Teachers Write 7. 30.15 Thursday Quick Write with Kekla Magoon

When I read Kekla Magoon’s YA novel HOW IT WENT DOWN, I was blown away by the multiple points of view and reached out to ask Kekla if she’d consider joining us to talk about that in a Teachers Write lesson. She graciously agreed – and has today’s Tuesday Quick-Write!

In storytelling, everything is a matter of perspective. Writing thoughtfully and convincingly through the viewpoint of a single character is a challenge to any writer. Incorporating multiple viewpoints in the same story simply brings this challenge to the forefront of our awareness, both as writers and as readers.

A common question I get asked about my YA novel HOW IT WENT DOWN is “How did you juggle all those characters and viewpoints?” That novel contains vignettes from (gulp!) eighteen separate viewpoint characters. Writing multiple viewpoints forces you to think in very detailed ways about how each of your characters really sees the world. It reminds both writer and reader that there is no empirical “truth.” Rather, everything (and I do mean everything) that occurs in a story is filtered through the narrator’s point of view.

In any scene that involves more than one person, each character will be carrying his or her own set of desires, fears, anxieties, thoughts, and observations. If two different people walked into the same room, and were asked to describe it, they are probably going to say different things.

One person might say the room is square with high ceilings. One person might say it is white with gold trim. Someone else might say it’s an office that appears outfitted for an accountant or bookkeeper. These three people could be describing the same room, couldn’t they?

When you write from a single viewpoint, you will not necessarily be describing things as they appear empirically in the world. You can’t possibly enumerate every detail of the space, so you must pick and choose the things to mention, based on your character’s tendencies. In HOW IT WENT DOWN, all of my characters inhabit the same neighborhood, but they each experience it differently. These layers come from your character’s emotional life.

A boy who is scared of the gangs in his neighborhood walks down the street and sees everything in terms of his fear—innocuous things become a threat. The gang leader, on the other hand, feels very much in control of the space, and desires to exert that control, thus he views things as small in comparison to himself. A teenage girl who wants nothing but to get out of the neighborhood looks upon things with frustration and disdain, as compared to a middle grader for whom this block is and always has been her whole world. How would each of these characters respond to, say, stubbing their toe on a fire hydrant?

Practice seeing the world through the eyes of different characters. What interests and excites them? How do their emotions impact their worldview?

Writing Exercise: Write a scene between two characters from the perspective of one person. Then, rewrite the scene from the other character’s perspective. How does it change the way the scene plays out? Consider the character’s motivation and interests, and the way they are likely to describe the scene through their unique viewpoint. What does each character notice about the room or the other person, physically speaking? How does his or her emotional state inform his or her reactions and thoughts as the characters interact?

Optional: This exercise is especially effective if you take an existing scene from something you’ve previously written, and flip the viewpoint. What do you learn about your original viewpoint character by seeing them through someone else’s eyes? What do you learn about your secondary characters’ motivations that might help you create tension elsewhere in the story?

Feel free to share a paragraph or two of your writing from today in the comments if you’d like!

33 Replies on “Teachers Write 7. 30.15 Thursday Quick Write with Kekla Magoon

  1. Hooray! Kekla Magoon is a favorite of mine. She’s not only a wonderful author but she puts on a wonderful visit for students. If you can book her, do it!
    Before I get into TW….there is a wonderful book club talk of X: A Novel tonight on the #2jennsbookclub on Twitter. I plan on being there. X is another amazing contribution of work to YA Lit by Kekla. Kekla, I hope you will drop in on that chat?
    See the SLJ interview of Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon here. http://ow.ly/QgQez
    OK, thank you for your wonderful mini-lesson today….it is right. Up. My. Alley. I am already writing poems in different points of view for my wip. I’m not sure how to show them here as formatting NEVER works in the blog comments. So, I’ll do my best by “stacking” them. I threw this draft up on my blog as a side by side.
    Kekla, you are the best for being here today. I hope you get to know lots and lots of TW campers. See you around!

