Saturday, August 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Hooking the Reader From the Start

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.

Before we move on, last week’s volunteer has revised and resubmitted, and you’ll find that here.

This week’s questions:
1: is this a solid beginning with an adequate hook?
2: am I telling and showing in the appropriate places?
3: would you turn the page?
The author actually won a crit from me a few months back, and also supplied the original first page he gave me for comparison. I thought folks would enjoy seeing how he revised, so you’ll find that at the very end of the crit.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Tristan looked out his bedroom window, anticipating his father’s return. The pale moonlight illuminated the buildings and barren cobblestone streets, giving the city an odd ghostly feel.

A man on horseback, cloaked by shadows, appeared in the distance. Tristan’s heart skipped, sweat beaded on his forehead. Could this be him?

He watched the man ride closer. His hands instinctively felt the hilt of the daggers around his waist—like they did every time he thought of his father. Peering over his shoulder, he went down the checklist one more time in his mind: daggers, decoy, diversion and a discrete hiding place. Everything was ready.

If he could avoid the confrontation, he would, but Tristan knew his father all too well. He wouldn’t let Tristan leave tomorrow, and escape this prison he was supposed to call home, without one-last-visit. Tristan unsheathed one of his daggers and ran a finger down the blade, if his father dare enter his room tonight, he would be ready.

The man on horseback rode out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Nope, it wasn’t him, just one of his father’s captains.

Tristan froze. The man on horseback gave a salute to somebody in the direction of his house. His father must have bypassed the stables and ridden straight to the house. He held his breath. Was that footsteps? Tristan wondered, turning his head to listen. Sweat trickled down his face. He tiptoed to his bedroom door, and placed his ear against the wood.

Faint footfalls were coming down the hall.

He’s here; time to put my plan into action.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Tristan looked out his bedroom window, [anticipating his father’s return] a bit distant here. What might Tristan think that shows anticipation? The pale moonlight illuminated the buildings and barren cobblestone streets, giving the city an odd ghostly feel.

A man on horseback, cloaked by shadows, appeared in the distance. [Tristan’s heart skipped, sweat beaded on his forehead. Could this be him?] This shows his anticipation well, so perhaps cut the anticipation line, or do something to show he’s nervous from the start?

[He watched the man ride closer.] A bit distant, though fine if you’re doing a farther narrative distance. If you want it closer in Tristan’s head, you could use “The man rode closer.” Tristan says it, so we know he watched it. His hands [instinctively felt] telling a bit here. If it’s instinctive, he just does it, he doesn’t think about why he does it, the hilt of the daggers around his waist—[like they did every time he thought of his father.] telling some here. You can show it by having him think about his father, then have his hand go to the dagger. Peering over his shoulder, he went down the checklist one more time in his mind: daggers, decoy, diversion and a discrete hiding place. Everything was ready.

[If he could avoid the confrontation, he would, but Tristan knew his father all too well. He wouldn’t let Tristan leave tomorrow, and escape this prison he was supposed to call home, without one-last-visit.] You could make this tighter in his POV if you shifted it slightly to his thoughts, show the conflict in his mind over what he plans to do and what he wishes he didn’t have to do. Some of your original opening para about killing him sounded good yesterday would actually fit nicely here to show his wish to avoid this, especially if you add a “but” and have him think about why it doesn’t sound like such a good idea now that he’s about to do it. Tristan unsheathed one of his daggers and ran a finger down the blade, if his father dare enter his room tonight, [he would be ready.] I like this, but you just used ready so you’d want to avoid the repetition.

[The man on horseback rode out of the shadows and into the moonlight.] This jarred a bit since I never see him go back to the window, so it reads as a POV shift. Perhaps a transition to draw attention back to the window Nope, it wasn’t him, just one of his father’s captains.

[Tristan froze. The man on horseback gave a salute to somebody in the direction of his house.] Perhaps flip these since Tristan reacts to something the reader doesn’t see until after he does it. His father must have bypassed the stables and ridden straight to the house. He held his breath. Was that footsteps? Tristan [wondered,] this tells, but you show it by having him think it turning his head [to listen.] tells a bit, saying why he turns his head when the reader can figure it out by what’s happening. Sweat trickled down his face. He tiptoed to his bedroom door, and placed his ear against the wood.

Faint footfalls were coming down the hall.

He’s here;[ time to put my plan into action.] I like that he thinks here, as that puts me closer in his head, but it sounds a bit mechanical. Is he really thinking “put my plan into action” or what specifically he has to do? What would go through his mind at this moment?
He’s here. He gripped the knife tighter.
He’s here. Don’t think, just act.
He’s here. Damn, why did he come?


