Writing that Scene: “A Dog and His Boy”

PB_promo by T. F. Pruden

In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing That Scene examines the fundamentals of what makes a scene powerful and memorable for readers.

The goal of these posts is to provide an opportunity for authors to learn from each other and to see their own writing with fresh eyes. In my own experience, hearing what other writers and readers thought of my writing has been hugely helpful, and Writing That Scene aims to provide other authors with this opportunity.

If you are interested in sharing a scene of your own for a future post, click on the Writing that Scene Submission link. To see the last scene featured, click here.

Author: T. F. Pruden

Scene location: A few paragraphs into Chapter Five

Genre: Literary Fiction

Narration: Third Person Omniscient

A Dog and His Boy

The picture presented by their home was comic. The ramshackle and hurried construction was plainly meant for short term use when little time had been available for serious building. Tommy knew the men had lived in the original one room cabin for some years before he and Davey arrived. The boys had now lived at the ranch for a further seven years. He was forced to accept that the place, not so fondly known by its inhabitants and their neighbors as ‘the shack’, must be viewed as their permanent home.

Further down the hill he passed a shallow eight foot long trench dug fifty yards east of the barnyard. It was slowly filling with waste and they called it the slop pile. Here each morning they dumped the contents of the five gallon pail which stood beside the cook stove. It was home to household waste unsuitable for burning. The shallow pit was covered over and dug again a few feet further up the hill every few years. It gave off a smell unlike any Tommy had encountered elsewhere. He gritted his teeth and wrinkled his nose as he hurried past the growing pile of filth.

Fifty yards to the south and visible through the trees sat the outhouse. It was a two seat affair emitting its own foul stench for which he recently helped his uncle Joe dig a new waste pit. Dug five feet deep through rocks and sand, moving the building onto the new pit and covering the old one was a chore repeated every few years. The latrine was painted white in stark contrast to the unpainted cabin, the better to find it on moonless nights his father had told him. Secretly Tommy believed the paint a work of pure sarcasm as the privy was both exceedingly well built and meticulously finished.

In summer the hole beneath the tidy clapboard structure was regularly the target of powerful disinfectants. Yet the wrong breeze however slight delivered an odor to the shack that left the inhabitants scrambling to get out. As the boys soon came to appreciate, life without the wonder of modern plumbing was somewhat less genteel than the cowboy movies led them to believe.

A Dog and His Boy [My Comments in Blue]

[The picture presented by their home was comic. The ramshackle and hurried construction was plainly meant for short term use when little time had been available for serious building. Tommy knew the men had lived in the original one room cabin for some years before he and Davey arrived. The boys had now lived at the ranch for a further seven years. He was forced to accept that the place, not so fondly known by its inhabitants and their neighbors as ‘the shack’, must be viewed as their permanent home. I get a nice mix of despair and resignation from these lines. I’m not sure if that’s the intention (since I don’t know Tommy yet), but that’s how this read. The young man seems to have accepted his fate enough to look clearly at what is before him and to recognize it for what it is.

That being said, I think you could give us a better idea of what makes the shack look like a temporary residence. Are there gaps between the boards? Are the openings some odd shape (not quite square) that causes the doors and windows to stick? Does the roof leak? Is it falling to pieces, or just poorly built, with uneven boards and plenty of places for sweaters to get snagged?

[Further down the hill he passed a shallow eight foot long trench dug fifty yards east of the barnyard. It was slowly filling with waste and they called it the slop pile. Here each morning they dumped the contents of the five gallon pail which stood beside the cook stove. It was home to household waste unsuitable for burning. The shallow pit was covered over and dug again a few feet further up the hill every few years. This is a very precise paragraph. It gives the size and length of the trench, and it’s exact distance from the barnyard, but because you have an Omniscient, third person narrator, you can get away with this. Tommy probably doesn’t think of the “slop pile” in such terms, but the narrator can.

[It gave off a smell unlike any Tommy had encountered elsewhere. He gritted his teeth and wrinkled his nose as he hurried past the growing pile of filth. I like the mixture of terms you use–slop, contents, waste, filth– rather than the same word over and over. It makes the paragraph far more interesting than it would be, otherwise.

