Saturday, July 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Creating Dread in a Short Story 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 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 (+ one resubmit)

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 23. 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. Tosha is 8 and Daniel is 10 - does this come across as likely in this opening scene?

2. Is there any sense that trouble is coming?

3. I'm not sure if my narrator is omniscient or if it's 3rd person, but shifting from one to the other. Either way, is it working all right?

4. Is it more showing than telling?


Market/Genre: Adult Short Story

NOTE: There's also a revised snippet about the boy trying to drink away his problem for those curios to see how the author reworked it.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: I'm submitting the beginning of a short story I wrote that I don't consider to be for children, but it is about children. The whole story has them ordering books using a credit card their very poor mother got just to pay the heating bill, but hadn't had a chance to do so yet. So the kids order all these books, keeping it a secret from the mom.

At the end, we switch to her point of view, and she is thinking how great her kids are, and how she wants to buy them each a book as a reward for going through the tough times with her. She also notes how they had been acting squirrely the past few days, going into their bedrooms and out a lot, and she thinks they are planning some sort of surprise for her, to encourage her, because that's the kind of thing they are likely to do.

We as the reader are to feel a sickening sense of doom for the mom considering what she is about to discover, and the irony of what she had been thinking.


They knew Mom wouldn't have let them do it, but Mom wasn't there. That left Daniel in charge, and Daniel said they should. Books! They were going to buy books, tons of them. They were so familiar with the seven books they owned, the ones they had read to tatters. They longed for new ones.

Tosha used to check books out from her school library, but it had been closed before Christmas, due to 'budget cuts.' She pictured a huge, spiny, hairy, toothy monster called Budget, slashing through the library books with his enormous claws. She knew that wasn't true – the books were still there of course – but it was the only thing she could imagine that was evil enough to stop her and her friends from reading those books. And they were just sitting there. On her way to and from the cafeteria every lunch period, she could see them. Sometimes she got tears in her eyes just from looking at them through the dusty window.

“But how can we buy books if we don't go to the store?” Tosha asked Daniel.

“It's easy,” he replied, straightening up a little as he spoke. “Grandmom used to have me buy all those little figurines for her online. She bought them at Amazon.com, and there are millions of books on that site.” Daniel had spent hours looking at all the things for sale on Amazon, especially the books. Once he had asked Grandmom if he could get one, but she had refused.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[They knew Mom wouldn't have let them do it, but Mom wasn't there. That left Daniel in charge, and Daniel said they should. Books! They were going to buy books, tons of them.] This sounds like Tosha, with a medium narrative distance. If you cut the "they knew" it would be tighter in her POV [They were so familiar with the seven books they owned, the ones they had read to tatters. They longed for new ones. ] This sounds like someone other than Tosha, which suggests third omniscient. I don't see an eight your old using the word tatters or longed.

[Tosha used to check books out from her school library, but it had been closed before Christmas, due to 'budget cuts.'] This could go either way, be omni or Tosha [She pictured a huge, spiny, hairy, toothy monster called Budget, slashing through the library books with his enormous claws. She knew that wasn't true – the books were still there of course – but it was the only thing she could imagine that was evil enough to stop her and her friends from reading those books. And they were just sitting there. On her way to and from the cafeteria every lunch period, she could see them. Sometimes she got tears in her eyes just from looking at them through the dusty window.] This rest sounds like Tosha's POV.

[“But how can we buy books if we don't go to the store?” Tosha asked Daniel.] I'm not sure I believe a kid even this young wouldn't know about online shopping. It's so prevalent.

“It's easy,” he replied, straightening up a little as he spoke. [“Grandmom used to have me buy all those little figurines for her online. She bought them at Amazon.com, and there are millions of books on that site.”] Something about this makes it sound like an ad for Amazon, not a kid talking [Daniel had spent hours looking at all the things for sale on Amazon, especially the books. Once he had asked Grandmom if he could get one, but she had refused.] This is Daniel's POV, which shifts out of Tosha's. Or it could the an outside omniscient narrator.

The questions:

1. Tosha is 8 and Daniel is 10 - does this come across as likely in this opening scene?


I can believe these are two young kids for the most part. Tosha imagining a monster in the library is cute and fits with an 8-year-old's sense of whimsy. Daniel's dialog at the end struck me as a little off though. The last paragraph has a "this is a commercial for Amazon" feel to it (readers chime in here). I'm also unsure if any kids today wouldn't know what online shopping is, even a child as young as eight.

(Here's more on character voices)

2. Is there any sense that trouble is coming?

Yes, but not in a real dread sense. Kids getting a hold of a credit card is likely going to be bad, and I can clearly see this is a going to be a problem, but I'm not seeing the stakes yet to make it really hit hard. Not that it has to this early in a story, but, for example, if I knew this was a very poor family who's barely making ends meet, then this would be a much bigger problem vs a family who can afford kids charging a lot. From a purely plot standpoint, the kids get into trouble for buying books online--so what? As a reader, why should I care about that stake for these characters? Especially if I'm an adult reading about them, not a kid reading about them and rooting for them.

