Wednesday, December 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Finding the Balance Between Action and Character

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 question:

I am working on the balance between action (conflict) and character that I think builds the hook. Based on feedback to date, I think this is especially tricky in Sci-fi, because a certain amount of scene setting must be done right out of the chute. So what I have attempted to do is play out the world building in bits, weaving it around bits of character development and the inciting incident. How well does this work? Do you care about Dylan? Does the world and what you see of the conflict have you hooked? Is the scenery and character description at an appropriate level? Is the balance between Dylan's internal problems and the big picture conflict into which he has fallen seem to work? Is the POV consistent and clear? Is the voice strong (passive/active, show/tell)?

Market/Genre: Science fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

On the high plateau of the second largest continent on Squalus, Dylan elbowed through blue-green stalks of fat, leafless spike-cane, along the freshly-beaten trail toward the cliffs. He wore the khaki, camouflaged fatigues of the expeditionary corps and a brand new captain's pip. In his pocket was an anachronism, an urgent note, written by hand on a folded paper napkin. The crude, charcoal signature spelled out “Barton”, sensibly enough, as it was Colonel Barton who'd taught Dylan the lost art of handwriting. Even so, this was foolish. It wasn't alien monsters that got you killed. It was human nature—often curiosity or carelessness, or some lunatic brought along for the ride. At least two of these applied here.

Dylan had arrived last night with a planeload of others pulled from the tropics, from colony building around McMurdo. They'd poured into a brand new barracks, already full, only to be roused when one of the parked aircraft exploded. Come morning, the chit-chat was of trifles like the view from these cliffs, as if this were a resort and the dearth of indigenous predators made the planet safe. There were always predators, though, wherever humans went, and power cells didn't just explode.

The cliff face moved with diaphanous flying things like living parasols. The cinnamon moon and three pastel moonlets stretched overhead like an island chain trailing the dawn, and the rocky shore, unblemished by so much as a boot heel, stretched into the brown-gray distance. First the TDY. Then the cryptic note, and Barton wasn't here.

Dylan pulled the wraparound shades from his nose and blew the dust away—glowered briefly at a reflection still jowly from eight month's idle space duty. The straight and narrow was shifting again, and time marched on regardless. He was letting the old man down, and a stunning view wouldn't change that. Replacing the shades, he briefly peered down over the crumbling edge and whistled. On the other hand, it don’t hurt.

My Thoughts in Purple:

On the high plateau of the second largest continent on Squalus, Dylan elbowed through blue-green stalks of fat, leafless spike-cane, along the freshly-beaten trail toward the cliffs. He wore the khaki, camouflaged fatigues of the expeditionary corps and a brand new captain's pip. In his pocket was [an anachronism,] This yanked me out of the story. It feels too on the nose and not a word a soldier would use. Especially since he's surprised by the handwriting, but the paper napkin is normal. an urgent note, written by hand on a folded paper napkin. The crude, charcoal [signature spelled out “Barton”, sensibly enough, as it was Colonel Barton who'd taught Dylan the lost art of handwriting.] Who wrote the note? Is this Dylan's signature? Even so, this was foolish. It wasn't alien monsters that got you killed. [It was human nature—often curiosity or carelessness, or some lunatic brought along for the ride.] I'm a little lost so far. I don't know why a hand written note is dangerous. At least two of these applied here.

Dylan had arrived last night with a planeload of others pulled from the tropics, from colony building around McMurdo. They'd poured into a brand new barracks, already full, only to be roused when one of the parked aircraft exploded. Come morning, the chit-chat was of trifles like the view from these cliffs, as if this were a resort and the dearth of indigenous predators made the planet safe. There were always predators, though, wherever humans went, and power cells didn't just explode. This paragraph feels a bit infodumpy and it stops the story. Perhaps have Dylan think about this more as how it pertains to his note and why this is risky? If these two things are indeed connected. The explosion doesn't seem to have anything to do with his delivery, especially since no one but him is even upset about it.

[The cliff face moved with diaphanous flying things like living parasols. The cinnamon moon and three pastel moonlets stretched overhead like an island chain trailing the dawn, and the rocky shore, unblemished by so much as a boot heel, stretched into the brown-gray distance.] Since this description has nothing to do with the action, you might consider moving it, cutting it, or make him looking up matter to what he's doing. First the TDY. Then the cryptic note, and Barton wasn't here.