    Empty Flour Sack

    The pantry flour sack
    was empty so
    I washed it and
    hung it up on
    the basement line.
    I’ll cut an apron for Pearl
    covered in flowers
    and tuck a tea towel
    into each pocket.
    I’ll add Mrs. Lesley’s
    recipe for Date and Nut Bars.
    Someday, when we are ladies
    with our own homes
    we will make fancy foods
    for our husbands.
    Our aprons will be starched
    and our tea towels
    will be finest linen

    Empty Flour Sack

    I cannot keep enough
    eyes on that girl, Irene.
    I need blacking cloths
    for the fire place
    and Mrs. Guilder’s shoe kit.
    That old flour sack
    was in the kitchen pantry
    yesterday and I
    went to take the shears
    to it — but it was gone.
    Looked all over for it.
    Irene was awful quiet
    as she scrubbed pots
    in the sink.
    ~Irene, where is that flour sack?
    ~Which sack, ma’am?
    ~Oh, for pity sake…the newly emptied one.
    ~Dripping dry in the basement, ma’am.
    ~What on heaven’s green earth for?
    ~I’d thought to make a new apron, ma’am.
    ~You have plenty of service aprons.
    ~An apron for my cousin, ma’am….she
    has needed a new one for a long time, ma’am.
    Oh, dear girl.
    A flour sack apron…
    How can I deny such a luxury?

    1. I loved this Linda. It gave me a sense of “stations” held in the household. Where one saw the flour sack as something to be used like a rag, the other saw it as something of a luxury. I’d love to read more of your story.

    2. Your writing is so rich with detail. I felt like I was in that kitchen. The perspectives flip was marvelous, and I felt a fear wondering the reaction about the missing flour sack. Love to read more!

    3. Very nice Linda! I really felt for Irene, but loved that she wasn’t “pathetic” – just industrious enough to put things to good use. I also loved that she owned up to taking the sack. I was afraid she’d lie. I also love that the lady (is she Mrs. Lesley?) felt compassion for Irene – which is a twist. I wonder how far that compassion extends.

  2. I’ve only read an excerpt of your book Kekla, but know it is one I must get for my classroom. Thank your for your lesson today.
    I am not sure how well I did on this. A beta reader recently told me that I did a lot of head hopping. I took a scene from my current work and recreated it into the following. I know one thing. The other students in the classroom my MC is in has been helping him out. I never thought about their motivations for anything since they were minor characters. What this did was made me look at how Mr. Fugate and Frankie’s interactions affected the rest of the students instead of just showing they sympathized with him, knew his treatment wasn’t fair and then left it at that. If I could ask one question of you Kekla, how do you keep these different points of view from becoming just head hopping? Here is my scene. Frankie has a math teacher that has become verbally abusive toward him.

    Frankie walked into his math class and sat next to Kevin. He handed a small recorder to Kevin. “My mom said to thank you for doing this Kevin.” Frankie knew if Mr. Fugate found out that there would be hell to pay. Mr. Fugate entered and smirked at Frankie as he began to hand back their graded homework. A big red zero sat at the top of his paper. Frankie glanced over at Kevin’s paper. They had compared their work after class and had identical answers. Frankie slowly raised his hand. “Excuse me Mr. Fugate but how did I fail my homework?” Mr. Fugate’s response was cold. “There’s no way a greaseball like you would be smart enough to do the work so I knew you had to cheat. I just gave you the grade you earned.” Frankie refused to open his mouth. He knew Mr. Fugate was baiting him for something bigger.

    Kevin watched Frankie enter the classroom. He looked defeated. Frankie handed him a small recorder. He placed it in his binder and turned it on. It was the least he could do since Mr. Fugate seemed to have it in for Frankie. Mr. Fugate entered the classroom and handed back their homework. He saw the A+ at the top of his paper and felt pumped. His grades had gone up since Frankie had been tutoring him. He looked over at Frankie’s paper and saw the big fat zero. He felt sorry for what Frankie was going through and felt relief He was glad he wasn’t Hispanic like Frankie. As long as Frankie was Mr. Fugate’s target, his football career was in the bag. With his past history of anger issues in the classroom, it felt good knowing someone else was in the hot seat, even if he was there because of a lie.

