Saturday, March 31

Real Life Diagnostics: A Short Start: Are Short Story Openings Different From Novels?

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 question:

  • How does this come across as an opening?
  • Do you get a good sense of the narrator and her family set-up?
  • Does it provide a reasonable sense that something big is about to happen, or already happening under the surface?
  • How does the concept of the narrators wife's eyes changing color with her mood read?
Market/Genre: Short story, lesbian interest

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Walking down the road my house calls to me like a siren. After a hard day at work that building is my sanctuary, away from the pressures of my job, surrounded by the love of my family. Opening the front door I eagerly step into the haven of peace that is my home…

“Storm warning!”

My 10 year-old son, Rory, I think, is sat at the top of the stairs.

“Level?” I ask him, rolling my eyes and hanging up my coat.

“4.85” he replies, totally seriously.

This is all I need. I’ve had a rough day already and a headache is pounding behind my eyes. “What did you do?”

“That’s not fair!” he whines. An identical figure leans over the banister.

“We didn’t do anything” says Eddie, Rory’s twin. “It’s Lana’s fault!”

“Lana’s fault?” I can’t help but query. The twins have always been the trouble makers in this house. As for their older sister Lana, I can count the number of times I’ve had to discipline her on just two hands.

“Mama!” comes a cry from the doorway, and I have a split-second to crouch before the 5 year-old throws herself at me. This is Keeley, the youngest member of the family, and despite my determination that she would never be a pink-wearing princess she jumps into my arms wearing a ballerina’s tutu. At least it’s purple. Sweeping her into the air I blow a raspberry on her shoulder and she squeals, her arms tightening around my neck.

“Where’s Mummy hiding then?”

“In the kitchen,” my daughter informs me. “Lana’s sad!”

Lana is sad. Sat on a stool at the breakfast bar she’s clutching tight to her mother, her face buried in her shoulder, muffling the sobs. The boys were right about the storm warning, my wife’s eyes are more grey than they were when I left this morning, though I haven’t seen them their natural brilliant blue in over a week.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[Walking down the road my house calls to me like a siren.] Careful of modifiers. This reads as if the house is walking, not the narrator [After a hard day at work that building is my sanctuary, away from the pressures of my job, surrounded by the love of my family.] Telling a bit here, which you don't need since you're about to show it. Perhaps look for something that gives a personal sense of who this person is Opening the front door I eagerly step into the haven of peace that is my home…

“Storm warning!”

My 10 year-old son, Rory, [I think,] I like how this suggest twins is [sat] in the US this would be sitting, but I think this is a non-US submission. at the top of the stairs.

“Level?” I [ask] him, rolling my eyes and hanging up my coat.

“4.85” he [replies], careful of non-said dialog tags too close together. These hit my ears a little funny. You could easily cut the "ask" totally seriously.

This is all I need. I’ve had a rough day already and a headache is pounding behind my eyes. “What did you do?”

“That’s not fair!” he [whines.] The dialog makes it clear he whines, so you might consider says here, or better still, something that shows his personality An identical figure leans over the banister.

“We didn’t do anything” says Eddie, Rory’s [twin.] Twin is used a lot in the next few sentences, so perhaps brother here “It’s Lana’s fault!”

“Lana’s fault?” This is a good spot for her to think about what this means and start to worry. She seems more annoyed by possible trouble than concerned, but now she discovers it's not the twins usual trouble. [I can’t help but query.] There are a lot of dialog tags, so perhaps cut this. Her internalization makes it clear she asks this [The twins have always been the trouble makers in this house. As for their older sister Lana,] Explaining a bit here. You can use the dialog to get this same idea across I can count the number of times I’ve had to discipline her on just two hands.

“Mama!” comes a cry from the doorway, and I have a split-second to crouch before [the 5 year-old] I can't see her calling one of her children "the 5 year old" to herself. She'd more likely say Keeley throws herself at me. [This is Keeley, the youngest member of the family] telling a bit here. Everyone else is older, so you probably don't need this, and despite my determination that she would never be a pink-wearing princess she jumps into my arms wearing a ballerina’s tutu. At least it’s purple. Sweeping her into the air I blow a raspberry on her shoulder and she squeals, her arms tightening around my neck.

