Details That Increase Interest

Cristina Wilhelm sent me this scene to revise. In response to a few questions I had regarding the piece, she told me that:

1) This scene takes place in the middle of the story

2) The character, Andrea, is in the 2nd grade and she has a stuffed bear named Kevin

3) Her brother, Rusty, is in his early teens

Here is the original scene:

Kevin and Andrea stood in the foyer of their house.

                  “Thanks for getting Kevin back for me.”

                  “Sure. I couldn’t stand my little sister complaining about it anymore.”

                  Two headlights shined passed the window as a car pulled up in the driveway.

                  “Oh no, mom and dad are back from the movies. You’re supposed to be asleep.”

                  “I don’t care what mom and dad say: you’re the best babysitter ever.”

                  She kissed his cheek. Before she ran up the stairs, he pulled off her afghan so she

wouldn’t trip on it.

                  Thinking fast, Rusty tossed the afghan over the back of the couch and grabbed his laptop

from the dark wooden table in the living room. Leaning back on the couch, he started to play

solitaire.

                  “Nice to see you’re still up,” said his mother.

                  Rusty looked up from the screen.

                  “How was the movie?”

                  “It wasn’t as good as I expected, but we still had a good time. Was Andrea much

trouble?” asked his father.

                  “No, she calmed down once she roped me into playing with her dolls. Please don’t tell

anyone about that or no one will ever speak to me again.”

                  “You’re secret’s safe with us,” his father said.

                  “Andrea told me that you guys think I’m not a good babysitter. What do you think of me

now?”

                  His mother looked around the room before she answered his question.

                  “Well, things aren’t scattered all over the house and you didn’t call us asking us to come

home as soon as you started arguing with your sister,” said his mother.

                  “Plus your voice isn’t hoarse from arguing, so I think you’re making progress.”

                  His mother nodded and said goodnight, with her husband following her upstairs.

Let me break this scene down into bite-sized chunks. Since I only know some details, I may be adding information that may not be in the original story. But this is for educational purposes only, and Cristina can revise her work with different features/description if need be.

Let’s start with the beginning of the scene. Clearly, something important has happened for Andrea. What I learned through Cristina was Andrea’s friend, Fiona (I love that name!), pretended to lose Kevin so she could keep him at her house longer. (I actually have a true story about something like this that happened to me when I was a kid that I will be posting on my author blog soon: www.klgore.com.) Andrea no longer trusts Fiona.

Okay, here’s the scene’s beginning:

Kevin and Andrea stood in the foyer of their house.

                  “Thanks for getting Kevin back for me.”

                  “Sure. I couldn’t stand my little sister complaining about it anymore.”

Here is our first dilemma: Whose story is this? Does it belong to Rusty or Andrea? Most middle grade or YA contemporary fiction uses one POV (point of view). If this story is from Andrea’s point of view, it will be written a lot differently than if it’s from Rusty’s point of view. Why? Because your audience will differ. A teen won’t likely want to pick up a book with an eight-year-old protagonist. And a middle grade reader won’t be reading a book about a teenager…especially since most teen fiction is rather edgy and I’d like to think most parents aren’t ready to let their munchkins read passage upon passage of teen angst and hook ups.

Because one of the problems seems to be about Andrea losing her stuffed bear to a friend, it could be Andreas’s story. Teens aren’t interested in reading about an adventure dealing with toy trouble. An exception would be if Rusty was, say, eleven or twelve and this was a middle grade story about his proving himself to family and friends. A teen book would center on friendship, romance, the problems teens face (drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.) and/or serious family issues (alcoholism, divorce, adultery, etc.).

I have a feeling that Cristina intended for this to be Rusty’s story, though. So in order to make the story age appropriate, my first suggestion is making Rusty twelve or even twelve-and-a-half. Now I need to give him a voice that makes him sound like a pre-teen boy. I happen to know many boys this age personally, and I happen to know somewhere around eight boys learn the art of sarcasm. They also have a need to prove themselves, and sometimes say inappropriate things because they’re sense of humor is beginning to develop.

Second dilemma: The first sentence doesn’t tell us much. We could really enliven this with a few active verbs and description. Also, there is dialogue, but we can’t tell what tone this dialogue is in. Things could really be different if Andrea says thanks sarcastically, and Rusty gives it back to her equally snide. But I have the feeling this is supposed to be a sweet moment. So here is how I would change this section (note the pre-teen voice):

Andrea clutched her bear to her chest so hard I thought the stuffing might poop out its rear. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rusty. I thought Kevin was gone forever.”

