Saturday, December 13

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Historical Short Story

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 site. 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: Five 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the sample establish enough interest in who the character is and what she is doing for a reader to continue?

2. Is there too much telling?

3. Are there any glaring grammar issues I’ve overlooked?

4. Any pointers are welcomed.


Market/Genre: Historical Fiction or General Fiction Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Katya crept along what remained of a narrow hallway, holding her rifle at the ready, each step taken with care to avoid making any unnecessary sounds that might give away her location. There was no doubt that the fascists would be searching for her. She could imagine them cautiously coming out of the hiding spots they dove into when the shot rang out, taking tentative steps into the open. Nervous as bunny rabbits after having spotted a hawk circling in the sky. They could look all they liked back there. Multiple shots from the same position were dangerous and irritating, she avoided it.

She took her own nervous steps along the hallway. Several white doors lined the cream colored walls, all but one stood closed. The green tiles of the floor were nearly hidden beneath the splintered and charred remains of the roof. Large menacing daggers of wood had been driven through the plaster of the walls. Snow blew into the roofless building, swirling through the rooms and collecting in the corners. Her eyes narrowed as she struggled to see through the shadows and the gloom of the day’s grey light.

At the far end of the hallway the remains of a door slowly swung with a faint creak from the lone hinge that held it in place as the wind that rolled through the building pushed against it. The door’s bottom half had been torn away, obliterated by some great force.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Katya crept along what remained of a narrow hallway, holding her rifle at the ready, each step taken with care to avoid making any unnecessary sounds that might give away her location. There was no doubt that the fascists would be searching for her. She could imagine them cautiously coming out of the hiding spots they dove into when the shot rang out, taking tentative steps into the [open. Nervous] perhaps a comma or em dash instead of a period since this thought is part of her imagining? I stumbled a bit here as bunny rabbits after having spotted a hawk circling in the sky. [They could look all they liked back there. Multiple shots from the same position were dangerous and irritating, she avoided it.] I was a little confused here. I'm not sure where "back there" is, and I'm not sure what the "multiple shots" line means. They're shooting or she was? Perhaps clarify what she means here.

She took her own nervous steps along the hallway. This could be a good spot to hint or say what she's doing there and what the goal is. Several white doors lined the cream colored walls, all but one stood closed. The green tiles of the floor were nearly hidden beneath the splintered and charred remains of the roof. Large menacing daggers of wood had been driven through the plaster of the walls. Snow blew into the roofless building, swirling through the rooms and collecting in the corners. Her eyes narrowed as she [struggled to see through the shadows and the gloom of the day’s grey light.] She just described this hallway in detail, so it feels odd for her to say she's having trouble seeing.

[At the far end of the hallway(comma) the remains of a door slowly swung with a faint creak from the lone hinge that held it in place as the wind that rolled through the building pushed against it.] This sentence reads a little cumbersome. Perhaps rephrase or break into two? The door’s bottom half had been torn away, obliterated by [some great force] perhaps have her guess what? A grenade or mine or something? Could help set the scene and show what she expects here.

The questions:

1. Does the sample establish enough interest in who the character is and what she is doing for a reader to continue?


Yes and no (readers chime in here). I can see she's doing something and there's danger here, and that's good, and it has me a little curious about what's going on. But right now it's mostly description and I don't yet know what Katya is doing or what the conflict is, so I'm waiting for the story to start. What is she trying to do and why? You don't have to give it all away if you want to keep some mystery, but what puzzle or question do you want the reader wondering about that will draw them into the story?

You mention in the email that Katya was a sniper, so perhaps make that a little more clear since a female sniper in WW2 is fairly cool and unusual. Is she positioning for a shot? That would definitely get my attention as a reader. So would knowing she was trying to escape after just killing someone.

(Here's more on conflict and goals)

2. Is there too much telling?

No. It's third person POV, maybe a medium narrative distance, and while there's not a lot of internal thought from Katya, I do feel in her head and seeing through her eyes. The only spot where it shifts a little more distance is the door obliterated by "some great force." I'd suspect a sniper would make a guess or assumption about what broke the door. Even if she's wrong, it would help flesh out the world and her view of it. Does she think someone kicked it open? Was it a grenade? Was this house recently bombed? Does she know what this hallway used to be part of? Green tiles and cream walls could be a hospital or a home, and she might think about it differently depending on what it used to be and what she's doing there.

(Here's more on how POV can affect descriptions)

3. Are there any glaring grammar issues I’ve overlooked?

Not really. A missing comma or two, but it mostly reads well and flows fine (I marked a few spots that felt off). Paragraph two is starting to feel a little list-like with all the description, so you might consider adding a line of internalization or a physical action from Katya to break it up some. Nothing major though.

(Here's more on varying sentence length for rhythm and flow)

4. Any pointers are welcomed.

Overall, it's a solid start. I think a little internalization here and there to show Katya's goal and what's at stake here would help hook readers more, but if that happens in the next paragraph you might be fine. With a short story you have less time to grab readers (fewer words), so the faster you can get them invested the better. It's not unusual for readers to give a short story a few paragraphs to grab them and then move on, so you want to pique their interest right away.

(Here's more on short stories vs. novels)

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.

1 comment:

  1. Great start! The thing that occurred to me is that from this snippet I'm not really sure what time I'm in. "Fascist" is a clue, but the situation of a girl with a rifle in WW2 is so unusual that I need something more to verify that this is historical. Since "female sniper in WW2" is a great hook, I'd suggest making the time period super clear in the first few paragraphs.

    Good luck!

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