Saturday, October 10

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: Two 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Am I starting the story to early? Right now it goes: Fire extinguished, call from ex-wife to place urgency on time, little girl confronts him. Would it be better to start at the moment the girl asks him to save the teddy bear?

2. Since most of my opening is narration I tried to inject some of the character's voice in the opening line so it's not a complete surprise when internalization starts (at the end of my submission; when he nudges his helmet up off his forehead). Is this a good idea? Also, is it ok for narration to sound clean and concise while voice is more casual?

3. Overall does this opening work/ would you read on?


Market/Genre: Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is a short story based on a writing prompt you posted on your website. It was a picture of a teddy bear sitting on a dilapidated couch in what looked to be an abandoned apartment. My hero is a Fire Chief who responds to a call on the morning of his only daughter's wedding. He is notorious for missing big events in her life due to his profession. In reality, he misses them because they are stepping stones towards an inevitable ending: the point when she no longer needs her daddy.

Alright, so it definitely wasn’t the smartest way for the father of the bride to spend the mornin’ of the weddin’ day, but whatcha gonna do?

Duty called.

Fire Chief Len Jablonski gave a hearty, two-fingered whistle, easily overtaking the sirens and the commotion brought on by the emergency call to the heart of Manhattan. As intended, he got the attention of his hose-man who stood atop the fire truck’s extended ladder, in a battle with the blaze three floors up the residential high-rise.

“To the left, Frank! We almost got her!” Len bellowed from below, where he flanked the brilliant-red engine parked in the courtyard.

The firefighter adjusted his aim, and the water-jet snaked until it hit the window of an adjacent apartment, where it immediately began to douse the flaring flame.

Len cupped hands around his walrus-like mustache. “That’s it! Keep it there!”

It took several more minutes—and thousands more gallons of rushing water—but, finally, the inferno relented. The billows of smoke that had previously poured from windows and escaped upwards at surprising speeds now seeped out only in wispy, floating fragments. Frank swept the hose back and forth across the building’s brick facade in wide arcs. The motion cast rainbows of mist which shimmered in the sunlight only briefly before evaporating into the summer scorch. The squinty faces of the gawkers on the street, who appeared in need of a hosing themselves, looked to the sky in envy. Behind the yellow-tape cordon they stood, scantily clad and sweltering in the heat, seemingly incapable of movement, as if their flip-flops had melded with molten asphalt.

Len nudged his helmet up off his forehead, wiped away sweat, and checked his watch.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Alright, so it definitely wasn’t the smartest way for the father of the bride to spend the mornin’ of the weddin’ day, but whatcha gonna do?

Duty called.] I like the voice here, and it shows the conflict right away

Fire Chief Len Jablonski gave a hearty, two-fingered whistle, easily overtaking the sirens and the commotion brought on by the emergency call to the heart of Manhattan. As intended, he got the attention of his hose-man who stood atop the fire truck’s extended ladder, in a battle with the blaze three floors up the residential high-rise. The voice and POV style changes in this paragraph, which is a little jarring.

“To the left, Frank! We almost got her!” Len bellowed from below, where he flanked the brilliant-red engine parked in the courtyard.

The firefighter adjusted his aim, and the water-jet snaked until it hit the window of an adjacent apartment, where it immediately began to douse the flaring flame.

Len cupped hands around his walrus-like mustache. “That’s it! Keep it there!”

It took several more minutes- and thousands more gallons of rushing water- but, finally, the inferno relented. The billows of smoke that had previously poured from windows and escaped upwards at surprising speeds now seeped out only in wispy, floating fragments. Frank swept the hose back and forth across the building’s brick facade in wide arcs. The motion cast rainbows of mist which shimmered in the sunlight only briefly before evaporating into the summer scorch. The squinty faces of the gawkers on the street, who appeared in need of a hosing themselves, looked to the sky in envy. Behind the yellow-tape cordon they stood, scantily clad and sweltering in the heat, seemingly incapable of movement, as if their flip-flops had melded with molten asphalt.

Len nudged his helmet up off his forehead, wiped away sweat, and checked his watch.

The questions:

1. Am I starting the story to early? Right now it goes: Fire extinguished, call from ex-wife to place urgency on time, little girl confronts him. Would it be better to start at the moment the girl asks him to save the teddy bear?

Hard to say for sure without seeing it, but this seems like a good place to start. He’s doing his job on the day of his daughter’s wedding, and then things go wrong. This established Len and who he is first, which is good.

What isn’t quite working for me yet (readers chime in here) is that there’s no sense of him worrying about the wedding past that opening thought, so it’s just a description of a fire. There’s some nice imagery there, but no conflict or sense of a goal. I’d suggest adding a thought or two (maybe even a line of dialogue from a fellow firefighter?) that shows he has a wedding to attend and he’s worried/emotional about it.

