Saturday, August 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Showing Emotional Subtext in Your Scenes

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 6. 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:

I'm focusing on the relationship between the MC (Eli) and the GF (Tanya). I want to show that they could be close, but that Eli's reluctance is causing cracks. Does this give the impression of love under tension? Also, is there a legitimate writing reason to hate that paragraph about the trauma survival network, or are my personal issues interfering with my objectivity? If it truly doesn't work, how can I fix it?

Market/Genre: Paranormal or urban fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: My MC, a quasi-immortal, is in a hospital waiting room with his vanilla-human girlfriend, driving himself paranoid over his friend in the OR, who shares his supernormal healing.

Something touched my arm, and I was halfway out of the chair, right hand reaching across to grip or gouge my attacker, before I realized it was Tanya.

“Whoah,” she said. Her hands were half-raised, her eyes hiding an edge of fear under her concern. She, too, would have questions I couldn't answer if I let her worry about me. “Did you even hear what I said?”

I ducked my head, knowing I should meet her eyes, but I stuck with the easy question, the one she'd spoken aloud. “No.”

“Look, I'm going to the vending machine. Are you thirsty?”

“I'm fine.” There was a poster by my face about a trauma survival network. I'd already counted: over 66% of the posters in the room were about the trauma survival network.

She fiddled with her purse, uncrossed her legs, then recrossed them the other way. “Eli, how long have we known each other?”

“Long time,” I said. A few months, nothing next to centuries. The handful of decades left to her mortal life wasn't a moment next to near-eternity.

“And how often, in that time, have you tried to lie to me?”

I wanted to say, “never,” but that would have been dishonest. I tried to get my face under control. I looked at her, then looked away again before I lost it. “Too often, Tanya.”

“Talk to me, Eli. Please.” She caught up my right hand. Pulled it to her. I let her. She started rubbing with her hands, a deliberately non-nervous motion. I leaned back in my seat, my eyes half-lidded.

After a small infinity of lingering seconds, I eased my hand away. “You can go.”

“What?”

“To the vending machine,” I said, as if that was what I'd meant. “You can go.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Something touched my arm, and [I was halfway out of the chair, right hand reaching across to grip or gouge my attacker,] it's interesting that he's ready to fight, like he's worried about his safety before I realized it was Tanya.

“Whoah,” she said. Her hands were half-raised, her eyes hiding an edge of fear under her concern. [She, too, would have questions I couldn't answer if I let her worry about me.] This makes me think the nurses asked him questions about his friend and he's extra tense because of the potential exposure for both of them “Did you even hear what I said?”

I ducked my head, knowing I should meet her eyes, but [I stuck with the easy question, the one she'd spoken aloud.] I like this, as it shows he understands she wants to know things but isn't pushing him. Or he can read her mind (grin) “No.”

“[Look] this adds a sense of her exasperation, like him not listening is nothing new, I'm going to the vending machine. Are you thirsty?”

“I'm fine.” [There was a poster by my face about a trauma survival network. I'd already counted: over 66% of the posters in the room were about the trauma survival network.] With no context for this, it does feel weird just stuck in here.

[She fiddled with her purse, uncrossed her legs, then recrossed them the other way.] This tells me she's hesitant about asking this question “Eli, how long have we known each other?”

“Long time,” I said. [A few months, nothing next to centuries] I love how this compares his relationship with her to his friend (I assume). Also, a few months isn't "a long time," but he doesn't really know what that means to humans. [The handful of decades left to her mortal life wasn't a moment next to near-eternity.] This feels a little too on the nose to me, and weakens the strength of the previous line

“And how often, in that time, have you [tried] Love this little detail. She knows he does it to lie to me?”

[I wanted to say, “never,” but that would have been dishonest.] This tells me he cares enough to want to be honest [I tried to get my face under control. I looked at her, then looked away again before I lost it.] This tells me how hard this is for him, but he's trying, Could be a good spot for a hint of affection from him “Too often, Tanya.”

