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Elements of Critique: Ending

During our time on Okinawa, my wife and I had a favorite date-night restaurant. Palm Springs was situated in a large round ring on the seventh floor of a building overlooking a nearby Marine Corps camp. They served French cuisine, or at least said they did. We didn’t know any better. On our first visit, we weren’t sure what to expect.

The meal came out in courses. Tiny little plates with a sprinkle of food on them. My American desire for a giant pile of delicious food protested this obvious mockery they called a “meal.”

But the first course and second were both stunning. Perfect. My wife looked at me with eyes wide, reflecting the surprise I’m sure my face revealed. Subsequent courses did not disappoint, packing absolute satisfaction into each plate that seemed too small to hold such taste.

The meal ended. We sat back, and considered how we felt. No overstuffed “loosen the belt” sensation. No desire for another bite. The gas tank gauge in our stomachs hit right on the “F” with no need for more.

That’s what the ending of a piece of writing is designed to do. That’s what I’m looking for, if applicable, when I critique.

Now I know, some of you are probably saying, “No it’s not! Are you kidding? What about hooks? How do I get the reader to keep reading?”

Well, SPOILERS: hooks are for H, not E, so bear with me a moment while I make my case.

First, if an ending is appropriate for the piece of writing, then it had better be there. In a nonfiction article or a personal account, I want to know how the story of that event ended or what point the writer is making. In a fiction piece, the conflict has to be resolved. If it’s a chapter in a longer work, at least the conflict in the scene should be completed (before the hook that makes the reader start the next chapter to see what happens).

Maybe there’s a longer background battle taking place, which spans two or more chapters. That’s great.

But within that one chapter, I need to see the character make a decision, resolve an internal struggle, or accomplish an important goal. Otherwise, what’s the point of including the scene?

In works of fiction, we don’t include scenes and interactions to show how cool we can write or what mastery of dialogue we possess. We include them because they advance the overall story. They lead up to an ending of some kind, even if it’s part of a larger whole.

But with endings, the biggest danger is not failure to include one. That’s easily caught and corrected.

The biggest danger is that it falls flat. In a short story, or in a nonfiction article, no reader wants to get to the end and be shocked that it’s the end. I don’t mean shocking endings and surprise twists are bad. No, they’re great. I mean if I turn the page expecting more and find out “Oh, that was the last line” then I’m disappointed.

Not the kind we're going for in writing.
Not the kind we’re going for in writing.

After three pages of short story about the main character searching for a solution, once the problem is solved, the next line is not “And they lived happily ever after.”

Bam. Dead end. Brick wall out of nowhere.

Endings usually have some kind of impact. But not that kind.

A piece of writing, fiction or non, deserves a conclusion. This is something we build toward. When conflict is resolved (at least for the present), we know this scene, article, account, or story is coming to a close. We can take the time to let that sink in as we approach it.

Where abrupt or weak endings feel like a dead end, a proper conclusion feels like pulling into the driveway at home.

Conclusions often recap or summarize the main point. In a non-fiction piece or personal article, that might be the lesson learned, or the end result of the experience or event. In fiction, that might be a clever way of showing the moral of the story without preaching it to the reader.

If nothing else, they wind the piece down and offer a witty or memorable line to give closure. (You’ll note I’ve attempted to do this on each of these A to Z posts, with debatable success as far as wit is concerned.)

Now the reader knows the tale is finished, and they can move on. Or leave a comment. hint hint

Consider The Lord of the Rings. The Ring is destroyed, the Dark Lord defeated. The King sits on the throne of Gondor once again. And for a few chapters, the Hobbits still have to return home, reconnecting with old friends and saying their goodbyes. Then they have to fix the mess waiting in the Shire. And even then, they realize that the Shire is no longer home for Frodo. The heroic Hobbit departs for the West, and Sam makes the journey back to Bag End. He stands at the gate in a bittersweet scene, delighting in his children and wife while grieving the loss of his friend and Master. And almost with a sigh, he declares, “Well, I’m home.”

The gauge in the reader’s mind hits “F.” He or she sits back, sets the book down, and sighs with Sam.

The end.

Speaking of “F,” that’s what’s next on the A to Z of Elements of Critique, of course. It’s a fact. And that’s what I’m going to write about – including (and checking) the facts in a written work.

Elements of Critique: Dialogue

My teenage son is constantly getting into trouble with Mom. It’s because of his mouth.

“The problem’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

With dialogue the problem can be both.

First, I need to know who’s talking. That means attribution tags are important to include as early into the speech as possible. I read books to my kids, and I do voices for certain characters. You’d be surprised how often I have to double back after reading two or three lines of speech, because the author did not let the reader know who was talking until the very end.

If I’m critiquing a piece and I come to a point where I don’t know who’s talking, I’ve identified a problem for the writer to fix.

Second, I need to know how something is said, but this can be tricky. I used to try descriptive speech verbs. He muttered, she bellowed, he shrieked, she replied, he shot back, she wondered aloud. However, conventional wisdom considers that a form of “telling” instead of “showing.” Therefore I avoid it. Here’s why:

If a question is asked and another character responds, the words they speak will make that relationship clear. If a character complains about a situation, my mind will imagine them muttering without having to be told. How about the difference between:
“Get away from her, or I’ll kill you,” Ashton shouted. He aimed the gun at the robber.
as opposed to:
Ashton leveled the pistol at the robber. The hammer clicked back. “Get away from her, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”

Which reads stronger?

She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. “What is this,” she yelled. “What does it mean?”
as opposed to:
She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. Her eyes wide, her face ashen, she gasped and gripped her sister’s arm. “What is this? What does it mean?”

