Saturday, May 28

Real Life Diagnostics: One More Look at Openings

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines. There’s no one in the queue right now, so you’d be up next Saturday. I think Saturday is a good day for these, don’t you? It’s time RLD found a permanent home.

On to the diagnosis…
Today we have another volunteer who’s wondering how their opening is working. They want to know:

1) Does the opening have the right balance to draw the reader in?

2) Does opening by showing the protagonist immediately reacting to a situation feel forced, or does it provide a quick glimpse into what he's like (my intent)?

3) How is the use of description? Does the setting come through or does it feel incomplete?

Original Text
Connor grabbed the gate with both hands and shook it until his head rang. He knew it wouldn’t do any good, but that didn’t stop him. The gate was locked, and no one was likely to be out at that hour to hear him and let him in.

Above him, a black metal bird, its outstretched wings spanning a half dozen or so of the iron bars, stared down at him impassively from its welded perch. Connor grimaced. He stared back at the bird, clenching his teeth while his head cleared, determined not to feel sorry for himself, wondering again what he was even doing there.

He hadn't asked to come. No, this was all Mr. Foster's doing. He was the one who sent the letter telling Connor it was time to change schools. Again. He was the reason Connor had attended nine, now ten, schools in the last seven years. And he was the reason Connor was now standing outside a locked gate in the middle of the night – in the middle of nowhere. Alone.

Several dogs barked somewhere in the distance, probably excited by the rattling of the gate. Connor shivered. He hated dogs. In truth, they terrified him. He stood motionless for several seconds holding his breath and listening. To his relief, the sound never came any nearer, and soon the barking stopped altogether.

Connor blew out his cheeks and turned his back on the bird as he leaned against the cold, hard bars of the gate. His eyes travelled down the narrow, hedge-lined lane to the main road where the taxi had stopped to drop him off. The cabbie had seemed unwilling at first to drive away and leave a thirteen-year-old boy standing there alone with only a knapsack and a duffel bag. But Connor had convinced him he knew how to take care of himself.

Now, Connor only wished he could convince himself, too.

My Thoughts in Purple
Connor grabbed the gate with both hands and shook it [until his head rang.] Something about shaking the gate until his head rang feels off to me. I think it’s the “rang.” I associate that sound with the gate, so I expect him to do something to the gate until the gate “X.” [He knew it wouldn’t do any good, but that didn’t stop him.] You could be more in his head if you rephrased this section. The gate was locked, and no one was likely to be out at that hour to hear him and let him in. It starts with a problem right away: Conner is locked out of some pace he wants to be.

Above him, a black metal bird, its outstretched wings spanning a half dozen or so of the iron bars, stared down at him impassively from its welded perch. You might think about putting “metal” in the first paragraph to show the gate is a metal gate. The “metal bird” threw me for just a second when I first read it, because I thought he was looking at something above him, as in the sky, not the gate. A better sense of the gate’s size would fix that. Perhaps flip the sentence around some for better flow. “A black metal bird stared down at him impassively from its welded perch, its outstretched wings spanning a half dozen or so of the iron bars.” I’m also curious why he looks up at the bird. Why is this detail important to the reader? What does it mean?

Connor grimaced. Why? From the pain in his head or the bird? He stared back at the bird, clenching his teeth while his head cleared, [determined not to feel sorry for himself, wondering again what he was even doing there.] Feels a little distant through here compared to the next para. You’ve mentioned the bird again here with a reaction from Conner, so I feel like there’s some significance there, but it’s not clear what.

He hadn't asked to come. No, this was all Mr. Foster's doing. He was the one who sent the letter telling [Connor] If you want to be more in his head, try a pronoun here. Connor wouldn’t think of himself as “Connor” it was time to change schools. Again. He was the reason [Connor] same here had attended nine, now ten, schools in the last seven years. And he was the reason [Connor] and here was now standing outside a locked gate in the middle of the night – in the middle of nowhere. Alone. I like how Connor has a bit if a nemesis here with Mr. Foster (even though it looks like he’s on Connor’s side). I don’t know who this man is, but I can see Connor blames him for what’s happening to him. I’m curious what this is all about and why Connor has to leave schools so often.

