Saturday, October 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Fixing Your Pacing and Narrative Flow

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: One


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 7.

This week’s question:

I still have a little trouble with flow and pace. I want this to set some of the groundwork instead of “info dumping”, but how? Should I start it some other way?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This particular piece is part of one of the subplots. The bigger picture shows up a little later.

“Girl, you need to get out” Tamera told Tommie.

Tommie gently combed her fingers through the long wavy hair in her hand and sighed then said “I’m doing alright here.”

“Hm” Tamera said with a smirk as she glanced around.

“If stayin’ holed up in a basement’s ‘doin’ alright’. There’s more to life than makin’ other people’s dreams come true, ya know.”

Tommie tied the strands to the roots of Tamera’s hair then continued braiding as she said “OK. I’ll ask Carol to watch the boys and go for it… on one condition.”

“And what’s this, ‘condition’?”

“You’re my back-up if this one fails too. As soon as I feel a need to drop him, I call and you come get me. How about that?”

Tamera thought a while as Tommie quickly braided her hair then said “great idea. In fact, since my little man’s with his father every other weekend now and you have a car now, let’s make it a two-way street. You’re my back-up too. Waddaya think?”

“It’s a deal. Since you’re almost as bad as me, how are we gonna find Mr. Right who can also be Mr. Dad?”

“I’ve got connections” Tamera said with a smile.

“Even Mr. Wow will do, with your uh, connections.”

“Patience. Let’s start you with Mr. Here-n-Now, Miss Thomasina. This could be fun.”

“By-the-way, how tall is your ‘little man’ now?”

“Almost four foot ten. Won’t be long before he’ll be as taller than both of us. Your youngest is already eye-to-eye, isn’t he?”

“Sure is. In fact, he brought that to my attention. Barefoot.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Girl, you need to get out” Tamera told Tommie.

Tommie gently combed her fingers through [the] Tamera’s? long wavy hair [in her hand] Don’t need. It says she combed it with her fingers, so we know her hands are there and sighed [then said] don’t need, as it shows her speaking next “I’m doing alright here.”

“Hm” Tamera [said with a smirk as she glanced around.] feels a little too much

“If stayin’ holed up in a basement’s ‘doin’ alright’. There’s more to life than makin’ other people’s dreams come true, ya know.” If this is Tamera speaking, move up to the previous paragraph.

Does she have any thoughts about what Tamera said? A reaction? Tommie tied the [strands] of what? to the roots of Tamera’s hair [then continued braiding as she said] Don’t need. Too much step by step detail slows the pacing “OK. I’ll ask Carol to watch the boys and go for it… on one condition.”

“And what’s this, ‘condition’?”

“You’re my back-up if [this one] Perhaps this was said earlier, but I don’t know what she’s talking about fails too. As soon as I feel a need to drop [him] have they spoken about this man previously?, I call and you come get me. How about that?”

Tamera thought a while [as Tommie quickly braided her hair then said] don’t need. “great idea. In fact, since my little man’s with his father every other weekend [now and you have a car now,] careful of repeated words let’s make it a two-way street. You’re my back-up too. Waddaya think?”

Any internal thought from Tommie about this? “It’s a deal. Since you’re almost as bad as me, how are we gonna find Mr. Right who can also be Mr. Dad?”

“I’ve got connections” Tamera said with a smile.

“Even Mr. Wow will do, [with your uh, connections.”] I feel like I should know what this means, but I don’t

“Patience. Let’s start you with Mr. Here-n-Now, Miss Thomasina. This could be fun.”

[“By-the-way, how tall is your ‘little man’ now?”
] why ask this? Knowing the heights of the children feels like infodump, as it doesn’t seem to affect anything in the scene right now
“Almost four foot ten. Won’t be long before he’ll be as taller than both of us. Your youngest is already eye-to-eye, isn’t he?”

“Sure is. In fact, he brought that to my attention. Barefoot.”

The question:

1. I still have a little trouble with flow and pace. I want this to set some of the groundwork instead of “info dumping”, but how? Should I start it some other way?


I see a few things that are likely causing the trouble here. There’s some telling, describing the scene instead of showing these two characters existing in it. There’s also a lack of a strong point of view (which is contributing to the telling issue), and no internalization at all. There’s also missing details to fully understand the scene, so time is spent trying to figure out what’s going on instead of just reading along.

This sounds like a lot of problems, but it’s really not that bad (grin). Some simple tweaks can fix all of these.

Let’s take a closer look at a few bits (we’re going to really dig in here to help you see exactly where the flow is stumbling and why, so you can avoid it in the future):
Tommie gently combed her fingers through the long wavy hair in her hand and sighed then said “I’m doing alright here.”
Unnecessary words slow the pace, as does a sense of detached details. “The hair” is impersonal, so it feels detached, but Tommie knows whose hair she’s touching. “In her hand” is unnecessary information, because if she’s combing it with her fingers, readers know it’s in her hand. “Then said” is redundant, because you show Tommie speaking by writing out her dialogue. If you cut all these bits out, you get:
Tommie gently combed her fingers through Tamera’s long wavy hair. “I’m doing alright here.”
Cleaner and leaner, and you lose nothing. You show exactly what Tommie is doing, and what she says.

(Here’s more on how pacing works)

Let’s move on to the next one:
“Hm” Tamera said with a smirk as she glanced around. “If stayin’ holed up in a basement’s ‘doin’ alright’. There’s more to life than makin’ other people’s dreams come true, ya know.”
“Said with a smirk” is tellish because it explains what she did when she spoke. Another red flag word is the “as” there, telling readers what she’s doing while speaking instead of showing her doing it. It can be a subtle thing, but try just showing the action:
“Hm.” Tamera smirked and glanced around. “If stayin’ holed up in a basement’s ‘doin’ alright’. There’s more to life than makin’ other people’s dreams come true, ya know.”
This eliminates the explanations. She speaks. She acts, and readers can figure out why she smirks. Same thing here:
Tommie tied the strands to the roots of Tamera’s hair then continued braiding as she said “OK. I’ll ask Carol to watch the boys and go for it… on one condition.”
The extra details slow the pace down. It’s also a little vague, making readers stop to figure it out. The “strands” of what are tied? I can assume hair, but it’s not spelled out and anyone who’s never had or seen hair extensions (I’m guessing) won’t know what this means. She says she “continues ” braiding the hair, but we never see her start to braid the hair, so it feels like we missed something (unless this was part of another scene, but it seems like she started on Tamera’s hair at the start of this snippet). All of these unclear details force readers to stop reading.

(Here’s more on narrative focus)

The focus is also on unimportant details instead of what matters—what Tommie is thinking about as she decides to agree to Tamera’s plan or not. Try something like:
Tommie tied the extensions to the roots of Tamera’s hair. Maybe she had a point—getting out would do her some good. But not alone. No way. “OK. I’ll ask Carol to watch the boys and go for it… on one condition.”
A little internal thought helps readers understand Tommie better, varies the sentence flow so it doesn’t feel like a list of descriptive details, and helps transition the dialogue so readers can follow the conversation. They see why Tommie decides to do this. It also provides the conversational pause you probably wanted in a more natural way. Just like here:
Tamera thought a while as Tommie quickly braided her hair then said “great idea. In fact, since my little man’s with his father every other weekend now and you have a car now, let’s make it a two-way street. You’re my back-up too. Waddaya think?”
The first sentence is all telling. How might you show Tamera thinking without saying “she thought for a while?” What does Tommie see her do (I assume Tommie is the POV character here? She feels like it). Also, what exactly are they talking about? I feel like I ought to know, but I’m struggling to piece together the conversation. I gather it’s dating, but nothing is clearly stated. Consider something like:
Tamera said nothing, just watched her in the mirror. Tommie’s stomach twitched. Was she bailing on her?
“Great idea,” Tamera finally said. “In fact, since my little man’s with his father every other weekend now and you have a car now, let’s make it a two-way street. You’re my back-up too. Waddaya think?”
Obviously, I don’t know what would go through Tommie’s mind here, but use whatever fits the character and the situation.

(Here’s more on fixing common pacing problems)

Tommie answers next, but she also adds some additional information that feels a little infodumpy, because we don’t know why she suddenly say this. Let’s look closer:
“It’s a deal. Since you’re almost as bad as me, how are we gonna find Mr. Right who can also be Mr. Dad?”
This information feels more like things these two women know, and it’s only being said for the reader’s benefit. And what does “bad as me” actually mean? It feels like it’s trying to tell readers information, but isn’t clear on what it is. It also feels like something readers should have figured out about these two by observing them in the story. It should be clear that they’re not good at dating (I gather). Perhaps something more like:
“It’s a deal. You got a plan on finding a Mr. Right who can also be a Mr. Dad?”
This continues the conversation naturally and gets the information across in a way that sounds like Tommie asking a question, not dumping information. But even though Tommie asks how they’re going to do this, Tamera doesn’t answer the question. She just says:
“I’ve got connections,” Tamera said with a smile.
From a technical standpoint, all the dialogue so far has been of the “X says, doing something” variety, which can make it feel repetitious. This is a perfect place to flip it around and vary the sentence rhythm. Try:
Tamera smiled. “I’ve got connections.”
It’s a small thing, but varied sentence structure helps create a smoother narrative flow, which affects the pacing.

