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Saturday, December 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Chapter Opening Show or Tell?

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: Six 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 21.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this second beginning page satisfactory, or does it need more work?

2. Do you see anymore show vs tell issues?

3. Is there too much narration?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

Note: This is a revision from an earlier submission. This is the opening of chapter four.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Brendan Saimek overheard muffled voices coming from the backyard.

He lumbered toward the window and peered outside. Two silhouettes, one taller than the other were talking to each other. He swallowed hard several times, trying to unplug his ears after a long flight from Connecticut to Arizona. At last, one ear popped.

Brendan strained to hear what they were saying, but their discussion was mostly carried through quieted voices. He picked up on one word, seeping. What did that mean? Bleeding?

Still, he kept eavesdropping, then one of the voices said rattling slither venom.

Did he hear that right? He hoped that all the people in his new town weren’t dumb, and that the other students at his new high school didn’t use stupid language. In between more of their quieted conversation, he caught yet another unfamiliar word; cold-plasmics.

“Who’s out there?” he shouted. Maybe he should introduce himself? They might be some of his new neighbors, but why were they in his backyard? The voices fell silent. They dissolved into the night; a whoosh filled the air. He shut his eyes tightly and shook his head a few times. Was it possible he imagined what he’d just seen? No human being could do that.

Then a warm, slobbery tongue licked his hand.

“Hi, Benny.” Brendan fell to his knees and scratched the puppy’s ears. Benny barked, his tail flipped side-to-side. Brendan followed him downstairs, down the hallway, and into the family room.

He slid the glass door open. Benny charged outside, circled around, and squatted. Benny wandered farther into the backyard with his nose in the lawn. Brendan pulled out his I-phone and aimed his flashlight every place where the dog sniffed, until it beamed on a ladder. His eyes traveled up to a treehouse.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Brendan Saimek [overheard] perhaps “heard?” muffled voices coming from the backyard.

He lumbered toward the window and peered outside. Two silhouettes, one taller than the other were talking to each other. I wanted something here that suggested he couldn’t quite hear them, which triggers him trying to pop his ears He swallowed hard several times, trying to unplug his ears after a long flight from Connecticut to Arizona. [At last, one ear popped.] This is a good transition to the conversation. Now he can hear them

Brendan strained to hear what they were saying, but their discussion was mostly carried through quieted voices. He picked up on one word, seeping. What did that mean? Bleeding? This paragraph feels a little tellish, because it’s explaining what Brendan is doing, not showing the conversation.

Still, he kept eavesdropping, then one of the voices said rattling slither venom. Same here

Did he hear that right? He hoped that all the people in his new town weren’t dumb, and that the other students at his new high school [didn’t use stupid language.] This doesn’t feel like the right reaction. With all the sci fi books and games out there, he’d most likely think they were talking about something where this made sense [In between more of their quieted conversation, he caught yet another unfamiliar word; cold-plasmics.] feels tellish

“Who’s out there?” he shouted. [Maybe he should introduce himself? They might be some of his new neighbors, but why were they in his backyard?] This feels like too many questions The voices fell silent. [They dissolved into the night;] not sure what this means. The voices dissolved or the people? a whoosh filled the air. He shut his eyes tightly and shook his head a few times. [Was it possible he imagined what he’d just seen?] His action shows this, so you don’t need to tell us No human being could do that.

Then a warm, slobbery tongue licked his hand. I wanted him to jump or something here

“Hi, Benny.” Brendan fell to his knees and scratched the puppy’s ears. Benny barked, his tail flipped side-to-side. This could be a good spot for him to talk to the dog about what he just saw, and show his decision to go outside and check it out. Brendan [followed] this feels off. He saw something and wants to go investigate, but it sounds more like he ignores what he just saw and follows the dog for no reason him downstairs, down the hallway, and into the family room.

He slid the glass door open. Benny charged outside, circled around, and squatted. Benny wandered farther into the backyard with his nose in the lawn. Brendan pulled out his [I-phone] iPhone and aimed his flashlight every place where the dog sniffed, until it beamed on a ladder. His eyes traveled up to a treehouse.

The questions:

1. Is this second beginning page satisfactory, or does it need more work?


I think it could benefit from a little more tweaking, but it’s close. I like that Brendan hears voices and goes out to investigate, but as is, he doesn’t feel as though he’s driving the action. He has no stated goal, and his actions don’t suggest he’s heading outside to look for the people in the yard. He just follows the dog for no reason.

