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Saturday, June 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Opening Scene?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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 we 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 June 23.

This week’s questions:

Is the internalization, description, or narration too much at this point?

Is there too much background that sounds like an infodump?

Am I telling too much?

Would you want to keep reading?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Twenty three years later, I’m here but she’s not.

I argued with Dad for an hour about doing this when I stopped for dinner on Saturday. After I told him the address that I found for my birth mother, he said that the neighborhood was known for being rundown with a reputation for drugs and crime.

Finally he said, “John. Consider not going into that neighborhood.”

To stop the argument I said, “I’ll think about it,” even though I knew I would still go.

The next day, I pulled in front of her apartment building and looked up and down the street before opening the car door. No problems. The building looked shabby enough with dull, peeling gray paint, broken glass sparkling along the sidewalk, and garbage bags piled by the street side.

There was something much worse than where she lived. When I met the landlord, he told me that she died two weeks before. I wasn’t expecting that. I searched intensely through the internet and what records I could find for six months straight and couldn’t think of anything that I would have done differently.

The landlord unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door to her apartment. We were immediately hit with the smell of overripe, decaying bananas in a hot apartment, overpowering all the other odors. The landlord, who appeared on the thin side and in his mid-seventies, seemed unaffected by the smell. As he walked over to open the kitchen window and get a breeze in the apartment, I quickly walked behind him to the open window, and smelled the cooler, cleaner air. It stopped my gaging.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Twenty-three years later, I’m here but she’s not. [This makes me curious to know right away where ‘here’ is and who ‘she’ is.]

I argued with Dad for an hour about doing this [maintains curiosity, still don’t know what ‘this’ is and want to know] when I stopped for dinner on Saturday. [I would flip this sentence, showing what and when first, then what followed] After I told him the address that I found for my birth mother, [This reveals the ‘where’ and ‘she’ from earlier, as well as the ‘why’, but needs to come first in the paragraph (reason for stopping for dinner)] he said that the neighborhood was known for being rundown with a reputation for drugs and crime.

Finally he said, “John. Consider not going into that neighborhood.”

To stop the argument I said, “I’ll think about it,” even though I knew I would still go.
[The father’s reason for objecting seems odd, forcing me to assume the father has accepted John’s search and is now left with only this objection, that the neighborhood is bad. The paragraph preceding and the dialogue needs to be restructured for clarity and brevity.]

The next day, I pulled in front of her apartment building [is the ‘next day’ also ‘today’? I’m waiting for the POV from the 1st sentence, but this still seems to be reflection//this is where I would use your description of the building] and looked up and down the street before opening the car door. No problems. [what would be a ‘problem’?] The building looked [stronger to make the statement: the building was…] shabby enough with peeling, dull, peeling gray paint, broken glass sparkling on along the sidewalk, and garbage bags piled by the street side. [Not sure where the bags are, at the curb or up against the building]

There was something much worse than where she lived. [I would delete this, the fact he discovers is stronger without it] When I met the landlord, he told me that she [I suggest re-identifying ‘she’] had died two weeks before. I wasn’t expecting that. I searched intensely through the internet and what records I could find for six months straight and couldn’t think of anything that I would have done differently. [I don’t understand what is being defended here – did he stop checking records prior to her death? (missing her obit in the newspaper)]

The landlord unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door to her apartment. We were immediately hit with the smell of overripe, decaying [redundant] bananas in the hot apartment, [this made me wonder if the apartment hadn’t been cleared out since the tenant’s death – 2 weeks ago] overpowering all the other odors. The landlord, who appeared on the thin side [was his size obscured by clothing? My mind put ‘appeared’ with his age, not his body size] and in his mid-seventies, seemed unaffected by the smell. [the landlord immediately heads for and opens a window, obviously to clear the smell out, so it seems he was affected, but perhaps he gave no reaction] As he walked over to open the kitchen window and get a breeze in the apartment, I quickly walked behind him to the open window, and smelled the cooler, cleaner air. It stopped my gagging. [Better logic path would be to state he was starting to gag or was gagging, until he stuck his head out the opened window]

The questions:

1. Is the internalization, description, or narration too much at this point?

Internalization allows me to get into John’s head, which I can’t/don’t. It seems that he argued with his father for an hour about going to a bad neighborhood, not about John searching for his birth mother. This left me to fill in holes with assumptions, such as the father knowing his son had been searching for his birth mother, maybe the father refused to cooperate? We don’t know what triggered the search though.

