Saturday, July 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Starting With a Dream: Yay or Nay?

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 (+ two resubmits) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 9. 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:

Does it flow well? How can I get her emotion across better? Is there a better way to transition from the dream to real life? Is the nightmare a good way to hint at some major emotional/social issues Toria has?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The doorbell rang, and Toria sprung up from where she had been glued to the couch. Finally, people were showing up! She had known her friends would be late, but she never expected them to all be half an hour late. Especially not on her birthday!

She yanked the door open, a smile spread across her face. “Hi!”

The man looked a tad shocked. “Um, hello. I have a package for a Hillary Park.”

Toria’s heart dropped. Not only had her excitement been for nothing, but the package wasn’t even for anyone in her house!

“She lives next door…” Toria mumbled.

The man gave a curt nod and a quick thank you and left.

Why did this happen to her? She sent out the invites like three weeks in advance! She made sure she invited enough people to make up for the few she knew wouldn’t come. And she still got stood up on her birthday. Even by her best friend.

He even promised to come.

A lump formed in her throat. Another year she’s going to spend crying.

What didn’t she do right? She tried so hard. She tried…

“Toia? ’ey, I’m here. Wakey, wakey.”

“C’mon. You can’t be passed out on the couch when your only guest arrives.”

“TORIA, WAKE UP!”

Her eyes shot open. Piercing blue eyes were inches from her face.

“Well, shit, Toria. I was just about to perform CPR,” he said, “Some good old kiss of life action up in here.”

She chuckled.

Maxx reached up and wiped a tear from her face. “Nightmares?”

My Thoughts in Purple:

The doorbell rang, and Toria sprung up from where she had been glued to the couch. Finally, people were showing up! She had known her friends would be late, but she never expected them to all be half an hour late. Especially not on her birthday! I get a sense of relief and excited anticipation in this paragraph

Could be a good spot to add a physical clue about how she's feeling. She yanked the door open, [smile spread across her face. “Hi!”] The word "spread" makes me think she smiles when she sees him, which she wouldn't do since she doesn't know him and knows he's not a guest, right? I think you mean she smiles before she opens the door?

The man looked a tad shocked. “Um, hello. I have a package for a Hillary Park.”

Toria’s heart dropped. Not only had her excitement been for nothing, but the package wasn’t even for anyone in her house! I get disappointment in this paragraph

“She lives next door…” Toria mumbled. And sad resignation here. Maybe a little annoyance.

The man gave a curt nod and a quick thank you and left.

Why did this happen to her? She sent out the invites like three weeks in advance! She made sure she invited enough people to make up for the few she knew wouldn’t come. And she still got stood up on her birthday. Even by her best friend. I get sadness and more disappointment in this paragraph. A little annoyance as well, frustration over the situation and a wish it would change

[He] Perhaps italicize this to stress "he" is someone specific and not the best friend? Or is it the best friend? even promised to come.

A lump formed in her throat. Another year she’s going to spend crying. I get sadness and resignation in this paragraph

What didn’t she do right? She tried so hard. She tried… I get self doubt and pity in this paragraph

“Toia? ’ey, I’m here. Wakey, wakey.”

“C’mon. [You can’t be passed out on the couch when your only guest arrives.”
] Is he the guest? Did he just get there and found her sleeping?

“TORIA, WAKE UP!”

Her eyes shot open. [Piercing blue eyes were inches from her face.] Does she have a reaction to this?

“Well, shit, Toria. I was just about to perform CPR,” [he] perhaps name Maxx here said, “Some good old kiss of life action up in here.”

She [chuckled.] Is she also still scared or upset from the dream? Could be a good spot to show her emotions. Her laughing suggests she's actually fine and all the previous emotions were just the dream
Maxx reached up and [wiped a tear from her face.] So the dream was frightening enough to make her cry? I didn't get that sense “Nightmares?”

The questions:

1. Does it flow well?


Yes. You could try using a few more contractions in the first paragraph to smooth it out even further if you wanted to. There's a causal style to this, and the "where she had been glued" and "she had known" feels a little formal compared to the rest. But there's a nice mix of action, dialog, and internalization here to keep things moving. The narrative focus is tight and I see what I'm supposed to worry about and where this scene is going.