Dylan pulled the [wraparound shades] Isn't it nighttime? Is it bright enough for shades at night? from his nose and blew the dust away—glowered briefly at a reflection still jowly from eight month's idle space duty. The straight and narrow was shifting again, and time marched on regardless. [He was letting the old man down,] Who and how? and a stunning view wouldn't change that. Replacing the shades, he briefly peered down over the crumbling edge and whistled. [On the other hand, it don’t hurt.] Nice. This is the first real sense of Dylan I got, and I like the voice here.

Background (I'm adding this at the end since the author was curious how the opening worked and this could have influenced that read): The MC is on this alien world to build a colony, to earn a land grant, to get his life back on track. He's been pulled off that work to attend to some temporary assignment he sees as a distraction. On top of this, he's gotten a cryptic note from a family friend. He can't ignore the note, though he knows it will only lead further from what he wants and what his father wanted for him: a quiet life and a family.

The questions:

Do you care about Dylan?

Not yet because I don't know him. It's more outside looking down than inside looking out, and very little internalization yet to let me know who Dylan is. But the last line has a nice voice to it that made me chuckle, and more like that sooner would make me like and care about him. I'd suggest weaving in more of that, making the observations and descriptions his in his voice. There are several lines that almost sound like him, but the POV is distant so it feels like an outside narrator.

(More on internalization here)

Does the world and what see of the conflict have you hooked?
Not yet because I don't know what any of it means, and since I don't know or care about Dylan, it's hard to invest in a strange world I have no context for. I'm also not seeing a lot of conflict yet. He's trying to deliver a letter (I think, I'm iffy on what he's doing), something exploded at a base, the person he's waiting for isn't there. I don't know what Dylan really wants or is doing, so it's hard to see what's trying to stop him.

Is the scenery and character description at an appropriate level?
Tastes vary (readers chime in here) but it's a little heavy for me. It's almost all description and very little character, but the details themselves seem exotic and colorful. However, if there was more internalization woven through it, it would probably flow well. I'd suggest shifting things a little so what Dylan is looking at and describing is there for a reason. For example, he elbows through the spike-cane, and that works well as a description. He's interacting with it so it flows seamlessly into the story. Later, he stops and describes the cliff face, but there's no reason and it doesn't fit with what he's thinking about. Just after that, he mentions great views won't help him, so him looking at a great view fits there.

(More on POV and description here)

Is the balance between Dylan's internal problems and the big picture conflict into which he has fallen seem to work?
Since I'm not sure what's going on, I'll have to say no. I critiqued this before I read the summary so I would just see what was on the page. I didn't get the sense that they were building a colony, (it says colony building, but I thought it was where they were before this, and I got "solider" from Dylan's description, not engineer or colony builder) that he was trying to get his life back together, that this delivery was an unwelcome assignment, or that he wants a different life than this. But I really like the summary of this scene, and I think that will work well from a structure standpoint.

I'd suggest making all of that more clear. A little telling is okay if it's the right way to convey information. Instead of "a planetload of others" he might say, "with his fellow colonization team." (your words of course) Maybe he thinks about how they're supposed to colonize this place, but he knows it'll be hard (or easy) because of the landscape (which gives you a great opportunity to describe it a little from his perspective based on what he's going to do with it. What's his job? His role?). While he's standing there, maybe the note gets delivered and he gets this assignment, which would give you a goal right away, allow you to show his reaction to it, and his conflict at having to do it. He can think about why he doesn't want to go but has to.

Science fiction is indeed harder to set up, and trying to establish world, character, and conflict all at the same time can get muddy. I'd suggest establishing Dylan as a likable protagonist while you introduce a little of the world and why they're there, then hit him with the conflict. Start a little earlier than this scene, and make readers love this guy. Then, they'll be worried when he's off in the dangerous jungle on a cryptic delivery and wonder what it's all about, same as him. I can see this as the second scene a few pages into the novel.

