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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Common problems in first person POV, part one

In a lot of the chick lit entries I judge in contests, first person POV is not done very well. Since the reader is reading first person, the reader should actually be in the character’s skin and experiencing the scene through them. People like writing first person POV because it’s easy—but it’s actually rather difficult to write with power and vibrancy.

While each writer has different strengths and weakness, in general, the entries I judge lack enough conflict and action. Not much happens, and there isn’t a lot of tension. In first person POV, this is a common problem because it’s so easy to fall into internal thoughts and narrative instead.

“Do you want a cookie?” I hand the plate to Amelia. She’s a size two. I wish I was a size two. I eye a couple of the chocolate-laden golden-brown goodies. Just one won’t hurt me.

Amelia glances at the plate, then goes back to sorting through her charm collection. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” Her charms fascinate me. She’s had some for generations in her family. She likes to sort through them, kind of like catharsis. I have to admit they’re hypnotic. Gold and silver, some with jewels. Some attached to a chain, some loose, some in fancy boxes.

I decide to eat a cookie. It’s gooey warmth makes my mouth happy. “Are you sure you don’t want one? These are great.”


Very little tension, very little action.

What writers should aim for is to add some sort of tension and conflict into EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE. The tension can be internal or external, but it should be there in EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

There should be something NOT happy, content, satisfied, pleased, jovial, or enjoyable. In other words, something wrong.

How about this instead:

“Do you want a cookie?” I hand the plate to Amelia, trying to look at her instead of the chocolate-studded goodies, but failing miserably. I’m secretly hoping she’ll take one so I won’t feel like such a cow.

Amelia glances at the plate with disdain. It’s not like I’m offering her hemlock, for goodness’ sake. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” The way she says it implies being hungry is like being addicted to drugs.

She’s sorting through her stupid charms again. “Didn’t you clean your charms last week?”

Her mouth pinches. “I’m just looking at them—is that a crime?”

It reminds me of King Midas counting his gold. “I’m just surprised, is all.”

She tosses her head in a good imitation of Scarlett O’Hara. “You wouldn’t understand. They’ve been in my family for generations.”

My eyes narrow. “No, I wouldn’t understand. My family only goes back to the Ming Dynasty.”


The scene above now has more tension. It could be improved even more by a little more movement and action:

I glance at the clock and try to stop myself from screaming. I have only two minutes before my dietician arrives.

Got rid of the bag of potato chips? Check. Hid the soda? Check. My eye falls on the plastic container from last week’s shopping. Aack! They’ve got to disappear, pronto!

“Do you want a cookie?” I hand the container to Amelia, trying to look at her instead of the chocolate-studded goodies, but failing miserably. While I need to get rid of them, I’m also secretly hoping she’ll take one so I won’t feel like such a cow.

Amelia glances at the plate with disdain. It’s not like I’m offering her hemlock, for goodness’ sake. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.” The way she says it implies being hungry is like being addicted to drugs.

I grab a cookie and shove it in my mouth, chewing frantically. I can eat three and brush my teeth in two minutes, right?

Amelia’s sorting through her stupid charms again. “Didn’t you clean your charms last week?”

Her mouth pinches. “I’m just looking at them—is that a crime?”

Her snippy tone makes me start, and a cookie goes down the wrong way. I cough and hack, but rather than being concerned about my welfare, she unfeelingly goes on sorting charms. It reminds me of King Midas counting his gold. “I’m just surprised, is all,” I gasp out when I can talk again.

She tosses her head in a good imitation of Scarlett O’Hara. “You wouldn’t understand. They’ve been in my family for generations.”

My eyes narrow. “No, I wouldn’t understand. My family line only goes back to the Ming Dynasty.”


There—both conflict and movement in the scene. It’s not even vital action—just the heroine trying to clear her room of goodies before the dietician arrives. But just that small scene goal creates action and movement that pushes the scene along even faster than before.

So go through your manuscript—do you have enough conflict in the scene?

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