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I get the feeling that this blurb is too... expositiony, not enough description. Too much "this happened and then this happened and then this happened". But I'm notoriously bad at evaluating myself - due to a number of self-esteem issues, I tend to think anything I do is crap and find reasons to justify it. So my question is: is this actually too blunt, or am I overthinking things?

Lance paced the wooden floor in his front hallway, feet and chest bared – the way he usually preferred to be at home. Pants, he had discovered, were non-optional; his wife insisted that he have some sense of propriety and not “live like a heathen”. Susan was a good woman, most of the time. Everyone kept telling Lance how good a woman she was – she “tamed” him, she “made him a better man”, she nursed his wounds and supported his love of martial arts even when she would prefer he stay home and watch Phil. And she had borne him a son – an adorable toddler, curious about the world, growing and changing with every day. There was no question about that – Lance adored his son, and would do almost anything to protect him.

Anything, he had decided, except stay with the mother.

Lance went over the argument once again in his mind, waiting for his father to arrive to have a “serious chat” with him. Susan had told, of course. Lance would have preferred to settle the whole thing quietly but Susan had taken Phil to his parents instead of her own, and the whole thing had come out messily. Lance could only pray she hadn’t told his uncle; the man held Lance’s respect, but he was a gruff man with a weak spot for female tears, and he doubted his uncle would take his side. Nobody would take his side; before Susan, he had been the black sheep, the wayward son. Susan had convinced him to give his parents a chance to get to know the real him; Susan had gone to great lengths to mend the family relationships, to heal the rifts inside him. Susan was a martyr that way.

But even Susan didn’t understand the turmoil inside him now. Neither could deny the rift that had been growing between them; it seemed the more whole and mature Lance became, the colder and more distant their relationship grew. Finally, even Susan couldn’t deny that there was nothing left of the love they had once shared. She had insisted they go to therapy, thinking that by virtue of spending a lot of money, their relationship could be repaired. Lance had asked for a divorce.

The car door slammed to a shut, ringing in Lance’s ears like a gunshot. He was out of time. What would he say? What could he possibly ever say to make this right? He would be lectured, told yet again why he was a selfish prick, unworthy of a good woman’s love, why he shouldn’t let a few bad experiences with exes and sisters and mothers soil his appreciation of women in general, why he should bend over backwards to keep her, until finally he was so dizzy from trying to follow the arguments that he was ordering flowers before he knew it. No, he would have to stand firm. He would politely explain to his father that he was a grown man now, not a small boy, and that he and Susan had reached this decision like mature adults, and he was very sorry if her heart was broken but he couldn’t continue to live out the lie that he loved her and wanted to be married to her. That sounded reasonable enough. And when his father refused to take that answer, he’d yell and scream and throw things and act like such a demon his father would run from the house and cut off all contact and never bother him again. A rueful smile crossed Lance’s lips. If only he was still a rebellious teenager. Life was simpler then.

The knock on the door was firm – three quick raps. His father usually knocked more gently – a bad sign. Mother must have been incensed, reasoned Lance. This was going to be more painful than usual. Wordlessly, he opened the door, meeting the man there in the eye. A shock, a slight thrill, ran through him. Those weren’t the soft blue eyes of his father, wrinkles creasing the edges – the eyes of a patient, understanding man, marred more by smiles and kindness than hardship. These eyes were the same shade, but felt so much darker, just by the intensity of the gaze. This man refused to submit to the wear and tear of time, refused to let age dictate his looks or appearance. Where Lance’s father was like a willow branch, this man was an iron rod. His father’s twin brother. His uncle.

Lance, taken by surprise, lost the argument he had been composing in his head. He couldn’t even remember the beginning of it, or the words of common courtesy that would invite the man he practically worshipped inside. Instead, he stammered out the only thing that occurred to him to be worth saying.

“I’m gay.”

