This is a sequel to Is this excerpt's style too matter-of-fact?. Rather than rewrite the same snippet, I decided to write a second, adjacent snippet. I attempted to add scenes demonstrating each character trait I wished to portray rather than baldly state anything - but now I'm worried that there's too much bloat, that the story meanders between points in time and that the reader may lose attention. Is it too unfocused?

Gregory was getting too old for this.

Looking at his son, Lance, made him feel his age like he rarely did when alone with his wife. Mentally, he still considered himself his son’s age; sharp of wits, brimming with youthful energy. But his son never had the stiffness he’d get in the cold winter mornings when climbing out of bed. His son floated easily through a world that no longer seemed simple and straightforward to Gregory. His son had half as many memories to wade through, half as many associations to every object; his son had twice as much energy left to fight this battle.

And a battle it would be. Lance had always been a fighter, since the day he was born, screaming defiance into the world with newborn lungs. Gregory had done his best to instill a sense of honor into the boy, a sense of fair play; despite his admonishment that violence was not the answer, that being sweet to the other children would get him further in life, six-year-old Lance still was sent home early at least once a week for fighting with the other children on the playground. Gregory had assumed at first that this was boyish mischeif – pigtail-pulling and taunting, the sort of childish games he remembered well from his own playground days. Not that he had ever participated as a child; he was more likely to be bullied than to be the bully, but every boy was different, and surely it wasn’t too late to turn his son from the violent path into a way of peace and good will. A parent-teacher conference shattered that illusion, however: he hadn’t merely yanked Lucy’s pigtails, he had punched her clear in the face, knocking her down into the mud. Gregory’s son was a bully, and worse, one that picked on the weak and helpless.

Gregory had never in his life hit a girl. When he was six, his mother had already establishedc roles for him and his twin. He was the kind one – a phrase he suspected later in life of secretly meaning “homosexual”, given that he took pride in his long hair and had no interest in the rough-and-tumble games the other boys played. At six, he had embraced the distinction; he put more of his allowance into the collection plate than his mother asked, made sure to give coins to beggers, and always had a smile ready on his lips for a crying girl. He rarely talked back to his elders, and readily basked in the glow of a simple pat on the head or a compliment from an adult on how well-behaved he was. He opened doors for his mother’s friends, primarily to hear them coo over what a nice young man he was becoming; he did his best to bring home top marks in his classes, delighted to hear his mother insist that he was “so smart!”.

His twin brother Obsidian, on the other hand, was not told to be kind. He was told to be strong. “You have to protect your brother,” their mother had admonished him. “He’s too kind to stick up for himself.” Obsidian had taken that to heart; when they changed schools in the third grade, Gregory was teased for only a week before Obsidian took on four bullies himself, striking fear into their hearts. He, like Lance, was often suspended for fighting; each time, however, it was to protect himself and his brother from their classmates, and soon he gained a reputation that earned him, if not friendship, at least respect. Gregory had hoped that his twin would mellow with age, but as teenagers, while he was in his room studying, Obsidian was working after school to save up for a motercycle. It wasn’t that his brother was lazy or unmotivated; Obsidian had always worked as hard as Gregory did. But while Gregory had worked at his schoolwork, Obsidian had taken up martial arts, perfecting his body rather than his mind; while Gregory had worked at being kind and sweet and gentle, earning praise for his efforts, Obsidian had worked at perfecting his image, earning fear from their peers.

The births of their sons, four years apart, had had opposite effects on each brother. Like everything else in Obsidan’s life, his son Kumo was hard-won after a long battle; against medical advice, they had decided to try “one more time”, winning for their efforts an underweight, premature, yet otherwise healthy baby boy. Holding his newborn son, however, Obsidian’s face was more tender and fierce than Gregory had ever seen him before. Like much in Gregory’s life, Lance had come easily; he and his wife had barely begun trying to get pregnant when Lance arrived, strong and healthy and a little past due. That, of course, was the last thing that came easily about Lance. Six years later, just as Kumo was putting on weight and starting to catch up to his development plan, Gregory found himself completely overwhelmed with his own son.

He had tried to explain to him why knocking Lucy down was wrong. “They don’t fight back the way boys do,” he had explained. “They’re weaker than you. You shouldn’t hit people who can’t fight back.”

To his amazement, his son had simply smiled at him. “That’s all right then,” he had replied, casually. “Lucy hits harder than I do.”

