Saturday, March 3

Real Life Diagnostics: It's Horrifying! Starting Out With the Right Tone

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: Eight

Note: Due to the RLD backlog, I'll be running them on Sunday as well for a few weeks to catch up. Having to wait two months for a critique is just too long.

This week’s questions:
This is the very beginning of my WIP. It is a paranormal horror despite the character's age. I'd like to know if it catches the attention - "hooks," if the tone conveys the type of story, is the character sympathetic, and does it even work?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I slide out the back door, peering at the woods behind my home. The whispers are quiet today. I skip over to Amos’ pen and unlatch the door. The lock clanks in the deep silence, and I whip around to the house, hoping Momma does not come out to investigate. My sharp ears catch the clanking of dishes as Momma washes them. Thank goodness. At least I have some time on my own; some time to play with my dog without her constant nervous hovering.

“Come here, boy!”

The black and white hound bounds out of the kennel and jumps up on me. I tumble to the ground, giggling. The newly cut grass pricks against my bare arms and legs while Amos licks the side of my face. His wet tongue tickles me and I laugh again.

Puffy white clouds float through the sky, marshmallows in the brilliant blue. It is a day to enjoy, a day to live life to the fullest, a day to be a kid!

I struggle to get Amos off me; his weight holds me to the ground. Although smarter than my age, my body is still that of a five-and-a-half-year old, and not quite strong enough to get the forty-pound dog off me. He backs off, wagging his long tail, allowing me to stand. He bounces around me, infected with the jubilance of the day.

“You’re a good boy, Amos.” I pat his back and give him a quick hug. His soft fur smells of the sun and doggie goodness. Pressing my face against him, I enjoy the warmth and comfort of freedom from my parents.

They just do not understand me. I can hope that someday they will, but for now they seem afraid of me. It is hard to love someone who always watches you to see if you will do something strange.

Like the crash of thunder, sudden and lasting forever, I hear it again: the murmur of the green leaves in the woods.

My Thoughts in Purple:
I slide out the back door, peering at the woods behind my home. [The whispers are quiet today.] Intriguing line, and I wonder what whispers he's referring to I skip over to Amos’ pen and unlatch the door. The lock clanks in the deep silence, and I whip around to the house, hoping Momma does not come out to investigate. [My sharp ears] Telling a bit here. Would he describe his own ears as sharp? catch the clanking of dishes as Momma washes them. Thank goodness. At least I have some time on my own; some time to play with my dog without her constant nervous hovering.

“Come here, boy!”

The black and white hound bounds out of the kennel and jumps up on me. I tumble to the ground, giggling. The newly cut grass pricks against my bare arms and legs while Amos licks the side of my face. His wet tongue tickles me and I laugh again. How does he feel here? This is a good spot for some internalization to let readers get to know this character.

Puffy white clouds float through the sky, marshmallows in the brilliant blue. [It is a day to enjoy, a day to live life to the fullest, a day to be a kid!] This feels too self-aware for a child. Kids think, what a great day, not about life. Also, for some reason I thought it was nighttime, so hearing it was day threw me. I think because sneaking out felt like an evening activity. You might add in "breakfast dishes" to set the time of day at the start.

I struggle to get Amos off me; his weight holds me to the ground. [Although smarter than my age, my body is still that of a five-and-a-half-year old, and not quite strong enough to get the forty-pound dog off me. ] Telling here, though I do like the "and a half" part. A very kid thought. Also, I was shocked to see he was five. I'd have thought 12 or 13 from the vocabulary. I guess that's the "smarter" part, but that idea isn't working for me here He backs off, wagging his long tail, allowing me to stand. He bounces around me, infected with the jubilance of the day.

“You’re a good boy, Amos.” I pat his back and give him a quick hug. His soft fur smells of the sun and doggie goodness. Pressing my face against him, [I enjoy the warmth and comfort of freedom from my parents.] Telling a bit here. How might you show his enjoyment? What does a happy boy do? Think? Say? This could also be a good spot to elaborate a little on what they do that makes him feel the need to get away.

[They just do not understand me. I can hope that someday they will,] This doesn't feel like a child but for now [they seem afraid of me.] Curious, and I wonder why they are [It is hard to love someone who always watches you to see if you will do something strange.] I lose sympathy for him here, because what child that age doesn't love their parents? Worrying about odd behavior is enough to make him not love them? That seems severe. This line makes him feel a little creepy. (which might be the intent since this is horror).

[Like the crash of thunder, sudden and lasting forever, I hear it again: the murmur of the green leaves in the woods.] crashing thunder doesn't mesh with a murmur to me. One is loud and booming the other soft and low. It's also not a whisper, which is how it's described in the opening paragraph. I assume it's the same thing, but maybe not.

The questions:
Does this catch attention and hook?
It's not grabbing me yet, though the whisper line in the opening paragraph makes me curious. I'm also intrigued by why the parents are scared of him, but these details are slipped in there and don't go anywhere, so they're not driving the story yet. Since it looks like the whispers are what happens at the end of this snippet, perhaps have the protag more concerned about that to add a stronger sense of drive and unease.

I do however, feel that whatever the problem is comes from the woods and that he can hear them, which quickly shows where the story is headed. I don't yet know what the protag wants aside from playing with the dog, but I see a problem on the horizon. You might consider trimming down the playing and getting to the whispers sooner, since that's (I think) the trigger for the story.

