Saturday, March 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Are There Enough Details to Describe This Setting?

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: Four (+ 1 Resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 12. 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:

Is it enough information to form a setting? If not, what's a good way to slip it in there subtly? As for the comment about Olivia's hair, can you assume it's black? Is there enough voice (or maybe too much)? Do you have any small pointers even though it's only about 250 words? 


Market/Genre: Unspecified

NOTE: There's a revised snippet at the bottom, so just scroll down if you'd like to see how the writer revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

You could hear it raining through the ground. The downpour of the rain echoed through the halls of the school.

What I wouldn't give to go up above ground again. To feel the wind blow. To see the green of the grass. Just to breathe air that doesn't taste like rusting metal would be nice.

But no. I’m stuck underground huddled in a group with the friends I've made since I've come to this school because somehow our power went out. This place is underground. How on earth does the power get cut off underground?

The candle flickered in front of us.

“I swear to God, if the candle goes out, the person who blew it out will die a painful death,” Vincent shouted.

“I’ll help,” Olivia chimed in, “and I’ll use a spork to carve out your eyes.”

She and Shara and few others (even some from other groups) laughed.

“A spork? Why?” David had a look of pure terror on his face. I think it’s safe to assume he was the one blowing on the candle flame.

Olivia tilted her head so the candle casted an eerie shadow on her face. “The pointses are to stabs and saws through the muscleses attaching it to your skulls, Precious. Then, we can scoops it out on the spoonses.”

Let me be the first to say, I don’t think I have laughed harder at someone’s fear.

“Olivia,” I started, “not only is that incredibly creepy with the lighting and smile, but you have the same hair color as Vincent, so it’s seriously just a creepy face floating above a pink blanket. I now know what a true nightmare is.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[You could hear it raining through the ground. The downpour of the rain echoed through the halls of the school.] This doesn't say underground to me. Perhaps combine these and say the rain echoed through the floor? That might hint that they're below the floor

[What I wouldn't give to go up above ground again. To feel the wind blow. To see the green of the grass. Just to breathe air that doesn't taste like rusting metal would be nice.] This says underground, but the narrator is thinking about things that don't relate to the rain, so it feels a bit disconnected. Perhaps have this be about running in the rain or other details that work off the rain as a trigger for the memory? I like the rusted metal taste though.

[But no. I’m stuck underground huddled in a group with the friends I've made since I've come to this school because somehow our power went out. This place is underground. How on earth does the power get cut off underground?] This feels a little infodumpy and explains the scene. I'd suggest cutting it and letting the details of the scene show this, or find ways to convey this information more naturally. I do like that it uses the narrator's voice though.

[The candle flickered in front of us.] This suggests that it's dark

“I swear to God, if the candle goes out, the person who blew it out will die a painful death,” Vincent shouted.

“I’ll help,” Olivia chimed in, “and I’ll use a spork to carve out your eyes.”

She and Shara and few others [(even some from other groups)] I like how this suggests there are a lot of people there, and they've broken up into smaller groups [laughed.] What kind of laughter? They're underground and it's dark, but how do they feel about it? Is this a scary dark, or a happy campfire dark?

“A spork? Why?” David had a look of [pure terror on his face.] Is this just a guy afraid of being caught or is there a real consequence for blowing out the candle? Could go either way I think it’s safe to assume he was the one blowing on the candle flame.

Olivia tilted her head so the candle casted an eerie shadow on her face. “The pointses are to stabs and saws through the muscleses attaching it to your skulls, Precious. Then, we can scoops it out on the spoonses.”

Let me be the first to say, I don’t think I have laughed harder at someone’s fear.

“Olivia,” I started,[ “not only is that incredibly creepy with the lighting and smile, but you have the same hair color as Vincent, so it’s seriously just a creepy face floating above a pink blanket. I now know what a true nightmare is.”] I wouldn't have gotten black hair from this. This also feels overwritten, trying too hard to say she has black hair without saying it. Could shorten to something like, "That's incredibly creepy--just a face floating above a blanket. I now know..." I find the "true nightmare" line interesting. If this is after some event, it could be a good transition into the narrator thinking about the real nightmare they're currently living.

The questions:

1. Is it enough information to form a setting? If not, what's a good way to slip it in there subtly?


I know they're in a school, underground, it's dark, and it's raining outside. They're also there due to something that happened. That gives me a very basic sense of where they are. That's probably enough for something this short, and I imagine this location will be fleshed out as the chapter unfolds and I learn about the problem.

