Saturday, May 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Your Thoughts? Getting the Right Reaction From Your POV

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:
Did I get her thoughts right? Is it the right reaction? If not, how can I fix her reaction? Is there enough voice? Did I write the stealthy killing okay?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction Satire Literary Fiction 


EDIT: Revised snippet at the bottom

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I was about to hug Sarah good-bye when the lights went out in the house. Sarah screamed and once again glued herself to my leg. A door opened and closed very slowly. There was a grunt and then, “Jessica? Jessica, where are you?”

My mom is gone? This isn’t right. One angry–or maybe frightened–thought kept circling my mind. What the hell is happening?!

“Whoever you are, leave this house at once! You have no right to be here!” Uncle Locke called into the darkness.

The lights flashed to life, and the most horrifying sight ever to be created was laid down on the floor in front of me. My stomach churned. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Not five feet away, my parents lay lifeless and bloody.

My mom’s white blouse and pale blue jeans stained with her own blood. My dad’s favorite T-shirt and jeans ruined. Obviously carelessly murdered and dropped.

Sarah had let go of my leg, most likely screaming and running to her dad, but I had no way of knowing. My eyes were stuck on the grotesque sight, and my ears weren’t working. Suddenly, I surged forward.

“Mom! Dad! No! This can’t have happened!”

I fell onto my knees beside my parent’s bodies. I laid my head on my dad’s chest, as if I were hoping for a heart beat. It was a ridiculous gesture because their throats were slashed and their stomachs had obtained holes. Uncle Locke grabbed my shoulder and yanked me away from them.

“Let go of me!” I thrashed about in his grip. “Let go!”

“Kyrstin!”

I thrashed more, wanting to get back over to them. “I said, let go!”

“Kyrstin! Please, stop!”

Chest heaving, I stopped long enough to realize it wasn’t Uncle Locke calling my name but Sarah. I realized that Sarah was probably just as upset about this as I was.

“Yes, that is the address,” Uncle Locke said into his cell phone which was pinned between his ear and his shoulder since he was holding onto me. “Sorry, but I have to talk to someone. Just get those vehicles here quickly please.” He hung up on the operator.

My Thoughts in Purple:
I was about to hug Sarah good-bye when the lights went out in the house. Sarah screamed and once again glued herself to my leg. [A door opened and closed very slowly.] How does she know it's a door? What exactly does she hear? There was a grunt and then, [“Jessica? Jessica, where are you?”] Who says this? Does she know?

[My mom is gone?] why does she assume this? This isn’t right. One angry–or maybe frightened–thought kept circling my mind. What the hell is happening?! It might just be that I haven't read everything up to this point, but her reaction feels a little rushed her to me. Unless she knows something is wrong, her first thought isn't likely to be that the lights going out mean danger. What does she think is happening here?

“Whoever you are, leave this house at once! You have no right to be here!” Uncle Locke called into the darkness. This could be a good sport for her to react to the thought that someone is in the house and wonder what's going on. Locke has alerted her to the danger.

The lights flashed to life, [and the most horrifying sight ever to be created was laid down on the floor in front of me.] Telling a bit here. Perhaps describe what she sees, then let her realize they're dead? My stomach churned. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Not five feet away, my parents lay lifeless and bloody.

My mom’s white blouse and pale blue jeans stained with her own blood. My dad’s favorite T-shirt and jeans ruined. [Obviously carelessly murdered and dropped.] She sounds too rational and detached here, like she sees these things and instantly knows exactly what happened and describes them.

[Sarah had let go of my leg, most likely screaming and running to her dad, but I had no way of knowing.] Would she even worry about Sarah right now? Or be shocked at what she sees? My eyes were stuck on the grotesque sight, and my ears weren’t working. [Suddenly,] Could cut. Suddenly is a word that almost always feels detached, since people don't think of their actions like this unless they already know what they've done and are describing it after the fact I surged forward.

“Mom! Dad! No! [This can’t have happened!”] This doesn't sound realistic to me. I can see her thinking it, but saying it feels off.

I fell onto my knees beside my parent’s bodies. I laid my head on my dad’s chest, [as if I were hoping for a heart beat.] She'd know why she does this, or she'll just do it. She won't make assumptions as to how her actions look to other people. I can see her searching for a heartbeat or a pulse though, or trying to stop the blood, or doing anything to try and help them It was a ridiculous gesture because their throats were slashed and their stomachs [had obtained] Can't see her using this phrase like this. Also this feels too rational for the situation. She's calm enough to realize this is ridiculous? holes. Uncle Locke grabbed my shoulder and yanked me away from them.

“Let go of me!” I thrashed about in his grip. “Let go!”

“Kyrstin!”

I thrashed more, wanting to get back over to them. “I said, let go!”

“Kyrstin! Please, stop!”

Chest heaving, [I stopped long enough to realize] Feels a little distant. She won't be aware enough to know what she realized, she'll just think it. it wasn’t Uncle Locke calling my name but Sarah. [I realized that] same here. The rest of the line shows her realizing it. She doesn't have to say she does. Sarah was probably just as upset about this as I was.

