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Saturday, September 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Scene Showing or Telling the Tension and Surprise?

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 5.

This week’s question:

Am I showing or telling to convey the tension and surprise Gail feels at this moment?

Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: In this scene the main character Gail, who has a (secret) alien device called a Gravity Key is finishing a task for an alien Admiral and is betrayed by an old friend (Frank) that she totally trusted. Gail is wearing a protective helmet.

We crept to the far end of the room, and I found the power junctions and breakers. I shut down all the power going to the operator’s office and exhaled.

“There,” I muttered glad to be finished. “Admiral the power is off now.”

“Yes she’s free, thank you, Wilder. You and Howell report back.”

“Roger that Admiral,” I replied and closed the relay box.

“Put your com on private for a minute,” Howell said. “I need to ask you something.”

I adjusted the com-link for two way local communications and turned around. Howell pressed his pistol against my visor.

A spasm of cold rippled through my body. Only a centimeter of plastic lay between my nose and the business end of Howell’s gun.

“I was hoping you didn’t have that thing,” Howell groused. “I didn’t want to believe Tucker was right about you.” He glanced down at my left wrist.

“All these years and I didn’t know what you and your grandmother were doing. Damn it, we grew up together. I don’t have orders to kill you, Gail,” Howell continued. “Just to retrieve the device by any means necessary. Your choice.”

A thick knot tightened in my throat. “Retrieve? That’s a strange word, Frank,” I croaked. My heart ached. Howell was the last person I expected to betray me. “It’s mine.”

“Whatever,” Howell said flatly. “I’m not going to debate whether it’s you or Tucker that’s lying about this. I have my orders. Just hand it over, please.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

We crept to the far end of the room, and I found the power junctions and breakers. I shut down all the power going to the operator’s office [and exhaled.] this shows, but it doesn’t really say anything about her emotional state at doing this

“There,” I muttered [glad to be finished.] Tellish. We don’t see any signs of her being glad  “Admiral[comma] the power is off now.”

“Yes she’s free, thank you, Wilder. You and Howell report back.”

“Roger that Admiral,” I [replied] we see he reply so you don’t need this. It's a bit tag-heavy overall and closed the relay box.

“Put your com on private for a minute,” Howell said. “I need to ask you something.”

Does she have any thoughts about what he wants to ask her? This seems like it might be unusual for him to do this I adjusted the com-link for two way local communications and turned around. Howell pressed his pistol against my visor.

A spasm of cold rippled through my body. Only a centimeter of plastic lay between my nose and the business end of Howell’s gun. Any thoughts from her? She flashes cold, but that’s all I know about her response to this. No, "Holy crap, what was he doing?" type reactions? 

“I was hoping you didn’t have that thing,” [Howell groused.] this tag just hit me funny. She notices him grousing, but that feels like the wrong thing to pick up on in this situation “I didn’t want to believe Tucker was right about you.” [He glanced down at my left wrist.] Does she have a reaction about this? "He wants the Key? Why?" or the like 

“All these years and I didn’t know what you and your grandmother were doing. Damn it, we grew up together. I don’t have orders to kill you, Gail,” [Howell continued.] She’s not reacting to what he says at all. If he had those orders would he have done it? That's quite the betrayal  “Just to retrieve the device by any means necessary. Your choice.” So he would kill her if he had to. That's a major gut punch. 

[A thick knot tightened in my throat.] This is a good response, but it feels too little too late since a lot has happened and she hasn’t said or done anything [“Retrieve? That’s a strange word, Frank,”] He just said he'd be okay killing her and this is her response? No "What are you doing?" or "How could you" type phrases?   [I croaked.]I’d cut. There are too many tags in this overall My heart ached. [Howell was the last person I expected to betray me.] A bit tellish by itself, but if there were more internal thoughts, this could be fine as is “It’s mine.”

“Whatever,” [Howell said flatly.] A bit tellish. I’d cut to reduce the tags “I’m not going to debate whether it’s you or Tucker that’s lying about this. I have my orders. Just hand it over, [please.]” This suggests he might be conflicted over doing this, but I'm not getting an overall sense of how he feels, or how Gail thinks he feels based on what she knows about him. 