The only descriptions are of the apartment building, the supposed and now deceased birth mother’s vacant apartment, and the landlord. The building description is sufficient to envision a slum area. There is no internalization about leaving his car parked in such a neighborhood, no concern about theft or now long he should be gone. There is the statement of ‘no problems’, but we don’t know what he deems as a problem, and no comparisons are given, such as “There was only an old woman pulling a cart with groceries and a young couple arguing on the corner, a block away”. So, I envisioned the street as being empty and silent.

The apartment description used only one sense, smell, and assigned the smell to bananas, which can rot in 48 hours in a closed, hot space. So, I wondered if this was a new tenant or if the place had never been cleaned out after the death of the tenant, the woman who might be John’s birth mother.

The landlord description stumbled because the one sense used, sight, seemed unable to discern if the landlord was thin or not. I would think him being thin was easily seen, but his age would be discerned as ‘appearing’ to be in the 70s.

My main reaction to the sample was that I knew nothing about the emotions involved and the premise of the opening sentence, the feeling of that very personal statement, was never expanded upon. We don’t know when it was expressed, but eventually assume it is after he has discovered the woman he’s searching for is dead, and this is a statement of fact, as (perhaps) he comes to grips with his loss of her on so many levels. However, we never come back to that starting point, and are never given a starting reference after that – meaning, he never speaks of the current reality, but only reflects on a brief period (2 days).

We don’t know if his discovery of the supposed birth mother was the culmination of an exhaustive search, triggered by a sudden reveal about his assumed mother, perhaps when she died? We don’t know if the father has refused to cooperate, but the two seem very out of touch, if all he can offer is a limp: ‘don’t go there’. I assume the father either is too grief-stricken to fight his son’s quest any longer or he doesn’t care or thinks his son is nuts, or the son has already gone to other addresses and gotten in trouble. The hour-long argument is pictured as: ‘No Son, don’t go there.’ ‘I’m going, Dad.’ ‘Please, son, it’s a bad neighborhood.’ ‘I’ve got to do it, Dad.’ ‘Just consider not going there.’ ‘Okay, Dad, I’ll think about it.’ They finish their grilled cheese sandwiches in silence.

Kidding, somewhat – but the point is, this opening is about John going to an address he found for his birth mother, after arguing with his dad at Saturday dinner (obviously John doesn’t live with his dad). He arrives at the address, gets the landlord, finds out that the woman died 2 weeks ago. Why does he still want to go to her apartment? We aren’t given that info, or his reaction to her being dead. He goes to the apartment, which stinks of banana, but we don’t know why – has the place been left as is for 2 weeks? He gags, and needs fresh air, and we assume he gags from the smell, not from being in the apartment.

It’s distant overall, even from an “I” perspective. He is told the woman is dead, yet there is no reaction except a defense of his search techniques. Does this mean that he’s defending the idea that if he would have kept checking obits in the paper, he would have known she was dead and then this trip would be moot? This lack of reaction forces us to identify John as having no emotional connection to his search.

(Here's more on writing first-person internalization)

2. Is there too much background that sounds like an infodump?

No. The only background is the mention of a 6-month search and the purpose of the search: to locate his birth mother.

(Here's more on how over explaining can kill a novel)

3. Am I telling too much?

There are some instances, but I don’t feel this is the main difficulty with the material.

(Here's more on fixing telling in your writing)

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Yes, (readers chime in please)I would keep reading just to answer the many questions I have about the story so far. Part of that is my personality, I will want to know why this is written this way, why the assumed protagonist is presented so distantly, what the relationship is between father and son, what happened to prompt the search for the birth mother, what John really felt about, well, anything, and lastly, who was this woman he thought he had found?

