POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  @JodieRennerEd

As I discussed in POV 101, in order to draw the reader in and grab him emotionally, every story needs to have a clearly dominant viewpoint character. We should meet that protagonist right away, preferably in the first paragraph, and the first chapter should be entirely from her point of view, so the reader knows whose story it is and can start bonding with her and rooting for her. When we see the story through her eyes, reacting as she does to her problems, it sucks us into the story and we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her.

In POV 102, I gave some tips for avoiding “head-hopping.” If we stick mainly with our main character, in his head and heart, with a bare minimum or no stepping back to describe things from the author’s stance (omniscient POV), we’re using deep point of view. Also called close third, this intimate viewpoint is a lot like first-person point of view, with the added freedom of switching to the villain’s or some other character’s POV when it suits our purpose. Deep POV is a powerful way of drawing your readers into your story quickly and making them worry about your hero right away, and keep worrying – which is exactly what you want!

But how do you go about this? Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about a macho, hero-type guy named Kurt, who defeats the villain, restores justice, and even gets the girl. It’s Kurt’s story so he’s your main viewpoint character. How do you make sure your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?

The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by Kurt, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Kurt. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Kurt walks into a bar, for example, you do not imagine how the bar looks from some god-like authorial stance high above, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Kurt sees it, walking in purposefully and looking around.

And of course include his reactions to the other people in the bar. Show Kurt’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying, “The bar was noisy, dark and smoky,” say “The cigarette smoke in the air stung Kurt’s eyes and, in the dim light, he couldn’t make out if his target was there. As he looked around, the room started to quieten down. Heads turned, and eyes took him in, some curious, some hostile.” This way, the reader is seeing the scene through Kurt’s head and identifying with him, starting to worry about him. This from-the-inside-out approach is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get truly engaged in your story.

Captivate_full_w_decalBut you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a rancher or a drifter or a hard-boiled P.I, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms, or tell about things he probably wouldn’t notice, like the color-coordination of the décor, the chandeliers, or the arrangement of dried flowers in an urn on the floor.

It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Kurt, or telling about something that’s happening out in the street or even in a hidden corner of the bar, while Kurt is still at the entrance of the bar. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Kurt, not by going into their heads at this point, but by what Kurt perceives—he sees their disapproving, admiring, angry, curious, or intense looks, picks up on their body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.

Then, in a later scene or chapter, you can go into the bad guy’s point of view and find out what he thinks of Kurt. Or, once he meets the girl, write a scene or chapter in her viewpoint so the reader finds out more about her and what she thinks of our hero Kurt.

This technique, properly used, will suck your readers effectively into your story world, where they really want to be, engaged, involved, and connected.

You may also be interested in these related posts:
~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details
~ Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive
~ Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice
~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Trouble Shooting

A First Page Critique by

John Ramsey Miller


Before I was published, I wrote several novels that I thought were awfully good. Looking back I see how wrong I was. But I kept on, seeing every manuscript as practice, and I read a lot and listened to the criticisms I received, naturally giving more weight to those flaws pointed out by people who knew what they were talking about. And I persevered and kept right on plugging away. Perhaps, due to my advertising background, I have a thick skin and I want only blunt honesty from my readers so I can make my work better. I always say, “Tell me what you really think.” I mean it. It is far better to hear something from another author or agent than it is from an editor who is turning your book down for some reason I wish I’d have known about and could have fixed.

At some point all authors are handed someone’s writing to evaluate, often believing we will (or can) hand it to our agents who will take it on, or that we can send it to our publisher with a demand it be on shelves forthwith. This is a hard business, and years ago I went out of my way to encourage everybody who presented me with their babies. A lot of them (perhaps buoyed by my encouragement) went on and had their teeth kicked in by agents and publishers. A lot of them deserved writing careers, but so far have yet to have a house agree. Even some with talent had their teeth kicked in. Only a small fraction of those who think they can write, can or should. While I hate to give people false hope, I don’t like the idea of shooting at dreams. Sometimes I am too negative (ask my children or friends) and I’m trying not to be a curmudgeon. The truth is that, as with all endeavors, not everybody can perform them as well as they think they can. Some people cannot drive a nail, rebuild a carburetor, or create a painting worth looking at. Some people cannot tell a story, and some may just need encouragement, practice and they will get it and can write professionally. But criticism should always be constructive. While I am not an expert on writing, I have learned some things the hard way.

