Thursday, January 07, 2010

Writing In the Moment

What I'm reading: Deeper Than the Dead, by Tami Hoag

When I read, I want to be immersed in the story. I want to see what the characters see, worry with them, rejoice with them, and follow them from Chapter 1 to The End. Too many characters, too many switches and the emotional connections get diluted.

For me, the key word is "follow." I'm a fan of deep Point of View, although if an author switches viewpoints smoothly, I don't mind. I don't care much for POV characters brought in for one or two scenes; I'd rather see them having a vested interest in what's going on, so I can care about them too. When I read those scenes, I'm often pulled away wondering if the author couldn't have found a way to convey that information via one of the main characters.

For example, I've been working on writing (and rewriting) the last two scenes of my book, trying to make sure I've got the right characters on the page at the right time. I've got two major plot threads to tie up, and the characters with the information the reader needs aren't in the same place.

We need to know why the bad guy did what he did, and we need to know how Rose escaped. We also need to know what happened to the missing secret that's been behind the entire mystery. And, as the author, it's important for me to make sure the right character is on the page when each of these things is revealed.

Gordon, my cop, found the bad guy, but Rose, the elderly woman the bad guy had captured, was still missing, and Gordon had a personal connection to her. His conflict became my conflict. He's got a bad guy but he doesn't have Rose. Where are his priorities? Should he follow his professional training or emotional instincts? Does he turn the bad guy over to the county detective who's with him, or stay with the bad guy and send another cop to find Rose? Raising the stakes, the bad guy has already killed 2 people, so delaying finding Rose could cost her life.

I could slide in a new point of view character for a scene, so the reader would know, but that would diminish the impact because (I hope) the reader has been wanting to see how the cop will handle catching the bad guy, especially since he was the one to figure out who the bad guy was. One way or another, I need to have Gordon be on the scene when the bad guy confesses.

Another issue that surfaced during a recent read was the 'flash forward' approach. It really bugs me when I'm reading and all of a sudden either the author or the character steps in to tell me what's going to happen later. Even though the book may have started in such a way that makes it clear that the protagonist is re-telling something that's already happened, before very many pages have gone by, I'm "in the moment" with the character. There have been books that being with the character in the hospital, recovering from whatever happened at the climax of the book. Yet, by chapter 3, I've forgotten, and when that moment arises, I've been drawn down the path, and I'm not thinking about it.

Granted, in a series mystery, the reader knows deep down that the detective will solve the case and come out alive. But the tension is still there, and the reader follows along to see how the clues are discovered, and how the protagonist puts everything together.

However, when a chapter ends with something like, "If I'd known then that XX would be found three days later with a bullet in his head," then I growl. I've been watching XX. I might like or not like XX. But I don't want to know he's going to be dead. Not yet. That's a total spoiler, and when they find the body, there's no surprise.

Is it wrong? Obviously not, because it's a frequently used device. It seems less bothersome when it's something like, "If she'd seen the look on his face … " because it’s likely that I've got a decent handle on whoever "he" was. But I still don't like it if I'm in "her" POV, because she didn't see the look on his face, and the author is bringing someone else in to tell me about it.

So, back to my problem when Gordon has to decide how to deal with having the bad guy in hand, but Rose off in the bush. I could say "Later, Gordon would regret his decision …"

But that's not what I'd want to read, so that's not what I'm going to write. If Gordon's going to make a bad decision, he's not going to know it's the wrong decision to make until that 'later' actually happens, and as a reader, I don't want to know either.

What about you? Do you prefer one or two point of view characters? Or a cast of many? Often, in series with recurring characters, it's easier to deal with multiple POV characters because you meet them over the course of the books, and grow more familiar with them as the series progresses. But what about the reader who begins in book 3? (which is never me, because I HAVE to start with book one!)

Come back tomorrow for a new Friday Feature.


BrennaLyons said...

I like as many characters as it takes to do the job without watering down the story and losing the reader in the cast of characters. If I'm writing or reading anything longer than a short, I really enjoy having more than one or two POVs, but two is acceptable in a romance. Since I tend to write spec fic, large casts of characters are more acceptable.

