Saturday, October 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Too Much? Too Little? Or Just Too Confusing?

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

This week’s question:
I've written 2 and 1/2 books in a fantasy series, and have trouble with passive voice, and head hopping. I've focused so much on showing rather than telling, that my writing has become minimalistic at times and I wonder if I'm losing my reader before I even get them hooked. I'm attempting to find that fine balance, and wonder if I have 'told' enough in the opening of the second book in the series to hook and not simply confuse the heck out of them.
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
She watched him get to his feet, shaking his head, looking dazed and confused. She crouched, ready to run if he came after her. His eyes settled on her, widening in comprehension. “You tried to send me back, didn’t you?”

She shook her head and then nodded, realizing she couldn’t fool him, “You don’t deserve to be here.”

He pointed at a figure sleeping on the ground, “Neither does he.”

“Malin said -”

“Don’t tell me what he said. What right does he have to judge my brother?”

She reached her hand out to him and he stepped back in alarm, “Karen, no, don’t do it.”

Dropping her hand to her side, she sighed and turned away, wondering why she had failed in her attempt to transport Phillip back to their own world. She looked down at her hands. Don’t they work anymore? Had she lost the gift so soon? Looking around at the dusty plain that stretched to the horizon, uninterrupted by any natural feature or man-made structure, she cursed at herself over what might be a horrendous mistake. Phillip and his twin brother, Paul had been there for several days before Karen arrived, just hours ago. She hadn’t seen anyone else in the god-forsaken place yet, but she knew there were others out there, somewhere. She looked over her shoulder at Phillip. He sat on the ground next to Paul, his arms propped on his knees, watching his brother sleep.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[She watched him] If she’s your POV, then this pulls away some. It describes the action from outside looking in, not inside her head looking out get to his feet, shaking his head, looking dazed and confused. [She crouched, ready to run if he came after her.] This is a good spot for some internalization. What does she fear? His eyes settled on her, widening in comprehension. “You tried to send me back, didn’t you?”

She shook her head and then nodded, [realizing] This tells what she does, it doesn’t show her doing it. This is another good spot for internalization to show how she gets to this point. she couldn’t fool him, “You don’t deserve to be here.”

He pointed at [a figure] If she knows who the figure is, this pulls away. If she doesn’t, it’s fine. Though she refers to him by name later so I suspect she does know sleeping on the ground, “Neither does he.”

“Malin said -”

“Don’t tell me what he said. What right does he have to judge my brother?” There’s a lot of conflict and tension in this scene so far, which is good. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know there’s trouble between these two over the brother and this Malin. I'm intrigued.

[She reached her hand out to him] Why? Some internalization here to help clarify her motives might be good and he stepped back [in alarm,] It’s plausible that she can see his alarm, but “in X” is a red flag for telling words. Unless it’s something they can see and be sure of, they can’t know why someone does something. [“Karen, no, don’t do it.” ]How does she react to this? Don’t do what?

Dropping her hand to her side, she sighed and turned away, [wondering why] This tells us that she wonders instead of showing her wondering. she had failed in her attempt to transport Phillip back to their own world. [She looked down at her hands. Don’t they work anymore? Had she lost the gift so soon?] This is a good example of showing. She doesn’t wonder if they work anymore, she asks the question [Looking around at the dusty plain that stretched to the horizon, uninterrupted by any natural feature or man-made structure,] This feels detached to me, someone other than the POV describing this. There’s no reason for her to tell us this [she cursed at herself over what might be a horrendous mistake.] She’s having some inner turmoil here, so perhaps show us that. What is she conflicted over? Why? [Phillip and his twin brother, Paul had been there for several days before Karen arrived, just hours ago.] Using her name here pulls you out of her head and makes this feel told. It’s also explaining backstory in a way that Karen probably wouldn’t. What does she think at this moment? She hadn’t seen anyone else in the god-forsaken place yet, but she knew there were others out there, somewhere. She looked over her shoulder at Phillip. He sat on the ground next to Paul, his arms propped on his knees, watching his brother sleep.