Before I get into the anonymous page I’ve been given, let me say that there’s nothing that turns off readers––and editors are the most critical readers––than too much information presented too soon (or too little too late), under-drawn settings, under-defined characters, choppy or confusing choreography, telling instead of showing, shocking transitions, clichés, stilted dialog, defying logic, using coincidence to solve problems, typos, unorthodox formatting, or misused words. As a writer you’d better know much more than you put on a page, and you should think about what the reader is seeing or may be missing because of something you knew and didn’t bother to put in. Not that I found all of those “avoidable” problems here, they are just things to look for and to avoid.

Without further foreplay, I present…

Buried Trouble

By An Anonymous Author

From the tip of the peninsula you could see the entire bay and the surrounding metro areas. Hugh had bought the property for a song. Opportunity awaits for those who have ready money in a bad economy. As he looked side to side he could take in the high-rise buildings downtown contrasting with the water. What a perfect development site. Turning and walking back towards his Lexus, he could see the company black SUV speeding his way in the distance. Even though the windows were heavily tinted, he knew it was Bill.

“Mr. Garnet I think you need to see this report,” said Bill.

“We’ll tell me about it, god dammit. That’s what I pay you for.”

Bill revealed the details over lunch. They had to be careful not to talk too loud above the crowd noise. After the waiter had picked up their plates, the conversation continued.

“So, who else knows about this report?” Hugh asked.

“I can’t say for sure. I had to do a lot of digging to find it,” Bill said. “But, as they say, its open source. You know, publicly available. So it’s out there on the internet.”

“Would anyone else do the same digging?” Hugh asked.

“I doubt it. Right now everyone wants the development to go forward. It’s not in their best interest to find out anything like this. It would blow everything.”

“Well, make sure you burn that copy,” said Hugh.

Hugh excused himself from the table as the waiter returned with the check. Bill knew the routine. Hugh never paid for anything he didn’t have to.

*

Growing up in Tampa, Travis had known all of the great fishing spots in the bay since the fourth grade. But today fishing was the farthest thing from his mind. Looking at the project on the Garnet Property Development website, he could take in the whole picture.

“See what I mean, Sam,” he said. “There’s no way out.”

“What do you mean?”

“If a storm came towards the bay like Elaine in 1985, this land floods. And there wouldn’t be enough egress roads to move the population in time,” said Travis.

“We’ll that’s nothing new. Throw a dart at the map of Florida and it’s the same everywhere,” said Sam.

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” said Travis. “But not quite like this, though. The SLOSH model for a Cat 2 storm shows the entire peninsula under water.”

“Excuse me for asking, but what’s a slosh model?” Sam asked.

Travis motioned Sam to come over to his desk. “Take a look.”

They both looked at the computer screen. Travis clicked the mouse and in slow motion the Interbay Peninsula became a collage of blue, green and yellow.

“It stands for Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes. It’s a computerized model run by the National Hurricane Center to estimate storm surge heights. If it’s colored…it’s under water.”

“So why aren’t the developers paying attention to this?” asked Sam.

“As always,” said Travis. “Money. It doesn’t pay to see it. Besides, the property used to be an air force base with only 3,000 people living there. Then it didn’t matter so much. This development will have 30,000 residents.”

The page opens with “Hugh” surveying his land, which is on a peninsula across the bay from an unnamed major city. He bought this piece of prime real estate for a song because he had cash money in hard times. How this prime parcel was invisible to other developers for decades (and while a city was springing up right over there) is not explained in this opening paragraph. Where are we? I need more. know that Hugh has a Lexus (I’m wondering if he had his accelerator fixed) and that a black “company” SUV with blacked-out windows is approaching with “Bill inside”. “Hugh” is either psychic, or only Bill drives around in hiding. Without opening the window or stepping out of the SUV, Bill opens the dialogue with a message that he has a gloomy-doomy report. Hugh demands to know what is in this report, but before Bill can tell him, they go to a crowded restaurant, and wait until after they have eaten to tell the reader that Bill had to “dig hard” to find out something that explains why Hugh’s primo location is a dog of epic proportions. Bill assures Hugh that nobody else knows about the BIG problem with the land because they have not dug it up––hence the title of the book, BURIED TROUBLE? We get that Hugh is so evil and powerful that he leaves the restaurant before the check comes, and Bill is left to pay …as always. It seems that Hugh is perhaps able to buy land because he never pays for anything but land and the occasional Lexus.

