In my last blog entry, I critiqued Hope’s first paragraph. Today, I’ll look at her revisions and then move on to critique Katie’s first paragraph.
Hope revised her paragraph as follows:
Hannah wanted Poppy’s new calf. She’d show Pa she could take care of it all by herself. Even if she was only nine years old. She wished Ma weren’t feeling poorly. But that gave her just the chance she needed. She tiptoed past her mother’s bed. Ma was asleep. Good. She slipped out to the barn and pulled a halter over Poppy’s head. Once outside, Poppy grazed eagerly on the fresh green grass. It had been a long Vermont winter. Hannah scooted back to the barn to get the calf. When Pa returned from helping his neighbor, he would be pleased that the animals had been outdoors–though Ma couldn’t take them out. Hannah raised the latch and opened the barn door. Before she could close it behind her, the calf darted out. It charged toward the woods. Disappeared from sight.
Randy sez: As a number of my loyal blog readers noted, this is an improvement over the original version. However, the problem I see is that narrative summary still is dominating in this paragraph. The events of roughly 15 to 30 minutes are compressed into this one paragraph. You really need to be showing here (using “immediate scene” techniques) rather than telling (using “narrative summary.”) A second problem I see is that the sentences mostly extremely short. Let’s look at these sentence by sentence and see which parts are showing and which are telling:
1) Hannah wanted Poppy’s new calf.
Randy sez: This is straight narrative summary, telling us what Hannah wants. That’s not a bad thing if it then is followed by some action, but . . .
2) She’d show Pa she could take care of it all by herself.
Randy sez: More narrative summary, telling us Hannah’s intention.
3) Even if she was only nine years old.
Randy sez: More narrative summary.
4) She wished Ma weren’t feeling poorly.
Randy sez: This is almost interior monologue, but it feels more like narrative summary, informing us of Hannah’s state of mind.
5) But that gave her just the chance she needed.
Randy sez: This is again narrative summary.
6) She tiptoed past her mother’s bed.
Randy sez: This is immediate scene. I can see this.
7) Ma was asleep.
Randy sez: This is also immediate scene, but it’s fairly fuzzy. What does Ma look like?
8 ) Good.
Randy sez: This is interior monologue, but it doesn’t carry much of Hannah’s personality, which is the real intent of interior monologue. Notice that all nine of the above sentences are very short.
9) She slipped out to the barn and pulled a halter over Poppy’s head.
Randy sez: This is again narrative summary in the first half (slipping out to the barn takes a couple of minutes) followed by immediate scene in the second half.
10) Once outside, Poppy grazed eagerly on the fresh green grass.
Randy sez: Again, there is a gap which is filled in with the narrative phrase “once outside”. The second half of the sentence is immediate scene.
11) It had been a long Vermont winter.
Randy sez: This is more narrative summary.
12) Hannah scooted back to the barn to get the calf.
Randy sez: This is immediate scene.
13) When Pa returned from helping his neighbor, he would be pleased that the animals had been outdoors — though Ma couldn’t take them out.
Randy sez: This is narrative summary.
14) Hannah raised the latch and opened the barn door.
Randy sez: This is immediate scene.
15) Before she could close it behind her, the calf darted out.
Randy sez: This is also immediate scene.
16) It charged toward the woods.
Randy sez: This is immediate scene.
17) Disappeared from sight.
Randy sez: Again it’s immediate scene.
As you can see, the great majority of the sentences above are narrative summary. The action takes a long time to get rolling. I would like to see more sentences that are immediate scene. Those sentences that must be narrative summary should show more of Hannah’s personality.
Let’s move on to Katie’s first paragraph:
Mysteer Castle loomed in Karel’s view, its dark walls melting into the nighttime forest. A sliver of moon revealed a sentry rounding the east corner of the castle wall. Karel allowed a smile as she touched the scar above her collarbone. Time to right a wrong too long held in abeyance. Time to recover the Stone.
Randy sez: This is a pretty strong paragraph. I can see the castle fairly well — especially those dark walls melting into the forest. In the first couple of sentences, you’ve set the stage. But I think I’d like to see more. This is a spooky scene. Make me feel it more.
I’m not suggesting that you do ONLY more description. I’d like to see some motion. What’s that sentry up to? What’s Karel FEELING as she looks at him? What sort of night noises does she hear, and how do those make her feel?