The question:
I've written 2 and 1/2 books in a fantasy series, and have trouble with passive voice, and head hopping. I've focused so much on showing rather than telling, that my writing has become minimalistic at times and I wonder if I'm losing my reader before I even get them hooked. I'm attempting to find that fine balance, and wonder if I have 'told' enough in the opening of the second book in the series to hook and not simply confuse the heck out of them.
I didn’t see any passive voice here, so you’re doing well with that. I also didn’t see any head hopping, but I did see switching from Karen’s POV to an more omniscient narrator. That’s when the telling slips in, because it’s no longer in a solid POV. You’re telling readers what is going on instead of showing the situation and letting them figure it out by what they see and hear. It’s more of a POV shift than head hopping though.

I suspect your fears about minimalistic writing are due to the lack of internalization. You’re instincts are solid here, telling you something is off. You’re writing mostly what people do and say, with very little about what’s going on in their heads, doing the “minimum” needed to get the story across. I’d suggest fleshing out the external descriptions with more internal musings. Not only should that help with the minimalistic feel, but you’ll also force yourself to be stronger in your POV’s head and show more.

Anytime you start to feel yourself explaining something, stop and rethink the sentence. Ask yourself if that is how Karen would say it. Would she think “I watched him get to his feet” (yes, think of it in first person because it puts it more in the head) or would she just see “He got to his feet.” Are you describing something someone is seeing, or what someone is watching? Seeing is inside looking out. Watching is outside looking in. The more outside you are, the more told it feels. The more inside, the more shown.

As for hooking or losing the reader, I was intrigued by what was going on here. It feels more like a snippet from a scene that the beginning of a novel though. I wasn’t sure if this was the opening or just a section from the opening. If the novel opens this way, you’re probably going to lose some folks. I didn’t know what was going on, but I could see that something was and assumed what came before would have provided the context.

If this is indeed the opening page, more internalization will also help draw readers in and ground them to this world. Karen is your POV, and identifying her by name at the start would help there. As would having her think about the situation she’s in a little to bring the reader up to speed. This is where a teeny bit of telling (as long as you stay in Karen’s voice and head) is a good thing. Provide enough context for new readers to understand what’s going on, but not so much that you stop the story to rehash the plot of book one.

You can also try waiting a bit longer to get to the action (I know, that’s the opposite of what you hear) and give the reader time to catch up. Let them get to know Karen a little, like her (or at least be intrigued by her), and then show the problem at hand. Diving right in without context or a character to root for will likely cause confusion for the reader. They won’t know anyone, they won’t know what’s going on or why it matters, and so they won’t care. Think of it as turning on a movie half an hour into it with no prior knowledge of the story. How much would you care if everything was going down the tubes?

Overall it’s not a bad snippet at all. Give the reader someone solid to hold onto, ground them a bit more, and you’ll probably get what you’re aiming for.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. Ah, the "narrator's name not being mention" part is what jumped out at me first. Replacing the first "she" used as Karen would anchor the story in.

    Had you ever seen any instances where a story is so deep within a character's thoughts, it ironically feels detacted from the external world?

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  2. Hi Janice, saw your link t Literary ramble's blog and stopping by to say hello. Have a greta weekend!

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  3. Action beats before dialogue end in a period, not a comma, unless the beat includes a speaking verb.

    Incorrect:

    He pointed at a figure sleeping on the ground, “Neither does he.”

    Correct:

    He pointed at a figure sleeping on the ground. “Neither does he.”

    or

    He pointed at a figure sleeping on the ground and said, “Neither does he.”

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  4. Personally, I like it when the beginning causes me to ask lots of questions. So, I enjoyed this. There is enough to hook me because I want to know what her power it, why she couldn't send him back, why she didn't try to send the brother, etc.

    Other than that, I totally agree with Janice on all points. Good job, a bit more tweaking and it'll be great.

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  5. I agree that this may jump into the action a little quick but, to echo Janice's comments, there is good tension so I'm already curious about this fantasy world and how it works. It's plenty to make me, as a reader, put this book back on the shelf and hunt down the first book in the series before coming back to this one.

    The snippet that stuck out for me was "back to their own world" - it was a little unclear whether it was the home world of all three of these characters or just the twins.

    Best of luck to you!!

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