                  She stared up at me with her big brown eyes. Even though getting that stupid toy back for her was about as fun as catching my thumb in a car door (which only happened twice and wasn’t my fault either time), I felt pretty good. No, scratch that. I felt awesome. I patted the bear’s head. “Don’t worry about it. Just doing my job.”

I added personality to Rusty’s narrative voice by using first person. I made Andrea sound younger. More thankful. On to the next part of this scene:

                  Two headlights shined passed the window as a car pulled up in the driveway.

                  “Oh no, mom and dad are back from the movies. You’re supposed to be asleep.”

                  “I don’t care what mom and dad say: you’re the best babysitter ever.”

                  She kissed his cheek. Before she ran up the stairs, he pulled off her afghan so she

wouldn’t trip on it.

                  Thinking fast, Rusty tossed the afghan over the back of the couch and grabbed his laptop

from the dark wooden table in the living room. Leaning back on the couch, he started to play

solitaire.

Nice detail about the headlights shining into the window’s glass. But my first question is, didn’t they shut the drapes? Or was the light coming through sheer curtains? Then again, they’re in the foyer…maybe it has those long windows on either side of the door? Next to characterization and plot, the setting needs to take center stage. We need to know details…but yet not burden the story with too much description. It takes a steady hand, my friends. It’s a balance of proportion. Think of it this way: the amount of description needs to equal its importance. In a detective novel, you may need to describe a room that the inspector enters. The more important the observation needs to be, the more time one needs to spend on what it looks like. Here, we only need to give indication of how the kids know their parents have arrived home. But we also need to see what it looks like to the characters, and what it does to them after this harrowing evening of hide and seek with a stuffed bear.

Headlights passed through the sheer curtains on our side windows, striping Andrea’s small face with their glow. “They’re back!” I grabbed Andrea by the shoulders. Pushed her toward the hallway. “You’ve got to get into bed! Pretend you’re asleep!” I yanked the afghan off her shoulders. “Hurry!”

                  She started toward the stairs, but then she wheeled around, reached up, and pecked me on the cheek, which is something I wouldn’t normally let her do. But I guess this time was okay, seeing I nearly cost myself some serious babysitting money. Not to mention my parents’ trust.

                  Andrea pulled away and ran up the steps calling over her shoulder, “You’re the best babysitter ever, Rusty!”

                  “Yeah, whatever,” I said. My face grew hot, but to be honest, I was pretty darn proud. I was the best babysitter ever.

                  Andrea’s bedroom door slammed shut upstairs. I tossed the afghan across the back of the couch and turned on the Wii. I had just started up Star Wars III when Mom and Dad rushed through the door.

You’ll notice I gave him a boys’ game to play. I have yet to meet anyone under the age of thirty who plays Solitaire. Plus, we feel how Rusty is trying to rush Andrea to bed by the punchy, swift sentences. And I gave Rusty emotion (embarrassment, humbleness) that he quickly tried to cover up. Typical boy stuff. Small details that bring the piece to life. Here is the last section:

                  “Nice to see you’re still up,” said his mother.

                  Rusty looked up from the screen.

                  “How was the movie?”

                  “It wasn’t as good as I expected, but we still had a good time. Was Andrea much

trouble?” asked his father.

                  “No, she calmed down once she roped me into playing with her dolls. Please don’t tell

anyone about that or no one will ever speak to me again.”

                  “You’re secret’s safe with us,” his father said.

                  “Andrea told me that you guys think I’m not a good babysitter. What do you think of me

now?”

                  His mother looked around the room before she answered his question.

                  “Well, things aren’t scattered all over the house and you didn’t call us asking us to come

home as soon as you started arguing with your sister,” said his mother.

                  “Plus your voice isn’t hoarse from arguing, so I think you’re making progress.”

                  His mother nodded and said goodnight, with her husband following her upstairs.

Here is where Cristina interjects humor…the way Rusty quickly informs his parents not to let anyone know he played dolls with his sister. The way his mother jokes about the place remaining tidy and how he didn’t call them to complain. But I think we could punch this up, plus give his parents real dimension. Let’s start with finding personalities for his parents. Let’s start with his dad. Fathers and sons have a unique relationship. Men are typically boys’ role models. His father might be the type to joke around and tease his son. Maybe ruffle his hair and punch his shoulder. Moms are usually much more serious. They’re the ones to grow impatient with fart jokes and armpit burps. If this is a book about his relationship with his parents, I would recommend making the parents non-typical stereotypes. Mom might be a fortuneteller, always trying to read Rusty’s mind but getting it wrong. Dad might be preoccupied with songs because he writes jingles for commercials. How can you make the parents fit your book? What kind of personality can you give them? Here’s the non-typical parents dealing with coming home from a night out after putting their pre-teen son in charge of their young daughter:

“You’re still up?” Dad asked me, closing the door behind him. He raised an eyebrow. Turned around to stare at the door. Opened it again. Shut it. “Did that sound off to you?” he asked.

