Saturday, August 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This 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 September 26.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening hook well? Would you keep reading?

2. Is it clear, do you know what the character is going through or what state he is in?


Market/Genre: Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is a short story meant to show people what some of us behind the crime scene tape go through.

Harry stood over the body of the young girl lying halfway on the sidewalk and the rest of her broken body in the street. She was trying to breathe or say something always hard to tell. He woke up. Harry’s wife tried to assure him she nuzzled and kissed him as he drifted back into sleep.

I have to see it again? He drove up to the scene. The outer barrier guarded by parking control her face fading in and out. The inner barrier marked by police line tape was watched by officers facing toward the accident. The detectives were in a line outside of the red police tape where the body lay. Only those who had to enter were allowed to pass.

There was that cold feeling again. How ugly this time? He nodded at the familiar detective who had changed the back of his head to a face. Harry’s hands started to go numb making the job of getting the camera ready a pain in the ass. Like mittens without fingers.

The detective was hovering around. “Do you already know?” The video like face warm in expression.

“Like the other times, angelic girl smashed in half, pulled apart or crushed. I wonder if she will talk.” He looked down at his camera.

The face looked away and back like it was a TV screen being turned. “You have to try and ask this time.”

One blink later Harry was looking down on the dead girl again.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Harry stood over the body of the young girl lying halfway on the sidewalk and [the rest of her broken body in the street.] This read a little awkward [She was trying to breathe or say something always hard to tell.] Missing commas? [He woke up.] So this is a dream? I’m confused Harry’s wife tried to assure [him she nuzzled and kissed] Commas? him as he drifted back into sleep. This paragraph is confusing, as I’ve no sense of where I am or what’s going on. I don’t think you need it, as the next paragraph is a stronger opening.

[I have to see it again?] Is this real or is he dreaming again? Also, perhaps put this in italics to show this isn't a first person narrator  [He] Perhaps use “Harry” here if you cut the previous paragraph drove up to the [scene] could say crime scene to help readers get a better sense of setting. [The outer barrier guarded by parking control her face fading in and out.] This sentence doesn’t make sense [The inner barrier marked by police line tape was watched by officers facing toward the accident. The detectives were in a line outside of the red police tape where the body lay. Only those who had to enter were allowed to pass.] This section feels a little flat. Potential good spot to flesh out this world and show how Harry sees it

There was that cold feeling again. How ugly this time? He nodded at the familiar detective who [had changed the back of his head to a face.] I get what you mean here, but it’s awkward [Harry’s hands started to go numb making the job of getting the camera ready a pain in the ass.] Telling a bit [Like mittens without fingers.] Nice

The detective was hovering around. “Do you already know?” [The video like face warm in expression.] I don’t understand what this means

“Like the other times, angelic girl smashed in half, pulled apart or crushed. [I wonder if she will talk.”] Intriguing He looked down at his camera. How does he feel about this? Good spot for some internalization

[The face looked away and back like it was a TV screen being turned.] Confusing “You have to try and ask this time.”

[One blink later] Nice Harry was looking down on the dead girl again.

The questions:

1. Does this opening hook well? Would you keep reading?


Not yet (readers chime in here). It’s a little disjointed and I had trouble following along due to a few reasons.

There were several odd TV descriptions that jarred me out of the story. Perhaps it’s going for a thematic television or video motif, but it didn’t work for me as is. I didn’t understand how they fit into the tale or why this was how Harry sees the world.

(Here’s more on descriptions)

I was unsure where I was or what was going on. It’s starts with Harry at a horrific crime scene, but then shifts immediately to it being a dream, then shifts again back to a crime scene. I’m not sure if what follows the opening paragraph is real or Harry going back into the dream. The odd TV details make me wonder if it is still a dream, but I suspect it probably isn’t. I’d suggest starting this when Harry arrives at the crime scene.

(Here’s more on crafting a strong setting)

There wasn’t enough information about Harry or the crime to draw me into the story. It looks like it might be an intriguing case, and I’m curious about what the “wonder if she’ll talk” line. You might look at ways to flesh those areas out and let readers know a little more about who Harry is and why this case is important. I don’t know if Harry is a detective, a cop, or a tech. He has a camera, so I assume a tech of some kind, bit it’s not clear what his role is here.