  3. Good morning, Ms. Magoon and fellow TWer’s!

    Thank you for the wonderful lesson on perspective. I find that my four children (3 girls and 1 boy – close in age from 6-12 years old) view each activity/event differently. In fact, when I listen to them describe the event to a friend or family, sometimes the description is completely different (I wonder if they were truly there with us:).

    Here is a snippet of something I tried last week to get a better grasp on the supportive character:

    Mom is waiting for us at the back door. (In the story, the main character and his sister are returning from the library)
    “Mr. Penders called while you were at the library?”
    Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. “Did he want to talk about the solar panel project? I was hoping to go into school to work on it.” I reply. My heart is about to beat out of my chest.
    “Well kind of, you have been chosen to receive a National Science Award in Washington, DC on Saturday.”
    Am I dreaming? “Are you sure? Tell me you’re sure.” This is unbelievable. Wait until I tell Christy, Maggie, Jess, and Emma. They are going to flip out!
    “I am sure. You have won the Alternative Energy Efficiency Award.”
    “I feel like I’m gonna faint.” It is so awesome that Sammy is here to hear my good news. I am such an amazing role model for him.

    Now, from the main character’s perspective (from the WIP):
    Mom is waiting for us at the back door. (In the story, the main character and his sister are returning from the library)
    “Mr. Penders called while you were at the library?”
    “Did he want to talk about the solar panel project? I was hoping to go into school this afternoon to work on it.” Kim responds.
    Oh, brother, school on Sunday.
    “Well kinda, you have been chosen to receive a National Science Award in Washington, DC on Saturday.”
    “Are you sure? Tell me you’re sure.”
    “I am sure. You have won the Alternative Energy Efficiency Award.”
    “I feel like I’m gonna faint.”
    Oh, brother!

    Thanks again. This was a great way to start a morning of writing.

  4. Thanks, Kekla, for sharing a serendipitous Quick Write. Earlier this week I added _How It Went Down_ to my To-Read list, and I’m currently a quarter of the way into Laura Ruby’s _Bone Gap_ with its point of view intricacies. (Hmm. Time to build a POV reading ladder, I think.)

    Today, I revisited this snippet from two weeks ago:
    Lucas realized the irony in what was supposed to be just a walk in the park. Down by the creek, his mom did all the talking. She and his dad had decided to get a divorce. A what? Lucas felt the day suddenly tilt. His guts lurched like the treetops, torn at by the wind.

    And got this, through mom’s eyes:
    In her head, Laura Fisher chuckled. A walk in the park? Yes, literally, but at the same time hardly. She walked in silence with her son Lucas, a stiff wind pushing them around. She knew she needed to tell him how she and Lucas’ dad had agreed to get a divorce. The responsibility of this news pressed down on her, though she wondered if it would even feel like news to him. He’d seen how she and Tom had torn at each other lately, hadn’t he? Some of his friends’ parents had separated, hadn’t they? This was really the opposite of news, wasn’t it? These questions tumbled inside her like a litter of attention-seeking pups, but the noisy rush of the creek pulled her back into the moment. She started talking.

    1. a POV ladder—love this phrase. I may need to use this somewhere if it’s ok with you?!
      What really worked for me in this is “opposite of news” Isn’t that the truth so many times and it’s such a universal experience that we humans know before we are told. Great stuff there. I wonder how Lucas will react? I wonder if there is more to the story than “just” the divorce.

      1. Borrow away, Linda! Credit where credit is due: I’m re-applying the idea of reading ladders I learned about in a book by Teri Lesense.

    2. Hi Brian,
      I found Lucas’ reaction quite moving and visceral. And having been though this with my sons, sadly it’s true. And the mom, yes, she doesn’t understand how her son will be affected. How personally tragic it is for him, despite having witnessed other separations. I’m worried about Lucas, and I do identify with his mom – who doesn’t get it.

    3. ” A walk in the park? Yes, literally, but at the same time hardly.” Loved this! So much to like in this. The stark differences make this a compelling piece. I felt the truth in both of your characters. Good stuff 🙂

  5. Hi, Linda! Thanks. I love school visits. I’m at an event tonight, but I plan to try to come by the chat at least briefly.