                  I decided to say something before Dad got out the sander. “I got caught up in Wii.” I yawned so they’d think I’d been playing for a while.

                  Dad opened and shut the door again. “Too much moisture, maybe,” he mused, opening the door and stroking the doorjamb.

                  “Henry, you open and close that door one more time, and I swear…” Mom held up a fist. “To the moon.”

                  Dad laughed. “Nice one. The Honeymooners, right?”

                  Mom patted his arm. “Yep. But I’m serious. No more playing around with the door.”

                  I turned off the Wii and dropped the remote on the coffee table. “Now that you’re home, I can go to bed.”

                  The door made a muffled thump as Dad closed it. “Sometimes humidity swells the wood. You didn’t turn off the air conditioning, did you Rusty?”

                  If only he knew what I’d been through, he’d know I didn’t have time to play around with temperature controls. “No.”

                  Mom reached into her purse. “Okay, everything seems in order. The house looks clean. I’m going to assume Andrea is fine since there are no police cars in the driveway.”

                  “That was earlier this evening,” I joked.

                  Mom eyed me, lips a narrow line.

                  “Kidding.”

                  “Uh huh.” She withdrew a bill from her purse. “Before I hand this chunk of change over, go over everything that happened tonight, starting with the second we left.”

                  I groaned. Only Mom would want to know every detail. “Andrea and I played with her dolls…”

                  Dad frowned. “Dolls, Rusty?”

                  “Okay, pretend you didn’t hear that one. And then we read books. Had a snack. Then a big time adventure after which I sent her to bed.” A no-lie account of the night. I hoped Mom wouldn’t press for more information about the adventure.

                  Dad turned away and reached for the doorknob. “Let me just listen to the door one more…”

                  “The door is fine, Henry.”

                  “Common sense tells me this will only get worse. What if it gets stuck?” Dad jiggled the doorknob.

                  Mom winked at me. “Common sense has nothing to do with it. When I say he’s wrong, he’s wrong.”

                  Dad stopped fiddling with door to think. “Beverly Hillbillies?”

                  “I love Lucy.” Mom grinned. “Ha. I stumped you. And enough with the door, it’s late.” She dropped a twenty into my waiting palm. “Good job, sweetie.” She kissed the top of my head.

                  Dad patted me on the back. “I knew deep down you’d be able to handle the job. Your mom? Not so much.”

                  Mom gave him a playful kick in the butt. “You stop filling his head with silly ideas.”

                  “But I did okay, didn’t I?” I asked, wanting to hear the affirmation one more time.

                  “Anytime we come home and the house is still standing, I’d say yep, you did great.” Mom slipped past me to the stairs.

                  “Sure. No fire trucks in the driveway. And no stitches. Proud of you, son.” Dad followed Mom upstairs.

                  I glanced at the twenty in my hand. The teddy bear fiasco was totally worth it.

I have rewritten this assuming the parents have an important role in the story, which they often do in middle grade stories. IF, for some reason, they didn’t play a big role, I wouldn’t put in so many details about them. But giving parents eccentricities can a) add to the protagonist’s problems b) add humor c) give the story depth and strengthen the overall message and d) make it fun for both you and the reader. But use caution…don’t stick a few funny parental moments in your story without good reason. Every scene must have a reason for being in the story, or else take it out, no matter how lovely it may be.

So here is the improved (in my opinion) scene:

                  Andrea clutched her bear to her chest so hard I thought the stuffing might poop out its rear. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rusty. I thought Kevin was gone forever.”

                  She stared up at me with her big brown eyes. Even though getting that stupid toy back for her was about as fun as catching my thumb in a car door (which only happened twice and wasn’t my fault either time), I felt pretty good. No, scratch that. I felt awesome. I patted the bear’s head. “Don’t worry about it. Just doing my job.”

                  Headlights passed through the sheer curtains on our side windows, striping Andrea’s small face with their glow. “They’re back!” I grabbed Andrea by the shoulders. Pushed her toward the hallway. “You’ve got to get into bed! Pretend you’re asleep!” I yanked the afghan off her shoulders. “Hurry!”

                  She started toward the stairs, but then she wheeled around, reached up, and pecked me on the cheek, which is something I wouldn’t normally let her do. But I guess this time was okay, seeing I nearly cost myself some serious babysitting money. Not to mention my parents’ trust.