Does the tone convey the type of story it is?
A small boy happily playing with his dog doesn't say horror to me yet, but I imagine that will change before long. Something is clearly off with the whispers, so I do get a paranormal sense of that. And the boy is strange and scares his parents, so something is going on there. I'm also getting faint "the boy is the danger" hints as well.

You might consider ways to show the contrast between the happy go lucky boy and his dog and the creep factor sneaking up on him. He's happy with the dog, but things around him are all out of whack or something. That might also help to show his strangeness and heighten the horror factor.

Is the character sympathetic?
Small kids almost always are, and how can you not like a boy with his dog. But not loving his parents felt cold and a little scary, which made me not like him as much. I got a serial killer vibe off that for some reason. He's a kid, so I want to like him, but he's done nothing to make me like him if that makes sense.

What struck me the most with the narrator is that he doesn't sound like a child. His vocabulary is far too advanced, he's too reflective and self aware. If he's a super smart five year old, then I can see his advanced intelligence and you might consider finding a way to get that in from the start. The "I'm smart for my age" line didn't convey advanced the intelligence and maturity I'm seeing here. What a five year old thinks is smart is different from what an adult considers smart. If he's not super smart, then I'd suggest either tweaking so he sounds like a small child (even a smart small child), or switching to a more distant third person narrator so you can maintain the older voice and still show the child being a child.

Does it even work?
It has potential since I can see things are about to happen, and that's good. But I'm not connecting to the narrator yet so I'm not getting invested in what happens. I'd suggest finding a way to make readers care more so they stick with the story. A stronger goal and more obvious stakes would help there. As would tweaking that feeling that things were not well and were about to get bad. I see hints of all that here, so it wouldn't take a lot to bring those aspects out. More internalization from the boy would also help. Despite the first person narrative, I feel outside looking in.

Perhaps the conflict with his parents could play a stronger role if that's where the story is headed. Maybe he sneaks out to play with Amos because of something that happened. Maybe Mom sees him out there is acts scared. Or he overhears her and Dad talking about him. (if this all works for your plot of course) He's troubled and upset over this and Amos is his refuge. Then the whispers start. That might even be a conflict for him as well. He's upset about Mom and Dad, he wants Amos, but he's scared of the whispers. He goes outside anyway.

Overall, I think with some tweaking to bring out the more subtle elements, this could work well as an opening.

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. "The whispers are quiet today."

    "Although smarter than my age, my body is still that of a five-and-a-half-year old,"

    "I can hope that someday they will, but for now they seem afraid of me."

    These lines interested me the most and would make me want to continue to read on at least for a couple more pages. They revealed character, and they hinted at conflict. Fill your opening with more lines like these, the ideas behind them are good.

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  2. As Janice mentioned, this character is too self aware.

    Because of the older language, I got a sense of an adult dreaming or remembering his childhood, almost like a prologue before the action starts. Kinda: These whispers have haunted me all my life, but now...and then on to the current mystery/conflict.

    At one point I wondered if it was a "non-human" intelligence inside a boys body, since you said this was paranormal horror. If that is the case, some internalization that hints strongly in that direction would be helpful.

    I have a five and a half-year-old. I can guarantee he does not think nor verbalize like this. He is my fourth son of five boys. Even my very verbal and high IQ kiddo didn't talk like this at that age.

    That's why I focused on adult reminisce or other being inside the boy as I read.

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  3. I liked the whisper line too. Very enticing!! I liked also the feeling of the boy trapped between the woods and his parents.

    But I wonder if it is even possible to have a five year old as a narrator in such a story. Getting the voice right in conjunction with telling the story well would be very difficult even for a master writer. For example, no 5 year old, regardless of how smart, uses a word like jubilance. High IQ doesn't equal advanced maturity. And your character here seems far too mature for his age. Perhaps you could consider writing it in third person? That would solve this problem.

    I personally was turned off the character when he said, "At least I have some time on my own; some time to play with my dog without her constant nervous hovering." Such antipathy towards his mother was repellent, especially when I learned he was five. It set me up to believe he is the bad guy in this story.

    Can I ask, you have a lock clanking, and then the dishes clanking - is that an intentional connection?

    I feel there is potential for an interesting story in here and I am a little creeped already.

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  4. "The whispers are quiet today." That sounds like a child speaking; many of the other descriptions don't. They seem far too self-aware. If this very young boy has the ability to hear voices, he probably won't think much of it. He'll probably think it's normal, that everyone hears voices -- and not understand why his parents seem afraid of him. If it's part of his normal world, he wouldn't think of or describe it as something out of the ordinary.

    I really like the happy, playing-with-the-dog tone the story starts out in. If it's horror, I assume things will get much worse later -- so it's nice to have this happy glimpse of normal before that happens.

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  5. I would use "The whispers are quiet today." as your opening line. That grabbed me, the first one was just a sentence.

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  6. I think I understand where you are going with this - contrasting innocence with danger - but because we don't get a good idea of who this kid is, we can't feel for him yet.

    I also pictured him much older - maybe a 10 year old at least. But even a smart 10 year old doesn't think about abstract things like being a kid. They have nothing to compare it too yet.

    Third person POV might be a good solution, or make your protag older.

    I'm intrigued by the whispers, by what he has done to make his parents afraid. Could we get some more references to why his parents don't trust him? At first I assumed it was because of the dog, that he wasn't allowed to play with the dog by himself.

    I must admit, I'm not a horror fan but I imagine the character of Damian is what you are trying to create. Personally, I would have a very hard time reading a book in first person from the view point of the bad guy. There would have to be something very special for me to spend 300 pages with somebody like that.

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