Saturday, August 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Making a Connection

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.

This week’s questions:
Does this opening work?
Does the tension of the situation come across?
Do you feel a connection to the MC--enough to root for her?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Jocelyn lay flat—her stomach pressed to the earth and the chill from the ground seeped into her skin. Was it the cold or the fear making her skin rise in angry goose bumps?

I’m trapped! She swallowed her panic in breathless gulps. From under the overgrown bush, she could see the path straight ahead. It’s too late. I didn’t get far enough. With guards chasing her, Jocelyn had two options—run or hide.

She chose the latter.

Now she waited.

The ruthless pursuit moved closer to her with each shallow breath. Jocelyn reached her hand to her neck and let her fist close around a broken locket—its jagged face cut into her flesh. I’m still alive, the pain reminded her. She willed herself to remain still, fighting her every screaming instinct to—Run! Run! Run!

The earth throbbed as boots hit the ground in a chaotic cadence.

They’re here! Jocelyn’s body stiffened.

Around the guard’s torches, the night air cracked and popped with loud complaints. She could hear them disturbing the dense vegetation bordering the well-worn trail—moving in efficient calculated patterns.

“Any sign?” A guard bellowed.

“Not yet, Sir.”

“Keep looking. She can’t have gone far.”

The smell of decaying leaves and dirt filled her nose. From under the bush Jocelyn could see polished boots kicking small hazy clouds of dirt.

The earth swelled with the beat of an approaching horse. Jocelyn covered her mouth to keep herself quiet. Her heart stopped mid-beat.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Jocelyn lay flat—her stomach pressed to the earth and the chill from the ground [seeped] seeping into her skin. Was it the cold or the fear making her skin rise in [angry] I like angry here to describe the bumps, but it doesn’t seem to fit cold and scared goose bumps?

I’m trapped! She swallowed her panic in breathless gulps. From under the overgrown bush, [she could see] telling a bit here, so it feels more distant. Perhaps show her looking down the path trying to see what pursues her? the path straight ahead. It’s too late. I didn’t get far enough. [With guards chasing her, Jocelyn had two options—run or hide.] She’s already hiding, so this feels out of place here. Perhaps show her trying to get away, and then deciding which to do.

[She chose the latter.

Now she waited
.] I like the rhythm of these. Good one-two punch

The [ruthless] this doesn’t feel like a word she’d use to describe what’s happening to her, so it pulls the POV farther away pursuit moved closer to her with each shallow breath. Jocelyn reached her hand to her neck and [let her] feels distant. Perhaps “closed her fist” fist close around a broken locket—its jagged face cut into her flesh. [I’m still alive, the pain reminded her.] nice [She willed herself to remain still, fighting her every screaming instinct to—Run! Run! Run!] also nice

The earth throbbed as boots hit the ground in a chaotic cadence.

[They’re here!] not sure you need this since it’s obvious they are there. Perhaps something internal that lets us know what her goal is or provides context? Your instincts to have something here are dead on, I’m just not sure it’s this line. Jocelyn’s body stiffened.

[Around the guard’s torches, the night air cracked and popped with loud complaints.] she can’t really see the torches from under the bushes, and after her reaction to them being there, the sudden shift to the torches lessens the tension [She could hear them disturbing the dense vegetation] telling a bit here, so it feels distant. What exactly does she hear? This is a good spot to add tension and show what she’s worrying about and why bordering the well-worn trail—[moving in efficient calculated patterns.] How does she know this? This shifts the POV to a more omniscient narrator, as does the first sentence of the paragraph, so I’m not sure what the POV is.

“Any sign?” [A] a guard bellowed.

“Not yet, Sir.”

“Keep looking. She can’t have gone far.”

The smell of decaying leaves and dirt filled her nose. From under the bush Jocelyn [could see] telling a bit polished boots kicking small hazy clouds of dirt.

The earth swelled with the [beat] of an approaching horse. Jocelyn covered her mouth to keep herself quiet. Her heart stopped mid-[beat.] perhaps chose a new word to avoid the duplication These last two paragraphs are descriptions of what’s going on, but without anything from Jocelyn to add life to them, they come across a little flat.

The questions:
Does this opening work?
Does the tension of the situation come across?
Do you feel a connection to the MC--enough to root for her?


All three of these are connected so I’m going to answer them all at once. I didn’t connect with Jocelyn, so I wasn’t drawn into the story or feel a lot of tension yet. Most of this is because I’m not in her head and don’t know what’s going on. She’s trying to escape, but I don’t know from whom or why. (though had I read a blurb I’d probably have more context for this) The narrator feels more omniscient, but there’s no sense of a “person” telling the story. I’m watching the events, not being part of them so I feel a bit ungrounded.

