Sunday, October 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Showing and Telling in a Middle Grade Novel

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: Five 


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

This week’s questions:

1. Does the opening interest you? Why? Or why not?

2. Is the show/tell balance okay?

3. Do you want to know where the story is going?

4. Does the tone seem right for the audience?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Historical

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Pushing open the gate in the picket fence Luke looks at the white weatherboard house with the red tiled roof. It is a lovely old house built in 1901 no one could tell him whether it had been a family home or if it had been an apartment house from the beginning. It doesn’t make much difference to Luke; all he knows or cares about is that life changed for him here.

This is the apartment house where he has lived with his parents for the last twelve months. And it is twelve months, today. They moved in on the day of his birthday, he was just turning 11.

He remembers walking through this gate after his parents. From the verandah of the last apartment an old, grey-haired woman stepped off holding a covered plate in her hands. She made her way down the path with a welcoming smile and then suddenly stopped, turned around and quickly returned to the verandah, then through her front door. They heard it close.

“See Joe I told you this would be a perfect place for us for a while. All three residents are old like that one and maybe have dementia like she obviously has.” He hates the sound of his mother’s voice when she’s being cruel.

That’s the first time he saw Mrs Burtell, the person who has made his life better in so many ways. It’s because of her and Doc Burrow that his parents have continued to think this is a safe place to stay. They haven’t packed up and left on a moments notice. That’s been a constant relief for Luke.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Pushing open the gate in the picket fence [Luke looks at the white weatherboard house with the red tiled roof.] feels told It is a lovely old house built in 1901 no one could tell him whether it had been a family home or if it had been an apartment house from the beginning. [It doesn’t make much difference to Luke; all he knows or cares about is that life changed for him here.] Feels told. Also, if the house makes no difference to him, why does he describe when it was built?

This is the apartment house where he has lived with his parents for the last twelve months. And it is twelve months, today. They moved in on the day of his birthday, he was just turning 11. Feels like infodumped backstory

He remembers walking through this gate after his parents. From the verandah of the last apartment an old, grey-haired woman stepped off holding a covered plate in her hands. She made her way down the path with a welcoming smile and then suddenly stopped, turned around and quickly returned to the verandah, then through her front door. They heard it close.

“See [Joe] who’s Joe? I told you this would be a perfect place for us for a while. All three residents are old like that one and maybe have dementia like she obviously has.” [He hates the sound of his mother’s voice when she’s being cruel.] Nice line

That’s the first time he saw Mrs Burtell, the person who has made his life better in so many ways. [It’s because of her and Doc Burrow that his parents have continued to think this is a safe place to stay.] Feels told They haven’t packed up and left on a moments notice. [That’s been a constant relief for Luke.] Feels told

The questions:

1. Does the opening interest you? Why? Or why not?


Not yet, because I feel too detached from the narrator (readers chime in here). It’s mostly explaining how Luke got here and flashing back to his first day instead of starting with a problem to solve. I’m also not getting a sense of who Luke is and what his life is like. With no goal, and no sense of character or stakes, there’s nothing to hook me and draw me in.

(Here’s more on writing strong opening scenes)

2. Is the show/tell balance okay?

It feels very told to me, but telling depends a lot on the narrative distance. If your intent is an omniscient narrator, a certain level of telling is acceptable (it’s the nature of that particular POV). But if you want this to feel more in Luke’s head, it’s not working yet. I think part of the problem is that the story hasn’t started yet and this is all setup, so you’re “telling” readers how Luke got to this point and explaining generally what’s wrong. There’s no action driving the story yet.

(Here’s more on what every scene needs)

