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Saturday, December 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Finding Conflict in Flash Fiction

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 December 8.

This week’s questions:

1. If the plot and conflict strong enough?

2. Does the prose sing?

3. Is the fight exciting?

4. Is the Show/Tell a good balance?


Market/Genre: Fan-fiction fantasy mash up of Harry Potter and Star Wars

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Hermione Granger, the current Wand Duel champion of the Wizards, and Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Knight champion, bowed to each other in the battle arena, then assumed their combat stance. Wand in hand, Hermione stood straight at attention. Luke assumed the En Garde pose, light saber at the ready. They were the finalist in the Galactic Protection Forces Psi Combat Championships.

The PCC was a two rule contest - only extra-powered humans of the Galactic Protection Forces were allowed to compete and Do Not Kill Your Opponent. Contestants interpreted the Do Not Kill rule to permit near lethal wounding with the unwritten proviso that the wound should not hamper the combatant's military career.

This was the moment that the fans waited for. Long have Psi Combat fans debated which was more powerful: wand backed with magic or light saber backed with The Force. The Experts in these things were thrilled as they too were busy debating what was magic and what was The Force.

Luke's pose inspired Hermione to commence the combat with a light saber duel. She whispered Lux Gladio Lumina and a blade of green light grew from the end of her wand. Luke immediately leaped into the air at her. Hermione twirled to the right to parry. Thrust-parry-twirl, thrust-parry-twirl. With each twirl, Hermione stepped backwards, losing ground, and approaching the edge of the arena.

Woop, zang, bang, wand and light saber burst into sparks on impact. Luke's blade flew in an arc straight to her right shoulder and quickly changed directions moving toward her torso. Hermione conjured a force field in front of her torso to block the blade. She was using her magic to counter Luke's use of his Force to sense her movements.

Hermione teleported to the opposite side of the arena behind Luke and shouted, Stupefy. Luke reached behind his back with his light saber and blocked the spell. The spell ricocheted into the audience stunning the twenty or so fans who were too slow to put up a defensive block. Another reason for the No Kill rule.

Luke turned, smiled, reached out with his hand and levitated Hermione. Twisting his wrist, he flipped her on her head. Upside down, Hermione glared at Luke. Still on her head, Hermione flew across the arena towards Luke and re-engaging him in the light saber duel, woop, zang, bang, driving him backwards. The audience erupted into applause.

Hermione smiled in the moment recalling how much she enjoyed the last evening that she and Luke were in this kind of sixty-nine position. Distracted, she was not in time to parry Luke's light saber swinging low, through her defense, to smite her on her head. Down she went for the ten-count and the contest was over.

Luke Skywalker was the Galactic Protection Forces Psi Combat Champion.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Hermione Granger, the current Wand Duel champion of the Wizards, and Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Knight champion, bowed to each other in the battle arena, then assumed their combat stance. Wand in hand, Hermione stood straight at attention. Luke assumed the En Garde pose, light saber at the ready. [They were the finalist in the Galactic Protection Forces Psi Combat Championships.] This feels like the conflict here, but unless you’re a fan of one or the other, why does it matter who wins?

The PCC was a two rule contest - only extra-powered humans of the Galactic Protection Forces were allowed to compete and Do Not Kill Your Opponent. Contestants interpreted the Do Not Kill rule to permit near lethal wounding with the unwritten proviso that the wound should not hamper the combatant's military career. This explains the rules, which actually lessens any tension because now readers know neither of these people will die. It also feels told.

This was the moment that the fans waited for. [Long have Psi Combat fans debated which was more powerful: wand backed with magic or light saber backed with The Force.] This is also an interesting aspect here, and answering this could be a good hook for the story, but again, it's explaining and not showing [The Experts in these things were thrilled as they too were busy debating what was magic and what was The Force.] Telling. You also don’t need it, and cutting this saves words for other things

[Luke's pose inspired Hermione to commence the combat with a light saber duel.] Telling. I also don’t know who the protagonist is in this story [She whispered Lux Gladio Lumina] Telling and a blade of green light grew from the end of her wand. Luke immediately leaped into the air at her. Hermione twirled to the right [to parry.] telling motive not showing action Thrust-parry-twirl, thrust-parry-twirl. With each twirl, Hermione stepped backwards, losing ground, and approaching the edge of the arena. Since Hermione seems to do more, I think maybe she’s the protagonist

Woop, zang, bang, wand and light saber burst into sparks on impact. Luke's blade flew in an arc straight to her right shoulder and quickly changed directions moving toward her torso. Hermione conjured a force field in front of her torso [to block] telling motive not showing action the blade. [She was using her magic to counter Luke's use of his Force to sense her movements.] Telling. We know this by watching her use her magic

Hermione teleported to the opposite side of the arena behind Luke [and shouted, Stupefy.] Telling Luke reached behind his back with his light saber and blocked the spell. The spell ricocheted into the audience stunning the twenty or so fans who were too slow to put up a defensive block. [Another reason for the No Kill rule.] Telling

Luke turned, smiled, reached out with his hand and levitated Hermione. Twisting his wrist, he flipped her on her head. Upside down, Hermione glared at Luke. Still on her head, Hermione flew across the arena towards Luke and re-engaging him in the light saber duel, woop, zang, bang, driving him backwards. The audience erupted into applause. This is all detached description with no sense of a character or even a struggle to overcome anything

[Hermione smiled in the moment recalling how much she enjoyed the last evening that she and Luke were in this kind of sixty-nine position.] Telling. It also comes totally out of the blue and doesn’t fit the rest of the story [Distracted, she was not in time to parry Luke's light saber swinging low, through her defense, to smite her on her head.] Telling Down she went for the ten-count and the contest was over.

