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Saturday, October 31

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Show, Don’t Tell in Middle Grade

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through November 14.

This week’s question:

Is this too much telling?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Michael waited to give his presentation when the perfectly aimed spitball whizzed past his ear with the sound of an angry hornet. It zeroed in on its target, stinging the chalkboard with a loud, wet splat, missing the teacher by an inch. It stunned the class with a sudden smacking sound, and the students snapped to attention. Like Michael, most of them observed Ms. Henderson writing at the chalkboard when the wet paper bomb hit. They witnessed white flying fragments from the meteorite cascade to the green linoleum floor like snowflakes on a leprechaun’s lair, but most of the blob stuck to the board.

A hush fell over the classroom like the silence after a hunter’s blast in the early morning stillness. Ms. Henderson never moved. She stood, frozen in time, her face turned slightly towards the chalkboard. No one could figure out why she didn’t move. Maybe fear paralyzed her. Was she going to have a heart attack?

The nucleus stuck to the board in the tiny open space between her hand and her ear. Someone fired this shot intentionally with near-perfect accuracy, as a misguided attempt to hurt her, and Michael couldn’t believe anyone would do that. The spitball had the markings of William Tell—spitball instead of arrows.

Only one student in the school mastered such gross gunnery—Billy the Bully. His rubber band shooting, paperclip firing, and especially his spitballs were legendary. Michael, sitting in the front row, only partially observed Billy do it; he paid attention to the teacher like always.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Note: Due to the narrative distance of an omniscient (omni) point of view, the writing can feel told when it isn’t. I don't know for sure what POV the author intended for this, or if Michael is my narrator or not.  I’ll comment on both so readers can see the difference between a distant narrator, omniscient POV, and told prose.

I’m also going to format this submission a little differently, since explaining the difference will make this hard to read with all the text. I’m going to break it down like I do with my examples for clarity.


Michael [waited] was waiting to give his presentation when the [perfectly aimed] spitball whizzed past his ear with the sound of an angry hornet.

“Perfectly aimed” is outside Michael’s knowledge since he didn’t shoot the spitball. The spitball hasn’t hit anything yet either, so its intended target hasn’t been revealed to him. If this is an outside narrator, it’s fine. If Michael’s already experienced this and this story is being told “in the past” then he might know it. If he’s the narrator and readers are seeing what he’s seeing and only know what he knows, then it’s told. He can’t know this information if all he hears is a spitball whizz past him.

[It zeroed in on its target], stinging the chalkboard with a loud, wet splat, missing the teacher by an inch.

This is outside his knowledge. If Michael didn’t shoot it, how did he know who the target is?

[It stunned the class with a sudden smacking sound,] and the students [snapped to attention.]

This “stunned the class” line tells what it did, it doesn’t show the class being stunned. This feels told no matter who the narrator is. It also repeats the “loud, wet splat” idea. It doesn’t have to explain that’s what stunned the class, readers can assume the spitball did. “Snapped to attention” shows, as it’s an action Michael can observe.

Like Michael, most of them observed Ms. Henderson writing at the chalkboard when the wet paper bomb hit.

All told. This explains where everyone was and what they were doing and seeing at the time of the spitball. It’s also telling readers what they just saw happen. It’s not necessary, and cutting it would tighten the scene.

[They witnessed] white flying fragments from the meteorite cascade to the green linoleum floor like snowflakes on a leprechaun’s lair, but most of the blob stuck to the board.

“They witnessed” puts this outside Michael’s POV, because he wouldn’t describe what the class saw, just him. It also has a told feel since it explains what they saw in a detached way. “They witness this happened” not “details of something happening.” The voice also changes and this doesn’t read like a middle grade child. This is also another way to say the spitball hit the chalkboard, which readers have already seen.

A hush fell over the classroom like the silence after a hunter’s blast in the early morning stillness.

This could be Michael or an outside narrator. I lean toward outside narrator because it’s unlikely Michael knows what a hunter’s blast sounds like. It’s possible he goes hunting, but if so, he’d more likely describe the silence relative to what he did, not “a hunter.”

Ms. Henderson never moved. She stood, frozen in time, her face turned slightly towards the chalkboard.

This could also be either, but I learn toward Michael’s POV since this sounds like something a kid would describe.

[No one could figure out why she didn’t move.] Maybe fear paralyzed her. Was she going to have a heart attack?

The bold line is outside Michael’s knowledge, as he can’t know what everyone else in the room is thinking. The rest is something he could think and wonder, and could be in his POV.