The Question:

1. Am I showing or telling to convey the tension and surprise Gail feels at this moment?


This is more a lack of emotion issue than a show don't tell issue. The trouble is that there’s little emotional response and almost no internalization, which makes the overall piece feel flat, and thus told. Since this is also first person, readers will expect more internal thought and a personal connection to Gail through her feelings.

That lack of emotional connection is what’s making this feel more told and not shown, because we aren’t seeing how Gail feels in any real way. Bits and pieces, but they’re generic shock and fear responses. This is a man she grew up with, yet he never wonders why he's doing this, or thinks about their history together in a meaningful way.

(Here's more on You're So Emotional: Describing a Character's Emotions in a First Person Point of View)

I’d be interested in seeing what she thinks about this situation. Is she shocked by Howell’s betrayal? “Howell was the last person I expected to betray me” doesn’t really tell me anything, because it’s not combined with anything personal. Were it mixed in with her thoughts and her reactions, it would read more like her naturally getting here, but as it, it feels more told. 

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

It’s also relying on dialogue tags to convey information, which not only makes it read a little clunky, it suggests that Gail is paying more attention to how Howell says something than what she feels at this moment. For example, her noticing him grousing suggests a more light-hearted and less serious response to him holding a gun on her. “Oh, he’s just being petty” is a far cry from feelings of shock that a lifetime friend is okay with killing her if he has to.

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

I’ve marked places where you might consider adding some thoughts and further reactions from Gail to flesh this out some. I don’t feel in her head yet, and that’s keeping me at a distance more than any telling is.

Overall, I think it’s just missing that emotional layer to ground it firmly in Gail’s head, and once it has that, it’ll feel shown and grip readers the way you want it too.

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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5 comments:

  1. I agree, the emotion isn't really here yet. There are a number of ways it could show up more.

    Even in a gun-in-the-face moment like this, the core question in any scene is what does the character want right now. The answer is probably to stop Frank, and/or to understand what turned him against her, and it's also combined with the sheer weight of Gail feeling betrayed and also scared.

    The dialog here could be the two of them fencing about who's right and what's at stake, who's been bought or is a traitor, and how trust and friendship ought to have saved them from this. Desperate arguments like that could lead to one actually winning the other over, or more likely exploring the missing pieces of how they got here enough to put a new spotlight on why they're opposed. In a moment like this, everything they say can be a new revelation-- either a fact, a truth about how someone sees it, or a chance to see the speaker's personality in how they phrase something this intense.

    There's a lot you could explore here, and I'm not seeing it. Or maybe you're starting to show it (Frank sounds like the device is so controversial that anyone hiding it counts as a traitor, while she says she has a right to it), but this submission doesn't bring us very far. And maybe Frank *is* too professional to (as he says) "debate" this-- but if he's not giving the scene any wiggle room, what does fill those moments instead? Is it Gail watching for a chance to disarm him, or comparing the threat before her with the person she knows and wondering if he'll do it, or is her own professionalism cracking and she's just scared underneath?

    I think partly this is a style question. This writing feels like it's the level of detail you write because it's most natural to you -- like you don't have a lot of description here because you usually don't use much once a scene gets moving. That's a good thing if it works for you, but a razor-sharp moment like this is probably time to think about adding more details. They might be Gail's intentions (how she reads Frank's eyes to see if he'd really shoot), or internal (her fear), or just bits of background imagery that add atmosphere at the right moments. You don't need many if you place them right and phrase them well. Or if you just don't like thickening the description at all, instead you could give Gail more thoughts or try to really maximize the dialog. Find a way to build on your stylistic strengths, and/or include a bit of what you usually underplay, that lets you intensify this in a way that works for you.

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    Replies
    1. This comment is for Ken. Sorry to use this platform, but I don't know how else to contact you.I'm curious if you do any editing? How can we get in touch? I don't use Gmail. Thanks.

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    2. Thanks, Marcia. I'm not doing any editing right now, but you can contact me at my website, kenhughesauthor.com

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    3. Thanks, Ken. I've tried to access but it says server not found. I'll send you a message via FB.

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  2. Thanks Janice and Ken. These are great suggestions. I will go inside her head and flesh things out. I'll cut some of those tags also. This analysis made me realize that I was too focused on what happens right after this scene (Frank is killed; not by Gail)

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