[Luke Skywalker was the Galactic Protection Forces Psi Combat Champion.] Since Hermione seemed to be the protagonist, this feels unsatisfying as an ending.

The questions:

1. If the plot and conflict strong enough?

No, because there is no real conflict or plot, or a protagonist with a problem. It’s a setup and a description of a fight, which ended with a twist out of the blue. Hermione lost not because Luke or The Force was better than she or magic, but because she was distracted by a sexual memory.

Flash fiction often has a twist, but the ones that work do so because they connect back to the story in some way and make you see it differently. Had Han Solo shot her from the audience the result would have basically been the same.

The setup of this piece is “what’s stronger—magic or the Force?” but the conflict doesn’t come from that, because neither one is proven to be stronger. Nor is that question examined or answered. “Lust” seems to be stronger based on the ending. I can also see this hitting a few reader buttons, as it has a bit of a sexist vibe there. Luke didn’t win because he was better, just that he was good in bed.

Pure fights rarely make good conflicts because the outcome is obvious. One side or the other will win. In this case, there’s not enough time to make readers care about the outcome, and most will start this story already on a side, since it’s fan-fic. Star Wars fans will be happy, Harry Potter fans will be mad.

I’d suggest picking one character for your point of view and protagonist and writing the story from their perspective. Flash fiction is too short to use multiple POV, and a personal connection to the problem would help provide conflict. Maybe it’s not about the fight, but about beating someone the other cares about.

(Here’s more on knowing where your conflict comes from)

2. Does the prose sing?

It had some interesting lines, but overall, it was too detached and told for me (readers chime in as this is very subjective). Much of this is due to it being all description with no opportunities for any voice. There’s no internalization or sense of character, or a strong omniscient narrator which is where voice and style typically come from.

There's also no dialogue, so it doesn't feel like a story but a descriptive passage from one.

(Here’s more on creating voice)

3. Is the fight exciting?

I didn’t think so, again, because it was an outside description of it, there were no real stakes or character connections, and the winner didn’t matter. Excitement comes from readers caring what happens and being invested in the outcome. There was nothing here to create that investment, and readers had to bring their own affection for these worlds and characters to the story.

(Here’s more on writing compelling action scenes)

4. Is the Show/Tell a good balance?

It felt more told than shown, because it was the author describing and explaining the setup and story. There was no dialogue or internal thought, and no sense of the characters.

(Here’s more on what writers need to know about show, don't tell)

Overall, I think this story is still in the development stage. It has some interesting aspects, but it’s needs more than just a fight between two disciplines to bring out any conflict. If the “fight” is really about the attraction between them, then perhaps write it like that, but make it just vague enough that it’s not clear until the end. Show the struggle to not take advantage of what they know about each other or the like.Then the twists suddenly makes the rest of the story different and readers see it in a whole new way.

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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3 comments:

  1. I haven't critiqued fan fiction before, but I've written a few Quora pieces (okay, a *lot*) on characters' strengths and various matchups, so here goes:

    If a story is essentially a fight, I think its foundation should be your sense of what those characters bring to the fight and what that could mean. I always remember the comic where Captain America took on Batman, and settled the question that even the veteran of a thousand battles can't track Bats in the shadows... but when Batman made his move, Cap's sheer alertness spotted the ambush. Different specialties.

    Here, much as every Potter fan would think Hermione with expert sword training would be cool (and she is a Gryffindor), it makes her *less* like the Hermione we know. Instead giving her those skills is a big what-if, and that may not be a stretch you want when the story is already putting such different people in the fight. I was more impressed when she began teleporting around Luke; Hermione's too smart to take on a swordsman head-on when she has all of magic's options.

    Related to those is what Janice said about choosing a protagonist and doing more with who those characters are. If what you want to explore in this story is how the two fight, you can build on that by working in *why* each of them has different reasons for fighting and how that affects their focus. I can see Hermione taking the challenge to study what the Force really is, but is there a particular reason for Luke? Throwing in a hint of sex to resolve the fight surprised me, but it was one way to make the characters' motives more important than their muscles in the end. (Remember, the first Star Wars climax wasn't won by outshooting Vader, it happened because Han Came Back, and it gets the biggest cheer in the whole series.)

    For the prose itself, fight scenes are some of the hardest to write well. It's a tight balance of key information on why a move works --especially when you're showing off characters like this-- with keeping everything fast and vivid. There are a lot of bog posts on the subject you could learn from, starting with some of Janice's own.

    Famous characters and fun scenarios like this are some of the best training grounds for writing that there is. I hope you keep exploring, and digging deeper into what you think an idea can lead to.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Ken,
      What's my motivation? From Tootsie, the Fruit of the Loom commercial, I think. I can see how creating a backstory drives the character on the page and how close writing a character is to acting. It's a lesson for me
      Thanks for your comments.
      Be well.

      Delete
  2. Hi Janice,

    Thank you for your review.

    Curiously, your comments seem to describe my personality and my philosophical view of life (distant POV from your book?). I suppose that is one reason why I prefer macroeconomics to microeconomics.

    This week, I will re-read your Show/Tell book and work on internalizing more of your lessons.

    Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete