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Saturday, July 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Scene Working?

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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 4.

This week’s questions:

1. Is the scene working?

2. Did it make you want to read on?


Market/Genre: Psychological Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I finished losing a long argument with my employer's editor over a missed deadline. I had to call Reed, relay the University Press's urgent displeasure, but a break for a stretch and tea came first.

Except it didn't. My phone trilled. My sister. She wanted to set up a video call. I didn't want to see her or talk to her.

"You can at least do that much--that little," she said.

I walked away years ago. She made her choice, to stay. She kept trying to drag me back.

She talked, on and on, her tone flat, not about to stop until I agreed to the video call or hung up. In the past, Marissa hung up, and the sense of the usual order of things gone astray shook me.

“Tomorrow, “I said. I calculated the three hours time difference between Oakland and Marissa in Saginaw, “Three pm my time.”

No real way to calculate the distance between us.

Marissa came into focus on my laptop, face drawn, deep lines on her forehead, around her mouth and nose, pasty skin. Four year between us yet from her face, the limp gesture of her raised hand, she might be over seventy, not sixty-five.

"You look good.” Her lips thinned as if saying the words stung.

“How’s Mother?”

"Up till yesterday, enjoying herself.”

A chill up my spine. Mother’s enjoyment had a price. Not one she paid.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I finished losing a long argument [I’d like to see some stronger wording here – if it’s a losing argument, have her cut it off – ‘long’ is too weak for an opening as well] with my employer's editor [this forced me to stop and parse out what it meant regarding her position] over a missed deadline. [is this her missed deadline? Was the argument to explain that or to ask for an extension? I need to know the stakes here.] I had to call Reed [I don’t know who Reed is, so don’t know why this is a big deal. Add ‘now’ and we have a small feeling of aggravation at least], relay the University Press's urgent displeasure, [this doesn’t seem like what someone would say/narrate and still doesn’t tell me what the problem is – what all this means] but a break for a stretch and tea came first.

Except it didn't.

My phone trilled. My sister. She wanted to set up a video call.

I didn't want to see her or talk to her.

“You can at least do that much--that little,” she said.

I walked away years ago. She made her choice, to stay. She [‘and’ could smooth this out] kept trying to drag me back.

She talked, on and on, her tone flat, not about to stop until I agreed to the video call or hung up. In the past, Marissa hung up, [feels like something is missing here – ‘was the one who’ (?) to support the last bit of the sentence] and the sense of the usual order of things gone astray shook me. [this piqued my interest]

“Tomorrow, “I said. I calculated the three hours [is this important to say?] time difference. between Me in Oakland, Marissa in Saginaw. “Three pm, my time.” [changes here only to show how you could maintain the terse, tense style]

No real way to calculate the distance between us. [this ‘hit home’ for me]

Marissa came into focus on my laptop, [is it tomorrow now? We need a time stamp or transition here] face drawn, deep lines on her forehead, around her mouth and nose, pasty skin. Four years between us yet from her face, the limp gesture of her raised hand, [this doesn’t ring true as a marker of agedness – maybe very thin, pronounced veins, trembling?] she might be over seventy, not sixty-five. [this, to me, just isn’t enough of an age difference to create the impression I think you want – perhaps just: might be seventy-five, not sixty-five?]

“You look good.” Her lips thinned as if saying the words stung. [really liked this, immediate visual]

“How’s Mother?”

“Up ‘til yesterday, enjoying herself.”

A chill up my spine. Mother’s enjoyment had a price. Not one she paid.

The questions:

1. Does the scene work?

Yes, overall. (readers chime in please)

On your protagonist, my impression is that she’s a strong woman who has made some difficult choices, has endured some kind of horror in her past, and is a fighter. This is a protagonist I can get behind and cheer on.

Now, about that opening paragraph. It’s a bit weak – too much like walking into the midst of something as a stranger and never finding out what’s what, so we just shrug and continue on our way.

There is confusion about what her work position is and whether she’s arguing to explain the missed deadline or defending someone else’s missed deadline or asking for an extension on the missed deadline. Once again, shrug and walk on.

I don’t know who or what Reed is, so I don’t care that she has to call him. She’s willing to put off the call until after a stretch and tea, so he can’t be too important.

