Saturday, June 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Work?

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.

On to the diagnosis…

We have another opening this week. (Actually, I think openings will be pretty common for a long time, but that’s okay since they’re tough and lot can be learned from examining them). Today’s author wants to know:
1. Is it too slow a start?
2. Is there enough here to keep someone's interest for another page? Cause the figurative bomb drops on page 2.
3. Is this opening situation believable? 'Cause that worries me.
4. Do these feel like 17 year olds?

Original Text:
Jesse wore her cap and gown over the top of her wedding dress. Kevin gazed into her eyes and declared his love with such fervency that half the women sobbed into their hankies. I admit, I might have teared up for a moment myself. Lucky for me, no one else knew about my brief time with Kevin. It had been a test to see if our friendship could be more, but it only took a week for us to agree that we made better friends than lovers.

The next week I introduced him to Jesse, and the rest as they say in the story books is history. Truly happy for both, I performed my maid of honor duties with ease. I grew restless while they danced surrounded by the rest of our graduating class. The music drummed inside my head and all I could think of was getting out.

Jesse sat down beside me. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, why do you ask?”

“I dunno. Usually you’d be out there dancing with us.” Jesse flicked her head toward the gyrating mass of bodies.

“Headache.” I tapped my temple.

“Why don’t you walk through the garden or something? I don’t want any wall flowers at my graduation party.”

“I thought this was your wedding reception.” I squinted at her.

“Of course it is, but Daddy wouldn’t pay for both, so I’m combining them. Just because I got married doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the end of high school.” She laughed and started bobbing her shoulders in time with the music.

Worry overwhelmed me. “Jesse, is this really what you want? It’s not too late. I think you can get the marriage annulled if you back out now. Come to college with me.” I grabbed her hands in mine. “We have our whole lives ahead of us.”

My Thoughts in Purple:
Jesse wore her cap and gown over the top of her wedding dress. Intriguing first line. Kevin gazed into her eyes and declared his love with such fervency that half the [women] women makes this feel older than 17 to me, so it colors the paragraph with an adult vibe sobbed into their hankies. I admit, I might have teared up for a moment myself. Lucky for me, no one else knew about my brief time with Kevin. It had been a test to see if our friendship could be more, but it only took a week for us to agree that we made better friends than [lovers.] Same with lovers. While teens do have sex, you don’t always automatically equate lovers with teens. Those words make the narrator feel older, even if Jesse is a teen.

The next week I introduced him to Jesse, and the rest as they say in the story books is history. Truly happy for both, I performed my maid of honor duties with ease. I grew restless while they danced surrounded by the rest of our graduating class. The music drummed inside my head and all I could think of was getting out. You lose me in this para because it’s backstory and then a jump ahead in time. These two paragraphs also sound more adult to me due to the words I mentioned above. Cap and gown and graduating class are the only words that suggest these characters aren’t older.

Jesse sat down beside me. “Are you [alright?]” Personal pet peeve: all right

“Yeah, why do you ask?”

“I dunno. Usually you’d be out there dancing with us.” Jesse flicked her head toward the gyrating mass of bodies.

“Headache.” I tapped my temple.

“Why don’t you walk through the garden or something? I don’t want any wall flowers at my graduation party.”

“I thought this was your wedding reception.” I squinted at her. Perhaps flip these sentences?

“Of course it is, but Daddy wouldn’t pay for both, so I’m combining them. Just because I got married doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the end of high school.” She laughed and started bobbing her shoulders in time with the music.

Worry overwhelmed me. “Jesse, is this really what you want? It’s not too late. I think you can get the marriage annulled if you back out now. Come to college with me.” I grabbed her hands in mine. “We have our whole lives ahead of us.”

Let’s answer the questions first:

1. Is it too slow a start?
A bit, but only because of the summary of the first two paragraphs. The actual story doesn’t start until Jesse sits down. The beginning is set up.

2. Is there enough here to keep someone's interest for another page? Cause the figurative bomb drops on page 2.
I think the pieces are there. The wedding dress under the graduation gown was interesting, and the narrator having a prior relationship (even briefly) with the groom shows conflict. Daddy not being willing to pay for more than one party was also intriguing. Did he approve of this marriage or was he unhappy about it? From just this set up I suspect the bomb about to be dropped is that Jesse is pregnant, but only because that’s the most common reason to get married suddenly. But this is more about Jesse and Kevin, and I’m not sure what the narrator wants besides college.