*

In the second segment we meet “Travis” whom I suspect will be the protagonist. This individual had known the greatest fishing spots in the bay since the fourth grade, which perhaps is when “Our greatest fishing spots” was taught in Tampa’s schools. Seriously, this intro needs a lot of work, but it is fixable.

The author does not tell us where Travis and sidekick Sam are, or immediately whether Travis is looking at a computer screen, a chart on a wall, into a shallow hole Bill forgot to cover up after digging out the report, or gazing into a crystal ball. We do find out later that the two men are at desks and that Travis is looking at a computer screen. Still there is far too little information and there is no physical description of the characters or their actions to allow us to form a picture of them in our minds.

Here we learn that Bill’s report detailing his uncovered secret about the land is in fact known by the National Weather Service and probably everybody with a developer’s license except Hugh. The problem is that the secret that threatens Hugh’s deal needs to be more of a secret. It’s buried and hard to find but Travis found it easily. So others could as well.

Keep it believable. If the peninsula is a death trap, and the military kept 3,000 people in until they abandoned it, there would be no secret as to why they left and it wasn’t developed immediately, and why it went for what Hugh felt was a song. If the parcel, located across the bay from Tampa, was never developed there’s a reason. I think the author needs to reexamine the logic right here, because the deeper you go using a flawed premise, the farther the story goes into the unbelievable. As it appears to me, unless Travis and Sam can somehow stop Hugh, 30,000 people who somehow don’t discover what the world can know {and should know) will rush buy homes from Hugh and be trapped with no way out when a hurricane (they can’t be aware of) hits and they perish en masse, unable to get to safety …in Tampa. And the reader wonders, “why the developers aren’t paying attention to this “buried trouble” Bill and Travis have uncovered.


“So why aren’t the developers paying attention to this?” asked Sam.

“As always,” said Travis. “Money. It doesn’t pay to see it. Besides, the property used to be an air force base with only 3,000 people living there. Then it didn’t matter so much. This development will have 30,000 residents.”

One additional note:

“We’ll tell me about it, god dammit. That’s what I pay you for.” I think there should probably be a capital “G” in God. I think either dammit, damnit, or damn it are fine, but with the “god” attached I’m not sure. “We’ll” instead of “Well” crops up twice in the page, which makes me wonder if the author knows the difference. Again, don’t depend on spell-checking. Use your eyes when you are fresh and focused.

I would suggest that the author see this opening page as a story possibility and examine it and mull it over looking for the holes in the story before they write the novel. Think long and hard on your story premise and examine it from every possible angle. Play the “What if” game. Then play the “why or why not” game because you can bet your readers will.

There are problems here. I think story line feels all too predictable, but many successful novels (Louis Lamour is a good example of predictable working for his audience) are just that and are enjoyed for other reasons than being stunned and surprised. Not that this effort couldn’t have twists and turns later in the book. It needs a lot of things I’m not seeing to get me to want to know more than I do at the end of the first page.

Most of us have written a book filled with mistakes, or came to a grinding halt at a solid wall, because we didn’t take the time to think everything through to make sure the logic holds before we wrote ourselves into corners. It can be avoided by taking the right steps.

Would I keep reading this book?

In its present form, I would not.

Is it fixable?

Most things are. I wish the author good luck.

Okay, Guys and Gals, what did I miss?

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Puzzling over paragraphs, and other story woes

By Kathryn Lilley

I set a personal record for myself last weekend: I spent the entire weekend–the entire weekend–working on one paragraph. I must have constructed and deconstructed that paragraph a thousand times. By Sunday night I’d whittled and rewritten that sucker until all that remained of it was a grand total of one sentence. One!