However, I think I would’ve moved these lines higher up the paragraph, right behind the “slop pile” introduction in the first line. The smell is going to assault Tommy immediately, even before he reaches it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having the smell presented to the readers nearly as quickly. Also, it would create a bit of mystery to pull the reader along. We’d learn it smells, and then find out why it smells.]

[Fifty yards to the south and visible through the trees sat the outhouse. This is fifty yards away, again. The place seems remarkably well laid out, which is an interesting contrast considering the nearby shed.]

[It was a two seat affair emitting its own foul stench for which he recently helped his uncle Joe dig a new waste pit. Dug five feet deep through rocks and sand, moving the building onto the new pit and covering the old one was a chore repeated every few years. The latrine was painted white in stark contrast to the unpainted cabin, the better to find it on moonless nights his father had told him. Secretly Tommy believed the paint a work of pure sarcasm as the privy was both exceedingly well built and meticulously finished. It almost seems that the outhouse is painted white to draw attention to itself, as opposed to the house, and made me wonder if someone else had built it.

Again, details as to what made the privy “meticulously finished” would be interesting. You’re going to a great deal of trouble to describe the place, overall, so you might as well include the details. Are there decorative brackets under the roof? Trim around the door? A special window, perhaps?

In summer the hole beneath [the tidy clapboard structure Again, I like how you varied up your description. You don’t use the same words, but give us slightly different information each time, and, in this instance, we learn something about the building’s construction along the way.] was regularly the target of [powerful disinfectants. Nice way of hinting at the era. Thus far, we have no way of knowing that we aren’t in the 1800s, but “disinfectants” suggests that this is far more modern than that.]

[Yet the wrong breeze however slight delivered an odor to the shack that left the inhabitants scrambling to get out. As the boys soon came to appreciate, life without the wonder of modern plumbing was somewhat less genteel than the cowboy movies led them to believe. I like this passage. The humor is delightful, and again, the “cowboy movies” tells us that the time period is sometime in the last half of the 20th century.]

The author asks, ” Does this excerpt create enough interest to make you want to read the rest of the novel? Is the sample written well enough to warrant a purchase of the novel?”

I’m not the best candidate for this question, as I rarely buy books (preferring to ask my library to get them for me before I add them to my very particular library). However, I think this passage gives a good introduction to the place of your novel, and it suggests the pace of the piece, overall. We are given time to sit in the setting and soak, as it were, which suggests that the novel will be a thoughtful piece, rather than an action or Young Adult novel.

However, we don’t really get to know much about the character or the plot from this passage. We don’t know why Tommy is now there, in this rural place, and why he must consider this place as his permanent home, and we don’t know how he feels about the place or the people who live there. For me, it’s characters and the plot, that get me to buy a book, rather than setting, but other readers may feel differently.

The one major thing that pushes me towards buying the book and wanting to read more is the humor. The wry comments the narrator makes are splendid, and it makes me want to see what would be said about whatever else happens.

You can find out more about T. F. Pruden and his novel, A Dog and His Boy, here.

Photo and text from A Dog and His Boy used by permission from T. F. Pruden

2 thoughts on “Writing that Scene: “A Dog and His Boy”

  1. Hi Andrea;

    Thank you.

    Your critique is both interesting and edifying. Unfortunately the excruciatingly detailed description of ‘the shack’ takes place in the paragraph before the excerpt! With any luck it will be worth a laugh when you read the novel. 😉

    I very much appreciate the critique and it will make me a better writer. Objective evaluation of ones’ own work is impossible. To discover an individual both interested and able to provide appropriately skilled criticism of literature outside a university classroom might be more difficult today than it has ever been. The self-publishing revolution though unleashing new authors in the thousands has not been accompanied by a similar increase in self-employed editorial talent.

    Thank you for lending your talent and your time.

    Can I share this page and the contents publicly? As it appears I managed to emerge from the critique relatively unscathed I would like to share your work if I may. I understand if you would rather I not and will await your instruction prior to doing so.

    ttys, TFP

    Like

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