Mastering the Basics: Point of View and Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We have another first page for critique today. See you on the other side.

THE OIL PATCH PROJECT

1. Slinging Pebbles at Goliath

Southwest National Laboratory
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Monday in October

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers pushed open the door labeled “GEOCHEMISTRY LAB,” strode across the room to a workbench, and picked up a bulging old briefcase that was sitting among tools, a voltmeter, and a jar of vacuum grease. The place smelled like acetone.

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory, locked into Jim’s eyes. “You’ve been spending a lot of vacation time at those oil meetings. Doesn’t your wife care?”

“I suppose, but she’s occupied with her own business.”

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen. It was pleasant to be around Mattie, the lovely tech who analyzed his samples and generated the data.

“No,” he said, as though answering a question about the weather. “I’ve got the facts … it will force change. I can’t let them continue dumping salt on the land.”

Stuffing another paper into his briefcase, Checkers reached for the old dinner jacket and tie he kept behind the door in case the lab’s brass brought official visitors from the Department of Energy.

“You can’t take on the entire oil industry, Jim.”

“Well, I’ll have to. I registered as a technical witness this time.” He brushed a stray hair from his eyes.

“Jim, you’re playing Don Quixote. The oilmen play for keeps.”

“I’m David facing Goliath, not Quixote fighting a windmill.”

She watched him hurry out and shook her head. “They’ll kill you,” she said to the closing door. “I should know. I grew up in the oil patch.” She wished she hadn’t mentioned his wife.

***

JSB: All right, let’s roll up the ol’ sleeves. I am assuming this is going to be a thriller. Thus, the first thing that needs to change is the title. The Oil Patch Project sounds like a chapter from the annual report of a city council’s energy committee … or a children’s story featuring bunnies. Maybe it’s the world Patch (e.g., Sour Patch Kids). Anyway, it isn’t a compelling thriller title, so I suggest you review this post and come up with alternatives.

I don’t like the chapter title, either. This could be the subject of a whole post, but outside of juvenile lit I’m not a fan of giving titles to chapters. In any event, “Slinging Pebbles at Goliath” is confusing. David grabbed five smooth stones from a stream, suitable for killing. So if your hero is taking on the David role in this book, why is he only using pebbles? You may have an ironic meaning in mind, but it tripped me up. Do you really need it?

Then we come to the location/day stamp (we’ll get to the actual content soon, I promise!) I’m not against these, but I do think you need to be more specific. “A Monday in October” has me thinking, Wait, aren’tyou the author? How come you don’t know the date? I’d thus use “Monday, October 13” or just cut it and indicate the month in the text (if necessary).

We’re writing a thriller here, right? Titles and character names are crucially important. Don’t use the name Checkers. It sounds funny. A clown or a dog (see, e.g., Richard Nixon) might be named Checkers, but not the hero of a thriller.

Okay, let’s get to the content. I want to concentrate on two big areas. We can nitpick sentences here and there, but I’d rater you get your craft in order on these two items before you do anything else.

First is the dialogue. It’s expository. Review my post on the subject. You have the characters saying things not so much to each other as to the reader. In a few short paragraphs you’ve told us all about the high stakes. We need to see them, feel them, as they unfold for the main character. Don’t be in such a rush to tell us everything about a scene. Readers are patient if there is some real action and tension happening.

Don’t confuse the reader with wrong pronoun placement. You have:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?” He stopped to listen.

That is Mattie’s line of dialogue, but you have Jim’s pronoun immediately following. No, no, never, never. It should be:

“Jim, did it ever occur to you that you can’t save the world?”

He stopped to listen.

Also, you have Mattie using Jim’s name three different times in this short segment. Once is enough.

Now on to the second problem—Point of View. The first two paragraphs are omniscient, with the author telling us about each of the characters in the scene:

Engineering geologist Jim Checkers…

Mattie Hawkins, geochemist at Southwest National Laboratory…

Then we drop into Jim’s POV:

It was pleasant to be around Mattie...

But at the end, we switch to Mattie’s POV:

She watched him hurry out…

This is called “head hopping.” The effect on the reader is subtle confusion. Who am I supposed to care about? Whose story is it?

So here’s what I want you to do, author.

  1. Study Point of View

Don’t worry. Many, if not most, new writers struggle with POV. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it makes an almost magical difference in your writing. You can begin your studies right here at TKZ. Emeritus blogger Jodie Renner did a great series on POV a few years ago:

POV 101 – Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There 

POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping 

POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View 

  1. Study Dialogue

Get a few novels by dialogue masters and see how they do it. Notice how tight their dialogue is, how there’s no rush to give out information, how it is consistent with their characters, and how it contains tension or conflict. Let me suggest Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker (1980s and 90s Parker) as exemplars. Perhaps others will have suggestions in the comments.

And for the definitive text on the craft of dialogue, I humbly suggest this one.

Don’t let this discourage you, author. Craft improvement is hard work. But the rewards are great. Study, write, get feedback, write some more. Do this for the rest of your life. You’re a writer, after all.

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10 thoughts on “Mastering the Basics: Point of View and Dialogue

  1. While I did not pick up on the pebble vs stone comparison, I concur with all the other points of the critique. In particular, I found the scene descriptor “A Monday in October” to be most jarring–my instant thought was ‘why is it mentioned if its not specific?’

    And the “I grew up in the patch” part is hard to take in a serious, thriller type way, because the word ‘patch’, for good or ill, mostly reminds me of something related to children’s fiction. Even though it’s standard lingo in that industry, unless the reader knows the standard lingo, it won’t have the intended affect–or perhaps, with a tightening of the dialogue and achieving a deeper thriller vibe, the patch term might not have that kid’s fiction feel.

