Saturday, December 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Do You Feel the Emotions or Did I Tell the Emotions?

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:
My novel is YA, first person. This is further into my novel, and the main character, Jenna, has just witnessed a prison break-in where the intruders were killed (and these intruders had super powers-- something she didn't know existed). She's not used to this, and her primary goal was to rescue Pops.

My main questions are if this successfully conveys the MC's emotions (fear, panic, etc) and if it reads smoothly, as well as raising the tension in the scene. I've found that I have problems showing, rather than telling, emotions and inner dialogue, and I was wondering whether it's working or not in this scene.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
“I just want answers,” I said. Tears formed at the edge of my eyes, but it didn’t matter how they saw me anymore. I’d had a promising biology career, and despite my dislike of pills, I liked the Community. It was safe, secure, efficient. But it wasn’t safe for the two dead people, or for the dead guard.

The guards thrust me into a small room lined with four tall, cylindrical tubes-- cryogenic chambers that everyone called coolers. These had tiny blue LEDs that shined from the metal ceiling panel and reflected on the frosted glass siding. Before now, the only functioning coolers I'd seen were in the training detention centers at the security building. Lance said he felt cold and stiff after testing one as part of a class exercise, and I didn’t really want to confirm his story. Two of the coolers were occupied; one held Green Jacket Man and the other held Pops, still alive. My heart beat faster, recognizing them there, and the guard’s hands weighed against my shoulders. The intruders slumped against the glass, frozen in sleep and covered with a thin sheet of frost. Pops’ lower lip and cheek were still bruised from last night’s skirmish.

“What's your name?” The female guard asked while the other one pried the backpack from my shoulders. Her words didn’t register with me until the bag was already locked away. I regretted taking my plant with me now. If something happened to me, Dad wouldn’t get it back. And if the guards found Pops note…

I doubled over, shaking.

I wouldn’t get a trial, either.

My Thoughts in Purple:
“I just want answers,” I said. Tears formed at the edge of my eyes, but it didn’t matter how they saw me anymore. I’d had a promising biology career, and [despite my dislike of pills, I liked the Community.] Very intriguing. It was safe, secure, efficient. But it wasn’t safe for the two dead people, or for the dead guard.

The guards thrust me into a small room lined with four [tall, cylindrical tubes-- cryogenic chambers that everyone called coolers.] Telling some here since I assume she knows what coolers are and this is what she calls them herself. She’d just refer to them as she knows them. Could cut [These had tiny blue LEDs that shined from the metal ceiling panel and reflected on the frosted glass siding.] Nice detail, but it feels a little outside looking in here. I think it’s the “these had” that pulls it away from the POV, unless she compares them to others she’s seen that look differently [Before now, the only functioning coolers I'd seen were in the training detention centers at the security building. Lance said he felt cold and stiff after testing one as part of a class exercise,] This is a great way to explain them in her POV. You could even add “cryogenic” in there somewhere to make it very clear what they are and I didn’t really want to confirm his story. Two of the coolers were occupied; one held Green Jacket Man and the other held Pops, still alive. My heart beat faster, [recognizing them there] she told us who they were so we know she recognized them, and the guard’s hands weighed against my shoulders. The intruders slumped against the glass, frozen in sleep and covered with a thin sheet of frost. Pops’ lower lip and cheek were still bruised from last night’s skirmish. This is a good spot for a little more emotion. Her heart beats faster, but that’s the only clue as to how she feels about seeing them there.

“What's your name?” The female guard asked while the other one pried the backpack from my shoulders. [Her words didn’t register with me until] If they didn’t register, then she probably wouldn’t have told us what she heard. the bag was already locked away. [I regretted ] not a bad tell, but you could do more here with the emotion. How would someone who regretted this think? taking my plant with me now. [If something happened to me, Dad wouldn’t get it back. ] I like that she’s worried about this, but why worry about a plant? She seems to be worried about things that feel unconnected to what’s going on, though they might be fine f I knew the whole story [And if the guards found Pops note…] intriguing and raises tensions some, especially if readers know what this means.

[I doubled over, shaking.] I didn’t get a strong sense of fear before this, so this seemed a little out of the blue. But if you added more fear before this, it’ll work fine. Is this a reaction to them finding the note? If so, perhaps a teeny bit more to remind readers why this is a bad thing (if it hasn’t been mentioned recently)

[I wouldn’t get a trial, either.] This also seems out of the blue, but I suspect it relates to something I didn’t see here. But you might have her worry about this more when she sees Pops in the cooler. Is that one of the reasons why her heart beats faster?

The questions:
Does this successfully convey the MC's emotions (fear, panic, etc)?

In some places, but she seems more levelheaded than panicked to me. But that could be easily fixed with a few panicked internal thoughts and some more fear details. I don’t think it would take much to make those emotions pop. One or two physical signs of distress (licking lips, darting eyes, nervous stomach, etc) and some worried internals before some of the narrative that talks about why she’d be nervous would do it.

Does it read smoothly?
Yes. You mentioned some concerns with telling, and there were some spots you might want to reconsider there. They’re not bad, but they did stand out since the rest of it was nicely in the POV and had a good voice.