                  Andrea pulled away and ran up the steps calling over her shoulder, “You’re the best babysitter ever, Rusty!”

                  “Yeah, whatever,” I said. My face grew hot, but to be honest, I was pretty darn proud. I was the best babysitter ever.

                  Andrea’s bedroom door slammed shut upstairs. I tossed the afghan across the back of the couch and turned on the Wii. I had just started up Star Wars III when Mom and Dad rushed through the door.

                  “You’re still up?” Dad asked me, closing the door behind him. He raised an eyebrow. Turned around to stare at the door. Opened it again. Shut it. “Did that sound off to you?” he asked.

                  I decided to say something before Dad got out the sander. “I got caught up in Wii.” I yawned so they’d think I’d been playing for a while.

                  Dad opened and shut the door again. “Too much moisture, maybe,” he mused, opening the door and stroking the doorjamb.

                  “Henry, you open and close that door one more time, and I swear…” Mom held up a fist. “To the moon.”

                  Dad laughed. “Nice one. The Honeymooners, right?”

                  Mom patted his arm. “Yep. But I’m serious. No more playing around with the door.”

                  I turned off the Wii and dropped the remote on the coffee table. “Now that you’re home, I can go to bed.”

                  The door made a muffled thump as Dad closed it. “Sometimes humidity swells the wood. You didn’t turn off the air conditioning, did you Rusty?”

                  If only he knew what I’d been through, he’d know I didn’t have time to play around with temperature controls. “No.”

                  Mom reached into her purse. “Okay, everything seems in order. The house looks clean. I’m going to assume Andrea is fine since there are no police cars in the driveway.”

                  “That was earlier this evening,” I joked.

                  Mom eyed me, lips a narrow line.

                  “Kidding.”

                  “Uh huh.” She withdrew a bill from her purse. “Before I hand this chunk of change over, go over everything that happened tonight, starting with the second we left.”

                  I groaned. Only Mom would want to know every detail. “Andrea and I played with her dolls…”

                  Dad frowned. “Dolls, Rusty?”

                  “Okay, pretend you didn’t hear that one. And then we read books. Had a snack. Then a big time adventure after which I sent her to bed.” A no-lie account of the night. I hoped Mom wouldn’t press for more information about the adventure.

                  Dad turned away and reached for the doorknob. “Let me just listen to the door one more…”

                  “The door is fine, Henry.”

                  “Common sense tells me this will only get worse. What if it gets stuck?” Dad jiggled the doorknob.

                  Mom winked at me. “Common sense has nothing to do with it. When I say he’s wrong, he’s wrong.”

                  Dad stopped fiddling with door to think. “Beverly Hillbillies?”

                  “I love Lucy.” Mom grinned. “Ha. I stumped you. And enough with the door, it’s late.” She dropped a twenty into my waiting palm. “Good job, sweetie.” She kissed the top of my head.

                  Dad patted me on the back. “I knew deep down you’d be able to handle the job. Your mom? Not so much.”

                  Mom gave him a playful kick in the butt. “You stop filling his head with silly ideas.”

                  “But I did okay, didn’t I?” I asked, wanting to hear the affirmation one more time.

                  “Anytime we come home and the house is still standing, I’d say yep, you did great.” Mom slipped past me to the stairs.

                  “Sure. No fire trucks in the driveway. And no stitches. Proud of you, son.” Dad followed Mom upstairs.

                  I glanced at the twenty in my hand. The teddy bear fiasco was totally worth it.

Next, I’d go over this to tighten it wherever possible. There are places I could rearrange the sentences, find better word choices, etc. But the gist of what I needed to do for improvement is there. I created stronger characterization by putting this story in first person POV and adding personal details and giving Rusty’s narration a boy’s voice. I introduced parental figures that had their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. And I increased the emotional impact between Rusty and his sister, but also with his emotions around wanting his parents to see him as a responsible kid. Cristina wrote a good first draft. By fleshing out setting and characterization, I’ve provided a decent second draft. The next few drafts will improve it further. If you have any scenes that have not been changed or revised, consider returning to those scenes and ask yourself: 1) What can I do to strengthen a character’s personality? 2) Are there any “dead spots”? (Places that could use some oomph.) 3) Are the supporting characters important? Have I given them depth, differing personalities, and a reason for being in the story? 4) Is the setting obvious? What would my character notice about the space around him? How can I use that space to my advantage?

As they say, it’s all in the details.     

#youngadult #middlegrade #addinginterest #revision #story #details #editing #fiction

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