    But the great news is that these are all pretty easy things to fix to get that thriller vibe. Best wishes on your writing adventures!

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  2. Brave Writer, thanks for letting us take a peek at your first page. I love the idea of an oil field thriller. I’ve never read anything like that before. This was my favorite sentence:

    The place smelled like acetone.

    because labs always smell funny.:-)

    The title, the Checkers name, the chapter title, and the POV change bothered me, too, and I think JSB addressed those issues well. Also, Jim Checkers seems determined and focused. I don’t think he’d stop to brush a stray hair from his eye. A bead of sweat maybe, but not a hair.

    Perhaps instead of growing up in the patch, Mattie could mention how she comes “from a long line of roughnecks and derrickmen” or something to that effect so it sounds more thriller-ish.

    Good luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Writer!

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  3. I didn’t mind the chapter title. I got where the writer was going with it. I didn’t mind it until he actually referred to himself as Goliath – it felt like the writer wasn’t giving me credit for getting the reference.

    What stopped me in my track was the fact that he is an engineering geologist and she’s a geochemist and they are referring to ‘salt’ – shouldn’t they be referring to sodium … (whichever one you choose)? Be specific. I felt like you were dumming it down for the reader.

    From the little bit of story here – that’s not a great title. Yet, you might have a good reason for it. If not, don’t sweat it. I change the title several times, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one doing it. The right title will just pop in your head (for me it’s usually when I’m in the bathtub).

    I liked the ‘I grew up in the patch’ – I felt like I learned something. – a bit of terminology.

    Work on Point of View – it will make all the difference.

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  4. Brave Author, I won’t add any comments, because JSB said it all. Here’s some encouragement, though: all of his comments cover stuff I had to learn, too, and am still learning. As my husband always says, “Deb, if you’re not learning, you’re dead.”

    You have here the nugget of a great story. I’m already curious about Checkers (or whatever his name will be), and the relationship between him, his wife, and Mattie. And, of course, the evil oilmen.

    I’m not sure where you are in your writing journey, but I’ve found TKZ is the place to be if I want to learn the craft, in addition to reading the plethora of craft books out there. I highly recommend JSB’s books-I’ve read several, and they’re chock full of practical information, writing exercises, and they’re entertaining to boot. There are other writing mentors and coaches, too, who have the heart of a teacher. Take advantage of them.

    I encourage you to “roll up your sleeves”, as he said, and polish this up. It’ll be hard work, but I can’t think of anything on this planet that’s better than making a story better.

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  5. After many years of teaching writing, I’ve realized that, if an author can get point of view right, many other problems like show vs. tell, scene logic problems, etc., will no longer be such a problem. Get in that character’s head, see/hear what is happening in front of them, and stay there through a scene, and you’ll be a much better author.

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  6. I agree with all of Jim’s comments. Take each of them to heart and his suggested links for help. I especially agree with the title and tag issues…and yes, you really don’t want to call your hero “Checkers.” It’s a giggler.

    Two other issues I had: Not much is happening here. Yes, we establish that the protag is going up against some big boys and wants to prevent someone from dumping salt on the land. But opening with him just “striding” into the office to pick up his brief case isn’t a very inviting opening; it doesn’t make me care about him. There has to be a more compelling entry point for your story. Can you show your hero in some kind of action? What does he do exactly? I’d rather see you open with him maybe out in the field collecting the samples that might prove his case. (I keep seeing that scene in “Erin Brockovitch” where she’s trespassing on the evil plant’s land and scooping tainted water and dead frogs from the wells.)

    Second issue is one of being overly literal. Try not to use character tag lines like “Engineering geologist Jim Checkers.” That is TELLING. Find a way to SHOW us by having that info emerge organically via dialogue or action. Ditto Mattie’s line about “saving the world.” It’s too spot-on and clunky dialogue. Show us via his actions that he’s heroic, don’t tell us.

    And it might be cleaner if you used either the Biblical David and Goliath reference or the Quixote one. Mixing the two didn’t work for me. Maybe the dialogue could be:

    “You can’t keep playing Quixote, Jim,” Mattie said.
    “It’s not windmills I’m after. It’s the guys who are making them.”

    Or:
    “You’re going after Goliath, Jim,” Mattie said.
    “Maybe,” he said. “But I’ve got some pretty damn big stones.” (excuse the bad pun!)

    Keep going writer. Don’t get discouraged.

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    • Exactly, Kris. I agree with everything you said. Openings with characters chatting is not as exciting as action. The opening scene should be one of the most interesting scenes in the book, because that’s the scene that will determine if the reader will bother to continue reading. Rather than beginning the story with a boring exchange at the office, I’d begin the story, perhaps, at one of the oil meetings. Take the reader right into the action with lots of conflict. Introduce the protagonist by showing him in action, rather than having him sitting around making idle banter at the office. Readers want to live vicariously through a character who is doing something exciting. Office banter won’t elicit much emotion from the reader.

      Of course, I also agree with everything JSB mentioned about mastery of dialogue, especially the part about having the words of one character mingled in the same paragraph as the actions of another character. That’s a clear no-no.

      I didn’t like the phrase “locked into Jim’s eyes.”

      However, brave writer, I am interested in your story. So keep writing and getting feedback. Don’t feel discouraged at all. You’ve gotten great advice on how to proceed! Best of luck.

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