Saturday, May 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Showing, Not Telling, in an Opening 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: Six 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 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. Is this a good 'hook'?

2. Does it reel a person in to continue further or is it like reading a research paper?

3. Is the past tense/present tense okay? I'm still weak and confused on how to make an active voice.

4. In later chapters, Dylectra is thinking of Trav, the guy who taught her everything she knows from spying to martial arts. He's the love interest and is in trouble. When she's reminiscing about him, she thinks about how he taught her how to drive a motorbike, which was terrifying and exhilarating because it's a new experience. I was thinking of either using the first sentence from chapter one and slot it in that scene, assuming it doesn't work for the first chapter.

5. Assuming the first sentence doesn't sit well, the plan is to start chapter one with: It all started when the men... 


Market/Genre: Young Adult Dystopian

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Cars are scarce around here because fuel is imported and prices are high so a good tip to know if you’re in trouble is if you hear the expulsion of gas and the humming of a car engine because rest assured it’s not civilian operated. For me, it all started when the men in Blue Berets exit their black, heavy tinted Jeep, and started knocking door to door. I’ve seen this process before, at Aroki’s home. I was hoping they would knock on the neighbor’s door or better yet, chose the wrong lane and exit this one. Should I make a run for it? Yeah, run away while they are outside. Brilliant idea. Why not just wear a neon sign that said ‘I’M HERE’.

They looked around the area, marking each door and crossing off something from their list. Their distraction is the best time for me to flee but my fingers tightened around the piece of paper I found in my spray paint stash just now. It’s most likely from Suki. She knew I was planning to tag a building so she sent me a coded message. This has to contain some viable information. I needed to decipher this message—fast.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Cars are scarce around here because fuel is imported and prices are high so a good tip to know if you’re in trouble is if you hear the expulsion of gas and the humming of a car engine because rest assured it’s not civilian operated.] I like what this sentence is suggesting, but it's explaining, not showing. It's also a bit hard to read [For me, it all started when the men in Blue Berets exit (exited) their black, heavy tinted Jeep, and started knocking door to door.] If this is where it starts, try showing it instead of telling it. I’ve (I'd) seen this process before, at Aroki’s home. I was hoping they would knock on the neighbor’s door or better yet, chose the wrong lane and exit this one. [Should I make a run for it? Yeah, run away while they are outside. Brilliant idea. Why not just wear a neon sign that said ‘I’M HERE’.] I like the voice here

They looked around the area, marking each door and crossing off something from their list. [Their distraction is the best time for me to flee but my fingers tightened around the piece of paper I found in my spray paint stash just now.] Telling here. It also has the narrator reacting to something before the reader sees it It’s most likely from Suki. [She knew I was planning to tag a building so she sent me a coded message. This has to contain some viable information. I needed to decipher this message—fast.] Telling here as well, explaining the situation instead of letting readers just see it and figure this out on their own

The questions:

1. Is this a good 'hook'?


From a plot standpoint, yes. Mysterious men going door to door sounds bad for the protagonist, and the narrator is clearly worried about getting caught. The narrator wants to tag a building, and these people are either looking for her or can keep her from doing that.

I don't yet know what's going on overall, but I suspect tagging the building has a greater purpose, or Suki would not have needed to send a coded note. That suggests there's more going on here, maybe some kind of rebel activity. And the message is urgent, which helps raise the tension.

It starts with something going on, the protagonist trying to achieve a goal and facing a problem keeping her from that goal, and a hint of a larger problem brewing.

(Here's more on hooking readers in the opening paragraphs)

2. Does it reel a person in to continue further or is it like reading a research paper?

It's not reeling me in yet because it does indeed read more like explanation of what the scene is about than the scene unfolding. It's mostly told, not shown.

