Saturday, August 18

Real Life Diagnostics: An Interesting Show: Showing, Telling, and Hooking the Reader

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

This week’s questions:
Am I showing or telling? I know this isn't the exact opening, but can you still get a feel of what's going on? Will the reader get hooked on this part? Are the reactions normal? Does Ashley (the main character) rush her actions? Is there any unnecessary detail in this section? Is this scene interesting?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy/Fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I was at the dance, dressed in my favorite purple shirt and blue skinny jeans, and I was having a great time. Well, until I accidentally bumped into my enemy, Kendall Thoppes. I despised her as much as she despised me. Which, to summarize, is a lot. Anyway, I was walking to the soda table when someone tripped me. I got up & saw Kendall, sneering. There was something different about her. She seemed almost… dangerous. I got up angrily.

Well, what she said to me was, “Oops... I didn’t mean to. Sorry Ashley.”

But I could tell she was lying. I walked away, angry, when I saw a figure in the bushes. I thought it was a dog, or maybe a cat, so I grabbed some of the meat off of one of the tables and tried to tempt it out with some steak. But when it emerged, I was shocked. It was a wolf! Well, only a tiny cub. It was really thin, almost starved, and it looked so pitiful. I felt so sad that I reached my shaking hand out to pet it. The wolf stepped forward, like it wanted me to stroke it, so I nervously grabbed it. Just when the shaggy, silver fur was tickling my fingers, the wolf suddenly leaped forward and bit me on my shoulder.

“AH!!!!” I shrieked.

My agonized scream had stopped the whole dance. Everyone rushed forward. The principal stepped forward and examined me. When he noticed the bite on my shoulder with blood leaking out, he panicked.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I was at the dance, dressed in my favorite purple shirt and blue skinny jeans, and [I was having a great time.] Well, until I accidentally bumped into my enemy, Kendall Thoppes. [I despised her as much as she despised me.] Which, to summarize, is a lot. [Anyway,] Personal preference here, but "anyway" used like this always pulls me out of a story [I was walking to the soda table when] someone tripped me. I got up & [saw Kendall, sneering.] There was something different about her. She seemed almost… dangerous. I got up [angrily.] Even though this is all in the POV's voice, I'm getting a told vibe from this due to the words I bolded. These lines feel outside looking in, as if all this has happened already and the POV is telling me this after the fact.

[Well, what she said to me was,] telling me what she said instead of just showing her saying it “Oops... I didn’t mean to. Sorry Ashley.”

[But I could tell she was lying.] How? This tells me what the POV observes, but doesn't provide any clues for the reader to see it [I walked away, angry,] Same here. What shows anger? [when I saw] "when" is a red flag word for telling. It suggests an awareness of the situation that's not in the moment experiencing it a figure in the bushes. [I thought it was] telling what she thinks, not showing her think it a dog, or maybe a cat, so I grabbed some of the meat off of one of the tables and [tried to tempt it out] telling intent, but not showing her kneeling down, calling out, etc. with some steak. But [when it emerged,] telling what it did, not showing it emerging [I was shocked.] telling how she feels, not using details to let the reader guess she was shocked [It was a wolf!] Same here. There's no sense of the wolf coming out and her seeing it Well, only a tiny cub. It was really thin, almost starved, and it looked so pitiful. [I felt so sad] telling how she feels [that I reached my shaking hand out to pet it.] telling motive instead of showing her being sad and reacting to that emotion The wolf stepped forward, like it wanted me to stroke it, so I [nervously] how might you show nervous here instead? grabbed it. [Just when] telling something is about to happen as if she knows already the shaggy, silver fur was tickling my fingers, the wolf suddenly leaped forward and bit me on my shoulder.

“AH!!!!” I shrieked.

[My agonized scream had stopped the whole dance.] If she was just attacked by a wolf, would she be this aware of what is going on elsewhere? Everyone rushed forward. The principal stepped forward and examined me. [When he noticed] telling the bite on my shoulder with blood leaking out, [he panicked. ] telling, but not showing any details to guess this by observation

The questions:

Am I showing or telling?
POV is relating the events after the fact and knows everything that happened.

(More on telling red flag words here) and (more red flag words here)

Can you get a feel of what's going on?
Yes, because the telling makes that very clear. The problem is that having things stated so clearly steals the scene of any tension because I never connect with the character or have time to worry about things. I'm told about them as if they were fact, not given an opportunity to see the story unfold.

The good news is, what happens in the scene is so clear that it will be easy to flesh this out and show these events unfold. The author has spelled it out step by step and knows how everyone acts and feels. It's just a matter of shifting to inside the head of the POV and describing it as she sees and feels it instead of describing it from afar and after the fact.

(More on point of view here)

Will the reader get hooked on this part?
Probably not because there's nothing to entice them to read on. Events are being explained, not dramatized, so the story lacks that emotional and mental pull to draw the reader in. However, the situation has the potential to hook if it's dramatized and the tension and suspense drawn out and shown. The right pieces are all there, so this will likely be very gripping once it's polished.

(More on hooks here)

Are the reactions normal?
Yes and no. I didn't get a sense of anyone reacting, because their reactions were told. The principal is panicked, but I never seen any details that show that. Ashley is angry, but there's no sense of anger or angry displays or thoughts. The stated reactions feel like the right ones at the right times, though.

