#28 Skeleton in the Attic
Hello everybody, today we have a piece from K.D.Miller on Writing.com titled ‘Skeletons in the Attic.’
For as long as I could remember, I lived a normal, boring life on an old farmhouse with my elderly Papi, and his three brothers. Papi was the youngest and about fifty when I was born. I never knew of my mother, and he never spoke of her.
There is little to improve on in this paragraph from a technical sense; yes, the words could be more energetic, but that wouldn’t necessarily benefit the paragraph since the actual content isn’t energetic. Shoehorning in explosive or dramatic words would introduce a contradiction between the narrative and the prose. The problem is that just because something is technically sound (for the most part) does not mean its ‘good.’ This paragraph’s expositional nature hurts it because nothing in the exposition is interesting, nothing here poses a question to the reader, nothing here invites their involvement in the story. While these things are doubly important for an opening paragraph, they are still vital for all paragraphs. The best paragraphs are a story, this one is a collection of data.
This does not the mean the paragraph has to be entirely rewritten to involve a pink rabbit in a tux and sombrero participating in a shoot-out with aliens atop the Burj Khalifa. (In other words switched to an active start vs expositional.) It means that if you want to start a story with exposition, that exposition has to interact with the readers. This paragraph does it a little with the nameless MC’s unusual living situation (I.E. living with his father and three uncles) but its buried in the generic: first, the phrase ‘as long as I could remember,’ then ‘normal life’ (‘normalcy until crazy event’ is a common trope and introduction,) then ‘old farmhouse,’ (which is less generic then the first two, but still gives the readers nothing to consider/imagine/interact with,) and finally the last sentence dealing with his absent mother, whose two comments are entirely standard for this plot point.
None of these things are necessarily wrong, nor am I in any way belaboring their inclusion (as much as it might otherwise seem.) They just have no emotional core for the readers to latch onto, and no conflict to spark their interest, besides the inevitable shoe drop ‘as long as I could remember’ preludes. So, how do we improve this paragraph without completely rewriting or sensationalizing it? By adjusting the tone.
This paragraph feels a little purposeless, so we alter the structure and word choice to feel controlled, so that even though it doesn’t say anything immensely entertaining, its feels like it’s going somewhere. That sensation, which derives from the tone, will convey momentum and assurance, and those will attract the readers. With that in mind…
—For as long as I could remember, I lived a normal life on an old farmhouse with my elderly Papi, and three uncles. I never knew of my mother, and he never spoke of her—
As stated above, there are few changes here. The first was deleting ‘boring’ since that is largely conveyed in ‘normal,’ but also because to cultivate an assertive tone you have to be blunt, which means fewer pauses and singular, forthright descriptions. The second change was converting ‘his three brothers’ to ‘three uncles’ reducing the word count. Finally, I deleted the second sentence, because it was unnecessary (‘elderly’ conveys the same meaning just without the specificity) but also because it read like an ancillary detail, which by its very nature made the paragraph feel more meandering/directionless. Deleting that sentence also highlights the ‘mother’ sentence, and that highlight gives the sentence emotion, and though that, the paragraph impact. It’s still a little cliché and little dramatic, but it doesn’t linger, which ameliorates those issues.
My uncles consisted of Theodore, who was an artist; Dr. Francis, who still delivered babies up at St. Vincent’s Sanatorium, and Dylan who was a retired WWII pilot. None of my uncles ever married, and it was just the five of us. Our only neighbors lived in an identical farmhouse down the road. George and Isabella Hicks lived with their six children.
This second paragraph is much the same as the first, competent prose and exposition but nothing particularly exciting. Now, after reading ahead a few paragraphs, I have one last comment to share. The author did have a tone for their exposition, and an objective behind it, they wanted to validate the comment that our MC’s life was ‘normal, boring.’ This is fine, and even desirable, it just overstays its welcome. Our objective remains the same, use assertive prose to subliminally convey to the readers that the author is in absolute control of their story.