Now, Stephen King is a characterization genius. He can introduce a character for a scene or two, make you care about him/her, and kill the character off JUST for the emotional punch. A lot of authors can't do that skillfully. If you can do it skillfully, sure...give me a POV of someone who is there just to provoke an emotional response or show me something I wouldn't see otherwise. I don't find that a cheat, if it's done well. Sometimes the one person who is there to see something ramps up the tension very nicely.

I love when authors show me a skewed scene. I love the unreliable narrator/POV. I love when I see through the villain's eyes, but since the villain is focused outward, the reader is not given clues to who the villain is. It's a fine wine for me to savor.

The whole "if he'd known then" is a literary intrusion of omniscient narrator into the deep third. It can be exceedingly annoying. Have I done it? my very first book, which means I get to claim it as a newbie error. Since the intrusion was minor and set the stage for the very next scene...something that character would not see anyway, I didn't feel badly about it overall. If she'd been present for that scene, I probably would have deleted it in edits.

This is one of those fine line and eye of the beholder things, I think.


Terry Odell said...

Brenna - I agree that some stories require more than one, two, or six point of view characters, and as long as transitions are smooth, I don't mind. One of my recent reads had a generous handful.

But the "she didn't notice the footprints leading to the barn" bugs me. Then again, I suppose it's the nature of the suspense format, but I wish there was another way to deal with it.

BrennaLyons said...

There is a better way. She could have a moment, as POV character, where she thinks she sees something, but not being a tracker doesn't really get a good look. Or she could think she saw something, but the rain or snow or sand could obscure it and wipe it away. Or...she could run into the villain or the villain's trap, and someone could comment that she isn't very observant, if she didn't see...

I'm with you. I dislike those sorts of spoilers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

With a mystery, I want to solve the case along with the sleuth. If I've got info that *they* don't have, it irritates me. It also irritates me when the *sleuth* has information on something and doesn't share it with the reader ("Ellen looked inside the vase curiously. She saw something written on a piece of paper inside that made her raise her eyebrows. She stuffed it in her pocket. Now it was all clear to her.") Bleh.

What's the fun in *that*? But then, I like solving cases.

Am I rambling here? I think I'm getting off-topic with this comment...

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Terry Odell said...

Rambling (and I don't think you were) is perfectly acceptable here.

My crit partner gloms onto anything that could possibly be withholding information. He was not happy when my character "went to the file cabinet and found what he needed."

Sometimes characters know what they're looking for and aren't really "thinking" about it, but I did adjust the wording so he found the name and address he needed". And then I made sure I showed the reader what that was within the next page or so.

In television, that's where they break for a commercial!

BrennaLyons said...


I don't think you're rambling. You're making perfect sense and on topic. And I happen to agree with you. A page or two would be the chapter break for me, but not telling the reader what the clue is, over more than that? Bad form, IMO.


jenny milchman said...

I think maybe the issues that's being talked about comes down to convenience, that is, the author's convenience. If it's just easier to drop in a character to offer up some needed piece of information, that's going to come off as artificial and contrived to the reader. But if that character comes from some deep and organic place, either in the story or the author's mind (as is certainly true for SK), then it will feel valuable and smoothly done.

In my novel that's on sub now the pov is first person. But the ms is salted throughout with third person vignettes, and these are in the pov of whichever character the protagonist is most affected by at that point in the story. You see a lot of these characters, but mostly from the protagonist's pov--so hopefully it's interesting to have the chance to be in their heads for a few pages.

Incidentally, one of the editors who passed on my ms before I introduced these third person sections said the "reader should know more than [protagonist]." Another pass said we should stick to the protag's pov, which was great, and cut the completely unnecessary third person vignettes! So clearly, as with everything else in fiction, this is a matter of taste!

But my feeling is that as long as the writer's not taking the easy way out, I am happy to go along for the first person or omniscient ride, whichever.

Terry Odell said...