Several dogs barked somewhere in the distance, [probably excited by the rattling of the gate.] Telling a bit here, explaining why the dogs barked vs letting readers figure out. (a bit more of this type of telling below, as it’s a good example of something) Connor shivered. He hated dogs. In truth, they terrified him. [He stood motionless for several seconds holding his breath and listening.] This shows his fear nicely, so you might consider putting this right after he hears the barking. Show the stimulus (the bark) then his reaction (the fear) then talk about why. [To his relief,] This feels a bit told [the sound] he's not really worried about the sound, but the dogs. never came any nearer, and soon the barking stopped altogether.

Connor blew out his cheeks and turned his back [on the bird] This is the third time you’ve mentioned the bird, so now I’m really curious about it. as he leaned against the cold, hard bars of the gate. His eyes travelled down the narrow, hedge-lined lane to the main road where the taxi had stopped to drop him off. [The cabbie had seemed unwilling at first to drive away and leave a thirteen-year-old boy standing there alone with only a knapsack and a duffel bag.] This section is a little distant. This also feels odd here because it’s already happened and I don’t know why we need to know it. I suspect it’s here for the next paragraph to work, but you might consider opening with him being dropped off and the cabbie being uncertain about leaving him. But Connor had convinced him he knew how to take care of himself.

Now, Connor only wished he could convince himself, too. I like him being unsure he could take care of himself. Shows some vulnerability that makes me worry about him.

Let’s look at the questions first:
1) Does the opening have the right balance to draw the reader in?
For the most part, yes. There’s a character with a problem: a boy who is locked out of somewhere who is worried about not being able to take care of himself. I don’t know what that is yet, but I see it has something to do with Mr. Foster and probably school. My guess is Conner is trying to get back into a boarding school and has been locked out. He doesn’t want to go to a new school, but he can’t stay here for some mysterious reason (he had to change schools, this would be the tenth). I’m guessing he’s on the run from something and Foster is helping him stay ahead of whoever is after him.

I would have liked a little more closeness on Connor’s POV, but that’s a personal taste issue. The author mentioned this was for the MG audience, and it’s not uncommon to have a farther narrative distance for that market. It does have an MG tone to it. A bit more internalization to show Connor’s fear and internal struggle (leaving vs staying if that is indeed the case) could help hook the reader even more.

I would read on a little more to see where this was going. There were things that hooked me and I was curious what Connor might do next to get inside (or where he might go if he left). I can see there’s a lot of conflict here that could drive a story.

2) Does opening by showing the protagonist immediately reacting to a situation feel forced, or does it provide a quick glimpse into what he's like (my intent)?
I don’t think it feels forced, and it does show him reacting to the problem of being locked out, and to the other larger problem with Foster (Guessing here, but it feels right) I can see that Connor is afraid of dogs, he’s 13, and that he’s mad at Foster, but I don’t know much more about him than that. Part of that is due to the more distant narrator conveying details to me, not seeing those details through Connor’s eyes. If I saw the world as Connor does, I’d know a bit more about him.

3) How is the use of description? Does the setting come through or does it feel incomplete?
There were few details, but what was there was mentioned a few times. The metal bird for example was focused on three times, which suggest there’s more to that bird than it just being part of the gate. If that’s true, then it piqued my curiosity. If not, it’s drawing too much attention. You mentioned a taxi driving away, so it’s probably modern day. “Knapsack” gave me a possible UK vibe, (which fits a boarding school) but there’s nothing else to reinforce that, so it could be anywhere. There are hedge-lined roads, but boarding schools often have landscaped grounds, so that fits with the school setting. After this snippet I picture a boy on the street outside his boarding school in the UK somewhere. If that’s correct, then I got the setting from the details provided. If not, I got a different picture.

My Suggestions
One or two more specific setting details might help ground the setting more firmly. A landmark or something to show where this takes place. Perhaps a hint of temperature so we know what time of year it is (though it’s not necessary if it doesn’t fit).

To get to know Connor better, perhaps take the distant sections I marked and put them in his head. If he really is running from something, that fear can be shown in how he sees the world around him, which would allow you to do everything you want in one fell swoop. Show Connor’s personality, describe setting, and show something to hook the reader. If you prefer the farther narrative, then perhaps a bit more internalization to do those things.