At this glacial pace of one sentence every two days, I will not cross the finish line of my manuscript anytime soon. Not good. But I feel like I’m stuck in the mud: I keep developing different ways into the story, then getting unhappy with it, then tearing it up. Hence the endlessly-reworked, bottomless paragraphs. And chapters.

My wheel-spinning is not a total waste–I have tons of pages that will work their way into the story eventually, but right now I feel like I’m playing with a Rubik’s Story-Cube. And I haven’t solved the puzzle yet.

When I described my problem to another writer, her suggestion was to keep going forward with the story without rewriting, and then go back and fix things later.

It’s a good idea, but here’s my problem with that approach: When I’m not happy with my writing, it’s because the elements in the story are wrong. If I write a chapter composed of the wrong elements, it’s like cooking with the wrong ingredients. I would end up with a spoiled dish–a dish that has to be thrown out, not merely reworked.

Maybe it’s time for me to do what I hate the most–write a comprehensive, detailed outline of the entire story. Then all I’d have to worry about is writing the prose itself, not the basic story components.

I heard some sage on the radio the other day–he described a “genius” as someone who persistently examines and reworks a problem until a creative solution is found. If that guy’s correct, I should be getting my Mensa card in the mail any day now.

Have you ever run into this problem, that finding the best path into the story has been unusually difficult? Other than outlining, do you have any good ideas for breaking through this kind of logjam?

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Confessions of an Editor

We’re thrilled to welcome editor Kristen Weber as our guest-blogger today. Kristen has worked as an in-house editor for her entire book publishing career (except for a brief stint as a subsidiary rights assistant) before relocating to Los Angeles for her husband’s job. She’s currently freelance editing in between relearning to drive and hanging out with her pug. You can learn more about her services here:
Tackling my first freelance editorial project, I learned something quickly. You can get a lot more done as a book editor when you’re not actually working as one.
I hardly ever edited or even read a submission at my desk when I was working in-house. I was attending meetings, answering emails (you could lose a whole day right there), checking cover copy, catalog copy, and cover proofs, reviewing contracts, chatting with authors and agents, and just basically making sure every aspect of every book I worked on was perfect and making sure my authors were happy and agents remembered me for every good submission that they had.
I had lunch with a film person here in Los Angeles, and he said, “I picture you editors sitting in dark rooms with only one light on buried under papers and having no human contact.”
That just isn’t the case. The majority of my actual editing and reading (and I know this was true for almost all of my colleagues as well) happened at home in my “free” time. Otherwise we all had to be very personable and present in the office as we worked on many different projects at once.
But my favorite part of the job was always the editor / writer interactions. I’ve heard a lot of people say editors just don’t edit anymore, but I never found that to be the case. My authors will all attest to my carefully worded 6-10 page single spaced editorial letters and my colleagues were always working on letters like those as well.
As an editor, I feel like my job is to help authors push their own words and ideas out even further. They already have the spark of something great…editors are just trying to help them make it explode. And I’m rediscovering my joy for this now, in the quiet of my home or by the pool.
I think the most important thing you can do as a writer is collaborate with your editor. Even if you don’t agree with their suggestions, take time to think about them. Walk around the block. Because you just might be too close to see that there’s a problem…and even if you don’t like whatever solution your editor is suggesting.
I’m also a big fan of writing groups. But I often see projects that have been workshopped essentially to death. The writer received too many different opinions and tried to incorporate all of them into their manuscript, losing their own voice and vision in the process. My feeling on that is writing groups are great for friendship and support. They also can give you great help with revisions – but you need to make sure any changes you make based on their suggestions are true heart. You’re the writer. You don’t have to change anything you don’t want to…although you should probably revisit that if you’re getting multiple agent or editor rejections and they all focus on the same plot point that your writer’s group couldn’t get behind either.
So far I am having a great time freelance editing. I love seeing how a writer runs with my comments on their book. And I can’t wait to see what shape these projects I am working on end up taking as many don’t even have agent representation yet. I am coming in way earlier on the process than I ever did before. And I guess I kind of am now editing alone (although it isn’t dark – coming from a tiny New York City apartment, there is more light than I know what to do with) surrounded by papers…but I certainly don’t miss all of the meetings!
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