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Saturday, February 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Putting Subtext Into a 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.

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This week’s questions:

1. Can you detect any subtext from Christian's side―that he's interested in Willow, or is it too subtle. OR, is subtle just right for the start of the story. I find the romance genre the most difficult to write, fearing I'll come across as cheesy or too cliché.

2. Anything else I need to drum up or tone down?

Market/Genre: Short story

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is an excerpt of chapter 1 of my short story. Christian, Willow, and her best friend, Lucy, attended the same culinary school 6 years prior and he had a huge chip on his shoulder, as well as attempting to sabotage Lucy during their final practical exam. Willow still can't believe Lucy hired Christian as the head chef of fine dining when she opened her own restaurant. Christian had just left Lucy's office, where he noticed Willow had a hangover. Lucy had instructed her to get something to eat from the kitchen.

Every step Willow took magnified the percussion intensity of her headache. As she took the turn into the dining area, outside the kitchen, she connected with a human wall. Hands shot out to her shoulders as she rocked on her heels.

"Sorry. Damn, I almost knocked you over. Here" ―Christian pulled a chair closer with his foot― "sit down. Don't move. Be right back."

Willow cradled her throbbing head in her hands. I'm never drinking again.

Christian returned with a tall glass of foamy pink liquid. "Drink this." He placed the glass in her hands. "It will help you feel better."

Willow swirled the glass beneath her nose and sniffed at the mixture.

"What's in here? Dog's breath and toad turds?"

A smile tugged at the corners of Christian's mouth. "Strawberries, grapes, ginger, and apple juice. The vitamins and minerals will help your body combat the toxins of the alcohol. And hydrate it."

"Oh." Willow took a tentative sip. "Tastes ok." She swallowed a few mouthfuls. "Good, actually."

"You should smile more often, you know. You look prettier when you do."

Willow gulped down the contents in her mouth before it snorted from her nostrils. She slurped the last of the smoothie, shoved the glass into Christian's hand and hopped up. "Thanks for that, I feel better already. But don't be expecting happy faces and hugs from now on though."

My Thoughts in Purple:

Every step Willow took magnified the percussive intensity of her headache. As she took the turn into the dining area, outside the kitchen [is this necessary?], she connected with a human wall. Hands shot out to her shoulders [a chance here to show he is holding her by the shoulders] as she rocked on her heels. [this infers he didn’t hold her shoulders after making contact, like to keep her from falling, but actually rocked her backwards from the impact]

"Sorry. Damn, I almost knocked you over. Here…" ―Christian pulled a chair closer with his foot― "…sit down. Don't move. Be right back." [an expression (wince) or small gesture (biting lip/intake of breath) here could indicate he notices and is sympathetic to her condition–even having his voice lowered for the second bit of dialogue]

Willow cradled her throbbing head in her hands. I'm never drinking again. [italicize for internal thought]

Christian returned with a tall glass of foamy pink liquid. "Drink this." He placed the glass in her hands [another opportunity to imply his feelings by the way he gives her the drink]. "It will help you feel better."

Willow swirled the glass beneath her nose and sniffed at the mixture. "What's in here? Dog's breath and toad turds?"

A smile tugged at the corners of Christian's mouth. "Strawberries, grapes, ginger, and apple juice. The vitamins and minerals will help your body combat the toxins of the alcohol. And hydrate it."

"Oh." Willow took a tentative sip. "Tastes ok." She swallowed a few mouthfuls. "Good, actually."

"You should smile more often, you know. You look prettier when you do. [this is kind of a backwards compliment, inferring she usually doesn’t look very pretty/ also is judgmental]

Willow gulped down the contents in her mouth [not necessary, where else would she gulp a drink?] before it snorted from her nostrils [unsure here-is she about to laugh?]. She slurped the last of the smoothie, [this seems to make the last sentence unnecessary] shoved the glass into Christian's hand and hopped up. "Thanks for that, I feel better already. But don't be expecting happy faces and hugs from now on though."

The questions:

1. Can you detect any subtext from Christian's side―that he's interested in Willow, or is it too subtle. OR, is subtle just right for the start of the story. I find the romance genre the most difficult to write, fearing I'll come across as cheesy or too cliché.

My initial impression is that Christian is only vaguely interested in Willow, as much as he might be for any girl with their history, especially regarding the clash with her best friend. The clash appears to have been mended on Lucy’s side, or Lucy is very practical, since she hired him.

We don’t know Willow’s feelings for Christian, except that she must still harbor some resentment or hold poor views of him, since she can’t believe Lucy hired him.

With that out of the way, it appears that Christian knows her opinion of him, tolerates it, might think it’s funny that she has a hangover (perhaps she’s done some lecturing at him in the past?), and gallantly fixes her a soothing drink.

(Here's more on using vocal clues to show hidden emotions)

I don’t detect subtext that he’s interested in her. Making her a hangover remedy might be something he would do for any acquaintance, we don’t know. He simply hands it to her, so no hints there. If he hands it to her, keeps holding it and helping her hold the glass, then she pulls it away from him and gives him a dagger look, to which he grins and takes a step back, his grin getting wider as she glugs the brew down – then we see some actual interaction that shows us what both characters are thinking and feeling.

