A Powerhouse Secret for Point of View

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s post comes courtesy of a first-page critique. Here we go:

Tobias Martel walked from the sidewalk to the back door of an older, one-story house that screamed for basic repairs. One block east of South King Street in the historic district of Leesburg, Virginia, the run-down state of the property, which faced the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail, violated all the stereotypes of the richest county in the United States. Overgrown bushes and trees provided some needed cover for his operation, safe from the passing cyclists and runners on the W&OD trail.

The targets that lived in the house used the back door exclusively because the gravel driveway led right to it. The front and back doors were the newest parts of the house, along with the locks. Both were secured with Kwikset double cylinder locks, a grade 1 lock requiring a key to open from both inside and outside the home. It was designed to keep out a large majority of burglars, criminals, and thieves.

Martel was none of the above.

He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. His wrestling days in high school and college gave him a rugged physique that made it hard to shed any more weight. The gray hair, which had peeked through fifteen years ago, quickly accelerated because of the shock according to the doctors. It now covered his entire head, with just glimpses of his former color still visible. He kept his hair trimmed, never going more than four weeks between haircuts. Martel hated that shaggy look. Complimenting his mane of grey was a close beard. More like a five o’clock shadow. It made it easy to change up his looks or grow it back fast when needed.

Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Besides easy identification, he never saw anything socially redeeming about sticking ink under your skin. His only visible identifier was a four-inch scar on his left arm, starting below his thumb and working its way at a jagged angle towards his elbow. It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife. Martel had made sure the man had understood the consequences. He was dead certain this mistake wouldn’t happen again.

In three months, Martel would turn 48. He wondered if this was it—if this was how life would be until it was over. He had thought many times about taking the end date into his own hands. Stopping this perpetual madness before it overwhelmed his nightly thoughts. He argued with himself whether to stay in the game or not. The only issue would be how he exited —his terms or someone else’s.

***

JSB: Here’s what we have: the kernel of a good opening—an assassin about to do his thing. That would make a gripping scene. The problem is we don’t have a scene. We have description from a disembodied voice (i.e., the author’s).

So rather than going line by line, I’m first going to advise the author to re-write the entire opening chapter using no description at all. That’s what I said. Do this as a discipline to force yourself to write the action of the scene. Don’t put in any backstory, either (e.g., It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife…)

Once you’ve done the re-write, then you can go back and marble in some descriptive elements, but only what is necessary for the reader to envision the scene. I’ll also allow you three sentences of backstory, which you can use together or spread out over the first 10k words.

But the big issue I want to talk about is this pesky thing called “author voice.” It means that as we are reading, we get the vibe that the author is telling us things in his or her own words. (Note: obviously we are discussing Third Person POV.)

It’s often subtle, but the way to tell is when the narration doesn’t seem like anything the character himself would say. A few examples:

Martel was none of the above. That’s the author telling us something, because it’s not what Martel would ever think about himself—at least not in those words.

He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. Again, not how Martel would think of himself.

Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Would Martel ever use the word eschewed? I think not.

The reason this is so important is that readers crave intimacy with characters. When the author sticks his voice into the proceedings, that intimacy is diluted, if not lost altogether.

That’s why I advise a “powerhouse secret” that is simple to understand, but requires care and craft to pull off. Once you get it on the page, however, it will return massive dividends in reader engagement. Here it is:

Put all narrative in a form that sounds like the character would think or say it.

In other words, everything on the page should seem to be filtered through whoever the viewpoint character is. It should feel like this:

To illustrate, let’s compare a couple of passages.

Ernest Stickley put down his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing the men around him talking and trying to sound like they were from the mean streets. He also thought it was a mistake to have made that call to Rainy. If the call had been about having a drink sometime, that would have been fine. But he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

Stickley soaped his hands from the dispenser and washed up. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked pale and a bit solemn. In fact, he looked like someone else. He looked like the man he had been before that trouble in Jackson, Tennessee. Back then he had a hard look that helped him stand up to people.

There’s nothing distinctive in this narration. It’s a dry, objective recitation of facts.

Now let’s look at how Elmore Leonard did it in his novel Stick:

Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying man all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

Stick washed his hands with the fragrant pink soap that came out of the dispenser, washed them good and stared into the clear mirror at his features. Pale, solemn. Who was that? Like looking at someone else. Back in another life before Jackson he could narrow his eyes at his reflection––hard-boned but not bad looking––and say, “That’s it? That’s all you got?”

It’s obvious how much better this is. It is Stick’s voice we hear, his attitudes, his musings. It pulls us further into his character, rather than keeping us at arm’s length.

That’s what I want to see in this piece, author. So for your final exercise, after you’ve given us a scene with action, rewrite it in FIRST Person POV. This will force you to write in Martel’s voice.

Then…convert it back into Third Person!

Here’s what’s going to happen: when you re-read your chapter and compare it to what you have here, you will utter the word Wow.

You have the TKZ guarantee.