The nucleus stuck to the board in the tiny open space between her hand and her ear.

This could be either, but I lean more toward outside narrator because “the nucleus” doesn’t sound like how a kid would describe the spitball. However, if they were in the middle of a science lesson on atoms, this could fit and be quite funny.

[Someone fired this shot intentionally with near-perfect accuracy, as a misguided attempt to hurt her,] and [Michael couldn’t believe anyone would do that.]

This first part is outside Michael’s knowledge. He has no idea why someone shot a spitball at the teacher. The second part is tellish, as it’s explaining what Michael is thinking to readers from a more distant narrative position. A tighter POV would use “He couldn’t…” to position this inside Michael’s head. The question here is, is this an internal thought of Michael's (shown), or an explanation of what Michael believed (told).

The spitball had the markings of William Tell—spitball instead of arrows.

This could be either an outside narrator or Michael.

Only one student in the school mastered such gross gunnery—Billy the Bully. His rubber band shooting, paperclip firing, and especially his spitballs were legendary.

This could be either an outside narrator or Michael.

Michael, sitting in the front row, only partially observed Billy do it; he paid attention to the teacher like always.

This feels outside Michael’s POV, since it describes where Michael is, and what he partially saw long after he actually saw it. And nowhere in the earlier text did it suggest he saw Billy shoot it. The “he paid attention…” line could be his thoughts or an outside narrator. Is the line meant to explain to readers what Michael was doing, or Michael thinking about why he didn’t see Billy shoot the spitball?

The Question:

1. Is this too much telling?


Yes. There are several lines that explain what’s being shown. For example, the first paragraph has five sentences. The first two describe the action. The third repeats part of the second. The fourth and fifth repeat the first two. Half of the opening paragraph isn’t necessary. If you cut the told repeats, you’d get:
Michael was waiting to give his presentation when the perfectly aimed spitball whizzed past his ear with the sound of an angry hornet. It zeroed in on its target, stinging the chalkboard with a loud, wet splat, missing the teacher by an inch. The class snapped to attention.
You might not even need the last line, since the next paragraph starts “A hush fell over the classroom…,” which shows the result of the spitball and the reaction of the class. You could easily trim this opening down to:
Michael waited to give his presentation when the perfectly aimed spitball whizzed past his ear with the sound of an angry hornet. It zeroed in on its target, stinging the chalkboard with a loud, wet splat, missing the teacher by an inch.

A hush fell over the classroom. Ms. Henderson never moved. She stood, frozen in time, her face turned slightly towards the chalkboard. Maybe fear paralyzed her. Was she going to have a heart attack?

The spitball had the markings of William Tell—spitball instead of arrows.

Only one student in the school mastered such gross gunnery—Billy the Bully. His rubber band shooting, paperclip firing, and especially his spitballs were legendary.

Without the repeated information, you could slip in a little more internal thoughts and reactions from Michael, or just get to the consequences of this spitball faster.
(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

The intended point of view also plays a role in show vs tell. If this is omniscient, the distant narrator lines work fine. There are some great lines in here that come from a distant narrator.

If this is Michael’s POV, then more of it feels distant, since Michael knows things he couldn’t know, and uses language a kid his age wouldn’t use.

I suspect this is intended to be an omniscient narrator from the voice. It reads like an outside person telling this story, not like Michael telling his story. Which is common for middle grade, so it fits the market just fine. 

(Here's more on Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is?)

If not, then you’d look for ways to make the outside narrator lines more in Michael’s head and point of view.

Overall, this is a cute snippet with some great lines and a fun sense of tension brewing. I think the author is trying a little too hard to make sure readers understand what’s going on, and if they cut those lines, this will work nicely.

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. This is an impressive deep dive into description. It does a good job of making a spitball feel like a legendary event, and that goes a long way to making a story seem both exciting and child-like.

    That same focus on selling the moment means it runs risks, though.

    I agree, the language becomes awkward because it wanders away from a sense of who could be observing this, and also of how a child might describe it. A lot of it might go over better if there were a sense that something had already put Michael on alert, so this is what happens right on cue.

    (And, the bits of adult language would seem more appropriate if this were an adult remembering when had happened in childhood. A tale that had begun with that fact and sometimes talked about the narrator's larger experiences in presenting the story could go much bigger in finding descriptions for these. But you don't have that, so you may want to avoid most of it.)

