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Saturday, April 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Scene Keep Readers Interested?

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 May 18.

This week’s questions:

1. Is there telling, instead of showing?

2. Backstory present? (My first line indicates backstory but am wondering if it’s okay, since it’s a bit of a hook. Suggestions appreciated.)

3. Does this scene work? Makes sense, flow well, keep reader interest?

Market/Genre: Inspirational Romantic Suspense

This is a resubmit so check out the original if you'd like to see how the writer revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

He hadn’t bothered Lei for several days. Thankful for another peaceful morning, she threw on a yellow beach dress and glanced out her second-story, apartment bedroom window. Each day the hint of gold in the Maui dawn promised a fresh, new start. Maybe now she could revive her focus on growing her sewing business, too.

Lei stretched her arms above her head and yawned.

A single beam of light shone through her bedroom window. Another flicker. She grabbed her cell from the nightstand, raced to the side of the window and peeked outside. Nothing evident from her point of view. Maybe she’d take a look from a different vantage point in the living room.

Breaking glass and a loud clunk sent her flush against the wall at the side of the window, the phone glued in her hand. Why would someone do such a thing? Her hand trembled, but managed to punch in 911.

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

Her shrill voice tremored. “Someone has broken my bedroom window I saw a flashlight beam a moment before and then crash, my window’s broken.” She gasped for breath. “My name is Lei Hudson I live at 320 Koa Road.”

“We’ll get someone out there right away. Are you hurt?”

“No.” If she’d left her bedroom a moment sooner, she could have been struck.

Shaking, she crept along the wall away from the window. A large object, the size of a huge pineapple had landed in the bedroom.

My Thoughts in Blue:

He hadn’t bothered Lei [her] for several [could we show the number of days?] days. Thankful for another peaceful morning, [seems more natural to use the line below here] Lei stretched her arms above her head and yawned.

[we need to get her out of bed – we also need to show how dark it is in the bedroom to help set up the light that comes through the window in a few moments]

She threw on a [an extra descriptor would sound good here: bright? gauzy? strapless?] yellow beach dress and glanced out her second-story, apartment bedroom window [for an easier read, I would remove: apartment] Each day the hint of gold in the Maui dawn [is it dawn now? Was she looking for the hint of gold when she glanced out – if so, can we show this anticipation] promised a fresh, new [I would pick one or the other] start. Maybe now she could revive her focus on growing her sewing business, [perhaps seamstress or tailor? I cannot envision what constitutes a ‘sewing business’] too.

Lei stretched her arms above her head and yawned. [a line here that reflects/shows her hopefulness – a smile, fluffing hair, grabbing a hairbrush, looking at her matching yellow shoes – even an internal thought - something that shows she feels some confidence or courage]

A single beam [a beam means it’s just one, so we don’t need ‘single’] of light shone [I would like to see a more startling verb here, to emphasize the intrusion aspect, like ‘stabbed’ or ‘pierced’] through her bedroom window, then cut out. Another flicker. She Grabbing her cell from the nightstand, Lei raced hurried to the side of the window and peeked outside. Nothing evident from her point of view. [this is action, let’s keep the sentences short and to the point: She saw nothing.] Maybe she’d take a look from a different vantage point in the living room. [Set up the thing coming through the window here – perhaps like: (internal thought: ‘Check the living room windows!’ She turns to run downstairs just as the thing comes through the window – and the sound of broken glass and a loud clunk as something hard hits the floor. She freezes, the phone glued to her hand---etc., etc]

Breaking glass and a loud clunk sent her flush against the wall at the side of the window, the phone glued in her hand. Why would someone do such a thing? [in truth, this is a WTH moment – internal thought would be commands to get help] Her hand [fingers? Adrenalin makes the fingers practically useless – think of trying to get a key in a lock while adrenalin rushes through you…] trembled, but managed to punch in 9-1-1.

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

Her shrill voice tremored. [This feels like too much – shrill ‘tells’ us the sound of her voice, which might strike her as odd – in crisis, we either babble or can’t speak at first, then gush out words. This line could also be prep for the dialogue: She sucked in a deep, shaky breath.] “Someone has broken my bedroom window I saw a flashlight beam a moment before and then crash, my window’s broken.” [this dialogue needs to be shorter – can you say it in one breath? ] She gasped in a second breath. “My name is Lei Hudson I live at 320 Koa Road.”

“We’ll get someone out there right away. Are you hurt?”

“No…” If she’d left her bedroom a moment sooner, she could have been struck. [coping could be beginning here – like humor, so an internal thought about two steps more and she might’ve had a hole in her head (or some other self-smarty-pants thought) could show she’s recovering from the initial fright]

Shaking, she crept along the wall away from the window. A large object, the size of a huge pineapple [readers will envision a pineapple-shaped thing – is that correct?] had landed [this past tense use lets the air out of the scene – better to show where the thing is now: “…of a huge pineapple, lay on the bedroom floor. – Now readers wonder what it is…]in the bedroom.

The Questions:

1. Is there telling, instead of showing?


A bit, but nothing that can’t be amended. I’m more concerned with the habit of using more descriptors than necessary, which can lead you into telling. If you can prep the upcoming lines or dialogue, then it’s harder to ‘tell’, because a simple show will suffice, and often plays off the showing previous line.

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

2. Backstory present? (My first line indicates backstory but am wondering if it’s okay, since it’s a bit of a hook. Suggestions appreciated.)

