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Saturday, September 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This MG Opening Clear Enough to Make You Read On?

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 October 28.

This week’s questions:

Is this clear enough for someone to want to read further, is there enough ‘show’.

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

As the school bus turns the corner Luke sees the dog waiting at the bus stop. His stomach tightens, the dog waiting is a sign his parents are still away. Hunter never comes to meet the bus when his parents are at home.

They left in the early hours of the morning six days ago. It’s his father who goes away for a couple of days at a time, when his mother’s with him, they’re never gone for more than 36 hours. This gnawing, hollow feeling in his stomach is too familiar. This is the longest they’ve been away,

Running around in his head is the thought that this time something has happened to them. If that’s true it means he’ll have to decide what to do, where to go. Should he wait longer or should he leave…his mouth goes dry when he thinks about leaving on his own. Life with them is scary, but the thought of life without them is scary too.

As he gets off the bus he feels Hunter push into his leg; he looks down, the dog “grins” up at him. He’s really Mrs B’s dog. He appeared at her kitchen door 12 months ago, around the same time as Luke and his parents came to live at the apartment house. Luke feels drawn to this big scruffy dog; the dog knows when he is alone and needs company. He doesn’t understand how this animal also knows to stay away from him when his father’s home?

My Thoughts in Purple:

As the school bus turns the corner [Luke sees the dog] tellish waiting at the bus stop. His stomach tightens, [the dog waiting is a sign his parents are still away.] telling, explaining why his stomach tightens Hunter never comes to meet the bus when his parents are at home.

They left in the early hours of the morning six days ago. It’s his father who goes away for a couple of days at a time, when his mother’s with him, they’re never gone for more than 36 hours. This gnawing, hollow feeling in his stomach is too familiar. This is the longest they’ve been away,

[Running around in his head is the thought] tellish that this time something has happened to them. If that’s true [it means] telling he’ll have to decide what to do, where to go. Should he wait longer or should he leave…his mouth goes dry [when he thinks about leaving on his own.] telling, explaining why his mouth goes dry Life with them is scary, but the thought of life without them is scary too.

As he gets off the bus [he feels] tellish Hunter push into his leg; he looks down, the dog “grins” up at him. He’s really Mrs B’s dog. He appeared at her kitchen door 12 months ago, around the same time as Luke and his parents came to live at the apartment house. Luke [feels drawn] tellish to this big scruffy dog; the dog knows when he is alone and needs company. He doesn’t understand how this animal also knows to stay away from him when his father’s home?

The questions:

1. Is this clear enough for someone to want to read further?


I don’t know what this is supposed to show, but I get the sense that Luke and his parents are on the run for some reason, and that his father might be abusive or dangerous (or maybe just doesn’t like dogs). They’ve left town, and have been gone long enough that Luke is unsure if he should wait for them or run. I can’t tell yet if they’re running to escape the law or a bad guy, but the hints that Dad might be dangerous nudges it a bit toward the “escape the law” side. I also can’t tell if there’s a prearranged plan for Luke to run if they’re gone longer than a certain amount. Six days seems like a lot of time to have passed.

It’s an intriguing setup, since a kid trying to decide if he should run away suggests a lot of trouble and potential conflict, even though nothing is specifically stated yet (and it doesn’t have to be at this stage).

A few questions I did have: I’m not sure how old Luke is. If he’s an older kid (12 or 13), then being alone isn’t as scary an eight or 10 year old being left alone for six days. Has he been taking care of himself for almost a week and no one noticed?

(Here’s more on opening scenes)

2. Is there enough ‘show’?

Although middle grade often has a more detached and omniscient feel, this did feel a little told and explanatory to me (readers chime in here). I felt more outside Luke’s head being told about his situation than inside his head experiencing it. I don’t know what the intended point of view is, however, and if you’re aiming for third person omniscient, then that extra layer of distance suits the POV. If you’re aiming for third person limited, then it’s more told.

Let’s look a little closer at the words and phrases that made this feel told to me:
As the school bus turns the corner Luke sees the dog waiting at the bus stop.
This points out what Luke sees, it doesn’t show him seeing the dog, such as “Hunter was at the bus stop again.” Since Luke knows the dog’s name, and cares about him, he’d more likely think of the dog by name if this was his POV. He’d also place the detail in a way that relates to his situation—the dog is there again, not just there. Because Luke’s parents have been gone six days, so Luke would have been coming home on the bus for at least four of those days. If Hunter always met him when the parents were away this wouldn’t be the first time this had happened. Odds are Luke would have been waiting to see if Hunter was there every day, growing more and more nervous the closer he got to his stop.

I know it might seem crazy to put so much into a few words, but it’s these types of details that turn a line or paragraph from told to show. It’s looking at the entire context of the scene, not just the few words of a line. There’s a lot going on in this snippet that isn’t coming through yet because of the word choice. It’s the difference between looking at the scene and looking out from within the scene.

(Here’s more on what writers need to know about show, don’t tell)
His stomach tightens, the dog waiting is a sign his parents are still away.
This explains why Luke’s stomach tightens, telling the emotion instead of showing his reaction and letting figure out why from the context.
They left in the early hours of the morning six days ago. It’s his father who goes away for a couple of days at a time, when his mother’s with him, they’re never gone for more than 36 hours. This gnawing, hollow feeling in his stomach is too familiar. This is the longest they’ve been away,
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this paragraph, but paired with the other told words, it comes across more as an explanation than what Luke is thinking.