“Talk to me, Eli. Please.” She caught up my right hand. Pulled it to her. [I let her.] This tells me he's doing what he can to let her comfort him She started rubbing with her hands, a deliberately non-nervous motion. [I leaned back in my seat, my eyes half-lidded.] I get the sense he enjoys the touch and the comfort. Is it her or just the contact? Could be a good spot for some sense of how he feels about her personally.

After a small infinity of lingering seconds, [I eased my hand away.] This tells me he's pulling away again on an emotional level “You can go.”

[“What?”] Perhaps show a little of her reaction here. Is there pain her and that's why he backtracks next line?

“To the vending machine,” I said, [as if that was what I'd meant.] This tells me he's either questioning this relationship or doesn't want her at the hospital where she might learn the truth “You can go.”

The questions:

1. I'm focusing on the relationship between the MC (Eli) and the GF (Tanya). I want to show that they could be close, but that Eli's reluctance is causing cracks. Does this give the impression of love under tension?

I clearly see the tension and Eli's reluctance, and this is a strained relationship with him lying to her a lot and viewing her as someone who's only here a blink of an eye. He cares about his friend a lot more than he cares for her. You mentioned "love under tension" but I'm not seeing the love part yet. He feels more reluctant to open up than struggling with wanting to open up, and I don't see real affection for her. (This might be clear in other scenes however)

If there is love and he does want to talk to her but feels he can't, then I'd suggest adding a detail or two that shows he cares romantically and wishes he could tell her the truth. There's a glimpse of it when she rubs his hand, but I'm not sure if he's enjoying her touch or just the general comfort of a touch. You don't need to be blatant about it or anything (that would spoil the nice subtlety you have going here), but a sense of longing to be truthful could show he cares more.

(Here's more on providing emotional clarity in your scenes)

2. Is there a legitimate writing reason to hate that paragraph about the trauma survival network, or are my personal issues interfering with my objectivity? If it truly doesn't work, how can I fix it?

This just might be the best RLD question I've ever been asked (grin). Yes, there is a legitimate reason to hate it. It doesn't seem to fit the scene, as there's no context for him to notice that or be counting the posters or reflecting on them. Is this his way of worrying about his friend? Is he concerned he won't survive the trauma? I'm not sure what it's doing there, which is probably why it bugs you.

I'd suggest trusting your instincts and either cut it, or rework it. If you feel you need it (but hate it anyway), figure out why you think it should stay. What's it trying to show? Once you determine that, then look for another way to convey that information. Maybe have him notice the posters earlier and that makes him think about trauma and his friend and the risks there (if that's the reason he notices them of course). If there's no reason for it to be there other than description, feel free to kill it.

(Here's more on conveying emotions in a scene)

Overall, this is working nicely and I'm intrigued by what's going on. Reading it in context would no doubt shed more light on the relationship, but I do see the struggle Eli's having and this is a tough moment for him on multiple levels.

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. Quick thought on the paragraph you might love to hate...

    The impression I got from it was that the posters made him feel enclosed - under pressure - possibly in danger. It seemed to echo his state of mind - or te direction he felt things might be going. A tiny re-write might shift the accent a bit to bring that out more.

    I got no inference of anything romantic in the scene at all - a pre-occupied male being tolerant of a female intent on engaging him in communication.

    My first question was created by the term 'quasi-immortal'....and so stepped into the story with that small bit of confusion on my mind. Do love the 'vanilla-human' - very much - made me laugh.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The posters made me think he was trying to distract himself from his worry by concentrating on something trivial like how many identical posters there are. I don't know if that's what you're going for. If his friend has just undergone trauma, or if he has himself and doesn't want to admit it, maybe a more emotional reaction to the posters? He could be angry about them if he didn't want to admit he had a problem, or something else. As it is, the posters are just background and don't tell a lot about him or the world. (Of course, they might be foreshadowing something. If so, maybe they need to draw less than a paragraph's worth of attention so as not to ruin the surprise.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. The posters made wonder if they were a hint to build up toward discovering abuse. Also, I wondered at the 66% bit. first it seemed peculiar and disjointed. Upon reflection I wonder if it is intended to indicate the way his mind works differently from the human mind? It's an intriguing extract. Thanks for sharing it.

    ReplyDelete