Sunday, March 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Can I Get Away With This? Starting With a Dream

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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.

Submissions currently in the queue: Seven

Note: Due to the RLD backlog, I'll be running them on Sunday as well for a few weeks to catch up. Having to wait two months for a critique is just too long.


This week’s questions:
I started this story as a short story but it turned out to be a novel. I started out with a dream and I know that is a no-no but the reader should know that this is a dream and not be surprised when he wakes up. He is given a ring in this dream and that's what gets the story going. What I want to know is can I get away with this and are you drawn in or just lost?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The water crashed up against my skull like the waves against a rocky shore. The thunderous noise echoed between my eyes making my sight blurred. A high pitched screech stretched across the sky. It sounded like a seagull or it was me trying to wake up. I've been here before. It's early dawn and daylight is slowly emerging pushing the night into the ocean. The sky is hazy with a hint of orange-red and drapes over the ocean's frothy waves like a thick fog. The vast line of the rocky sea shore is endless and winding as if maybe searching for its own destination. The waves lap lazily onto the shore and then I see her. She is always here. Her back is always to me. The sea air blows her what I think is long brown hair. She's dressed in a long white dress-maybe a sundress or nightgown. I can't tell. I can't move to go to her. She is always walking along the shore in the same place-always. Today I see her run towards something. This is different; my heart picked up a faster beat. My vision is still not clear and the daylight has taken on a weird color. Everything seems beige with a hint of lavender. That's too weird but that is what my blurry eyes watched. I watched her intently, never taking my eyes off her. The wind whipped her hair into her face and her dress billowed behind her. She picked something up. It must be small but it suddenly felt like my eyes are looking down on the object-a gold ring. It's a solid gold band like a wedding band. It looked old and worn. I can see her hands turn the ring around with her fingers. There is an inscription inside the ring. She tilts it slightly but the inscription is slightly worn away like the water had smoothed it over like river stone. She continued to turn it and there is another inscription and this one is not worn away. The letters are clear as a bell-J U L I E N. That spelled my name. I heard a voice and it is not mine. It's like a sweet soft song. She had said my name out loud. A cold shiver ran through me, giving me goose bumps. She took the ring and slid it onto her finger. I felt like it was on my own finger. It's cold and wet.

My Thoughts in Purple: ED Note: The snippet came in as all one paragraph, and I'm breaking it into what I feel are good spots for paragraphs. I'm not sure if the one paragraph was intentional or an e-mail issue.

The water crashed up against my skull like the waves against a rocky shore. The thunderous noise echoed between my eyes making my sight blurred. A high pitched screech stretched across the sky. [It sounded like a seagull or it was me trying to wake up.] I like that the dream aspect is made clear here so there are no surprises. The first three lines feel a little list-like since they're descriptions with similar rhythm all in a row. A little internal thought there and varying the sentences can help with the flow.

I've been here before.

[It's early dawn and daylight is slowly emerging pushing the night into the ocean. The sky is hazy with a hint of orange-red and drapes over the ocean's frothy waves like a thick fog. The vast line of the rocky sea shore is endless and winding as if maybe searching for its own destination. The waves lap lazily onto the shore and then I see her. ] This story starts in past tense, now it's switched to present, which is jarring. This also has the list-like rhythm as the opening paragraph. This is a good spot for some internalization to get to know the narrator a bit. How does he feel about this?

She is always here. Her back is always to me.

The sea air blows [her what I think is long brown hair.] Typo? She's dressed in a long white dress-maybe a sundress or nightgown. I can't tell. I can't move to go to her. She is always walking along the shore in the same place-always. Does he want to get to her? This could be the goal or conflict that drives the scene.

Today I see her run towards something. This is different; my heart [picked] picks if you're staying in present tense up a faster beat.

My vision is still not clear and the daylight has taken on a weird color. Everything seems beige with a hint of lavender. [That's too weird but that is what my blurry eyes watched.] awkward sentence I watched her intently, never taking my eyes off her. The wind whipped her hair into her face and her dress billowed behind her. She picked something up. It must be small but it suddenly felt like my eyes are looking down on the object-a gold ring. This paragraph switches tenses all the way through. You've also already described the dress, so perhaps get to the ring part sooner.

It's a solid gold band like a wedding band. It looked old and worn. [I can see] telling here her hands turn the ring around with her fingers. There is an inscription inside the ring. She tilts it slightly but the inscription is slightly worn away like the water had smoothed it over like river stone. Be wary of word repetition. Tense shifting as well.

She continued to turn it and there is another inscription and this one is not worn away. The letters are clear as a bell-J U L I E N. That spelled my name.

I heard a voice and it is not mine. It's like a sweet soft song. She had said my name out loud. A cold shiver ran through me, giving me goose bumps. She took the ring and slid it onto her finger. I felt like it was on my own finger. It's cold and wet. Tense shifting here as well

The questions:
Can I get away with this?

If the dream is one page and it's clear it's a dream from the start (as this is) then maybe. As is, I don't think it's working because I'm not getting a sense of a protag with a goal. Even though this is a dream, you still want it to feel like the scene is going somewhere. There are aspects to this that can be developed however. He has this dream all the time, and this time something different happens. His emotional state and internalization surrounding this will make or break this scene.