I did want to know why they were there. There's an infodump paragraph that says the power went out, but that doesn't tell me much. This could be a bad storm or this could be a catastrophic event. The characters all seem to be having a good time, which suggests this is just a storm and no big deal, but the "wish I could go above ground" comment suggests they've been there a while and there's more to this.

(Here's more information on infodumps)

I don't need to know the full scope of the issue here, but I'd like to have a sense of how these characters feel about the situation. Is this power situation new or something they've grown accustomed to? Are they scared or having fun? Is this the last candle or are they conserving supplies? I'm not getting a sense of concern or worry, so there's nothing to draw me in yet.

A few details about their emotional states would let me know what the overall world and situation is like. For example, if they have no more matches, then blowing out the candle is a serious issue and could get across the idea that they have dwindling supplies and need help. The narrator worrying about that while everyone is trying to make light of it shows they're scared, but making the best of this situation. Or it could show that not everyone is taking this problem seriously.

(Here's more on describing your setting) and some more on (grounding readers in your world)

2. As for the comment about Olivia's hair, can you assume it's black?

I didn't get black from the description. There's nothing wrong with saying she has black hair though. Comparing it to the shadows or saying her black hair blended into the shadows is something someone would notice in that situation. I can see the narrator thinking about her black hair and telling her she looks creepy.

However, odd as this might sound, I can't see him telling her she has black hair, because everyone already knows that. So he'd think, "her black hair vanished in to the shadows" (because that's part of the narrative) but not say "You have black hair like Vincent, so it..." He'd likely just said "your hair."

(Here's more on describing characters)

3. Is there enough voice (or maybe too much)?

The voice reads fine to me. I get a sense that the narrator is a guy, though I can't say why. There's nothing in the text that suggests either gender, it just felt "male" to me. Maybe because things are stated and described matter-of-factly and in a general way, and girls often use more specific details.

(Here's more on developing your voice)

4. Do you have any small pointers even though it's only about 250 words?

You might consider adding a hint of conflict to this. Right now, it feels like it's setting the scene and nothing has happened yet. While I can see how blowing out the candle might be a big deal and create conflict, it feels more like fun and games than a real problem.

Is the narrator trying to do anything here? Without a goal or conflict to drive the scene forward, it feels a bit pointless (from a, "where is this going?" standpoint). However, the world problem could work if you fleshed that out to better show what the overall problem is. If they're dealing with a catastrophe, then knowing kids are trapped underground trying to survive could work to carry the scene to the first conflict or problem.

(Here's more on adding conflict to a scene)

Overall, I'd like to know more about the world and the setting, but it did pique my curiosity about what happened and why they're there. The provocative details caught my interest more (like the smaller groups and the candle going out) because they hint at a larger issue or conflict. You might consider what other details you can use that would suggest the larger problem, and possibly use those details to tap into the emotional states of these characters.

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.

Revised Snippet:




You could hear the echo of the rain throughout the school. Like damn. [Is the apocalypse happening up there?] Is this a joke or does she think/know the apocalypse is actually happening? Not that I’d mind being a part of that if it means I get to feel rain again and breathe non-recycled air.

[But for now, I’m stuck underground and shoved in a room like cows waiting to be slaughtered because apparently the supernatural are afraid of the dark. For God’s sake! This place is underground. Why the hell are our power lines even above ground? Power lines are barely even above ground to begin with!] This paragraph feels a little infodumpy. Not sure you need it.

I huffed.

[“Calm down, Kyrstin.] All she does is huff, which doesn't feel upset enough to require a calm down" It’s just a little power outage.” Vincent hugged me.

I shoved him off of me. “A little power outage. A little power outage would be maybe for one day. Or maybe one part of the school for this long. [A little power outage doesn’t take this long.”] I like her being upset about the power, as it sets up a problem and makes me wonder why the power is out and why it's bad

The candle flickered in front of us.

“I swear to God, if the candle goes out,[ I will kill you, David,” Vincent smirked.] There's nothing to indicate David was involved, so this feels odd

David swished his hair from in front of his eyes. [“You’d kill me anyway. You’re just angry because your girlfriend wants to kiss me.”] This feels like it's hijacking the scene. I don't know who this person is or who the girlfriend is, as there nothing to suggest Krystin is with Vincent. The opening problem was Krystin being upset about the power, but that's not really an issue anymore. What is the reader supposed to worry about?

Vincent’s eyes narrowed. Oh, for the love of God. Is it possible for these two to not get into a fight?

And ew.

[“Yeah, but this time I’d help,”] Since the last thing said was the kiss, it kind of sounds like she'd help him kiss her Olivia chimed in, “and I’ll use a spork to carve out your eyes.”