Show Don’t Tell Example
There was a line in this that is one of those great “it depends on context” aspects of show don’t tell that’s worth expanding on a bit even though it’s not part of the author’s questions. But I take advantage of them when I see them since it's hard to remember every possible one of these things.
Several dogs barked somewhere in the distance, probably excited by the rattling of the gate.
“probably excited by the rattling of the gate” explains the reason the dogs are barking, which is traditionally a telling statement. But it’s also a judgment statement, because the POV is guessing why the dogs are barking – “probably” implies that. Sometimes these statements work, others they don’t. What I’ve found is a handy rule of thumb to help decide which one it is, is to look at the rest of the section and ask yourself if the reader can figure out why that thing you’re explaining happened by what’s in the scene, and if it matters that they know.

In this case, the shaking of the gate and making all that noise would cause dogs to bark. I think readers can figure that out. I also think the reason the dogs are barking isn’t important to the scene. So here it’s feels a bit told to me. But, if the explanation was about something that wasn’t as clear to figure out, and the reaction played an important role in what was going on -- such as something that would make readers wonder “why is X happening?” or “how did they know X?” -- then the judgment statement would feel more shown and part of the POV’s internalization.

It’s another one of those subtle things that can affect a section but not really jump out at you as being “wrong,” because it isn’t so black and white.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. Feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own, just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive comments.

6 comments:

  1. Brave author: As a reader I enjoyed your work. I thought it had tension and I instantly identified with Connor. Thanks for sharing :) I was a little confused by the metal bird also. I had to read it a few times to realize that it was part of the gate. Once I figured it out though I liked the detail.

    Janice: Thanks for doing this post. I learn something every time you do RLD. Your site should have made it onto Writer's Digest's 101 Best Websites for writers! I would vote for you.

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  2. Thanks so much for being brave and sharing your work with us.

    I have a question, though. Did it bother anyone else that we didn't know why Connor had to get into the gate? For me, that lowered the stakes. It could just be a personal thing, though.

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  3. Cool concept, and very good analysis you make.

    I jumped over to study the guidelines page. Maybe I'll submit something, if I make progress next week >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  4. I really enjoy this opening. I turned the comments over in my head, and I agree that shifting a couple sentences around with the dogs howling makes the scene creepier. :)

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  5. Angie: Aw, thanks! Maybe next year. I've shown up on the WD blog a few times now in the helpful links, so hopefully I'm on their radar now.

    Jane: It didn't bother me yet because it's still early in the story (the first page really). I suspect the next section will start talking about his specific problem. There's a nice lead in with Connor worried about being able to take care of himself, and that transitions well into thinking about why he needs to so. Totally guessing of course, but it feels about right and where I'd probably start getting into it. But I do agree that if some clue to that isn't revealed shortly, I'd want to know why.

    Cold As Heaven: Awesome!

    Chicory: I think it's off to a good start :)

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  6. I have a couple of small comments of my own. My reading is that Connor has just been delivered to his tenth school, but no one is there to admit him. If so, he could wonder why Mr. Foster hadn't called ahead, or think about why he's arriving so late. But it doesn't bother me that we don't know for sure why he's there. Simple curiosity about something like that can keep the reader reading for a while.

    The slight distance from the narrator doesn't bother me either. Like a movie, a book can begin at a bit of distance and then zoom in. Otherwise, always being in very close third person can come to feel claustrophobic at times. For the same reason, it read perfectly fine to me to have "He was the reason Connor" several times. However, on the matter of distance, I think it would be better to say "this hour" and "here" in these two sentences:

    "The gate was locked, and no one was likely to be out at that hour to hear him and let him in."
    "...wondering again what he was even doing there."

    Both these changes would bring us closer to standing in Connor's shoes, HERE at THIS HOUR.

    I liked the iron bird a lot, and I assume its menace will play out at some point. I agree that a hint about the weather could help. I would cut "or so" from this phrase: "spanning a half dozen or so of the iron bars." A "half dozen" already feels like an approximate number, and adding "or so" just stretches things out.

    I have two problems with the dogs. One, they don't start barking until well after he's stopped rattling the gate. That doesn't make sense. Second, there's nothing specific about the barking. Could it start with a whine, or break into howls, or end with a slobbering sound? Similarly, could it come from the direction of the dark school building looming on the hill? If you're going to have barking dogs, milk them for all they're worth.

    One final comment. In the last paragraph, you have Connor turning his back on the bird AS he leans agains the gate. It's difficult to turn and lean at the same time-- this creates a little hiccup in the reader's imagined vision.

    All in all, though, I think this is a very promising beginning. I would read on.

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