A Lesson in Deep POV — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see ya on the flipside.

Murder Audit 

Jim Dunn, Controller of Prairie Pipeline Co., rubbed his eyes as he glanced up at the clock on the wall of his office. It was almost 7:00 pm and while this would be an early night for him, he was ready to call it quits. He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count. Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day.

            He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of Crown Royal. He unscrewed the cap and poured a good jigger into his stale, cold coffee. After replacing the bottle in his desk drawer, he swirled his coffee cup and downed the concoction in three big gulps. As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

            “Get outta here you granola loving hippies! This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!” As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

            “I’m calling the police!”

            “Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

Overall, I liked this piece. I can see the potential for a fast-paced story, rife with conflict. It’s because of the writer’s potential that I’ve narrowed in on POV.

What we find with this first page is a distance narrator. The following words in bold are all telling words and phrases. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our pace. One day it’ll just click. My hope is, this is that day for Anon.

When we tell the reader what’s happening rather than showing the events as they unfold, we’re robbing them of a vicarious experience and thus, they won’t be as invested in the story. Force them feel what our POV character is up against. If we don’t, the reader stays detached and it’s easy for them to put down the book.

Taken from the first paragraph, let’s reword into showing.

Telling:

He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count.

Showing:

In preparation for PPC’s annual financial statement audit, he’d worked ungodly hours. Everything must be perfect for tomorrow. If the inventory count was off even a fraction, he could lose his job.

See the difference? We’re now inside the MC’s head.

Let’s look at the same paragraph, last sentence.

Telling:

Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day. 

Showing:

Several weeks ago, he’d met with his audit manager. To say it didn’t go well was an understatement. For the last several days, he’d even beaten the crows to work, and their day started at dawn. The pesky buggers never missed an opportunity to raid the dumpster. What a mess they left, too.

Note the hints of environment as well as personality? Using deep POV allows the reader to get to know our MC a little at a time.

I’m including the next line for a different reason.

He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. 

The word “looked” in this context isn’t wrong, per se, but it is generic. Meaning, we have no idea “how” the MC is looking at the crowd below. By using a weak verb we miss an opportunity to show the MC’s reaction. Try “gaped,” which shows shock, “glared,” which shows aggravation or anger, “scowled,” which shows resentment, disgust, anger. Choose the word that best describes “how” the MC is staring at the crowd. Incidentally, don’t only concentrate on the eyes. A curled lip shows just as much disgust and paints a better picture.

2nd Paragraph

As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

Showing:

When he set the cup on the monogrammed coaster, one of the few things the ex-ball-and-chain hadn’t stolen, voices resonated below. Better not be those damn protesters again. For liquid courage, he poured another coffee royal, tossed his head back, and sucked the mug dry. (side note: I loved Jim’s coffee royal habit; my 90 y.o. Italian grandfather-in-law tipped quite a few in his day. 🙂 )

Jim shoved open the window. (Example of using a body cue instead of dialogue tag) “Get outta here, you granola-lovin’ hippies!” (Great dialogue. Good job, Anon!)

However, the following dialogue doesn’t work.

“This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!”

The first line in the above passage is too on-the-nose. The second could work if reworded to sound more natural. Although, I’d rather see Anon use the dialogue to show us more of Jim’s personality. It’s precious real estate and shouldn’t be wasted by sneaking in backstory.

As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

“I’m calling the police!” 

Heard and see are telling words. The dialogue should come after the body cue, not on a separate line. Also, why have Jim close and reopen the window? Keep it open. If you need Jim away from the window, let him refill his coffee royal. Which also gives us the opportunity to show the reader how pissed off or frightened he is.

Rewritten:

Jim swiped the Crown Royal off his desk, and a pummel of tings blasted against the side of the building. He chanced a peek out the window. About twenty of the angry mob whipped rocks at the bricks, some even hit the new Prairie Pipeline Company sign. As CEO, he couldn’t let this behavior continue. Hidden by the window frame, his body flattened against the wall, his voice betrayed his confident front when it raised three octaves. “I’m calling the cops!”

Notice how I slipped in the name of the company and his job title? Here isn’t as intrusive as the first line and we won’t risk overloading our reader with information before they get a chance to know Jim.

Last paragraph:

“Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

First, cue the reader to who’s speaking right away. “Ooh, the police,” yelled the protest leader. Barry something-or-other. This wasn’t the first time he’d had run-ins with that loud-mouthed-loser. “We’re scared now!”

The next line is all telling and does nothing to further the plot — delete.

Rewrite the rest of the paragraph to hint at the story to come.