Christian appears to be very confident, his past actions with Lucy show that he’s willing to take chances to get what he wants, which might include trying to push Willow’s buttons. The sideways ‘compliment’ about looking pretty when she smiles is a dare, and depending upon her reaction/response, he will learn some of what he can get away with – button-pushing-wise.

(Here's more on what the character's aren't saying)

This scene has several opportunities to drop in little hints. When Willow slams into him, he might see, or even smell, that she was hung over. Her reaction to the body slam is not given, which is another opportunity to show any ‘sparks’ between them.

A man who is interested in a woman, and has her crash unexpectedly into him, is going to be caught unawares – his reaction will most likely reflect his true feelings for her.

If he grabs her shoulders to buffer the body crash, and he likes her, he will enjoy this chance to touch her, and he won’t whirl her around and plop her in a chair. He’ll keep her close for a few seconds, gauge her reaction, notice her condition, and then be gentle with her. He’ll also gauge her reaction to what he’s doing. If she roughly pulls away or shoves him back or sits down on her own, then he knows there’s still some bad mojo happening between them.

So, I feel you have chances for subtext, but aren’t taking them – so far.

(Here's more on the power of things left unsaid)

And don’t worry about being cheeky or cliché…just try to be realistic. What do these two think of each other? Have they had any physical contact before? Have they shared any intense emotions before, like an argument? What weaknesses do they have that could be triggered by the other, so that a connection could be made?

People act and react. Imagine these two characters as real people, set up some actions and subsequent reactions, and then play with those until you have the scene presenting what you want it to present. Do you want the scene to be balanced or unbalanced? Who is left wondering – or are they both left feeling unsure and questioning what just happened? This last question is actually a good starting place for a romance – both are sure something happened, but neither are sure what it was – and so, both must decide to remain open and inquisitive or to blow it off as false hope.

2. Anything else I need to drum up or tone down?

I would like to see a bit more flavor – meaning expressions, gestures – this scene is rather dry. I feel this may reflect your concern with ‘writing wrong’. :o)

You may also want to decide whose scene this is and who needs to be in control of what happens, especially after something beyond both character’s control happens. Does this crash mean just one more thing that is out of Willow’s control? Does Christian feel the crash is the kismet he’s been waiting for? Did Willow just find out Lucy hired Christian and she’s still feeling amazed about that decision and wondering if Lucy is loco – and then, wham! – the bad boy is in her face.

This decision can help you with balance, and how you want the relationship to be revealed.

Romance writing is about should be/could be relationships, of all kinds. So, the fantastic or improbable can be used to frame any romance, because ultimately, there are a limited number of ways people can connect, as far as obstacles and fate go.

(Here's more on a trick for writing subtext)

Have fun! Write a romance that strikes a nerve with readers – good or bad.

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 think this is a tricky scene, and a lot depends on what you want it to do. Because conventional romantic frission just doesn't work with a full-on hangover.

    One way to design this would be to play up something Willow's still in a condition to notice, even if she can't fully appreciate it. She could be surprised and pleased that Christian stops cold and takes care of her like this, or else you could show that she is touched but angrily refuses to acknowledge it. In this version you could have meant the latter, but you gave us no sign that she felt that something, so we assume all she is is angry and guarded.

    Or you might have been going for something more clever: that Willow's doubly blind to Christian's appeal right now, but right under her nose the *reader* gets to see that he cares about her. That's a strong way to build up romantic suspense and play with viewpoint, but it hinges on being clear how kind Christian is being and how he's stopping his routine for her, and also showing that Willow rejects him mainly because she's stuck in her own headache and grudges. She might think of thanking him but at that moment her head hurts too much, or she's hurrying off and only half-hears how much more trouble he was starting to go to for her-- touches like that would keep her from seeming too cold.

    Willow isn't going to feel electricity from bumping into Christian right now, not with a killer hangover on top of all the baggage she has with him. She isn't going to be drawn into banter for banter's sake. But a scene like this could work if it focuses on the small things that could get through her defenses anyway, or what Christian does that only she is able to miss. (And I agree with Maria, look at how you can fine-tune how he touches her and how he phrases his compliment.)

    If this scene has Willow with a hangover (and a grudge), everything in it ought to reflect those-- better yet, it ought to *use* them to show the side of the story you need next. Good luck!

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  2. Anonymous1:06 PM EST

    When Christian says, "You should smile more often, you know. You look prettier when you do" it makes me like him less because it makes him seem controlling and critical. Was that the intention?

    I know when I've been told to smile, it has always been a negative experience. And it sounds like Christian wants her to smile more because it will make her look prettier, not because she will actually be happier. If the intention is to show his interest in her, maybe he could just compliment her smile without telling her to smile more or saying anything about it making her prettier.

    Other than that one sentence, I found him to be likeable, and I picked up on his attraction to her but I feel it could be a little less subtle. Unless his attraction is still developing, in which case this felt about right.

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