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Saturday, October 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This MG Scene Feel Told or Shown?

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 October 28.

This week’s questions:

Is there enough showing in this scene to make it exciting for a reader? Would they want to read on? Is the balance of showing and telling right or is it still just telling? Does the scene work?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This piece is from around Chapter three. My main character needs to hunt for food and has found some wild pigs. After discovering he doesn't have the gear he needs (but thought he had) he wants to leave but is attacked by one of the animals.

No longer worrying about the noise he stuffed his gear back into his pack and stood to leave. Startled, the sow jumped up and the boar sprinted away with a frightened squeal. The piglets scampered to their mother’s side, squeaking in panic. The sow turned towards Luke. Sleek and muscled, she rippled with tension. Her nostrils flared and, just like a dog, her hackles were raised. Luke spread his hands in front of him and backed away slowly.

“There’s a good girl,” he murmured. “I won’t hurt you.”

A strange clicking noise came from the back of the pig’s throat. Luke stilled. White foam dripped from her jowls and she lowered her head, staring up at him. Fear had made his chest tight and he gasped in shallow breaths.

With a guttural grunt, she charged, foam and spit flying in all directions. Luke turned to flee but she was too fast. A vicious swipe sent him tumbling to the ground. Pain seared up his calf and he cried out as she tore her tusk free of him. She turned and charged again. He flung his arms around his head and curled into a ball, bracing for the impact. The crown of her head slammed into his side, just under his ribcage. She flung her head up and Luke flew through the air. He landed heavily, the air knocked from his lungs. Rolling to a stop at the edge of the stream he lay on his back. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. Frigid water swirled around him and the piglets squealed frantically. The noise and pain overwhelmed him. He couldn’t think straight.

What am I going to do?

My Thoughts in Purple:

[No longer worrying about the noise] depending on your POV, this could feel a little distant he stuffed his gear back into his pack and stood to leave. [Startled, the sow jumped up] here as well and the boar sprinted away with a frightened squeal. The piglets scampered to their mother’s side, squeaking in panic. The sow turned towards Luke. [Sleek and muscled, she rippled with tension.] and here Her nostrils flared and, just like a dog, her hackles were raised. Luke spread his hands in front of him and backed away slowly.

“There’s a good girl,” he murmured. “I won’t hurt you.”

A strange clicking noise came from the back of the pig’s throat. Luke stilled. White foam dripped from her jowls and she lowered her head, staring up at him. [Fear had made his chest tight] telling and he gasped [in shallow breaths.] this basically describes a gasp

With a guttural grunt, she charged, foam and spit flying in all directions. Luke [turned to flee] this describes the intent to act, not the actual action but she was too fast. [A vicious swipe sent him tumbling to the ground.] This describes what the swipe did, it doesn’t show the swipe happening Pain seared up his calf and he cried out [as she tore her tusk free of him.] the reaction to the tear comes before readers see her rip her tusk out. You don’t know he was gouged until after he reacts to it She turned and charged again. He flung his arms around his head and curled into a ball, bracing for the impact. [The crown of her head slammed into his side, just under his ribcage.] This sounds like someone outside of Luke’s POV describing it She flung her head up and Luke flew through the air. He landed heavily, the air knocked from his lungs. Rolling to a stop at the edge of the stream he lay on his back. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. Frigid water swirled around him and the piglets squealed frantically. The noise and pain overwhelmed him. He couldn’t think straight.

What am I going to do?

The questions:

1. Is there enough showing in this scene to make it exciting for a reader?


There’s plenty of action, though much of it feels a little detached to me (readers chime in, as this is a personal preference issue). I don’t feel as though this is Luke experiencing this attack, but someone else is watching Luke get attacked. If you’re using a third person omniscient narrator, or a distant third person point of view, then it fits the description here. If you’re intending this to be a tight or limited third person from Luke’s perspective, it feels a little told.

(Here's more on narrative distance)

The detached feeling is due to a few things. One, there’s no internalization from Luke, so even though he’s being gouged by a wild pig, I don’t know how he feels about it. I see the pain, but not anything from an emotional standpoint. That keeps me at a distance from the action, because it’s observation, not me being there with Luke.

