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Saturday, September 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Narration Confusing?

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 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: One


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 15.

This week’s questions:

Can I jump around in time (and some POV) in a short story? 


The narration has both present and past tense. Does this confuse the reader? 

Does the title work as a play on the day and the outcome to the story? 

Am I asking the reader to intuit and deduce too much. For example, the man wants to kill himself on a Sunday because that is the day his wife died? The wife helped the man make decisions, and he recalls her words because of the sunshine, and that forces him to make a decision. Too much?

Market/Genre: Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The protagonist prepares to commit suicide and goes about his routine as if an normal Sunday. Through his mental gyrations we have a glimpse into his loss--dead wife--and life, and what others think of him. The ending ---spoiler alert--- is that the sunshine reminds the man of his wife's words on her last Sunday, "no one should die on a sunny day." The reader intuits the man delays his suicide and prepares for his Monday routine.

A Sun Day

I wake up thinking, same-old, same-old. The kind of day makes me want to hang myself.

My cell vibrates as I enter the kitchen. A news text flashes faster than the news itself. Bold headlines. A disaster somewhere I don’t recognize. She called me a geographic Neanderthal. I want to tell her I'm right. A country that wasn’t a country when we first met forty-five-years ago. Nothing's permanent.

I'll do it after my morning routine. She always said routines prevented chaos later.

Bagels are for Sunday. My weekdays and Saturdays are muffin and coffee takeout from the local shop. Sunday I spread butter over a toasted bagel. I set a single table setting and sip my coffee. No rush, I have all day. Waiting for my bagel to brown, I use the spare minutes for final thoughts. My treacherous mind allows Friday’s encounter to intrude my solitude.

“They adore you,” said the director of children’s services. “Why did you frighten them?” Her words grate, unwelcome in my house.

“Kids,” I said in a somber tone, “life is a series of disappointments. Pets die, like everyone. There are no exceptions to death.” I held the lifeless class rabbit high for all to see.

“There are better ways to tell them,” chided the director so self-assured as if the world’s expert on childhood psychology.

"Why obfuscate the obvious? The bunny’s dead.” I lowered my eyes, but now I can’t recall why.

The director’s huffing curled my body hairs. “They didn’t need to see it.”

“They’re not immune. A good lesson. Prepare them for life’s many miseries,” I said while looking at the empty cage behind her. She asked if I needed time off. I said...

My Thoughts in Purple:

A Sun Day

I wake up thinking, same-old, same-old. The kind of day makes me [want to hang myself.] He says this, but there’s no reason to think he actually means it, as this is a common “I’m unhappy and sick of things” comment people say

My cell vibrates as I enter the kitchen. A news text flashes faster than the news itself. Bold headlines. A disaster somewhere I don’t recognize. [She] I’m not sure who this refers to unless it’s been made clear earlier in the story called me a geographic Neanderthal. I want to tell her I'm right. A country that wasn’t a country when we first met forty-five-years ago. [Nothing's permanent.] I like the concept of “nothing’s permanent” thematically, but it’s not clear that the wife has passed, or that this is even his wife

[I'll do it after my morning routine.] Unless I know already he plans to commit suicide, this reads as if he’ll tell her he’s right after his routine [She always said] This is a hint that she’s dead routines prevented chaos later.

Bagels are for Sunday. My weekdays and Saturdays are muffin and coffee takeout from the local shop. Sunday I spread butter over a toasted bagel. I set a single table setting and sip my coffee. [No rush, I have all day.] Again, this feels as though he refers to his breakfast Waiting for my bagel to brown, I use the spare minutes for [final thoughts.] This is the first clear hint that he’s planning to do something My treacherous mind allows Friday’s encounter to intrude my solitude.

“They adore you,” [said the director] the director had said to position this in the past of children’s services. “Why did you frighten them?” [Her words grate,] Perhaps add something that places this in the here and now, such as “in my mind” or the like to show the memory of them grates unwelcome in my house.

“Kids,” [I said] I’d said to keep it in the past in a somber tone, “life is a series of disappointments. Pets die, like everyone. There are no exceptions to death.” [I held] I’d held the lifeless class rabbit high for all to see.

“There are better ways to tell them,” chided the director so self-assured as if the world’s expert on childhood psychology.