The world had changed, reflected Gregory, looking his son in the eye. When he was a child, he’d never have talked back like that. As an adult, he’d never have considered leaving his wife. Aldrea needed him, and he needed her; when they had married, they had made a commitment he never intended to break. He took his vows seriously; it wasn’t as though they’d never had problems, never fought. They’d fought plenty – and often over Lance. Aldrea had insisted that there was nothing wrong with her son, that he was merely high-spirited, but Gregory knew that wasn’t true. He had failed his son, failed to instill the most important values in him; his son was defective, lacking in morals, and it was his responsibility to correct that. He had tried calmly explaining the situation and been ignored. He had put the child over his knee and spanked him, though it wounded his heart to raise his hand to another human being, and yet still Lance persisted in fighting, in bullying the weak.

Finally, Aldrea had managed to convince him that it wasn’t a failure in parenting so much as a failure to understand. She had insisted that he had to understand the boy before he could properly correct his behavior. Gregory had to make allowances, she had insisted – not every boy was as well-behaved as he was as a child. Desperate, he had turned to the one man he knew who might have a chance at understanding the problem: his twin brother. Looking back, he regretted this decision; he had run from his responsibility, forced his brother to take care of his responsibility yet again. His son was no more understandable now than when he was a child – except to his brother, who insisted that the boy “wasn’t that bad” and “had a good heart” despite a lifetime of troublemaking and fighting.

Boy… Gregory mentally corrected himself, shying away from that word. His son was a man now, grown and wedded and with a son of his own. And yet, the eyes that looked into Gregory’s now were the same eyes that had defied him at six: determined, fully convinced of their own correctness, ready to challenge him, to fight him however long it took. Heart heavy, Gregory lifted his tea mug to his lips, drawing out the awkward silence as he groped for something to say to his son.

Come to think of it, why was his brother sitting next to the boy, a hand on his knee? Obsidian should be by Gregory’s side, he thought bitterly. He had never had a soft spot for Gregory the way he did for his son; remembering their boyhood fights, Gregory could almost feel once more the bruises he had received for “being stupid” and “sucking up”. When push came to shove, his twin was the fiercest friend he could have, but he did not hesitate to try to protect Gregory from himself, misguided though the effort might be. Gregory couldn’t bother counting the number of times he’d been shoved, smacked, or yelled at; a few incidents stood out in his mind, blurring into a continuum denoting his childhood. The time Obsidian had shoved him for telling when Mark had stolen an eraser: “Mark’s twice your size and he knows it was you, you gonna fight him yourself? Stop making things harder!”. The time Gregory had been seen comforting Justin’s girlfriend: “Everyone knows that’s JJ’s girl, you leave her be!”. The time he’d considered joining the army: “You’ll break mom’s heart, and you can’t fight worth shit.” The time he’d almost backed out of proposing to Aldrea. Every time, Obsidian had been trying to protect him from consequences the best way he knew how: by preventing him from making the mistake. Once or twice, he’d even been right.

At first it seemed he was doing the same for Lance, but as the years went by, Gregory noticed more and more frequently that his twin was nudging his opinion of his son away from what it was, convincing him to punish the boy less, to give him more freedom. Eventually, Gregory hardly recognized either of them; they were a pair, always together, as though they were father and son rather than uncle and nephew.

Meanwhile, the boy hadn’t gentled a bit.

Originally posted to http://yamikuronue.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/divorce-pt2/

  • Gregory and Lance are twins, but who's Obsidian? And why doesn't he have a normal name like everyone else in the story? – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Oct 27 '11 at 20:39
  • Yeesh, did I muddle that up badly? Gregory and Obsidian are twins. Lance is Gregory's son. The names are because I'm using a handful of my favorite sci-fi characters and just grabbed the first normal-ish name I could think of beginning with the right letter to make it less sci-fi. I'm just doing these for practice before editing my novella, so I didn't spend nearly as much time on character naming as I normally would. – Yamikuronue Oct 27 '11 at 20:40
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    I spent most of the time trying to figure out who's related to who. So, there's that. – Travis Christian Oct 27 '11 at 21:59
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    I added a couple clarifications: "Looking at his son" => "Looking at his son, Lance," and "His twin brother" => "His twin brother Obsidian". Does that help? – Yamikuronue Oct 28 '11 at 0:02
  • How about going onto a site like the Young Writer's Society or Critique's Circle to ask for opinions? – Cate Z. Jul 6 '18 at 3:38

A few points.

  1. This reads more as character history than it does a piece of fiction.

  2. There is no sense of "place" until deep into the piece, and the tense comes across all muddled - I'm unsure as to where we are, and where some of the flashbacks start and end.