I’m troubled and curious about the fact that the searched-for woman died two weeks prior, as that fact, if known to the protagonist at the time, would have made this a trip without hope.

If I were to read on and the text didn’t return to the present reality, and rather continued with reflections, I would not read further. I want this opening to be the mulling over of the end of the search, the dissatisfying end – and what that meant/means to John and his world.

This is a passive opening that is distant enough to give the impression that nothing means much to the protagonist and that his search is not emotion-driven. This may not be the case, but it’s how the material comes across. If the search was once very emotional, and now, so close to the end, it has become a tragic quest, robbed of emotion, then that’s a potent story. But this isn’t projected, and the reflection isn’t given purpose. Even a small addition, such as John’s reaction to the news that the woman he’s been searching for is dead, would help. Showing him justifying going to her apartment – to do what? If nothing else, be in the spot she occupied? Whatever the author chose to express at that point, it would at least give the reader something to relate to, to feel empathy for – to care about.

This might work if presented in brief flash sentences, where it’s more obvious that John is mulling over the events leading up to this trip, this hopeful visit, and questioning what had happened and why. We need him to be grounded as soon as possible, perhaps an interruption or distraction? Or his butt getting sore from the rock he’s sitting on? Readers want to commiserate, to empathize, to feel sorry for – to get inside this character’s head and rummage around – get close to him. With short sentences, real-time reactions to things he’s now re-considering, and a build-up to his conclusion or opinion of what happened, his character can be strong, thoughtful, and accessible. Clear out the logic path and stagger the pace a bit so reader and protagonist can act and react together.

(Here's more on the difference between setup and setup)

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.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

3 comments:

  1. Twenty three years later, I’m here, and she’s not; but that’s the natural order of things, isn’t it? You hear that parents want children to outlive them. I wanted just one moment with her. It wasn’t to be.


    I pulled in front of her apartment and looked before I got out. Gray paint peeled from the building. Broken glass sparkled on the sidewalk. Busted garbage bags lined the curb. 

    The landlord said that she died two weeks ago. I wasn’t prepared to hear that she was dead. I searched through the internet every day for the past six months. I didn’t think I missed anything. 

    The landlord opened the door to her apartment. The odor of rotten bananas filled my nose, and my throat clenched. We rushed to open windows. I stuck my head out one in the kitchen and stopped gagging.

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  2. The critiquer has valid points. However, it's intriguing enough for me to want to read on.

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  3. This has to be a really hard scene to write. After all, it's about the character having whole *layers* of confusion: what uncertain hopes he had about meeting his birth mother, then the anticlimax of knowing she's dead, combined with the irony that after years of delaying and six months of searching he missed her by only two weeks.

    Your first line captures all that irony well, but I think after that you need to hold onto the sense of confusion and regret. The spine of this scene could be some thread in how he looks at all of this and keeps feeling one thing, or swaying between certain feelings. Especially, be careful that the thoughts about meeting his father and arriving to learn she's dead are presented as quick "I had already"s that make it clear they're just catching us up on how he learned when he's just told us, that she's dead. They might add their own spin on the emotion, but they should be about clarifying what's already the real point.

    (Or you could use a different first line and have the narrator still believing she's alive as he's approaching the apartment. But if you're not following the suspense and twist of *as he's learning* she's dead, you want to be clearer the point is that he already knows and the rest is backstory on how he found out.)

    Especially, the "anything that I might have done differently" line could use some clarity. If it means that he doesn't know how he could have found her those key two weeks sooner, it isn't clear, and it doesn't have much emotion or fit into a flow of other emotion here.

    You might use a recurring thought, like "I never got to hear her voice" or that he keeps looking around trying to figure out how her life brought her to this place. One way or another, the key is capturing what is the uppermost feeling in him--or the shifting several feelings--as he goes through such a complex tangle of Might Have Beens. This does seem distant now, and we want to feel more than that.

    ReplyDelete