Saturday, July 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Trust Your Reader and Show Your Scenes

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 August 6.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the mini-prologue work, or would it be better to start with the next segment (which goes on to explain how she selected the target and executed the kill plan) and end with this snippet of the man's demise?

2. Is there too much "tell" in the opening?

3. Does mentioning her reason for killing come too early and give-away her motive?

4. Is there enough tension?

5. Would this beginning entice you to read more?

Market/Genre: Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Two hours into flight 1027 to Chicago, the man in aisle seat 10C clutched his throat and made a sound like someone retching over a toilet bowl. A slow-moving lava of white foam appeared between his teeth, overflowed from his mouth, oozed down the front of his Brooks Brothers shirt and suit coat. His body shuddered violently - once - then went still.

The man in seat 10B shook the slumped body gently, hollered for a flight attendant and jabbed at the call button like a crazed pinball wizard.

Three rows back, Constance BarreĆ© caught a glimpse of the action and smiled. A little messy for her taste — the copious amount of foam and saliva was a bit off-putting. But the final result had been satisfying. Another project well done. She could relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.

###

She’d never exterminated anyone while confined to a plane cabin flying miles above the earth.

The thought caused a tingling sensation between her legs.

Seated in the terminal waiting for her boarding call, Constance wondered why she’d never tried it before. Heaven knows she’d had the opportunity hundreds of times. She almost admonished herself that such an idea had never manifested in her mind, but reveled at the cleverness to have thought of it now.

She peered over the top of her Wall Street Journal and focused serpent-green eyes on the passengers near her gate. She loved to people watch. It was one of her favorite pass-times. She considered herself somewhat of an expert at reading people - their body language, nervous twitches and idiosyncrasies. Her biggest talent, and asset, was her ability to read the evil behind their eyes. An unbelievable gift that well suited her need to rid the world of undesirables.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Two hours into flight 1027 to Chicago, the man in aisle seat 10C clutched his throat and made a sound like someone retching over a toilet bowl. A slow-moving lava of white foam appeared between his teeth, overflowed from his mouth, oozed down the front of his Brooks Brothers shirt and suit coat. His body shuddered violently - once - then went still.

The man in seat 10B [shook the slumped body gently] I’d suspect this would cause panic, not a gentle shaking, hollered for a flight attendant and jabbed at the call button like a crazed pinball wizard.

Three rows back, Constance BarreĆ© caught a glimpse of the action and smiled. A little messy for her taste — the copious amount of foam and saliva was a bit off-putting. But the final result had been satisfying. Another project well done. She could relax and enjoy the rest of the flight. Intriguing.

###

She’d never exterminated anyone while confined to a plane cabin flying miles above the earth.

The thought caused a tingling sensation between her legs.

[Seated in the terminal waiting for her boarding call] when does this take place? Did it just jump back in time?, Constance wondered why she’d never tried it before. Heaven knows she’d had the opportunity hundreds of times. She almost admonished herself that such an idea had never manifested in her mind, but reveled at the cleverness to have thought of it now. Feels tellish, because it’s explaining what we just saw

She peered over the top of her Wall Street Journal and focused serpent-green eyes on the passengers near her gate. [She loved to people watch. It was one of her favorite [pass-times] pastimes. She considered herself somewhat of an expert at reading people - their body language, nervous twitches and idiosyncrasies. Her biggest talent, and asset, was her ability to read the evil behind their eyes. An unbelievable gift that well suited her need to rid the world of undesirables.] Telling here, explaining all this instead of showing her do it, and letting readers figure it out

The questions:

1. Does the mini-prologue work, or would it be better to start with the next segment (which goes on to explain how she selected the target and executed the kill plan) and end with this snippet of the man's demise?


I really liked the mini-prologue. The first three paragraphs were interesting and I was curious about “the project” and Constance’s almost experimental attitude toward the man’s death.

After that, it loses me. I’d be much more interested in seeing what Constance does next. I don’t need to know why she killed the man (he’s a faceless person who means nothing to me as a reader), I want to know what her goal is and where the story is going now. What happens next? If she’s the antagonist, how does this murder trigger the story and bring in the protagonist? If she’s the protagonist, how is this part of her larger goal? Riding the world of undesirables is fine, but what’s the core conflict for this book? What’s the problem I’ll want to see solved?