You might consider showing the stakes a little more so readers can see why this is so important to her, just to raise the tension a little and tighten the hook. From a purely plot standpoint, if no one shows up, so what? Why should readers care if anyone comes to this party or not? There's a hint of this not being the first time she's been shunned, so a little more there might work well to show why this is so important to her.

(Here's more on narrative focus)

2. How can I get her emotion across better?

I can see that she's nervous about no one showing up to the party. There are a few potential spots for physical clues, like a racing heart or something that suggests her emotional state if you wanted to add them.

At the end, I was uncertain about how she actually felt, though. She's crying, and that feels like a much stronger reaction to the dream than her emotions in the dream would suggest. Maxx calls it a nightmare, but I didn't get "nightmare" from the dream sequence or her reaction when she wakes up (she chuckles and cries). It felt more like an anxiety dream. Is she just nervous about the party or is this a real source of fear for her?

If this is a bigger fear, I'd suggest raising the fear level in her existing emotions. If it's just anxiety, then it's fine.

(Here's more on writing emotions)

3. Is there a better way to transition from the dream to real life?

The transition felt fine to me. It shifted in the middle of "winding down" internalization, so it didn't jar me as a reader. It was a natural pause in the scene so it led smoothly to the next part.

(Here's more on transitions)

4. Is the nightmare a good way to hint at some major emotional/social issues Toria has?

Traditionally, wake up scenes--especially nightmare scenes--are a cliché, and most advice will recommend writers avoid them when possible. I'd suggest cutting it here, because I don't think it serves the story. It's not "nightmare" enough to hint that this is all a dream, and once she's awake she's in exactly the same spot as the dream. So what's gained by having a dream instead of just showing her being nervous that no one will show up? Everything that happens in the dream could happen in the actual scene.

Throwing a party and being terrified no one will show up is a very relatable fear for many people, so readers (especially teen readers if this is a YA project) will likely sympathize with Toria and understand her fear. It's far more compelling to see her actual fear than it is to see her dreaming about it. A dream is just nerves, but no one showing up is a real disaster.

Maxx can still play the comfort role, and Toria can still be emotional, but I think it would feel much stronger to see her anxiety as it happens.

(Here's more on why the "wake up scene" is problematic)

Overall, this is working to create a protagonist with a problem (she's worried she'll be shunned on her birthday yet again), it shows her goal (throw a successful party), the stakes (she'll be upset if no one shows up), and hints a little at something wrong (why don't people want to come to her birthday party?) It's off to a good start.

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 liked this overall. I think you have some great advice to follow after which this will flow better, and be more 'drawing in'.
    Defiantly as Janice suggests get a thread of what the stakes are woven in. I can backtrack and figure the girl is manic depressive or has crushing stress going on but do tell why with a metaphor if you can, something relate-able to grip the reader.
    "Search for the metaphor" That was advice given to me by Ray Bradbury, use it as a cloak at first, then let your characters journey dissolve it. Then readers will have to know how the great problem will be solved.

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  2. It may be cliched to start a scene with a dream sequence - but it is only another tools at the writer's disposal.

    There is a possibility, though, that it isn't the best way to achieve the goals you listed, especially not if this is the beginning scene in a novel or story.

    If you establish the character first, in the character's 'real world,' so the reader already cares about her, then it works well IMO to have a later scene start out discombobulated (as dream sequences often are), so the reader has a 'What is going on?' reaction, reads, realizes what is going on, and goes on.

    This method also allows the dream to be SHORT - which is desirable - because it doesn't have to do anything like establish a character. Shorter dreams are less irritating. The famous last line, 'It was all a dream,' is the most annoying thing a writer can do to a reader, bar none.

    After placement and length, worry about making the writing compelling and rooting out anything extraneous - as usual.

    Or leave it exactly as and where it is - writer's choice. Just be sure you're doing it as well as you can, and on purpose, and not because you can't think of a better way - and readers will deal with it on an individual basis.

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