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Saturday, December 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Scene Make You Want to Keep Reading?

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: One

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

This week’s questions:

1. Does this scene make you want to keep reading?

2. Does it show, not tell?

3. Is there enough information/description to set the scene for the reader?

Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

A flashing light pierced through the morning darkness of her bedroom. Another flicker. The oddity alarmed Lei. Her pulse leapt into race mode. She grabbed the phone from the nightstand in case.

No noise or commotion from her neighbor across the hall or the landlady downstairs, thank heavens. A good sign. The paper-thin walls often revealed the slightest noise.

Quiet. Darkness. Nothing. She could snooze a little longer. Lei twisted under the sheets and turned on her side to place the phone back on the nightstand.

Breaking glass and a loud clunk sent her flying under the bed with the phone still in her hand. Why would someone do such a thing? She gasped for breath and trembled, but managed to punch in 911.

“Dispatch. Kahului, Maui. What is the nature of your emergency?”

“Someone has broken my bedroom window. My name is Lei Hudson I live at 320 Koa Road.”

“We’ll get someone out there right away. Is anyone hurt?”

“No.”

Shaking, she nudged herself out from under the bed and grabbed for her rubber slippers. Once Lei shoved them on, she crept into the hallway and knocked on her neighbor’s door.

“It’s Lei. Are you okay?”

The door creaked open. “Yes. What was the noise?”

“Something crashed through the window in my apartment. The police are on the way. Stay safe inside. I’ll alert the landlady.”

Back in her apartment, she threw a beach dress on and called her landlady, but no one answered.

My Thoughts in Purple:

A flashing light pierced through the morning darkness [‘flashing light’ means more than one flash…’morning darkness’ is conflicting. Even an hour before dawn, there is some light] of her bedroom. [you could use ‘apartment’ here to give the scene setting] Another flicker. [this reinforces that the first flash wasn’t flashing, but a single flash – if looking to infer the beam of a flashlight, we aren’t getting that] The oddity alarmed [told – show her being alarmed, taking action, sneaking to the assumed window to check outside – use internal thought to explain why she’s so alarmed] Lei. Her pulse leapt into race mode. She grabbed the phone from the nightstand in case. [propel the action of grabbing the phone as a reaction, not a separate action]

No noise or commotion [inserting the descriptor ‘paper-thin wall’ here would establish lack of privacy and her ability to tell if anyone had noticed the lights] from her neighbor across the hall or the landlady downstairs, thank heavens. A good sign. [why is this a good sign?] The paper-thin walls often revealed the slightest noise.

Quiet. Darkness. Nothing. She could snooze a little longer. [this seems odd after being told she’s alarmed and has grabbed the phone – internal dialogue of her analyzing the situation and arriving at this decision would help] Lei twisted under the sheets and turned on her side to place the phone back on the nightstand. [twisted, turned, to place – if she can just grab the phone, she can just put it back on the nightstand – this complex sentence also doesn’t set up the surprise of the next action]

Breaking glass and a loud clunk sent her flying under the bed with the phone still in her hand. [my personal view here, but I haven’t seen a bed in ages that someone could actually hide under…also, we need to know where the window is in relation to the bed] Why would someone do such a thing?

She gasped for breath and trembled, but managed to punch in 911.

“Dispatch. Kahului, Maui. [good! Now we have a seamless ‘where’] What is the nature of your emergency?”

“Someone has broken my bedroom window. [this is too weak – she’s freaked, trembling and having trouble breathing! “Someone just threw something through my bedroom window! I saw a flashlight a minute before, and then CRASH, my windows broken and I’m hiding under the bed!” – use you dialogue to show how upset she is…] My name is Lei Hudson I live at 320 Koa Road.”

“We’ll get someone out there right away. Is anyone hurt?”

No.” [good spot to throw in some doubt by adding “I don’t think so…”]

Shaking, she nudged herself [how is she doing this? Pushing on her own rear? Shoving her legs with her hands? (kidding) use the movement type to show her still-quaking limbs] out from under the bed and grabbed for her rubber [can’t imagine these, is it important that they’re rubber?] slippers. Once Lei shoved them on, [you can get her out from under the bed, grab and put on her slippers all in one sentence] She crept into the hallway and knocked on her neighbor’s door.

“It’s Lei. Are you okay?”

The door creaked open. [this does not infer that the door only opened a crack. The door creaks when it’s moved. If you want it to barely open, then use ‘cracked open’.] “Yes. What was the noise?”[would like some info on the neighbor here, even a reference to his/her voice.]

“Something crashed through the window in my apartment. The police are on the way. Stay safe inside. I’ll alert the landlady.”

Back in her apartment, she threw a beach dress on [beach dress is good and further stabilizes the location – do we assume she was naked at the neighbor’s door?] and called her landlady, but no one answered. [you might want to consider separating this to give more emphasis to the idea that an answer was expected (scary music – duh duh duuuhhhh)]

The questions:

1. Does this scene make you want to keep reading?


Somewhat. I want to know what might have happened to the landlady, and what was actually thrown through the window. Since there is no internal thought and Lei’s emotions are mostly told, not shown, I’m not very invested in her predicament.

We don’t know what time it is, since we’re told it’s dark in her bedroom, so I wondered about knocking on the neighbor’s door at possibly 4-5am. We are given no indication of who the neighbor is, even simple things like age or gender, so I questioned what that barely-there interaction was meant to achieve or establish.

