Sunday, February 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Providing Scene Clarity Through Narrative Focus


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: Seven 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 4.

This week’s questions

This is the opening of the story. Does it say to the reader: I know what the main character's dilemma is? Or, is it a collection of words that don't go anywhere specific?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

She was the last one of her club to do her random act of boldness. Muffin Fencepost scoffed. “It’s not like the IRS will audit me or something,” she said.

“But it’s what The Blazing Boomers club is all about, dearie,” Martha Karsky, the club’s secretary, said.

“Just do it and move on,” added the club’s leader, Jarvis Glum.

Muffin’s head swelled with misery. Do it or get out, that’s what he’s really saying. Flappy jawed, gutless bastard, she sneered.

“Maybe, your random act of boldness isn’t bold enough. Lots of newbies come up in here with weak-assed ideas.” Kerwin made Muffin cringe. She saw him as a mortal sin against what a real man should be.

Maybe one day you’re dorky looking bow tie’ll choke you, she said to herself.

“There’s no reason for me to change anything,” she snapped. “I’ve got it all worked out. And I’m doing it this weekend.”

The club members silence poked at Muffin’s confidence. She bit her lip from the brazen lie that lit her cheeks up bright red. I’m not lying, she wanted to shout out.

“Just a reminder, folks, our next meeting’s at Dee’s house,” Martha said.

Muffin forced a smile. Dee lived on a steep slope. What idiot would buy a house on a blipping ninety degree decline that’s headed for hell? But Dee’s toffee was to die for and Muffin loved her some sweets, spelled t-o-f-f-e-e.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[She] Perhaps use her name her to make it clear who's POV this is was the last one of her club to do her random act of boldness. Perhaps add something here to clarify what that act is or why it's important Muffin Fencepost scoffed. [“It’s not like the IRS will audit me or something,” she said.] I don't understand what this has to do with the random act of boldness or the club

“But it’s what The Blazing Boomers club is all about, dearie,” [Martha] Having two M-name characters could be confusing for readers Karsky, the club’s secretary, said.

“Just do it and move on,” added the club’s leader, [Jarvis Glum] Three people in three paragraphs could be a lot for readers to take in and remember.

[Muffin’s head swelled with misery.
] I don't understand how a head swells with misery Do it or get out, that’s what he’s really saying. Flappy jawed, gutless bastard, [she sneered. ] this feels like it's used as an internal dialog tag, but you can't "say" a sneer. It's a physical action usually associated with looking.

“Maybe, your random act of boldness isn’t bold enough. Lots of newbies come up in here with weak-assed ideas.” [Kerwin] Who's Kerwin? made Muffin cringe. She saw him as a mortal sin against what a real man should be.

Maybe one day you’re dorky looking bow tie’ll choke you, she said to herself.

“There’s no reason for me to change anything,” she snapped. “I’ve got it all worked out. And I’m doing it this weekend.”

[The club members silence poked at Muffin’s confidence.] Not sure what this means, and it feels a little overwritten She bit her lip from the brazen lie that lit her cheeks up bright red. I’m not lying, she wanted to shout out.

“Just a reminder, folks, our next meeting’s at Dee’s house,” Martha said.

Muffin forced a smile. Dee lived on a steep slope. What idiot would buy a house on a blipping ninety degree decline that’s headed for hell? But Dee’s toffee was to die for and Muffin loved her some sweets, spelled t-o-f-f-e-e. Muffin had an odd switch in emotion here, from upset to happy about food

The questions:

Does it say to the reader: I know what the main character's dilemma is? Or, is it a collection of words that don't go anywhere specific? 


It does feel scattered (readers chime in here). I get the sense that Muffin is a new member of a club that does random acts of boldness, and she hasn't done hers yet. This puts her membership in this club in jeopardy. What I don't know, is what any of this means or what's actually going on here. I suspect this is due to a few reasons:

1. Too many people and not enough clues to set the scenes.


Five different characters are mentioned in 237 words, two of them with M-names and two K-names (one first and last, but still there). Kerwin speaks, but I don't know who he is. I don't know anything about any of them except that Muffin doesn't seem to like any of them. I don't know where this takes place. You don't have to get everything in on the first page, so take a little time to set the scene and establish who's there, what the problem is, and give a sense of something about to happen.