(More on when telling is better than showing)

Is the POV consistent and clear?
It feels distant third person, almost omniscient, centered around Dylan. If that's what you're going for, yes. Dylan feels solid in the POV though. If you wanted a tighter, limited third, I'd suggest more internalization and a stronger sense of looking out from his eyes than looking over his shoulder. I'd use the old touch your head trick here. Something as simple as "He scratched his cheek" would tug the narrative into his head and feel more internal. For example:
The crude, charcoal signature spelled out “Barton”, sensibly enough, as it was Colonel Barton who'd taught Dylan the lost art of handwriting. Even so, this was foolish. It wasn't alien monsters that got you killed. It was human nature—often curiosity or carelessness, or some lunatic brought along for the ride. At least two of these applied here.
I'm not sure if this is outside narrative, or Dylan thinking it. It uses his name, which suggests an outside narrator. But the phrasing is more conversational, so it could be Dylan. A few tweaks would bring it tighter and clarify the narrator.
The crude, charcoal signature spelled out “Barton”, sensibly enough, as it was Colonel Barton who'd taught him the lost art of handwriting. He scoffed and wiped sweat off his brow. Even so, this was foolish. It wasn't alien monsters that got you killed. It was human nature—often curiosity or carelessness, or some lunatic brought along for the ride. At least two of these applied here.
Small changes, but they point the narrative at Dylan, so they feel like his thoughts. Sometimes just changing a pronoun is enough.

(More on narrative distance here)

Is the voice strong (passive/active, show/tell)?
Yes. Active voice, no telling. I like the voice where I hear more of Dylan better, though that's subjective (readers chime in here). There are several places where he starts to push through, and I like his no nonsense tone there.

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 really like this (I'm a sci-fi fan, love other worlds :) - I loved this line: The cinnamon moon and three pastel moonlets stretched overhead like an island chain trailing the dawn...ah, it's the sort of line that makes me envious wishing I'd wrote it! I agree with Janice on the subtle changes by adding a little internalisation to strengthen the sense of character, but I'm truly hooked ad want to keep reading. xx

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  2. I also really like that "cinnamon moon" paragraph. I could see everything you built up in those words. Move it if you have to but you have to keep it!

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  3. Good feedback. I took out the infodump and will incorporate the info elsewhere. Other than that, I THINK the main problem was that I was trying to pack too much in. Here, I have tried to move the POV closer to Dylan'a skull and focus on the crux of why he's here at this moment. Of course, I leave a lot unanswered, but if I've made his narrative fluid enough, that should be a good thing.

    On the high plateau of the second largest continent on Squalus, Dylan elbowed through fat, leafless stalks of blue-green spike-cane, along the freshly beaten trail toward the cliffs. He wore the khaki, camouflaged fatigues of the expeditionary corps and a brand new captain's pip. He couldn't see squat for the cane, but it wasn't alien monsters that got you killed. It was usually human nature—curiosity, stupidity, or some lunatic along for the ride. At least two of these applied here.
    Not that he had a choice. Still tucked in his boot was an urgent note from Colonel Barton, written by hand on a folded paper napkin. Charcoal scribbling couldn't be authenticated, but the message was terse, direct, and impossible to ignore—typical Barton.
    The trail opened on the dizzying cliff. The air was alive with diaphanous flying things like living parasols. A cinnamon moon and three pastel moonlets aligned overhead like an island chain trailing the dawn. The rocky shore, unblemished by so much as a boot heel, stretched into the brown-gray dawn. Naturally, there was no sign of Barton.
    He pulled out his wraparound visor and blew the dust from the multi-spectral sensor. He glowered briefly at his backlit reflection—still jowly from eight inactive months during transit. Months on top of years—all for new orders and a cryptic note—curves in the straight and narrow. This was just another detour, and a stunning view didn't change that. He looked out over the crumbling edge and whistled. On the other hand, it don’t hurt.

    Thanks for all the feedback.

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  4. Love the re-write, tighter and more fluid, and a great sense of character :) soooooo good! xx

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  5. Much better. I get more sense of the narrator now, though I'd still like a teeny bit more internalization from him to get a better idea of his personality. Though the next paragraph could very well be that. It feels like it's about to go into his thoughts.

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