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Saturday, January 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Can You Feel Any Tension or Conflict in This Scene?

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: Three


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 16.

This week’s questions:

1. Is it showing vs telling?

2. Can you feel any tension or conflict? 


Market/Genre: Romantic Comedy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

How should she answer? Saying yes wasn’t an option, that was a level of embarrassment she wasn’t prepared to deal with today. Yet, how else could she believably explain the pile of intimate items at his feet? “Um, well, they belong to a friend.”

He looked up and pinned her with a hard stare. “A friend?”

Crap, he didn’t believe her. “Sure, yeah, she’s out of the country for the year. I’m just holding them for her.”

“Really? What else are you keeping for her?” His muscular arms crossed over his chest as he leaned all his body weight onto his right foot. If he was looking to intimidate her, it was working, even from where he stood three steps below.

“What?”

“Well, if your friend is gone for a whole year, I doubt the only thing she needed stored was a box of sex toys.”

“Right. Um…” Three billion men in the world that thrived on ignoring the women around them, and she had to go and reveal her most embarrassing secret to one who actually paid attention. Where were her friends? She was going to kill them for leaving her alone like this.

“You know, at first impression you don’t look like a woman that makes a habit out of lying.” He looked her over from head to toe and a shiver ran through her at the intimacy of it.

“There’s a look?”

“Of course there is, and you don’t have it, despite lying to me three times already." His voice dipped deeper, and the air around them charged with energy. Did she imagine it, or did he feel it too?

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Your lead-in advises the male character asks a question before this next line. It does make a difference what that question might be…]

How should she answer? Saying yes wasn’t an option, that was a level of embarrassment she wasn’t prepared to deal with today. [this made me wonder why] Yet, how else could she believably explain the pile of intimate items at his feet? [lots of ‘talk’ here, which takes time, while she’s doing…what? Good spot to show what her physical reaction is – what he sees her do.]

“Um, well, they [this seems odd – why not: it all belongs…] belong to a friend.”

He looked up and pinned her with a hard stare. [nice, instantly saw her freeze in place] “A friend?”

Crap, he didn’t believe her. [this sounds like internal thought, but… “Sure, yeah, she’s out of the country for the year. I’m just holding them [again, this seems odd – perhaps: some stuff] for her.”

“Really? What else are you keeping [op here for a slight tease with “holding”] for her?” His muscular arms crossed over his chest [he crossed his muscular arms*] as he leaned all his body weight onto his right foot. [no need for ‘all’ or ‘body’ here] If he was looking to intimidate her, it was working, even from where he stood three steps below. [Would like some info on the setting here, at least where these steps are located]

“What?”

“Well, if your friend is gone for a whole year, I doubt a box of sex toys is the only thing she needed stored was a box of sex toys.”

“Right. Um…” Three billion men in the world that thrived on ignoring the women around them, and she had to go and reveal her most embarrassing secret to one who actually paid attention. [I get the intent here, but it isn’t working – plus all 3 billion ignoring men would notice a box of sex toys spilled at their feet, so the point is a bit skewed**] Where were her friends? She was going to kill them for leaving her alone like this. [if she doesn’t know where her friends are, how does she know they’ve left her alone?]

“You know, at first impression [this weakens this line and the dialogue connection] you don’t look [could emphasize (italics) to underscore her dialogue] like a woman that makes a habit out of lying.” He looked her over from head to toe and a shiver ran through her at the intimacy of it. [what made it seem intimate? I wondered if she was repulsed or attracted.]

“There’s a look?”

“Of course there is, and you don’t have it, despite lying to me three times already." His voice dipped deeper, and the air around them charged with energy.*** [better to show a reaction here to what she feels (like goosebumps)] Did she imagine it, or did he feel it too? [she could wonder if he noticed her reaction]

*To use ‘arms crossing over’, add ‘With’ at the beginning. Otherwise, we move our bodies and appendages.

**Removing this interruption creates a snappier pace and pushes the questions forward, which adds tension.

***You can have the character ‘feel’ like the air is charged with energy and wonder if it feels that way to him. Right now, it reads as though the air has made the decision to become charged, not that either character or their possible interaction has created the charge.


The questions:

1. Is it showing vs telling?


Mostly…but there are also many opportunities to show emotions and reactions that could be taken advantage of, which would enrich the scene and inform the reader about this encounter.

With gestures, expressions, and body language, we could see how both characters felt, as well as learn more about their personalities, how well they knew each other, and if this was the first time the two characters had met. It is inferred that she was aware of him, and didn’t want to be left alone with him. But why?

(Here's more on using subtext to convey emotions)

Beyond the steps, the scene is floating in white space. No descriptions are available to help us with the weather, the type of structure, the location of the steps, the time of day. Additionally, neither character’s name is used throughout the scene, forcing it further into an abstract situation.

You can ground the scene by showing that the box is dropped because her flip-flop flew off her foot. The box can sail down the steps and land at his feet and burst open. The idea of a ‘private box’ and ‘intimate items’ made me think immediately of lingerie, not sex toys – which is fine, as I was then humorously surprised at the reveal.

The dilemma, as I saw it,wasn’t only what should she say at the moment, but how she was going to get the toys back in the box. Does she shoo him away? Does he wryly or with extreme gallantry offer to, or actually put them in the box? How titillating do you want the scene to be?

