Sometimes a problem with point of view isn’t simply a question of “head-hopping”. It can be using an omniscient narrator when a closer, more intimate perspective on a character’s thoughts and feelings is called for. Sometimes the distinction is very subtle, as is the case here.
Title of the work: FROM ACROSS THE STARS
Language: US English
Synopsis: Josh Cransten grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, yet he wasn’t born there. Instead, Josh was born upon a world thousands of light-years from Earth, on a planet that is the birthplace of the human race. Josh is also royalty and doesn’t know it…until an enemy comes looking.
Light and pain exploded behind Josh Cransten’s eyes as the first blow landed, turning his nose into a bloody mess. Another impact quickly followed the first, large fists sending the sixteen year-old to the ground in a heap of tangled limbs. The taste of warm copper filled his mouth even as he tried getting to his feet through a pain-laden fog. Josh was barely up off the sidewalk when a swift kick to the stomach sent him back to the ground.
“Come on, Joshy-boy!” Bobby Phillips crowed. “Don’t give up on me that easily, we’re just getting started!”
Josh looked up through his tears, vision blurred by the damage to his face. Still gasping for air after the blow to his stomach, he felt something warm and sticky trickle down into his right eye. Time seemed to slow as the pair locked eyes with one another-one set wild with rage, the other set filled with fear.
“Pl-,” the smaller of the two began, pausing to spit blood from his mouth. “Please, Bobby.” Coughing, Josh grabbed at his attacker’s boot. “Please stop.”
The dark-haired brute of a teenager only laughed. “What a wimp!” Bobby glanced back to see if the parking lot behind their school was still empty, then reached down to grab a thick clump of his victim’s hair. “Get up, you big sissy!”
White-hot fire spread across the flesh of his scalp before Josh was yanked back to his feet.
“W-Why,” he stammered.
A sick grin spread across Bobby’s face as he yanked Josh closer. Like a cat, the bully obviously enjoyed toying with his prey. And just like a cat, soon Bobby would tire of the game and swoop in for the kill.
“You really want to know why?” Bobby hissed, his victim practically gagging on the stench of stale cigarettes. “It’s because you didn’t listen before when I told you to stay away from Kaley!”
Even through the pain, Josh was caught totally off guard. Kaley Johnson was one of his closest friends and had been for as long as he could possibly remember. What’s more, the pair had never shown the faintest glimmer of attraction towards one another, which is why Josh had ignored the previous warning.
“What?” Josh gurgled in response, forgetting his predicament for a moment. “That doesn’t make-”
He was instantly silenced as another, stronger impact cut off his words. It was a savage blow, dazing Josh once again while turning his legs back into jelly. Falling to his knees, he glanced up to find flashes of gold superimposed atop Bobby’s advancing figure, almost as if the larger teen were clad in weird, high-tech armor. Josh shook his head to clear the image, finally glancing up to find the bully grinning above him.
“Wrong answer!” Bobby growled while drawing back his boot, ready to finish things with a single blow. “Lights out, Joshy-bo-”
“Leave him alone!” a distant voice bellowed, causing the bully to pause. Josh felt as if he should know this new arrival, yet he was still stunned by the previous blow and what had come after it.
“Yeah, get away from him!” another, equally familiar voice cried soon after.
Josh struggled to get off his knees, hardly watching as Bobby turned towards the sound of approaching footsteps. Parting with a kick to his victim’s face, the bully fled as help arrived. Friendly hands pulled Josh from the ground soon after, though he barely felt any of it. Instead, he slipped unconscious even as the first buses rumbled into the parking lot.
Strangely, that darkness brought Josh to a far-away place that he had never seen before…or so he thought.
Editorial critique: I cut this off here, just before the story switches to a distant planet and a whole different world, because I think the crucial failing is in this first section, and I’m not sure an agent would have read further.
This opening left me cold, and I had to think hard about why. There’s conflict, violent conflict, from the very first line. There’s good dialogue. We do empathize with Josh, somewhat, wishing the fight would stop, that someone would intervene. So there are lots of good things about this opening, but I’m not blown away. I’m not heartbroken by Josh falling unconscious, his face a bloody mess. Why not? One of the problems, I think, is the rather remote “omniscient narrator” PoV.
What do I mean? In the very first line “…turning his nose into a bloody mess” sounds like an observer speaking. His nose being a bloody mess is a visual cue, someone looking at Josh, rather than Josh himself feeling his nose being mashed.
The next sentence is also told from an observer’s point of view, “Another impact quickly followed the first, large fists sending the sixteen year-old to the ground in a heap of tangled limbs.” When referencing Josh as “the sixteen-year-old” (note: hyphen between ‘sixteen’ and ‘year’, also), you’re not talking about Josh as if we are Josh. You’re talking about him as if you’re watching the fight from a distance. This is all narration, by an observer. That might be okay, but then if we’re watching from a distance we can’t sense that “the taste of warm copper filled his mouth” in the next line. A narrator/observer can only sense so much, unless they’re an omniscient narrator.
“The smaller of the two began” – again, a visual cue, from someone standing aside and watching the confrontation dispassionately – and here I began to see why this doesn’t move me. It’s okay to write in an omniscient narrator point of view. It’s a real PoV, and in days gone by, almost all books were written this way. These days, however, it is a bit dated. Readers want more immersive fiction, want to feel that they are the characters, are sensing what they sense, feeling what they feel. The problem with an omniscient narrator is that they are simply that, a narrator, telling the story. There’s no passion or emotion coming out of that telling. The narrator doesn’t really care who wins the fight, they’re just watching, and reporting back to us like someone commenting on a boxing match:
“The guy in the blue shorts smashed the smaller guy in the face with a straight right. He was down on the floor but got up before the count. The guy in the blue shorts let loose with a haymaker, but the other guy ducked inside his guard and floored the blue guy with an uppercut.”
It might be an accurate representation of the fight, but it doesn’t move us, it merely lets us know the progress of the fight, the sequence of blows. I feel like this at the end of this section. I know fairly accurately what has happened to Josh, but I don’t really much care about it.
I’d do a little research on point of view. I’d concentrate particularly on how to make an omniscient point of view work, if you want to retain this perspective, or, alternatively, how to bring us in closer to this character with a more modern, conventional third-person-limited perspective. With that PoV, we are Josh, getting beaten up, so you’d have to lose the visual cues (things that only someone looking at Josh would notice) and Bobby’s internal thoughts (“Bobby glanced back to see if the parking lot behind their school was still empty”), and bring us right in to Josh’s thoughts and feelings. Your job, with this scene, is to make us feel Josh’s pain and bewilderment and helplessness, not tell us about it. Have a read of the first few pages of “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel (you don’t even need to buy the book, Amazon’s Look Inside feature will show you the first few pages of Chapter 1) and perhaps you’ll get a feeling for what I mean.
One other minor detail: with “Josh looked up through his tears” I’m wondering how old Josh is. Crying about being beaten up doesn’t seem the response of a sixteen-year-old, or are these tears merely a physiological reaction to getting smashed in the face? So it’s more that his eyes are watering, not that he’s crying?
The piece is well-written technically, so congratulations for that, but I don’t think the passage is original or startling enough to get an agent over the rather distant omniscient narrator perspective. I might be alone in thinking this, since I note you say this won an Honorable Mention in a short story contest, and perhaps, had I read further, I would have been captivated by the sudden shift to a distant planet. But, as I say always, the agent (or reader) has got to get to that point. After all, if the story really gets going from page 4, why bother to include pages 1-3?
Thanks for posting.