2. Since most of my opening is narration I tried to inject some of the character's voice in the opening line so it's not a complete surprise when internalization starts (at the end of my submission; when he nudges his helmet up off his forehead). Is this a good idea? Also, is it ok for narration to sound clean and concise while voice is more casual?

Depends on the narrator and how you handle it, but typically, the narrative styles should match, otherwise it can feel a little jarring and disconnected. Right now, the voice at the start is fun, and feels like a tight third person POV with Len as the narrator. The rest of the snippet feels like a third person omniscient POV with an outside observer as the narrator. It loses that fun voice and sense of Len. If you cut the first line and started with “duty called” it wouldn’t change how the rest of the snippet reads.

Either would work, it all depends on what you want from it. Is this a personal story about Len, or are we watching Len from the sidelines? Who is your narrator and where do you want them to be?

(Here’s more on knowing who your narrator is)

If it’s a personal story, I’d suggest keeping that wonderful voice from the opening and letting Len’s personality shine through the rest of it. A tight third person POV would work well for this type of story, where Len has to make a deeply personal choice on a very important day. Being more in his head as he struggles with what to do would probably make this resonate with readers.

(Here’s more on tight third person internalization) 

If you want it more of an observation of Len, third person omniscient would give you that separation and maintain a certain distance from the story. The narrator could be more objective and see a bigger picture as Len goes through this situation. If you go this way, I’d suggest tweaking the opening line to reflect the more distant narrator, such as:

It definitely wasn’t the smartest way for the father of the bride to spend the morning of the wedding day, but duty called.

It loses that sense of Len, but it meshes with the rest of the narrative.

(Here's more on omniscient third narration)

Based on some additional information you mentioned in your submission (I didn't want to give too much of the story away to influence readers)—“The inciting incident happens when a young girl, who reminds him of his daughter as a child, accuses him of not saving her teddy bear from the fire. Does he have enough time to recover the toy and still get to the ceremony on time? He thinks so, and enters the burnt remains of the building on a quest to once again be a hero in the eyes of a little girl.”—I’d suggest using a tight third person POV. It’s such a personal, character-based journey that I think being closer in Len’s head would make it all the more poignant (readers also chime in here).

Either would work, it all depends on which narrative style you prefer, and which you feel would tell this story best.

3. Overall does this opening work/ would you read on?

I’d read a little more to see where it was going. The firefighter dad on his daughter’s wedding day has a lot on inherent conflict, and I’d give it another page to see how those two would clash. I think the concept is wonderful, and I love the teddy bear/daughter thematic link (though I’d have no way of knowing that at this point had I not read the background).

Overall, a good start, and it will probably be a nice story.

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.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the diagnostic, Janice. It now seems so obvious to me that I had two different povs working. Here's another snippet where I get close:

    Good thing the groom was grabbin' the tab 'cause a fireman's salary wouldn't put a dent in the budget of this shindig, with its white-gloved waiters servin' Dom-pear-ig-non and spoonfuls of fish eggs.Who ate that crap anyways?

    This is such close third-person POV. I just don't trust myself to do it the entire time. But I agree, since the story is a personal journey it should be the pov choice. Thank you so much for your insight.

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    Replies
    1. Glad I could help. You have control over your narrative distance. If being that close is too close for you, take a step back. Still stay in Len's POV, but not quite as close. Keep the flavor of his voice mixed with the more distant narrative style. I'm sure you can play with it until you find the right distance that works for you :)

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    2. I'd say you put your finger right on it, Lazar: a POV you couldn't trust to do the entire time. Sometimes style's strength comes from being consistent, from committing to putting the same effort into something all through a story and learning how to making it work. Using something that colorful only once might be a distraction when the rest of the story doesn't follow through.

      Picking the right degree matters too; Len's POV is intriguing, but the more intense it the trickier it is to keep it from overpowering the story. (Eg, the first thing I noticed was your following "mornin' " with "weddin' " and how conspicuous the pair of contractions was.)

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  2. To echo the comment above, I feel like you're trying too hard to inject "voice." If you tone it down a bit it'll come off more naturally and it'll be easier for you to write as well. When you think about it, a fire chief is likely to be a reasonably intelligent man who makes a good salary and who speaks fairly professionally to his subordinates unless he's under a lot of pressure.

    I'd try getting into this man's head and considering how someone with his level of experience and background would describe a fire. Any aspect of the fire that's ordinary wouldn't be something he'd remark on, and unless Frank is a novice he probably knows how to handle the hose and doesn't need any direction. So Len would be standing there annoyed that it's taking so long because it's just a normal fire anyway and he really has better things to do. He'd probably be thinking about his daughter and feeling bad about being late/absent again, and maybe this would be his train of thought when the little girl runs up and asks about the bear.

    Good luck!

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