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Saturday, November 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Scene Work and Grab Your Attention?

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 December 8.

This week’s question:

Does this scene work and grab your attention? 


Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Mike stood waiting at the end of the driveway of his dad’s farmhouse. An old wooden cabin out in the middle of nowhere-ville, Oglesby, Ill. On either side of the road, a wall of corn blocked out any sign of a neighbor—or possible friend.

He had to do this on his own, he thought, after all he was 12.

Mike turned towards the sound of an engine roaring down the road. Dented and covered in rust, a school bus screeched to a halt in front of him. A cloud of dust swirled up, coating him with a fine layer of dirt. He stepped up to the glass doors when a movement above caught his attention. Kids’ faces plastered to the window, staring, and there wasn’t a friendly smile in the bunch.

Mike stuffed his fist in his pocket as regret welled up inside of him for having told his dad that he wouldn’t need him on his first day at his new school.

Finally, the doors cracked open. From inside the bus, a gruff voice said, “Darn these old bus doors. Give them a little shove, boy. Or, just squeeze through. You look skinny enough.”

Mike wiggled through the small opening and smacked the dust off his white polo shirt and brown khaki pants on the bus’s first step. Then he shook out his brown hair before combing it back in place with his fingertips.

The bus was even shabbier on the inside. A dirty, broken metal box on wheels. If this was their bus, what was his new school like?

My Thoughts in Purple:

Mike stood waiting at the end of the driveway of his dad’s farmhouse, an old wooden cabin [this is a touch confusing, as farmhouse and cabin are two different types of structure] out in the middle of nowhere-ville, [city boy in the country, Mike’s opinion is clear here] Oglesby, Ill. On either side of the road, a wall of corn [I know what this means and like the simple image, but not all readers may ‘get’ it] blocked out any sign of a neighbor—or possible friend. [a hint that Mike might be lonely, which makes me wonder why]

He had to do this on his own, he thought, after all he was 12. [could be shown as internal thought, putting us in his head]

Mike turned towards the sound of an engine roaring down the road. [altering the structure of this sentence will give a transition to hearing the engine, turning, then seeing the bus, which then screeches to a halt] Dented and covered in rust, a school bus screeched to a halt in front of him. A cloud of dust swirled up, [I wonder if the road is unpaved] coating him with a fine layer of dirt. As he stepped up to the glass doors, when a movement above [might want to show a direction here, probably to his left] caught his attention. Kids’ faces were plastered to the bus windows, staring.There wasn’t a friendly smile in the bunch. [I feel badly for Mike, who seems to need a friend.]

Mike stuffed his fist in his pocket as regret welled up inside of him for having told his dad that he wouldn’t need him on his first day at his new school. [again, altering the sentence structure will make this an easier read – the fist stuffing is the initial action, showing his resolution, then he feels regret, which could be expressed by internal thought, pulling us into his head again]

Finally, [I wanted something here to show that the doors weren’t working right, so the use of ‘finally’ makes sense.] the doors cracked open. From inside the bus, a gruff voice said, “Darn these old bus doors. Give them a little shove, boy. Or, just squeeze through. You look skinny enough.” [the first obstacle]

Mike wiggled [this would benefit from a gesture or expression that reveals his feelings]through the small opening and smacked the dust off his white polo shirt and brown khaki pants on the bus’s first step. [we need to place him on the first step, then go to smacking] Then he shook out his brown hair before combing it back in place with his fingertips.

The bus was even shabbier on the inside. A dirty, broken metal box on wheels. If this was their bus, what was his new school like?

The question:

(I’ll mention something that jumped out when I first viewed your sample: 4 paragraphs that begin with the protagonist’s name, which makes for a choppy read. A bit of restructuring will take care of this, so it’s an easy fix.)

1. Does this scene work and grab your attention?

Grab might be a bit strong, but I would definitely read on.

I already like Mike and have begun to sketch his situation in my head. Undertaking an unpleasant adventure; rejecting his dad’s offer of support (he is twelve, after all); a beige-boy in a messy world, greeted by sour faces staring through dingy windows.

I want to know how he came to be on the ‘farm’ with his dad, with no mention of Mom. I assume he has no siblings. I also assume the new school means he had to leave old friends behind somewhere.

This opening scene has enough elements to nicely set-up the encounters of any number of twisted expectations or quirky characters, even before the bus reaches the school.

