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Saturday, June 20

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Show, Don't Tell in an Opening Page

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Four


Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through July 18.

This week’s questions:

1. Is it better as first person or should it be written as third person

2. Should I develop the main character before this segment or is this okay as a start of a story.

3. Is there too much telling?

4. Would you want to keep reading?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

I’ve seen her for the last five nights. She looks lost. Like everyone that she knows has disappeared. She’s in one of those old Westerns towns that our grandparents would have seen on black and white television. The ones with stores, a saloon, and a doctor’s office made from decaying, unpainted wood. A dirt road going through the center of town. Two chestnut-brown horses were hitched to a post, but nobody in sight.

Her clothes were strange like out of a history book. She had on a long, peach-colored dress that swept across the ground and a matching tie-down hat. But it’s her deep blue eyes intently searching and showing increasing fear. She called out different names as she peeked into windows. My name was not called. I don’t know how to help her. The first four nights when I approached her, I briefly woke up. But the dream repeated a few more times each night. Last night she let me get closer but I knew when to stop. She started edging back. “Can I help you,” I asked. She shook her head no but continued to look, as I watched. At some point, the alarm went off.

As I got ready for work, I wondered: Who is she?

Six hours later, I’m in a booth at Skip’s Sandwich shop, with my coworker Brian, for lunch.

“You look exhausted. What did you do this weekend?” he said.

“I wish it was fun,” is all I can say. I picked up my phone, looked at it, and then put it down. The third time I did it, I felt Brian’s hand on mine.

“Hey Tom. You okay?”

“I can’t sleep. When I sleep, I dream.”

“What’s the dream? You sound bothered by it.”

“It’s too weird.” I faked a smile.

“If you don’t want to talk to me, there’s mental health benefits through work,” he said half joking.

“I hate doctors. And a shrink would be worse. Forget it. It probably wouldn’t help.”

He got serious. “You got a better idea?”

My Thoughts in Blue:

I’ve seen her for the last five nights. She looks lost. Like everyone that she knows has disappeared. She’s in one of those old Westerns towns that our grandparents would have seen on black and white television [shows] ?. The ones with stores, a saloon, and a doctor’s office made from decaying, [this is a very specific word – wood usually ‘rots’ or has termites or is split and splintered – unless, of course, you wanted to show that the town is decaying as a community] unpainted wood. A dirt road going through the center of town. Two chestnut-brown horses were hitched to a post, but nobody in sight.

Her clothes were strange [unless the strangeness is important, the fact that the clothing is IDd as historical negates that they were strange] like out of a history book. She had on [wore] a long, peach-colored dress that swept across the ground and a matching tie-down hat. But it’s her deep blue eyes intently searching and showing increasing fear. [incomplete sentence] She called out different names as she peeked into windows. My name was not called. I don’t know how to help her.

The first four nights when I approached her, I briefly woke up. But the dream repeated a few more times each night. Last night she let me get closer but I knew when to stop. She started edging back. “Can I help you?” I asked. She shook her head no [not necessary, as shaking one’s head means ‘no’] but continued to look, as I watched. At some point, [the character set the alarm, right? So, this might be more like: finally or eventually] the alarm went off.

As I got ready for work, I wondered: Who is she?

[inserted extra line for new scene]

Six hours later, I’m in a booth at Skip’s Sandwich shop, with my coworker Brian, for lunch.

“You look exhausted. What did you do this weekend?” he said.

“I wish it was fun,” is all I can say. I picked up my phone, looked [jumbled tenses here – 2nd portion needs to be: I pick up my phone, look…] at it, and then put it down. The Reaching out for a third time I did it, I felt Brian’s intervened, his hand on mine.

“Hey, Tom. [I believe you did some rewriting or trimming, so perhaps the protagonist’s name came earlier at one time. I would prefer knowing this earlier. Partly to ID gender and partly to have a bit of personal info for bonding.] You okay?”

I can’t sleep. [but he can sleep – it’s just interrupted by the dream] When I sleep, I dream.”

“What’s the dream? You sound bothered by it.” [is Brian still holding Tom’s hand?]

“It’s too weird.” I faked a smile. [this is a chance to make Tom real, show us what his smile felt like or he assumed it looked like – would Brian know what was being expressed through it? Are they close, for co-workers?]

“If you don’t want to talk to me, there’s mental health benefits [this seems stiff. Would this be more inclusive, as in: we’ve got mental health benefits… the ‘through work’ isn’t necessary, as it would be assumed with two co-workers chatting.] through work,” he said half joking. [what does he do or what expression shows that he’s joking?]

