Sunday, July 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Voice and Body Language in Your Opening

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: Nine (+one re-submit)

Note: Right now I'm booked up to September 7 on submissions. I'll double up on the weekends when I can to clear out the queue, but this is the most I've ever had waiting. Sorry about that, guys! I'll get to them all soon as I can.

This week’s questions:

Do the dialogue and the body language work together? Is Lilly's voice coming through, and does it sound like a ten-year-old? Does this beginning work, and would you keep reading?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the first part of the first scene of my middle grade fantasy novel. I am trying to introduce the conflict and the three main characters (Lilly (age 10), Morgan (age 8), and Corrie (age 16) ). I am also trying to establish the atmosphere that they grew up in. The stakes and the world are explained later.

“Girls, I hate to tell you this on your first day of summer vacation, but one of your relatives is trying to take over the world again.”

Lilly wasn't surprised at all. When you come from a family of magicians—both sides, and most of her extended family—it was only to be expected.

“Who is it this time?” Lilly asked interestedly, putting down her fork.

“He's a Monroe. Your father's uncle,” Mom answered.

“I swear, somebody new tries every year,” Corrie said. “Pass the potatoes.”

“How long did it take to beat the last one?” Lilly asked. “A week?”

“Two, actually,” Mom said, passing the potatoes to Corrie. “I hope it will be as easy this time, but you never know. Of course, this means that I'll have to leave again.”

“But my birthday's next week,” Morgan said, her eyes big, brown, and pleading. “You can't miss that.”

“I'm sorry, sweetie. I know we had plans. But this is an emergency,” their mother said, purposefully avoiding Morgan's doe eyes. “Hopefully I'll be back in a week or two. I can't take anyone with me, so you'll have to stay with your Aunt Hildie.”

“Why Aunt Hildie?” Morgan demanded, in a voice that Lilly knew meant a mega-sulking fit was coming on. “She's a jerk.”

“Not owning a television doesn't make her a jerk,” her mother said. “And she's the only one who could take all of you on such short notice. I have to leave tomorrow.”

My Thoughts in Purple:


[“Girls, I hate to tell you this on your first day of summer vacation, but one of your relatives is trying to take over the world again.”] Great line.

Lilly wasn't surprised at all. When you come from a family of magicians—both sides, and most of her extended family—it was only to be expected.

“Who is it this time?” Lilly asked [interestedly,] Perhaps find a way to show interest without the adverb putting down her fork.

“He's a Monroe. Your father's uncle,” [Mom answered.] There are a lot of dialog tags, so perhaps cut this one. It's clear Mom answers.

“I swear, somebody new tries every year,” Corrie said. “Pass the potatoes.”

[“How long did it take to beat the last one?” Lilly asked. “A week?”] Perhaps tag this at the start? The frequent tags at the end are giving it repetitious rhythm. This is also a good spot for some more internalization. How does she feel about this? Why is she interested if this is to be expected?

“Two, actually,” Mom said, passing the potatoes to Corrie. “I hope it will be as easy this time, but you never know. Of course, this means that I'll have to leave again.” Good spot for some internalization from Lilly. What does this mean to her?

“But my birthday's next week,” Morgan said, her eyes big, brown, and pleading. “You can't miss that.”

“I'm sorry, sweetie. I know we had plans. But this is an emergency,” their mother said, [purposefully avoiding Morgan's doe eyes.] I feel that we've been in Lilly's POV, and if so, this feels like a POV shift. “Hopefully I'll be back in a week or two. I can't take anyone with me, so you'll have to stay with your Aunt Hildie.”

“Why Aunt Hildie?” Morgan demanded, in a voice that Lilly knew meant a mega-sulking fit was coming on. How does Lilly feel about going to Hildie's? “She's a jerk.”

“Not owning a television doesn't make her a jerk,” her mother said. “And she's the only one who could take all of you on such short notice. I have to leave tomorrow.”

The questions:

Do the dialogue and the body language work together?

Aside from a few eye details, there's no real body language here. I think a little more would help, as right now this conversation feels a little "talking heads-ish." A lot of people are speaking but I don't know who any of them really are, or where this is taking place. I assume a dinner table, but where that is or what the setting looks like is unclear.

(More on introducing a lot of characters here)

Since you're asking about body language, I assume that's revealing something about this scene. Right now I'm not getting hints of that, so perhaps use Lilly to reveal the body language that suggests there's more going on here. What does she see? What is the body language trying to convey that she might pick up on?

I'd suggest more stage direction, as well as mixing up where the dialog tags go to smooth the flow. It's reading a little clunky because all the lines are the same format. Dialog, tag.

(More on rhythm and dialog tag placement here)

Is Lilly's voice coming through, and does it sound like a ten-year-old?
I'm not getting a strong sense of anyone's voice right now, mostly because it's a lot of people and no one person is coming off as the clear narrator. Everyone has about the same number of lines and there's little internalization to show who the POV is. I wasn't even 100% sure Lilly was the POV, though it felt that way since she was mentioned first and it showed some of her thoughts. But then it felt like it might be omniscient when it shifted into Mom's POV as she avoided Megan's eyes.

I'd suggest more internalization from Lilly and use her to set the scene better. This will allow you to show off her voice, and have her describe the body language that would show the family dynamics. Let readers see what's going on in her head and how she feels about all this. She's interested in who's trying to take over the world, so maybe expand there a bit. You don't need a lot, a few lines here and there will help ground readers and show Lilly's character.

(More on internalization here)

Does this beginning work, and would you keep reading?
There are some great elements here, but it's a little confusing and ungrounded as is. If I liked the cover blurb, I might read a little more to see if that worked itself out.

I like the unexpected idea of relatives taking over the world, and there seems to be a split between those who do and those who try to stop them. That shows the conflicts right away, and then there's more conflict with Mom having to go. There are hints that there's more to this, and that's intriguing. I'd suspect Mom will go missing and the kids will have to find her (total guess on my part)

I think if you fleshed out Lilly's POV and added more internalization and description, this would feel more grounded. Readers would get to know Lilly better and relate to her, and get a better feel for the world itself. Overall, it feels like the pieces are there, and it's just a matter of developing them further.

(More on grounding readers in your world)

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. The premise amuses me, as does Mom's matter-of-fact "gotta deal with another megalomaniac" attitude.

    Re the body language: I think if you incorporated things like Lilly sitting up straighter to indicate interest, Morgan slumping back and folding her arms to indicate sulking, and switched up the dialogue tags as Janice suggested, that would make this scene more vivid.

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  2. As usual, another great critique! Thanks, Janice. I too wanted to actually see these characters and what they were doing.

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  3. I do love that first line. :)

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  4. I love the first line too. Is this meant to be in Lilly's POV or more of an omniscient voice?

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