This is an atmospheric beginning, to a story that has a great premise. However it’s let down by too much “telling” to get us really involved. But “showing not telling” shouldn’t be a blanket rule, and I’ll try to demonstrate why not, and where a good editor might draw the line, in my critique.
Title: A boy in the dark
Language: British English
Synopsis: A 15 year boy must fulfill his father’s dying wish and scatter his ashes in the River Wear, North England, in a place his mother and father had become engaged. However, his Aunty has other plans and the police, too, when he absconds on his journey across the North Penines.
Mason had been sitting in the oak tree for two hours and had barely noticed the night rolling in around him. The downstairs lights in his aunt’s house went on and lit up in smudged inverted arrows the manicured grass, falling a few short of the tree trunk. He was perched on a high branch with his feet dangling onto the lower tangle of bare twigs.
In the opposite direction to the house, and the direction Mason had his face fixed, the North Pennines sprawled eastward to the River Wear and beyond to Newcastle and the North sea, gloomy now beneath a grey sky that turned an ever deepening, eerie charcoal by the second.
The cold was cutting ever more deeper, too, as the Helm wind rolled off the craggy escarpment, and across the fields and down through the hedgerows. It scaled the stone walls, and hopped the fences before entering the gardens of the houses of Melmerby, population three hundred and thirty three, but soon to be three hundred and thirty two, before petering finally to a mild breath. High up and vicious, the wind found its way deep into Mason’s core and when a fresh gust punched his t-shirted body he tensed and felt even colder.
In the distance he heard a phone ring, the only sound among a few cars and the whoosh of the wind, and then a few beats later his Aunt Angela stuck her round, puffy face out of the kitchen window.
“We need to go the hospital now, Mason, there’s been a turn for the worse. Hurry. Go as you are.”
The window banged shut as Mason held onto a deep breath. He forgot the cold as he slowly released the air in his lungs but he knew for certain, like a biblical prophecy, he’d never forget this moment, or this phone call in this tree on this night in this garden, a garden that was not his own, for the rest of his life.
And even though he’d been waiting for weeks for that call, he was not in the slightest bit prepared for how it would effect him. And then it came. Like waves. Sick as if a thousand calls to the Headmasters office had hit him all at once or as if he’d been battered, one time after another, by all the strongest kids from all the schools he had ever been to and had ever noised up or said the wrong thing to, for this was the night his father would die. He felt it for sure. This call was different, too late, too short. As he shook like one of the few remaining leaves on the tree he scrambled down the trunk and into the house.
“What is it? What’s happened? Is he worse? Answer. Why do you never answer me?”
Angela was racing around the living room, from table to sideboard to shelf and back again throwing letters onto the floor and pushing ornaments aside so forcefully several toppled and rang out when they landed and rolled to a stop. Throughout her manic haste her face turned a deep red.
“Where are the damn car keys?” She was panting as she slipped into her jacket that had been lying thrown on the couch and then shouted upstairs, “Anat, have you got my keys? Did you hide them somewhere?”
They both stopped still and waited for an answer. Anat appeared at the door dressed for bed in her princess onesie.
“No. I haven’t seen them.”
“We need to go to the hospital. Your dad is in a bad way. Just put a jacket on, we don’t have time.”
“Why?” said Mason. “What did they say on the phone?”
“There they are,” said Angela, pointing to where her jacket had been before scooping the keys into a fist and standing like she was ready for a fight. “I’ll tell you in the car. We don’t have time right now.”
“Is he going to die?” Anat looked up at Mason and he wanted to cry.
“In the car now, please.”
Editorial critique: If I was an agent in a bad mood, I’d stumble over the two errors in your synopsis, “Penines” and “Aunty” (no capital), and I might not even read any further. This is a writers’ website, not a real agency, but getting something 100% accurate takes practice, and it’s a good habit to get in to.
The problem here, as I see it, is too much “telling”. Writers’ groups go nuts on this subject, and the internet is full of dodgy advice about the word “was”. Sometimes “telling” is appropriate, but quite often it’s not, and there are better, more immersive ways to pass across the same information.