    Hi, Sandra. The exercise of writing from different points of view is good practice for a writer behind the scenes. When it comes to putting a manuscript together for a reader to enjoy, then “head hopping” can be an issue if too many viewpoints are involved. The main issue is clarity–does the reader know whose head she’s in at all times? Most multi-POV stories do not shift perspectives during the course of a single scene, for example. They alternate chapters, or at least separate scenes. If you are writing a book (or scene) with a single narrator, you want to be careful to remain in that person’s head at all times. This means not revealing other characters’ thoughts, feelings or observations, except through their dialogue and action. It’s hard sometimes!

    In the specific case of HOW IT WENT DOWN, I’m employing a different type of “head hopping,” but never in a single scene. Every vignette is a distinct voice, and each is labeled with the name of the viewpoint character, for clarity. Some readers might be able to follow the switching without that touchstone, but it would be hard. If there were only two voices, it would be easier to plant clues within the text for the reader to know whose head we’re in. But it still is best to switch POV at a scene break or chapter break to avoid the head-hopping feeling.

    In most books, showing every perspective is less important than building one narrator’s voice and viewpoint consistently and believably. Thinking about how that person views the world differently from those around them is helpful to that process.

    Hope that helps. Thanks, everyone!

  6. Good morning, Kekla and all-
    I enjoy reading how each person attacks the writing prompts and am always impressed what everyone writes. Thanks for sharing!

    I will just write a summary of what I discovered while completing this task.

    My WIP has a son and a father who spend time with each other after the mother/wife dies. I wrote about their trip to a fishing hole from the different perspectives. Just briefly, the son tended to be very introverted, doing a lot of thinking inside his own head, isolated and alone while in the company of his father. The main struggle of my story surfaced in just those few paragraphs. I didn’t expect it. At the same time, the father’s perspective obviously focused on different things, revealing a premonition for his son’s future. He could see the surroundings and the environment where the son missed all those details.

    By completing this task quickly, I discovered some important details to include in my revisions. Thanks to you, I am crossing a hurdle that has been in my way the last few weeks. 🙂

    1. yes, discovering something new is like finding buried treasure! You made me laugh with the math post!

  7. Hi Kekla,
    I met you briefly at the YALSA symposium in Austin. I love your use of so many viewpoints to describe the same incident. I’ve written two novels in dual first person, and now venturing further – but not 18! Anyway, just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your post 🙂

  8. Kekla,
    Thank you for your lesson today. I find it timely because this past year, one of my critique partners wanted to know what was going on with one of my off-stage characters while everyone else was busy on-stage. I drafter a few VERY rough paragraphs below exploring that. I find it interesting that, not only did I switch characters, but I also switched from 3rd person to 1st person.

    Original, Lily’s POV:

    “Let’s go, Lily!”

    Lily Allen’s mother places the bundle of tied-up linens on the floor next to their satchels. She shrugs into her winter coat and motions for Lily to do the same. Lily’s fingers are stiff from cold and she struggles to fasten her buttons. Her oft-mended wool mittens are threadbare and provide little protection against the bitter Buffalo winters.

    Lily takes one last look at their meager lodgings. The four walls of the apartment enclose a small kitchen area, into which is crammed a table just big enough for two people, and – behind a partition – a bed that Lily and her mother shared. Most of the room’s floor is covered with a dull, worn carpet that doesn’t extend to the edges. Lily misses their bigger apartment, with her own bedroom, where they lived when Papa was alive. Her stomach clenches.

    In the middle of the dreary room sits the small coal stove, on which Momma did all of their cooking, around which they spent hours keeping warm while Lily read and Momma sewed, and which now sits as cold and unwelcoming as the bitter winter day. Lily shivers, clutching Molly, the doll Momma made her, tightly to her chest.

    New, Momma’s POV:

    Lily is daydreaming again, and we need to get moving or we’ll miss our trolley.

    “Let’s go, Lily!”

    I place the bundle of linens next to our satchels and grab our winter coats. I’m dreading going out into that miserable weather, but we can’t exactly stay here any longer. There’s no more coal, and no more money to buy coal even if it was available. My one hope is to place Lily with Mrs. Schmidt. Dear Lord, please let her take Lily in. I don’t know how long it will take me to find a position. I need to use all the money I have left to find lodgings for myself, and maybe one meal a day.