“Yes, that is the address,” [Uncle Locke said into his cell phone which was pinned between his ear and his shoulder since he was holding onto me.] Awkward sentence. It's also odd that he grabbed her while he was on the phone, and Sarah was yelling. Perhaps clarify who is doing what in this section [“Sorry, but I have to talk to someone. Just get those vehicles here quickly please.”] He seems very calm about this. He hung up on the operator.

The questions:
Did I get her thoughts right?

I think the right ideas are here, but a lot of them feel a little distant to me, as if she's already experienced all this and it telling the story after the fact. That gives some of the lines a told feeling, which lessens the tension. I'd suggest tweaking and showing those same thoughts from her point of view. You know what happens, so what would she think and feel? For example:
Chest heaving, I stopped long enough to realize it wasn’t Uncle Locke calling my name but Sarah. I realized that Sarah was probably just as upset about this as I was.
This tells me what she's figuring out and how people feel, but there's nothing that shows the details she sees to figure it out. So it feels more detached. Try something like...
Sarah's voice, not Uncle Locke's. Chest heaving, I turned. Tears poured down her cheeks, her eyes red, her face swollen. Grief, horror, fear--everything that was also tearing me apart.
Your voice of course, but think about what Krystin sees and feels and use those specific details to get the ideas across.

Is it the right reaction? If not, how can I fix her reaction?
Due to that distant tone, her reaction doesn't feel as strong as I'd expect it to be. She's too rational, observing things she'd probably not see or realize, too self aware of what's happening. Her world has just been torn apart, and I'd suspect her thoughts and emotions to be more raw and reactive. For example:
The lights flashed to life, and the most horrifying sight ever to be created was laid down on the floor in front of me. My stomach churned. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Not five feet away, my parents lay lifeless and bloody.
She's crying and her stomach is churning, but note how calmly she relays the other information. The first thing she says is how this is the most horrifying thing she's even seen. She even notes the distance between her and the bodies, and that her parents are lifeless. It's all very outside looking down, not inside looking out. She's be more likely to notice her parents were on the floor and not know why. Then see the blood, the carnage, and then react to it emotionally. I don't think she expects people to come in and kill her parents, right? And if she does, then her reaction would also likely be different. All she knows is that the lights have just gone off and now her parents are on the floor.

Getting more in her head will also fix this, since you'll show how she feels and her reactions will be hers as she has them, not her reflecting on it from a distance. You know how she feels, so it's just a matter of fleshing it out.

Is there enough voice?
I do hear your voice, but those same distant areas are hiding some of it. Everyone has their own views on voice, but for me, it shines through most in the POV's narrative and internalization. Those areas still feel a little "author describing what they knows is there." More internalization and specifics about what she sees and feels will allow your voice to come through better.

Did I write the stealthy killing okay?
It went by a little fast. One door, one grunt and that's all. I'd expect more sounds from two people being killed in this fashion. The sound of the knife cutting, a gasp or reaction from the parents, bodies hitting the floor, blood hitting anything close by. If Krystin is five feet away, it's possible she even feels the blood (arterial spray can really fly). If they were both killed at the same time, then sounds might be duplicated. If one was killed first, then the other, there'd likely be a bit of reaction from the second person since they're so close to each other.

Krystin won't know what the sounds are (unless she's familiar with how stabbing sounds) but she'll likely hear things. Depending on her emotional state and what she knows going into this scene will determine what she thinks they are (if she even does). If she's worried about killers sneaking in, she might instantly connect the noises to that. If she has no clue, then she'd likely have no idea what's going on.

Overall, I think this has the right pieces and you have a solid understanding of what's happening, so tweaking it to be more in her POV will be a pretty easy fix. The scene is blocked out, so try thinking about the specifics and looking out through Krystin's eyes when all this is happening. Think about what she'd hear/see/think, not what you as the author knows is happening.

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.

Revised Version:
I was about to hug Sarah good-bye when the lights went out in the house. Sarah screamed and once again glued herself to my leg.

Another power outage? Uncle Locke said he paid the bill. Then again, he says a lot of stuff.

A door, the back door by the screech it made, opened and closed very slowly. There was a cut off - scream? Laugh? Could be a good spot for her reaction. What does she think this means?

"Honey?" No way that was Uncle Locke. He lonely. "Baby, where are you?" Does she recognize the voice? The next line suggests Dad speaks here, and she's likely know his voice, right?

Mommy left? Probably to go get a flashlight. I mean, she's the entire reason Uncle Locke even has back up lighting.

“Whoever you are, leave this house at once! You have no right to be here!” Uncle Locke called into the darkness. Wait! Someone's here? That's great! [Let's - ew. What was that warm stuff on my face? And that clang? I know dropping a flashlight doesn't sound like that.] The right spot for something to happen, but her reactions feel off. If you got hit in the face with something warm and wet, you'd probably be shocked and a little freaked out.

The lights flashed to life. My stomach churned. Cold tears rolled down my cheeks. My legs turned to jelly. [Blood. Blood. Blood. Body. Body. Knife.] Interesting style here, but perhaps put this after the lights come on. Maybe have her blink or react to the sudden change, then see this. Then she can physically react to what she sees.