Let’s examine the first paragraph. It’s a nice scene, a boy up a tree in the garden, dusk falling, the lights in the house coming on and casting strange shapes across the grass. It’s all nicely descriptive, but it’s all “told”. It’s all related to us by an invisible narrator. We are not Mason himself, sitting in the tree. We are an omniscient “other”, looking down at him. The invisible narrator, of course, is you, the author, so instead of Mason talking to us, you are. Much of the craft of writing well is to make the author disappear. We don’t want to know your story (no offense!), we want to know Mason’s story, and we preferably want to hear it from him.
So, instead of, “Mason had been sitting in the oak tree for two hours” (telling), how about, “He shifted his weight. The branch was hard underneath him, and his legs were going numb.” This shows all the same information, but leaves out two pieces of information, his name, and the type of tree. I don’t really think the type of tree is that important, and we’ll get on to his name in a minute. More importantly, do you see how the focus has “zoomed in” on the boy? Now we are the boy. We’re obviously up a tree, and we’ve been there some time if our legs have got pins and needles. However, you’ll notice one thing. Telling is a lot more efficient than showing. What you managed to tell in eleven words took me sixteen to show, nearly half as many again, and two full sentences, whereas this is only half of the first sentence in your original.
In the second half of your first sentence you tell us, quite poetically, of the encroaching dusk. It’s not strictly necessary at all because in the second sentence, even more descriptively, you describe the lights coming on in the house. That shows the time of day just as effectively, and we don’t actually need to be told at all.
The fact that it’s his aunt’s house is important (she’s looking after him temporarily), but whether we need to know it right now is questionable. You introduce his aunt in a few sentences time, and that would probably be a better place.
Strictly, “the downstairs lights came on” is rather passive, but there’s nothing wrong with that here. We (as Mason) don’t see the lights being switched on, even though we know who probably did it. There’s the nice phrase about the light casting shapes across the “manicured grass” (I think you’re missing a word between “few” and “short” – it’s the type of copyediting catch that’s easy to miss because our mind tends to fill in the gap with “feet” automatically).
I’m not sure you need the sentence about the high branch at all, and then we have two paragraphs of nicely written exposition, but unfortunately the story has slowed down to a crawl just as we’re getting started. Do you need to set out the geographical locality so early on? Can you not do this in passing when describing them travelling? What’s more important, surely, is his state of mind? He’s apprehensive, anxious, worried (we find out later), but why not foreshadow this? Perhaps the chill wind is important, and reflects his mood?
I think you should skip straight to the moment when the story starts. The phone rings, and the message it brings is the “inciting incident”, the event that changes everything and sets the story in motion.
So, revised, the opening few lines of this would read something like:
He shifted his weight. The branch was hard underneath him, and his legs were going numb. In the house the downstairs lights came on, lighting up the manicured grass in smudged inverted arrows that fell a few feet short of the tree trunk. The Helm wind rolled off the craggy escarpment and across the fields and down through the hedgerows. It cut deep into his core, and when a fresh gust punched his t-shirted body he shivered, even colder. He drew his knees up to his chin, trying to keep warm.
In the house the phone rang, the only sound among a few cars and the whoosh of the wind, and then a few beats later Aunt Angela stuck her round, puffy face out of the kitchen window.
“We need to go the hospital now, Mason, there’s been a turn for the worse. Hurry. Come as you are.”
Now although showing is usually more wordy than telling, this gets pretty much all the info you need to create the opening scene in 150 words instead of 270. But it also brings you much closer in to Mason’s experience of this scene, cuts out the narrator’s point of view almost completely, and brings you to the important moment much faster. This is your hook.
One last point. I said I’d mention Mason’s name. In your original you name the character with the first word. It’s not necessary, because you name him much more “organically” when his aunt calls out of the window. Your opening should be as concise as possible. A major part of that process is eliminating redundancies like this.
I’m rejecting this, because as a putative agent, I’d be more interested if the writing were more empathetic. It’s a nice premise (reminds me somewhat of “Last Orders”, the Booker-winning Graham Swift novel), and it’s nicely written, but my advice would be to get closer to your protagonist, and try not to write like an old-fashioned narrator. I have some blog posts on “Show not Tell”. The first one explains a little about the historical precedent, and how things have evolved. Here’s a link.
It’s important to state that this is a stylistic choice, not a grammar issue. There’s nothing “wrong” with the way your book is written, but it doesn’t reflect modern writing style, particularly in the YA genre. It’s not compulsory, but you need a good reason to deviate from that style.
Thanks for posting.