It has a city slums vibe from anywhere, and any when.

A few more fantasy details unique to this world in the opening paragraph would help establish the fantasy aspect right away. It would also allow you to flesh out the descriptions a bit, and give Wendell things to observe and comment on to flesh out his character and voice. Perhaps add one paragraph of Wendell seeing the door he needs to knock on and going to it, while thinking a bit about why he’s there and his fears of being there. Don’t overdo it, just a touch, but it would work on multiple levels—character, world bulding, setting, magic, goals, stakes.

(Here’s more on point of view and world building)

Overall, this is off to a good start. The bones feel right, and it’s more a matter of fleshing out and further developing what’s here. A few tweaks to clear up some confusing spots and put it more firmly in Wendell’s head and you should be good to go.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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11 comments:

  1. This is an interesting scene-- the kind that some writers have done amazing things with. I would guess your goal here is to build suspense and a sense of the situation, and if it's our first glimpse of Wendell you're building up to a revelation about his hand. (He's got a firestarting power he can't control, and the alicorn is a possible cure?)

    You say you're still learning deep 3rd-person. Janice said a lot about getting further into Wendell's head. Here's another way to look at it: *everything* in a story is a cycle of what the character observes, what he thinks about it, and what he does.

    That cycle generally skips some steps, say because a character's taking in a whole range of scenery and only has one stated action for every five sights and one thought for every ten. But the more important a scene is, the more useful it can be to slow the cycle down and show Wendell reacting to the last thing he noticed and/or being aware of the next action he takes in response. That strengthens the sense that he isn't "coasting" through an interesting event, he's finding his way through it step by step, and each step is a different reminder or clue about what that moment means.

    For instance, you set the scene by describing the neighborhood... but that's a great chance to hint at what that says to Wendell and his goal. Does the sameness of the buildings make him afraid he's lost? Do the boarded up windows look threatening to him or just "the seller's probably long gone"-- just a hint of that difference touches on whether he's got experience surviving in the slums. (And that's without getting into how your fantasy town's history can show up in that calculation. And it probably should; you don't want to go eight lines up until that lantern without some subtle way of showing what kind of fantasy setting this is.)

    Showing more of that cycle is only one way to do it. Another tool is to slant the observations, the thoughts, and the actions to imply more even when you don't stop to show it affecting the next step. Janice had a great example, on March 1 last week, of working out that one element in a crowd should be described as "I even spotted" to hint that it's not obvious and the character is a little proud of noticing it. Even if you don't spell out a thing's implications, you can show a lot in how you describe it, including which things the character notices at all: "The bartender sees the crowd, the decorator notices the barstools, and the SEAL tracks the exits." How much is Wendell focused on objects he might set fire to, and people who might see him doing it, even if it's subtle? He treats the man as paranoid-- but is that because Wendell is sure there's no danger, or just that his desperation gives him tunnel vision?

    So, you want to be sure you find your own pacing for this-- and make that into your own style. Some writers would get Wendell to that meeting in just a couple of lines, but they'd be precision lines that hinted at the character's need and the world just in passing. (Like the science fiction story that instant-established the world with "The door dilated.") Other writers might take a whole page or more of buildup before the door opened, because they wanted to use every detail of the setting and Wendell's reactions to build suspense. They're different approaches that call for different skills... and as you figure out what works for you, one question to ask is "Can this become my Style, is this the amount of detail and the shortcuts that I'd be comfortable using every time I come to a scene like this?"

    There are so many ways you can nudge readers toward the essence of your story, in even the smallest thing. Most of all I'd say, read how other writers do it, and decide which balance of tools work for you. This scene is heading in the right direction, and there's so much more you can do to show us what that is.

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    1. Great comment Ken Hughes!!

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    2. This is really great! You've given me a lot of great advice and ideas. You're right about a lot of things here, which is a big reason I knew I needed help on this. Thank you so much for this! There are so many things you brought up that are inspiring me already.

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  2. Writing in Deep 3rd is a tricky beast—until it isn't, and then it's almost effortless (or as effortless as writing can be). The first issue that struck me can be fixed by the second.