"Why obfuscate the obvious? The bunny’s dead.” [I lowered] I’d lowered my eyes, but now I can’t recall why.

The director’s huffing [curled] had curled my body hairs. “They didn’t need to see it.”

“They’re not immune. A good lesson. Prepare them for life’s many miseries,” [I said while looking] I'd said at the empty cage behind her. [She asked] She’d asked if I needed time off. [I said] I’d said...

The questions:

1. Can I jump around in time (and some POV) in a short story?

Yes, as long as it’s clear and readers can follow. However, the way this is written, it’s not really jumping in time so much as remembering what happened. The memory isn’t quite a flashback because the narrator makes comments about it during the memory, such as “I lowered my eyes, but now I can’t recall why.” So you’d want to shift the memory into past tense, with “I’d said” and the like.

To make the past sections a true flashback, you'd eliminate all present-day commentary. Then you could keep it as is. Though perhaps use "the director had said" at the start to clearly show this is the past.

(Here's more on writing flashbacks)

2. The narration has both present and past tense. Does this confuse the reader?

This doesn’t strike me as a story told in two tenses, but a present-tense story that uses memories to inform on the present.

I didn’t find the time jump confusing since it says “remembered what happened Friday” before the memory, but there’s little context or explanation for much of the snippet, and I did find that a bit confusing. If I hadn’t known going in this was about suicide, I wouldn’t have gotten that from the opening when he’s making breakfast. It also talks about his day, but I have no idea what he does or why he was there with the rabbit. There wasn’t enough overall context about what the narrator is doing or going through to help ground me in the story.

I’d suggest more internalization from him to show how he’s feeling and where his mind is, so readers can see he’s thinking about ending his life. I can tell he’s unhappy, but one “hang myself” isn’t clear enough that he actually plans to do it.

(Here’s more on adding internal thought)

3. Does the title work as a play on the day and the outcome to the story?

If what you explained in the background notes is clear in the story, then yes, though it won’t be clear until the story is over.

4. Am I asking the reader to intuit and deduce too much. For example, the man wants to kill himself on a Sunday because that is the day his wife died? The wife helped the man make decisions, and he recalls her words because of the sunshine, and that forces him to make a decision. Too much?

I’d say yes (readers chime in here). Much of what’s in this story depends on knowing what the story is about before you start it. I’m also leery of the ending, since you say “The reader intuits the man delays his suicide and prepares for his Monday routine.” If that’s not clear, readers might not pick up on it, especially since much of the story is too subtle to get those ideas across so far (this could change in the rest of the text however).

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

I think you can do what you want, as long as you give readers enough information and context to figure these things out. So far, there’s nothing here about the importance or meaning of Sunday. Most of the scene is about the rabbit and the class, which shows he’s unhappy and thinking about death, but this could be due to his wife’s “recent” (It appears) death. I get more grieving from him than suicidal, despite the hang myself line. He’s bored, grieving, lonely, trying to stick to his routine even though he’s unhappy with it. I don’t get the sense that he’s considering killing himself.

Perhaps if he had more actual preparation for the suicide, it would be more obvious. He might think about his wife and wonder what she’d choose about A versus B types of suicide, such as hanging or pills for example. You don’t have to be that obvious with it, but you could say something like, quiet and painless versus a ghastly spectacle. Remembering the wife would also show more about what he’s lost and why he’s so sad.

(Here’s more on using ambiguity in your stories)

Although short stories are often more “slice of life” tales, the lack of a clear goal also makes this a little harder to keep up with. I don’t know what the narrator wants or what his problem (conflict) is yet. I can see the unhappy emotions, and I know it’s about death, but he isn’t doing anything but sitting there thinking, so there’s no real action driving the story.

Overall, I think this is more a clarity issue than anything else. It’s trying to be a little too subtle, so readers can’t get fully on board with what’s happening or understand what the details mean. The narrator’s thoughts aren’t about suicide or getting ready to die, they’re on things that make him unhappy. Clarifying the internalization and providing more context should help readers understand what’s going on better.

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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10 comments:

  1. Completely agree. This really commits to going into the character's viewpoint, but that does add risks like this. It's not easy to say suicidal without saying suicidal-- or even if you do.

