Saturday, January 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Are You Worried Yet? Heightening the Tension and Emotion in Your Scenes

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: Seven

This week’s questions:

In this passage my MC is a member of a group that is hunting a dragon for a bounty. My MC refers to the dragon as 'she'. Kent is the leader and he's a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so he's going to try to shoot the thing out of the air when it jumps toward him. My MC used to date Kent, but now she only tolerates him and no longer trusts him. They are in a forest at night, parts of it are now on fire, and the dragon is leaping out of a dried-up creek bed.

I want to know if this is scene is exciting and tense, and if not, how can I make it so? Is the action paced well, does it speed along? do you get the sense of slowing as she's running toward Kent? Does her emotion come through? Is it interesting enough that you want to know what comes next?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
And then the night is on fire again, a ragged, twisting, burning pattern of shadow and flame, a nightmare of screams and roars. She launches over the edge of the bank, sailing on the momentum of powerful legs, jaws wide, claws ready.

Hurdling straight for Kent.

My voice is a strangled cry as I leap up and run for him. I meant to scream 'no'. I'm not sure what actually came out. But I have to reach him, I have to save him.

And I have no idea why.

Everything is moving too fast, but at the same time it feels like the night is slowing, coming to a stop, like a merry-go-round reaching the end. I feel each foot shudder against the ground, find its balance, lift off again. Hear the soft slup of spongy leaves beneath me, The crisp shudder of my breath. And Kent.

Kent!

His eyes are narrowed, focused, the gun gleaming in the firelight. He doesn't move. My breath is trapped, a tight fist at the base of my throat.

Please, move!

I hear the sound, a clap of thunder, a strike of lightening. A bullet hissing through the air. The dragon's head shudders, wrenches left, and I know the bullet found its place. But it's not enough, she's not slowing. She won't stop in time.

I leap.

There's a moment of suspension, of floating, of time clenching to a stop. There's a violent warmth against my body, my breath leaving in one sudden huff. The night bathed in orange, heat searing my back. The smell of burned hair and a massive gust of wind over my body.

And then.

My Thoughts in Purple:
And then the night is on fire again, a ragged, twisting, burning pattern of shadow and flame, a nightmare of screams and roars. She launches over the edge of the bank, sailing on the momentum of powerful legs, jaws wide, claws ready. Good action through here

[Hurdling] Hurtling straight for Kent.

[My voice is a strangled cry as I leap up and run for him. I meant to scream 'no'. I'm not sure what actually came out.] Even though this if first person, this feels a bit detached, looking on instead of looking out. She isn't crying out and running for him, we're being told what her voice sounds like as she moves. Then what she means to do, but not what she actually does. It's a subtle difference, but this is one area you could up the tension more by having her reactions be more immediate and visceral. Let the reader feel her fear. But I have to reach him, I have to save him.

And I have no idea why.

Everything is moving too fast, but at the same time it feels like the night is slowing, coming to a stop, like a merry-go-round reaching the end. [I feel] here's another spot you could be more in her head to show the emotion instead of telling us what she feels. "Each foot shudders against the ground, I stumble, find my balance, lift off again..." each foot shudder against the ground, find its balance, lift off again. Hear the soft slup of spongy leaves beneath me, The crisp shudder of my breath. [And Kent.] I'd probably cut to avoid his name twice in a row. We know where she's going.

[Kent!] Her thoughts like this are great, as they bring me right into her head and the action.

His eyes are narrowed, focused, the gun gleaming in the firelight. He doesn't move. My breath is trapped, a tight fist at the base of my throat.

Please, move!

[I hear ] another spot you could tweak to be more in her head and expand on the emotions the sound, a clap of thunder, a strike of lightening. A bullet hissing through the air. The dragon's head shudders, wrenches left, and I know the bullet found its place. But it's not enough, she's not slowing. She won't stop in time.

[I leap.] I like the immediacy of this action. She's just doing it, not watching herself do it

[There's a moment of suspension, of floating, of time clenching to a stop. There's a violent warmth against my body, my breath leaving in one sudden huff. The night bathed in orange, heat searing my back. The smell of burned hair and a massive gust of wind over my body.] I like all these details, but again it feels like I'm hearing someone describe this scene, not feeling it as it happens. Try shifting it slightly to what she feels and experiences, not what you know happens to her. "For a moment I'm suspended, floating, time clenches to a stop..." Tastes vary on this though so readers chime in here and the similar passage above.

And then.

The questions:
I want to know if this is scene is exciting and tense, and if not, how can I make it so?

It's hard to get truly sucked in with a snippet like this since we don't know the characters, but I see how this scene in context would probably be a good scene. She's running to save Kent (solid goal driving it), and a dragon bearing down on him is quite high stakes. There are good details and the sense of things about to crash together in a big way.

Is the action paced well, does it speed along? Do you get the sense of slowing as she's running toward Kent?
Mostly, though there are a few areas that could be tightened to pick it up even further and get that time slows down sense in there. The descriptions are nice, but there is a lot of thinking in between the acting. Again, seeing this in context would determine if you needed to trim it or not, but my instincts say a little trimming here would be helpful. Here's one spot:
[My voice is a strangled cry as I leap up and run for him. I meant to scream 'no'. I'm not sure what actually came out.] But I have to reach him, I have to save him.
A lot of words are spent to say she cried out, and so much focus on that steals the immediacy of her frantic "I have to save him." The desperation of that paired with the unexpected hook of "I don't know why" next works well. I'd suggest finding something to show she cries out and runs for him, then skip right to the "I have to reach him, save him."

