Friday, April 27, 2012

The Sin of Squandered Drama

Today's subject for the First Page Critique is untitled. Here it is in its original form with bold face added by me. I'll see you on the other side of the piece:


Malcolm was pinned down and under heavy fire. He'd walked into the ambush and blamed himself. His instincts should have recognized the telltale signs of a trap.
He was situated halfway up a small hill. Rounds were flying past him, striking trees and small shrubs. Whizzing so close to his head that he could feel the air pass.


Malcolm didn't know the location of the rest of his unit. They were mostly rookies. As soon as the fighting began, they had scattered in chaos. Likely, they were already casualties. If the hostiles were to shift their position, then he would be next.

His opponents were positioned along a ledge uphill from him. Their position was fortified and they were throwing everything they had down at him. He wasn't going to last long.

Malcolm didn't want to be in this fight. He abhorred fighting, yet somehow he was convinced that this fight was okay. A part of him resisted, yet the old warrior was all to willing to take part.

He pushed down these anxious feelings and assessed his options. Going straight up the hill would be suicide. There was even less cover in front of him.
With covering fire, it might be possible for him to surmount the hill. If his teams members were smart, they would work themselves around the other side of the ledge in order to relieve his position. Malcolm wasn't counting on this.

There were clearings to his right and left, which would give the shooters an easy target. He'd be picked off like a duck at a carnival game.
Maybe it was the stress of the situation, the old warrior back in his element, but his mind recalled past events that he had deliberately buried away. A face appeared. A face he once respected but now loathed.

Battle hardened, wrinkle lines deeply engrained, a bald head with liver spots and tufts of white hair sticking out from the side. The face spoke in a heavy Israeli accent, “Sometimes you need to go backwards to go forwards.” Typical Israeli philosophy.



This entry commits what I consider to be the most egregious sin of an author: It squanders drama through lots of telling and very little showing. Here it is again, mostly paragraph by paragraph, but this time, my thoughts are in bold.


Malcolm was pinned down and under heavy fire. He'd walked into the ambush and blamed himself. His instincts should have recognized the telltale signs of a trap.


An opening paragraph with this kind of action provides abundant opportunity for some very specific descriptions. Don't tell me that he was pinned down, show me the splintering rocks and let me hear the whip crack of rounds passing close by. Better still, filter all that description through Malcolm's emotions.

You tell us that Malcolm missed telltale signs, yet there's no indication of what those signs were. Moreover, I question the relevance of such thoughts when he's being pummeled by ammunition.

For this kind of scene to work well, I believe that the reader should have some level of investment in the character as a human being. Where is his rage? Where is his fear of never seeing his family again? Where is his commitment to win at all costs, or his temptation to surrender?



He was situated halfway up a small hill. Rounds were flying past him, striking trees and small shrubs. Whizzing so close to his head that he could feel the air pass.


Another sin: Passive voice. "Rounds were flying" is weak action. Constructed this way, rounds might as well be humming birds, accompanied by a Disney soundtrack.


Malcolm didn't know the location of the rest of his unit. They were mostly rookies. As soon as the fighting began, they had scattered in chaos. Likely, they were already casualties. If the hostiles were to shift their position, then he would be next.


Right now, I'm thinking that Malcolm is a bit of a turd. If he's lost control of his men, why isn't he hurrying to bring order to the chaos. That kind of panic is what allows tine well-trained units to obliterate much larger forces. Malcolm should know this, I assume, because the unit is "his."


His opponents were positioned along a ledge uphill from him. Their position was fortified and they were throwing everything they had down at him. He wasn't going to last long.


His "opponents"? Now we're in a football game? In Malcolm's mind, those bad guys should be Hadjis, Krauts, Gooks--something far less friendly and respectful than opponent. Even OpFor--opposing force--would be a step in the right direction. Also, "everything they had" has no meaning. Are we talking mortars? Flame throwers? Boiling Oil? Monty Python cows?

I'll stop the line-by-line critique at this point becomes it becomes repetitive. Suffice to say that writing action sequences is tricky. For the choreography to work in the reader's mind, the description needs to be concise and precise without slowing the action. They also require a point of view through which the reader can experience the action. It's hard to do, and I feel that this piece needs a second pass.

8 comments:

  1. Yes, what John said. There are two nuggets here that could be gold. First, a tense action scene; second, a character torn with inner conflict. But those aren't coming through on the page because the writer is using "narrative summary." Telling us, as John points out, what happened, rather than making it happen "in real time."

    One clue to watch for is this: use of the word "had." I think it's used three times in past tense form in this opening, once in "He'd." This makes us "listen" to the past from the narrative voice. Then in the last two paragraphs we actually DO go back into the past, for a backstory moment. Cut that. An opening like this needs to present moment.

    Malcolm didn't want to be in this fight. He abhorred fighting, yet somehow he was convinced that this fight was okay. A part of him resisted, yet the old warrior was all to willing to take part.

    Here's the inner conflict, only we're just being told it's there. Show us by what he does and thinks throughout the scene WITHOUT being too explicit (e.g., don't have him think, "I don't want to be in this fight! But I'm a warrior. I've got to fight!") Let there be one or two actions we see that are INDICATIVE. Let thoughts flash through that also indicated not all is well inside.

    Rewrite this scene and go for the gold. It's there. Good luck.

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  2. Yes, what John and Jim said. The word "was" is used 10 times and the word "were" 8. These are mud words--they muddy up the movement of the story. I suggest the author find each one and see if the sentence can be rewritten in a more crisp, active voice.

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  3. Showing instead of telling will help. I'll still need a connection to Malcolm. He seems remarkably self-absorbed, especially if he led these rookies into this situation, ie, he's to blame. A quick moment where he thinks they might all be dead and how awful that will be for the pregnant wife of one of the rookies, or the recently widowed mother of another who's supported by her son, would show him caring about others. Then I could care about him. Just a suggestion to increase empathy for Malcolm.

    Kathy

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  4. This would have been more compelling to me had Malcolm been injured. Maybe it would make him sound less the whiny type. He's too emotional. I want him to be in pain, but decisive. He knows what he needs to do to get out of this situation, but I want to cheer him on and the only way I will do that is if he's in this situation and injured, not thinking of everyone else who might be injured or dead.

    It's a great opportunity to give him some drive and make us absolutely love him. :)

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  5. In past critiques we talked about being under the character's skin. (Didn't we?) Method Writing. From this cut, I would hazard to guess the author has never experienced war. I see exactly what he/she is trying to create, but it's from the safe distance of coffee table discussion. Why? We can't feel Malcolm's heartbeat!

    This has all the promise of being a gripping scene. I invited the author to climb into Malcolm's head, carry his gun, feel the sweat and grime smearing his face, and the rush of adrenaline. Then, re-write this page. I'll bet it will rock!

    Don't give up. Give it another go!!

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  6. Kathy, your comment about the writer not having experienced war is really revealing. Something I didn't mention in my previous comment: a few paragraphs in, the thought popped into my head that this was something innocent like a paintball game. I'm sure it's not but that was my impression at the time.

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  7. 1. The whole thing reads weak because of the over-reliance on passive voice.

    2. Three of the first four paragraphs begin with "Malcolm".

    3. Too many "there was" and "there were".

    4. I don't feel the heart-pounding tension or the life-threatening situation that the writer wants me to feel.

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