Saturday, April 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Pacing and Character Arcs in a Short Story

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: Five

This week’s questions:

First, I'm curious what you think about the pacing and the level of detail, for a story that's going to take us through a big zombie slaughter at the 80-or-so% mark, before ending with a character moment. Is it too much, too little...too slow and charactery?

Also, Donna's character arc in the piece is from someone who puts her music first because she prefers to run away rather than face hard choices, to someone who puts her family first but will still hold on to her music. Is it necessary to establish All That up front? Or is a beginning that hints at it (her dedication to her act) an okay way to go about it? (FWIW, through the entire 675 word first scene, it's not established; it doesn't come into play until scene 2, when her husband dumps her by satellite phone)

Market/Genre: Fantasy/horror short story


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The ship lurched, and Donna Annette Demoss's last hair curler tumbled from her makeup table. It rolled across the unpainted floor--past Trina's spotless area, past Samantha reading on the threadbare chaise lounge--and pinged against the wall beneath Cori Northington's cluttered table.

"Well, shitballs," Donna said.

Now she would be ass in the air fishing for it, probably just in time for Cori to come in and say something or other that could be said only by a twenty-year-old china doll with a head two sizes too big for her body, whose nightmares were the horrors of cellulite instead of paying for her kid's college in three years.

Samantha looked over the old People she was reading. "It's not like they're going to notice your hair, you know."

"I'll notice." Donna sighed and lowered herself to the floor before Cori's dressing table. Her knees protested. And she just knew her ass was pressing out against her sequined dress like a pair of Christmas hams.

In the shadows under the table, the curler was nowhere to be seen. Fallen into the gap between the wall and the floor, most likely.

Shitballs, indeed.

A wire hanger hung from the arm of Cori's chair. Donna thought about using it. Then she thought about having to deal with Cori for the next three days if she--horrors--bent her hanger.

She sighed, and retreated to her own area for a hanger that could be molded into shape. "If I know I don't look right, I'm not going to be able to put on a good show."

Samantha smirked. "And?"

"And they're my audience."

Samantha's laugh was an unexpectedly pretty thing in the unfinished cargo can. "No wonder they call you a diva. You actually care about this gig."

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The ship lurched,] interesting setting and Donna Annette Demoss's last hair curler tumbled from her makeup table. It rolled across the unpainted floor--past Trina's spotless area, past Samantha reading on the threadbare chaise lounge--and pinged against the wall beneath Cori Northington's cluttered table. A lot of names are thrown out in the opening paragraph. Perhaps not use Cori's last name to further establish that Donna is the POV?

"Well, shitballs," Donna said.

Now she would be ass in the air fishing for it, probably just in time for Cori to come in and say something or other that could be said only by a twenty-year-old china doll with a head two sizes too big for her body, whose nightmares were the horrors of cellulite instead of paying for her kid's college in three years.

Samantha looked over the old People she was reading. "It's not like they're going to notice your hair, you know."

"I'll notice." Donna sighed and lowered herself to the floor before Cori's dressing table. Her knees protested. And she just knew her ass was pressing out against her sequined dress like a pair of Christmas hams.

[[In the shadows under the table, the curler was nowhere to be seen. Fallen into the gap between the wall and the floor, most likely.

Shitballs, indeed.

A wire hanger hung from the arm of Cori's chair. Donna thought about using it. [Then she thought about having to deal with Cori for the next three days if she--horrors--bent her hanger. ] Samantha calls Donna a diva at the end, but Cori feels more like one.

She sighed, and retreated to her own area for a hanger that could be molded into shape.]] This section feels like a lot before she replies to Samantha, so it slows the pace. Perhaps shift some to after the response? "If I know I don't look right, I'm not going to be able to put on a good show."

Samantha smirked. "And?"

"And they're my audience."

Samantha's laugh was an unexpectedly pretty thing in the [unfinished cargo can.] interesting detail "No wonder they call you a [diva.] Small thing, but diva feels like someone who cares more about themselves, so this word doesn't feel right in this context You actually care about this gig."