There are good pieces here to work with however, and this can be a gripping opening with some tweaking. Jocelyn trying to escape danger is something readers can care about if they know a bit more about the situation and get more in her head. The internal thoughts are a good start, but perhaps use a little more internalization instead of straight description so we see things through her eyes instead of from outside looking in. For example:
The smell of decaying leaves and dirt filled her nose. From under the bush Jocelyn could see telling a bit polished boots kicking small hazy clouds of dirt.
This is outside description. But a few tweaks can shift this more in her head and add some personal fear and a sense of something maybe going wrong.
Jocelyn shivered under the bush. Steps away, polished boots kicked up small hazy clouds of dirt. The smell of decaying leaves and dirt filled her nose, tickling it. She pinched it and held her breath, willing away the sneeze. Betrayal by her own body—how fitting an end to this escape.
Let’s go further and show why I made these changes:

Jocelyn shivered under the bush. Gives a hint as to how she’s feeling. She’s scared and/or cold, and that reinforces the earlier statement about the goose bumps

Steps away, polished boots kicked up small hazy clouds of dirt. Steps away shows her pursuers are close, adding tension. They’re also doing something that can cause her trouble. Kicking up dirt.

The smell of decaying leaves and dirt filled her nose, tickling it. Shifting the smell to after the action (stimulus/response) lets you show that the boots have done something that could get her into trouble. The dust might make her sneeze, giving away her position and getting her caught.

She pinched it and held her breath, willing away the sneeze. Her action to avoid this fate. She’s not just sitting there, she’s being proactive.

Betrayal by her own body—how fitting an end to this escape. A thought from her that shows us her state of mind and hints at her personality.

Naturally you’d use her voice and whatever she might say in this situation, but something like this pulls you a bit closer to Jocelyn and provides opportunities for you to show how her mind works and what she’s thinking and feeling. You use all the same details, they’re just shifted to Jocelyn’s head.

Getting to know her and seeing why we should root for her will also up the tension and hook the reader better. What personal traits or sense of her personality can you get across here? Is she funny? Does she have something endearing about her that would make a reader care that she escapes? Why should a reader care about what happens to her? Those are the kinds of details to slip in to turn a descriptive scene into a personal scene.

Now that you have a solid idea of what happens in this scene, get into Jocelyn’s head and show it to us from her eyes. How would she see/hear/feel these events?

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. I have to agree with Janice on this. I didn't feel any connection with Jocelyn, so the tension didn't really work. I just felt a level of confusion, rather than intrigue. Other than the changes Janice suggested, I'd also look at reversing the first two paragraphs for a bigger impact up front. For example:

    ---

    Jocelyn swallowed her panic in breathless gulps. I’m trapped! It’s too late. I didn’t get far enough. With guards chasing her, Jocelyn had two options—run or hide.

    She chose the latter.

    She lay flat—her stomach pressed to the earth and the chill from the ground seeping into her skin. Was it the cold or the fear making her skin rise in angry bumps?

    Now she waited.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with all the above. I didn't really connect with Jocelyn 'cause I had no context of what was going on.

    You could add background and also her personality and a hint of what's at stake by having her think: That would be Tormund, the captain of the watch. It was his fault I'd escaped, and he wouldn't stop till he found me.

    And when the horses arrive: The castle guard - the king was sending out all he had. To lose me now would be too much of a threat.

    It adds a bit of time and place and mystery as well.

    For another tip, we don't know it's night until we get to the torches.

    And I really like this line: The earth swelled with the beat of an approaching horse.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with above, that dropping some scattered details would help immensely.

    The italicized thoughts are also stumbling blocks for me. Most of the time they seem, I don't know, melodramatic? Obvious? They don't really add anything. There are two in particular that I think you just need to get rid of:

    I’m trapped! She swallowed her panic in breathless gulps. From under the overgrown bush, she could see the path straight ahead. It’s too late. I didn’t get far enough. With guards chasing her, Jocelyn had two options—run or hide.

    Just getting rid of the first sentence all together--makes it all a lot cleaner without losing anything. (There's also some tense problems in this paragraph. Makes it seem odd.)

    And the other:

    They’re here! Jocelyn’s body stiffened.

    Just omit that thought. The stiffening is enough.

    Not bad for an opening, though. I liked the description a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "The ruthless pursuit moved closer to her with each shallow breath."

    Do you mean pursuer? Because a pursuit moving closer to her doesn't really make sense.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Author here :) Thanks Janice and everyone who commented. I was worried about connecting with the MC and it looks like my instinct was right. Thanks for the great ideas :)

    ReplyDelete