Thursday, April 14

Real Life Diagnostic: Crafting an Opening That Draws You In

Openings are critical to hooking a reader and making them want to read on. As unfair as it may be, both readers and agents often give you a few paragraphs to hook you, and if you don’t, they reach for the next book on the shelf or submission in the pile. It’s no wonder we writers stress about our openings.

Today’s diagnostic is worried about that very thing. The writer asks:
I was hoping you could tell me if it 'works' to draw you in.
Let’s dive in and see if this does.

Original Text
“Why, in the name of all things decent, did I let you convince me to ride the last seven leagues in this cursed conveyance!” The dark-haired young man clenched the crown in his hands, finally allowing his peevishness and embarrassment to burst out.

“It is merely a carriage, your Majesty.”

“It’s the devil’s own invention is what it is! Cloth and timber cobbled together to make a coffin on wheels.”

“You are sitting upright, your Majesty, not laying down dead.”

Wriggling in the snug tunic, the king gave his cousin an irritated look. “I’d rather be riding my horse! The men back there were right, only gentle-ladies and the infirm ride in these contraptions.” He scrubbed the sweat from his face with a limp handkerchief, longing for the cooler air of his mountains. “It is absolutely stifling in here! Doesn’t help my nerves to be lurching about in this oven. I don’t think I could save face if I heaved my lunch on the princess’ feet. What a way to impress one’s future bride!”

His cousin allowed only a sliver of a smile to appear.

“Or, I should say my possible future bride.” The young king crossed his arms and felt his face fall into the scowl that was becoming customary. He knew he looked like a stubborn four-year-old; Henri had told him so this morning during their last argument. “Oh, and if you don’t want me in an evil temper when we arrive at this castle, you’d better leave off calling me ‘Your Majesty’.”

My comments in purple
“Why, in the name of all things decent, did I let you convince me to ride the last seven leagues in this cursed conveyance!” The dark-haired young man clenched the crown in his hands, finally allowing his peevishness and embarrassment to burst out. If the “dark-haired young man” is your POV (which is appears to be from the rest of the sample) you might consider naming him here to put the reader firmly in his head. Having a character readers can relate to right away is a good way to draw them in. Describing him from a more detached perspective can leave readers ungrounded and unsure of who their POV is supposed to be. I do find his embarrassment interesting though, and wonder about that. Why is he embarrassed? Is that what's making his so cranky?

“It is merely a carriage, your Majesty.”

“It’s the devil’s own invention is what it is! Cloth and timber cobbled together to make a coffin on wheels.”

“You are sitting upright, your Majesty, not laying down dead.” LOL I don’t know who this character is yet, but I really like their sense of humor.

Wriggling in the snug tunic, the king gave his cousin an irritated look. That distant feeling exists here as well. You’re doing a good job showing his irritation through his dialog, so I’d be more drawn in if that continued with his internalization. I’d like to see how he feels, not be told how he feels from a distance. “I’d rather be riding my horse! The men back there were right, only gentle-ladies and the infirm ride in these contraptions.” He scrubbed the sweat from his face with a limp handkerchief, longing for the cooler air of his mountains. “It is absolutely stifling in here! Doesn’t help my nerves to be lurching about in this oven. I don’t think I could save face if I heaved my lunch on the princess’ feet. What a way to impress one’s future bride!” Here I learn he's going to meet a potential bride, which hints at what the story might be about. Based on his personality so far, I suspect this meeting is not going to go as well as he hopes.

His cousin allowed only a sliver of a smile to appear. I really like the cousin.

“Or, I should say my possible future bride.” [The young king crossed his arms and felt his face fall into the scowl that was becoming customary.] Distant here as well. The king probably wouldn’t think of himself as “the young king” so it pulls the reader away to hear it described as such. Since he’s a bit unlikable, that extra distance makes it harder to feel any sympathy for him and want to know his story. But if we saw a little more of his thoughts and why he’s so uncomfortable and unhappy, we might sympathize with his plight more. He knew he looked like a stubborn four-year-old; Henri had told him so this morning during their last argument. “Oh, and if you don’t want me in an evil temper when we arrive at this castle, you’d better leave off calling me ‘Your Majesty’.” You lose me a bit here because I like the cousin a lot, and the king being mean to him isn’t making me like him. Perhaps if he showed some compassion here, or understood he was being a pain, I’d feel more sympathy for him. But as is, he comes across as a grumpy old man despite being called a young king.

Let’s answer the question first: Did this draw me in. Yes and no.

Yes. The cousin drew me in because I really loved his sense of humor. The line about “sitting upright” was great. He made me want to know more about him because I found him very likable and intriguing. I’d read on a bit to see if he got any more page time.

No. The king didn’t draw me in because he was so obnoxious. That paired with the omniscient POV only let me see his bad side, not any internalization from him to show me why I’d want to follow a story with him as the main character. I assume he has good qualities that we’re not seeing here, but without a hint of those, it’s hard to want to spend more time with him.