Two quick notes before I go. First (because this drives me bonkers) there is a difference between complimenting and complementing. You should have used the latter.

Second (from the shameless self-promotion dept.) I’ve written an entire book on the crucial subject of Voice

Comments are welcome.

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27 thoughts on “A Powerhouse Secret for Point of View

  1. Have you ever watched the TV show, Monk? I love that show. I smiled when I read the first page critique because I heard it read in Monk’s upstairs neighbor’s voice. He’s the guy that goes on and on telling about details that detract from his original point.

    And after that, I learned about writing in first person then going back and changing to third. Awesome!

    I’m learning so much from this page, thank you.

  2. Dear Brave Author,

    Jim Bell give some great advice here, though I do think he’s being a touch too hard. Personally, I think the piece is pretty much perfect through the first two paragraphs. Those first graphs establish a sense of place and offer vivid description. I like the attitude of the prose, as well. Nicely done.

    Paragraphs three and four will work if you create a reason for Tobias to think about his size. Perhaps the inconvenience or discomfort of having to squeeze through a tight place on his way to the door. Self-awareness works best in fiction when it is triggered by action.

    The final two graphs feel unmotivated and oddly-place. Very well-written, but better suited to a spot later in the story.

    • I hope, Brother Gilstrap, that my suggestions are more “helpful” than “hard.” I do think it’s a good practice, especially for newer writers, and even more especially for those writing thrillers, to start with action and, if desiring to be expansively descriptive, at least weave the details within the action, and have the narration approximate the voice of the viewpoint character.

      The way the author of Final Target does it.

      • Brother Bell, I think “hard” and “helpful” are often complEmentary. I’ve been working with a personal trainer since my neck issues, and I remind myself of that all the time.

        Even in thrillers, action often needs to be set up in the readers’ minds. This is how we first meet Jonathan Grave in the first paragraph of NO MERCY, the first book in the series:

        “The fullness of the moon made it all more complicated. The intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow in the stillness . . .” The book launched a 14-book series and went on to be nominated for several major genre awards.

        In the case of NO MERCY, every one of those rule-breaking details (including opening with the weather!) pays off within the next 15 pages. It has to be there, and there’s no place else to put it.

        There are no rules.

        Anonymous clearly has a talent for writing. If, in fact, the business with the tattoos is just a non-sequitur data dump, then it definitely does not belong. If, however, he ends up dead on page three and the absence of identifying marks is pivotal to the story, then it needs to stay–perhaps with some re-jiggering.

  3. Mr. Bell was not “too hard” at all. I cringed reading the paragraphs–all of them–underwhelmed by the weight of irrelevant descriptions–what character thinks about the address of the house he’s allegedly sneaking up on, and whether it’s in a particular district?

    I’ve read far too many alleged thrillers that fail to raise even so much as a goosebump because they go overboard in both “authorial intrusion” and a tangle of descriptive writing that doesn’t do squat for the plot, or the characters. And it’s even worse in other genres, especially historical and literary fiction.

    Looking in a mirror is one of the most overused–and misused–conventions to show what a character looks like. The Elmore Leonard example is perfect. Look at yourself in the mirror and describe what you see in your natural–not literary!–words. There’s the real and authentic difference. Same for most actions. Look at them through the prism of your doing each one, how you do them, and what you think as you do.

    Thrillers have no room for fluff.

    • Thanks, Margaret. Good thoughts about the perils of “fluff.” Again, the “formula” (which is NOT a bad word; it merely refers to what WORKS every time) is action + voice + judicious weaving. We’re talking about opening pages here. We want to grab the increasingly attention-span-challenged browser and get them to buy the rest of the book!

  4. For a very long while now I’ve been trying to apply the “Put all narrative in a form that sounds like the character would think or say it.” principle and weave it into my WIP in third-person limited.
    The takeaway?
    It’s much harder.
    For starters, it practically rules out info dumps and forces you to find an organic way to have backstory and other required exposition delivered without any PoV violations. it is definitely more work and it definitely changes your approach. In that sense, it’s deeper than a nifty little technique you can toggle on and off at will.

    But, as Mckee puts it, the harder the technique, the greater the payoff.

    • You’re so right, NR. It really is, gasp, work. Imagine that! A craft being work…but work that pays off in something better, stronger, more engaging. Like playing the piano, painting a landscape, or singing La Donna È Mobile.

  5. “Rewrite the entire opening chapter with no description at all.” *Gasp*

    Gotta try this with my WIP. With what I’ve got so far, that rewrite will be about a line and a half!

    This is a great tip, Mr. Bell, one I will surely tuck into a safe place in my tool belt. My editor will salute you. 🙂

  6. I find I can’t read this first page without starting to apply all the “rules” I’ve heard and read. Which is unfortunate, because it blocks access to any authentic readerly experience I might otherwise have.

    Having said that, I need to agree with Gilstrap about the first two paragraphs. But in Par 3, the author switches to describing Martel. I think I would have written those first two paragraphs because what was about to happen followed directly from, depended on, or otherwise somehow incorporated the setting and atmosphere I had created.