Here's another possible spot to tighten to both help the pacing and help with the slow time idea:
I hear the sound, a clap of thunder, a strike of lightening. A bullet hissing through the air. The dragon's head shudders, wrenches left, and I know the bullet found its place. But it's not enough, she's not slowing. She won't stop in time.
I do like the details here, but this is almost to the moment when these two sides meet, so picking up the pace here could pick up the tension. Something like...
Thunder claps, lightening strikes. A bullet hisses through the air. The dragon's wrenches left, but it's not enough, she's not slowing. She won't stop in time.
Same idea, same details, just thinned out a bit to get that sense of things moving fast. This could pair nicely with the later paragraph to help show time slowing down for her. At first she sees things moving (and reading) very fast, showing how everything is happening quickly. Then as time slows for her, the descriptions slow down and become longer as well. She notices things in a blur at first, then details clarify.

Does her emotion come through?
Yes and no. I can tell she wants to get to Kent, and the descriptions of her physical state do show someone who's worried or panicked. Her internalization shows she's worried, she needs to save him, she knows she might not be able to. However, you mentioned that she used to date Kent and now barely tolerates him, but I'm not getting any of that in the scene. There's no sense of conflict about her feelings, or any sense that she doesn't like or trust him. From just reading this, I'd say she was a gal who realized she loved the guy when he was in trouble vs. someone who was trying to save an ex she can't stand.

You might think about ways to get that in there (the whole scene, not just this snippet), as that could help up the tension even more. Will she step in or not? How does she feel about his risking his neck (and thus hers since she's with him on this hunt). Maybe she thinks about how the money isn't worth it. Your explanation of the scene shows a lot of really great potential for emotional conflict so perhaps try playing with some of that.

Is it interesting enough that you want to know what comes next?
I love this question because it really shows why pure action isn't that compelling in a book. I know (or assume) there are only a few outcomes here. Either she saves Kent or she doesn't, or some third party/event I can't anticipate comes in and acts. She probably gets hurts based on the descriptions, which happens when you dive in front of a fire-breathing dragon. All good things, but there's no mystery in this scene that makes me want to know what happens next because I don't expect any surprises.

If this was the opening scene I'd say worry, but as a scene later in the book it's fine. You very likely have mysteries going into this scene that do hook the reader, and the outcome will matter more to them because of that. They also already care about these characters so they'll care about this fight. I know from something the submitter said that there is indeed a twist, and if the reader knows that's coming (to felt like something that would be on the back cover copy) then they can be anticipating about this fight. I know from something the submitter said that there is indeed a twist, and if the reader knows that's coming (to felt like something that would be on the back cover copy) then they can be anticipating that. Also, if you play up those conflicting emotions about how the narrator feels about Kent, you might actually add mystery to this so it's more than just action.

So to answer the question, no, but I'd keep reading anyway, because I know this snippet isn't about creating mystery or hooking the reader. It's fulfilling a promise that already hooked the reader.

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. This may sound crazy but I loved your voice in the questions part where you said Kent is an 'adrenalin junkie and about to shoot the thing out of the air.' If you could get that kind of voice into your MC then yeah, I'd read on. You might want to think about writing wry humor. I can feel it in you! The lines Janice picked out, 'my voice is a strangled, my breath is trapped, his eyes are narrowed,' are all examples of passive voice stealing the action. And it is sooo easy to fall into as is anything starting with 'there is or there are'. I have loads of red lines in my WIP to attest that. Keep up the good work.

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  2. Thanks for this analysis, it's helpful. I like how you talk about the difference between immediate action, e.g., I leaped, and action that makes the reader feel detached. And thanks to the writer who volunteered to help us learn.

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  3. Off topic, but I just love that there are firearms and dragons together in this story.

    Okay, actual thoughts. On the `I hear the sound, a clap of thunder ect.' paragraph I actually like the original better. In Janice's re-write I got the impression of random thunder and lightening suddenly happening for no apparent reason, while in the original I thought the thunder was talking about the boom of the dragon's wings, and the lightening was its searing breath.

    I could be mistaken. There could be a thunderstorm going on of which I'm unaware. Either way, I found this idea interesting. I'm always up for dragons. :)

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  4. Very helpful post, Janice.I learned a lot from it about tension so thank you to you and your brave contributor. Passive voice is a bete noire of mine, so this was great.

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  5. First off - great scene. You have lots of little nuances that allowed me to picture it in my head while reading. Great sign for such a short snippet.

    I agree with Janice that the story slows down with the passive voice over active. Every time you tell the reader how a person feels, you pull the reader a step away from the protag. Not what you want here. You want the reader's heart to race, them to feel the strain of muscles from running.

    I think where the action slows down is when you tell us it slows down - "slowing down, coming to a stop" that's movie speak, not real life. The protag doesn't think that way in life or death situations - they probably can't form a single thought.

    Something else that pulled me out of the story was the detail of the soft slup of leaves underneath. If a dragon is huffing and roaring then it is very unrealistic for a person to hear leaves over that.

    Then again at the end, the mention of suspension takes all the drama out of the scene and I see the characters flying in space. I know the effect you want here but for me it seems to take away more than it gives. If you want the reader's heart to pump than avoid telling us that the action has slowed down. That's when you need to really take it up a notch and leave us breathless.

    I think you have some great details here that you can use - just put us more in the character's head. Good job - hope to read the rest one day. I love dragons.

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  6. Love the opening paragraph – great use of imagery and rhythm.

    The whole section of her running for Kent went on too long, though, and isn’t what she’d notice in that moment. It might be better to simply trim that out:

    Hurdling straight for Kent.

    Kent!

    I leap up and run for him. His eyes are narrowed, focused, the gun gleaming in the firelight.

    And then slow it down at the height of the drama, exactly as you do at the end.

    For two pointers, lightening is lightning, and you can’t hear a bullet hiss through the air unless it flies right by you.

    Good job!

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