The questions:
1: is this a solid beginning with an adequate hook?
I was much more drawn in this time around. There’s a better sense of suspense with him planning and letting the reader wonder what he’s up to and try to figure out why he’s doing all this. I think if you tweak those few telling or distant areas you’ll up that tension even further. Same with adding a bit more inner conflict with Tristan wishing he could avoid this. That struggle of feeling forced to kill him to escape makes him more sympathetic and not just a kid trying to kill his dad.

2: am I telling and showing in the appropriate places?
For the most part yes (some of what I pointed out depends on the narrative distance you’re going for), though there are a few spots you could deepen still if you wished. One paragraph in particular:

If he could avoid the confrontation, he would, but Tristan knew his father all too well. He wouldn’t let Tristan leave tomorrow, and escape this prison he was supposed to call home, without one-last-visit.
This is a great example of acceptable exposition. This tells a bit, but it’s a quick summary of the situation so you understand why this is happening. You could keep this as is and most readers will slide right over it. However, you have an opportunity here for some really nice internal conflict that would help develop your POV and up the tension.

He doesn’t want to kill his father, but he has to in order to escape the abuse. As is, that abuse isn’t clear yet (which is okay since you’ll show it very soon), but you can hint at what Tristan hopes to escape here by what he thinks and does. Maybe he touches a past scar, or has a quick memory about something that happened in the room (especially if it’s something he learned to do better from the experience, as that fits the story). Something like…

Killing his father has sounded good yesterday—hell, it had sounded good since his tenth birthday, but was there another way? Did he have to become what his father had been trying to make of him all these years just to escape him? Tristan glanced at an old stain on the floor by the bed. His blood. Father’s lessons. He unsheathed one of his daggers and ran a finger down the blade. If his father dare enter his room tonight, he’d do what he had to do.

Naturally you’d use your voice and details that fit better, but something like this pulls you a bit more into the POV’s head and shows the struggle as well as getting the important details across. The reader gets hints of what’s going on, but there’s still enough mystery that they want to see what happens when these two are in the same room. What did Dad do? Why does Tristan want to escape? Why is this the only way out? All compelling questions to hook the reader without leaving them confused as to what’s going on in the scene. Tristan is going to ambush his father and try to kill him to escape a bad situation. Wanting to know the details of that and how it turns out helps hook the reader to read on.

3: would you turn the page?
Yes. I’m curious why Tristan is lurking in the dark waiting for his father to kill him. The focus is on Tristan’s actions with less explanation and description, and reads much tighter now.

Original Original Text:
Tristan sat down. The bed creaked, breaking the silence of the night. He twisted a dagger in his hand, making the moonlight flicker in the blade. A tear ran down his cheek. Killing his father sounded good yesterday—hell, for that matter, it sounded good since his tenth birthday.

“Pull yourself together,” Tristan said, softly ramming his dagger into the leather sheath around his waist. He gritted his teeth, “I am what you made me, father."

Tristan stood up, feeling slightly better. He walked to his bedroom door, listened for a moment then cracked it slightly, making sure his father wasn’t sneaking down the hall. Finally thirteen, old enough to be drafted, Tristan was leaving home tomorrow to live at the emperor’s military academy. He knew without a doubt that his father would pay him one last visit before he was allowed to leave this place—this prison he was supposed to call home. Tristan ran a finger across the handle of his dagger. After years of abuse, this time he would be ready for him.

He closed the door and walked to his bedroom window, looking over the city of Sidon. Pale moonlight highlighted the surrounding buildings. The blacksmith barn to his left was probably the only place he’ll miss. How sad was that; watching a blacksmith work would be considered fond memories. Taking a deep breath of crisp autumn air he exhaled, fogging up the glass, with a shaky finger he wrote “no more”.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so 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 feedback.

6 comments:

  1. Great revision, anonymous author. I love it that we are now in the action, where before it was mainly thought combined with backstory and description. Sweet!

    These diagnostics are so valuable, Janice. I am learning so much, particularly about how to deepen POV. Thank you for your time in doing them.

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  2. Janice does such a good job polishing and tightening that it makes me want to go back over every line I ever wrote again. However, there comes a time to move on.
    One thing she doesn't point out is the all too common use of objective rather than nominative case in the phrase, "Could this be him?"
    Today, people use "him" so commonly in this phrase, rather than the proper "he" that one might leave it. In fact, the proper use of "he" is now so uncommon that it sounds awkward or pretentious. My own inner conflict forces me to avoid such usage altogether.
    Cheers,
    Pete

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  3. I never know what to say about an opening I really like besides, `great opening, I'd love to know what happens next.' So that's what I'll say. :)

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  4. Michael, oh, good, I'm glad they help. Real life examples always seem to make things more clear.

    Pete, good point! I tend to go with what sounds better to my ear and let the copy editor figure it out ;)

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  5. Janice... you rock. Without a doubt you are the biggest key to my growth as a writer. What can I say, but thank you for all you do!

    Thx for the comments ya-all.

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  6. Thanks so much :) That's means a lot to me.

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