(Here's more on introducing characters in a scene) and another (on more ways to introduce characters in a scene)

2. Not enough internalization to provide context. 

Everything is discussed as if the reader already knows what all this means. The things I don't understand, but feel I'm supposed to:
  • What the IRS audit has to do with this
  • What the Blazing Boomers Club is
  • Why Muffin needs to "do it" or move on
  • Why Muffin is there in there first place
  • Who Kerwin is
  • Who Dee is and why she matters to this scene
  • Why Muffin wants to be part of this club
  • Why she's so mad at everyone in the club
I'd suggest taking a little more time to set the scene and giving readers a chance to absorb the information before moving on to the next piece.

(Here's more on setting up your story in the first paragraphs)

3. Not a clear visual clue between narrative and internalization. 

It's hard to know when Muffin is thinking and when it's just the narrative. You might consider italicizing her internal thoughts. For example:
Maybe one day you’re dorky looking bow tie’ll choke you, she said to herself. (could then cut "she said to herself")

I’m not lying, she wanted to shout out.
(Here's more on crafting internal thoughts)

Despite these confusing areas, I think the right pieces are here to make this a good scene with a little work. There's a goal--Muffin wants to do her RAoB and please this group. There's conflict--Muffin is having trouble with her RAoB and the group wants her to do it. There are stakes--Muffin has to do her RAoB or she gets kicked out, which is somehow bad. If you focus on those three things, and clarify what they mean and why they matter, I think you can make this will work.
 
Let's really dig into this and analyze where it's confusing and how you might clarify what's going on.

She was the last one of her club to do her random act of boldness. Saying "last one to do" here makes me think she's already done it, but I suspect she hasn't and that's the problem. How might you rephrase this so it says "Muffin needs to do her random act or she gets thrown out"? (not those exact words of course, but that feeling) This is a good moment to show readers what the problem is

Muffin Fencepost scoffed. Scoffing here feels like she's not taking this seriously, but later, it seems like she's actually upset about failing to do this act. If the problem is she needs to do her RAoB, then how does she feel about it? This is a good moment to provide emotional clarity for the reader.

“It’s not like the IRS will audit me or something,” she said. Since I don't know what she's talking about, I have no way of knowing what this means. Is she talking about her RAoB getting her audited, or saying she won't get into trouble for not doing it, and she's using the IRS as an example? What is she actually saying here?

“But it’s what The Blazing Boomers club is all about, dearie,” Martha Karsky, the club’s secretary, said. Here I can see this is a club, and "blazing" suggests they do wild things, but there's no follow up to help explain what they do. This is a good spot to have Martha say what the club is about so readers know. It doesn't need to be a long explanation, a line or two would work fine. For example: "Being bold and letting people know old isn't dead" or whatever the club does. It's also a good spot for Muffin to think about what it means to her and why she wants to be part of this club or do this RAoB. She's not doing it, so there must be a reason.

“Just do it and move on,” added the club’s leader, Jarvis Glum. I get the sense he's the antagonist in this scene, but he says one line and then vanishes. If there's a threat here, why not have him actually make the threat? That would show readers what Muffin has to do this or else.

Muffin’s head swelled with misery. This image was rather odd to me, and I didn't get what it meant. It feels overwritten, like it's trying too hard. How does she feel? How does one act or feel when they're miserable? Don't try to be fancy, just be clear about the emotions.

Do it or get out, that’s what he’s really saying. Flappy jawed, gutless bastard, she sneered. I'm not sure how she got this. There was nothing in his dialog to suggest it was a threat, and it could be read as encouragement--just do it and it'll be done. I also don't understand why she's so antagonistic toward him.