The other is the narrative distance. The action is all described as if someone else was explaining what was going on. Let’s look a little closer at some specific lines:
Startled, the sow jumped up
This tells readers how the sow feels—she was startled. But would Luke actually know that, or would he just see the sow jump up and come at him? It attributes an emotional reaction to the sow.
Sleek and muscled, she rippled with tension.
It’s possible Luke would describe the sow this way, but it seems more like an outside observer or the author telling readers what the sow looks like and how she feels than Luke’s observation.
Fear had made his chest tight
This tells us why his chest is tight. Just saying “his chest tightened” would show it, and allow readers to assume it was due to fear since this is a scary situation.
Luke turned to flee
This explains what Luke plans to do, it doesn’t actually show him doing it. The “to verb” setup explaining motive is pretty minor as tells go, but it’s one more clue that we’re outside his head, not inside it.
A vicious swipe sent him tumbling to the ground.
This is someone outside Luke describe the attack. Luke doesn’t think of what just happened to him in this way. He just knows he got clawed, probably feels a lot of pain, and then wound up on the ground.
Pain seared up his calf and he cried out as she tore her tusk free of him.
We see the result of the attack before we see the actual attack, again shifting the narrative to outside Luke and not in his head.
The crown of her head slammed into his side, just under his ribcage.
This feels outside, not something Luke would say or even know. If he’s in a ball, how can he see what part of her hits him?

Much of this depends on your POV. The farther your intended narrative distance, the less telling this will be. That’s the tricky part with show vs. tell—the POV plays a role in how told something feels. Telling is more acceptable and feels more natural with an omniscient narrator than in first person. Middle grade is often a little more told for younger readers, so it’s more acceptable in that market.

(Here’s more on narrative distance versus telling)

2. Would they want to read on?

Since this is chapter three, I think anyone who cared enough to read this far would keep reading. Luke seems to be in trouble, and readers would likely want to see how he gets out of this.

3. Is the balance of showing and telling right or is it still just telling?

Tough to say without knowing the intended POV style. If you want an omniscient POV, it’s probably fine, though I wanted a little more internalization to better connect to Luke (readers chime in here). I’d suggest tweaking a few of the told bits mentioned above to give it more emotional depth.

If you want a tight third person, it feels more told than shown. I’d suggest adding more internalization, as well as shifting the action into Luke’s head and describing it how he would experience it, not how you as the author knows it happened. For example, “A vicious swipe sent him tumbling to the ground” isn’t what he feels. He probably hears the sow charge, feels the hit, then the pain, he loses his balance and tumbles to the ground. Put yourself in his head and imagine what he’d feel and think as this happened from his perspective.

(Here’s more on tight third person internalization)

4. Does the scene work?

It’s hard to say due to the nature of the scene, but there’s something exciting happening, Luke is in danger, he has to find a way out of this and avoid getting killed, so I imagine readers will read on. It has the right pieces to make readers want to see the outcome. If they care about Luke, they’d probably keep reading. If they didn’t, there’s nothing here that would make them care, since it’s all a little distant. There’s nothing personal from Luke to form a reader/characters connection. But a few lines from him would easily change that, so it’s not a hard thing to tweak.

Overall, I think this depends on what the POV is. I can see fans of omniscient third reading and enjoying this. Those who prefer a tighter POV, will probably have trouble connecting and being drawn in. Either way, I think a little more from Luke personally would strengthen it regardless of the POV and make readers care more, which would draw them in more.

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 agree with the assessment here. I found myself questioning some of the same areas the critique pointed out.

    You could possibly drop the "Startled" part and it still reads very well to have "the sow jumped up..."
    Instead of "frightened squeal, you can have something to describe it like "The boar sprinted away with an ear-piercing squeal." or loud squeal. Perhaps minor changes like that will bring a little more closeness to the narrater.

    This area: "Her nostrils flared and, just like a dog, her hackles were raised."

    I wonder if it reads better dropping the "were" and leaving it like this?:
    "Her nostrils flared and, just like a dog, her hackles raised."

    Lately I find cutting some of the "would" or "were" makes a sentence seem more active than having it. You can try reading the sentence either way and see if it reads better with or without such words.

    That said, I got to work on this with my own drafts. I'm going to be watching this section a bit. I'm at a point between the rough draft and second draft of some scenes and need outside input on them.

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  2. Lots of good advice here about making the description more immediate.

    I'd add, another point with the sow's first attack is that the middle grade reader might not picture what kind of "swipe" it is if you don't draw attention to her tusks right before it. (This would be worth working in anyway: I can see Luke's frightened eyes being pulled to the tusks as the sow advances or right at that foaming charge.)

    Also, you want to be certain the page before this makes clear exactly how big these pigs are. That includes a sense that even though they only come up so high on Luke, they've got a lot more mass, including being much more muscled than the dog you compare them to. The scene is all about that power, and you want to be sure your young readers feel it even though it's so different from just meeting a kid that's taller than them.

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  3. This does feel a bit mechanical to me. But the great thing about third person is an author can vary the narrative distance, even within a scene, let alone an entire story.

    POV and narrative distance are great tools to help an author create mood, tone, and emotion. You just have to practice with them for a while to get the results you want.

    ReplyDelete