Saturday, December 1

Real Life Diagnostics: What's Wrong Here? Figuring Out Why a Scene Doesn't Work

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: Eight

This week’s questions:

I can tell there's something not right with this scene but I can't figure out what it is. Am I telling too much, or is there some other problem?

Market/Genre: Not specified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

In the story, there are two sentient races on earth, humans and Aviens. They have wings, talons, bird eyes and they migrate and build nests. And they consider humans animals. My protag is 'wild', but she and her boyfriend have been caught and are trying to get home without revealing the location of their camp.

The carrying crate that Jessa bought for us had been engineered so skillfully that we weighed nothing at all in the air. Though the shape was strange, we had plenty of room and I relaxed a little, though I was still worried.

“You okay?” I asked Cas. His shoulders were hunched, and he was so tense he could’ve been carved from wood. He gave me a tight smile.

“I’m as okay as I can be for being in a cage again.”

The throne room of the Avien King’s palace was ebony and gold, and smelled like spices, old books and citrus. It was magnificent, but it would have been even more breathtaking after a good polishing and some better lights. Sad dust dulled every brilliant surface, reminiscent of a happier time perhaps. There was a brazier holding a torch on every pillar, but most had sputtered out and the few that still flickered fitfully only made the place seem mournful and shadowy. I was afraid to make any noise in the hushed atmosphere. It was the kind of place that you just know would amplify every sound you make by a million.

The Avien king Stephaen sat on one of the two majestic thrones at the head of the hall, softly playing a small harp. The throne was gold, adorned with onyx and sapphire stones. His dark head, streaked with silver grey, was bent sorrowfully and he wore all black clothes, adorned only with the gold crown on his head. He still grieved for his Florienne then, even after ten years. You might think he’d have gotten over it by now, especially when the innocent men he blamed for it were dead.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The carrying crate that Jessa bought for us had been engineered so skillfully that we weighed nothing at all in the air. Though the shape was strange, we had plenty of room and [I relaxed a little, though I was still worried.] Relaxing here steals some of the tension. Why isn't she worried if they've been captured?

“You okay?” I asked Cas. His shoulders were hunched, and he was so tense he could’ve been carved from wood. He gave me a tight smile.

[“I’m as okay as I can be for being in a cage again.”] Is it just being caged that upsets him? Why are they caged and where are they going? Would that bother them at all?

[The throne room of the Avien King’s palace was ebony and gold, and smelled like spices, old books and citrus.] An awkward transition here. I go from the cage to the throne room with no explanation [It was magnificent, but it would have been even more breathtaking after a good polishing and some better lights.] The snark here feels off. Wouldn't she be awed or scared? Isn't she in trouble? Sad dust dulled every brilliant surface, reminiscent of a happier time perhaps. There was a brazier holding a torch on every pillar, but most had sputtered out and the few that still flickered fitfully only made the place seem mournful and shadowy.[I was afraid to make any noise in the hushed atmosphere. It was the kind of place that you just know would amplify every sound you make by a million.] I don't understand where she is. Is she seeing this through the cage bars?

The Avien king Stephaen sat on one of the two majestic thrones at the head of the hall, softly playing a small harp. The throne was gold, adorned with onyx and sapphire stones. His dark head, streaked with silver grey, was bent sorrowfully and he wore all black clothes, adorned only with the gold crown on his head. [He still grieved for his Florienne then, even after ten years.] How does she know this? You might think he’d have gotten over it by now, especially when the innocent men he blamed for it were dead.

The questions:

I can tell there's something not right with this scene but I can't figure out what it is. Am I telling too much, or is there some other problem?
It's a challenge to critique a small section like this with no context, so some of my comments might have been answered before this scene happened. Take this with a grain of salt (grin). What strikes me most about this snippet on its own, is that it seems like two different pieces of scenes.

It starts with the protagonist and her boyfriend in a cage, which suggests something bad had happened. But she's calm, and there doesn't seem to be anything at stake from this. Then the focus shifts to a lengthy description of the throne room and the king, which comes out of nowhere. (However, if earlier in the scene it said they were coming here it might not be so jarring) I feel lost as a reader because I have no idea what's going on.

This strikes me as a transition scene, and I think this feels off because of a lack of narrative focus taking readers from one moment to the next. I'm not sure what's important or where the story is going because the narrator isn't providing enough clues for me to follow the plot.


(More on narrative focus here)


It also feels a little infodumpy with the description, more like the author inserting information rather than the narrator describing it and making a judgment call. If she's trapped in a cage for X reason, would she really make a snarky comment about how the throne room would be prettier if they polished it? Or mention how the king still missed someone he lost and the short history behind it? Those details don't track with the rest of the snippet. Is she a scared prisoner or a snarky visitor?

(More on fixing infodumps here)

A little more internalization and clarification of goals would help. Is this is a secret way to sneak inside for some spy-like job, then being snarky and not being afraid would make sense. This is work, and they're doing their job. But I don't think that's the case here based on the description of the scene. I think these two are imprisoned and about to face interrogation if they're trying not to reveal their camp. Yet they don't seem scared enough for that.

You might consider looking closer at the emotions of these characters and fleshing out how they're feeling. (And how you want the reader to feel here). If this is supposed to be a tense, worrisome scene, let the characters be tense and worried. Let readers know what could go wrong and what's at stake (if that hasn't already been established). What's the point of this scene? What is your protagonist trying to do?

(More on using the emotional state of your characters here)

I get the feeling this piece is the transition between the protagonist getting captured and whatever comes next. It's the first time readers see the king and the throne room, so the urge to describe both is strong. Spending a little more time on how this goes from one spot to the next will likely fix what's bugging you. Maybe a scene break after an ominous line would work. They're in the cage, about to be sent off to be interrogated, the narrator says something dire and the scene ends. Pick back up with "They carried us into the throne room..." type line and start with whatever the goal is for that scene.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I think Janice is right that tying the two pieces together will really help the readability of the scene. I am very curious about the heroes trapped in a cage. You sort of loose them for a moment when you start describing the palace. I wasn't sure if we were still with the heroine, or if a narrator had taken over. A couple transition sentences might clear that up. Good luck on this one. :)

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  2. I love these. I learn about writing, and I also become a better critiquer. Thanks!

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  3. This section definitely felt uneven to me. I would echo the jarring transition comments above (between paragraphs 1-2).

    However, the second paragraph feels like it is trying to hard to show contrast and since it is more 'Telly' than 'Showy', it feels forced the way it is currently laid out: dusty-brilliant, every pillar-most sputtered, hushed atmosphere-amplified sound.

    If this can be evened out and, as Janice mentioned, internalized some, it would work much better. However, credit where it is due, 'sad dust' is a great turn of phrase.

    Also, the last paragraph has six 'color' descriptors in two sentences: gold, onyx, sapphire, silver, grey, black and fold again. I would try to break those up some by using non-color based descriptors.

    Thanks for sharing!

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