At each exchange, you can reveal a small thing about each character – what they’re wearing, their physical state (sweaty, dirty from moving, how their hair looks), their movements and expressions. Body language can be incorporated to emphasize dialogue and show what the characters are feeling or thinking without words. And by the end of the scene, the reader has had a fulfilling experience and is left with a solid idea of what was shared by the characters, and what the scene means to the story.

(Here's more on painting a story world versus dramatizing it)

2. Can you feel any tension or conflict?

This scene felt awkward, mostly. Any tension or conflict seems to be only at a flirtatious level. Even the potential for sexual tension is not strongly presented, making it tough to accept that either character has been harboring (and/or holding back) any smoldering intentions toward the other.

The circumstances produce embarrassment, the decision to lie to avoid that embarrassment, and a man whose mildly confrontational stance/attitude seems to be flirtatious, not aggressive. He is challenging her and she doesn’t seem flustered by that. Though, I wasn’t sure if she was attracted to him or simply enduring the intensity of the moment.

(Here's more on adding conflict through subtext)

There isn’t enough information in the scene to determine if this is a confrontation that was ‘doomed’ to happen eventually, or if it just occurred, without any anticipation or threat attached. I did wonder if she had been avoiding him, but that’s only speculation.

I’ll mention as an aside here that the question Michael asks can add a lot to the scene. Most, many guys who had a box full of sex toys fall at their feet and open, spilling toys everywhere, would jump back from the box and the contents. Some guys might laugh. Some might say, Oops! or Whoa! or Look out! as a reaction to the event. The body language would probably go open to closed. Arms out to try to catch the box. Arms closed when the contents are exposed.Then, slightly defiant stance, open to the humor in the situation.

(Here's more on using body language to convey feelings) 

Also, we don’t know if Michael was carrying something when this happened, which could also make a difference in how the scene plays out.

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

6 comments:

  1. Maria, thank you for looking at this. I love having the feedback. Because of wanting to keep to the 250 word limit for submitting, I cut a few things, but I promise, the setting is described a couple paragraphs before, what he is wearing is actually in this scene in my draft, but I cut it to keep to the limit, and what she is wearing is the very next line after what I submitted. :) I thought it might be best to show the interactions in what I submitted, I'll know better for next time if I ever submit again to include more. :) Thank you for looking at this for me, and for all the suggestions, it gives me something to work with. I can see how the writing can be tightened up. Thank you.

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  2. I think this scene is in the right territory, and the more detailed version probably works even better. But it could be clearer about what kind of tension exists here.

    Maria pointed out, the heroine could be intimidated rather than embarrassed and attracted; it isn't quite clear. Also, I'm not feeling the context of how she knows Michael and how that changes her reaction. Being embarrassed with someone she won't see again (she thinks) is different from blowing it with someone she's talked to a couple of times and thought was cute, and those are assuming there's no other baggage between them.

    Like Maria said, what about the toys themselves? The heroine must want to sweep the evidence out of sight and just get out of there before it gets worse (or someone else notices), so physically this scene happens in several stages: first when she's too embarrassed (or distracted with excuses) to move, and then when she tries to act. So that's part of the scene's framework-- maybe the pacing works better if she starts closing in during this, or maybe she shouldn't but she should be thinking "I just have to walk in and clean it up and run."

    A direct romance might dig deeper into those reactions, and all the ways embarrassment and attraction twist from moment to moment. For this romantic comedy you might keep it lighter, but look for ways to bring out a bit more silliness, if it's the balance you want. Something truly absurd could happen with one of the toys, or you could spin the dialog into somewhere strange-- but be sure it's the right touch. Comedy's a very fine thing, and making embarrassment funny is some of the hardest. You don't just want heavier humor, you want to play up the kind that works for your style. Maybe half of it is about their sheer attraction to each other, or maybe that's driven right out of her head for the moment.

    In any case, it's a subtle thing. And the best guide for that might be how you write the whole story, and being sure it's consistent with that.

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  3. Anonymous10:58 AM EST

    It was difficult to determine in this snippet of you were going for humor or sexual tension. Her embarrassment would be a given, I think in any situation, and as Ken mentioned could be played off in a really funny way...if that's your intent. I wasn't sure if he was upset and focused on the lying aspect or just teasing her for having a box of sex toys. Maybe the dog could run in and pick up one to play with. I remember when my brother was little, my mom was talking with the insurance agent (in our home) and my brother walked down the stairs pretending to smoke a tampon like a cigar, which my dad always had in his mouth! Talk about embarrassing. So that's my question...funny or just tense? Not quite clear to me. Perhaps more was divulged in the set-up to clarify.

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  4. Anonymous7:56 PM EST

    The line that stood out for me was..You know, at first impression...etc. I recently read that a writer should never begin a sentence with...You know... Am I right about this?

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  5. Anonymous7:58 PM EST

    Let me be clarify the above statement... I recently read the character should never begin a sentence with...You know. Am I right about this?

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    Replies
    1. It's dialogue, and people say that, so there's nothing wrong with it here. It can be a problem if it's used to tell or explain what someone knows. In this case, it's more of an idiom for "You ought to know this" or the like.

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