Don’t Lose Your Head Over Point-of-View

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here is another first-page critique, with an opportunity to discuss some point-of-view issues. See you in a few:

The woods were dark. The thick leaves rustling overhead blazed with color during the day, but now, at dusk, they faded to shades of gray. The October breeze was crisp. The man moved quietly from tree to tree. He trampled a few mushrooms that looked like elongated little brains. He stopped behind a gnarled oak – just steps from the path that wound its way between the park and the tree line.  The park was where the neighborhood kids played after school.  

As the sun dropped, the man watched the children disburse, heading home for dinner and homework. From his left, voices were lifted in laughter, and three boys topped the rise from the direction of the monkey bars. 11-year-old Josiah and his 8-year-old brother Jacob said goodbye to 10-year-old Brandon, and turned away from the path and the woods toward their house. Brandon shouted a parting insult at one of them, and continued down the same path he travelled every afternoon.

The man tensed with anticipation as he watched and waited for Brandon to cross the small opening in the undergrowth, directly in front of the big oak. Sweat beaded on the man’s forehead as he thought about the delights the next few days would bring. A grim smile stretched his lips. It had been too long.

A stick snapped in the woods behind the man, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Somebody was behind him. Think!

The man bent down and pulled up a few mushrooms. “Nothing like a fresh Morel,” he said aloud. He pivoted slowly as he stood, and feigned surprise as he came face to face with another man standing uncomfortably close.  

Several impressions flashed through his mind in a split second: Tall. Muscular. Piercing blue eyes. Long black hair.

“Brandon is under my protection,” the big man said.  

The big man reached out and placed his hand against the man’s chest.  The man’s eyes widened in surprise and he let out a gasp. His body dropped to the ground.

Removing a sword from the scabbard on his back, the big man severed the man’s head with one swing, and left it on the ground among the mushrooms.

Seconds later, Brandon passed by on the trail, whistling contentedly as he made his way home.

***

JSB: Well, writer, you’ve obviously got a shocking opening moment here, and it certainly has page-turning potential. Who the heck is the tall guy wielding a sword in this day and age? I want to know.

Now it’s just a matter of getting from your opening line to this ending point in the most efficient way possible.

I’m not enamored of the first paragraph. The woods were dark is generic, and ultimately confusing. For in the next line we learn it’s dusk. So my image of nighttime has to be modified. Which means you’re making the reader do some cleanup work. You don’t want that. You want them on the roller coaster car, gripping the safety bar.

Which is why I like to see a POV established at the top, rather than weather or setting descriptions or a distant narrative voice. Not a hard and fast rule, but unless you have a very good reason not to, give us a character in motion as soon as you can.

Thus, one way to start is:

The man moved quietly from tree to tree.

Now, this is omniscient POV. You’re “outside” describing what’s happening “onscreen.” This has the feel of a prologue, and omni-POV is sometimes used in this fashion.

But things begin to get muddy in the second paragraph. By giving us the ages and names of the three children, we assume that this creep knows them. Was that your intent? If so, we need to have at least one line to indicate why this is so. And why Brandon is the target. I have a feeling you didn’t intend this, that this is a stranger, but we need to know one way or the other.

The third paragraph begins to take us inside the guy’s head. But once in there, I wouldn’t back out with A grim smile stretched his lips. The man is not looking at his own smile and describing it as “grim.”

This is why POV is crucial. I don’t want to get overly technical here, but will tell you that you have four basic modes to choose from, with two choices within each. Ack!

Let’s see if I can make it simple.

1. First Person (I was feeling lousy that morning…)
a. Limited (one character narrates throughout, e.g., The Big Sleep)
b. Open (switching between two or more first-person narrators, e.g., Framed)

2. Third Person (She was feeling lousy that morning…)
a. Limited (one character’s head)
b. Open (switching to another character’s head in another scene)

3. Omniscient, wherein the author can choose the level of intrusion, from participating as a commenter (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times) to keeping the author voice muted while allowing “big picture” descriptions (e.g., Lonesome Dove)
a. Limited (to keep focus on one character, e.g., Gone With the Wind)
b. Open (floats between various characters)

(Note: Some teachers peg omniscient a form of third-person. I don’t think that’s helpful, as the issue with omniscience is intrusion and scope. Third person, on the other hand, should not, in my humble opinion, stray from a character’s head.)

4. Cinematic (a form of omniscience), with a narration from “without,” describing only what can be seen, never going  into a character’s thoughts or emotions (e.g., The Maltese Falcon)
a. Limited
b. Open

I did not include the “Hey, look at me!” mode known as Second Person (You walk into the party and see your ex-wife) which is almost never used. I also didn’t mention the option of doing First Person in either past tense (the traditional method) or present tense (which is popular in Young Adult fiction these days). But I should also point out that many thriller authors mix First and Third POV, something James Patterson popularized.

Whew!

Is this stuff really important to know? Um, yeah. Mishandling POV jars readers at the subconscious level, makes them do unnecessary work, disrupts the “fictive dream,” lessens the impact of a scene.

So my advice to new writers is this: get a handle on Third Person, Limited as a default. Move on to Third Person, Open. You can then try First Person, Limited. For many successful authors, that’s all they ever use.

But once you make a POV choice, keep it consistent throughout. (For purposes of this prologue, it seems to me Third Person, Limited is the best bet.)

A stick snapped in the woods behind the man, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Somebody was behind him. Think!

I’d cut everything after the first comma. the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end is a cliché. And it’s quite obvious someone is behind him. We can infer that he’s thinking when he takes the next action, which is to bend down and pluck a mushroom called a Morel. I gotta tell you, I had no idea what that was. Had to Google it. Is this particular type of mushroom essential to the story? Maybe you can come up with some other excuse for the guy. Lost dog, maybe? (I don’t mind him stepping on the mushrooms, though, because I like where his head ends up. See below.)

Now, the sword guy. I’m confused about what happens. The sword guy touches the man’s chest and the guy drops. Is he dead? Is he stunned? If the former, then why chop off his head? If the latter, what caused it? Some sort of magical jolt?

Either one takes away from the impact of the sword. So I’d just have the big guy dispatch the stalker with one swipe, a la Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian.

The last line is jarring to me. I know what you’re going for, but it pulls me out of the moment. It’s just not needed. Leave us with the head in the ’shrooms.

Speaking of which, you know what would be fun? Re-write this piece staying in the stalker’s POV. When he loses his head, stay in his POV, as he ponders for a few seconds his cranium’s fate among the mushrooms.

Another benefit of doing this in close third person is that you could lengthen the scene a bit, which, if this is a prologue, you ought to do. The “prologue issue” has been discussed before, but for our purposes it would make sense to stretch out the tension, keep us wondering what’s going to happen, up until that shocking conclusion.

Style notes:

Never begin a sentence with a numeral. Thus: Eleven-year-old Josiah, etc.

In fiction, the best practice is to spell out ages: He was only elevenHe lived to be eighty-eight. (Unless the age is 100 or more: He died at the ripe old age of 101).

Any further comments for our anonymous writer?

6+

14 thoughts on “Don’t Lose Your Head Over Point-of-View

  1. I would add that I can’t figure out what the genre is – is it YA, fantasy, or mystery? Given the POV of the Headless Nick, I think that might eliminate it from YA.

  2. I think this is an intriguing first page and I certainly want to read more.

    I do, however, feel that I’d connect with the story a bit more if “the man” had a name or a more distinguished title. I know he won’t be here long and the “big man” is probably a million times more important, but for now, “the man” is what couples the reader to the story. I’d like to know him just a smidgen more.

    And, I get the impression that this is set in some sort of fantasy world. If that’s the case, consider names that are less mundane. When I see Jacob, Josiah and Brandon, I immediately think of the world we live in today. A common name, or two, is fine in a fantasy world, but anything more than that takes away from the fantasy.

    Great job writer! I look forward to reading more!