“I hate doctors. And a shrink would be worse. Forget it. It probably wouldn’t help.” [starving for some character interaction, body language to show emotions – frustration, etc. … Tom hasn’t gotten a decent sleep in 5 nights – I want to see how he reacts to Brian, and I want to know more about their relationship.]

He got serious. [what does Brian do or say that shows he’s serious?] “You got a better idea?”

The Questions:

1. Is it better as first person or should it be written as third person?

Let’s start out by saying this choice, and the idea of ‘better’ begins with the author. If you like reading first person stories, then perhaps this position is more comfortable and natural to you. If the limitations of first person don’t deter you, and the genre you’re writing in often uses first person (so you wouldn’t be force-feeding it to your audience), then that is helpful, too. (Readers chime in on this, please!)

Personally, I enjoy first person, when done well, because I believe that the greatest lessons we learn are when we’re alone, parsing out events, people and obstacles in the moments following a surprise. Or is that just me? (grin) I like the innate ‘knowing’ that you can live through with a character whose story is told in first person.

If you find yourself longing for the breadth and flexibility of third person, the support of a narrator and a broader viewpoint can sometimes give you that needed space and make a big difference in how you present your story.

You could experiment with brief rewrites to see if third person gives you the elbow room you desire or is too loose. Once you’ve played around with some rewrite examples of both positions (try doing 500-700 words), read both aloud. You can do this alone, have someone listen or someone else can read it. The idea is to bring it all out of your head, to be voiced. Your choice may be immediately obvious … or not.

For example [rough example], your first two sentences:
I’ve seen her for the last (past) five nights. She looks lost.
He had seen her the last (past) five nights. She looked lost.
He has seen her the last (past) five nights, always looking lost. (this one can be flipped around – He has seen her, always looking lost, for the past five nights.)
We have been moved from an intimate observation to a ‘setup’ (my feeling).

In my experience overall, authors new to writing in first person, eventually experience frustration when they want the reader to know certain information, but not the character. For some, this seems to mean that the protagonist must regularly be forced to move forward blindly and only get a clue after the fact. But then, this is also the fun of first person – readers are just as clueless as the protagonist.

Janice has great articles that will guide you in making a well-informed decision. 

(Here's more on Me or You? Choosing Between First and Third Person Point of View) 

2. Should I develop the main character before this segment or is this okay as a start of a story?

Hm-m-m-m… I don’t like dream beginnings, as the author and story must hope that readers will hang in there to learn more. I don’t mind the idea of being dropped into the protagonist’s life with my boots on, but it does mean that I only have bare essentials to survive until I get more information. In your case, the dream start means I have a mystery, of sorts, and the protagonist is concerned, but beyond curiosity and lack of sleep, what’s keeping me reading?

Without knowing anything about Tom, I must build the character myself, speculating on if the dream is more than a mental loop or has Tom had weird dreams before? Tom hates doctors and his reaction to seeking mental help is defensive. He sees no way to gain help – yet it’s just a dream. Does he feel it will never end? If so, why?

Telling readers about Tom, as it relates to the dream and his reaction to it will give a better, stronger foundation overall, I feel. Which is what is lacking – a foundation for the story to evolve upon.

You could show Tom over the five days/mornings as he observes that he looks more like crap every day (baggy eyes, dark circles, dull hair, etc.) and wondering finally on day five if he should talk to somebody about the dreams. If he rejects this idea, you can show why he hates doctors – doesn’t have to be big and tragic, just something that pegs part of his personality. A bit of background could then set up any body language shown during his conversation with Brian.

(Here's more on Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

I wanted to know more about Brian. Tom strikes me as someone accustomed to internalizing things, figuring them out for himself (poor family structure?), so even barely talking to Brian, a co-worker, might seem to indicate he’s pretty freaked out about the dream. Is Brian really a friend, or just some guy that isn’t awful and they have lunch sometimes? I felt it odd that Brian went from, ‘boy, this dream is bugging you.’ to ‘mental health benefits’. I might find it less odd if Brian mentions that Tom could get with a therapist, because, ‘we’ve got those benefits, you know.’ This is a throwaway mention, maybe as Brian tucks in the last bite of sandwich and wipes his mouth with a napkin.

Tom may be quiet and not very talkative, and Brian knows this, so a natural conversation would be unpresuming, I would think.