I think there is one sentence here that is clearly too early–the one about “Time to right a wrong too long held in abeyance.” This is verging on backstory, but the real problem is that it feels rather bloodless and analytical. We don’t know Karel well enough to understand that long-ago wrong, and so any mention of it is inevitably going to be intellectual, rather than emotive.
Compare that to the sentence before, in which Karel touches the scar above her collarbone. That’s much more visceral. I can feel that scar too. What is Karel feeling here? Can you tap into that, rather than what she’s thinking? Fiction is about Powerful Emotional Experiences. I think this paragraph would be sharper if you highlight the emotive aspects here (which you’re already doing) and downplay the intellectual elements.
OK, loyal blog readers, what do you think? Can you improve on Katie’s paragraph? There are some fine elements here. Can you sharpen them?
Ann Isik says
I very much like the sensory nature of this piece of writing. The castle first looms then melts away, becoming forest: this is almost hallucinatory for me and fairy tale like. I like that dangerous ‘sliver’ of moon, which also suggests other ‘slivers’, of broken glass or mirror – and a hint of sharp weaponry, which it would seem is about to play a part in the tale. And the sentry making that east corner ’round’. It makes me think of ‘sloppiness’ and that the sentry – and the castle – are not ‘on the alert’, an idea reinforced by the fact that the sentry is alone. I sense that Karel is not expected.
On ‘body memory’. I broke my left collarbone in 1972 while doing the ironing (don’t ask). Right on the end. It is still tender and aches sometimes when the weather’s cold. Touching it brings back all sorts of images and feelings, obviously including where I was when it happened. I’ve also cracked both kneecaps and an elbow (not doing the ironing). Touching each knee arouses differing sensations, emotions and memories! Might I suggest that perhaps you could hint at what this scar evokes in place of the last two sentences?
Daan Van der Merwe says
I think it is a great paragraph and I am eager to read more, especially about the wrong that is held in abeyance. I am a sucker for justice. I honestly don’t know how to improve on this. Still, I’m a sophomore so I must try.
Mysteer Castle loomed in Karel’s view, its dark walls melting into the nighttime forest. A sliver of moon revealed a sentry rounding the east corner of the castle wall.
Her heart missed a few beats as she felt adrenalin pumping through her veins. She touched the scar above her collarbone.
The sentry disappeared around the the west corner. Karel was still stroking the scar. She smiled mirthlessly.
This time you will not hurt me, you rats. This time justice will prevail.
Cori Fedyna says
I’ll have to remember Ann Isik’s suggestion. Her comment resonated with all my injuries. I hadn’t thought of including body memory to give writing more texture and depth, and ultimately backstory.
Bonnie Grove says
I like the ooky spooky feelings you are evoking here. I’d like to know more about this night time journey she’s taking.
I wonder if we need to be introduced to Karel (the name reminds me of Superman) quite so soon. It seems likely to me that the castle will play an important part of the story to come. I’m a big believer in using things (a room, a castle, etc.) as a character in a scene. You could do that with this castle. It would take reworking the first sentence, dropping Karel’s POV until half way through.
I don’t like the last two lines here, for a couple of reasons. One, they border on cliche. Two, they clash against the dreamlike imagery you’ve set up in the first half. My advice would be to keep the touching of the collar bone, cut the inner diolgue – instead, give her some dreamlike companion thought, or deed. The presence of the scar is enough to let the reader know she’s been injured. It tells us there is a score to settle. You don’t need to spell it out for us.
I don’t care for Daan’s effort (sorry Daan!) because it is too harsh a juxtaposition between the dreamlike state and an urgent call to action. They don’t go together. Also, whatever you do, don’t have her “smile mirthlessly”! Use of adverbs like this makes me put the book down.
If there is a Stone that needs to be recovered, tell us that info in a sensory way – help us feel it’s absense. It will make us care for the quest and the main character. Make us feel what’s wrong. I know you can do it!
Carrie Stuart Parks says
I’d like to linger a bit in that forest watching. Of course, if it were me, I’d find my bladder was full and…well, here’s how it might be:
Mysteer Castle loomed in Karel’s view, its dark walls melting into the nighttime forest. A sliver of moon revealed a sentry rounding the east corner of the castle wall. Karel slipped behind a rough pine, waiting. The sentry paused, then lit a smoke, the sharp odor fouling the night air. Karel pinched her nose to keep from sneezing. Move it, move it! This night is mine to recover the stone.