    The first is using Wendell's name. The first time you use it established this as his POV. After that, every time it was used it pulled me out of the Deep 3rd experience and made this distant. It was used seven times in eight paragraphs, but could have been used just once. This jumps out at me all the more because I struggled with it for a long time.

    Imagine a story in first person where the protagonist keeps referring to themselves by name. It'd stop the reader dead in their tracks.

    Of course, the logical question is, "But how will the reader know who I'm talking about or who's speaking?" The answer is exactly what everyone else here has mentioned: internals. It's the fixer.

    In the second paragraph we know it's Wendell knocking. Internals here pertaining to how he views the experience would reinforce that. Then? New paragraph devoted to "the man" and his actions. Switching to a new paragraph again would, unless stated otherwise, indicate we're back to Wendell. Even so, again, an internal would establish that fact and explain why he feels the need to straighten his shirt.

    As has been noted, there's a lot for him to think about at that moment, from his reason for being there, his reactions to the man's actions, and so on. Is he nervous? If his thoughts indicate he is then they'd explain the need to straighten his shirt.

    Now the reader is firmly in Wendell's head and when he's pulled down the hall the reader is concerned for him. This also launches into some great dialogue on your part, but it's undermined the instant "The man pulled WENDELL down a hallway."

    Boom, we're out of Deep 3rd.

    Unless there's a mysterious third person the man couldn't be pulling anyone else. "The man pulled him down the hallway..." It seems like a small change, but it makes a big difference. More internals there might include Wendell referring to the man by some attribute the reader can see like an erratic, shifting gaze or something else. He might even note a different attribute each time, but not too much.

    It's vital to think of this as an experience Wendell is relating without taking that last step into 1st. Eliminate his name after establishing him, minimize pronouns for him (except where they're necessary for clarity), and use internals/paragraph breaks to help the reader to keep straight who's doing what. Also for clarity, default referring to others by name or attribute when necessary, but referring to the POV character via internals. If you were telling a story you'd state Joe did this and Sara did that and Mike did that thing again and so on. You'd be "I" and you'd do things, but you'd also think about what was happening Here, you'd be he/him because you're Wendell.

    I've found deep POV to often exist on a spectrum. Some writers sprinkle the POV character's name in because it's easier, BUT it's possible to write without doing it at all after establishing who they are. Seriously, it is. I learned Deep 3rd from Marcy Kennedy and, believe me, she and Janice Hardy explain it better, but I'm hoping my experiences paint it in a different light that maybe will help. Good luck! It's an intriguing story with some great dialogue.

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    1. You and Janice totally nailed it on me using his name and worrying about confusing readers. I never thought of it this way. Thank you so much for your comments! This has really helped clarify a lot.

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    2. I just reread the first sentence of my comment and I meant that you guys were totally right. After rereading what I wrote it looked like I might have been mad. I don't want any confusion. I am super happy with everyone's comments

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    3. I absolutely didn't take it that you were angry, but thank you for caring. You're on the right track and will get there!

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  3. Janice, I always enjoy the "Real Life Diagnostics" column, there's always something that I learn from your reply. That said, might I suggest a slight change in your color selection: the purple used for your response is too close in color to the black text on my screen, thus it's always a bit of a challenge to separate original text from your thoughts. Perhaps a nice blue font would result in a clearer differentiation... Thanks!

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    1. I can certainly do that. Thanks for letting me know!

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  4. Sorry, Janice, but I disagree with you on a few points. Reading the original [the door] was the front door. it's obvious to me. The [Click-creak, clack-clack-clack.] is made clear in the next sentence. The man was rechecking for followers. Wendell [needed to stay calm] is telling but it might be needed. I would suggest changing Wendell to Him getting the reader a little closer to the character. As far as this passage still being distant, maybe it's in the first chaper where the author is still introducing everything.

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  5. Thank you, Glynis, I really appreciate your comments! It seems unanimous that I should start with replacing his name with pronouns to bring it clover. Thank you again!

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