3. Is this opening situation believable? 'Cause that worries me.
I’m buying it so far. I can see a young couple getting married at graduation, making the best of what they have, being crazy and reckless and wild. It’s an unlikely situation, but stories are about pushing situations over the top for dramatic effect.

4. Do these feel like 17 year olds?
They do once they start talking. The opening paragraphs sounded older to me (see above comments), but I suspect that’s also partly because it’s summing up the scene so it’s more the author than the POV in voice.

My Suggestions
I’m not sure if this is starting in the right spot yet. The very beginning hints that the narrator might be sad about her friend getting married (her wanting out, the headache) and maybe this was about lost love or opportunities, with the narrator losing her best friend Kevin. Then it shifts and she comes across more like Jesse’s friend, and wanting her to go to college with her, worried she made a mistake getting married. I’m not sure which “side” the narrator is on, so I don’t know how to put this wedding into context with what she wants and fears. I don’t know what her goal is.

What is the narrator most concerned about? Where does this scene take the story? Since it starts with the wedding, how is the wedding important? What happens here that starts the protag on the plot path to the core conflict of the novel? What does all this mean to her on a personal level?

I like the imagery and idea of the wedding dress under the graduation gown, but I’m not sure how it ties into the story since the narrator seems to be going in a different direction from Jesse and Kevin. Perhaps use the wedding as a thematic element to illustrate the narrator’s problem or conflict. Maybe something about this mirrors another issue that’s central to the story. Or if this is the central problem, perhaps let the narrator think about it earlier so the reader knows how this fits.

If the wedding isn’t that important and it’s just the fact that these two got/are married, then perhaps start the story later instead. Or earlier if trying to stop the wedding matters. (just tossing out ideas here since I don’t know the story) The title is Faerie Wings, so I have a feeling “freedom and flying away” might be themes and the wedding connects to that in some way. Perhaps that can connect the situation and the narrator’s goals. If this is about running off to college, then perhaps just trim the first two paragraphs and fill readers in while the narrator and Jesse talk.

It’s a solid start, and I think if the author clarifies where the narrator is at emotionally and how this scene triggers the plot, they’ll know the right opening and what this needs to show. That might only be a few words here and there to reposition this and strengthen the scene goal, or it might be a longer wedding scene.

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.

10 comments:

  1. I have heard the term "lover" used by teenage men but only when being snarky and saying it in a way that implies humor and sarcasm. This is good for you to point that out and I don't think that "snarky" or "sarcastic" is what the voice is calling for here.

    I think what slows down the beginning is the time compression because of the "tell" portion to get the reader up to speed. It's a minor information dump on much needed background or we're just going to be completely lost as a reader, right?

    I agree with you on "alright" vs "all right".

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  2. I agree with the assessment of the first two paragraphs, the inclusion of "women" and "lovers" gives it an adult feel. The one way this might work is if the narrator is unusually mature for a 17-year old which can shown as the story continues.

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  3. I agree with Janice. Just another thought Jesse is the male spelling of the name and Jessie is the female. It is a little detail but I was totally tripped up by it. I kept thinking it was two guys talking. I had to go back to the beginning and see if "Jesse" was a girl. If I read the whole book it would bug me the entire time.

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  4. I think the beginning is a little more telling than showing. (I get zapped with that all the time.) Maybe a little more emotional involvement would help - what is the narrator feeling while this is happening?

    And I know the author - she's braver than I!

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  5. I would like the beginning a whole lot more if it was dramatized. The author tells us "Kevin... declared his love with such fervency" but we don't actually get to hear/see him say "Jesse, I love you so much my heart is breaking down the bars of my ribcage!"

    Agree on the "all right" thing, as well as the spelling of Jesse - that's the male spelling, it tripped me up, too.