(Here’s more on internalization and third person)
Running around in his head is the thought that this time something has happened to them.
This tells us he’s thinking, it doesn’t show the thought: “Something must have happened to them.”
If that’s true it means he’ll have to decide what to do, where to go.
This tells us what it all means and what he’ll have to decide, it doesn’t how him trying to figure out what to do. But he does think this next, which is good.
Should he wait longer or should he leave…his mouth goes dry when he thinks about leaving on his own.
It starts off showing him trying to figure out what to do, then slips back into telling by explaining his physical reaction and why he’s having it. “His mouth goes dry” shows it, and you can let readers guess that it’s dry because he’s scared about being on his own.
As he gets off the bus he feels Hunter push into his leg;
This tells what Luke feels, it doesn’t show the action. “Hunter pushes against his leg” shows.
Luke feels drawn to this big scruffy dog; the dog knows when he is alone and needs company. He doesn’t understand how this animal also knows to stay away from him when his father’s home?
There are multiple tells in this, all explaining the emotions and why Luke and the dog feel the way they do. It’s also explaining the relationship between these two from afar. We’re told Luke feels drawn to the dog, not “Luke hugs Hunter” or something to show Luke caring about the dog. The narrative distance is just far enough away that I don’t feel in Luke’s head but outside looking down.

(Here’s more on narrative distance and telling)

Overall, I’m not so sure this is a telling issue as much as it’s a point of view issue. I suspect shifting more into Luke’s POV and showing the scene through his eyes would fix a lot of the distant and told areas. If you wanted to keep the omniscient narrator, I’d suggest showing more of the action and the thoughts that suggest what you’re explaining here. Think about what Luke would do, think, or say that would suggest (show) he cares about Hunter even though his worries about what Hunter being there means. Use some internalization to characterize Luke and better show what he’s feeling and why he’s concerned. I suspect you know what’s going on here well, but the emotions and subtext aren’t making it to the page just yet. Once they do, this ought to be a good opening.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Two things Janice said that I think are vital.

    First, showing his age-- any child protagonist needs us to see his age as soon as possible, because 12 really is hugely different from 10, even if he weren't contemplating going into hiding alone. You might have a good way to work this in: he's coming home from school, so he might think a moment about his class (maybe in the sense of how he has to hide that his parents are away) and mention what grade he's in.

    Second, the sense of "the dog was there *again*." I love how you chose this moment to show that his parents have already been gone for days longer than they ever have; seeing Hunter there isn't new, it's more a tightening of what he already suspects. So the more you can capture that sense of being in the process of accepting what seems to have happened, the stronger the scene is. Better yet, it makes us feel the uniqueness of how he's lived before this, knowing his parents might not come back but seeing they always have before. That might be the most interesting thing about this character so far, so we really want to be immersed in it.

    (Related to this, he mentions "should he leave" and nothing more. That's such a powerful concept for a child, we really want just a little context right then about how it's possible. If he's a teenager or a child genius who intellectually knows how to run away, that's very different from being 8 and having a last-ditch phone number he hates to call.)

    One last thing: the last paragraph actually is a little awkward to go from Luke as "he" to "He's really Mrs. B's dog. He appeared at..." Of course you match that "he" to "dog", but you give the pronoun before the word that flips its meaning. Also you're trying to reorient us to show how Luke and Hunter met through their separate connections to someone you haven't mentioned so far (Mrs. B), so there are more small leaps of understanding needed in the same lines, and they all add up to slow the reader down. At a minimum, I think it should be "Hunter's really Mrs. B's..."

    This is such a distinctive situation Luke's in, with his parents probably gone after all the times they came back-- mixed in with the other side, how he might be a bit afraid of them (or is that just worries about life on the run?). You've picked a superb moment to capture part of this, so the better you can tap into exactly what it means for his state of mind and pick which related facts to make clear, the better you can do it justice.

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  2. Just my opinion, but if you are going to use present tense, it might be better to use first person to bring the reader in closer to the protagonist.

    "Hunter is at the bus stop waiting for me again. My stomach tightens. Mum and Dad must still be away. Hunter never comes to meet me when they're home."

    Just a thought.

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  3. The first person is a good point. And even if you don't want to use it for the finished book it's a good exercise. When I've had places where I felt my scene was a little too detached and seen through my eyes rather than my protagonist's, I'd re-write it in 1st person to see if I could flesh out how my 12 year old character would view what's happening, and then change it back to 3rd.

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  4. I agree with what's been said. I'll also add the second paragraph is backstory and slows the opening. It can come later, build the tension first.

    Congrats on writing and volunteering. That is a huge accomplishment! Best of luck.

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  5. Thank you Janice and everyone, your comments make the process clear and I like the idea of writing a scene in 1st POV and then re-writing. I'm grateful for the time you've taken to give me a boost along.
    Jan Bull

    ReplyDelete
  6. I notice that no-one has commented on the comma errors - use of commas in places where a full stop or semi-colon would be correct.

    ReplyDelete