    So it seems a mistake to drop all that and start in with descriptions of Martel. Something has to happen to carry forward what was established in the first paragraphs.

    By the end of the first two paragraphs the reader has almost forgotten that Martel had walked up the driveway to the back door. Now a pit bull has to charge him or start barking and snarling from inside that door. Or a shot has to be fired. Or Martel has to pick the lock, ignoring the dog who wants to lunge for his neck once he opens the door. Or a rat scoots across the yard into a broken basement window, drawing Martel’s attention to an access point that lets him avoid the double-cylinder locks.

    I wondered whether this particular house was in violation of the stereotypes of the “richest county” or whether it was the entire neighborhood. And did Martel expect there to be anyone in the house?

    • Which is unfortunate, because it blocks access to any authentic readerly experience I might otherwise have.

      Welcome to the world of the craftsman, Eric. We can’t read books or watch movies without part of our brain analyzing why something isn’t working, or could work better.

      Meaning…I love it when I’m half an hour into a movie, or five chapters into a book, and I suddenly realize I’m into the story and not the technique.

      And I would suggest that one simple “rule” for any thriller opening can be put on a Sticky note, in your fine words: “Something has to happen…”

  7. Excellent points on the view. But how about these verbs? Grey hair “peeked” and “accelerated”? Four prep phrases in first sentence? If I managed to survive this opening, I would go no further. I think Margaret makes a good point. A thriller needs to be, well, thrilling.

    • And that’s really my main advice for this writer, Nancy. Those words distance us from the character and sit us down next to the author. We don’t want that. We want to be IN the scene.

  8. If you can get viewpoint right, most of the mistakes newer writers make won’t be a problem. Get in the head of the viewpoint character, see, hear, smell, taste what they do, then let them react to what is going on outside of themselves instead of obsessively navel gazing about themselves, their past, their present, etc.

    Also, find a newer, more successful author in your genre to study. Elmore Leonard is a genius, but his style and narrative are old-fashioned.

      • Opening line of JF Cooper’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS: “It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England.”

        My English teacher in high school told me it was great literature. I never agreed (Mario Puzo was great literature!), but that Cooper opening sure feels old fashioned to me. 🙂

        • James Fennimore Cooper was a great writer for his period. He was also a major bestseller so readers of that period thought the same thing. I enjoyed many of his works and had intended to do my doctrate work on him. He’s still taught as one of the American Greats of literature. A popular read, not so much.

      • The world and readers change. These days, a reader wants a visceral reading experience where they are in the character’s head and immersed in the events that happen. Otherwise, they’ll watch a movie or play a video game. Since a major part of a writer’s job is to connect with the reader, you must write what your audience wants, not what earlier audience wanted.

        The history of narrative is one of my interests so, here you go, if you want to learn a bit more.

        http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2017/05/a-brief-history-of-narrative.html

  9. For whatever reason, the cybergods would not let me onto this site this morning.

    THIS!
    “In other words, everything on the page should seem to be filtered through whoever the viewpoint character is.”

    Give me that deep POV, and I’m with you. Tell me what’s happening, and I’ll move on to the next book. The author has no business on the page. It belongs to the characters.

  10. I’m late to the party, but I agree with JSB about this piece. In addition to the problems mentioned by JSB, there were other issues I noticed. For example, this sentence:

    “Both were secured with Kwikset double cylinder locks, a grade 1 lock requiring a key to open from both inside and outside the home.”

    “double cylinder locks” is plural; “grade 1 lock” is singular – writer should be consistent

    Also, phrases like “quickly accelerated” are redundant.

    The opening sentence is an example of telling instead of showing:

    “Tobias Martel walked from the sidewalk to the back door of an older, one-story house that screamed for basic repairs.”

    Why not show that the house is run down? Perhaps have the character trip over a broken board or something that would indicate the condition of the house. I’d go for a more gripping first line.

    I think, as JSB suggested, it would be best to rewrite this page. This is no big deal, btw. All first pages get rewritten many times. I like that the writer gave the character’s full name immediately. While I don’t adhere to any cookie-cutter type formula for the exact number of backstory details that should be given in so many words, it’s best to weave backstory and setting details into the story in such a way that they do not halt the forward momentum. The opening should not read like a news report. One important question is: what emotion will the reader feel after reading this page? Readers don’t read books because they want to think; they read books because they want to feel. In order to ensure that the reader will turn the page, make the reader feel something about what is happening to the character. If readers feel something, writers don’t have to worry about counting the number of backstory elements on the page or whatever.

    Best of luck to our brave writer. Keep writing!

  11. I’m even later to the party, but I have to weigh in. I have written you about this issue before, saying that two editors have told me that they need to hear the voice of the narrator. I tried so hard to always be in the characters’ heads, to do what you suggest here, and those comments threw me. The first one, I ignored. But when the second one came I said, “What?”

    Can you surmise what those two editors might have meant? One isn’t that old, maybe 40.

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