Saturday, October 27

Real Life Diagnostics: What a Drag: Picking up the Pace in a Slow Scene

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.

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This week’s question:

This is a phone conversation between Sue the owner of the ballet company and her choreographer. I have been told that this scene drags the chapter down. I changed it up. Instead of interiority it now consists of dialogue. Does it work now? Or does it still drag?

Market/Genre: Contemporary YA


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“You want to tell me what is really going on?” His voice is low.

“Sometimes it feels like my life is over.”

“How can your life be over?”

“Well, I left this promising career in Boston and ended up in this excuse for a town. If this company goes bankrupt then what will I do? I don’t know how to do anything else?”

“Listen. One your life is hardly over. Two this company will come through for us. Three you have a long career ahead of you. Four you can always go back to England and work with the company your mother is involved with.”

“I’m never going back to England.”

“Why?”

“I haven’t talked with my mother since the birth of my sister.”

“Why?”

“When she and my dad divorced, that was a proper shock. Then came the news that she was pregnant. It didn’t take me long to do the math. When my sister was born I was jolted into the realization that she was not just replacing my father, she was replacing me also. It still knocks the wind out of me at unexpected moments."

“Listen we all make mistakes. Even those close to us who we think should somehow be perfect. Everything seems worse right now because it is late. Promise me, go to bed and we’ll take tomorrow when your head is clear.”

“Alright. Talk tomorrow.” It comes out in a long sigh.

“Cheers as you say.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“You want to tell me what is really going on?” His voice is low.

“Sometimes it feels like my life is over.”

[“How can your life be over?”] This repeats her dialog so it doesn't add anything to the scene. It's just there to break up the text, which could be contributing to the slow pace

[“Well, I left this promising career in Boston and ended up in this excuse for a town. If this company goes bankrupt then what will I do? I don’t know how to do anything else?”] If he's her choreographer, odds are he knows some of this information already, so this feels a little infodumpy. What is she really worried about?

[“Listen. One your life is hardly over. Two this company will come through for us. Three you have a long career ahead of you. Four you can always go back to England and work with the company your mother is involved with.”] Again, he just basically repeats what she said and sets up the next detail to be included. However, this is a stronger response to her "my life is over" statement. Perhaps cut the previous two paragraphs and skip right to this.

[“I’m never going back to England.”] This is good spot to have her think about why and react more strongly to this. He suggests going back, she has a very strong emotional reaction and thinks a little about her family, and say no way.

“Why?”

“I haven’t talked with my mother since the birth of my sister.”

[“Why?”] The same question twice in a row feels empty. And would she really confess all of this to him? If she's hiding something and both he and the reader want to know, it would up the pace and the tension.

[“When she and my dad divorced, that was a proper shock. Then came the news that she was pregnant. It didn’t take me long to do the math. When my sister was born I was jolted into the realization that she was not just replacing my father, she was replacing me also. It still knocks the wind out of me at unexpected moments."] This has more stakes and potential conflict, but it feels a little infodumpy as is. Does the reader want to know this? Do they care from a story standpoint?

“[Listen] He just said this so it jumps out we all make mistakes. Even those close to us who we think should somehow be perfect. Everything seems worse right now because it is late. Promise me, go to bed and we’ll take tomorrow when your head is clear.”

[“Alright. Talk tomorrow.” It comes out in a long sigh.] A lot is said in the snippet, but nothing comes of it so it feels pointless. Why does the reader need to see this?

“Cheers as you say.”

The questions:

I have been told that this scene drags the chapter down. Does it work now? Or does it still drag?
It's still dragging. I think this is due to a few issues. The most critical one is that there doesn't seem to be any goal or conflict in this scene to drive it. I don't see the point of the conversation other than to impart information to the reader. There's no goal for Sue at the start, and nothing is resolved or decided by the end of it.

If this used to be internalization, it's possible it's a sequel to a previous scene and not a scene in and of itself. Is this a reaction to a problem Sue just encountered? Like she just found out her company might go bankrupt and this is her response?

(More on sequels here)

If so, perhaps angle it so she's reacting more clearly to what has just happened. Mix in internalization as she weighs her options and figures out what to do next. She has nowhere to go, she doesn't want to go home, she's feeling helpless and lost. She calls her choreographer to...what? What does she hope to gain by this? She calls, so she must have a reason. At the end, perhaps have her make a decision that will transition her into the next scene instead of just going to bed.