(Here’s more on rhythm and flow in dialogue)

Tommie doesn’t reflect on what “connections” means or even that Tamera has no real plan, so the conversation doesn’t flow well into the next set of thoughts. What connections? Isn’t Tommie curious about this? How does she feel about this overall? If she had conditions, she must have reservations, but she seems to jump on board this nebulous plan without thought.

Because these random details are just stated and moved past, it feels a little aimless and confusing, which slows the pacing and hurts the flow. It’s not a conversation between two people, it’s a bunch of information conveyed to the reader. But hopefully you’ve seen how just a word or two here and there clears up all the cloudy areas and smooths out the flow. It looks like a lot, but the tweaks are very minor.

It feels (to me anyway), that Tommie would ask about those “connections.” Not only does it give you a natural way to talk about them, it shows a potential problem brewing (just what are those connections and will Tommie like it?). But Tommie says:
“Even Mr. Wow will do, with your uh, connections.”
If the plan is to find a husband/father, this doesn’t really fit. But it might be a good internal thought for Tommie to have earlier. Sure, she wants a long-term relationship, but maybe she’s lonely and something temporary will do to fill that need. Such as:
“It’s a deal. You got a plan on finding a Mr. Right who can also be a Mr. Dad?” Even a Mr. Wow would do.
This shows that Tommie is conflicted in what she actually wants (a husband/father or a good time?) and puts the information where she might naturally think it. Let’s continue with Tamera’s next line:
“Patience. Let’s start you with Mr. Here-n-Now, Miss Thomasina. This could be fun.”
If the plan is to find Mr. Right/Mr. Dad, why do they suddenly shift to Mr. Here-n-Now? As a reader, I’m confused by what they really want and what the plan is, and that confusion slows the pace down as I try to make sense of the goals. Then the topic shifts sideways with:
“By-the-way, how tall is your ‘little man’ now?”
Since they were talking about Tamera’s little man, it’s not a stretch for Tommie to ask about him, but asking about his height feels like a weird thing to say right now. The transition from “this could be fun” to “how tall is your child?” doesn’t make sense (and creates an awkward flow). Why did Tamera’s comment spark this question? And why does it matter? This feels more like an infodump to tell readers the heights of the children.

The plan to find Mr. Right is left behind without any resolution, which can make readers wonder why they needed to see it in the first place. But if you shifted some wording around, you could easily move into the area in a more natural way and fix the flow.

Let’s say Tamera sticks to the plan of finding Mr. Right and you cut the Mr. Here-an-Now. She doesn’t have to explain the plan now if it doesn’t work for the scene, but she can say something that moves the scene to talk of the children. Perhaps:
“It’s a deal. You got a plan on finding a Mr. Right who can also be a Mr. Dad?” Even a Mr. Wow would do.

“Patience, Miss Thomasina. Let me work my magic. It’ll be fun.” She snapped her fingers. “In fact, my little man’s with his father every other weekend now, so let’s start on Saturday.”

Tommie frowned, but getting details out of Tamera was tougher than fixing her hair. “Sounds good to me. How is your little man?”

“Growing like a weed that one. Be taller than us by fall I bet.”
Same basic info, but now it feels like two women talking.

(Here’s more on infodumps through dialogue)

Overall, I suspect the trouble you’re running into can be fixed by strengthening your POV. Once you know what Tommie sees, how she thinks, and what she’d say, the scene will flow from a natural place versus just describing what happens in it.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Haha now I need to know what the plan is! I think Janice really nailed my thoughts reading along as well. Just keep writing! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I want to know what the plan is too! I think Janice really nailed everything on the head here. The only thing I noticed that's a pet peeve of mine is the shortening of words with the apostrophe (like makin'). Once I see it the first time, I don't need to see it again. I can hear how the character (my version of it anyway) sounds, and it becomes jarring for me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is so great! From adding internal thought through 'flipping' dialogue presentation, you've given tools that can immediately move a first draft to a much better second draft. And with no blood on the page! :-)

    Though your fixes may appear 'simple', they take practice to put into play regularly and effectively.

    This RLD (the link) goes into my bag of 'tricks' that support the authors I edit.

    Thanks, Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  4. My God! And on only one page! The hair Tommie has in her hand was purchased & to be attached to Tamera's shorter hair of a different texture. I can hardly wait to see the rest of the comments. Thank you so much so far.
    Gale

    ReplyDelete
  5. You make it look so easy to fix up these things! Now if I could learn to apply these things to my own writing.

    As an aside, apparently I read mysteries too often because on the first read through I thought are they planning to murder someone or date someone? I guess it was the secretiveness of the plan and the connections comments that threw me!

    ReplyDelete
  6. You make it look so easy to fix up these things! Now if I could learn to apply these things to my own writing.

    As an aside, apparently I read mysteries too often because on the first read through I thought are they planning to murder someone or date someone? I guess it was the secretiveness of the plan and the connections comments that threw me!

    ReplyDelete