The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author. This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
This submission has a promising premise. I particularly appreciate the thorough summary of previous chapters. It gives me a good sense of what’s gone before, and makes the events of the chapter both clear and easy to follow.
I’d like to focus on two aspects of craft in the chapter. The first is what I call emotional temperature. Characters’ feelings are crucial to the development of the story as well as the characters themselves.
The intensity of those feelings is equally important. If a reaction is too strong for the context, the reader can feel as if the writer is trying too hard. Conversely, if the reaction isn’t strong enough, it may seem to the reader as if they’re not getting as much out of the story as they’d like to. Are they missing something? Is this scene not really important after all?
When Neil arrives in Kat’s apartment and meets Luna, his reactions tend toward the former. His eyes bulge, they water, he’s stunned, he’s weak, he’s floored. But then he shifts in the opposite direction. He chuckles, he laughs, he invites Kat and Luna to IHOP. He seems to jump from one to the other.
In revision, I would suggest smoothing the emotional arc somewhat. Tone down the strong reactions. Show a more gradual shift from shock and astonishment to casual social interaction. Give us a clearer sense of how his emotions change, and why. Does he realize he’s reacting strongly and make an effort to tone it down? If so, is the effort perceptible to Kat? If not, how does he get from OMG! to Hey, kid, let’s have pancakes?
The second thing I’d like to point to is the nature and purpose of dialogue. In real life, most of the things people say to each other are basically filler. Set phrases that everyone utters, that grease the social wheels and set up common expectations. That’s how people can develop the tic of finishing other people’s sentences for them. Most sentences are going to contain the same words in the same order.
In fiction, however, dialogue serves a different purpose. It conveys information that the reader needs to know—new information, or new light on old information. It develops character and establishes relationships between characters. It moves the plot forward.
Real-world conversation, for the most part, doesn’t do any of these things. All the stock phrases, the small talk, the back and forth of Hello-How Are You-I’m Fine-How Are You, get in the way of the story. Take them out and the story doesn’t lose anything.
Rather, it gains clarity. It lets the reader see the important things, the details they need in order to follow the movement of the story. It’s the Good-Parts Version, the part that has all the nice chewy spicy bits.
The rest of it can still be there—but not on the page. It’s implied. You know they’ll say hello, invite the guest in, make introductions. What matters to the story are the details that we either don’t know yet, or don’t have all we need in order to move on to the rest of the story.
Most of the dialogue in this chapter is realistic in that it reflects how people in the real world talk. But the story needs to focus on the good parts: the parts that reveal new information and provide new details about who these people are, what they are or will be to each other, what they want and what they need and why. If a character doesn’t know something but the reader does, repeating the information would, again, be realistic, but it stalls the story. Even if they need to know it, the reader doesn’t. The story can skip over the explanation and focus on the next piece of new information.
It’s a balancing act. Too much filler or too many extraneous details and the story gets lost. Not enough information, or not enough new information, and the reader gets confused. The writer’s art and craft (and challenge) is to walk the line between the two.
— Judith Tarr