(Here's more on tension and stakes)

3. I'm not sure if my narrator is omniscient or if it's 3rd person, but shifting from one to the other. Either way, is it working all right?

It depends on what you're trying to achieve. Most of it feels like it's in Tosha's POV (third person on her) but there's enough omniscient clues to suggest this is third omni (the "they knew," some words that a child wouldn't use, etc). Omni also works with the medium narrative distance, which feels far enough outside the heads to give a general overview of the situation, but close enough to get inside the character's heads and show what they're thinking, such as the nice internalization from Tosha with the monster. If you're doing third person omniscient it works, if you're doing a limited third person on Tosha, you shift out when you tell readers what Daniel is thinking at the end. Tosha wouldn't know what's in Daniel's head.

(Here's more on third omniscient POV)

4. Is it more showing than telling?

A third person omniscient narrator has a more told vibe to it than a close POV, but for a medium narrative distance this feels acceptable for the POV and subject matter. Things are being explained, but they feel like the voice of the narrator or the character so it doesn't feel "told." For a tighter POV, cutting the "she knew" lines would bring it closer to Tosha's head. The only part that feels like explanation is the last Amazon paragraph, which might be why it's feeling off to me.

(Here's more on narrative distance and telling)

This snippet sound like a children's story (maybe younger middle grade), but if this is aimed at adults, you may or may not want that. Right now, I feel like the kids are the protagonists and I should be rooting for them to overcome a problem, but that's not the case. They're the ones causing the problem Mom will discover later. Nudging this more toward the omniscient with a stronger adult-sounding narrator might work better for the intended audience (readers chime in here). It might not be your genre tastes, but Stephen King does a great job writing kid characters aimed at adults if you wanted to check out a few and see how he handles it for some ideas.

Overall (and taking the background notes into consideration) this has a twist ending feel to it, which can be problematic for readers because they'll go through the entire story thinking it's about these kids trying to get books. They'll probably look for the goals, conflict, and stakes to come from that, root for these poor kids to get the books they want, fear for them getting into trouble for taking Mom's card, etc. But really, the bulk of the story is a setup to show Mom's problem, not the kids.

Readers also aren't going to know the family is poor or that Mom got a credit card to pay a bill she can't pay (though if Mom is that poor, how did she get the credit?). I'd be concerned that readers are going to be put off by the sudden switch at the end, like they were reading about kids and all of a sudden the story is about Mom and how the kids screwed up. There's no ability for the reader to worry about Mom or what the kids' behavior is going to do or how this is bad. And then the ending is just "the kids spent the money, isn't that bad and now Mom is sad." What's the payoff for the reader to read this story?

Another potential problem is that this is set up so readers are going to assume the kids are the protagonists, and there's no problem to be overcome here. They want books, they take Mom's card and buy books. Problem solved. They have no conflict. Mom is the one with the problem and the conflict that she needs to pay the heating bill and the kids maxed out her credit card and they have no money. Now she has to find the money or they lose the heat. The kids will no doubt get into trouble, but they're 8 and 10, so unless Mom is abusive or something, I don't see them being put in any real danger. If the heat gets turned off, they go stay with Grandma for a while. (I know I'm being over analytical here, but this is how my mind works with plots)

The overall idea has some interesting themes and thoughts, but it feels to me that this is Mom's story, not the kids'. Though perhaps you could do a reverse Gift of the Magi situation and show both sides over the course of the story, Mom struggling, the kids doing wrong, etc. I can think you can make it work, but you might reconsider the end switch aspect.

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. I agree with the Amazon ad. Also she "she had me buy" and "she bought" is confusing. It has the start of something interesting.

    Oh and the Grandma sounds like a snot.

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  2. My response is more personal. I have no sympathy for the children. Infact, even though they are young I dislike them for what they did, so I wouldn't read their story. Sorry! Also, it seems to me the real problem in the story lies after the ending, when the children must deal with their guilt and the mother must re-examine how she raised them. But if you don't go in that direction, I agree with Janice that this could be a Gift of the Magi situation.

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  3. I think that to get any sense of dread, I need to know the family's financial situation to begin with, which would probably mean starting with the mother's POV. Maybe then I can be shown how a "very poor" presumably single parent was able to secure a credit card in the first place.

    Another thing that keeps bothering me is the part about the school library being closed. While the bit about the Budget Monster slashing everything up was vivid and amusing, my sister and sister-in-law happen to be school librarians. My sister has been dealing with lack-of-funds for years now. It's simply not realistic that the library would be closed in the way described. Also, just because the school library is (for whatever reason) unavailable, doesn't mean all the public libraries would also be closed. This situation reads like facts are being forced to fit the plot and comes off as writer manipulation.

    Lastly, the Amazon advert really should go. There are LOTS of other online booksellers available.

    I think this story can work, but it needs to be revised so the protagonist and stakes are clear, and the incongruities with reality are eliminated. Good luck and happy writing!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like the set up and the scene setting.
    I was not 'hooked' and that needs to be fixed. Go over Janice's note very carefully but not now if this is not fully written.
    Please finish the whole work before making this perfect because you may shift POV or plot points.
    I think this will be good, write on!

    ReplyDelete