    I knew we wouldn’t be in this apartment long, but I always thought we’d be moving into something nicer, not losing everything altogether. It’s the war. The Great War they call it. I’m not sure what’s so Great about war. All the men are gone, so it’s near impossible for me to find a new husband to support Lily and me. And with food so hard to come by, and me not able to earn enough washing and scrubbing for rich ladies. I hope it ends soon. Then we can get on with our lives, me and Lily. My poor, sad, quiet girl.

    1. I enjoyed your two perspectives. It seemed like a good way to add background to your story without being too obvious. I learned a lot in just a few paragraphs. I also liked the concreteness (?) of Lily’s perspective. It rang true to me as childlike. Mother’s perspective was more global and farther reaching. Good stuff 🙂

  9. Great post, Kekla! I love doing perspective exercises with my students. These are great. My post is a bit long. I wrote a scene a few weeks ago and I thought it would be fun to work with that one. I hope you don’t mind the length.
    Perspective 1- Narrator
    He travels with an entourage these days, one in front, and one in back, frequently hangers-on crowd along his side. His gait is deliberate. People take notice when he enters a room. They pause from their meal, their conversation, their cocktail and watch as the group passes.
    A woman, noticing him at the door, leaves her position at the table and heads over to him. She moves efficiently, yet gracefully, in his direction. “This way, Dad,” she says, as she steers him toward her table. The entourage peels away like the petals of a banana, leaving the tender fruit exposed.
    “Oh, it’s you! Are you Kathy or are you Sue?” he asks with a good-natured smile.
    Perspective 2- Main character

    My God, why are all these people hanging around? I’m just trying to get something to eat. Can’t they get out of my way? Look at them all staring. What’re you looking at? You got something to say? Say it!
    I can do this myself, you know. I’ve been walking for a very long time. Eating too. I suppose that surprises you. You look and see a feeble old man. You don’t know me. You don’t know my story.
    People used to stand up when I walked into the room. They used to show their respect, and hang on my every word. Now, now they hang around waiting for me to fall. They used to look at me with envy, now they look at me with pity. I know people, you know? I’m the man who gets things done. I know people. Now, if I could just remember his name…

  10. Something I love about TW is that there are things I know but need reminding of, things I’ve learned but don’t practice. It is so nice to have such clear, insightful posts from authors that encourage me to practice the things I know but forget when writing. I too have different viewpoint characters and this is helpful. I think about who I am writing about for different scenes, which character would be the best for this or that scene, and it was fun to write the same scene twice. I’m actually not finished, but its all too long to post. Here is a few lines from each perspective:
    Kenneth loosened his tie and stepped outside. Mom would be better off in a place where she didn’t have all this responsibility, he thought. Shaking his head, he rolled up the sleeves of his blue striped shirt, fresh from the cleaners. He turned on the hose and started to water the trees. Kenneth glances two yards over, to where Rosalie and her mother pulled in. Rosalie is driving her mother’s old taurus wagon. She looks over as Kenneth waves and turns, slightly, to move the hose to the next tree. He looks back as Rosalie helps her mother out of the car and up the steps, arms linked. Long dark hair shining in the light next to her mother’s silver white bun. Rosalie, her long limbs and strong posture, dwarfs her tiny mother. Once inside, Kenneth looks down the flood of water running onto his polished oxfords. Dammit, he murmurs.

    Rosalie turns the corner and pulls past Ruth’s house. Her realtor son is holding the hose like it is a poisonous snake, bending over in his fancy work clothes so that he doesn’t get close to the water or plants. He looks up and waves, his face brightening when he sees her. Not half bad when he smiles, she thinks as she turns off the car.
    “Is that Ruth’s son?” her mother asks.
    “Si mama,”
    “He’s the one who got divorced.”
    Rosalie doesn’t answer, pretending to be already out of earshot. She helps her mother out of the car, noticing that she leans more on her arm than in the previous excurisons. She must be tired, Rosalie thinks, closing her eyes briefly as she urges the tears to stay back.
    “Why don’t you take a rest, mama?” Rosalie leads her mother to her room and helps her take off her shoes to lie down.