    Also, from the first couple of lines I thought it was going to be in third person. When you're writing a first-person narrative, you need to start with the protagonist. From what the author has here, I went from thinking it was third-person, to thinking the narrator is a totally spineless wimp because she doesn't seem to WANT anything here, she's all concern and worry for her friend. Which is nice in a real person, but I like my first-person narrators to be a little more selfish! :P

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  6. I agree aboutt the word 'lover'. Also 'cap' and 'gown' made me think of a nightcap and a dressing gown, and I imediately thought: nutty elderly lady. But I'm intriguied enough to read more about the whole wedding/graduation/college deal. One last thing; starting with backstory is a big nono on any blog I read, just relaying that info on. But it does draw you in to learn more about the characters. Well done, you're stronger than me.

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  7. Hi :)

    It's a very slow start.
    1. I spent time wondering "How a gown goes over a dress? Last time I checked, the gown was a dress." It took me all the way down to realise through the graduating mention (not the one in the 2nd paragraph "graduating class"), that the gown is a graduating one, when the bride mentions she has two ceremonies in one. And still, I just think that it is, I'm not very sure. It really put me off. Confusing first line.
    2. The second sentence is telling, emphasized with the expression "with such fervency". Show, don't tell. Make us feel the emotion and sob too in our hankies...
    3. Third sentence lost me completely. Again it's telling, "I admit..." should be out. Moreover, why do we care? A sentence out of the blue. Moreover, there is tense and POV confusion.
    4. The next two sentences are confusing too. And telling again. Why is she telling us that? Is it relevant?
    The whole paragraph should be rephrased.

    2nd paragraph:
    Quote: "You lose me in this para because it’s backstory and then a jump ahead in time." Yes, I fully agree with Janice. :)


    Dialogue:
    "Alright" - here I don't agree with Janice, especially because it's used in dialogue. Additionally, there is a slight difference between the use of "all right" and "alright". There are debates over this, but both are widely accepted, according to language definitions and linguistics. I agree with the use of "alright".

    But, if you pick up "alright" then you should also pick up "dunno" which is definitely wrong. However, it's dialogue, so "dunno" can be allowed as an expression widely used in everyday verbal communication.

    Answers to questions:
    1. Answered above.
    2. I got lost in the first 2 paragraphs, so I'm not very much inclined to continue to the next page. Why should I go to the next part? Give me hints.
    3. Believable in what aspect? We have a wedding, mixed up with a graduation ceremony (Why is that? Is there any point and what is that?), a POV character who we don't know her role exactly and why is she the POV character.
    I don't understand why we watch the wedding ceremony. There is no evidence to sustain the point of it. Neither is it just introductory narration, because there is a POV character who is trying to make a point, but she's not showing what that point is. Why is she not sobbing too? Why is she staying on the side and not celebrating? Why is she telling (not showing) us she had an affair with the groom? Why should we care? Those questions must be anticipated and answered before readers can even think of them.
    4."Do these feel like 17 year olds?" In my opinion, they don't sound like 17 year olds. The dialogue has an adult essence in it.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I thought to give more details to sustain my opinion.

    Thank you Janice for the interesting post. :)

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  8. I think this quite nice writing. The only tell VS show that got me was 'worry overwhelmed me'. Also 'go for a walk in the garden...I don't want wallflowers...' confused. I thought I was missing something.

    Janice, our brave contributor's question, 'is it realistic cause it worries me', really struck home. This is a constant worry for me too. Sometimes what seems perfectly believable to me throws others. Is there a believability bar I can use to figure it out? Could you and your magnificent teaching skills help with blog post?

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  9. Thanks everyone for such wonderful additional feedback for our author. That's nice to see since I focus on the specific questions and don't do a full crit in these diagnostics. Glad to see the author "getting their money's worth" so to speak, hehe.

    Anon: I think that would make a good post, thanks!

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  10. I don't have any helpful advice that hasn't already been said, and unlike me, no one in the comments before me had to use 1000+ words to say it, but I just wanted to applaud you, Author, for being brave enough to open yourself and your work to this.

    Even when you're not broadcasting your struggles with craft to the worldwide web, it takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there like this, especially if like me, you don't always take feedback gracefully, and if you've heard the same problems over and over, and still nothing you do seems to make them better, that only makes it feel worse than it would've been otherwise.

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