Suggested Fixes
Try making the king more sympathetic. He can still whine and complain, but perhaps give us some reason for his behavior that we can understand. If we’d act like a jerk if we were in his shoes, we might accept his behavior here and forgive him for it. I’d also cut back on the whining just a little, as so much so fast makes me wonder if I’m going to read pages and pages of him complaining, and that doesn’t appeal to me. Some hints that there’s more going on here than just him whining, and that he’s worth spending time with as a character, would make me want to tread on more. Or, if the king needs to be the way he is, perhaps let the cousin be the POV and tell the story from a more likable person's perspective. (This may or may not work with your story however).

You  might also offer a hint or two about what's in store for them at the end of this journey. I know it's a possible bride, but that carries no sense of stakes or a story problem yet, so I don't know if I should be worried about this, or hopeful. If the cousin is hoping to marry off the king and get rid of him (or mellow him out) I might hope for that, but if the king is just meeting a girl, I have nothing that piques my interest there. Perhaps a hint of what this lady is like that might mesh with or conflict with the king? Something to make me curious about what will happen when the get there. The most obvious (right or wrong) is that the king us going to make a terrible impression and problems will ensure. That's a little too generic to hook me as it. A little on what makes this meeting unique would help.

As always, thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this piece for me to pick apart. I hope everyone learned a little something they can use in their own work to help draw readers in.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.   

Author's Revison:

“Why, in the name of all things decent, did I let you convince me to ride the last seven leagues in this cursed conveyance?” Cornelius allowed his peevishness and embarrassment to burst out as he clenched his ridiculous crown. It had been jolted off his head for a sixth, and final, time. If you cut this bold part, you’d be more in his head, showing how he feels instead of telling it here. Between his speech and his actions, it’s clear he’s doing the bold part.

His cousin, Henri, Marquis d’Ivrea, was unperturbed. “It is merely a carriage, your Majesty.”

“It’s the devil’s own invention is what it is! Cloth and timber cobbled together to make a coffin on wheels.”

“You are sitting upright, your Majesty, not laying down dead.”

Wriggling in the snug tunic, Cornelius gave his cousin a pleading look.
“I’d rather be riding my horse!” You could be more in his head if you rephrased this as something Cornelius does. “He wriggled in his snug tunic and gazed out at the riders alongside the carriage. “I’d rather...” Or even have him pull at the snug neck here since his neck bothers him a few lines down.

“Then you most likely would be in a coffin.”

Cornelius rolled his eyes. “It was only a burr under the saddle. Someone’s prank.”

“…Which nearly broke your neck. There was also the unclaimed arrow that nearly skewered you yesterday, the cliff that nearly crumbled under you last week, and the boat that sunk in the middle of Lac Tromperie and nearly drowned you a fortnight ago.” He raised an eyebrow. “You do not find it alarming?”

Cornelius ignored his prickling neck. “Not enough to ride up to the castle of my future bride in a carriage only fit for an infirm old lady.” You can also be tighter in his POV if you use more pronouns for him. This is what he sees and hears. While it’s good to use the name at the start of the scene, you don’t have to always use it.

Henri spoke deliberately. “Our cousin, Adolfus, wasn’t alarmed either. He’s been in his tomb nearly a year. Would you like to keep the throne he passed to you, or would you rather have a matching sepulcher beside his?” If he’s their cousin, they know this so it sounds odd to phrase it this way. Perhaps “Cousin Adolfus.”

Perhaps show a reaction here? I’m curious how Cornelius feels about this, especially since he blows it off at the end. Is he really unconcerned or putting on airs? We’ve also had no internalization from him at all, so it’s a little hard to connect with him as a character without that. Cornelius fidgeted with the circlet in his hands before shoving it in a satchel and gave Henri a tight smile. “This pretentious contraption will soon deposit me and that ever-slipping crown at the princess’ door. If I emerge all sweaty and malodorous, then promptly lose my lunch on her feet, I could die of embarrassment instead.”

His cousin allowed only a sliver of a smile to appear. “The royal family has been cursed with a variety of strange deaths lately. It will only add to the growing legend.” LOL I really like Henri.

Overall a good revision here. I like what was added, it helped flesh out the scene better and show Cornelius a little more. I’d be pulled in even more if the POV were a bit tighter, and a little more internalization would do just that.

Nice job.

4 comments:

  1. Very cool reading these. I would have kept reading this at least to the end of this chapter based on the bit of humor and the promise of more awkwardness to come, but you've convinced me once again, Janice, that you have POV-super-powers. Really informative to watch you break this down.

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  2. I'd definitely pick one POV and stick with it. Omniscient POV or POV head hopping are both unacceptable in most markets these days, and most readers don't like them either because they lack intimacy.

    Unless the coach is about to be attacked to make this a life-changing moment for the petulant young king, this whole scene comes across as nothing more than backstory dump with a bit of character presentation thrown in.

    A story should start at the moment of change for the major character, not a few days or hours before it.

    The average agent/editor or reader will give most writers the first few paragraphs, or at most a few pages, to grab them and no more.

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  3. Megan: LOL, thanks! Call me POV Woman! It's also good to remember that my take isn't the only take. What grabs one reader isn't always what grabs another.

    Marilynn: Omniscient is so hard to do well, and you really don't see much of it these days.

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  4. I agree that the cousin is already more interesting. This story would be pretty cool from the cousin's perspective!

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