These are the little things you can show and build in the scene that allows the reader to ‘know’ Tom and Brian through their interactions and dialogue. And you can avoid doing an infodump at the start…

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

3. Is there too much telling?

I have noted some points where you could show what is happening, actions/reactions, but overall, we are being told much. For me, the idea of ‘show and tell’ always takes me back to grade school, where we would partake in ‘show and tell’. I brought my dad’s Bowie knife once…it had been his dad’s knife…it was huge. I showed the class, was told by the teacher to be careful, and then walked along the aisles letting each kid touch and heft the monster. My classmates knew it was a knife, but until I came to each kid and let them experience it themselves, they didn’t really know what it was. Everything I showed them ‘about’ the knife made it more and more real. I showed how it was so well-balanced you could drop it point down and it would always stick in the floor. I showed how it was so well-balanced I could lay it across (‘be careful now!’) two fingers, flat-side, and it wouldn’t move. I showed them the initials my grandad had carved in the handle. And finally, I explained that my grandad had made the knife in his blacksmith’s shop. This last bit made a big impression because all the kids now held a lot of sensory, intimate knowledge about the knife.

Telling isn’t evil – and sometimes is necessary. Check out Janice’s articles on Telling vs. Showing, they’re a great way to learn about it and thus be less concerned, more comfortable.

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

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Well, the one little hook, who is the girl in the dream, and then perhaps, why is Tom having the dream, would be enough to have me turn the page, at least once. (Readers chime in please) I would continue reading on pure speculation, and because I want to give the story a chance. But the next several pages will need to present some solid leads to keep me going – and a good strong hint as to what this story is about. 

(Here's more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)  

Good luck with this – I think your story is hiding out – and might even truly start on one of the next pages!

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

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the critique. This started out by combining two successive writing prompts that I saw in a writing prompt book. I have ideas of where I want to take it but I obviously need to rewrite the beginning, in many places, as you pointed out. I may resubmit it at some point. Thanks for the advice about where to start.

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  2. This has real potential, depending on how you see the story going.

    I've always thought the single strongest thing a story can have is a good synergy between the character and the situation. So I like the dream, but I do think the afterward with Tom and Brian doesn't add as much to it.

    Actually, I'm making an assumption: that the dream is some kind of paranormal hint. That's purely because it's well told, so I don't *want* it to be an ordinary dream -- because those *are* overused as story openings. Readers have seen too many times where a regular dream just isn't a clear anchor for what the story is, so they have a low tolerance for dreams. This would work best if it had a hint that there's something beyond the normal going on, hopefully right after Tom wakes up or sooner. (Or if it's not, you want to be laser-precise about how his dream relates to his own issues, so readers can except that it's a *well-chosen* ordinary dream.)

    Nitpick: the last sentence of the first paragraph has a "were" in it, but the sentences before it left that out, for a more timeless feel. It would be smoother to stay in that grammar until you get to the next paragraph.

    Mainly: you want this scene (or pair) to be absolutely the right launching point for the story. What does the dream point to, or rather what does it look like right now and how does it compare to what mystic or psychological truth is waiting behind it? and, how do those compare to what Tom is now? This is why Tom having a basic lunch and basic worries about dreams doesn't set the story up well: we want to immediately know the Big First Thing about Tom that makes him an interesting person to have this kind of dream.

    The girl is calling out names, and he's not part of that but he wants to help. Are you setting up that he's an outsider to her world (so far), or that he feels left out of life and wants to do more? was there someone in his own life that he couldn't help, or a set of missing people? Those are just a few things this dream could be doing, as either a dream or a vision. If this is your opening, it needs to be because it's the ideal place to start your story, and what we learn about Tom immediately feeds or contrasts with it.

    Is Tom eager to get involved in that world or analyze those feelings, or is he happy or busy with his own life and thinks they're a distraction? What other ways could this go? And note, a dream isn't like most openings where you could drop a character into a unique situation and squeeze in a line like "this was no place for a shy accountant like me" to give us a sense of him on the fly. In a dream, his memory of who he is would feel indirect: you want to make it strong enough just through how he *reacts* to what he dreams, even though at the moment that need is his natural state rather than something he'll stop and think about. If you can convey that during the dream, we'll wait around for him to wake up and the next (carefully chosen) scene to give us clearer details about him.

    You describe the dream well. I hope that as you work this story out (or maybe once you've finished it and you're certain), you make sure the dream and the scene that follows it are the right one-two to start it all perfectly.