I'd suggest taking all those told areas and thinking about details and ways you can show those emotions instead. What does someone do when they're angry? How do they think? Try to show the emotions and reaction without ever using the actual word for those emotions. Let how she acts and thinks make the reader think "Ashley's angry" without using the word angry.

(More on describing emotions here)

Does Ashley (the main character) rush her actions?
Yes, but only because of the telling. Since she (and the author) knows what happens, nothing is unfolding as it probably did as it happened. Ashley likely reacted more to her run in with Kendall, saw more as she left the dance, felt more curiosity as she approached the bushes, felt more fear and pain as the wolf attacked.

I'd suggest looking at this same scene and pretend you're Ashley. What does she see when she walks in? What does she hear? How does she feel? Look at this through her eyes as if she doesn't know what's going to happen and she's just experiencing it for the first time. Internalization will help a lot here to draw the reader in.

(More on internalization here)

Is there any unnecessary detail in this section?
There's very little detail at all, actually. I'm sure it's all in the author's head since they know what's going on, but it's not making it to the page yet. Use that knowledge and show what you know is there. Let this world and situation come alive for the reader. What time of year is it? What sounds does she hear? Smells? Textures? Are there other people around? What happens when she bumps into Kendall? How does that unfold?

(More on description here)

Is this scene interesting?
It has the potential to be. High emotions with two enemies squaring off, something weird in the bushes, a wolf cub, then a wolf cub attack and people screaming and panicking. All good stuff.

Overall, this is a solid first draft of a scene. The author knows what's going on, and now they have an opportunity to go back in and flesh it out. Getting bitten by what's probably a baby werewolf is likely a major event in the story, so perhaps expand on that so it carries the story weight of such an important moment. Let readers feel Ashley's anger by how she reacts to Kendall and being tripped. Let them feel her curiosity as she goes outside. Her fear as the wolf jumps out and bites here.

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.

8 comments:

  1. I really admire Janice's ability to zero-in on the reasons why a piece is telling, rather than showing.

    I have nothing to add about the telling in the piece.

    Author, if you turn the tells into shows, the word count will probably treble, but it will flow more smoothly and the reader will understand Ashley's perceptions and reactions more fully. I used-to have miniscule word counts until I used more showing. It's hard work, but the piece shines as a result.

    I think you've thrown a few intersting situations here, and laid the foundations for an intersting tale. Keep going!

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  2. These diagnostic posts are such a great feature. (I've paid $ for crits like these!) Always keen observations, never lacking encouragement. Thank you, writer, for sharing with us. Janice is right, lots of potential for a good opening scene. Keep it up.

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  3. Janice pretty much got it down. I would say the writer style is pretty much second-hand, especially in the first paragraph. While there are some details and even a little sentence variation, it's compressed to the point that it feels like the narrator's telling it after the fact. Like a summary.

    If you cut some filler words and add some details, you can easily have the wolf appearing on page one, just in time for blood on page two or three.

    But in any case, lots of potential, with literal bite from the first scene.

    By the way, Janice, I mentioned you over at YA Indie.

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  4. I agree. It felt like I was reading a school assignment or a letter. It does improve as you go along. I also agree with Janice about how you have everthing here to build on making a great scene.

    "I was at the dance" could turn into "The music pumped through the heavy, golden air. Voices and bodies jolted me. I could hardly move, hardly breathe. It was great; I loved being at the annual school dance. I especially loved knowing I looked fabulous in my favourite purple shirt and blue skinny jeans - I could see (some hot guy) eyeing me."

    One other little thing - may I suggest you either write "AH!!!" (although preferably not in capitals) *or* I shrieked. If you go with the former, then you could have something like - "Aargh!" My agonised scream broke through the music and voices, leaving only stunned silence.

    Last comment - I assumed the dance was indoors, but then she is outside and there's a wolf in the bushes! So is this an outdoors dance at a country venue? Somewhere it's not alarming or bewildering to find a wolf cub?

    This has the potential to be a great scene offering a lot of background detail about your character's life so that when she begins experiencing changes we can see how that affects what was normal for her before. Keep writing, good luck!

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  5. Janice's take is spot on. The piece as it stands feels very second-hand. It reminded me a bit of a "What I did in my Summer Vacation" essay. But the potential is there, and the premise is engaging. (I would love to read a second version of this at some point!)

    My only other thought is that the language felt younger than most of the YA I've read. Until I saw the note saying it was YA, I thought it was MG. Although perhaps with a rewrite, that will change automaticllally.

    Good luck, author!

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  6. Wow, great storyline! I hope this one comes back to Janice's pages with a rewrite - I'd love to read it.

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  7. I agree with sarah in that by this scene alone, it's not clear where the dance is taking place. When I think of a school dance it's usually inside the gym.

    As is, the piece comes off pretty flat, but I think adding a lot more description to how people react (as suggested) will set the scene better.

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  8. Thank you so much Mrs. Harding and anyone else who commented! It's a really big help, and it makes me see my book in a whole new way. Thanks for the constructive criticism; I'm going to work on improving my book...Hopefully I can finish before I hit high school.

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