The questions:

First, I'm curious what you think about the pacing and the level of detail, for a story that's going to take us through a big zombie slaughter at the 80-or-so% mark, before ending with a character moment. Is it too much, too little...too slow and charactery?
Hard to say. I like this opening, but it did feel a tad slow in the middle. Donna is a character who cares about something and is faced with a problem, even though that problem feels a little thin as it right now. A missing curler and annoying a co-worker doesn't feel like enough conflict, though I like that she's worrying about putting her kid through college. I suspect her response to Samantha about caring probably sets up the stakes a little more (if not, consider adding that). Of course she cares, because this matters to her for X reasons. (the idea, not the words)

There was a lot of focus on her butt and how it looked, which made Donna come across as a little shallow at first. It isn't until later you realize why she cares. Perhaps slip in another hint that performing is important to her early on, maybe replace one of the butt comments?

(More on pacing here)

I was curious about the ship and wanted a few more details there. At first I thought cruise ship, then it mentions being a cargo can, which was intriguing. I'm not fully grounded in the setting yet. You have the first scene to flesh that out, but a little more at the start wouldn't hurt. You could probably work it in with why she there's and show those elements of her personality you want to convey.

(More on setting the scene here)

Also, Donna's character arc in the piece is from someone who puts her music first because she prefers to run away rather than face hard choices, to someone who puts her family first but will still hold on to her music. Is it necessary to establish All That up front? Or is a beginning that hints at it (her dedication to her act) an okay way to go about it? (FWIW, through the entire 675 word first scene, it's not established; it doesn't come into play until scene 2, when her husband dumps her by satellite phone)
It's not necessary to do all of it on the first page, but you'd probably want a hint of who she is and what her personal issue is. She puts her music first, she avoids tough choices, she runs away from trouble. In a novel you'd have more time to establish that, but a short story needs to get to the point pretty fast. Setup and establishing the character arc is typically the first 10% of the story, ending with an opportunity to change (which the character usually ignores), so if this is a 6000-word story, you'd want All That in the first 600 words. (there's wiggle room on this percentage, it's just a guideline not a rule).

(More on character arcs and growth here)

Some of that is already here with her not wanting to deal with Cori, but I get more of a sense of her avoiding the hassle than running away from hard choices. She's also doing something that seems hard to help pay for college, which suggests to me she's putting family first.

If the husband dumps her later, perhaps foreshadow that? Maybe there's a message on her table to call her husband and she ignores that because she has a show to do. Show her putting music before family. Let her think about why this matters so much to her and why one silly curler is worth fighting for so she looks just right. If you can find a way to work her running from a hard choice, even better. Cori seems to be the perfect vehicle for that.

(More on foreshadowing here)

Maybe Donna is faced with dealing with Cori for the curler or going out on stage without looking the way she wants, and even though it's clear how much that matters to her, she backs down. That'll also leave some fear for the readers as to what Donna might do and what might happen now that she doesn't look (and feel) her best. That would hit around 600-ish words if your first scene is 675, so you'd be good on the structure/pacing ratio.

Overall it's pretty good, and I think a few word tweaks here and there and a few lines dropped in or moved around would get this where you want it. Just minor stuff to layer in the elements and tighter a tad.

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.

4 comments:

  1. As Janice said, too many names in first section. In first page we know about Donna, Cori and Samantha. Maybe it's good to drop out Cori or Samantha and introduce them later. I'm not the target audience for this novel, so I can't relate to all the chatting. Assuming that after all the chatting, Donna puts on the show and maybe something happens in the show, I like to cut quickly to the show/action. Best wishes with the novel.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved the voice of this, it's fun and made me laugh (shitballs, indeed...great line!) and I want to know more.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Yeti...I laughed at the behind like two Christmas hams...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks to Janice for the in-depth look, and to the others for their feedback as well! Helpful to know!

    Also, I LOVE the image. Nice find!

    I think I'll pull Trina entirely - she has only a passing appearance and then she's gone. For some reason, I seem to like to populate shorts with extra people - looking for a sense of a larger story, maybe. But I can save wordcount by cutting her, and so away she will go.

    FWIW, Cori has a last name 'cuz she's the antagonist.

    Also, your reaction to the ship - first cruise ship, then cargo can - was exactly what I wanted, for better or worse. So it's good to know that it had the intended effect. Now I just hope that was a good idea in the first place :).

    Great suggestions on moving more of Donna's personal issue into the first page, thanks for them!


    Thanks again to Janice for the opportunity, and to all for reading and feedbacking!




    ReplyDelete