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  3. I would start the novel with "As I...who is she?" Bring the dream sequence in later. I would read more. The telling has been pointed out.

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    1. An interesting start. I'll have to think about that. I know that I have to rewrite the beginning but I kept writing so that I wouldn't lose the ideas. If fact I think I'm going to rewrite everything before I get too much farther. Thank you for your idea.

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  4. Thanks for the comments Ken. It has me thinking.
    I have to rethink the story a bit based on both your comments and Maria’s.
    The original story idea is science fiction based and the dream is an escape from his real life problems that he is forced into. He goes back and forth between the dream world and reality until they eventually merge. Both of your comments, especially yours, raise interesting ways to get that to happen. But I probably need to set up the foundation more so that it makes more sense.
    Thank you for your insight.

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  5. Thanks, brave author, for submitting your work. Hope there’s something of use for you in the feedback:

    1. Is it better as first person or should it be written as third person
    Author preference.
    I didn’t have a preference as I read. Whichever way you do it, the writing needs to be clear and the opening compelling. Since I don’t really understand what’s going on, it’s hard to say.


    2. Should I develop the main character before this segment or is this okay as a start of a story.
    At least give us a reason to speculate why this main character is having this dream (by the way, it’s completely unclear that it’s a dream until the 2nd paragraph. When I started reading, I assumed the main character was a man, but then when Brian reached out to touch his hand I thought it was a woman, then Brian calls the character Tom. So I was very confused. I don’t typically see guys being that touchy feely with each other (though I’m sure there are always exceptions). Is part of the confusion perhaps because this is all over lost sleep over one period of time? Would it be different if Brian had noticed changes in Tom BEFORE this lunch session, i.e. ongoing issue? I’m just trying to see a rationale for even the joking mental health benefits reference, since they don’t appear to have had this type of conversation before.

    3. Is there too much telling?
    I’m not sure it’s a matter of too much telling as it is a lack of clarity. Confusion about who the main character is (he/she), confusion in not knowing it’s a dream until the 2nd paragraph, confusion as to why this matters to the main character as we have no idea of even a hint of the conflict. Confusion because we have no idea of this character’s age group (and that matters because of the type of the dream they’re having--if this is a 20 something, I find the dream highly unlikely--they’re just not clued in on good old western shows).

    4. Would you want to keep reading?
    I was interested in the first paragraph--thinking this was going to be some kind of story that starts out in an old western town--a bit of a mystery maybe. But after that, realizing it’s a dream, and not having any idea why this matters to the main character, I lost my curiosity. I’d probably give it one more page to see if I got a clearer picture of what was going on and of the character. After that? Not sure I’d continue.

    If I had to guess, I would bet that the true story start of this work will end up being after this scene. I got the impression that this was one of those pages we writers write for ourselves to get our story jumpstarted, then you go back and cut the scene later or revise it when you really find your story rhythm. But that is only speculation on my part. I’m not the author and I don’t know what the story concept is. Best wishes to you on your project!

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  6. Sasha Anderson6/23/2020 6:12 AM

    With the caveat that precise word choice is probably one of the last things we should all worry about, I wanted to be a bit nitpicky on the first paragraph, because I really like it! There seems to be a mix of formal/informal that I found a bit jarring, so here's what I would do (but feel free to ignore - it's your voice, after all!)

    Cut the first 'that' and probably the second. Maybe switch 'television' to 'TV'? (Not sure, it just doesn't read right to me). Cut 'The ones with', and probably 'and' from the same sentence. Cut 'going' and 'were'. So it ends up like this:

    "I’ve seen her for the last five nights. She looks lost. Like everyone she knows has disappeared. She’s in one of those old Western towns our grandparents would have seen on black and white TV. Stores, a saloon, a doctor’s office made from decaying, unpainted wood. A dirt road through the center of town. Two chestnut-brown horses hitched to a post, but nobody in sight."

    Unfortunately in the second paragraph I got confused (but I would disagree with Maria and keep 'had on' instead of 'wore'), and after that I found it quite disorienting to be thrown straight into the present day. Perhaps that's because I liked the picture you'd painted of the town so much that I wanted to stay there... Maybe you could draw it out for a bit longer and then show Tom waking up instead of skipping straight to the sandwich shop?

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    1. Sasha Anderson6/23/2020 6:52 PM

      Given time to think about it, I might go with "She's in one of those old Western towns our grandparents would have seen on their black and white screens." I think (hope) that that's just on the right side of too much, because this passage is quite poetic anyway, and the rhyme isn't perfect.

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