Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Point of View Dilemma

This month on our critique blog we thought we would talk about POV and in particular the use of the First Person. POV or Point Of View is the voice of the person telling the story. Here’s a quick review:
   First Person
   I said
   The sun sank below the horizon. I’d never seen such vivid colors before and wondered why I didn’t come to the beach more often.
   Second Person
   You said
   You need to come to the beach more often as the sunsets are magnificent.
   Third Person
   S/he said
   As she watched the sun slowly sink below the horizon, she wondered why she hadn’t come to the beach more often.
   Omniscient
   God/author said
   The sun sank slowly below the horizon.  The girl watching looking pleased with the view as if she had never seen a sunset before.

Using the first person narrative is a familiar tool. It has been around as a popular literary device for a long time. Think back -- Charles Dickens used it in such novels as “David Copperfield,” Edgar Allen Poe told most of his mysterious tales in first person. Harper Lee does a great job of describing a young girl’s life in the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Best selling author Harlan Coben often uses first person to make his suspense novels even more intense. First person has long been a  a staple for mystery writers. Raymond Chandler told his Philip Marlowe stories in first person and currently, mystery authors  Sue Grafton, and Janet Evanovich tell their stories in first person.  Robert Crais and Jonathan Kellerman use first person for their sleuths, but third person for sidekicks.  

First person can be very useful for mystery and suspense because the story is only seen through one person’s eyes. That mean that the reader only learns what the hero/heroine knows and sees what that person witnesses. All thoughts come from only one person. That can be useful when the writer doesn’t want the reader to know too much, or to figure things out along with the hero/heroine. It can also make the main character come alive, because the writer is literally living through that person’s life.

On the other hand, it can be limiting too. If the reader doesn’t like the main character or if the main character is not strong enough to sustain the story, the reader is going to be turned off.

Technically, one of the biggest problems facing writers when you use first person, is in fact, first person.  Since there is only one point of view, everything has to be in that person’s mind.  So there are automatically a lot of “I’s”...

As a person doing a critique of someone’s work in first person you need to watch for the overuse of  “I.” Sometimes an author will be unaware of doing that. One good way to pick out too many is to read the passage aloud. After a while you will realize how often you’ve heard “I” and it will make it easier to look for.

As a critique partner or in a group, it can be helpful to look for ways to change a sentence to get rid of the extra “I.”  Instead of saying “I saw,” the passage might stand alone. After all the story is being told by the main character so it stands to reason that what he/she saw is what is being described.

Instead of  I saw a tall blonde woman emerge from the car.
Try, A tall blonde woman slid from the car.
Instead of  I heard the phone ring.  No, No!  The phone rang.

These may seem like obvious problems, but too often they get forgotten or ignored by a writer. This is the sort of situation where a good critique partner can help out!

Throughout your critique, though, it is critical to keep the author’s meaning and to keep the author’s—or in this case—the character’s voice.  The author will be telling that character’s story through that character’s voice. It’s the job of a good critique partner not to try to change that voice, especially when you’re dealing with first person.

As you can see in the following piece there are too many I’s...so the problem for the critique is to figure out how to eliminate some of them, yet still keep the POV in the voice of the one storyteller. We’ve marked the I’s with pale yellow.
           