    One thing that I'd especially like here is a sense of who we're rooting for. For almost the whole passage here, the main protagonist is effectively the spitball shot itself, because the tone is so dedicated to admiring it. That would be a good setup for revealing the spitter as a middle-grade hero who stands up to oppressive teachers. Revealing that Tell-like marksman is actually named "Billy the Bully" is a real wrench just at the time we're trying to learn who our sides are. (And if Michael was about to give a presentation, does that make him the sympathetic victim that the spitball interrupts? If that's where this leads, you need a whole different tone for the spitball so you aren't opening by cheering the villain.)

    A related point: there's simply a lot of of detail just for this moment. You may want to be sure that's how long you want to stretch this moment out, and if it balances well against how much time and detail go to what happens next (and the rest of the class, and the story).

    Janice says a lot about how an observer can't admire the shot's aim since there's no way to know where it was targeted. You can get around that by showing it's landed in the "perfect" spot early in the description, so we have the sense that Michael does know it's well-aimed and the rest is (re)interpreting the moment before it hit in light of how obviously it's scored its bullseye. The problem here is that you say its aim is perfect but it's many lines before you show what it hit that explains that perfection.

    I love a scene that knows how to make a moment epic, and a setting where that excess feels right. There's also more to being colorful than just maximizing the details and the superlatives... but more opportunities to make it strengthen the story too.

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  2. While description is good, too much of it can be distracting. There are so many action verbs and phases in this short piece that it takes from the emotion, which is a point to be made. What emotion is the author trying to derive from the reader? I think that might be a good question to ask in the editing process.

    Because the POV is confusing, it might be worth going back and writing it in first person - from Michael's view. It doesn't have to stay this way but it might help "see" things better and then ultimately help revise it. In first person, you will also have the ability to flush out Michael's emotions. Another exercise that might be helpful is to strip all the descriptions and see what is left behind.

    Like any piece, I want to have some feel for the protagonist, which right now I do not. Who is Michael? Why do we want to care about him? Where is this story taking place and where is it going?

    A classroom setting, a bully, a kid trying to get through a speech and a teacher are all great characters/themes to have fun with. No doubt, with a little tweaking and revising this can be revised into a terrific scene that many will enjoy.

    I

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  3. Halfway through this piece, I decided the spitball was the protagonist. I would have accepted Michael, waiting to give his speech, being grateful that the spitball came before he was in front of the class and a great target.

    If the observations and speculations about the teacher were Michael's alone I might take that as Michael having a very active imagination. Perhaps his mind is always ready to take flight or imagine what others are thinking, and he continually 'creates' stories for mundane events?
    Whatever it is, I would now be thinking about Michael more than the spitball...

    If the observations about the spitball, how it looked, sounded, acted were directly attributed to Michael, then I would easily slip into this kid's head and follow his nearly gross descriptions closely, because they become that part of his personality that must take everything and run with it.

    Only one thing has actually happened in this scene: a spitball hit the chalkboard. The class reacted to this action. The teacher did not react. So, who is going to relate this event to readers? Who is the observer or who do you want to be the observer? Perhaps you haven't decided yet? :O)

    I did wonder about Michael always paying attention to the teacher. It made me want to know why. I also liked that Michael's position relative to Billy was noted.

    I liked this little scene overall and even with the extra descriptions, it did make the 'facts' stand out.

    You have some great advice to support you here, so jump in and have fun experimenting!

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    Replies
    1. to our brave author: if I seem a bit circular in my comments, please blame my dog, Buster, who wouldn't stop (and still hasn't stopped) squeaking his toy ball at me.
      Good luck to you!

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  4. This is a fun opening that I think will flow well with some tightening like Janice mentioned.

    I have two additional comments - first, I was confused about where Michael was at first. I thought if he's waiting for his presentation, he might either be in his chair or at the side of the room. Then I saw the line about the spitball whizzing by his ear and thought maybe he was already in front of the classroom. Eventually I figured out he was in his chair. Janice's version helps a bit because it makes it clear quickly that the spitball was intended for the teacher and not Michael.

    The other thing I noticed is that Michael says he couldn't believe anyone would do that, and then it becomes clear that he does know someone who would do that - Billy.

    One more thought I had while writing this - Michael wonders if the teacher is frozen in fear, and it's possible he may wonder that if the teacher is actually afraid of Billy, but in my experience, kids are going to be more worried about the teacher being mad (and possibly taking out her anger on all of them?).

    It's an interesting start, I look forward to seeing what you do with it!

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