Which one merely tells the reader she’s panicked? Which one helps the reader hear it in her “voice” on their own?

I use “said” and “asked” almost exclusively. They become almost invisible. For my taste, I use something special only if there’s a chance a reader might think it was said in a different way. For example, “whispered” might be useful if it is the next line of dialogue in the middle of an argument, to note the sudden change in tone.

Insert speech here.
Insert speech here.

Third, dialogue has to sound natural. When I write out a conversation, I read it out loud to see if I would stumble over any of the words. If a sentence is hard for me to spit out when I’m calm, then it’s probably impossible for my character to say when she’s in a crisis or heated argument.

There’s a special consideration for fiction: accents. Sometimes we want to show that a character has a certain ethnic background by typing dialogue to show the accent. This can be done well, but must be done with consistency and can’t be such a heavy ‘accent’ that the reader has to try to figure out what’s being said. As usual, less is more. Describe the accent, then go for clarity.

A stereotypical fantasy example is that Dwarves all have a Scottish brogue. “Aye, laddie, me an’ my kin are headin’ out to th’ Castle o’ th’ Dark Elves ta crush th’ snot outta those wee dirty cavedwellers.” Painful.

Patterns of speech might be preferable to attempts at accent. Describe the unique qualities of the sound – a lilting voice, a thick rumble, rolling consonants, slurring words. Then write the character with a special order of words, such as, “I will speak to my cousin, yes? My cousin, he knows these things you seek. This is good thing. He and I, we help you.”

That way the character sticks out with an identifiable voice, without forcing the reader to figure out what you’re trying to say through “accented” dialogue.

Finally, dialogue is best in short bursts. I write a few words first, then show some action taking place or include the character’s thought, then place the next spoken sentence.

“When I write,” David said, “I try to time the breaks in speech to create a rhythm.” He stroked his chin and stifled a yawn. Man, I’ve been talking about dialogue too long. “By including action and thought in between snippets of dialogue, I show the reader a more complete picture of what’s going on.”

Obviously there’s more to it than those points. Whole books are written on the subject of crafting dialogue. But these are some of the things I look for when critiquing a piece.

And I think I’ve said enough.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow, even though we’re nowhere near finished with the A to Z challenge, I will be looking at critiquing endings.

Elements of Critique: Constructive

It’s every creator’s not-so-hidden fear. Someone is going to see, hear, or read their work and walk away saying, “It sucked. I hated it.”

Many of us struggle to put our precious babies out there to an audience, because we fear the reception they’ll receive.

That’s part of why critiques are so important. They’re not just a corrective measure to help identify flaws and strengths in a work. They’re also about building confidence…

So long as everyone agrees to provide constructive criticism.

It’s great to hear good things about one’s efforts. For me, there’s nothing quite so delightful as seeing how others receive something creative of mine, whether a song or drawing or piece of writing. Critique groups can help point out the good stuff in our writing. “Sad scene, but well written.” “I thought that was a nice touch that communicated that character’s voice well.” “That’s a strong, descriptive verb. Good choice!”

Now I have to be clear: Constructive criticism is not warm fuzzy accolades and blowing smoke to make someone feel good. “Oh it’s so delightful, I love the way you came up with sentence structures no one has ever used before! I really felt like I knew your cardboard cutout supporting characters by the way they had no redeemable virtues! You don’t even need to build a believable conflict into your story. It’ll be published for sure!”

Even though a critique group often includes friends, we don’t gather to puff each other up and gloss over weaknesses.

Constructive means we’re building something, and many building projects start by tearing down what presently stands in a given place. So it might feel painful to see all one’s flaws exposed and highlighted, but a good critique does just that…

In order to build on the strengths that remain once the flaws are removed.

In the military, we have an unwritten rule that certainly applies elsewhere. “Don’t just tell me the problem. Come with a solution.” Constructive critiques are like that.

“I didn’t like this part” gives the writer an indication of where to look for a problem, but it doesn’t capture what the problem actually is. “The grammar here is wrong. ‘The display of colors capture my attention.’ should read ‘the display of colors captures’ because it’s the display we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t like the way this solution presented itself in the story because it felt too much like a deus ex machina – in swoops the hero who happens to have just the device needed to stop the villain and save the damsel in distress with 3 seconds left on the timer of the bomb.” The next part is the most important. “Could you try… (potential fix) instead?”

A constructive critique doesn’t just point out flaws and present fixes for each error. The goal is to make the writer stronger, more skillful. So why not present an explanation that helps them identify similar problems elsewhere in their work?

I mentioned I joined¬†Scribophile¬†recently. It’s an online critique community where you earn points to post your own works by giving constructive critique to others. I’ve got a chapter up for critique, and I got thoughtful feedback from one of my followers on the site.

Warning: Work in Progress
Warning: Work in Progress

Take a look at some of these examples:
“I think this disrupts the flow here, I’d try to integrate it with the above” – along with a suggested cut of a clunky phrase and a reworded sentence to include the important elements.
“I would keep with the slow soothing dialogue, rather than the command. It seems a bit out of character.”
“How does this growing power make Lyllithe feel internally? Is her head buzzing? Or does she start to feel exceptionally warm? Perhaps more and more confidence is welling up as the doubts recede?”
“Hmmm, I find this draws me away from Lyllithe too much, and right now I am fully invested in her.”
“Since you used ‘focused’ in the sentence, there’s no need to say ‘attention.'”

Problem, explanation, solution.

This gives me feedback I can build on.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Dialogue. Maybe I’ll have something constructive to say.