            “You need to die.”
            I stopped clearing the table and glanced over at the next one.  My station.  Great.  Another weirdo.  Full moon coming around the corner. There was a little man sitting alone. 
            The baseball game on the large screen televisions was loud, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.
            “Excuse me?”  I asked, staring into the oddest green-blue eyes.  Must be contacts.
            He smiled benignly.  He almost looked amused.  Almost.
            I checked his ears, perhaps a cell phone?  Bluetooth?  My eyes widened. Those were some seriously large ears.  Very large.  Bigger than Mr. Spock’s for sure.
            His smile faded, his glaze, glaring.
            “Were you speaking to me?”  I set my tray down, stepped over to his table and pulled my order pad and pen from my apron pocket.
            “You need to die.”  The little fella spoke again.  He was wearing a fedora, which I had to admit did look good on him, and the smallest trench coat I’d ever seen.
            I frowned.  Why was he wearing a coat?  It was summer.  Baseball season.  I didn’t think he could hide a weapon in those tiny pockets, but gathered my courage.
            “Well, we all die at some point, don’t we?”  Positioning my pen, I asked, “So, what can I get you?  The ‘burgers are mouth watering and the shakes are to die for…”  I pulled up short.  What was it with this dying thing?  I collected my thoughts, this guy was rattling me after all.  “And the nachos are really…”
            I need a demon dream slayer.”
            I paused, and looked up from my writing.  “You want what?  A demon dream slayer?  I’m not familiar with that.  Is it a drink?  If you tell me what is in it, I’m sure our bar guy can make it for you.”
            I expected him to explain but he just returned my look.
            Growing irritated, I took a deep breath and smiled.  “Well,” I stepped back to see him sitting in the chair, swinging both his legs.  His little legs didn’t even touch the nutshell covered floor.  I squinted.  And those little legs were attached in tiny little webbed feet.  Webbed?  Feet?
            “You aren’t wearing shoes.”  I told him, looking up.  “Did you not read the sign on the door?  No shirt, no shoes, no service.  That’s the rules buddy.”
            He smiled and wiggled in toes.  “The sign in not for me.”
            His voice was beginning to slur a bit.  I looked at him.  I mean really looked at him.  His color was kind of gray green and I wondered if he was okay.  I wasn’t a nurse and didn’t know anything about medicine, but I  watched ‘ER’ on TV.
            “Are you alright?  You want something from the bar or grill?  Maybe call an ambulance or some oxygen?”  I was getting impatient and wanted to get away from this guy.
            “Siri!  Table two!”  My boss, Tom yelled from behind the bar.
            I waved my hand letting him know I heard.  My customers were getting rowdy and hungry.  I needed to finish with this fella and move on.  I was tired.  I had a day off tomorrow and wanted to sleep for a month.
            I can help you with that.”  The little gray man said.

In this scene, there are 33 “I’s.”  Two don’t count as they are said by the other person.
So, about 15% of the story, so far, is centered around the story teller who we know nothing about. Is it a male or a female?  Age? We can’t tell. Well maybe we can, as the boss calls her “Siri,” but to my mind this could also be a name from a foreign country that could be for either sex. So, is the story teller young, old, tall, short, fat, skinny or even a human?  We can’t tell.            
Let’s see if we can get rid a few of the “I’s” and also learn a bit more about the storyteller.

Sue’s comments are in RED and Becky’s thoughts are in BLUE

           
            “You need to die.”
            The comment came from a tiny man sitting next to the restaurant’s window as I stopped to pick up a tip from a vacant table.  The full harvest moon gave him an eerie appearance and the blaring baseball game on the large screen television muffled his words.
            “Excuse me?”  I stared into the oddest green-blue eyes. 
            He smiled benignly. 
            Almost amused. 
            Almost.
            Was his cell phone set on speaker?  Bluetooth? Is that what I heard? Looking around, no phone.
            But large ears.  Very large.  Bigger than Mr. Spock’s.
            His smile faded, his glaze, glaring.
            “Were you speaking to me?”  Setting my tray down, I stepped over to his table and pulled my order pad and pen from my blue checkered apron pocket.
            “You need to die.” Strong harsh words. 
            Terrible words aimed directly at me. Was he a crazy? Did he really mean me harm? Stepping back a bit, I took a good look at him.
             He had on a green fedora slightly pushed to the side and a dark brown trench coat. Was he a midget? No wait, they call themselves “little people.”
             Why was he wearing so many clothes?  It was summer.  Did he have a gun or a knife hidden beneath that coat? A tinge of fear crawled through me.
            Gathering my courage I smiled.         
“Well, we all die at some point, don’t we?   So, what would you like?  The burgers are mouth watering and the shakes are to die for…”
            Stop.
            Do not use words that mentioned dying.
            This guy was rattling me.  “And the nachos are really…”
            I need a demon dream slayer,” his low voice sent more shivers through my body.
            “You want what?  A demon dream slayer?  Not familiar with that.  Is it a drink?  If you tell me what is in it, our bar guy can make it for you.”
            Waiting for him to explain he just returned my look and turned in the chair.
            Taking a deep breath I saw that his legs didn’t touch the nutshell covered floor. And those little legs were attached to tiny webbed feet.  Webbed?  Feet?
            Confusion swept through my mind. Who was this guy? An escapee from the circus?
            “You aren’t wearing shoes. Did you not read the sign on the door?  No shirt, no shoes, no service.  That’s the rules buddy.”
            He smiled and wiggled in toes.  “The sign in not for me.”
            His voice began to slur, his words running together.
            Drunk.
            Intoxicated.
            His face was gray green. Was he going to throw-up?
            I took another step back. “Are you alright?  You want something from the bar or grill?  Maybe an ambulance or some oxygen?” 
            I was tired.
            And this creature was almost more than I could handle.
            Being the only woman waitress in an Irish bar took all my energy.
            Tomorrow was my day off and I wanted to sleep for a month.
            I can help you with that.”  The little gray man said.