(Here’s more on fleshing out your characters)

There were also quite a few commas missing, which made some of the sentences confusing, but that could have been a formatting error on submission.

This has a classic crime procedural opening—a law enforcement protagonist arriving at a crime scene. If the goal is to show what life is like on the other side of the tape, perhaps look for the details that will bring that to life. How does Harry see this world? What does he notice and why do these details matter to him? What are things that readers might be fascinated by?

With a short story, you have fewer words to grab a reader, so every one has to count. I’d suggest a stronger POV so Harry can do double duty and build the world of the crime scene tech, as well as show readers his personality and why this case matters. Let him describe things as he sees them, getting in those behind the scenes details that also reveal things about who he is as a character.

(Here’s more on POV and description)

Also keep in mind that a short story still needs to be a story, even if there’s another goal for writing it. If all it is is a generalized description of a crime scene tech’s job, readers will lose interest. Mix the crime scene details and that world in with a solid story so readers feel like they’re there and experiencing this for themselves. The police procedural is a great vehicle for this, so you already have an audience for this type of tale.

2. Is it clear, do you know what the character is going through or what state he is in?

Not yet. If he’s waking up with nightmares, I assume this case is troubling him. His fingers go numb, but this is a particularly ugly crime so I’m not sure if that’s new or if this is a normal reaction to something this bad. I don’t know how he feels about it on a personal level beyond that, and there’s nothing about who he is or what he wants. All I really know, is that there’s a horrific crime that bothers Harry, and I assume this isn’t this first girl they’ve found.

(Here’s more on showing a character’s emotions and being in the moment)

Overall, this type of story typically depends on a compelling crime to pique reader interest, and/or a compelling protagonist who’s entertaining to follow (crime procedural readers chime in here). It looks like it might be a serial killer, and seeing what a crime scene tech does to help catch that kind of killer could be very interesting to read about. If Harry is an equally interesting character, it could develop into a strong story. I think the POV will be key here. If readers care about Harry and this case, and they’re intrigued by his job, then they’ll read on. If not, they won’t. Bring Harry and his world to life and I think you can get there.

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.

5 comments:

  1. "The inner barrier marked by police line tape was watched by officers facing toward the accident. “
    This line took me out of the crime scene kind of story, and the rest didn’t bring me back in. No sense at all of a serial killer or like that.

    Like Janice, I was confused by the protag’s dream/waking state, and his reason for being present.

    My inner editor must have added commas for me; those didn’t bother me so much. But not all readers will slough over them as easily.

    Thanks for offering it up for us, brave person!

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  2. Yes this opening is supposed to be jarring and confusing since that is what Harry is going through. Looks like I played that hand too heavy...

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    Replies
    1. It can be tough to find the balance. Often, all it takes to get readers on board is a line or two, or even the right word at the right time. The trick is to show that Harry is confused, and not confuse the reader. Especially right away. Later in the story you have more freedom, but until they're grounded in it you can easily lose them.

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  3. I'd keep reading IF you explained better the dream/waking bits and got rid of the awkward phrasing. I like the idea of him related to the crime scene. He also could use a goal. What does he really, really want? To find out if he's a killer? To see the victim dead? A hint would be good. As is, this is a bit too nebulous to keep going, but would rock with tweaking.

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  4. As a former videographer who worked some crime scenes (before it got to me and I had to quit), I'm seeing Harry as a photographer, probably for TV--see the references to TV all over the place?

    I'm good with the disjointed, surreal aspects of it. When you're looking through the camera, the world around you isn't real in your mind. It's all like TV. I once stood in traffic lanes on an interstate, shooting a horrible hit-and-run crime. I'd have died, concentrating on my shots, if someone hadn't physically pulled me out of the way of a barreling 18-wheeler.

    I like this story, and would continue to read, happily piecing the bits together, raster upon raster.

    ReplyDelete