Saturday, June 14, 2014

Real Life Diagnostics: Show vs Tell 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: Four 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 12. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

1. Am I showing or telling?

2. As far as the internalization, does it seem fitting or are there areas where more could be inserted or maybe spots that could be deleted?

3. Is Jake a likeable character or does he seem too emotional/depressed?

4. Overall, does it hook you into reading more (especially the first paragraph)?

5. The title of this MS is Dream Sight. Does that name do what a title is supposed to? Any suggestions on naming your MS?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The MS a young adult fantasy about Jake Arthur, a seventeen year old boy, that had his world destroyed by his father. In short, his father cheated on his mother which lead her to a suicide attempt in which Jake found her and saved her. Now, he's left cleaning up the mess trying to put their life back together. The fantasy part plays in later in the book and doesn't really affect the beginning paragraphs so I'll skip explaining all that.

I weave through a crowd of wasted teenagers as I make my way to the metal keg I’ve been targeting. Pushing through them, I grab a red plastic cup and fill it to the brim. Drinking has never been my thing, but it helps the scars fade. It makes things easier.

I chug the disgusting liquid. It burns my throat on the way down, but I don’t care. I’m on a mission to forget. The cheap ale hits my brain turning the Carolina night sky into a scene from Star Trek. I sway back and forth as the waves lapping at the lake’s edge turn from comforting to nauseating.

Don’t puke.

“Having fun, Jake?” Kara says from behind me. Her honeyed voice caresses my name like she’s known me her whole life. She steps closer and I feel the warmth from her body mixing with the muggy, summer air. No one could guess we just met today.

She trails her finger down my neck as she moves to stand in front of me. From a distance we probably look like two kids in love, but instead it’s like she’s marking her territory. Claiming me.

“Time of my life,” I smile, letting the lie roll off my tongue.

“Good.” Her finger continues its path across my bare collarbone. I take a step back acting like I stumbled. Kara doesn’t notice it was intentional and I’m glad. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but the intimacy of her touch makes me nervous.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I weave through a crowd of wasted teenagers as I make my way to the [metal] unless metal is unusual, this seemed an odd detail to mention keg [I’ve been targeting.] Don't need, it says he's making his way there so we know that's the target Pushing through them, I grab a red plastic cup and fill it to the brim. Drinking has never been my thing, but it helps the scars fade. It makes things easier.

I chug [the disgusting liquid.] Could be more shown It burns my throat on the way down, [but I don’t care. I’m on a mission to forget.] Could be more shown The cheap ale hits my brain turning the Carolina night sky [into a scene from Star Trek.] Not sure what this means I sway back and forth as the waves lapping at the lake’s edge turn from comforting to nauseating.

[Don’t puke.] I got the impression he just had the one beer, so this seems too drunk to already be at the sick stage. Unless it's the beer itself making him sick?

“Having fun, Jake?” Kara says from behind me. [Her honeyed voice caresses my name like she’s known me her whole life.] This doesn't sound like a teen guy to me She steps closer and [I feel] Could be more shown the warmth from her body mixing with the muggy, summer air. [No one could guess we just met today.] Nice. This is much stronger than the honeyed voice line and says the same thing

She trails her finger down my neck as she moves [to stand] a bit telling, try "and stands" in front of me. From a distance we probably look like two kids in love, but instead it’s [like she’s marking her territory. Claiming me.] Is she or is he just describing it that way? Because doing that is quite intriguing

“Time of my life,” I smile, letting the lie roll off my tongue.

“Good.” Her finger continues its path across my bare collarbone. I take a step back acting like I stumbled. Kara doesn’t notice it was intentional and [I’m glad.] Could be more shown I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but [the intimacy of her touch makes me nervous.] Feels a little tellish and not like a teen guy

The questions:

