The critiques have been extremely popular and generated boatloads of comments, so I’m going to continue a bit longer. Today’s submission is by John Emerson, who posted two quite long paragraphs:
As she focused on the radio controls, Destiny never saw the two inch galvanized pipe protruding from the bed of the delivery truck that had quickly stopped in front of her. Except for a very loud noise, she had no sense of the pipe penetrating her skull and destroying her brain. Nor did she notice that the golden retriever puppy had broken its neck as it careened into the dash.
Bob Elliot could scarcely believe his eyes as the tiny sports car ran under the back of the flat bed truck without attempting to stop. He had been a medic in Viet Nam and acted instantly to attempt to save the young woman’s life, although he instinctively knew that the petite blonde-haired person would not survive as he began his resuscitative effort. Following the initial impact, the truck had pulled ahead a few feet removing the pipe from Destiny’s head. She had fallen partially out of the car onto the street, so he began CPR right there. AIRWAY, BREATHING, CIRCULATION, AIRWAY BREATHING CIRCULATION, AIRWAY BREATHING CIRCULATION. When the paramedics arrived four minutes later, Destiny had never been without a pulse or oxygen. Bob was relieved when they took the brain dead woman away in the ambulance.
Randy sez: This is a pretty exciting scene, with plenty of drama and trauma. I see a couple of issues that are keeping it from reaching its potential. First, there are some point-of-view problems. Second, there is some narrative summary (a fancy way of saying “there’s some telling going on here”).
Let’s deal with the point-of-view issues in paragraph 1 today and we’ll come back tomorrow and deal with the narrative summary issues in paragraph 2.
Remember how we keep score in fiction. We are trying to create a powerful emotional experience in the reader. We do that by creating the illusion that the reader IS one of the characters in the scene. The chosen character is called the point-of-view character (POV character for short). (I am giving you a lightning review of a topic I have covered at great length in my Fiction 101 lecture on Character.)
If you want to persuade the reader that she IS the POV character, then you can’t show the reader anything the character can’t see. So any sentence that begins, “Joe Schmoe didn’t see the…” is a sentence that violates POV.
The question then is how to show poor Destiny meeting her surprise demise because of the pipe that she never saw coming.
The answer is that it can’t be done. I’m sorry, but it can’t. And it shouldn’t be. If you want your reader to empathize with Destiny, then by gum, you’d better show us something to empathize about. Destiny doesn’t feel a thing. Therefore, neither does the reader.
We have two choices here. We can show the scene in Destiny’s POV, but make her aware of the pipe coming at her. OR we can scrub paragraph 1 and show the collision and aftermath completely from Bob’s POV, so that he sees the pipe coming at Destiny. I’m not entirely sure which is a better choice here. Let’s try it both ways and then you all can vote and tell me which works better:
Option 1: Destiny’s POV:
Destiny twisted the radio controls. A hiss of static filled the car.
A screech of brakes ahead.
Destiny jerked her head up.
The truck ahead, fully stopped, loomed enormous. A pipe protruding from its back came spearing at her face. In the final instant before it struck the windshield, time froze.
Destiny began a scream.
* * *
Randy sez: OK, I didn’t do a great job here. It’s a little overwritten, but it’s almost midnight and I’m too tired to do it right. This is the kind of scene where you either smash it out in about 30 seconds and it’s perfect, or you take two hours to grind it out, word by word.
I hope you get the idea, here. We need to show this from within Destiny’s head, showing what she sees, feeling what she feels.
Tomorrow, I’ll try Option 2: We’ll look at paragraph 2 and fold in a couple of pieces from paragraph 1, but it’ll all be in Bob’s POV.
Thanks, John, for showing us a tough, tough scene. You could have given me an easy one to work with, but this kind of scene is intrinsically hard to write.
I’m going to vote for Option 2. I’m not a fan of small POV scenes and feel it would be more powerful done in a bigger scene from Bob’s POV.
Destiny is history, sorry, so I really don’t want to form an emotional connection with her.
But then, I don’t know if she played a bigger role earlier in the piece. 🙂
I’m teaching a class at ACFW on deeper POV issues. What you caught was the first thing I saw. The only time I’ve read a “never saw it coming” scene that was successfully done, C.S. Lewis did it because he wrote in an omniscient POV. Same with The Book Thief–a book whose POV is Death.
You’ve done a good job here bringing us back into the appropriate head, but I look forward to seeing this from the main character’s POV.