I am further confused by the use of ‘urgent displeasure’. I’d like to believe this phrase has some snark behind it, but that isn’t indicated. I also have trouble putting these two words together and deciding on a meaning.

Ultimately, I’d like to see stronger language used from the outset. Language that launches the overall clipped style, which supports the idea that the character is no-nonsense and cuts her losses – though this may be a more recent skill she’s adopted.

It’s a losing argument – so she can be shown making that determination, and then cutting it short. Then, internal thought could reveal the need to call Reed. Perhaps, to her mind, Reed is an idiot (or a bully or contrary or ?) and calling him will be a PITA. Internal thought here will allow the reader to hear her irritation, understand a bit why losing this argument involved multiple losses, and maybe her opinion of Reed to boot.

This opening paragraph could easily be strengthened. The rest of the material shows you can do this – just let her be herself from the very first word.

The scene with her sister works well overall. However, there is the leap from ‘today’ to ‘tomorrow’ and the video call, without any transition. This is the only real flaw I see, and it must be fixed or every reader will be thinking their copy of your book has missing sentences. It would seem more natural to have the protagonist, whose name I do not know (why not?), set the call up for that coming afternoon. No matter when the call happens, you will need to cover that time transition.

My notes push for some stronger definitions to carry and punctuate the scene. Like the indication that the sister looks older than her age. A small thing, but when done well it allows the unfettered bonding of reader to character.

In this case, it’s obvious that the comparison is one sister to the other, not to other women in their age group. So, perhaps some internal thought observations: (for example) Marissa’s hand description and the MC observing her own hand, with strong, smooth-skinned fingers that want to punch the Esc key.

So, strengthen the opening paragraph, maintain the clipped style regarding the MC, and take us from the day of the argument to when the video chat happens.

(Here's more on opening scenes)

2. Would you read on?

Yes. I like the Main Character already and the last line perfectly creeps me out. I must know more! So many questions pop up, related to information already hinted at. She left, sister didn’t. Distance between them for a reason, what reason? Just how creepy is Mom?

Being a life-long Mid-westerner, I know what it means when people from the middle-lands run to one of the coasts. It means bad stuff has happened – and I will read on to find out just what ‘bad stuff’ fuels this story.

(Here's more on hooking a reader in the 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.

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

2 comments:

  1. If this is the story's first scene, it masters the most important thing: it picks the right moment and exploits it well. We get an immediate --but not rushed-- sense that something about her mother and the sister who enables her is real trouble, and of course we want to know more.

    Lots of great touches along the way too: "the distance between us" (and the fact that she gave the call time in her own time, not Marissa's), and the descriptions of Marissa.

    I'm with Maria, the opening paragraph has too many unclear who's-who combinations to let us get off to a comfortable start. It could also use a hint in the first line of what's really about to happen, either a mention of the future or an ominous symbol in the moment; a first line is too valuable to waste. (And it loses momentum when you say the call to Reed is "urgent-- but a stretch and tea come first," but with some clarity this could be a sign of how she doesn't let others push her too far. Until Marissa, of course.)

    The second paragraph, and then the fourth, bother me a little. Extra-short sentences work best in combination with normal-sized ones, while stringing several together often looks awkward. (Only sometimes; the last paragraph pulls it off well because it's covering less information with more weight.)

    Marissa needs to use the heroine's name. It's our best chance to put a handle on this protagonist quickly.

    The paragraph about who hangs up hides its key point: that somewhere during the call she *realizes that this time* Marissa won't hang up first, so she has to agree or hang up herself. That's what disturbs her, and also why she agrees, but you talk around that core fact.

    (And skipping to the video call without a time stamp or *-marked line break really won't work.)

    When she asks "How's Mother?" we need a hint that she's bracing herself for drama. You said earlier that she'd had reasons to walk out on her family, and you confirm it right afterward, so we don't want to have this mother mentioned as if she were just an ordinary subject.

    You've got a real grasp of your drama and the tone to convey it here-- and we've barely seen a hint of what's going on! If you control the transitions and clarifyers as well as you do the key emotional moments, this can really sing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks! Very helpful.

    ReplyDelete