Saturday, September 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Character Introduction Scene Working?

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: Three

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

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good opening for introducing the second main character?

2. Are there any parts that drag on too much?

3. Do you see any show vs tell issues?

4. Do you see any potential problems as to why literary agents would stop reading past the "second" first page?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Luke Saimek couldn’t stop thinking about the voices he’d heard last night.

As he was unpacking his suitcase, he heard two muffled voices coming from his backyard. One sounded like a female voice, the other a child. The bits and pieces of the conversation sounded interesting; they’d used strange words like seeping, rattling slither venom, and cold-plasmics. Luke wished he hadn’t shouted outside his bedroom window, otherwise he might’ve overheard more of their discussion to find out who they were and why they were there.

Also, he couldn’t stop thinking about what happened after he shouted who’s there? Their conversation fell silent, replaced by a brief whoosh sound. Then everything fell silent. Could they have been aliens? Luke shook his head once—that idea seemed ridiculous.

He hoped his imagination had been worked overtime. That could happen after a long flight from Connecticut to Arizona, right? One of his ears was still plugged from the flight. Either of those could make him think he heard someone say words like that. Right?

Luke rummaged through his closet, trying to find something to wear. He pulled out a hoodie and almost forgot that he was now living in a warmer climate—the sunlight illuminating through his bedroom window was a reminder rather than the usual clouds and snow. Eventually he dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans. He started to turn off his closet light, then spotted a latch on the ceiling. Curiosity struck. He pulled it down and a staircase unfolded.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Luke Saimek couldn’t stop thinking about the voices he’d heard last night.

As he was unpacking his suitcase, [he] he’d heard two muffled voices coming from his backyard. One sounded like a [female voice,] wouldn’t a kid say “girl?” the other a child. The bits and pieces of the conversation sounded interesting; they’d used strange words like seeping, rattling slither venom, and cold-plasmics. Luke wished he hadn’t shouted outside his bedroom window, otherwise he might’ve overheard more of their discussion to find out who they were and why they were there. This paragraph feels told since it’s explaining what happened the night before

[Also, he couldn’t stop thinking about] feels told what happened after he shouted who’s there? Their conversation [fell] had fallen silent, replaced by a brief [whoosh sound] a little tellish. Whoosh is a sound. Then everything [fell silent.] just used these words Could they have been aliens? Luke shook his head once—that idea seemed ridiculous.

He hoped his imagination had been worked overtime. That could happen after a long flight from Connecticut to Arizona, right? One of his ears was still plugged from the flight. Either of those could make him think he heard someone say words like that. Right? Two “right” in a row 

Luke rummaged through his closet, trying to find something to wear. He pulled out a hoodie and almost forgot that he was now living in a warmer climate—the [sunlight] so this is the next morning? illuminating through his bedroom window [was a reminder rather than the usual clouds and snow.] feels told [Eventually he dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans.] feels told He started to turn off his closet light, then spotted a latch on the ceiling. Curiosity struck. He pulled it down and a staircase unfolded.

The questions:

1. Is this a good opening for introducing the second main character? 


Yes and no. Overhearing the aliens speak sounds like a fun scene, but that’s not the scene here. This tells readers all about the other scene, which steals a lot of the fun (readers chime in). The focus is on Luke summarizing what happened the night before so readers don’t get to see that.

I also don’t know anything about Luke yet, so it hasn't really introduced him. He flew to Arizona from Connecticut, but that’s all I know so far. I assume he’s young based on the book (note: this is from a previously diagnosed manuscript), but this snippet reads older due to the vocabulary and how Luke is acting. He doesn’t seem like a kid who just experienced something kinda cool.

But I think you’re describing your perfect Luke introduction scene. I want to see him overhear the aliens and wonder what the voices are. I want to see the weirdness and hear the whoosh. I’d suggest showing that scene and letting the interesting things going on in Luke’s life become what’s driving the scene. That way, when morning comes the “Luke still couldn’t stop thinking…” line is all you need to get things moving again. He can wonder about what it means and you won’t have to explain what happened to readers.

(Here’s more on telling yourself to show)

2. Are there any parts that drag on too much?

Since most of it summarizes something readers never see, it does feel a little slow overall. There’s no sense of immediacy without a goal driving the scene. Even when Luke finds the door in the closet it reads like an afterthought. He isn’t looking for anything, he just happens to see it. I don’t know him or what's going on in his life, so I’m waiting for his story to start.

(Here’s more on dealing with setup and exposition)

3. Do you see any show vs tell issues?

Most of this feels told to me. I suspect the reason is because this is explaining what Luke heard the night before, so it is telling readers what happened. The scene is setting up the situation so nothing is happening yet. But there are a lot of fun things here to dramatize, and showing them unfold would eliminate the telling and let readers get to know Luke better.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

4. Do you see any potential problems as to why literary agents would stop reading past the "second" first page?

There’s some repetition of words, so you might consider an editing pass to catch those and tighten it up before submitting.

