This is the opening for a novel I'm trying to dial in. I think I pasted less than thirteen lines. Thanks for any help you might give.
A chill mid-October breeze skirled through the high Rocky Mountain valley of Quarryham, Montana, and wailed through the trees. It ruffled the curls of nine-year-old Micah Whitfield’s dark hair and snuck through the seams of his blue fleece jacket. He shivered.
Forward and back he rocked on the balls of his feet, hands clutched together. Micah peered into the angled shade of the trees in his new yard, and rolled his neck over his taut shoulders. He loathed and feared shadows. Three years ago, with a terrifying promise Micah wanted to forget, creepy Mister Shady came to him from the shadows.
Micah scanned the yard, tightened his hands into fists and relaxed them. He didn’t like the dirty garden gnome staring down the walkway or the towering cottonwoods and maples that lurked over him. Or the shadows.
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You're thinking visually, and describing what's on the screen, in a medium that reproduces neither sound nor picture.
You're describing, one by one, things that the viewer would get in parallel, as background information, in a fraction of the time it would take to read this post.
Ask yourself what, in all this description, matters to the protagonist as the story begins.
The first paragraph works. It tells us who we are as a person. We learn where we are in space. And we learn what's going on.
But the last line of it places the viewpoint in your court. You, someone not in the scene or in the story, are telling me what happened. But change that last line. Attach it to the previous line with a comma, as, "bringing a shiver," and we learn what's going on in his moment of "now, and in his viewpoint.
But then, in paragraph two, you switch to full-on "tell me a story," mode, where the narrator is explaining what's happening in the scene.
• Why do I care that he's rocking on his feet if I don't know what caused him to do it? Without knowledge of what it's in response to it's just a factoid with no context. It's what you visualize happening, not what he chooses to do.
• Do I care that his hands are clutched together. It could be fear, happiness, or cold. Without knowing which it's just more visual data.
• Do I care that the shade is angled, or anything about it if I don't know what he's looking for? You're reporting—informing the reader, when you should be making them peer into that shade for whatever the child is seeking. Is his rolling his neck important? No way to tell.
• Is he thinking about what happened three years ago, or even thinking about how long it's been? Hell no. He's focused on the fact that whatever "Mr. Shady," is it might be back.
But of more importance, you just placed effect before cause. First, you tell us he shivered. Then you tell us of what he's doing in fear, before we know he feels fear. Then you have him focused on the shadows. And finally, you give the cause a name, but no substance. So in the end, forgetting that cause should come first, it was a report, and in reality, there was no cause for fear.
So what you did was, in effect, play spooky mood music, as if something was about to happen, to foreshadow, and then walk back. In other words, manipulate the reader. But they notice.
But in doing so, you just killed the story, because the reader knows that the it's going to happen again, and will be expecting it, with expectation growing the longer it takes.
But it wasn't something we watched happen, or understood, as him, while it was happening. And without his internal reaction and perceptions, we know what happened, but not what it means to him, or what his response is, so it's sterile.
In his viewpoint, the shape in the shadows should have frozen him in place, as the past came rushing back, bringing the urge to turn and run. But then, perhaps not wanting to be a coward, he brings himself under control, though on hair trigger alert, as he peers into the shadows. Done that way the reader doesn't know what he thinks he sees, just that it's an object of terror to a nine year old. Then, having calibrated the reader's perceptions to his, he peers into the shadows for a moment more and relaxes, as he realizes that it was just the gnome. We still don't know why he's frightened. But as he relaxes and goes on, thankfulness that it wasn't, "Mr. Shady," is a part of his relaxation. The reader still doesn't know why he was frightened, but they have a name, and a mystery they want solved, rather than a series of emotion free facts. That's story, and in his viewpoint. Your explaining it is an outside-in approach that's fact-based and author-centric, which is a nonfiction approach to writing. What the reader seeks is emotion-based and character-centric.
After all, it's his story, right? And how he perceives the events is the mother of his actions.
The thing to remember is that the reader cannot hear the emotion in the voice of the narrator. Only you can hear that, and only because it's your story, and you know how you want it told. What does the reader have? They have no context unless you provide it. And the meaning of the words is whatever those words suggest to them, based on their life, not yours.
Take a simple phrase: "John, you truly are a bastard." If there's laughter in the narrator's voice it's high praise. If it's delivered with malice in the voice it's deadly insult. If neutral it could be a doctor delivering a DNA report. The one who wrote the line knows how it was intended to be taken. And if the reader could see or hear the narrator, they'd know. But what odds would you give that when you read the line the tone you used matched the one I intended tou to use?
See the problem? And since the reader cannot know exactly what the narrator means with a given line, it's best to have the narrator serve the needs of the protagonist, and clarify or supply needed information that does not require the narrator to emote.
And how to do that is something we weren't taught as part of learning to write because it's a set of techniques unique to the profession: Fiction-Writer. And all professions are learned after we master, and in addition to, the Three R's.