  3. Suggested redo of first paragraph:

    The man moved quietly from tree to tree, trampling on morel mushrooms that looked like elongated little brains. Thick leaves rustled overhead. During the crisp October day, they had blazed bright with color but now, at dusk, they faded to shades of gray. He stopped behind a gnarled oak, just steps from the path that wound its way between the tree line and the park–the park where the neighborhood kids played after school.

    The tone was wonderfully creepy and threatening but I too have problems with POV. Two nameless men made the action a bit hard to follow, e.g. “The big man reached out and placed his hand against the man’s chest.” If the author stays deep in the presumed kidnapper’s head from the time he hears the snap until the blade slices his head off, I think that would strengthen the horror.

    The severed head in the mushrooms is an excellent, vivid image, esp. after the author earlier compared morels to little brains. Since this excerpt has a fantastical feel, here’s a sick, wild idea: Suppose the man’s brain continues to function for a few seconds after decapitation and you give his reaction to his fate at the hands of the sword-wielding protector of children.

    BTW, “disburse” is used only for money. I think you mean “disperse.”

    You use “was” a lot. Try to rearrange sentences using strong verbs instead.

    In Montana, morels are a gourmet delicacy and the Holy Grail among wild mushroom pickers. They sell for more per pound than filet mignon and–no kidding–have prompted shoot-outs between rival mushroom-picking gangs. I have an unfinished novel in the drawer about the great morel mushroom wars.

    Brave author, you’d keep me turning the page to find out who the avenger/protector-of-the-innocent is. Good work!

  4. I too had a problem figuring out the genre. It could be suspense/thriller (kidnapping with murderous intent), fantasy (magic and sword), or a creepy YA.

    Brave writer, have the boys “disperse” which means they go in away in different directions. If they’re “disbursing” they’re paying money out of a fund. Somehow I think any coins boys of that age have in their pockets is going toward soda and candy before it can become a fund.

  5. I agree with the comments and the great POV lesson from JSB. This submission is a strong beginning that a little editing will help.
    For me the clumsiest moment was the introduction of a second man with a sword. It completely changed the perceived genre from a police procedural or a thriller to a fantasy. That was jarring.
    If the the earlier line where Brandon is leaving the playground and shouts an insult (which makes him look like a brat) is changed to a tiny bit of magic, it could be used to foreshadow the swordsman’s appearance. Maybe Brandon can see that one friend is going to trip over a root and the root moves out of the way. Might help the transition.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. You’ve gotten some great feedback from JSB and the others. Here are some other things to consider:

    The Difference Between Suspense and Surprise

    Alfred Hitchcock once gave a great explanation about the difference between surprise and suspense. If a group of people are playing poker and a bomb goes off under the table, that’s surprise. It’s not what the viewer/reader expects. However, if the viewer/readers knows the bomb is there from the start and watches as the timer counts down, that’s suspense.

    Your first page ended with the surprise of a man appearing with a sword out of nowhere. As you continue on your writing journey, think about ways to incorporate suspense into your writing. In some cases, surprise can be effective, but I don’t think it works the way you used it on your first page. The idea is to make the reader worry about the protagonist so that the reader will want to turn the page to find out what happens next. You have to keep those story questions coming.

    POV

    JSB made some comments about POV. If you want to shop your work, consider writing in either first person or third-person limited POV. I’ll add a quote, because I like quotes:

    “Omniscient POV is considered very old-fashioned these days. It’s a red flag for editors; they assume that you don’t know your craft well if you are using omniscient POV. It can mark you as an amateur. I won’t even try to sell a project written in omniscient POV—even in SF/fantasy, which is the only place you really ever see it these days.” — Paula Munier

    (http://www.jungleredwriters.com/2014/11/literary-agent-paula-munier-on-plot.html)

    You need to master POV. There may be a class online you can take. (Maybe JSB can recommend one.)

    Put the Cat in the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen

    Put the Cat In the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen: A Concise, No-Bull Guide To Writing Fiction, a short book by Jake Vander Ark, teaches why your first paragraph shouldn’t include a lot of description.

    In terms of your story, here is your lead (where the action seems to start):

    “The man moved quietly from tree to tree.”