So, the elements of the scene itself could make me want to read on: lights flashing in the window (of course, this must be a 2nd story window – landlady downstairs); something crashes through the window; the landlady doesn’t answer the phone; however, I struggle with the opening. She is presumably asleep, right? And one flash of light in her window wakes her up? If her bed is right by the window and the light flashed onto her face, and she usually get up at 5:30-6am, so might be in a lighter sleeping state, I can see her waking from it. Most people are very light sensitive when sleeping (see thin eyelid tissue and eyes just waiting for light and looking), so it’s possible she got a bright enough blast to wake her. But – her alarm and waking experience isn’t explained – and the reader is busy trying to figure out where this is happening and to whom.

This opening would be stronger if you used immediate internal thought, which puts the reader instantly into Lei’s head. Show the first blast of light, her reaction (waking? Questioning?), then the second blast of light, which confirms the reality of the first, which provokes action (most people either hide or look outside [flight/fight]), which can include grabbing the phone. Something breaks the window, more internal thought, maybe some external swearing, and the phone is grabbed (if in fight mode).

We need to feel what is driving her actions, not just be told that her heart is in ‘race mode’. There are many ways of showing a character is adrenalized.

On another note: I was curious as to why Lei went back inside her apartment after something came crashing through the window? I finally decided that she must have seen what the object was – like a brick or stone – not a grenade… I would have envisioned her running from the place, banging on the neighbor’s door, while dialing 9-1-1. Then, maybe getting insufficient involvement from the neighbor (too old? too weak? too unresponsive?), running downstairs, still giving info to the police dispatcher, then pounding on the landlady’s door. The characterization of the landlady would make a difference in this action – if she’s old or a drunk or sleeps with ear plugs, etc.

This is a great scene for internal dialogue that informs. Since we don’t know anything about Lei, except that she wonders why someone would throw something through her window, internal dialogue could help us be close with her, without a laundry list of character info.

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

2. Does it show, not tell?

Sometimes. There are places where you are either explaining what the character is feeling or you are making statements about what the character is feeling.

These situations don’t bring us any closer to the character or the situation, because we aren’t experiencing anything through the character. Distance is created and maintained through telling. Showing gives us grit that can forge caring by forcing us to be more deeply involved with the character, even if we don’t particularly like them.

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

3. Is there enough information/description to set the scene for the reader?

To set the basic scene, yes. The ‘flashing’ light was initially confusing, as it made me think of strobing lights, like a police or emergency vehicle. My mind leapt to this character waking in the waning night to the strobing lights of some emergency vehicle outside.

Then, the second reference to the flashing light made me hold up, go back, re-read and decide you wanted the light to flash once in a window from outside, and then flash again, causing the concern. This would then infer someone outside with a flashlight, scanning around the building.

I also assumed it was a ground floor bedroom in a house, not an apartment on the 2nd floor. After 3 re-reads, scanning back and forth, I put it all together, assuming that it was a building, not a converted house, Lei’s apartment (hence, bedroom) was on the 2nd floor, and there was a hallway between the apartments, with the landlady living on the 1st floor.

So, I had a sufficient layout to envision the actions observed and taken – after I re-read and figured out what was what. Clear up the whole flashing light thing and you’re good to go.

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

I suggest trying out at least 2 other approaches to this scene and how it opens. Go for reality that can immediately be visualized by readers and confirmed with internal dialogue. Don’t tell what she does and why, draw the reader in with Lei’s speculation, her confusion, and what drives her to take action. Find a way ‘into’ the story that knocks the reader’s expectations sideways, then shove them in another direction and down another logic path, all while strewing bits of characterization around.

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. I love a scene that puts the character right in a crisis, and you're embracing the challenge. Like Maria said, some of the lines work better (all the hints that come with "beach dress") than others (I think the first glimpse of light is just "a flash" instead of flash"ing").

    There is some Telling here, and phrases that aren't as clean or strong as you may want. A moment like this needs a lot of intensity, so it's worth studying how seasoned pros do it, right down to sentence structure and word choice.

    The thing I'd really like to see more of is Lei herself, especially if this is your first scene. We get a few bits about her walls and her dress over time, but what's the first thing we should latch onto about her-- and how does starting with this situation make that come up first? In non-action scenes I live by Kurt Vonnegut's "Every character should want something on the first page, even if it's only a glass of water," and in action scenes that becomes showing what is specific about Lei's reaction. Yes anyone would be startled here, but how fast can you show us that Lei isn't just anyone?

    Show she's already exhausted from a late night of studying, or she's out of her element because she's a smart businesswoman who's not used to immediate threats, or she's got a temper that almost makes her charge straight at the danger. Who is THIS person we're about to spend a story with, and how fast and how firmly can you show that? And can you do it in passing, through her reactions and surroundings, without slowing the action down?

    That's actually a reason you might reconsider starting the story right here (if you are). Opening with action grabs the reader, but it also crowds the character into a situation where she has less room to show herself, and so her first impression is more broad-strokes and generic than a different scene might let her be. You might start this even tighter with the actual window breaking (if you're positive you can make her character distinct during the scramble that follows), or you might spend a few more lines with her being half-awake thinking specific Lei-ish thoughts about whether the lights mean something or not, or even have her already out of bed and doing things for several pages before the break-in (if you can build some tension without actual action). Be sure you've found the best place to set the balance, that lets you do justice to both sides your way. Actually, "waking up" is considered a bit of a cliche opening, and waking up to a break-in doesn't completely erase that taint, so it's another reason to choose carefully.

    A lot of the elements here make me think you know Lei and her world very well. Just think, what do we need to know about her first, and how strongly and seamlessly can you focus all this on that?

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  2. Thank you, Ken. Your analysis is spot on, as always.

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  3. Thank you Maria, for your insightful critique!

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