Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 22, 2018

First Page Critique

I chose this month's first page to explain how to get close POV. I think it's due to our visual, reality based, Netflix, 3-D modern world that makes readers want an immersive read. They're used to 'being in' films, which makes it easy to BE the character. Who didn't want to be Katniss? *raises liver-spotted hand*. This makes extra work for the author. It's not easy to do. But it's a learned skill, and once you get it, you get it forever. I learn best by seeing transformations in examples, So let's dig in.

This is a compelling, emotionally fraught situation. An en media res opening. But because the reader is so distant, they're being told what's happening, which keeps them from the opportunity to  BE the character.

Thank you, brave soul, for trusting me with your work.

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

Willow repeatedly pressed her right foot down on the brakes. There was no resistance. Her chest tightened, she began to pant. Her steering wheel would not respond. She was going over the edge, right into the icy water. She screamed as her car flew off the road and sailed into the murky depths. Her body bounced off the steering wheel. She coughed as the air bag deployed, and fumbled for the seat belt, then remembered Rose had an emergency knife in the glove compartment. Her sister had been bugging her for months to get one. If she made it through this, she was heading for Big 5 Sporting Goods. Grabbing the knife, she cut the seat belt, and pulled herself out of the open window.

             She emerged to the surface and inhaled deeply, gasping for air. Pushing her hair back she twirled around in the water, trying to get her barring’s in the dark. She saw the lights from the shore, and swam in that direction.  Teeth chattering, she did breast strokes. Come on, you can do this. Her sister was going to goad her endlessly for this.  She stopped, treated water and wiped the salt water out of her eyes.

I'm going to rewrite this in close POV, then analyze the difference, below. Not knowing much about the setting, I'm going to make assumptions which won't be correct.

Willow slammed the brakes. The pedal hit the floor with a hollow thump that wasn't anywhere near right. She tried again. Then again, as  the December icy-waters of the Monongahela advanced. Alarm jangling, she cranked the wheel right to full-stop, but the river still expanded in the windshield. Shit. She was going in. There'd be no help; she was the only one stupid enough to be out in an ice storm. But her swelling eye care of Brad's fury made that impossible. When you decide you're finally leaving for good,  you don't check the weather first.

A scream trapped in her locked windpipe, the car took out the flimsy barrier and sailed off the road to hit the water with a jarring whomp. Remembering an NCIS episode about people trapped in a floating car, her fumbling fingers found the button and retracted the window. Frigid wind slapped her face. The car took a sickening tilt, and slushy ice water cascaded in, stealing her breath, freezing her thoughts.

Do something! 

Her heart throwing staccato, SOS beats, her numb fingers found the seat belt and released it. The car drifted, moving fast. Both banks looked a lifetime away. Shivers coursed through her, ending at her chattering teeth. Her muscles were pulled taut, but responded slow. Too slow. 

Move, before you can't. 

Kicking off her useless pretty heels, she took on the incoming waterfall, pushing off the seat, launching herself out the window. The iron band around her chest only allowing tiny rabbit breaths, she kicked for shore. She wasn't saving herself from Brad to die in a river.

Kick, dammit!

I had a couple of problems with the logistics: why wouldn't the seat belt open? I've never heard that it could be jimmied to jam. You said salt water, but unless the car was on a bluff above the ocean (you didn't  mention hitting a barrier). The beach wouldn't have posed such a problem. If it were a bridge, there would have been a retaining wall as well. So I took the liberty of making it a river (you can fix that). Also, I didn't realize it was night until the very end (lights from the shore) - remember, the reader doesn't know where they are, so you need some scene-setting at the very start, so they can settle in. Part of close POV is being aware of logistics, and what is possible. If the reader doesn't buy it, they're going to be analyzing the scene - not being in it.

Also, the reader isn't going to be invested in what happens to Willow, if they don't know who she IS (I see you nodding, Jenny). Give the reader a quick hint, so they can root for her. I added Brad, which probably doesn't follow your plot, but do you see how that makes us know something about your character - enough that we sympathize, and care that she makes it?

Okay, mine isn't great, but is it closer POV? Why? 

  • Details - I made it December, in an ice storm, during the day. I named the river. Mentioned NCIS. Put her in heels. Why? it helps the reader BE there, and details can make the situation worse. I didn't spend lots of time on them (would have loved to have mentioned what she was wearing - a wool coat would make things worse, weighing her down) but can you see how details are an important key to close POV. They give the reader hints of who this person in the car is. Maybe she's in an evening gown. Or her pajamas. See how that would raise questions in the reader? 
  • BE the Dude - Margie Lawson calls this, being true to the character's emotional set. I call it, Being the Dude. I've made this same mistake; it's a tense situation. You'd be panicking. Thoughts would be jumbled, broken. You wouldn't be making a note to yourself to buy a knife at the next Big 5 you passed. Heck, you're not even sure you're going to live through this! And what kind of sister would goad you when you almost died? To amp tension, use short sentences, make them jerky, use action words. What I do: I sit, close my eyes, and put myself in that car. What am I feeling? What is my body doing? What experience can I draw from in my own past to make this more realistic?
  • Tie thoughts to the character's past. I don't know enough about this character to do that, but think about it. If you're dying, what would you regret? Who would you think of? Let's say she is competitive with her older, almost perfect sister. Would she regret wasting all that time on useless competition, when she should have spent the time loving her closest relative? The thoughts would have to be short, not more than a sentence, but they can be a powerful way to slip in backstory, and tempt the reader to keep going. What if she had a secret? Would she wish she'd have told someone, or be glad that if she died, no one would ever know?