Here, I would delete the second sentence, again and for the same reasoning. The author doesn’t need to express that they never married since it’s understood none of them are currently married (otherwise the wives would have been mentioned at the initial headcount.) Whether they previous had wives but lost them or never married is irrelevant to the current situation since this story isn’t about them. If their bachelorhood eventually becomes relevant, it can be resurrected there. After that I would delete ‘still’ and ‘up’ as unnecessary. ‘Still’ conveys tone, but that tone is largely irrelevant to the story. I would also consider replacing the ‘who was’ formula for commas and adjectives phrases, resulting in something like…
—My uncles consisted of Theodore, an artist, Dr. Francis, who delivered babies at St. Vincent’s Sanatorium, and Dylan, a retired WWII pilot. Our only neighbors lived in an identical farmhouse down the road: George and Isabella Hicks with their six children.—
I combined the final two sentences with a colon because I think it reads better and allowed us to remove one of the echoing ‘lived.’ By converting to the adjective phrase format, we changed the first sentence to active rather than passive, which helps build momentum and is more direct, helping to build my desired tone. I would also like to swap ‘lived in’ for a single word like ‘occupied’ or ‘inhabited’ but that might feel too mechanical, which doesn’t work because our narrator isn’t academic. I also dislike the vagueness of ‘down the road,’ since it feels a bit contradictory. (‘down the road’ feels somewhat close, like near enough to ask for sugar, but this is farmland, which generally means a significant distance between homes.) A side note is that by converting to a colon, the last two sentences read more like how someone would say this, which helps to build the down-home style of story.
George’s great uncle, Conrad Hicks, a confirmed bachelor who never married, and Isabella’s widowed grandfather, Benjamin Felix, moved into their house to care for the children when Isabella first announced she was going to be a mother twelve years ago. Their children kept multiplying like rabbits.
Every morning before school, I would walk down the dirt path with Uncle Theodore to help George tend the animals. This was how I was raised. A boring life.
Nothing new to comment about here, just more cuts. I would delete ‘who never married’ since that’s evident from ‘bachelor.’ After that, I would reduce ‘she was going to be a mother’ to ‘her pregnancy,’ and maybe add a ‘had’ before ‘moved’ for grammar. I would also like to implement an alternative to ‘to care for the children’ since it doesn’t read well (this being due to glue words being strung together, which makes it read wordy.) I think we can imply the same thing by replacing it with ‘after.’ If we do that, toward which I am inclined, we’ll move the ‘twelve years’ over as well, since I think that reads better. This leaves us with…
—George’s great uncle, Conrad Hicks, a confirmed bachelor, and Isabella’s widowed grandfather, Benjamin Felix, had moved in with them twelve years ago after Isabella first announced her pregnancy. Their children kept multiplying like rabbits.
Every morning before school, I would walk down the dirt path with Uncle Theodore to help George tend the animals. This was how I was raised. A boring life.—
After reading this, the only changes I would make would be deleting the ‘down’ from ‘walk down’ as unnecessary and adding ‘bachelor’ as an adjective to Conrad’s first introduction. —George’s bachelor great uncle—. I changed ‘into their house’ for ‘in with them’ for rhythm. The second of these reads smoother because it doesn’t have the hard ‘to’ and ‘them’ is less distinctive than ‘house.’ Normally I would prefer the distinctive option, but this is a long sentence, so flow is even more important.
Another, more radical option is taking the last two sentence of paragraph 3 and converting them to something like—…had moved in with them twelve years ago to help raise their children.— The exact time they moved in is irrelevant, and we know how many children Isabell and George have, so that last sentence doesn’t serve much purpose besides aesthetic/building the narrator’s tone. I like this option, provided the rhythm checks out.
All my edits— For as long as I could remember, I lived a normal life on an old farmhouse with my elderly Papi, and three uncles. I never knew my mother, and he never spoke of her. My uncles consisted of Theodore, an artist, Dr. Francis, who delivered babies at St. Vincent’s Sanatorium, and Dylan, a retired WWII pilot.
Our only neighbors lived in an identical farmhouse down the road: George and Isabella Hicks with their six children. George’s bachelor great uncle, Conrad Hicks, and Isabella’s widowed grandfather, Benjamin Felix, had moved in with them twelve years ago to help raise their children.
Every morning before school, I would walk down the dirt path with Uncle Theodore to help George tend the animals. This was how I was raised. A boring life
I shifted paragraph lines so that all the information relevant to the neighbors was in one paragraph. Aside from that, this reads mostly fine. The sentence about Conard Hicks and Benjamin feels a little complete from a rhythm standpoint, but I wouldn’t know how to round it out. The final paragraph also feels a little imbalanced, making me wish there was another action our MC could preform in the same line, and not just for rhythm. Citing two actions would open the possibility for there to be more that just went unstated, whereas one statement feels more like a period. This is entirely perception, of course, but perception is important. Still, adding an additional action requires the author’s touch, so I will have to leave it there.
That’ll be all for today. If you like what you’ve read, consider checking out the author’s other content. https://www.writing.com/main/portfolio/view/kittykat20
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