(Here’s more on how to tell if your prologue is helping or hurting your story)

2. Is there too much "tell" in the opening?

In the second part, yes. It’s mostly all told, explaining how she got to the above point and what her skills are. Let’s break it down a little more and analyze it:
She loved to people watch. It was one of her favorite pass-times.
This tells readers what she enjoys doing. There’s nothing she does to show her actually doing it or how it affects her. Instead of stating it outright, try having her people watch and show what she sees and how she feels about it. Let her smile at the things she finds amusing, frown at what puts her off. Maybe she sidles closer to certain people to check them out more. Whatever it is she likes about this, show her actively doing it.
She considered herself somewhat of an expert at reading people - their body language, nervous twitches and idiosyncrasies.
More telling what her skills are, yet I don’t see her using these skills. Try having her spot things about people. Maybe she notices a cheating couple, or a man up to no good. Show her reading people by what details she notices.
Her biggest talent, and asset, was her ability to read the evil behind their eyes.
So show it, especially if this is a motivating factor to why she’s killing. Let readers see what she sees when she finds a potential victim. Maybe she seems someone evil, but not quite bad enough to qualify for her list.

The second part is a good summary of what the scene could show, so now take what you know and dramatize it instead. (Though, I don’t think you need that section at all.)

(Here’s more on telling and exposition)

3. Does mentioning her reason for killing come too early and give-away her motive?

Yes (readers chine in here). Wondering what she’s doing and why is a strong hook. I’d suggest just moving the story forward and show what happens next for her. Maybe it’s how she winds down, or how she chooses victims, or how she gets onto the plot path of the story.

You dropped a great puzzle and story question for readers, so instead of answering it right away, keep feeding them details and leading them on to get the answer.

(Here’s more on keeping readers hooked through story revelations)

4. Is there enough tension?

In part one, yes. Part two, no. In part one, something is clearly going on and it’s not good (from a character standpoint not a story standpoint). I’m curious what it is and what it means. Part two is all explanation and there’s no tension when the information is handed to you.

(Here’s more on creating tension and suspense in your novel)

5. Would this beginning entice you to read more?

Part one, yes, part two no. I like the voice and pacing of part one, and Constance’s attitude about it all is compelling.

I suspect the urge to explain is high (and very common, especially in mysteries/thrillers, so you’re not alone there). You probably worry the reader won’t “get it” if you’re not clear, so instead of just putting the details out there and letting them figure it out, you pull back and explain it all.

Trust yourself and your readers. They’re smart, and they’ll pick up on the clues you leave and figure it all out. Part one didn’t need any explanation to get what was going on and it worked well.

Overall, if you keep doing what you did in the part one, you’re good. Keep part two nearby to remind yourself what not to do. If you feel as though you’re writing like that, stop and start writing like part one again (grin).

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.

3 comments:

  1. Hi, Janice,

    Good to see you're feeling better and I'm sorry for the loss of your cat. It's touogh on us pet moms and dads; our two precious dogs died within a year of each other a few years back. Tough, tough times. You're in my prayers. ❤️

    On with the post.

    Volunteer, excellent mini-prologue. You nailed it in just the right way. This reminded me of Jonah Goldberg's THE EZEKIEL OPTION's opening: "In nineteen minutes, Boris Kazienikov was about to die. And he had no idea why." That kept me reading--and reading and reading. Janice nailed it, too. Good, good job on that part.

    Here, though, she's also right in it telling:
    "She peered over the top of her Wall Street Journal and focused serpent-green eyes on the passengers near her gate. She loved to people watch. It was one of her pastimes. She considered herself somewhat of an expert at reading people - their body language, nervous twitches and idiosyncrasies. Her biggest talent, and asset, was her ability to read the evil behind their eyes. An unbelievable gift that well suited her need to rid the world of undesirables."

    Definitely telling. If Constance is the contracted killer, show her maybe picking up a couple, married to their spouses and obviously having an affair, are oblivious to everyone around them but to one another. To me, the above reads like your notes on Constance (love that name, BTW), and you dropped that into the story instead of the urgency of a possible dead guy on a full aircraft. Are they aware? Are some asleep? Is a kid crying or two kids arguing "Do not!/Do, too!" at the same time? Let us see what she's seeing, like Goldberg did with Boris for his book. Is she sipping her first cocktail nonchalantly while in the scene after the prologue? Does she have to use the ladies' room, but can't leave her seat, lest she rouses suspicion or something right after the man's death? Get the idea?

    Otherwise, I totally agree with the assessment. Great start, but now build on it. And this is a grand reminder for me to go back to my WIP and add more showing details in something similar to this offering. All in all, keep at it, Volunteer. Good to see you back, too, Janice and fine assessment here. Hope you're doing much better. :-)

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  2. I really learned a lot from this. Thank you to everyone. :)

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  3. Sorry for the delayed response! Thanks for the input from Janice and M.K. The next segment does reveal how she sizes up the crowd and selects her victim. However, you have both offered great input on how to develop the prologue, eliminate the telling, and create more action…and tension...from the get-go! Right now the story is still in the infancy stage, but your helpful critique has given me the boost to keep going with it! Constance is the antagonist. I planned to introduce the protagonist in the next chapter. My biggest challenge right now is trying not to sound like another episode of Rizzoli & Isles Thanks again for the comments.

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