Does it raise the tension in the scene?
Tough call on this one since it’s a short snippet. Jenna isn’t worried about what will happen until right at the end (and the trial line was intriguing, as were the pills), so I didn’t feel much of a rise in tension. But I suspect this scene actually does raise tensions if you read a larger portion of it. It feels like it has the right pieces. If you want to do more, you might try having her fears shift when she sees Pops. At first, she’s more worried about her promising career than what’s going on. Then later she’s worried about the plant and Dada, then finally a note in Pops’ pocket. (since I don’t know what any of this means I don’t see the stakes, but it’s clear to me that there are some there if I knew the story). Maybe when she sees Pops in the cooler a fresh bolt of panic over what that means hits her, and she can think about that and remind readers what the stakes are and why things just got harder or riskier.

You said that Jenna’s goal was to rescue Pops, but I don’t get a sense of that here. Though it’s possible she’s already failed there so it doesn’t matter. But that’s also something you could play with emotionally if she sees Pops and either thinks she still has a chance to save him or that she failed in that. She worries about quite a few things here, so in this snippet I’m not sure where her focus is. Clarifying that focus could also help raise tensions.

Overall it’s a good piece, I was curious about what was going on and would have read on.

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) and I encourage you 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.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with Janice. You gave some good background info before the piece, but this felt disconnected from the info you gave us.

    I also felt that there was too much telling in the para with the coolers in it. You could open with the room and the blue LED lights reflecting, then just state: Coolers.

    Maybe she could shiver at that moment. It would show her unconsciousness has already determined that these objects, though normal enough in her world, now have sinister meaning.

    Then the description about the cryogenic, Lance, etc. She sees Pops' face. And then...cymbal crash of emotion... with internal dialog and external markers (trembling lip, tears, shaky breath, sob, whatever is appropriate for your character).

    This would really bring out the emotion, and I would feel more connected.

    Good luck with this. I've had a couple pieces on RL Diagnostics and my last one was "emotionally distant". So that's why I'm cluing into your piece. Thanks for being so brave! :)

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  2. I'm sorry I don't have anything to add, but I did want to say I really liked this snippet! Best of luck with it, and thank you for sharing it!

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  3. Really intriguing story snippet, and found myself wishing I'd read the earlier part so that I had a better idea what was going on here -- so that has to be a good thing.

    In terms of your question, though, I'm not sure you're conveying the emotion you want to. Yet. Jenna actually comes across as being fairly calm and controlled.

    The opening part of this snippet is Jenna asking a question. This isn't answered (fair enough, too), but isn't referred to again at all. Did she expect it to be answered? Is she angry that the guards ignore her? Following that on with the thoughts about the Community is intriguing when you start reading at this point, but I wonder if, in the scheme of things, this is information the reader already knows. And if Jenna is frightened, why is she thinking about her career and the Community now?

    The second paragraph starts withher being thrust into the cooler room (great name for cryogenic tubes, btw). Were they holding on to her at the start of the excerpt? Are they rough when they do it? Does she stumble? Is she worried that she's about to be silenced? Or cooled? As it is, she's pushed into the room, and calmly surveys it noticing details like LEDs and bruises on Pops' face. That doesn't sound like someone who's scared.

    Jenna only registers any fear when she thinks about the note. Which is, of course, fine if that's when she starts to feel fear. I just got the impression from your question that she's supposed to be afraid all along.

    My suggestion would be to think about how you feel and react when you're scared, and try to include some of that detail into the earlier part of the scene. Maybe think about the last time you saw a spider or a snake, or you were on a rollercoaster, or imagine someone pulls a knife on you, or whatever would scare you to the level that Jenna is scared.

    If you get caught doing something wrong, or you see something that scares you, your body releases a jolt of adrenalin (fight or flight, baby) and that has a number of physiological effects, as well as psychological ones. Blood moves away from your hands and arms, and into your torso and legs, prepping your body to run. This can give you tingling fingers, a racing heart, etc. Your vision narrows and focuses, reducing the overall details you notice around you, but intensifying the ones you focus on -- generally the object of your fear. If you're not used to the rush of adrenalin, this will often be followed by a wave of nausea and a feeling of being out of control. As the adrenalin surge wears away, you get physically shaky and feel cold, especially in your extremeties. The severity/intensity of these physical reactions is entirely dependent on your experience in dealing with adrenalin. If you are reaguarly in fights, or scared, then your body/mind is more accustomed to the adrenalin and it's less disturbing. But if it's a rare thing, it's quite scary in itself. (A loss of control over your own body is always scary, especially when you already feel out of control.)

    You don't need to say "My fingers tingled" or whatever -- you're better off giving us Jenna's emotional reaction to her physiology.

    Right. Sorry for the super long comment. Hopefully something I've said is helpful to you.

    Best of luck!

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  4. This is well done - the pacing keeps things moving, a few well-chosen details, and lots of suspense and mystery.

    Like Janice says, you could add a few lines of dialogue before she doubles over. So she gets hit with fear once, twice, and then reacts in that way.

    The only thing I might add is cutting "Man" from Green Jacket Man - usually when I've seen an unnamed character described with a title, there isn't a Man on the end, but simply Mohawk or Tuxedo.

    Good luck!

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  5. Great! Thank you for the comments, everyone; I appreciate it. It'll definitely help, and I'll take a look at this post again when I go back to do some revisions. :-)

    I appreciate you having this column, Janice, it is very helpful. And I just got Shifter for Christmas, so I look forward to finally getting a chance to read it. :-D


    Again, thanks! And Happy Holidays, everyone. :-)

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  6. Thanks all, and thanks SBibb for volunteering. Glad it was helpful. And UI hope you enjoy The Shifter!

    and Jo, long comments are good! You always offer such great feedback :)

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