(Here's more on painting your story world)

A few tweaks could enrich the scene, but for middle-grade that might not be necessary. For instance, since this is obviously an important day, a hint about his mom, a remembrance or wish or longing that must be shoved aside for now could sneak in to hint at a larger conflict.

Internal thought/dialogue could also bring a tighter perspective on Mike’s personality and feelings. Adding facial expressions, gestures, micro-actions can also be non-verbal cues to his state of mind or emotions. His fist being shoved in a pocket is fine, but I did wonder how he got through the stuck bus doors with his hand still in his pocket.

(Here's more on what writers need to know about internalization)

The interaction with the driver is great fun and reminded me of all the assuming adults in the world – from a kid’s perspective – and made me grin. This little conflict/obstacle showed that Mike was going to take his man-up-I’m-twelve commitment seriously. He takes on the obstacle, then does what he can to re-set his appearance before continuing on. As I read on, I will be expecting more obstacles and watching his reactions.

It’s clear that our character isn’t looking forward to this day, but the denial of Dad coming along for support needs to be a bit more direct/stronger. I’d like to know more about how he feels.

(Here's more on writing emotionally strong characters)

Overall, I enjoyed this scene and the struggle with the door was enough fun that I wanted to read on and see what else happens to this little guy.

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. I enjoyed this piece and would definitely read on. Perhaps reaching in for a few of the senses - we hear the bus "roar" but what does it sound like before the bus comes - quiet, desolate - is this what the character is used to or are they used to city noises. Any smells? Just some thoughts as to bring in some other texture to the piece.
    Character development is good. Mentioning Dad tells us Mom's not around - so that leads to intrigue/compassion for Mike.

    I thought if there is a key person that is going to be involved with Mike (friend or foe) we might see that person when he gets on the bus - him a mess from the dirt looking at a group of tough boys or cute girl (if that flies for MG). I think that the inside of the bus is less intriguing than his thoughts of the kids on the bus, and that would tell us more about the school.

    Overall - I liked it and think its a great start - Good luck!

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  2. One of the best things a story can do is put its finger on why its character matters to us, and this does that right away. It's a well-chosen, well-played moment that makes us all feel like Mike. New home, new kids, all starting with a new (sort of) school bus-- of course we feel it.

    Some editors might tell you to tighten it up or start it closer to the conflict. I think the pacing's good, but if you looked hard enough you might find a few lines here that could be trimmed out. Or, you could do a little more with his determination to face this alone, any other thoughts about why he's here and what it means to him, or an earlier glimpse of that important kid's face that Lynne's comment asked for. But be careful with those; they get closer to the heart of the story, but they could lead to you taking up several lines within a scene that works by going at a natural pace without slowing down.

    Maria suggests changing the order of description sometimes, to be more chronological. You might think of Mike as a video camera or a first-person game character: we see he's looking at one thing, then at another, then a sound or smell makes him look somewhere else (maybe not "look" literally but it still takes a place in his narration), then we see his hands move out to open the door. The story's made up of how his attention shifts, either what he's watching does its next thing or something new is noticed or when he acts or thinks in reaction to those.

    Maria mentioned that the door "finally" opening needs an earlier sign that it had been stuck. That's a good example of showing description's cause and effect flow better, and you can do it different ways. If he sees the door stick we get the implication of "great start, even the bus doors hate him"; if all he sees is the doors not opening he might wonder if the driver's not sure he belongs. Or he might not be watching the doors, just stealing a moment to look at the kids, and that turns into several seconds before he's pulled out it by the sound of the doors.

    Or the dirt shower. You use that to show how awkward Mike is here, and it could feel more complete if you mention "dirt road" earlier. (In fact, the book's last scene could easily be Mike knowing not to stand so near as the bus arrives.) When you mention the clothes he's brushing off, you might leave out the pants and maybe even his hair color, because so many details at once seems like you're looking away from what he's paying attention to. But maybe not; readers do give allowances for getting a fast snapshot of the character. (And the shirt needs to stay; there's a lot of weight in the few words it takes to say there's stains on a white shirt, and it's a "polo" shirt in the country.)

    This is a well-chosen opening scene that moves very naturally through what it needs to. And a number of scene-setting techniques in here do come out naturally, though I hope you'll think more about why some of them work and how to use them better. You do make them work here.

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