I'd suggest reworking this and dramatizing the things you're explaining. Let's take a closer look at the told sentences:
Cars are scarce around here because fuel is imported and prices are high so a good tip to know if you’re in trouble is if you hear the expulsion of gas and the humming of a car engine because rest assured it’s not civilian operated.
This explains the worlds to the reader and how things work. Instead, try showing the narrator hearing a car and getting scared. She might think "oh no, government creeps" (or whatever the term in this world is) and then react however she would in this situation. That will let readers knows that cars mean danger. Readers don't need to know fuel is scarce right now because they don't care about that. They care about this character and what's going on.
For me, it all started when the men in Blue Berets exit their black, heavy tinted Jeep, and started knocking door to door.
This could go either way, as it is in the narrator's voice and feels retrospective. But I suspect from what else is here that this isn't a story being told after it all happened, but something the narrator is experiencing as we read it. If so, then try having the narrator see the men and describe what they do as she sees it, and then have her react to it.
Their distraction is the best time for me to flee but my fingers tightened around the piece of paper I found in my spray paint stash just now.
This tells readers about the paper before readers see her find the paper, so it's confusing. The ideas also don't work together. If she's considering running, then why is she digging around in her paint stash? If she needs to look in her stash, give her a logical reason to do so that fits with her trying to avoid the men. Also, just show her sneaking away while they're not looking at her. Readers will get that she's doing it on purpose.
It’s most likely from Suki. She knew I was planning to tag a building so she sent me a coded message.
Try letting her discover it's from Suki when she opens it up and sees it's coded. This explains what everything is before the narrator even looks at it. You might also consider showing how the narrator feels about finding the message. Is she surprised? Is this is a good or bad thing?
This has to contain some viable information.
Why would she think this? This is where knowing how she feels would help understand what this means. If coded messages (or messages of any kind) were always important, then she'd feel maybe a rush of excitement or even dread at seeing one.
I needed to decipher this message—fast.
This is a good opportunity for conflict, as she needs to decipher the message, but she also needs to evade the men. Is the message so important she'd risk reading it there or would she wait until she got away first?

These explanation sentences say what you want to have happen, so it shouldn't be too hard to dramatize them to show the scene. Just think about what is happening and describe that, not the reasons for it. Let readers figure that out on their own.

(Here's more on show don't tell)

3. Is the past tense/present tense okay? I'm still weak and confused on how to make an active voice.

There are some tense slips in there. Since this is written in past tense, you'd stay in past tense unless you wanted to show an immediate thought. Like this thought: Should I make a run for it? Yeah, run away while they are outside. Brilliant idea. Why not just wear a neon sign that says ‘I’M HERE’. Styles differ, but I'd probably italicize parts of to show it was an internal "I'm arguing with myself" thought. For example:
I’d seen this process before, at Aroki’s home. I was hoping they would knock on the neighbor’s door or better yet, chose the wrong lane and exit this one. Should I make a run for it? Yeah, run away while they are outside. Brilliant idea. Why not just wear a neon sign that says ‘I’M HERE’.
Or like this:
I’d seen this process before, at Aroki’s home. I was hoping they would knock on the neighbor’s door or better yet, chose the wrong lane and exit this one. Should I make a run for it? Yeah, run away while they were outside. Brilliant idea. Why not just wear a neon sign that said ‘I’M HERE’.
(Here's more on avoiding passive voice)

4. In later chapters, Dylectra is thinking of Trav, the guy who taught her everything she knows from spying to martial arts. He's the love interest and is in trouble. When she's reminiscing about him, she thinks about how he taught her how to drive a motorbike, which was terrifying and exhilarating because it's a new experience. I was thinking of either using the first sentence from chapter one and slot it in that scene, assuming it doesn't work for the first chapter.

Hard to say without seeing it, but the first sentence here is told, so you'd probably want to rewrite it either way. You might look for ways to make it more shown, though. Perhaps have her react to hearing the engines, like "Engines rumbled and I ducked down behind the bushes. Never trust a car..." or "I froze. A car engine. Only government creeps could spring for gas."

5. Assuming the first sentence doesn't sit well, the plan is to start chapter one with: It all started when the men...

I'd suggest just showing the scene and not explaining it to the reader. If the book starts here, and the problem is clear, then readers know this is where it all started. No need to tell them that.

You want the reader to observe what the characters are doing and then figure out what it all means instead of explaining it. Part of the fun (and the hook) is going to be wondering who these men are and what they're looking for, and why the narrator is so worried about them. You don't want to hide details, but you also don't want to bang readers over the head with it. Reel them in slowly by creating a scene that's interesting, and they want to know what happens next and what the clues mean.

There's a fun voice developing, so you might consider using the POV's internalization to show how the world works a little instead of the explanations. What would the narrator think when she hears an engine? Gut reaction--not "fuel is scarce so cars are bad."

(Here's more on mixing internalization and action)

Overall, there's a good concept here and I think it'll really pop once you flesh it out and dramatize the action.

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.

2 comments:

  1. I definitely would eliminate the first sentence and just (for now, anyway) go with, "It all started with the men in black…" that to me, is an intriguing opening. What started? WHo are they? I'm hooked! I agree that it feels more like telling than showing--but would never have been able to pinpoint the culprits as well as Janice did! Keep writing-- sounds like a fascinating story world that you are building!

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  2. There is a lot of of interesting stuff happening all at once, which is intriguing, but also a bit hard to follow. Gas prices and men in black and spray paint and a coded message! I kind of went wow! but huh? How would it be if you tried a draft where you show the narrator's actions in order? She's digging through the paint stash, thinking about tagging, she finds the coded message and goes "?" and then she hears the car "!" and notices the men and oh crap! better decode the message. Something like that, anyway. Just an idea!

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