Lois Hudson says
I think Karel’s name needs to stay. It gives us the sense of a person we can relate to. I like Carrie’s idea of an aroma/odor of some sort, but “lit a smoke” evokes modern image, even without saying so. I’m sure there were “smokes” of some sort in ancient times, but unless it can be described so we see it in its time frame, it’s distracting. (And, of course, that was in Carrie’s version, not Katie’s. Perhaps combine the “rough pine” with other sensory perception: the bark could scratch her cheek, the fragrance of the pine could “hang on the still night.” Both the touch and the smell add to the atmosphere without needing a time frame yet.
Katie, is it set in ancient times?
Very good start, though.
Mysteer Castle loomed above Karel, its dark walls melting into the pine-scented nighttime forest. A sliver of moon revealed a sentry rounding the east corner of the castle wall. Adrenaline flooded Karel’s neck as she ducked behind a pine. She bit her lip to keep from crying out as the rough bark scratched her chin. As the lone sentry disappeared around the far corner, Karel fingered the jagged scar on her neck, nodding. The ancient pain prodded her forward.
Lois Hudson says
Critiquing my critique, I see a way to combine sentences in a clearer way:
Mysteer Castle loomed above Karel, its dark walls melting into the pine-scented nighttime forest. A sliver of moon revealed a sentry rounding the east corner of the castle wall. Adrenaline flooded her neck as she ducked behind a pine tree, scratching her chin on the rough bark. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. As the lone sentry disappeared around the far corner, Karel fingered the jagged scar on her neck, nodding in bitter remembrance. The ancient pain prodded her forward.
Daan Van der Merwe says
Bonnie!! Apologies unnecessary. I highly respect your opinion. This is a democratic society, right? It’s just that I’m sold on those pesky MRU’s. 🙂
Katie Hart says
Thanks for all your tips, and thank you, Randy, for the blog post and critique! I’ll have to try a rewrite if I can fit it into my 50-hour workweek (coupled with an hour drive each way, I’m really looking forward to going back to 40 hours in June).
By the way, this is the start of a fantasy, so all the advice on description and setting will come in handy!
Thanks Randy for the line by line analysis, that really helps.
What you said about highlighting the emotive aspects and downplaying the intellectual elements…that seems a tricky fine line. Isn’t there a danger of getting the emotions out of balance with the rational thought that, for a few odd humans, comes naturally?
And on that note, there may be a difference in approaching the emotive depending on the character’s gender. I remember your scene writing example of the tiger jumping out of the tree at Jack, who is very much a Manly Guy. First, a bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. Then he acted by reflex and jerked the rifle to his shoulder. Then the rational action/speech—if cursing at a fierce animal can be considered rational. This pattern sticks in the back of my mind as I write my own Manly Guy main character.
But… a woman might react differently. Emotions and thought (whether or not rational is a case by case mystery) are often intermingled, feeding off of each other. Ricocheting in some cases, actually. If I focus mostly on emotional reaction and less on intellectual reaction, my drama, already dangerously bordering on melodrama, will turn into a soapy mess very quickly.
In my mind, rationality is the cork that keeps emotions from spewing out and making a monstrous mess of things. But I am probably totally missing what you mean by emotive and intellect.
I was impressed by what Bonnie said: If there is a Stone that needs to be recovered, tell us that info in a sensory way – help us feel it’s absence.
Thanks Bonnie for another way to remember how to show instead of tell. I love the idea of using felt absence as a way of showing need.
Pam Halter says
I like Carrie’s critique.
I’m also wondering about the Stone. What is the Stone’s purpose? What went wrong when it was stolen?
You won’t want to reveal all in the beginning, but maybe a glimpse of the effects.
Perhaps the scar came from Karel protecting the Stone? Maybe she was one of the guards when it happened. That could be a reason for revenge.
It’s a good beginning, Katie.
M.L. Eqatin says
I liked Katie’s first paragraph just the way she wrote it. Like Daan, the mystery of the unrighted wrong would keep me reading.
But then, I prefer a little build-up to my powerful emotional experiences. I’m not much of a reader of thrillers. Usually, if it starts off with too much ‘grab-you-by-the-throat’ action without enough explanation to engage me in the characters, I put the book down and pick up something else. Not that this doesn’t work for a lot of today’s readers. Just not my genre, I guess.
Bonnie Grove says
Daan. You are a gentleman and a scholar. 🙂
Camille: Glad it was helpful to you. I like books with strong female leads.