No matter what POV-style you’re using, there are certain lines that feel like explanation. Let’s look at those closer:
Luke looks at the white weatherboard house with the red tiled roof.
If Luke if the POV-character, if he describes it I know he looked at it. Telling me he looked can feel redundant, especially when you go on to describe the home and talk about it in more detail that Luke doesn’t care about.
It doesn’t make much difference to Luke; all he knows or cares about is that life changed for him here.
This tells me his life changed, but I see no examples of his life at all. There’s very little internal thought and no action. And if he doesn’t care, then why give history of the house or wonder whether it was an apartment or not? That’s not Luke thinking, it’s the author.
This is the apartment house where he has lived with his parents for the last twelve months. And it is twelve months, today. They moved in on the day of his birthday, he was just turning 11.
This explains how he got there and what his basic situation is, but again, I have no sense of Luke in the voice or words used. It’s his birthday, and I’d think he’d be excited about that, but he’s talking about how long he’s lived in the house and what day he moved in. That doesn’t sound like a boy on his birthday.
That’s the first time he saw Mrs Burtell, the person who has made his life better in so many ways. It’s because of her and Doc Burrow that his parents have continued to think this is a safe place to stay. They haven’t packed up and left on a moments notice. That’s been a constant relief for Luke.
This also explains his situation and how Luke feels about it. I don’t see how his life is better, or why it was bad beforehand. I have no sense that they might leave at any time. I also have no sense that this is Luke thinking these things, but the author.

It sounds like there’s a lot of interesting potential conflict in Luke’s life, but none of it is making it to the page yet. You know what’s wrong in his life, so I’d suggest showing a situation that conveys that. What’s a normal day like for him? Does he lurk on the fringes watching for threats? Does he keep his most treasured possessions with him in case he needs to run? How would a boy who grew up in whatever his homelife is act?

(Here’s more on show, don’t tell)

3. Do you want to know where the story is going?

Not yet, because I don’t see the story. It hasn’t started yet, and is focusing on explaining the setup. There’s no goal for Luke, no immediate problem facing him. There’s no actual action yet, just description and backstory.

I think there will be a cool story here once all the setup is done, and I suspect there’s a moment later in the chapter or story that’s the real beginning. Don’t worry so much about explaining the story situation to readers, they’ll figure it out as they read. Focus instead on a character living their life, facing a problem, and reacting to that problem. This classic goal-conflict-decision structure will create the scenes that move the plot.

(Here’s more on the difference between good and bad setup)

4. Does the tone seem right for the audience?

Not yet. It sounds adult to me, and the narrator is looking at this as an adult would, not an eleven-year-old boy. Writer Unboxed recently did a fantastic post about middle grade characters being the center of their worlds, and I’d suggest taking a peek to get into the head of the MG character. I think it will help you get into the head of such a character.

However, you do see books with strong omniscient narrators telling the story as well, and those books do feel more “adult” in tone, but the focus is still on the kids and their problems. If you’re going for that style of outside narrator, who’s “watching all and telling the tale,” you might look at some of the MG novels with omniscient narrators that worked well for some insights: The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Name of This Book is Secret (first person, yet still an outside narrator), The Maze of Bones. It really depends on what you’re trying to do here.

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

Middle grade fiction can be challenging, because you need to capture the child’s voice, but still make it readable for kids. A little telling is more common in MG fiction, but too much of it losing that kid voice. No matter how close in the POV you are, it still needs to feel like child characters with child-centric problems.

(Here’s more on how point of view can solve most writing problems)

Overall, I think if you focus on what’s happening in Luke’s life and how he solves whatever problems are facing him, and you get to a problem right away, a lot of the other issues will work themselves out. Instead of describing a situation, show a scene unfolding and a character driving that scene.

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.

5 comments:

  1. If you find a conflict to start the story, it will ease you into the opening better. Such as arguing with his mother - which could be the vehicle to pour his heart and problems out easier. Porch instead of verandah would be a much better selection of words. Verandah made me stop. You don't want your readers to stop. Good luck!!

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  2. Lori, thank you, particularly the word porch, of course I'm an Australian and veranda is our word. Names of things that are different has also been on my research list and that one slipped through. Janice gave me much to think about and there were many 'doh' moments. Jan :)

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  3. Thanks Janice, you’ve given me much to think about and I will take the opportunity to resubmit, probably at a much later date. I appreciate your time and also your kindness.
    Ciao
    Jan

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  4. I didn't think the telling was too noticeable. And, except for a few missing commas, I was drawn into the story. With some tweaking, as suggested, it could be a very strong lead in. I'm wondering what happens next, and what led to this situation. Verandah is okay if your audience is Australian. Personally, I enjoy the differences in regional/national English, but if the character is of one nationality, his/her language should match.

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  5. Christy, thank you, your comment "I'm wondering what happens next....." made my heart feel good. And the character is American so the change to 'porch' is a given.

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