Okay we are down to eight I’s...so from 33, subtracting the 8 we now have, we’ve gotten rid of 25.... And we now know the storyteller is a woman, a tired waitress in an Irish pub and the time period is the fall of the year.

Here is also an example of why it pays to have your work critiqued by several people. Some partners will look at a story one way, while the other partner might zero in on different problems.

“You need to die.”
            I stopped clearing the table and glanced over at the next one.  My station.  Great.  Another weirdo.  Full moon coming around the corner.  A little man sat alone. 
            The baseball game on the large screen television was loud. Maybe I hadn’t heard him correctly.
            “Excuse me?”
            He smiled benignly.  His green blue eyes were an odd shade. Must be contacts.
 He almost looked amused.  Almost.  
I checked his ears for  [delete perhaps] a cell phone.   Bluetooth?  My eyes widened. Those were some seriously large ears.  Very large.  Bigger than Mr. Spock’s for sure.
            His smile faded, his glaze, glaring.
            “Were you speaking to me?”  I set my tray down, stepped over to his table and pulled order pad and pen from my apron pocket.
            “You need to die,”  The little fella repeated. He was wearing a fedora, which [delete I have to admit  ] did look good on him and the smallest trench coat I’d ever seen.
            [Delete -I frowned.]  Why was he wearing a coat?  It was summer.  Baseball season. Could he have a weapon in those tiny pockets? No, too small.
“Well, we all die at some point, don’t we?”  I gathered my courage and postioned my pen. “So, what can I get you?  The ‘burgers are mouth watering and the shakes are to die for…”  [DeleteI pulled up short]  No, that wasn’t right. What was it with this dying thing?[delete  I collected my thoughts,] This guy was rattling me after all.  “And the nachos are really…”
            I need a demon dream slayer.”
            I paused, and looked up from my writing.  “You want what?  A demon dream slayer?  I’m not familiar with that.  Is it a drink?  If you tell me what is in it, I’m sure our bar guy can make it for you.”
            He  returned my look without explaining.
            Growing irritated, I took a deep breath,  smiled and took a step  back to see him sitting in the chair, swinging both his legs.  His little legs didn’t even touch the nutshell covered floor.  Huh?  Those little legs were attached in tiny little webbed feet.  Webbed?  Feet?
            “You aren’t wearing shoes. Did you not read the sign on the door?  No shirt, no shoes, no service.  That’s the rules, buddy.”
            He smiled and wiggled his  toes.  “The sign is not for me.”
            His voice was beginning to slur a bit.  I looked at him.   Really looked at him.  His color was kind of gray green. Was he  okay?  I wasn’t a nurse and didn’t know anything about medicine, but  watched ‘ER’ was a favorite  TV program.
            “Are you alright?  You want something from the bar or grill?  Maybe call an ambulance or some oxygen?”  Impatience raced through me. Time to  get away from this guy.
            “Siri!  Table two!”  My boss, Tom yelled from behind the bar.
            I waved my hand letting him know I’d heard.  My customers were getting rowdy and hungry. My head ached almost as bad as my feet.  Exhaustion.  I had a day off tomorrow and wanted to sleep for a month.
            I can help you with that,” the little gray man said.

In both cases we’ve managed to get rid of a good portion of those “I’s”  The question is - does it read any better? Think about how you might change it.

We welcome your comments and questions on this critique or critiquing in general. Is there anything in particular you would like us to discuss about critique groups and partners?

3 comments:

  1. WOW! Becky and Sue, you did a great job on my work. Thanks so much. Amazing what others see that you don't. Geez. I so appreciate your hard work on this. Also, wanted to let you know I just bought your character book on my Nook.

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  2. Thank you, Dixie, and thank you for submitting your work for critique.
    From Becky - While we looked at this basically from the POV angle, I think if I had been returning this to you as a critique partner, I would have added how much I liked your opening line. It was a real grabber for the reader. I would also have mentioned that I enjoyed the way the whole scene moved. You got in a good description of the little man in a way that was informative and at the same time amusing.

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