Saturday, March 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Did You Hear Something? Adding Tension to a Scene

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: Six
Note: Due to the RLD backlog, I'll be running them on Sunday as well for a few weeks to catch up.


This week’s questions:

This is from a later-on chapter, with a group of soldier-in-training (Young Adult age, about 16) out in enemy territory. Is it tense enough, and does the scene flow?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I'm so engrossed in my thoughts, I leap three feet in the air when a scream pierces the silent air.

“Grey!”

No way.

In a second, the group have split up. The injured fall back and others stand forward, unsure of what to do but ready to fight. They've never had to think about fighting without weapons and, now, there's not even a rock they can use among them.

Yasmine and I dart forward, exhaustion forgotten, and level our guns.

“Where did you see it?” I yell back.

“To... to the left,” someone cries. “It was in the trees, watching us.”

“Come forward, whoever said that,” I order.

I scan the trees while I wait for them. There's no movement, as far as I can see, and the sunlight pierces through shadows even between the most closely packed tree trucks. There's no way a Grey could hide out there. Maybe whoever saw it had hallucinated, but I can't relax until I'm sure.

It's Franc who ends up stood next to me. His hand shakes when he points into the forest before me. I can smell his fear.

“Out there. It disappeared right after I alerted you.”

“How did it disappear?” Yasmine cuts in. “We have people wearing Vision goggles. It can't have turned invisible without us knowing.”

“No, it jumped, I think.” Franc looks more and more unsure of himself. I can feel the others' eyes on my back, waiting for an answer.

“Into the trees?” I lift my head and turn the goggles to the Vision setting. The familiar purple hue covers my eyes and I scan the tree-tops high above.

Nothing. No movement, no alien body, no Grey.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[I'm so engrossed in my thoughts,] This might be a reflective story, but this pulls me away from the POV, because if they were in the moment, they wouldn't be so aware of what was going on when this happened I leap three feet in the air when a scream pierces the silent air.

[“Grey!”] This far into the story I would assume readers know what this means, so this would likely be a good "oh no!" moment to start the tensions rising.

[No way.] This could be a good spot to mentions the stakes, even briefly. Is the narrator scared or just surprised? Or even excited if this is the first time they get to face off against a Grey.

In a second, the group [have] has split up. [The injured fall back and others stand forward, unsure of what to do but ready to fight. They've never had to think about fighting without weapons and, now, there's not even a rock they can use among them.] I like what's said here as that ups the stakes, but the "they" and "them" feels impersonal, like the narrator is watching them, not there with them. This is a good potential spot for the "what does my training tell me?" type thought.

Yasmine and I dart forward, exhaustion forgotten, and level our guns. Could also be a good potential spot for internalization. How do they feel besides tired? What are they worried is going to happen?

“Where did you see it?” I yell back.

“To... to the left,” [someone cries.] Unless this person needs to be anonymous, perhaps use a name to make it more personal? “It was in the trees, watching us.”

“Come forward, whoever said that,” I order.

I scan the trees while I wait for [them.] her or him? The narrator will know the gender by the voice, and that could also make it feel more personal There's no movement, [as far as I can see,] tenser without the qualifier and the sunlight pierces through shadows even between the most closely packed tree trucks. There's no way a Grey could hide out there. Maybe [whoever] a lot of attention is being spent on the fact that the person who say it is unknown, so I'm wondering if the Grey has the ability to mimic and these are clues? saw it had hallucinated, [but I can't relax until I'm sure.] This could be a good spot to mention it's a training mission. Is the narrator responsible for these people?

It's Franc who ends up [stood] extra word? next to me. [His hand shakes when] telling a bit here. Perhaps just show him pointing with a shaky hand he points into the forest before me. I can smell his fear.

“Out there. It disappeared right after I [alerted you.”] this feels too formal for the situation to me. Perhaps just yelled?

“How did it disappear?” Yasmine cuts in. “We have people wearing Vision goggles. It can't have turned invisible without us knowing.”

“No, it jumped, I think.” Franc looks more and more unsure of himself. [] Another good potential spot for a training thought or a fear/stakes thought. What's expected of the narrator?

“Into the trees?” I lift my head and turn the goggles to the Vision setting. The familiar purple hue covers my eyes and I scan the tree-tops high above.

Nothing. No movement, no alien body, no Grey.

The questions:
Is it tense enough, and does the scene flow?

Even with knowing nothing at all about the story, this feels tense to me. If I was invested in these characters it would probably be more so, but the right pieces are here. There is a group of people (possibly civilians being escorted by soldiers?) unarmed and tired in the forest, then a Grey appears, which is clearly bad. The narrator and his/her people prepare to defend them/deal with the Grey. There are possible hints that they Grey is mimicking them (which could just be me reading something into it), but it might also be toying with them, getting into view then vanishing to sow fear. If I knew more about the Grey I'd be anticipating here (which readers will likely be doing), which will work nicely to create tension in the full scene.

The flow feels good, though I wanted a bit more context. (but again, that could be fine in the full scene at this stage of the novel). Something unexpected and dangerous happens, the POV starts dealing with it, and I get the feeling things are going to go bad any minute now.

You mentioned these are young soldiers in training, but I'm not getting the vibe from this snippet. (it might be there in the full scene however) It feels like adults on a mission to me. You might add more about the training, perhaps a thought or two that reminds readers these are teens in over their heads on a training mission. That could also help up the tension and raise the stakes.

Overall a good scene. I've suggested a few tweaks to make it more personal, but it's doing what you want it to. One note, I mentioned quite a few potential spots, but don't feel you need to add a line everywhere I suggested. A fast pace will help keep the scene tense, so if you decide to add, pick the spots with the best emotional punch.

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.

For more on adding tension to a scene, try these posts:
Whoa, That's Tense: Raising the Tension in Your Scenes
One, Two, Three, Notice Me: The Rule of Three
Setting Up the Tension
Goals! Are You Making Them Too Obvious?

3 comments:

  1. It is often hard to judge a mid-novel scene. This does have tension, but I agree there are aspects that feel too vague. It's fine if the MC doesn't recognize the voice right away, but move past that quickly. Some internalization where Janice pointed out would help - pick your spots carefully. The fast pace is key here. I think with the background of the rest of the book, this is a good scene.

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  2. Hello!

    Thank you so much for the crits :) they're very helpful!
    I've been told be a couple of others it's too vague as well, so I've changed it around and it does look a lot better.
    I didn't notice they seemed older than they were, I'll definitely have to do something about that.
    Thank you again :)

    -Laurie

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