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Saturday, March 7

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Puzzling Scene

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Zero

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are open.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it have enough internalization, description, or narration?

2. Am I showing, not telling?

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Ted reached for the top drawer of the dresser and his right hand went through the handle into the inside of the drawer. He pulled his hands away, not believing what he saw. He shook his head. Was he asleep or going crazy? He moved his right hand up to the drawer and stopped. He reached for the handle and again his hand went through the wood and into the drawer. He pulled his hand out.

“Jen. Can you come into the spare bedroom?” Ted yelled.

“What’s wrong?” she said as she hurried in.

“Where did we get this dresser?”

“We didn’t have enough furniture to put in all the rooms. You said to ask around and this one came from my cousin. Why?”

“I reached for the handles on the top drawer and my hand went through the wood.”

“It’s not that flimsy. It’s oak. There isn’t a hole.”

“No. I mean I went to reach for the handle on the drawer and my right hand went through the handle and inside the drawer.”

She smiled. “Too much drinking with the guys last night.” Ted prepared for her reaction as she reached over and opened the drawer. She closed it and pointed to the bed. “You’d better lay down,” she said and walked out of the room.

He looked back at the drawer. Was there a trick? He reached out, grabbed the handles, and opened the drawer. He closed it. He opened and closed it five more times. He then sat on the bed and stared at the dresser. He knew it happened. How?

My Thoughts in Blue:

Ted reached for the top drawer of the dresser and his right hand went through the handle into the inside of the drawer. He pulled his hands away, not believing what he saw. He shook his head. Was he asleep or going crazy? He moved his right hand up to the drawer and stopped. He reached for the handle and again his hand went through the wood and into the drawer. He pulled his hand out. This was a bit difficult to follow. On my first read, I didn’t catch what was actually going on. Perhaps use some internalization here to give a better sense of what’s happening? Maybe use other phrasing to show his hand is passing through the wood like a ghost through walls or the like.

“Jen. Can you come into the spare bedroom?” [Ted yelled.] Perhaps a thought here to show how he’s feeling about this weird situation

“What’s wrong?” she said as she hurried in.

[“Where did we get this dresser?”] hehe funny.

[“We didn’t have enough furniture to put in all the rooms. You said to ask around and this one came from my cousin. Why?”] There’s a lot of extra information here both people already know, so this feels a bit infodumpy.

[“I reached for the handles on the top drawer and my hand went through the wood.”] Considering what happened, this feels a bit underwhelmed. It also repeats the opening paragraph. Wouldn’t he just show her?

[“It’s not that flimsy. It’s oak. There isn’t a hole.”She can tell by looking at it there’s no hole or any damage, so this is an odd thing to say. It also feels a little infodumpy

“No. I mean I went to reach for the handle on the drawer and my right hand [went through the handle] perhaps use a different word to show this? “Went through” isn’t conveying the right action yet, and he's said it already and inside the drawer.”

She smiled. “Too much drinking with the guys last night.” Ted [prepared for her reaction] Telling. How is he preparing? And how is he reacting here? as she reached over and opened the drawer. She closed it and pointed to the bed. “You’d better lay down,” she said and walked out of the room.

He looked back at the drawer. Was there a trick? He reached out, grabbed the handles, and [opened the drawer.] Any reaction from him? He closed it. He opened and closed it five more times. He then sat on the bed and stared at the dresser. He knew it happened. How?

The Questions:

1. Does it have enough internalization, description, or narration?

Not yet. There’s a little too much focus on the specifics of what’s happening so it feels stiff and a bit detached. Something really bizarre just happened to Ted, but he isn’t really reacting to it. He has a few “what’s going on?” type thoughts, but I’m not getting a sense of him or how he feels.

I also wasn’t clear that his hand was phasing through the wood until later in the story. “Went through” the wood didn’t mean “passed through it like I was ghost” to me at first (readers chime in here). Possible it’s just me, but I think I was trying too hard to follow along that the actual point got lost.

(Here's more on How to Write Description Without Going Overboard)

I also have no sense of Jen, or the room. It’s a spare room with an oak dresser, but why is Ted there? What’s he doing opening drawers? I imagine he’s looking for something, but what was going on before weird things started happening?

I don’t need a lot this early, but perhaps ground readers a bit more in the scene before things get weird.

There’s also a lot of repetition with how his hand goes through the wood (he says this three times) without giving a strong sense of what’s really going on. Since Jen didn’t understand him, he’d probably try to describe it in another way, or even show her instead of saying the same thing over.

(Here’s more on Living in My Head: Crafting Natural-Sounding Internal Thoughts)

2. Am I showing, not telling?

This is one of those “Yes, but no,” situations in show, don’t tell. Yes, it’s shown, but because there’s nothing personal from the point of view character, it feels told. There’s too much focus on the external actions and not enough on the internal views and thoughts. The scene is dramatized, but the information conveyed doesn’t read like people living in this world.