The mystery man who had apparently been bothering her, then stopped, is going to be assigned the role of ‘bad-guy-who-throws-rocks’. If he isn’t the BGWTR, then you’ll have to convince the reader of that. We normally speculate the shortest points first, and you gave us the guy (obviously a creep, eh?) to pin this whole event onto. We want to know who threw the pineapple though, and we also want to know what the pineapple really is.

So, your ‘backstory’ that isn’t backstory, but rather a hook that you walked up and stabbed us with, and now we’re all looking for ways to explain what you’ve done – while trying to work the little hook out of our minds. We ask: How does this hook connect to what's happening in this opening?

The page-turn will come, but then you really need to have the bad guy either be shown to be the likely suspect (as in both hands smelling of pineapple) or to have a deep alibi. I might read two pages, after that, unless you gave me an excellent reason to wait longer, I just might hold a grudge.

(Here's more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

3. Does this scene work? Makes sense, flow well, keep reader interest?

Overall…yes. I understand what is happening (mostly) and it leads me to the next page. There are little things that might need to be better defined, such as keeping it clear that she remains in the bedroom and giving the reader the level of light in the room. The latter allows us to imagine the room being in pre-dawn light or just after, and how much light she had to see anyone/anything outside. Readers may also presume or speculate that the bad guy who smells of pineapples has done scary things before, so she’s a bit more on edge – or perhaps he’s never done anything this early in the day?

You also have a micro-action element in the scene, which can be emphasized by altering your sentence structure and adding internal thought to show her fear or anger. Some people get nosebleeds from a startle that jolts adrenalin. Heart rate and blood pressure can spike and voila! Nosebleed. You can add interest to such action scenes by including small factual bits about the various stages of adrenalin activation and other physical reactions to usual events.

(Here's more on Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotion)

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.

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3 comments:

  1. I'd say this is all about capturing your mood. Maria has a lot to say about making that work, especially setting up the description so we're ready to notice a single beam of light in the dimness outside, and keeping the sense of fear in her reactions.

    I'd add, can you do more to capture the hint of fear before the attack? This is a woman who's been stalked or harassed to some degree (though it seems not especially bad), and is trying to get over that. If you add just one more touch in there somewhere we won't miss, combined with the first line, you could put this in the sweet spot of her just getting over the last of her nervousness-- that shows sympathy, courage, and has us hoping against hope that today won't be the day it flares up again. (Although we know it will.) Plenty of suspense stories show how precisely you could build this mood.

    About that first line: it has a slight risk of putting Lei in the shadow, because "he" is the active one in your first sentence. It doesn't really confuse who's the protagonist since "bothered" is so unsympathetic, but you might look for other ways to say this, that put the spotlight more on Lei, and maybe hint at some detail of what he did. (Or maybe not, if what matters at the moment is her thinking it's over.)

    I agree, she should assume that the guy from before is now the BGWTR (grin)-- in a story the two have to be connected, unless this is about her needing time to realize he might be innocent and it *is* something else. Her reaction might take a few moments of blind fear more before she's free to think "of course it's him!" or it might be an instant "I knew he was trouble!" or a "how could he go this far?" But we want to put the attack into that context soon, and start finding out how our assumption is right and wrong. (While keeping those first thoughts feeling fast and real, of course.)

    This is a good hook. It's also a rather common hook for a suspense story, and you're going into the danger so fast we don't see a lot about what kind of person Lei is and what particular situation she's in yet. So you're relying more on tone to connect us with Lei at first, to give us those first signs that this is more specific than other books in the genre. This works, but ideally it could be that texture that changes it from a hook to a whirlpool and really draws the reader in.

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  2. Thanks Maria and Ken for your thorough, helpful insights!

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  3. Writing an action scene always eludes me so bravo to the author for her work. I found myself moving a bit to quickly from calm to action. I see a lot of hope in the yellow dress and gold Maui morning. If she is someone who has suffered from stalking, I do think she'd still be a bit on edge - depending on what that backstory is. Here's where I became confused:

    A single beam of light shone through her bedroom window IS IT MORNING - SEEING A BEAM OF LIGHT FEELS LIKE NIGHT SO DOES THE FLICKER THAT FOLLOWS.Another flicker. She grabbed her cell from the nightstand, USING THE WORD NIGHTSTAND MAKES ME THINK OF NIGHT AGAIN raced to the side of the window and peeked outside. Nothing evident from her point of view. Maybe she’d take a look from a different vantage point in the living room. THESE LAST TWO SENTENCES SEEM TOO PASSIVE FOR SOMEONE SCARED.

    Breaking glass and a loud clunk sent her flush against the wall at the side of the window, I'M NOT SURE WHERE SHE IS AT THIS POINT. LOUD CLUNK DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING TO ME.the phone glued in her hand. Why would someone do such a thing? HERE I THINK THE PASSAGE STARTED OUT WITH HER COUNTING THE DAYS SINCE THINGS DID HAPPEN TO HER SO I WOULD EXPECT SHE WOULD KNOW WHY. Her hand trembled, but managed to punch in 911.

    I agree that the dialog is too long for the operator. Needs to be short. Scared. Frightened. While I understand pineapples are familiar to Hawaii, the description of the thrown object looking like one seems a bit off - perhaps not scary enough - if it is, in fact, supposed to be scary.

    Again, action scenes are some of the hardest writing. In many ways we want to write them like we see them on TV, but in reality what makes them come to life is slowing them down - feeling the tension - being right there with the person.

    This piece has a foundation for a great plot, with a little tweaking it will have readers glued to the page.

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