Saturday, February 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Adding Emotions to a 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 it 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: Seven (+ 2 Resubmits)  

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 5. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this scene feel compelling?

2. This scene needs to be emotional and painful without being overly dramatic or sentimental. Am I portraying the fear and grief accurately?

3. There are a couple places where I used repetition to show how Minnie is struggling to comprehend and respond to what she sees. Does this work? Or should I cut the repetitive parts?


Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: My MC and POV character is Minnie, an 18 year old girl at a school of magic. Thomas is her former boyfriend. Adelaide is a 14 year old who Minnie befriended and saw as a little sister. Clara is one of Minnie's best friends, and Jezebel is Clara's older sister who has finished school. About two weeks prior to this scene, Thomas secretly murdered Adelaide. By chance, Minnie witnessed the attack, but because of a magical sort of trance, she's not sure whether the attacker was really Thomas or someone else in disguise. This is the scene leading up to when she confronts Thomas and learns that he really was the murderer.

I sat on the damp grass and leaned against the rough stone wall. Clara followed me out the door and sat beside me. “Do you want to talk?”

I plucked a couple blades of grass. “No.” What was there to talk about? What could anyone say?

There was an uncomfortable silence for several minutes before Clara said, “Ok. Just, you know, if you ever do—”

“Yeah,” I cut her off, picking another blade of grass. “Thanks.” Once again, silence. Should I say something else? I opened my mouth, but no words emerged. I looked up at the sky, searching for something, but the clear blue evaded me. Why couldn’t Clara just leave? Then I could be miserable in peace.

“What—?” Clara began.

I looked over at her. “Yeah?”

She pointed at a couple by the river. “What are they doing together? She’s not even supposed to be here anymore.”

My gaze followed her finger to the couple in question. Thomas. Thomas and Jezebel. His eyes locked with mine, and I saw him mouth my name. “I don’t—” I tried to say. “Did you—?” My words caught in my throat.

“No, I had no idea,” Clara said. “I swear I didn’t know, I would have told you.”

I barely heard her. Thomas and Jezebel. Thomas was with Jezebel! The image of Thomas mouthing my name burned before my eyes. Behind it I saw him standing over Adelaide, pulling her life apart. I stood. I tried to make some feeble excuse, but the unspoken words formed a huge lump in my throat. Thomas with Jezebel. Thomas saying my name. Thomas standing victorious over Adelaide’s still body.

I ran.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I sat on the damp grass and leaned against the rough stone wall. Clara followed me out the door and sat beside me. [“Do you want to talk?”] I don't know what led to this but I can tell there's an issue brewing. Is she struggling with what she saw?

I plucked a couple blades of grass. “No.” What was there to talk about? What could anyone say? You could add a detail about why she's unhappy here if it isn't clear going into the scene

There was an uncomfortable silence for several minutes before Clara said, “Ok. Just, you know, if you ever do—”

“Yeah,” I cut her off, picking another blade of grass. Could be a good spot to show her not wanting to think about it but thinking about it anyway. “Thanks.” Once again, silence. Should I say something else? I opened my mouth, but no words emerged. I looked up at the sky, searching for something, but the clear blue evaded me. Why couldn’t Clara just leave? Then I could be miserable in peace.

“What—?” Clara began.

I looked over at her. [“Yeah?”] This second "yeah" hit my ears funny. She wants to be left alone, but this invites more conversation

She pointed at a couple by the river. “What are they doing together? She’s not even supposed to be here anymore.” I don't know how she feels about this, so perhaps add a little clue about her emotional state here. Is she curious? Angry? Upset?

My gaze followed her finger to the couple in question. Thomas. Thomas and Jezebel. [His eyes locked with mine, and I saw him mouth my name.] Is he doing this now or is this a memory? If she's just realized it might have been him she saw, perhaps add a line that shows that shock “I don’t—”[ I tried to say.] tells a bit “Did you—?” [My words caught in my throat. ] Here too. The broken dialog shows she's having trouble speaking. This could be a good spot for an emotional reaction. She's having trouble, but the emotion behind it isn't clear (though it might be in the actual book in context)

“No, I had no idea,” Clara said. “I swear I didn’t know, I would have told you.”