  3. For me it's unrealistic for this much internal introspection to take place in the space of time we're talking about.

  4. There's still too much telling, in my view.

  5. As others have noted, it does get a bit confusing.

To try and illustrate the difference between showing and telling, consider just these two lines of dialogue:

"You look tired."

"Only around you, son."

With these two lines (just seven words), almost everything is inferred that you tried to tell with this sentence: "Looking at his son, Lance, made him feel his age like he rarely did when alone with his wife. Mentally, he still considered himself his son’s age; sharp of wits, brimming with youthful energy."

Not only that, but there's far more conflict demonstrated in those two lines than what you wrote in those two long sentences. You can change the dialogue to use "boy", instead of "son", and that changes the tone.

Most importantly, you haven't had to tell me anything at all for me as a reader to have understanding of what's going on.

I've mentioned this before on other questions, but it's worth repeating: something is perfect not because there's nothing left to add, but because there's nothing left to take away. I would say heed this advice. The richness you're trying to invest in your characters is great, but show us this richness through their dialogue and actions, not by telling us black-and-white facts on the page. Put yourself in the character's shoes, and think and talk and act like them.

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    Thanks, that's more or less what I was looking for. I've gone way too far the opposite direction as my last snippit. I'm just not sure how I can put even half the characterization into a dialogue that I can when I include introspection... I'll work on it with more practice, proabably during nano. – Yamikuronue Oct 28 '11 at 17:35

First of all: The guy called Lance you show here and the one in your previous post have nothing in common. You describe two totally different persons. Just to let you know.

Ok, so you call that a "snippet". It took me two attempts to read through. You do not write a story, you write a family album. One full of cliches. Reading this detailed characterization is boring. It's a good thing to have as writer to look up the facts of your universe, but it is nothing to put in the actual work.

You should define your protagonists (and antagonists) by their actions. What do they do, what do they say. But that action mustn't be there just for introduction purposes. It has to drive the story, it must have meaning to the story. I see no story in the whole "snippet" you've posted.

Details are a good thing, but only if they are relevant to the story. E.g. is the son of the uncle relevant to story? Is he the lover of Lance? If he does not show up anymore, why introducing him in the first place? (I do not know if he does, but I doubt that you come back to all these intensive details. If you do, you get a story only a few people can follow.)

Your protagonists are too stereotyped. Nobody is that "soft" as Gregory is, no one that "hard" as Obsidian. If Obsidian were the antagonist in a fantasy story (like Sauron in LotR), I would say "go ahead", but that's really the only case where I would do it.

You have to get rid of these extremes. Gregory should have slapped Lance at least once. At the moment that is totally unimaginable.

Why did Gregory fail raising his son? What does he think are the problems? Maybe more self-criticism and less Obsidian is the way to go. You get partly to it at the end of your snippet, but you waste much too much time telling us what Obsidian did.

The most important thing: What is your story? What do you want to show your readers? It's not recognizable for me. Some writers call that the premise of the story. One short sentence that shows the quintessence of your writing. It's leading the direction, showing the aim you want to reach. Like "coming-out leads to tragedy". After Lance's coming-out his parents wrangle because of it, leading to divorce, suicide, whatever.

What's your premise?

  • I suppose the real issue is I don't really have one. These would be placed in the context of a larger story, such as "Lance's divorce and subsequent custody battle for his son leads to the realization that his family is far more important to him than he imagined" or "His son's divorce drives Gregory to close a decades-long rift in his family through a cross-country road trip". What I'm looking for with the critiques is advice I can keep in mind when revising actual stories I've done - I'm playing up faults I'm concerned about to get an idea for a balance between extremes. – Yamikuronue Nov 1 '11 at 15:58

This is a lot of material and hints at many complex stories. Which should I care about? Which is important? Where is this headed?

Nearly every sentence in this could be a story, often centered on more than one character.

I am a fan of tangential writing, where the author leaves the moment to riff on a seemingly unrelated topic, often for a page or more, before tieing it back to the original action and smoothly picking up where the tangent left. Neal Stephenson excels at this, and his novels are 800 to 2000 pages long.

To my ear, this snippet is missing cohesion. It doesn't resolve. As I read it, I feel myself forgetting the shards of the endless cascade of facts and getting anxious that I'll fail to receive the payoff at the end. Perhaps I did.

If everything here is important, then slow down the data rate. Use dialog, probably over many pages. Show me the action, so I can use all my senses to remember the relationships.

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