1. Am I showing or telling?


First person is always challenging with telling because voice can make a told line work. There are a few spots here that fall into that nebulous area between show and tell (telling and internal voice, really), and they're all opportunities to flesh this out further and show more. Let's take a look:
Drinking has never been my thing, but it helps the scars fade. It makes things easier.
I'll start here because this is a nice bit of internalization that explains the situation. The reason this works for me, is that it sounds like something Jake would actually say to me, not the author explaining. It says why he's drinking and piques my curiosity without actually giving away anything. I know he has scars and things are hard for him and he's looking for a way to deal with it--and I know zero specifics. This is a strong example of how voice can "tell" without telling.
I chug the disgusting liquid
In contrast, this feels more like the author's description of the beer than Jake's view on it. It also doesn't say a whole lot about why it's disgusting, or show Jake's reaction to it being disgusting. He doesn't gag or blanch or describe the beer aside from "burns," which is a common descriptive word for any alcohol. Jake's trying to swallow something he can't stand, which could be a very cool metaphor for his life at the moment and allow him some interesting thoughts or comparisons.
but I don’t care. I’m on a mission to forget.
This explains how he feels and what he's doing, but if you took it out, there are no visible signs that this is how he feels or what he's doing. He's explaining his reason for being there and why he's drinking something he dislikes (and he's already covered that in the "drinking's not my thing" line). If we see him drink beer he clearly doesn't like or want, and he keeps doing it until it starts to affect him, then readers can guess that he's trying to get drunk and maybe black out. You might even have someone tell him to slow down before he passes out and he thinks "that's the plan, bro."
I feel the warmth from her body mixing with the muggy, summer air.
Many people will have no trouble with this one, but "I feel" is telling readers what Jake is feeling, not showing him feel it. He doesn't actually feel her body heat mix with the air, he feels the result of that heat on his own body (nitpicky, yes, but exaggerated to make the point). It describes the reason he suddenly feels her closeness without ever actually saying what he personally feels. Her body heat was mixing with the air all night, but it only matters now due to how it interacts with him.
Kara doesn’t notice it was intentional and I’m glad.
"I'm glad" tells readers Jake's emotional state, but there are no outward signs to show this emotion. If he hadn't told readers he was glad she hadn't noticed, would they even know? This is a wonderfully awkward moment that could be used to show Jake's character. He wants to forget--and here's a girl willing to take his mind off his troubles. Why is he turning her down but drinking the beer he doesn't like?
the intimacy of her touch makes me nervous.
This feels too self aware and on the nose, but it's a great description of how to show the scene. He's nervous at intimacy--why? Is he inexperienced? Does he not like her? Does it remind him of things he'd rather not think about? Even if the reasons aren't explored here (and they don't need to be), think about how Jake would act and respond to being nervous. I like how he tries to put distance between them by stumbling, showing he's not interested.

These are all great spots to flesh out and go deeper into the character and his emotions. Telling gets a bad rap, but it's useful shorthand for a first draft to help you figure out how and why things are happening (kind of like adverbs).

(Here's more on show vs tell)

2. As far as the internalization, does it seem fitting or are there areas where more could be inserted or maybe spots that could be deleted?

I personally wanted a little more because I'm not yet feeling in Jake's head (readers chime in here), but that's due to the telling sections. These are all good places to add some internalization, because they're places where Jake is feeling something or acting with a specific intent. Flesh out the reactions, add in some judgment thoughts like the "drinking" line and it'll be a good balance. I think your instincts on where it needs to go are on target, it's just a matter of tweaking the text.

(Here's more on internalization)

3. Is Jake a likeable character or does he seem too emotional/depressed?

I don't really know him well enough yet, but I do like him. Three lines in particular stood out for me:
  • Drinking has never been my thing, but it helps the scars fade. It makes things easier.
  • No one could guess we just met today.
  • like she’s marking her territory. Claiming me.
I really like the voice and attitude in these. I like how he looks at the world and what he sees, even though it's a little sad and defensive. This is a kid who's been hurt and he's on his guard, yet he's still worried about hurting Kara's feelings. He intrigues me.

He didn't seem depressed or emotional to me due to the telling aspect. If you're concerned about that, keep that in mind as you revise and add in more of his thoughts and feelings.

(Here's more on writing depressed characters)

4. Overall, does it hook you into reading more (especially the first paragraph)?

The "drinking" line hooked me and I'd read on. I'm curious about why he's trying to forget and why he's choosing this self-destructive path, and if this is going to end badly for him or not. He clearly has a problem and has chosen a way to deal with that problem (bad as it is). Kara is an obstacle to his goal of forgetting, and she could either help him or make things worse. The fact that a teen guy is turning down a teen girl who's coming on to him is also intriguing, as it defies the expected.

(Here's more on opening scenes)

5. The title of this MS is Dream Sight. Does that name do what a title is supposed to? Any suggestions on naming your MS?

Since this is a modern-day fantasy, it makes me think he's going to develop some kind of ability to either see into people's dreams or his dreams will tell him things. It wouldn't make me pick it up based on title alone, but neither does it turn me off. (readers chime in here)

Tastes vary on titles of course, both with readers and editors. Some people like evocative words or phrases, others like to be ambiguous, some funny, and some hit it right on the nose. I'd suggest aiming for something that captures the tone and feel of your story, but also piques curiosity all on its own.

(Here's more on choosing a title)

Overall, this is an interesting start and I'd read on to see where it went.

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 enjoyed the writing in this piece and second the points Janice made on where to show versus tell. I would keep reading because I looked the voice and style. Plus I'm intrigued by what his scars are and who this new girl is.

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  2. Great post, as always. Particularly liked the treatment of first person "telling" and the link to titles (an earlier post). I get enormous mileage out of these posts first with the main topic, then with the links--way teachable moments with their in context applications.

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  3. I think you have good stuff here! I can't add anything to what Janice has said but I did enjoy it, was pulled in and could feel what the guy was going through even without the introduction.

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