If you want to learn more about Close POV, WITS has several blogs on the subject:

Determining a Character's Emotional IQ

Becoming Your POV Character

Keeping Your Entire Scene in Deep POV

Layering Emotion of Deep POV 

Showing Deep POV in love

What say you, WITS readers? How to you convey tension? Have any other close POV tips for us?


Did you know that Laura does craft podcasts? They're short, dorky fun, shot in different locations, and usually include a rant. You can check them out on her website: HERE

34 comments on “First Page Critique”

  1. I love close, or deep POV. You've given good examples and advice. You have to be deep inside the character's head and maintain that character's voice throughout, be it dialogue or narrative. I remind myself that I have no business being on the page, that my characters own the story, and since I often write dual POV romantic suspense, that means getting into more than one head depending on whose scene it is. I love "Be the Dude."

  2. This is wow. Thanks so much for this close POV example. I have a problem with writing scarce. This opens new ideas to a scene for me. Thank you.

      1. Why don't we ever "get it all?" Waaah. I'd love to have it all. Alas, we've all got to work at something that makes us crazy in this writing life.

  3. Laura thank you. Those examples are gold. Details. Dude. Deliberations. Great little checklist for every scene. It makes perfect sense in the way you’ve laid it out. Off to follow those POV links on WITS and your video blog. Exciting.

  4. Laura, you've addressed one of the most useful "rule" I've ever heard: start with conflict, not crisis. Nothing wrong with the crisis--if, as you point out, we know enough about the character to care. In the original, Willow was just a name, a body in space. You've added some carefully chosen bits of identity to make her more real. I'm a believer, when possible, of starting with characters interacting, but an action scene like this one can work if there's a real person involved! Good illustration of your points!

    1. You can see how little you need to get a reader's empathy - just a carefully placed word or two.

      'Start with conflict, not crisis' - I didn't say it exactly that way, but I love how YOU said it! I'm saving that tidbit of wisdom - thank you!

  5. As I discover over and over again, there's no ONE way--or RIGHT way--to do this writing stuff. Thank you, Laura, for leading us in discussions about how to approach our writing and, more importantly, WHY we should make the best possible choices to engage our readers.

    1. Yes, it's gotten harder over the years, I think, Chris. If we were born 100 years ago, we could have written page after page of gorgeous descriptions, and closed-off enigmatic characters, and gotten away with it!

      Good news for readers (which is us, too, of course).

  6. Thanks for showing us this, Laura! I always learn so much from this blog. 🙂 This is an exciting opening, but what really helped it resonate was the characterization you put into this. As it was originally written, I didn't know anything about the character and so it was hard for me to care about the crisis she was in. The character details you've added, as well as deepening the POV, makes this jump off the page! Thanks again!

  7. Great job of adding tiny details to make the scene--and the character--come to life! I will read just about anything with a character in peril, but my interest homed in like a missile when you hinted at the motivation that set up the danger.

    1. I love the little details, crb. You and I would see the same scene, and choose different ones - but that's awesome, because that's where voice comes from!

  8. All good, Laura, all good comments. Hmm, except now I have a sequence I need to return to. I mean, to which I need to return. And hats off to the writer for submitting the page for critique. Takes guts! Good job!

    1. You know you can sign up in the sidebar to have our 3 blogs a week sent to your inbox, right, lovessiamese? (and by the way, both Fae and I love siamese!)

  9. Deep POV is hard! It requires a shift in how you think about storytelling, I've found. And a lot of intentionality and strategy. But a lot of that has to happen in a rewrite, my journalist background has my first draft way too sparse.

  10. Great points Laura. I love first person and deep POV. I find my problem is not giving enough detail with these, and I tend to be short of words. Adding in those details is vital though and I need to work on that.

    Well done to the submitee. It's tough to put your work up for critique.

  11. Littlemiss, I struggle with that too. I tried first person for the first time with my WF, Days Made of Glass, and I may never go back!

  12. Terrific example! I remember when the idea of deep POV finally clicked with me, and it was The Best Thing Ever. Not that I get it every time now — that's what editing and critique partners are for — but it makes such a difference to immerse the reader in the story...especially when you're also immersing the character in a river. Thanks for a great before-after, Laura!

    1. Understanding basic POV was like that for me - a light switch. An, 'Oh, I get it!' moment.
      Glad you got it, Julie - close POV is essential in YA!

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