  11. Thanks Kekla. This was the perfect exercise to help me get to know my characters better. I ended up writing about first impressions between first Kay and then Art two ninth graders.

    “Usually we give girl students a girl buddy but since you are both from Pennsylvania we thought you two would be a perfect match,” said the school secretary in a crisp British accent.
    At that moment a scrawny red headed boy dressed in khaki shorts that had been ironed so stiffly that they looked like the prow of a ship, walked up.
    “Kay this is Art, Art meet Kay.”
    “Howdy!” Art said while extending his hand.
    “Hi! So you are my buddy.”
    “Yup. I hear you’re from Pennsylvania.”
    “Allentown. Near Philly”
    “I can’t believe I got a boy buddy from Philly – nowhere near Pittsburgh. You could put three Singapores between Philly and Pittsburgh. And besides everyone knows that the Pittsburgh Penguins rule the Philadelphia Flyers any day,” Kay fumed to herself.

    I banged my locker shut. “Everything is the same,” I muttered., as I glanced at the locker to my left. I noticed that the flag stickers that Ann and I had plastered on her brother’s locker had been scraped away without a trace of stickyness.
    “Art!, Art!” I heard Miss Walker, the school secratary, call from down the hall. “You have a buddy today, meet Kay.”
    At that moment, a girl who looked like she had been through a windstorm walked up. Her glazed green eyes were barely visible under her wispy light brown hair. Her jumper was majorly rumpled – not an easy look to achieve when the uniform is made from some industrial strength material.
    “Howdy!” I said offering my hand.
    “Hi! So you are my buddy.”
    “Yup. I hear you are from Pennsylvania.”
    “Cool! I’m from Allentown. Near Philly”
    I can’t believe I get to show Kay around. A perfect chance. Someone new to take my mind off the fact that Ann and Drew were gone. I could definitely see hanging out with Kay – she doesn’t look too cool to be my friend. Besides we’re both from Pennsylvania – we were meant to stick together.

  12. This is all so great! I’m glad to see you all trying the exercise and that it seems like everyone is getting something out of it. Thanks so much for chiming in!

  13. ’ve got so many ideas running through my head in response to this post. (First, I can’t help but think of the blue-black or white-gold dress picture that circulated on social media some months back – everyone was looking at the same picture, same dress, but saw something different). Your advice above also gives me some wonderful ideas for my Creative Writing students this fall, as well as for my own writing. I love the idea of flipping the viewpoint in order to help find the motivation/develop the tensions in a story. This would certainly be a helpful exercise when my students are developing minor characters for their short stories. I have a short story written about a chambermaid cleaning up after a wealthy family, I am nearly finished with the story but feel it’s lacking tension. I’m going to try this exercise out and see if this will open new doors or pathways for my characters/plot. My other WIP is a children’s story that is all about seeing things from a different perspective (in this case it is a young boy afraid of insects, and then the story flips to get the insect’s perspective of the boy). I will be using your exercise for development there as well. Thank you!
    P.S. Your story How It Went Down sounds intriguing, I can’t wait to pick it up!

  14. Thanks for your post, Kekla! I read your book Camo Girl and really enjoyed it. I’ll have to look for HOW IT WENT DOWN. Writing a scene from different perspectives is a great idea and helped me bring out an important moment while revising my MG novel. Thank you!

  15. My main character, Alexis, has just gotten broken up with. This is her perspective:

    Ben looked away, as if something on the other side of the room fascinated him all of a sudden. Just like that. Our whole relationship, over in five minutes. He hated me, he despised me, I was a total failure. Now I have no one.
    I stood, and blindly grabbed for my jacket, forcing myself out the side door, still stumbling and numb. I looked back at their suite one last time. Jake stared down at me from his bedroom window, as if he’d been waiting to watch me leave the whole time.

    Now from the perspective of Jake, the guy looking out the window:

    Huh, I guess I was right. Ben did break up with her. I looked out my window, and watched Alexis leave the dorm. Her face was down, her hair hiding her expression. I was sure she was crying. That girl is so sensitive. Still, so pretty underneath that fragile air she has. Her body… I would totally do her. And now that she wasn’t with Ben… She’s got to be so desperate right now for attention. And I’m just the one to give it to her.