Keep fiction characters’ point of view consistent in dialogue and narration: “before” and “after” examples
My intro as published earlier… I try to post each Wednesday.
The bad news is that my latest manuscript has been gathering rejections. The good news is that the rejections have come with consistent feedback. That’s rare and highly useful, and therefore something to appreciate as I, by necessity, must now transition from writing to revision mode.
According to those who dared to reject me (hey, it does feel like a stomach punch the first week!), I have three weaknesses in this not-yet-up-to-snuff young-adult novel:
1. My protagonist is a little on the “morose” side, and I need to jolly him up, give him a more upbeat and distinctive “voice.” In other words, lighten up!
2. Some of my teen dialogue and expressions are “outdated.” (Now there’s a tricky accusation, given how fast expressions change, and how slang can be regional, even cultural.) In other words, stay current with teen talk.
3. My first-person narrator sometimes uses over-sophisticated words, or doesn’t talk like a normal teen. This is a sin I committed not during dialogue (I know better) but during description/narration paragraphs, when it feels okay to slip into my own way of speaking. Yet having opted for a first-person teen point of view (POV), all narration (not just dialogue) has to be in his voice, which means his vocabulary level and type of expressions. It’s something I hadn’t really thought about, and needed to be told, so I hope it helps others reading this. In other words, keep POV consistent in dialogue and narration.
4. In places, there is too much telling, not enough showing. What?! After 17 published books, I can still have that one leveled at me? Evidently so!
Now that I’m nearly completed my revisions, I’ve decided to spend a blog each on these four lessons. Today’s is No. 3. For each, I share “before” and “after” passages, so you can see the differences I’ve made during weeks of back-breaking revisions. Call it Fiction Writing 201, but it’s useful perspective if it helps save you from the “ouch” of rejections.
Keep characters’ POV consistent in dialogue and narration
As an individual and an adult, I tend to speak a certain way. My characters (hopefully) have their own distinct voices. When I’m writing dialogue, I’m “into” their voice. When I’m writing description and narrative, I’m more likely to lapse into my own way of saying things.
And that’s a big mistake if I’m writing in a first-person point of view, especially if my first-person narrator is a teen. Everything in description and narrative, in that case, has to be filtered through his brain. Even if I have the “perfect” adjective for something, it’s a no-go if it’s not something in his vernacular – not something he would think or say. And if he’s upbeat or dark or angry, he’s seeing the world around him in those terms.
When writing or revising to accommodate this, the most important phrase to keep in mind is “KISS”: keep it simple, stupid. It’s so easy to use an “adult” word like “donning gloves” rather than dumbing it down to “putting on gloves.”
Not that dumbing it down is always the objective. Jollying it up and importing more “teen talk” are also good techniques. (See my two previous blogs on these topics.)
When revising a manuscript for any reason, the following is an excellent source:
Of course, it also helps to view real-life before-and-after examples, and these are mine from a just-finished revision:
BEFORE: I re-don my gloves.
AFTER: I put my gloves back on.
BEFORE: Why did she not want Dominik to accompany us?
AFTER: Why didn’t she want Dominik to come with us?
BEFORE: annoy her
AFTER: piss her off
BEFORE: upon getting
AFTER: when she got
BEFORE: Chills have beset my body.
AFTER: Chills have taken over my body.
BEFORE: River hydraulics pick it up.
AFTER: The current picks it up.
BEFORE: the narrative
AFTER: the story
BEFORE: she queries
AFTER: she asks
BEFORE: the clarity
AFTER: how clear it is
BEFORE: I don’t recall her claim
AFTER: I don’t remember her claim
BEFORE: I inadvertently gave her the opportunity.
AFTER: I accidentally gave her the chance.
[Re hiding in a giant mud patch in a cave behind a waterfall]
BEFORE: Being submerged in a mud puddle is not conducive to hearing or seeing anyone stick her head through the shower to do a quick search of the cave.
AFTER: Being submerged in a mud puddle doesn’t allow a dude to hear or see a dudette stick her head through the shower to do a quick visual of the place.
BEFORE: a myriad
AFTER: bump into
AFTER: let go of
BEFORE: concerned for
AFTER: worried about
BEFORE: I’m tempted to escort him out, but realize he’s telling the truth, and what harm is there in him hearing, anyway?
AFTER: My flash of annoyance fades to amusement. The kid’s honest, gotta give him that. Who cares what he hears, anyway?
BEFORE: “I’m sorry for your loss, Chuck. And your mother’s,” says Major Dirks, the heavyset, moustachioed man who conducts me into his cramped office at Search and Rescue. His face is weathered and kindly, and his armed-forces uniform full of insignia that make him look important.
AFTER: “I’m sorry for your loss, Chuck. And your mother’s,” says Major Dirks, the heavyset man with a curlicue moustache who gestures me into his cramped office at Search and Rescue. His face is weathered and kindly, and his armed-forces uniform full of badges that make him look important.
BEFORE: It takes all my will power to suppress a chuckle.
AFTER: It takes all my will power to smother a chuckle.
BEFORE: When I enter the barn at daybreak, something seems wrong. It’s the way the hens are cackling and moving about the hen house, the way there are no mouse peeps in the upper left loft, maybe even how the barn smells. I make my way cautiously to the hens and count. They’re all here, even if they seem upset. I dig into the straw to collect their eggs. One, two, three. Two hens haven’t laid. Has a racoon or mink been circling around outside, making them nervous? Well, it didn’t get in or they wouldn’t all be here. Anyway, I’ve got things to do, places to go.
AFTER: When I shuffle into the barn at daybreak, my tracker instincts jerk to attention. Something’s wrong: the way the hens are cackling and dashing about the hen house, and the silence in the loft where there are usually mouse peeps.
I stride over to the hens and count. All five are alive and well, even if a little unhinged. Digging into the straw, I collect their eggs. One, two, three.
“Two hens haven’t laid,” I mumble. Something’s up for sure. Has a racoon or mink been circling around outside, making them nervous? Well, it didn’t get in or they wouldn’t all be here. Anyway, it’s a mystery that’ll have to wait.
BEFORE: As if I can divulge about how there’s no money anymore for school club fees.
AFTER: No way can I tell him about the lack of moulah for club fees.