In fiction, the viewpoint of the protagonist is everything. It's what makes us understand, and relate to the story's protagonist. If you and I, and ten others, were to visit someone's house, and wander through, then write a report of what kind of people lived there, based on our observations, no two reports would be alike. An interior designer would focus on different aspects of the house than a fire marshal, or a third world resident. So what makes your story unique isn't what happens, it's how the protagonist reacts to it. Plot is what happens. It matters but it has no immediacy. Story, because it happens in the protagonist's moment of now, is full of uncertainty. We know what the protagonist is focused on. We know what they feel they must do/say, and why. But...Will it work? Will their plan work? If it does, what will that lead to? If not, what's that mean?
In short, if we focus on facts it's a history book, and every bit as interesting as any report. But if we focus on that matters to the protagonist it becomes their story instead of your story.
Sorry for the length of this, and for it not being anything like what you hoped to see after all the thought and work that went into the story, but I thought you would want to know.
Something that might help is this article on one method of presenting the protagonist's viewpoint. It's the approach I used in suggesting a different approach to presenting that second and third paragraph. If the article makes sense, it's a condensation of one of the techniques in the book he recommends in the article.
Thanks for taking the time and effort to critique my writing.
I didn't expect such a lengthy, thorough, and insightful analysis. I'm taking the excellent points you made to heart. Writing is easy, learning to write well takes effort and thought; factors I'm thoroughly enjoying.
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"skirled" : you either taught me a new word (if so, cheers) or are talking bafflegab. I'll go find out. It does have a nice sound to it, doesn't it, quite onomatopoetic if you've heard what wind does through mountains. Oh, great "skirled" is Scottish: I needed to know that for my research on my Scottish-English main character.
You drop some nice bait in here to interest the reader: "Mister Shady", the garden gnome, the promise, the physical setting, the fact that the MC is a child.
Still have no idea what the book is about but, unlike the others, I don't really expect to from 13 lines. If you want to do a critique exchange by e-mail, let me know.
Princesisto, the fact I used a word you had to look up means I should probably remove it. Don't want to stumble the reader no matter how cool a word might be.
I've recently stepped back from this story to finish up a short. But I do have a bit more written if you wish to exchange crits. I'm not a neophyte at critiquing and have been involved with two local groups and another online group for awhile.
You can email me if you wish.
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A young boy surveys his new backyard, afraid of the shadows he sees there. It is immediately revealed why this is so. You have provided me with setting, character, an inciting incident and a foreshadowed revelation/conflict to come. As a reader I am engaged and might read on except for craft flaws; flaws which would cause an editor to immediately form-reject the story.
While the word skirl means a shrill, wailing sound, it is most commonly associated with the sound of the bagpipes--first used in the early 1600’s by Scottish poet Robert Sempill. The word may be appropriate in describing the sound you want, however it causes to reader to stop mid-sentence and wonder about its use.
Now, cause and effect. The first paragraph is fine, the wind ruffles Micah’s hair, infiltrates his jacket and makes him shiver. The second paragraph is effect then cause; fear of what might be in the shadows and then the reason. Swap that around and then you have cause, fear of Mr Shady, and effect, his reaction to that fear.
Finally we come to the tension between show and tell when it comes to dramatic prose. This has been a constant point of disagreement between proponents of each for at least the last thirty years. The reality is this, of every fiction book published commercially within that time, the vast majority contain roughly the same ratio of show and tell within their pages. My opinion? Whether to show or to tell is a function of narrative (also called psychic) distance. The closer we are to the direct perceptions of a character the more show should dominate tell however, at the end of the day it is the writer’s choice.
No, with respect I don't agree and that is not what I meant to result from my comment.
"Skirled" is a perfect word for the sound of the wind whistling through high mountains. The fact that some idiot in Bangladesh doesn't know what it means does not change that.
One reason that we read and one reason that we teachers tell our children to read is to learn new vocabulary. Plus, my Beta reader from this site is always lecturing me that authors have the right to coin words. This is not even coined: it's good Scottish English, as @Grumpyoldguy correctly documented.
By the way, if you got a "As a reader I am engaged" from @Grumpyoldguy, it's like getting Scott Morrison to shut down a coal mine, so respect that! Ya lucky sod!
I thank you for teaching me that beautiful word, "skirled". Don't run away from your social obligation as an author to educate your readers. If they don't want to learn anything, your readers should stick to something like Dr Seuss, that won't tax their limited capacity.
Yes, I am sending you an e-mail in a few minutes. I am glad you are also not a stranger to critiques. "Newb crit newb" is like two poor people trying to end each other's poverty.
If I'm understanding you correctly, a simple rearranging of some sentences to put the cause(s) before the effect(s) would correct the flaws. No rewriting needed.
Yes--and no. Implementing such changes would address obvious flaws. Including craft subtleties such as heightening the impact of tension and anticipation of an action to unfold would elevate the submitted fragment from adequate to artful, IMHO. Of course, that would seriously impact your ability to get the reference to Mr Shady included in the 13 lines, but, hey, the story is the important thing.
From my perspective, the 13 lines limitation is meant to get you to focus your attention on the most important elements of the start of your story. It's not meant to be the be-all and end-all of your construction of an artful beginning to a story.