If this isn't a sequel, then I'd suggest finding a goal for her so this scene has a point other than to share background information. What problem is she facing? She's worried about losing her business, but that feels weak here because she doesn't seem too upset about it (though it is a high-stakes thing to worry about). Upping the emotion will help here. What does losing her business mean to her? What is she really afraid of? What does she have to do next plot-wise to save her business?

(More on goals and stakes here)

Another thing that is making this drag for me is the empty dialog. The other person is just a voice echoing the narrator's questions and providing triggers for her to explain things, so it's not coming across as a real conversation to me yet. I'd suggest giving him more to do than repeat her dialog. Perhaps he's trying to drag the truth out of her and she's resisting, or he's offering suggestions on what to do. It's doing a little of that now, but not enough to make him feel like he's participating. He's just a reason for her to speak.

(More on infodumps in dialog here)

To pick up the pace, I'd suggest giving the narrator a goal and adding a question the reader wants to know so they're draw in (perhaps, what will she decide to do? or, will she come up with an idea to save her business?). Mix in some internalization to show her inner debate and decision-making process, her fears, her emotions. Maybe let the man she's talking to conflict with her in some way. It doesn't have to be a fight conflict, just that he's pushing her toward something she doesn't want to do, even if she knows she should do it, or trying more to talk her out of something. Details that will make the outcome of the conversation uncertain, and make readers care about what she decides.

(More on pacing here)

You might also look at what comes before and after this snippet. If you cut it, what would change? What's the purpose of this scene? If it's only to impart information about her family, then perhaps look for another place to insert that information. It's possible this scene isn't working because it's not adding anything to the story and doesn't need to be there.

One other thing hit me as I read this. This doesn't feel YA to me, it feels like women's fiction. Teens don't own ballet companies and the characters' worldviews feel adult, not young adult. I don't know how old these characters are, but I'd guess mid to late twenties from the voices and situation. These are adults talking. You might consider reexamining what market this is aimed it.

(More on fixing a stalled scene 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.

5 comments:

  1. I definitely agree with Janice on the repetition.
    A: "Sometimes it feels like my life is over."
    B: "How can your life be over?"
    If you have to have B ask for an explanation, why not simply say:
    "How so?"

    Also, this phrase "When she and my dad divorced" sounds unrealistic. Wouldn't someone simply say, "When my parents divorced"?

    I don't entirely understand why this character is "still" shocked at "unexpected moments", especially if she hasn't been talking with her mother since the birth of her sister. Is she that psychologically traumatised by it?

    Not to nit-pick, but you could probably do away with some of the cliched phrases:
    "do the math", "knock(s) the wind out of"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for the wonderful comments that were right on target. You were able to get to the crux of the problem. A problem that I could not see.

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  3. Janice, your critiques are so detailed and thorough! Great job.

    I'm learning so much reading these diagnostics and info dumping is a particular challenge. Do your writers ever come back with their improvements? I'd be intrigued to see the fixes they come up with.

    To the writer, keep it up, this is hard work, this writing thing!

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  4. I have to agree with everything Janice said; it did feel a little like it dragged due to the empty dialogue, the repetitiveness, etc.

    As you work on those things I would also suggest adding some depth with a few action beats attached to the dialogue, or some internal monologue. When she said, "I'm never going back to England," I felt deeply like she was doing something when she said that, and we missed it--that she had pressed her lips together or looked out the window, or tossed her head as her eyes flashed; that she had betrayed some sign or emotion and motivation. I wanted to see what it was! Don't be afraid to include those things.

    Final comment. Janice said this: "Maybe let the man she's talking to conflict with her in some way. It doesn't have to be a fight conflict, just that he's pushing her toward something she doesn't want to do, even if she knows she should do it, or trying more to talk her out of something."

    I really, really agree with that. Your character is explaining herself for no real reason, but if the choreographer was less sympathetic and understanding--perhaps he snorts and things her worries silly--it will force her to become defensive and explain herself. It will also challenge you as a writer to clarify her motivations. That can help a LOT to give a scene like this purpose.

    But good luck! It's not a terrible scene; it just needs to be delved into deeper :)

    -Mandy

    ReplyDelete
  5. Joy, glad the diagnostic was helpful :) Good luck on your revision.

    AJ, thanks! Yes, some do send in revisions and I post (and crit) the new page on their old post. When that happens, I mention it in the current post that week and link back. It's also a line right before I go on to the diagnosis.

    ReplyDelete