    This is the “cat in the oven,” so to speak. A writer has to balance a lot of story elements on the first page. It’s tricky to balance action, dialogue, description, setting, backstory, inner monologue, and such. Some sentences need to perform double duty in order for the opening to have the most impact.

    Avoid “was” When Possible

    Example:

    “The park was where the neighborhood kids played after school.”

    Try this instead:

    The neighborhood children played in the park after school.

    Example:

    “Somebody was behind him.”

    Try something like this instead:

    He heard footsteps.

    You can expand on that, but you get the idea.

    There are many other uses of “was/were” on your first page. I’ll leave it to you to locate the others. This is an advanced concept. You may notice that lots of published writers use “was”; that’s because sometimes they can get away with it if other aspects of their writing are really great. If you master writing sentences with strong verbs, it will help your work to stand out in a crowd.

    Use an Editor

    There are some issues with punctuation/grammar that need to be addressed.

    Why did you capitalize Morel? This is a type of mushroom, right?

    “Removing a sword from the scabbard on his back, the big man severed the man’s head with one swing, and left it on the ground among the mushrooms.”

    This sentence needs editing. See “Writing Advice—What About -ing Words (Part Four)” by Beth Hill over at The Editor’s Blog.

    “Several impressions flashed through his mind in a split second: Tall. Muscular. Piercing blue eyes. Long black hair.”

    This “his” here refers to “another man standing uncomfortably close.” Not sure that’s what you intended.

    There are other issues. Just be sure to get an editor before you shop your work.

    Don’t confuse disburse and disperse. Debbie already noted this, and I concur.

    Adverbs

    quietly, directly, slowly, uncomfortably

    Some people would advise you to limit the use of adverbs. I counted at least four on your first page. Also, watch out for repeated words and phrases. If adverbs and repeated words don’t leap out at you, use software to find them.

    Redundancy

    “he said aloud”

    You can skip the “aloud” here.

    “the same path he travelled every afternoon.”

    Just use this:

    “the path he traveled every afternoon.”

    The word “same” is redundant.

    Setting

    Make sure you devote enough time to grounding the reader in the norms of your story world. If swords are common, let the reader know before someone whips one out.

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    What is his name? What is his quest? What stands in his way? What are the stakes? And so on…

    Best of luck, and keep writing! Get busy with your revisions, and then give us another look.

  7. Well, the pedophile deserved it. I know, that was gruesome. Now, who is the big man with the sword? Paranormal, sci-fi? I know, time warp. Whatever it is you got me hooked.

  8. Remember those days when you wanted to go get your big brother or an old and bigger friend to go with you to settle the argument about who REALLY won the marble game, and do you still own your steelie?

    Well, I wanted to come get you today. It had to do with a story I once wrote–a horrid story about a kid name 12 Year Old Jay. He had a brother named 15 Year Old Jay. (Okay, I wrote it in college. The exercise was about experimental writing and stories.)

    So I wrote, 12 Year Old Jay looked back for the ball. He knew it was spiraling straight out of the sun this time of day. And he was determined to catch it, score a touchdown, and beat his brother’s team today for the first time ever. Of course, 15 Year Old Jay had said he would pants 12 Year Old Jay if they did.

    I got yelled at by everybody, including the assistant professor, who insisted I could NOT start a sentence with a number. I said I could. So there.

    Anyway, I still think, in this instance, I was right. Do I still own my steelie?

    • You did not start with a number. You started with a name. Thank you for playing. We have lovely parting gifts!

      Reminds me of the Richard Brautigan novel Trout Fishing in America. The lead character was named Trout Fishing in America.

  9. Scott, Can you comment on this POV pointer from a workshop I attended last month:

    Even in third person close, there will be some narration injected. Decide the tone/personality/ function of narrator up front. (Mostly tone.) make it distinct from the POV character.

    All these years I have tried to make narration nondistinct.

  10. As a new subscriber to the Kill Zone Blog, and a writer who has never shared any work in progress with anyone, I am so grateful for the comprehensive feedback from you, Mr. Bell, as well as the additional comments from my fellow subscribers. It was unbelievably helpful on several levels. I’d like to offer a little feedback on what I’m trying to accomplish, and if anyone is so inclined, I’m happy to receive additional feedback – good or bad!