Mommy.

Daddy.

“What? What did they -? Who would -? No. No!"

I fell onto my knees beside my parent’s bodies. [I laid my head on my dad’s chest. The blood was gooey and warm, like that stuff that   splattered        against     my           face.] Don't think this is working. I can see her going to him, but not putting her face in his blood.

[Their blood hit me in the face. They were killed right in front of me.  I did nothing to stop it. The cowards who killed them were too afraid to show themselves. I need them and... They're gone.] Don't thin you need. Her reaction in the next paragraph is much stronger.

I crushed their chests with my fists. I beat with my hands and beat with my hands and beat with my hands. An entirely new wave of tears washed out of me. Cold. Cold tears.

Beat! Beat! C'mon! Dang it just one simple pulse! I need them. I need my mom. I need my dad.

[I finally gave up] Feels a little distant. Maybe more with her realizing they're gone? and laid down between the two of them. The blood coated my hair. It soaked into my clothes. It was the fading heat of my parents. I just wanted to lay there forever. [But no.] Stronger without

Uncle Locke grabbed my shoulder and yanked me away from them.

“Let go of me!” I thrashed about in his biting grip. “Let go!”

“Kiki!"

I thrashed more, wanting to get back over to them.  “I said, let go!”

“Kiki... Please?"

Chest heaving, I snapped around. [I was going to save my parents if it was the last thing I did. They. Have. A. Pulse.] She's already given up so I'd cut this. Or keep it and cut the part where she stops CPR and lays down between them

["Look, Un -"] Why is this cut off?  Sarah's face. She wasn't crying. She wasn't screaming. She wasn't doing any of the things I was, but her red face, her sparkling eyes, the way she was holding herself - we were both falling apart. She's just better at it than me.

"Stop it! Stop it now!" He shouted at me. "Get some control! You weren't the only one who loved them! How do you think I feel? Sarah?" His eyes looked just like Sarah's. His face was turning red. He turned around. "Get my phone, Sarah." One tear fell from his face
 

Much, much better. I feel her pain, her reactions are good and the sense something horrible just happened is more real. Great job!

4 comments:

  1. I agree with Janice wholeheartedly on the problem of distance, although I felt it more in the dialogue than in the narration. Your narrator is too coherent. Think about what this means to your POV--her parents are DEAD, murdered horribly, and it all happened in a few MINUTES. She should be in some serious shock.

    “Mom! Dad! No! This can’t have happened!” <This really rang false to me. At least omit the last sentence--I might even have her try to say something else as not be able to get anything out like "“Mom! Dad! No! This can’t--No--How did this--?”

    Also, you don't really mention the blood. There would be a lot of it. Her face is probably covered in it since she was on the chest listing of a heartbeat.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm so sorry to say I was completely confused by what was happening. Were her parents killed right there and then while she was saying goodbye to Sarah? None of the scene made sense to me. Perhaps if I had read more of the story before this - ? My feeling is that a correction of pacing would help matters - slow the whole thing down, describe more through her senses rather than her thoughts.

    Also, for people who were killed stealthily in what appeared to be a matter of five or six seconds, they were certainly pretty thoroughly killed. Throats cut, stomachs stabbed. That's a lot of violence done very fast with no sound.

    If they were killed right then, her response is unrealistic. She should be completely shocked and confused. She might not even comprehend what she is seeing. It would take a while for her to have any coherent thoughts, let alone a physical response (although she might scream). She wouldn't care about Sarah. And her uncle's responses seemed unrealistic to me also, but again I think it's a matter of pacing. If his brother/sister has just been murdered, he wouldnt calmly make a phone call for help as his first response.

    My advice would be to cut out almost all her thoughts and instead immerse us in the scene by writing what she feels, sees, hears, senses. This will add to the thrill and the horror.

    Think too about the words you choose. "Obviously carelessly murdered and dropped" is not only too analytical of a child in shock, but it doesn't look like a careless murder to me, it looks like it was done with a great deal of care by a professional who could kill people in the same room as others and no one noticed. "Their stomachs had obtained holes" - actually, this does sound like the sort of talk a shocked person, in complete detachment, would say - but I don't think you intended that :-)

    However, although I think this scene needs a comprehensive rewrite, I *am* intrigued and would be interested to find out what happened and why. So you have me hooked! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. One of the first questions that popped into my head was, "Why in the world are all these people just standing around in what seems like an empty room?" There's no furniture described and no setting given, so all we know is that five people are in some kind of room and bad things start happening. I realize a lot of this could come from before the section starts, but for the purposes of this exercise I was left confused.

    I also agree with all of the comments left by Janice and the other commenters. In addition, the market/genre description (Market/Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction Satire Literary Fiction) didn't give me a single clue what to expect from the main character. If this was a crime story, I'd possibly expect her to have seen murder before. If this is a SF/F story maybe this is what sets her on the path to an alien world or into the land of the evil elves. Trying to drop it into that many categories will probably end up confusing the story a little.

    ReplyDelete
  4. coming to this via another blog today, but what a great diagnosis and fix! GOod work on editor's and writer's side.

    ReplyDelete