The smile that crossed the older man’s face was more of a smirk – but then, it always was. Years of practice had taught Lance to detect that nearly-invisible note of fondness in his uncle’s eye – he wasn’t laughing at Lance, merely amused by the declaration. Lance’s shoulders slumped a little. He wasn’t mad. That was good, at least. As his uncle opened his mouth to speak, Lance felt as though he might be sick on his shoes with anxiety. What would he say to that? What could he say?

“Tell me something I don’t know.” As Lance started, raising his head in shock, the man rolled his shoulders, stretching slightly. “You going to let me in or we going to stand here all day? Your father’s on his way, figured you might want a hand in case things get rough.”

(posted to my blog here)

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Great critique question. Can you edit the tags to add the genre or something else descriptive? –  justkt Oct 26 '11 at 1:31
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yeah, I wasn't sure what to put though. That look better? –  Yamikuronue Oct 26 '11 at 12:31
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5 Answers

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I have to disagree with Kate. The "I'm gay" is a nice twist, but it does change nothing.

If you posted this as a blog post I wouldn't have reached the end. Show us how the people are, what happened, do not tell it.

The uncle is a "gruff man". Woohoo, is he? Says who? You? Who cares? And what means "gruff" anyway? If I open the door and a gruff man stands before me, I would either think "oh shit" or I would point my finger at him, laughing. And then shut the door.

Your protagonist almost peed himself when opening the door, but the only justification you give your reader consists of the adjective "gruff", an intense gaze and a cliched iron rod.

Show us how dangerous his uncle is. Instead of telling the "gruff man" sentence, let the protagonist remember how his uncle smashed a burglar with a baseball bat. Too extreme? Then why is the protagonist afraid of him? Give us a reason!

Overall, either show us more or shorten more. Long paragraphs are only good when they show. Telling should be short.

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I definitely agree with you on "gruff" being poor choice of words, sarcastic as you are about it. The question becomes how to really show the uncle's character without making the already long snippit even longer? I thought I could do it with the facial description, after you already care since you know he's in the story now. Other ideas? –  Yamikuronue Oct 26 '11 at 12:33
    
@Yamikuronue: I picked "gruff" as an example, because the uncle plays an important role. But adjectives/adverbs should be generally handled with care (just look at the "generally"). Facial descriptions can support the showing, but normally cannot convey it when used standalone. Acting persons show things easily. I think a short flashback showing what the uncle really did would serve best. As I said, a paragraph/section can be long if it is showing things. Maybe you should first reduce the telling part and then add the stuff you want to show. –  John Smithers Oct 26 '11 at 19:25
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I like it. If there hadn't been the twist, I would definitely have said that it went on too long, with too much telling. The comment I was building was something along the lines of 'instead of having the character anticipate all that, just SHOW us it all happening'. But the "I'm gay" changed everything.

It still wouldn't break my heart to see you trim it a little (just to be sure that your audience makes it to the twist), but I like the way you build the anticipation as it is.

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I agree with Kate's comments, with minor exceptions: Paragraphs 3 and 4 ("Lance went over..." and "But even Susan") seem more "on the nose" than desirable; for example, the bald statement "Susan couldn’t deny that there was nothing left of the love they had once shared." Perhaps flash back, for a paragraph, to some loud dialogue between them?

A few minor points [not what you asked about] on wordings I'd prefer to those you have:

Par. 2, "stay with the mother" -> "stay with his son's mother".

Par. 3, "told, of course" -> "ratted him out to his parents, quite messily, he imagined", both to emphasize his point of view (not omniscient, he won't know it was messy) and to presage "out".

Par. 4, "even Susan didn’t ... even Susan couldn’t ..." -> "Susan didn’t ... Susan couldn’t ...". As Susan seems to be the only privy party, 'even' is jarringly wrong.
"by virtue of" -> "by dint of" (unbelievable cliche that she'd believe "by virtue of").

Par. 5, "car door slammed ... like a gunshot" = cliche.