    A story like this depends on how we get to know the character and his struggle, and part of that is how you present the fact that he's thinking of killing himself. A "want to hang myself" in the first line might actually work against you, because it sounds like an expression and a sign that he can't mean it literally. You might change it to a firmer start like "Maybe this is the day I'll hang myself" or you might leave it unclear but make work harder to build up that clarity in the next pages.

    Either way it's about building up how we care about him. I don't think we can tell if that progression is too subtle because most of the arc doesn't fit in this submission. (I have a hunch that the dead rabbit might not be right, that we should have a glimpse of his goodness or more of what he's lost to make us care before we get that picture of how bitter he is, but that's without reading the bigger picture.)

    So far, it seems nicely plugged into the man's head, but I don't see this starting to build the momentum it needs-- or it could we be that it cut off just as it was starting to. Hard to say.

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    1. Hi Ken—great review. I like your suggestion, "Maybe this is the day I'll hang myself." I'll play with this, make it even more certain and leave out the "maybe" or add "This is the Sunday I'll hang myself, no more excuses."
      Later in the story, the protagonists reviews his plan for hanging—the rope, the joist hole, the ceiling bolt, ladder, etc. Too late in the story? Thanks and if you have a story that you'd like me to critique, let me know. Cheers, Charles

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    2. Glad if I could help. I think reviewing his suicide tools is a valid way to build interest, it's all in where it fits in the pacing and how that mixes with everything else. One version of the story might take place completely while he's going to get the rope, so it's a built-in ticking clock that if something doesn't change his mind before he brings it back to the site he'll go through with it. Or it could be more complex, in any number of ways. It's all in the pacing.

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  2. Reading the background first tainted the story for me. Without the background, all of Janice's notes about not knowing who is who and what is being contemplated apply.

    At the point of the exchange with the director, I wondered if this stoic morbidity was a new behavior or if he'd always been that selfish.

    I would want to know, somehow, that the wife had died, and when. This would give me a starting point for assigning character attributes -- what kind of man this character is and how long he's been suffering the grief that is powering his actions.

    I do like the voice. This portion wasn't confusing, but again, Janice's advised changes to past tense helps with clarity.

    I would want to read on -- not particularly for any hook, but because I'd read the opening explanation and would want to see how things played out.

    This would be a very quick read for me because the premise is familiar: a memory/remembrance of the lost loved one slips into the mind of the grieving, potentially suicidal person and stays death's hand.

    The title is a bit 'on the nose', but would still work for the readership probably being targeted. Which makes me think: how old is this man? I would think this might be one of the strongest bits of fact that might affect how it was taken in by readers. A young man might have gone stark on the kids, as losing his wife meant no children of his own = bitterness. An elderly man might mean his rationale is that she's gone, so why stay -- alone?

    This could be a lovely little inspirational story. Like some fables, it allows you into what this character is living/experiencing at the moment, and regardless of the particulars, you can apply the 'lesson' of hope to your own life. It should play well with an inspirational magazine or publishing venue.

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    1. Hi Maria—thanks so much for your comments. I'd be pleased to send you the full story for your comments. Is that okay? Where do I send it? If so, can I send a Word document so you can markup or make comments easier? And if you have a piece, you'd like me to critique, please let me know. I'm a novice and as you can tell my grammar's poor, so don't expect much in that area. Cheers, Charles

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  3. I love this story just the way it is. It has just the right amount of hints that made me want to read on. I liked the tone and the fact that he’s treating his suicidical thoughts so casually. It drew me in and I want to know how it ends.
    . As a reader I don’t want to know the background story first. I’d rather get slow reveals which is what the author intended I think. Anyway that’s just my opinion.

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    1. Thanks Rahma. Like you, I enjoy a slow entry. Before writing this story, I reread James Thurber's "Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Looking again, I see he does the vague introduction, but only for one paragraph. By the second we hear Mrs. Mitty's voice. I think I have confused short story style with that of a novel. This is where Janice could provide guidance and contrast the two. But I'll take kudos whenever II Can, so much appreciated. Charles

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  4. Thanks to everyone. I have a clear idea of how to improve—not sure I have the skill. The suicide preparation comes a few paragraphs after those posted which is too late from the comments. I'll move this forward. A lot for me to work on and I'm grateful for everyone's time. I'll do my part to contribute to critiques too. Will I get a notice when something new posts?

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    1. If you subscribe to the comments, then yes.

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  5. Thanks Janice. Somehow I missed ticking the box.

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