Pam Halter says
First, I want to make it clear that I want to be the best writer I can be. I work at learning, attend a writer’s group and conferences, workshops and critque sessions. I read writing books. I write and write and write. I also try and read as many books in the genre I’m writing in.
My question is why do we do it? I’m reading a book in a best selling series for middle grade, horribly written with obnoxious dialog tags and omniscient POV (and I’ve seen adult novels the same way.) I want to pull my hair out. How do these poorly written novels get published? Why do they get published? It seems as though editors don’t see writing the same way we do.
Sorry for venting, but I had to get that off my shoulders.
Thanks for taking the time to help us, Randy.
Lois Hudson says
I, too, vote for Bob’s POV.
Tense subject for 5:45 a.m. But because Destiny has never been without oxygen, I’m guessing she will impact the story or Bob later (oops, maybe impact is an insensitive word here). If she doesn’t, why is she here at all?
For any submission it does help to know where the scene fits into the progression of the story: opening, opening of a later chapter, climax.
Not that it matters from the art of writing viewpoint, but it helps us know
there are things that may have gone on before. We don’t need to know what they are, but we know the snippet may not be complete.
Randy, do you ever sleep?
Andra M. says
I’m with the rest about eliminating the first paragraph.
I had to smile at Pam’s little vent, because I too have wanted to pull my hair out at the drivel published these days.
Still, it’s not about being published, per se, (at least not for me at this point) but being the best writer we can be.
If we shine from the start, no matter how long it takes initially, we not only will get published, but we will gain more loyal readers, and therefore have more books published. No writer wants to be a one-book-wonder.
Okay, speech over *blush*.
Karla Akins says
Am I the only one that thinks Kate DiCamillo’s books do this with ease and wonder? They might be good ones for examples to look at. I love her work. Even though they are children’s books — they have taught me a lot. I am able to read those books to a classroom of naughty boys and you can hear a pin drop they are so entranced. I’m not an expert, so correct me if I’m wrong. It’s possible I’m not understanding this correctly. I am blonde, afterall.
John Emerson says
Randy – Thank you very much for the help. It is greatly appreciated. I also appreciate the comments of all who took the time to comment. This snippet is the beginning of my story. Destiny will ‘die’, but will play a major role throughout the book. Again – thank you.
Joleena Thomas says
I am going to be the weird one here. When I read the first paragraph, I felt that I was as close as possible to Destiny’s point of view.
To me this was a close up action shot and the “never saw it coming” part is what made me want to read on.
I think “what” is important is the _idea_ that she never saw it coming. How fleeting life is. I think that Desiny’s name is perfect for the scene and an omnicient point of view is what’s necessary in the first paragraph not Bob’s or her point of view.
If the scene is written from Bob’s point of view, then it’s a passive watching affair, even if he’s witnessing a traumatic event.
If the scene is written from Destiny’s perspective, and is shortened, it only focuses on the things which are happening in a kind of detached numbered way.
1. Truck suddenly stops
2. Destiny’s head is rammed through pipe protruding from flat truck’s flat bed
3. The end
I think that by taking out “never saw it coming” substantially decreases the value of the idea and reason why the scene has been written as a first scene.
Again, I want to thank you Randy. Even if I don’t agree here. You are making me think. Point of view is an issue with me in my own writing. Sometimes I feel I’m following a kind of stream of consciousness which deviates and I’m not sure whose consciousness I’m in.
This is an excellent example to work with. I love the way the first paragraph reads although I think I would lose “very loud” and put in “except for the *crushing* sound…
Christina Berry says
I’m going with the camp that thinks it’d be better in Bob’s POV…unless Destiny’s POV became a longer scene.
Bette Nordberg once called me the “POV Police” and it bothers me a lot when I read a novel where the author’s jumping heads and I can tell it was not intentional.
In case you ever get bored of always talking about writing, writing, writing, I’ve tagged you, Randy. No pressure, but the rules and info are on my blog.
Kristen Johnson says
I agree with the Bob crowd as well. I imagine his point of view would be like watching a horror film. We can feel his terror as the pipe comes toward Destiny’s head, and we can say with him
“NOOO STOP!!! PUT ON YOUR BREAKS!!”
Jim Thompson says
I’m going with Destiny’s POV, but to do that I have to assume we’ve already followed her through a short, slice-of-life segment, so the looming pipe will drive the message of life’s uncertainty.