    I’ve written and edited a few nonfiction books in the legal and financial fields, and the first lesson I’ve been learning is that writing fiction requires a different set of skills. Even though I read 3 or 4 novels a week, fiction writing is much harder than it looks!

    This first page that you critiqued was originally a two-page Prologue written pretty much in omniscient POV (though even there I wasn’t completely consistent). Shortening it to 400 words or less for this exercise made it better (way too much description in the first version), but I obviously have a lot more to learn.

    Allow me to share a few things about the story that answer some of the questions you raised – and may lead to further insights.
    1. Yes, it was my intent to indicate that the creep knew the kids. He’s been stalking them for some time, and picking a target. So I will clarify that.
    2. The genre is mystery/thriller with a supernatural twist.
    3. The setting is real world (not fantasy), current day, with a few flashbacks by the narrator/protagonist.
    4. The “Big Man” turns out to be Michael, the Archangel – one of God’s “avenging angels.”
    5. The protagonist is an attorney whose grandson was taken and has not been found. He is obsessed with finding him, even to the destruction of his career, his marriage, and his life.
    6. The two secondary characters are close friends of the protagonist, and the three have known each other since childhood. One is a cop, the other a pastor and seminary professor.
    7. The cop is doing all he can to find the grandson, while also trying to solve a series of murders that appear to be committed by some sort of vigilante (Michael).
    8. The pastor/professor is trying to support his friend in his search, while also acting as a counselor to control the protagonist’s obsessions, and deal with his bitterness and loss of faith. Later in the story, he’s the one who figures out who Michael is.
    9. The big reveal [spoiler] is that Michael was previously a Guardian Angel of all three of the friends when they were kids, and made a mistake that allowed the protagonist, as an 11-year-old, to be sexually abused. The four eventually work together to find the guy who took the grandson (who is safe), and it turns out to be the same abuser that hurt the protagonist, now much older. You’ll have to read the book someday to find out how it all ends!
    10. I anticipated using the omni-POV for the prologue, and any chapter focusing on the activities of Michael. The other chapters are more in the James Patterson model, and each chapter focuses on one character, and even bears the name of the character as we move chapter to chapter. Chapters focusing on the activities of the narrator / protagonist are in first person; while other chapters, focusing on the activities of the two secondary characters, are third person limited from their particular individual perspectives.
    11. I thought more people than Debbie and I knew about that rare delicacy – the Morel mushroom! Might be a good idea to come up with another excuse to be in the woods as suggested!
    12. Good advice about taking out the creep with just the swipe of the sword! Will do.
    13. I will definitely consider the close third person POV for the prologue, and maybe lengthen it again – putting back in some of the stuff from the original two-pager to stretch out the tension, as suggested. Even if I did that, I’m thinking I would still need to use omni-POV for the Michael chapters because the readers won’t learn who he really is for quite a while – they’ll just figure he’s a vigilante.
    14. Per Toni’s suggestion to tell us a little more about the big man, perhaps he could say something like, “I’m Michael. Brandon is under my protection.”
    15. Really love Debbie’s suggested redo of the first paragraph and the rest of her advice – and that she knows Morels. Thanks so much.
    16. I really do know the difference between “disburse” and “disperse.” What can I say? Brain cramp. In too much of a hurry to get it submitted before I chickened out!
    17. Joanne, what can I say? You must have spent a ton of time to give me all that wonderful, relevant, and spot on advice. Thanks very, very much. Thanks for explaining suspense vs. surprise. I will work on that. I will also search for “was/were” throughout all the parts I’ve already written; use an editor; look for adverbs; and eliminate redundancies. The only thing I’m not sure about yet is introducing the protagonist if this remains a prologue. (Right now he’s introduced in Chapter 1.)

    So again, thanks everyone for taking the time to read my submission and to offer such great help. I will never again be afraid to open up my work for critique – at least to this group!

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