So damn tired of environmental groups disrupting the normal work flow, never mind the time spent before and after hours, something had to give. It was almost as if they sensed when he pulled into the parking lot. Had they planted cameras? Stalked him? Oh, maybe they attended the fundraiser tonight. Bunch of tree-huggers trying to find a way to relocate birds once PPC laid the new pipeline. If only these earthy-crunchy types could disappear. Vanished. Scraped off the planet like gum on a sneaker’s sole. But how?

He smirked. Murder might be an option.

###

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this first page. If Anon deepens the POV, s/he could have an intriguing story.

Jordan passed me the music challenge gauntlet. So, I’m including the inspiration behind Paradox, my killer in SCATHED, Grafton County Series, (release date TBA). #TKZMusicChallenge

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give to strengthen this first page?

 

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33 thoughts on “A Lesson in Deep POV — First Page Critique

  1. Thanks for the lesson on deepening POV. Since my favorite books are from older generations where a distant 3rd is the norm, deepening POV is not a technique that comes easily to me nor does it really seem off. But I know it’s essential for today’s readers, so every exposure helps. 😎

    • I’m so glad you found the post useful, BK. The classics and older books do use a more distant narrator, and I think that’s what trips up many writers. I had the same problem.

  2. I’m always flagging telling passages when I edit. You noted many of the words I come across in manuscripts. Those little buggers sneak in all the time.

    One of my writing mentors used to say writing first person was the easiest way to teach POV because it was literally typing direct thought. I don’t enjoy writing first person, but I can see what he meant by that. Something about switching from “I” to “s/he” makes people add unnecessary distancing words.

    Great job on this lesson, Sue.

    • Thanks, Staci. I can see why your mentor believed 1st would be easier than 3rd, but I’m not sure I agree with the blanket statement. Both POVs should be written the same way. The only difference is the pronoun, as you know. 😉

      • That’s exactly how I write 3rd person. I think his thought was that new writers can’t make the switch without adding a distancing word.

        In the end, I think you have to be comfortable to make it work. It’s natural to me to write in 3rd, but when I try 1st (or even 2nd) I have to think about it.

  3. I’d like to add a macro-perspective note to Sue’s great micro-analysis.

    If I read this first page, I’d be skeptical that the author is going to do anything original with this bad guy v good guy, pipeline company v environmentalists topic.

    Getting better “deep POV” will help. But I’d want to see something in the first page that told me the story as a whole wouldn’t be a cliché. Anon should consider the whole story–what is s/he saying that’s interesting? Then get something of that in the first page or so. Anon has a good start in that we’re not looking at the whole company but a key individual. (But why the Controller? Is the story really about finance and/or inventory? about inventory or protests or environments?)

    Another point: I find the setting of the confrontation not convincing. Beyond the problem of capturing what a real demonstration is like (TV doesn’t do it well either, of course), what is the physical relationship of the antagonists? It doesn’t seem like Dunn is on the first floor. Even if he’s just on the second floor, could that exchange between him and one person in the crowd actually take place?

    Maybe he confronts them as he’s leaving the building. This puts the two sides face-to-face. Then maybe he gets reckless (lots of coffee Royal) or maybe he’s forced to retreat back into the building and call the police.

  4. Thank you so much for your feedback, Sue! I appreciate you taking the time to do this. Oops, I guess I’m not Anon anymore.

  5. Wow, a little Ozzie with my Java this morning! That’ll wake me up.

    Good examples, Sue, on converting telling to showing. It’s easy to tell writers how to do this but harder to actually show it.

    • One test I learned is to substitute “I” for every “he” or the character’s name. Because Deep POV is about as close to 1st person as you can get, and it’s a way to make sure you’re not slipping.

      On the flip side, those “distancing” words become a critical tool when your POV character is engaging another one, because s/he can’t know what the other character is thinking, feeling, etc. It’s a matter of balance, and again, showing.

      • I wonder if that’s one reason I have to work so hard at deep POV–because it’s so similar to 1st person. While I have read a few 1st person books, it’s not a favorite. On the other hand, for that reason, once I master deep POV, I might find that a liberating escape–not first person, but not distant third either.

  6. I like this piece. Apart from a few punctuation errors, there are a couple of suggestions I’d make.

    First, Jim’s lecture through the window to the protesters is unrealistic. He wouldn’t really lecture them about PPC’s importance to the town or about working for their subsidiaries. He might think it, and that would be appropriate, but as dialogue, it comes off as stilted.

    Second, the protester should “snap back”, not “sarcastically snap back”. The sarcasm is more than evident in his comment, so the adverb is redundant, as adverbs usually are when used in a dialogue tag.

    Finally, the last sentence is run-on. Break it up into two or three shorter sentences and it will flow much more smoothly.

    • Good input, Don. Thanks.