“Maybe, your random act of boldness isn’t bold enough. Lots of newbies come up in here with weak-assed ideas.” Kerwin made Muffin cringe. Kerwin feels like one too many characters, and he comes out of nowhere. You might consider letting Jarvis or Martha say this line instead. I also don't understand why suggesting her idea might be weak assed bothers her. Or why there's a scale on how "bold" something has to be to be a legitimate RAoB. This could be a good spot to elaborate more on how this RAoB works and what's expected of Muffin.

She saw him as a mortal sin against what a real man should be. I don't know what this means, and again, I don't know why she's so antagonistic. It's wasn't the nicest thing to say to her, but it's not a direct attack against her either--he's not saying she has a weak-assed idea, just that lots of newbies do.

Maybe one day you’re dorky looking bow tie’ll choke you, she said to herself. Again, she's being very mean and I don't know why. If she dislikes all these people, why is she in this club? Why does she care about staying here? I don't understand her motives or her goals, so it's hard to follow what she hopes to gain here.

“There’s no reason for me to change anything,” she snapped. “I’ve got it all worked out. And I’m doing it this weekend.” They never asked her to change anything, so that line feels strange, like she's answering a question that was never asked. I'm also unsure if or why there's a time limit on this. Her lying to say she's doing it this weekend suggest she's running out of time, but why does this matter? I don't understand the mechanics of this club or what's expected of her.

The club members silence poked at Muffin’s confidence. I don't understand what this means, and it's another example of the writing trying too hard. How would someone who was losing confidence feel and act? And why does it matter to the club that she does this?

She bit her lip from the brazen lie that lit her cheeks up bright red. More overwriting. Biting her lip suggests a lie, feeling herself blush also suggests a problem. Try simplifying things: Liar. Her cheek flushed and she bit her lip. I'm not lying.

I’m not lying, she wanted to shout out. Perhaps put the lie thought when she says the lie to keep the ideas together. She mentions it three sentences after she lies, so it feels out of place.

“Just a reminder, folks, our next meeting’s at Dee’s house,” Martha said. I don't understand why this needs to be said right now, as it adds another character and detail to a situation I'm already struggling to follow. If the point of the scene is to get Muffin to do her RAoB, then why bring in when the next meeting is? Does she have until then to do it?

Muffin forced a smile. Why?

Dee lived on a steep slope. What idiot would buy a house on a blipping ninety degree decline that’s headed for hell? But Dee’s toffee was to die for and Muffin loved her some sweets, spelled t-o-f-f-e-e. Again, Muffin seems terribly mean to someone in the club, so I wonder why she's here. This also focuses a lot on toffee, which has no bearing on this scene at all.

I think the real issue with why this scene isn't working yet, is that I don't know any more about any of this by the end than I do at the start. Muffin hasn't done her RAoB for this club and that's a problem. I'd suggest clarifying who these characters are, what's going on, why it matters, and what's going to happen next.

(Here's more on narrative focus)

Overall, I think what's in the author's head just isn't making it onto the page, and they're trying too hard to avoid telling or explaining it to readers. But a little explanation is a good thing if it makes the scene clear and allows readers to follow along. Once this is fleshed out so readers understand what all this means, I think it'll be a fun scene to read.

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. Thank you to the writer for sharing their sample piece. We all learn so much in these diagnostics.

    The multiple names, first and last, close together was a challenge for me as a reader.

    The issue seemed clear by the end of the piece, that Muffin needed to complete her act of boldness, but I was a little lost on why it mattered. If it was necessary to do the act to stay in the club, it might help to get it across how much Muffin wanted to be in the group.

    As for trying to show as much as possible, I feel you there. Balancing the "show not tell" with "some explanations are needed" is a tough one I wrestle with in my writing.

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  2. I'm really intrigued by the "random act of boldness," Muffin's desire to do such a thing and her inability to complete it, and the fact that there is a club dedicated to it. But those juicy elements seem secondary in this scene. I wonder if starting in a different place would help? Maybe we could see Muffin trying one of her bold acts and failing at it, which would give her a reason to think about the club, her reason for being in it, and what will happen if she fails (while having the potential to be entertaining for the reader, depending on what her bold act she chose.)

    Thanks to the author for sharing the piece. And I'm totally in the mood for baked goods now… :)

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