Overall, I think there’s a fun scene here, it’s just not making it to the page yet. I’d suggest putting yourself in Luke’s head and seeing this through his eyes. Show him overhearing the voices and what he does about it. Show him wondering the next morning if they were aliens and what to do about it. Maybe he comes up with a plan and that’s how he finds the door in the closest? Those two elements feel unconnected, but if one caused the other that would help drive the plot and give Luke things to do.

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. I agree. You could look for a scene with at least two people in it. That might lead to a more action orientation.

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    1. B, I read Dialogue... thanks for the tip!

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  2. I concur with Janice, though keep in mind I'm no expert on middle grade science fiction. It felt wordy to me, but I don't know if that's my adult editor OR if you just haven't gotten around to tight editing yet. If you're early in the editing process then ignore this point.

    The biggest problem was distance. I felt removed from the story, as if there were several layers between me and the tale. One layer was it sounded too adult. Another layer was the summary approach. The last layer was too much telling. Not only is that less exciting, but it robs the reader of the opportunity to identify with Luke.

    Let this kid loose. Let Luke tell his story. "Rattling slither venom?" The term is middle grade genius. Gold star for you! THAT alone would grab a kid in an instant. Even I want to know what it is. You have so much good "stuff" here. Let the young reader experience it. Sprinkle more "kid" in your narrative. For instance, "he dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans" not only feels told, but it sounds like adult speak. Most boys, and many girls these days, would give little thought to their clothing choice around the house and would toss on a shirt and jeans.

    I hope this helps. Even though it's in Third, try to think about it as if it were in First. Good luck!

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    1. I'll keep that in mind. Thank you for your constructive feedback and positive encouragement. I've already started rewriting Luke's POV.

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  3. I think the second sentence is a good place to start dramatizing the action... After he hears the muffled sounds, does he go to the window and lift it slightly? Is it already ajar and he slips close to it to hear these voices...dramatize and you'll be showing not telling. And having a second person in a scene, whether a pet or other is a great idea, too.

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  4. Great combo of elements here: tired kid in a new environment, it's night, new sounds, windows open, perhaps coming from urban to suburban.

    Fight or flight registers high in the midst of such unknowns, so starting from hearing the sounds outside would immediately grip readers.

    The age and temperament of the character isn't known, so will have to be injected into the scene (scolding that he's too old to be scared, etc).

    Kids generally complain about things to establish tolerance levels to new situations. He could be comparing the bed, the size of the room, etc in general ways to what he just left. He could decide that at least he had a nice big window. (Is he first or second floor? Easy to establish...) The window is closed and he decides to open it and check things out from that vantage point (exploring and establishing controls within the environment) -- or -- the window is open and he doesn't like it, feels vulnerable, goes to close it and...

    In both cases, he is at the window for reasons other than hearing sounds, and once there, hears the voices.

    Comparisons can do wonders for the voices, but go further than sounding like something commonplace -- or use the commonplace (sounds like a girl), but add some little twist (breathing, snarling, hissing, staccato delivery, etc) that, upon reflection the next morning, would feel creepier the longer he tried to make sense of it.

    Kids aren't nearly as restrictive in their perspectives as adults, so you have loads of room to push this character's speculation of what happened.

    Of the entire page, I liked the secret in the closet. If you set this character up to now be in a 'sleuthing' frame of mind, where everything can be suspect and theories abound, you will have your kid readers thoroughly engaged when he finds the secret door.

    In my experience editing middle grade and YA books, the successful ones tend to throw the MC into a swirling vortex of trouble right away -- especially using a preliminary event to jolt them (and usually a pal or two) into hyper-imagination mode.

    Another approach is to have this character in his new environment, going to school or exploring a place where kids are playing ball for example. You then have the opportunity to show how this kid feels right then, how they approach the other kids, which also shows what kind of kid they are. They could be forced to partner with another kid or could do so by choice. This would/could eventually lead the character to relate what had happened the night before. There are many ways to create this opening for sharing between kids. But the fun thing is that you now can relate the scary event through dialogue and having the other kid be the foil for asking questions the reader is asking themselves. This would be my preference for an approach, but only because it gives you so many options to present the information.

    You can then have the new pal be invited back to the MCs house, where the secret door can be discovered.

    Boys are incredibly snoopy and curious, let Luke assuage his life change with an adventure, eh? :o)

    Have fun with this -- maybe think about a story you really liked as a kid, then think of what 'got' to you most. Whatever that was, it is probably still what 'gets' kids today, so try to create that feeling.

    Thanks for sharing and good luck!

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