I barely heard her. Thomas and Jezebel. Thomas was with Jezebel! How is she feeling here? This is clearly affecting her but I'm not sure how. The image of Thomas mouthing my name burned before my eyes. Behind it I saw him standing over Adelaide, pulling her life apart.[ I stood.] I wanted some physical reaction around here to show how she feels I tried to make some feeble excuse, but the unspoken words formed a huge lump in my throat. Thomas with Jezebel. Thomas saying my name. Thomas standing victorious over Adelaide’s still body. I wanted a bit more realization reaction from her here. Is this when she figures out what she really saw?

I ran.

The questions:

1. Does this scene feel compelling?


It's always hard to judge a snippet from later in a novel, but yes, I think so. There's clearly an issue with Minnie that she doesn't want to talk about, and then she gets a shock by seeing Thomas and Jezebel and remembering what he did. This feels like a moment readers will be anticipating, so it'll have strong inherent drive leading up to that reveal.

How compelling this is will depend a lot on what the reader knows going into it. I know nothing but what's here and the quick background, so some of the clues are still mysterious--such as, I don't know why Minnie doesn't want to talk (I assume the murder? Or her uncertainty about what she saw?) If readers know what happened and nothing new is revealed here, then this might be less compelling. If not, and this is the moment when she realizes Thomas actually did it, I suspect it will be a powerful reveal and very compelling.

(More on keeping readers reading through hook lines here)

2. This scene needs to be emotional and painful without being overly dramatic or sentimental. Am I portraying the fear and grief accurately?

Not seeing anything but this snippet, I wanted a little more explanation about how Minnie is feeling and thinking. I'm not getting the sense that this is a sudden realization or a recovered memory, but that she's thinking about something she already knew. Like she knows Thomas did it but can't prove it and that's making her miserable.

If this is the big shock moment, then you might consider adding a word or two to show that she's just figured out it was indeed him and how that realization hits her. That would likely shock the reader as well and they'd want her to confront him and verify it as much as she does.

You might also consider showing how she feels seeing Jezebel with him. Is she afraid for her life? That would lend urgency to the situation and make Minnie have to act fast to save her friend's sister.

(More on clarifying emotions through internalization here)

3. There are a couple places where I used repetition to show how Minnie is struggling to comprehend and respond to what she sees. Does this work? Or should I cut the repetitive parts?

The only repetition that bother me was the second "yeah." The rest worked to show her struggling with what she was seeing. However, I wasn't clear on how she felt about that or why, so that might be an area you flesh out a little more.

(More on different ways to describe character emotions and reactions here)

Overall, I think just a few words here and there to bring out the emotions would get this where you want it. (I marked some possible areas in the text to choose from where I wanted a little more emotion) It's feels close, and it might even be fine in the actual text if read in context. Not knowing the details going in could be affecting how much I understand. (Readers chime in 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.

3 comments:

  1. I was impressed by her understated struggling. The only repetition that I didn't care for was "My gaze followed her finger to the couple in question." But that, I suspect, is stylistic differences, so ignore that.

    The closing paragraph worked really well for me, but based on the info you gave leading up to the snippet, I want to know what she thinks about Jezebel with Thomas. Does Jez know he murdered her sister? The name conjures complicity, since "Jezebel" has been a villainous name since the kings of Israel, but I'd have no problem with this girl actually being a decent person.

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  2. I really liked the understated struggle, too. I also liked some of the physicality -- sitting in the grass and tearing it up feels very human to me, the kind of detail a lot of people miss (and instead rely on things like eye rolling/too frequent gasping/etc).

    The one thing I'd say to make the emotions more powerful is actually a removal, not an addition: I think "What was there to talk about? What could anyone say?" can go. The grass ripping and the stated "No," make the point fairly powerfully; the mental rhetorical questions soften that a bit. I think it's safe to let the dialogue and action carry the weight by themselves.

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  3. I liked the scene, too. As Janice mentioned, a little clarity at the end as to whether that was the moment when she figured out it was really Thomas would make it sparkle.

    The one line that jarred me was: "She’s not even supposed to be here anymore." Clara and Minnie would both know that Jezebel has already graduated; it seems an odd way to phrase the idea. Wouldn't Clara say something simple like: "What is she doing here?" I get that you want to convey that Jezebel doesn't belong at the school, but I don't think you need to over-complicate it.

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