Jenny - you've hit on the difference between mystery and suspense. In suspense, the reader knows more than the protagonist, and in mystery, they're a step behind. I prefer mystery, but there's no 'right' or 'wrong'. They're different sub-genres, and I think they get blended as well.

Carol Kilgore said...

I prefer reading and writing multiple viewpoint books. With deep point of view. And I agree with everything you've said here. The "had I but known" approach really kills it for me. And it's not a good thing to bring in a new POV character near the end.

BrennaLyons said...

Let me share a wall-banger with you. Once upon a time, I was an acquisitions reader for a publisher. They handed me a mystery set on the moon (futuristic). It was going SO well, until...

The heroine, who has spent the entire book trying to track down the murderer, finds out who the bad guy is and that someone else has just captured him, while he was trying to sabotage her...while she was out on the lunar surface in a space suit and nowhere near the action. It was radioed to her along with a promise to get to her before she dies out there. I kid you not! Talk about serious anticlimactic response.

What the heck was the author THINKING? Personally, I would have written in that she found out and stopped him, while he was trying to sabotage someone else he felt was getting too close to the answer. Doesn't that make more sense? Or am I just picky?


Ray said...

I like only one or two POVs in a story unless new characters for an upcoming book are given a significant role in the story.

I would think you could have the hero say, "I wonder if I made the right decision."


Katie Reus said...

I don't read a lot of straight mystery but in romantic suspense, I love a decent cast of POV characters. 5-7 is fine w/ me and all my favorite authors do it :)

Terry Odell said...

Brenna - thanks for sharing. Amazing, isn't it. I hate "contrived for author convenience"

Ray - thanks for stopping by, and Happy Birthday!

Katie - it's not the number of characters, it's the way they're used. But it's really that omniscient intrusion that bugs me.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm pretty flexible with pov when I'm reading, as long as the writing is good.

I tend to write from 2 pov - male and female mcs. I like the alternating viewpoints. It's fun to watch them alternate through the story.

Linda Poitevin said...

Another great blog, Terry -- nothing drives me crazy faster than poorly handled POV. Perhaps I'm oversensitive to it because it was one of my own weak points when I began writing! :) About your Rose dilemma...could your hero not handcuff the bad guy and haul him along on the search for Rose? The county detective could go with them -- potential for conflict between cops here -- under duress in order to help keep track of the baddie...
Just a thought...good luck with it!

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - I like the h/h pov format as well -- as long as they don't sneak in the omniscient 'giveaway' stuff.

Linda - Thanks - POV was my 1st lesson as well. By making the bad guy's injuries less severe, I could keep him nearby (in the custody of another officer), while still having the cop concerned because he doesn't know for sure the guy doesn't have more severe injuries. At least I'm hoping the final draft will work.

Sheila Deeth said...

Flash forward always feels kind of tongue in cheek - works in something like Hitchhiker's Guide, but not many books are like Hitchhiker's Guide.

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - but in suspense thrillers, it's supposed to heighten the tension. It's personal preference, of course. I'd rather not know, although it's not a 'throw across the room' or a 'won't read this author again' complaint, just a 'gee, I wish they hadn't done that' kind of thing.

Diane Craver said...

I like more than one point of view but sometimes I enjoy reading first person. I've read some books where they mix first person and some chapters will be third person. I don't like that.

BrennaLyons said...

First and third CAN be done well, if there's a reason for it. I've read (and written) stories where you have a first person journal or letter and the third person for the person/people reading it, showing what effect it has on the present. It can work, but it's not an easy sell.

Terry Odell said...

Diane, Brenna

Yes, it's done. Sue Grafton's newest ("U") does it, and Diana Gabaldon's done it since her first book. When someone asked how she came to write in 1st person, she said, "I wrote 'I' " But Kinsey and Claire are the only 1st person characters in those books. All other POV characters are in 3rd.

BrennaLyons said...

Another person who tended to do it was VC Andrews. She/he? You know, they never established if it was a man or woman writing those. Grinning... She would often have a third person book going and add in long portions of first person of letters and journals. I think that's where I picked up the knack of doing it.