Luckily, this is easier to fix than standard telling. It’s just a matter of looking at this same scene from insider the character’s heads—probably Ted since he’s the protagonist here. What does Ted, feel and think about this? How is he trying to make sense of it? How would he try to explain it to Jen?

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

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

Most of it does, but some lines are an infodump through dialogue. For example:
“We didn’t have enough furniture to put in all the rooms. You said to ask around and this one came from my cousin. Why?”
Both Jen and Ted know this information, so it reads as though readers need to know that they didn’t have enough furniture and asked around for more. But readers don’t need to know this right now. Jen would more likely just answer his question, such as, “My cousin. Why?”
“It’s not that flimsy. It’s oak. There isn’t a hole.”
This is also more about telling readers what the dresser looks like and how there’s no damage to it than something Jen would naturally say. She can clearly see there’s no hole, so her response sounds off. She’d more likely respond to what Ted says, which is essentially “I reached for the handle and broke it.” Her reply might be something like, “You broke it?” and move to check the damage. Then she’d see there was none and ask him what he’s talking about.

(Here’s more on Infodumps Through Dialogue: Your Words Are Dead to Me)

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Not yet (readers chine in here), because I’m not connecting to Ted or his problem, and there’s not much here to make me want to keep reading. However, I really love the “Where did we get this dresser?” line. There’s something funny about this response to the situation that makes me like Ted and chuckle over his reaction to the weirdness. It’s not quite enough to make me keep reading, but it’s a good foundation to build on. It shows his personality and adds a little voice, and with more of this, I’d read on.

I also love the odd mundane-yet-bizarre nature of the dresser and why this is happening. It’s a fun hook that make me curious about what’s going on.

(Here’s more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

Overall, I think the bones are in decent shape with a strange dresser that somehow becomes insubstantial or phases out (or maybe it’s Ted?). There’s a mystery and a story question that does pique interest. There’s a hint of a fun voice and character with Ted. I think if you fleshed this out some more, added more internalization and description, and gave readers a stronger sense of the characters and the setting, this will be a fun scene that will make readers want to know more.

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 enjoyed the premise of the story very much - here's some thoughts.
    First paragraph is a bit repetitious, so paring that down with a bit more description of the "ghostlike" thing that is happening would help. I don't think if your hand went through the wood you would shake your head - I think line is a opportunity for him to have a much stronger reaction. I would also like to be grounded on where he is in the first paragraph - not a lot of info just enough to let me know where this story is starting.

    I don't think Ted needs to say spare bedroom, Jen could probably tell where his voice is coming from. I also don't take from his sentence that she would expect something is wrong - not just yet.

    Like "Where did we get this dresser?" ;)

    Think it could be cut to just why.

    Next line - I think that he would go to show her, rather than tell her. If that happened to me, I'd want to show my spouse. That would take care of next few lines of dialogue.

    If he hit his hand as he tried to show her, the line of too much drinking with they guys would land better.

    Last paragraph could be cut to sitting not he bed and staring at the dresser...ending with How?

    I like Ted's voice, I like the set up and the many potentials of where this story could go. It's almost there - just a few tweaks and you'll have a great start to what promises to be a fun and wonderful adventure!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree, the key here is in getting the tone right. This is Impossible Stuff, even if it's a very specific thing, and it needs to balance several things well:

    * Clarity. You show what's going on, but you leave out one very big part: a well-read reader will immediately think Ted's a ghost or similar and he can't touch *anything.* You want to immediately cut that off, probably by just about the first thing he does being to touch the top or side of the dresser and feel that's normal. (He wouldn't even have time to think "is it me?", just a confused "what's with this thing?")

    * Focus. The first sentence is a grabber (so to speak), but it puts too many details in at once. We'd rather have the essence, then fill us in in the next sentence(s): "Ted reached for the top drawer of the dresser and his right hand went [or better yet "passed"] through" and then details about having his hand inside the drawer. Try reading these words aloud and listen for what might be cleaned up or separated out.

    * Reaction. This is the big one. If this happened to us we'd be TERRIFIED, and even seeing that it's only "one sometimes-impossible drawer" would only go so far to calm us down, because physics itself just imploded. Of course he can have a smaller reaction than that, if this is a comedy or a dryer study of weirdness, but keep in mind that you have make that reaction more convincing or fun than the default. For instance, it would take a comedy for him to dare telling Jen "my hand went through it" as a regular statement. Otherwise he might stammer part of the truth in shock, or he might say "Uh... you've got to see this..."

    It's a promising concept. The devil may be all in the solid details, and the intangibles.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for all the comments. It definitely helps to have another pair of eyes.

    The next part of the story starts with:

    The weirdness jolts him out of the simulation. He takes off the probes and slowly realizes that he’s on his way to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
    “Ted. You okay?” Sam says as he floats by.
    “I don’t know.”

    ReplyDelete