Saturday, October 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This MG Sci Fi Scene Telling Too Much?

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: Four 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 5.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the opening line sound intriguing enough?

2. Are there any show vs. tell issues?

3. Is there enough excitement with Brendan looking for the source of the mysterious voices?

4. Do Brendan's background details feel inserted, or does it flow naturally?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

Note: This is a revised snippet from a novel that’s been diagnosed before, so my comments reflect some of that knowledge of the previous chapters. I believe this is the start of chapter five.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Brendan Saimek thought he overheard muffled voices coming from the backyard.

He swallowed hard a few times, his ears were plugged after a long flight from Connecticut to Arizona. He finished unpacking and laid out his school clothes. His stomach was tied in knots about starting a new high school, and he wanted his new classmates to accept him.

One ear popped, and he heard more blips of a conversation. He lumbered closer to his bedroom window, straining to hear what they were saying. Then he listened in on bits and pieces of an interesting discussion from voices that sounded like a mother and child. He didn’t know for sure if that’s what they were; the night hid them. He continued to listen and picked up on strange words like seeping, rattling slither venom.

He hoped his imagination had been worked overtime. That could be possible, he’d been on a plane for five hours. His other ear was still plugged. Either of those could make him think he heard someone say words like that. Right?

Brendan turned halfway, until he heard another strange word; cold-plasmics.

“Who’s out there?” he shouted.

The voices had fallen silent, followed by a whoosh.

Nobody uses words like that. He shook his head once—maybe he was just tired.

Brendan still wanted to search for them. He climbed downstairs in a jog-like pace. Benny followed and wagged his tail. An idea popped into Brendan’s mind; if someone strange was actually in his backyard, the dog might be able to track their scent. Benny trailed behind him into the family room.

“What are you doing?” his mother asked.

“Just taking Benny out.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Brendan Saimek thought he overheard muffled voices coming from the backyard.

He swallowed hard a few times, his ears were plugged after a long flight from Connecticut to Arizona. Perhaps continue with what he hears? You set it up, but then switch topics He finished unpacking and laid out his school clothes. [His stomach was tied in knots about starting a new high school, and he wanted his new classmates to accept him.] Feels told, explaining why his stomach is in knots

One ear popped, and [he heard more blips of a conversation.] Feels told. Instead of saying he heard things, perhaps show what he heard through dialogue He lumbered closer to his bedroom window, straining to hear what they were saying. [Then he listened in on bits and pieces of an interesting discussion from voices that sounded like a mother and child. He didn’t know for sure if that’s what they were; the night hid them. He continued to listen and picked up on strange words like seeping, rattling slither venom.] Feels told. Try showing this. Also, how does he know it’s interesting if he can’t hear anything?

[He hoped his imagination had been worked overtime.] Feels told. Would actual though might go through his mind here? That could be possible, he’d been on a plane for five hours. [His other ear was still plugged.]There’s a lot of focus on his plugged ears [Either of those could make him think he heard someone say words like that. Right?] Although this is in his voice, it feels told since it’s pointing out something readers ought to assume. Also, he automatically assumes what he's hearing isn't right, which he has no reason to do. He doesn't know these voices are aliens. So why think it's weird and he's hearing things?

Brendan turned halfway, until [he heard another strange word; cold-plasmics.] Feels told

“Who’s out there?” he shouted. Why does this make him shout? So far, he’s been trying to hear what’s being said?

The voices [had fallen] fell silent, followed by a whoosh.

[Nobody uses words like that.] This feels odd here. Perhaps he thinks this right after he hears it? That’s why he shouts? Also, any kid into sci fi could use a word like that, so him being aware that it's more than just a sci fi word feels off He shook his head once—[maybe he was just tired. ] There’s a little too much focus on him “hearing things wrong” in one way or another. He doesn't know there's anything wrong yet

[Brendan still wanted to search for them.] Feels told. Also untrue since he shouted at them, chasing them away He climbed downstairs in a jog-like pace. [Benny followed] Who’s Benny? and wagged his tail. [An idea popped into Brendan’s mind; if someone strange was actually in his backyard, the dog might be able to track their scent.] I like this thought, but this feels told Benny trailed behind him into the family room.

“What are you doing?” his mother asked.