I think if you added a few lines to show he wants to go outside and takes the dog for help (or an excuse), then this would flesh out nicely.

(Here’s more on crafting strong goals)

2. Do you see anymore show vs tell issues?

Yes. The conversation in the yard still feels explained, not heard. Catching snippets of a conversation can be hard to write, but perhaps try showing it as actual dialogue. For example:
Quiet words drifted up to him. “…seeping…for him.”

He leaned closer, ears straining.

“…rattling slither venom.”

Did he hear that right?
Something like this shows what’s going on without you having to explain what he hears. Readers can see snippets of the conversation and Brendan can react to it. It also allows you to let Brendan reaction more naturally, like a kid who hears what he’d likely assume to be other kids talking about a cool game or something in the backyard. It didn’t feel right that he immediately goes to “stupid language” when gamers talk about stuff like this all the time. He’d have friends who use weirder words describing the new Halo game.

Brendan also has too many questions that feel there for the reader’s benefit not his. For example:
He shut his eyes tightly and shook his head a few times. Was it possible he imagined what he’d just seen? No human being could do that.
The questions feels too on the nose, especially when his actions and thought all suggest, “did I imagine this?” Try taking those questions and have Brendan act in ways that suggest someone who would think that question.

(Here’s more on avoiding unnecessary internal questions)

3. Is there too much narration?

I think there’s too little, actually. For example, it’s not clear how Brendan goes from the dog wagging his tail to Brendan following him outside. The dog never leaves, yet Brendan follows him. But I suspect Brendan wants to go outside and check things out. That goal isn’t coming through yet, but it’s a good goal for the scene and works to keep the story moving forward.

Since Brendan just moved there, and the voices outside could easily be kids his age talking about a game, it makes sense to me that he might go outside to meet them and maybe make a friend. There’s no reason for him to be wary about what he heard, because nothing said was threatening to him. Readers will know more since this is chapter four, so they’ll have a better sense of why those people are there and what they’re talking about. That will help raise the tension and draw readers in. Brendan thinks they’ll just kids, but readers know they’re aliens.

Show the actions and decisions Brendan makes and why he’s going outside. Think about how he’d react to this as a kid with no idea what those people are. He doesn’t know they’re aliens. He wouldn’t react to their words with anything more than curiosity.

(Here’s more on mixing internal thoughts and action)

Overall, it’s close, and a little fleshing out and clarifying what’s going on would bring this together nicely.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I concur with everything Janice said.

    Brendan is beginning to feel more like a teenage boy and less like an adult masquerading as one, but issues remain. As Janice said, his response to the overheard language doesn't jibe with 2016. A decision needs to be made. Do the voices scare him or are they possible friends. As written, this goes back and forth. "Who's out there," comes across as confrontational to me. If they're possible friends wouldn't be a simple, "Hello?"

    Similar word choice issues that stuck out to me were "dumb" and "stupid," which strike me as middle school or younger, but it's now revealed he's in high school. To me, that doesn't sound like a young man in high school. Again, the reaction to the overheard language is off given the popularity of video games, as Janice said.

    Get inside him, understand HIS motivations, and let him go. The readers will follow along and understand. Resist the temptation to have him act and then explain the actions. The scene is coming together, but more needs done. Learning is always good.

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  2. This may not be what you're looking for, but the combination of "lumbering," his reaction to not understanding the voices, and the way he "shouted" at them characterized Brandon as not very sympathetic. His first response is confrontational, and he's already calling his new classmates stupid before meeting them. Not place-based anger, like these strange northerners/southerners/country/city people, but immediate anger at people he's never met. I can understand anger if it were contextualized as anger towards the move, or anger at not understanding (with some context about feeling insecure at a new place based on past interactions) but what came through was a lumbering, confrontational, mean and blunt character. That's a valid character to write, and I may be alone in feeling this, but I wouldn't really want to read on from here. Then again, I am a little particular about characters whose first response is to run at the thing rather than investigate the thing (so the shouting at them part).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Add my agreement to Janice's comments, but add this small thing:
    a tree house in Arizona pulled me right out of the story. I suppose it's possible, but nowhere that comes to mind when I hear Arizona by itself.

    ReplyDelete