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I put "even" because she was the one most likely to attempt to deny it, given she has the most stake in it. If she has to admit it, then any third party can't really argue. Is that not the best way to show that? –  Yamikuronue Oct 26 '11 at 12:34
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I agree with John here: too much telling, not enough showing.

I'd also argue that this piece of writing suffers from a common problem whereby you think that "hiding" a piece of information i.e. "I'm gay" leads to a bigger pay off when it's revealed, like an "Ah-ha!" or "Ta-da!" moment. It normally doesn't. This sort of withholding of information from the reader rarely pays off. In this case, absolutely not: the central POV character is the person who is gay, so I find it illogical that the majority of his inner thinking doesn't even mention this. He's coming out. This is a significant event in his life. It would dominate every fibre of his being, especially if he has known he's gay for so long, and hidden it from the world.

You're trying to show inner conflict, but think of all the conflict you're avoiding by not diving headlong into this topic of him being gay, and getting a divorce as a result? The father who has always been homophobic, the parents who are devout Christians, the wife who just saw her world shattered by something she can't control or fix. The man who's hidden the truth for so long, and has finally come out, even though he knows he's hurting people around him, people he loves or loved.

The impact is far greater if you actually showed some of the events you alluded to, or if you invent some situations to show us what you want us to know about these people, and the conflicts between them. The breakup with his wife. A flashback to an incident demonstrating his father's homophobia, perhaps mixed with the Uncle somehow being involved. (Lance's behaviour during this flashback - e.g. he decides to always hide the truth from people, not stand up to his father - would contrast wonderfully with his changed behaviour when he stands up to his father.) A telephone call from Lance's mother to warn him his father is on the way. There's a million and one different possibilities to show us everything you've written here, so use them.

Think how much more poignant the inner conflict would be while he's waiting for his father to arrive when the reader is in possession of these facts?

Don't avoid the conflict; embrace it. Don't tell us about the characters; show us.

Edit: Just to clarify, I know you don't mention anything about the father being homophobic, or the parents being Christian, I made that up purely to emphasise a way of heightening the conflict between the characters.

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If you want to embrace conflict, devout Christians sound lame. What about changing Lance to a Muslim living in Saudi Arabia where being gay is forbidden under pain of death? ;) –  John Smithers Oct 26 '11 at 19:35
    
@John LOL, just illustrating a point. –  Craig Sefton Oct 26 '11 at 20:38
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The idea is great, and you obviously have a very clear image of your character and his environment, but you're trying to give it all to the reader in one lump. There is so much description and detail that it slows the pace and makes the piece ponderous. This is a situation of near panic; the narrative should reflect that. Panic doesn't dwell; it's scattered and sketchy.

I'll limit this to a couple of examples, but you'll see plenty as you revisit the text.

We don't need to know that he's pacing in his front hallway, nor how he is dressed, nor the bit about the pants. Everything these things say about the character are better brought out piecemeal, where they make sense in the narrative, or skipped entirely. Let the reader fill in the gaps, because that's how a reader becomes involved.

"Everyone kept telling Lance how a good woman she was" speaks on several levels just as it is -- his resentment, the well-meaning and/or pious advice, the weight of peer pressure. The rest of that sentence diminishes the power of that beginning by distracting from it.

Redundancy is your enemy here. It bores the reader. Lance goes over the argument in his mind, waiting for his father. Do we need to know "to arrive" (since that's self-evident) or "for a serious chat" (we already have the sense of that)? No. Restating the obvious is something you should scrupulously avoid. Unnecessary detail should be stripped out. Let the action set the scene in the reader's mind. Reveal the details of your characters and settings only as the narrative demands their revelation.

I get the sense that he hadn't planned to blurt out "I'm gay" (a lovely touch). It would fit with the state of mind and the shock of finding the uncle at the door instead of the father, and it opens up a whole new universe of story, if so.

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