[“Where’s Mummy hiding then?”] This line probably needs a tag since it could be Keeley asking this.

“In the kitchen,” [my daughter informs me.] Careful of the non-said tags. “Lana’s sad!”

Lana is sad. [Sat] Sitting for the US crowd on a stool at the breakfast bar she’s clutching tight to her mother, her face buried in her shoulder, muffling the sobs. The boys were right about the storm warning, my wife’s eyes are more grey than they were when I left this morning, though I haven’t seen them their natural brilliant blue in over a week.

The questions:
How does this come across as an opening?

I like that something is wrong and there's a problem about to be discovered, but it feels a little heavy with so many characters introduced in so short a time. Part of that is from the told bits, where the narrator stops to explain her family instead of just letting the reader see them and figure out who's who. I'd also suggest letting the twins be clearer about who is causing the storm warning. They say it isn't their fault, it's Lana's, but that's a normal kid reaction to getting into trouble. Perhaps something more like "It's not us this time, it's Lana." That would show Lana has the problem and show these boys usually get into trouble without you having to explain that.

With a short story, you have less time (and fewer words) to set everything up, so it helps to be very economical in your descriptions. The more you can suggest things while at the same time describing, showing stage direction, setting tone and mood, etc, the better off you'll be and the tighter you can make your story. The same principles as a novel apply, but instead of several chapters to get to your inciting event, you have pages if not paragraphs. This snippet gets to the problem fairly quickly, but not with enough details yet to hook a reader. But it wouldn't take much revising to add those extra details and give a better sense of the problem and why the reader should care about this family.

Do you get a good sense of the narrator and her family set-up?
I can see all the players, and same general details, but there's really too many too soon to really absorb them all. The narrator is a tired working mom, trouble-making twin boys, a good girl teen daughter, a five year old daughter, and the second mom, who might be the stay-at-home mom. Aside from that, I don't know anything personal yet.

You might looks for ways to get some of their personality into what and how they say things. Rory might be a serious boy, but I only had one "totally seriously" to hint at that and it's not enough. But if you show a few other details that suggest serious, then I'd see that's part of his nature. Eddie might be the prankster of the family, and if so, that would show in what/how he acts and speaks. (whatever he's like, try to get that into how he acts and what he says) The narrator might also think things that suggest people's personalities, like you do with Keeley.

Does it provide a reasonable sense that something big is about to happen, or already happening under the surface?
Yes, though it's not quite enough yet to hook me because the narrator doesn't react to it. She's more like "Trouble? Okay, I don't need this today." than "Oh no, what's wrong?" If she were more concerned, especially after she hears it's Lana and not the typical stuff the twins get into, then that would draw readers in faster.

How does the concept of the narrators wife's eyes changing color with her mood read?
I like the concept, but if I hadn't read this question first, I probably wouldn't have gotten it. You might add a little internalization when Eddie says storm warning to show that he means Mummy's eyes are storm-cloud grey, and let the narrator think about how long it's been since they were blue, and worry about what's happened now. I think the idea can work, but you might have to move some details around until you find the right combination in the right spots to make it clear. As is, I think Eddie is talking about how much trouble they're in, not the color of Mummy's eyes. Like he has a scale of 1 to 5.

Overall, I think you have the pieces here to create a solid opening, it's just a matter of tweaking all the details so you intrigue the reader first, then let them meet the family. Perhaps let us meet the narrator right away, get to know her a bit as she's coming home, then meet the twins, then meet Lana and Mummy. Keeley perhaps can come after. Focus more on some internalization that shows the problem and concern, and less on the basic descriptions and roll call. It wouldn't take much.

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.

2 comments:

  1. LOVE these questions. Am applying them to my own WIP.

    I like your emphasis on internalization. It's something we can forget while trying to get the story on the page.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know I'm a few days late but I just wanted to put in a comment about the eyes changing color. I think it will work great (I wholeheartedly second Janice's suggestions) because my husband actually judges my mood by my eye color, too. I also have bright, brilliant blue eyes that go grey when I'm unhappy and pale, he calls them "white", when I'm sick. Those of us who have these kind of eyes, or know someone who does, will relate to it instantly. I think it's a great way to show emotion and the relationship between the person with the eyes and the one who reads them.

    ReplyDelete