She and Shara and few others (even some from other groups) laughed. Jokes. Right. That’s how you diffuse people.

“A spork?” David choked out, “Why?”

Olivia tilted her head so the candle casted an eerie shadow on her face. “The pointses are to stabs and saws through the muscleses attaching it to your skulls, Precious. Then, we can scoops it out on the spoonses.”

Everyone died laughing.

“You know, Olivia,” David chuckled, “you almost had me scared. But then you just had to nerd out like that. And while you and Gollum are the same height, I can’t be scared by that.”

[ “Olivia,” Shara managed to say, “Your hair is so black that it blends in with the darkness. Please, never do that again.”] The hair color still feels forced.

I think this still has a lot of the same issues as the original. I'm not getting a sense of place aside from dark, and being underground and in a school is confusing. I'd suggest using your narrator to set the scene more as it relates to the problem. She has a few lines at the start then she pretty much vanishes for the rest of the scene.

What problem are they facing at this moment? What is Krystin worried about? What is she thinking/planning/dreading? I'm not getting a sense that the scene is going anywhere yet, and a goal or a conflict would help draw readers in and give you an opportunity to set the scene through action.

There are five people in this scene, so why is it important that Olivia's hair be described when no one else's is?

You also might consider cutting the number of characters in this scene. There's just too many to keep track of at the start. Perhaps pick one or two that relate to the problem at hand and then start introducing the others after readers get to know you main characters.

Overall, I'd suggest rethinking where this starts. I don't think the situation allows you to set the scene without it sounding forced because everyone is just sitting in the dark telling jokes. Unless the jokes they tell are about what's happening and this is their way of dealing with it. That could work if handled well, and if Krystin's internalization helped flesh out the details. She might be thinking about the seriousness of the situation while they're making light of it.

Try looking for ways to make Krystin active so she has reasons to describe the setting and do a little worldbuilding. I'd suggest something that relates to the power outage, why it's taking so long, what she fears will happen, and what she plans to do about it. 

9 comments:

  1. This opening I liked. No I'm not contradicting Janice. It was light, not "authory" and your voice is easy to read / listen too. It took a few lines for me to get where we were but not why, easy fix. On question #2 this is about where I would like to see your WIP kick off. "I know what a true nightmare is" not written as such but more as a metaphor would really be a great hook. I read that and got seriously intrigued. Good stuff write on!

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    1. Contradict away. Every reader brings their own views to a story and that's good for the author to hear. But I hope I didn't give the impression that I didn't like it. I did.

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  2. I enjoyed this. Funny... I was picturing the MC as a girl. (Don't know why.) I didn't even realize we aren't told the character's gender until Janice mentioned it.

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  3. I was picturing the mc as a girl too--not sure why. I also wasn't clear they were underground and had to read the first sentence several times-and still wasn't sure what was going on. I didn't get the black hair either, but Janice suggested a great fix. The sentence: "he pointses are to stabs and saws through the muscleses attaching it to your skulls, Precious. Then, we can scoops it out on the spoonses.” was very confusing to me. I didn't understand why you were spelling the plurals wrong. What am I missing? Hope these comments are helpful!

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    1. I thinkmthe speaker is channelling/ referrencing Gollum from Lord of the Rings. That, plus it sounds creepy.

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  4. Not a bad beginjing, but I agree with Janice that the opening line doesn't imply being underground. I dont know how far underground you need to be beforeyou stop hearing surface noises like rain- not very is my guess. In my limited experience of caving, you dont have to be deep at all before you're cut-off, they're very silent places!

    Like Janice, I was also wondering why the power outage was seen as an inconvenience rather than a potentially life threatening event. It all seems to imply they were not far underground. But the narrator missing the wind and sun suggests they have been there for ages and dont habitually resurface even for a dose of Vitamin D.

    I'm sure you explain this in the next 250 words.

    I thought the voice was fine. It gave me a sense of MG.

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  5. For what it's worth, I also assumed a female narrator. Interesting.

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  6. I'd like to see more emotions all around. Is David's pure terror clowning around, or does he genuinely think his friends will do something bad to him? Or is he a bit of a coward?

    "Hair like Vincent's" didn't work for me. Just say black, and say later that Vincent also has black hair.

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  7. This wasn't bad at all. There's much worse out there.

    I did have an issue with being informed we were underground five times within the first 100 words. I get it, you know? My advice would be to remember the reader is a partner and an equal, not a toddler to lead by the hand. Explaining creates distance.

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