“Just taking Benny out.”

The questions:

1. Does the opening line sound intriguing enough?


For a later chapter, yes. I assume the previous chapter will have the other POV heading to where Brandon lives, so there will probably be a nice transition to this new POV.

2. Are there any show vs. tell issues?

Yes. Most of this feels told, explaining the action and motives and what’s being heard. Try taking those told lines and thinking about how someone who felt that way would act. For example, “Brendan still wanted to search for them” tells readers what Brendan wants and intends to do, it doesn’t show him leaving his room, grabbing a flashlight, getting the dog and sneaking out into the night while thinking, Who’s out there? Maybe the neighbors?

When everything is explained, readers have nothing to wonder about and no reason to keep reading. They don’t need everything spelled out for them if the actions and thoughts of the character imply what they’re doing and why.

Instead if saying Brendan heard voices, perhaps show him peeking out the window, peering into the dark and catching glimpses of something. Show the snippets of dialogue and how Brendon reacts to it. Remember—this is what Brendon hears and thinks, not what you as the author knows is going on. And readers will already have several chapters in the other POV, so they’ll know what’s going on anyway.

(Here’s more on show, don’t tell)

3. Is there enough excitement with Brendon looking for the source of the mysterious voices?

Not yet (readers chime in here), because he’s not excited. He spends most of the time talking about his clogged ears and that he’s hearing things instead of wondering what’s out there and making assumptions about it.

I also don’t understand why he goes outside. If I heard voices in my yard at night, wouldn’t grab the dog and go look. He has no motive to do such a thing. But he might if, say, he thinks the voices are other kids and he hopes to make friends before school starts. Then it’s logical for him to go see who they are.

(Here’s more on showing character motives)

4. Do Brendan’s background details feel inserted, or does it flow naturally?

The flight part flows naturally, but the rest feels inserted due to the telling. I’d suggest taking the same details and thinking about how Brendan would see them and how he’d react to them. Look through his eyes and imagine what he sees and does. He doesn’t know what you know about the story, so he’ll not pick up on stuff.

(Here’s more on balancing stage direction and description)

Overall, I think the biggest issue here is the telling. If you shift more into Brenden’s POV and show the scene through his eyes, the telling ought to switch to showing and the scene will feel more immediate and exiting. The pieces are all there—strange voices, a kid in a new school and nervous about it, mysterious aliens in the yard he’s not yet aware of—so it’s more a matter of dramatizing this scene so these elements shine through. It’s better than the previous version, but still not quite there yet.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

2 comments:

  1. I think this really is about "telling" issues. Especially, it's about exactly what Brendan hears.

    (And sees. "The night hid them" doesn't do quite justice to a dark window where he just can't spot what might be making those noises. Is there anything he can see, and does that say whether it's mere twilight or a midnight where anything could be hiding? Can there be a hint of his realizing the shadows outside his own bedroom window are still new territory to him?)

    Mainly, I think the scene depends on you zeroing in on just what he hears (and sees), and making it just odd enough but nonthreatening enough that he might actually go out to look, instead of staying in (if it's unsettling but he's not sure it's real) or telling his parents. I'm with Janice; it might make a big difference if some moments about the voices sounded like kids to play with, maybe high-pitched or with a careless, childlike tone. Or it might be that he doesn't plan to go out far, just shine the light out from right near the house's door and see if Bennie barks.

    You're trying to tease Brendan with a situation that's just odd enough to pull him in, and hook us with what that is. I think that's all about the specifics.

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  2. The overwhelming issues here are telling and voice and they combine to leave the reader disbelieving when he rushes down the stairs. There's little for the reader to care about when most of this is told and a boy's voice is absent in the narrative.

    Hearing, in general, is a distraction to the reader. He cares more about popping his ears than the voices. He disbelieves what he hears so the reader follows suit. Instead of selling a mystery, we're sold disinterest, and then, out of the blue, we're told he still wants to look for "them." Huh? The boy consumed with popping his ears and laying out his clothes is now willing to face down a potential axe murderer in a town he doesn't know? In one short sentence he goes from "fussy" to "reckless."

    As everyone else mentioned, what draws him out must be clear and reasonable. Too, "showing" what draws him out AND his reaction to it is what what will make this engaging. Good luck.

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