      Re: snap back. If the dialogue is strong enough, we shouldn’t need anything but he said, he asked, and the like. My hand’s been slapped more than once by my editor for getting too fancy.

  7. I adore deep POV, especially because I can get totally inside my character’s mind, voice and mannerisms. Sometimes my characters possess me, and I speak the way they do with my friends, who, of course, think I’m crazy but love me anyway.

    I like all the suggestions (except for one grammar mistake, the disagreement between “hidden” and “voice”), and the author should note how getting inside the character’s head helps to keep you from unnecessary descriptions (i.e., all that stuff about the coffee is unimportant and doesn’t move the story forward.) That was my first reaction to this excerpt–gah, get rid of that extraneous stuff.

    I like to see a story or scene question in the first or second paragraph. One other commenter suggested finding a way to take the story out of the tree-hugger/corporate trope, so maybe you can kill two birds with one stone: hint at the real and interesting conflict to come (because this story should be more than merely a battle between environmentalists and corporations but about people), and at the same time let us feel that your main character isn’t all bad. Right now, the story opens with a character we assume is on the side of the corporation, and maybe that’s what you want so that later you can show how he changes, but it’s a risky way to open for us tree-hugger types (she says proudly as she lights up another cigarette!)

    It’s good that we know this will be a story in a setting of conflict between environmentalists and the evil corporations, but that’s setting or context, not the actual story. It verges on being an info dump without something more. Ask yourself why you’re really writing this story, what you want to show, and then set that up with something your character does that puts him, as an individual, against something–even if his conflict is internal. In other words, you may have started your story in the wrong place.

    A note about “financial statement audit.” I used to know a fair bit about generally accepted accounting principles, etc., and even once appeared in court as an expert witness to interpret some financial statements, but that was years ago. I’m not sure that it’s a financial statement audit, but rather simply an annual audit… or worse, an IRS audit. Something to double check. Maybe. I might be wrong.

    I would definitely read the revised version with the deep POV.

    • Ha! Fellow tree-hugger here, Sheryl. Excellent feedback. Thanks a bunch.

      The coffee royals brought back fond memories of my Nannou, whom I adored, so I loved that about Jim.

  8. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. I don’t have a lot of time right now, but I promise I’ll give more feedback a little later. For now, I’d like you to go through your opening scene and do the following:

    1. Mark all backstory in blue highlighter.
    2. Mark all description in pink highlighter.
    3. Mark all inner monologue in yellow highlighter.

    Then read this article by Jane Friedman (which is based on the Paula Munier’s advice).

    One quick comment before I run off (sorry, but I have plans for early this evening). If there’s a riot outside of the guy’s window, think about starting the story with a rock landing in the guy’s coffee cup or something. That’s where the action really starts. Better still, have the rock break something that is really meaningful to the protagonist. You’re taking too long to “warm up” when telling this story.

    Think of it like this. When you go to hear a symphony concert, do you want to listen to the soloist warm up with scales for 15 minutes before getting to the concerto? Probably not, unless the soloist is really good looking and isn’t wearing any clothes.

    Sorry, but I have to run now. I promise to give you some more later, though.

    • I’m so glad you concentrated on the big picture, Joanne. With these critiques we need to pick and choose what to focus on, with the hope that others will fill in the blanks.

      Thanks for the link. Paula Munier’s advice is spot-on. Hence why I’m a big proponent of prologues. The standard advice is to never open with a prologue, but they can work really well. For example, to foreshadow a pivotal point later in the story, like the First Plot Point or Midpoint, and thus, drop the reader in the middle of the action and make them fear for the MC’s safety. It keeps them flipping pages. Then again, I like to push boundaries, anyway. Which sometimes means going against the norm.

      • I know what you mean, Sue. With the whole gang here giving feedback, our brave writer will have lots to consider when doing revisions. TKZers are such nice people.

        I just found the link to an article written by Chuck Wendig entitled “Why Stories Should Never Begin at the Beginning“, which I’d like to share with our brave writer. I think it will help.

        You mentioned prologues. One of my favorite authors, Nora Roberts, used a prologue in The Villa, and I read that book cover to cover in one sitting. The prologue had a delicious opening line. I have nothing against prologues, per se. I often find myself skipping prologues, though, if they’re not well-executed.

  9. Correction. The article I referenced was written by Paula Munier, but it appeared on Jane’s blog. Anyway, read what Paula has to say. I think it will help you.

  10. Ha! I’ve been writing most of the day & only just saw your music retort. OZZY – Since this submission ended with birds, I was thinking ozzy would end with a chicken. Thanks for the chuckle & good feedback on this submission.

  11. Thanks Sue for providing such great examples of “show don’t tell.” They make the distinction so clear for me that I realise I didn’t quite grasp the concept before. Thankyou!

  12. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

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