If he's fascinated/scared/intrigued by this new aspect, and it's clear that this is a big deal and something is about to happen, readers will likely be curious as well. That will drive the story forward. If the protag is just going along through the scene with no emotional stake, then readers will likely not care much either.

I'd suggest tightening this up and adding in that emotional layer. There's a lot of description, and it has some lovely imagery, but a reader is looking for a character with a problem or something interesting when they open a book. A puzzle, a mystery, an unexpected combination of words. The narrator is in this dream, he knows it's a dream, but the dream changes and he gets this ring.

Since he's the POV he's the reader's guide. So how does he see this place and how does he feel about it? I like how he notices the differences, and that helps to ground readers in this dream and also show how things are changing. I also like that he has tried to see the woman and get to her and failed, so that could be something to play with more to add conflict and tension.

Are you drawn in or just lost?
The tense shifting between past and present is jarring, and that's making it hard to follow. I'd suggest picking one tense and being consistent. Present tense seems to work better for the dream style of this scene, even if it switches to past tense after the scene break. That could be one way to show what's a dream and what's real life. The dreams are always in present tense, the real life in past tense.

The sense that this is new is an intriguing idea and can work to draw me in if I feel connected to this character and want to know why the woman is giving him the ring. If Julien is fascinated and desperate to know why this is happening, and I feel that as a reader and share his curiosity, then I'll likely be hooked as well.

If the one paragraph was intentional and not an e-mail goof, then I'd also recommend studying how paragraphs are broken and how to arrange the text so it has the most impact. That much text with no breaks is very difficult to follow. If a book is physically hard to read, readers won't stay with it no matter how good the text itself might be.

Overall, I think with some work this can be a workable opening. It's a risky one since dreams are frequently a cliché and poorly done, but if it's the right opening for the story it's the right opening. A shorter scene will help here, as will making this as compelling as possible. Mystery + emotion + conflict=compelling. Think about why a reader should care about this dream and this person. What really cool story and plot is this going to lead to? Get a hint of that in here.

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) and I encourage you 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.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for doing this! It was most helpful. I do have verb tense issue to work out. I wrote this in present tense and then went back and "ed" words and made a mess of it for the reader.
    Thanks again!

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  2. I like the idea of starting with a dream, I certainly see no problem with it, especially as I suspect yours is going to be central to your plot.

    I admit though, I couldn't read this piece past the first couple of lines. Perhaps that was because there were no paragraphs. But I think more likely the reason was because I personally don't like reading a lot of description, especially at the start of a story. For example, I would think the part about the dawn could be condensed into one sentence. Infact, I feel the whole scene could be reduced to a couple of paragraphs.

    But that's just me. I was taught most people skim descriptive passages; I was also taught to start a story with action which draws the reader in. This dream could be a great beginning if you strip away the description and amp up the mood. Does s/he feel trapped, always having this dream? You mentioned him/her trying to wake up - perhaps that struggle could continue, with an explanation why. Without knowing the protag's mood, his/her startlement with the change in action doesn't have as much impact as it could.

    Good luck with your story, I think you are so admirable for submitting it to be critiqued. I hope you get lots of helpful and good feedback to encourage you.

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  3. My friend writes a lot of story beginnings, and they all start with a dream, but it lasts several pages and you think it's the actual story until the person wakes up and it is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo annoying.

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  4. I'm not aware of reading any novels with a dream scene as the opening, so I can't say how this compares with others.

    However, you want to hook the reader in, and I was hooked after "She is always here (maybe insert "in my dream" here). Her back is always to me." That pulls me in better than a bunch of description which you can then put in right afterwards. Dreams have a mysterious feel to them - as dreamers we always wonder why we have them and what they are trying to tell us about ourselves. Knowing there's a mysterious woman that always appears is a good set up - IMHO.

    Also - please insert some commas. You have so many missing I had to reread a few sentences to get the natural rhythm. A good rule of thumb is, if you pause when you say it, you add a comma.

    I think this has potential - I'm intrigued about who this mystery woman is and if she shows up in real life. Good job and good luck.

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  5. I think this could work out for you with some tweaks. To me the dream is not the issue. It is not feeling your MC.

    One recommendation for setting is to show your setting through actions of the MC. Janice has a great post about this somewhere in the archives. Could your character notice his surroundings as he lifts his arms swimming? I he treading water? Not really sure. Some movement combined - not just lines of description. Though I will say I liked the imagery. I could picture it - but I didn't know the MC.

    I would have thought the MC was a girl. This means you need more internalization and a sense of the MC in the dream.

    Keep at it. Writing is a process and this shows promise.

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  6. I remember one of my works in progress, one that I've since sat in the "gonna get back to you one day" pile, opened with a dream sequence. I gave it to my critique group at that time and they were very gentle with letting me know it was cliche. They provided some examples at that time but that was a long time ago so I can't remember them. But I do remember going to a conference and an agent mentioning that when she reads the first page and realizes it's a dream sequence, that it's sort of a kiss-of-death, particularly if the author is a novice.

    For the sample provided, I wanted to really get drawn in, however, the tense change was a bit jarring and the attention paid to the waves and weather made the rest of what is shown less significant. The suggestions provided sound great and I know will help me as I have an issue with that tense change thing as well.

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  7. I think the advice against using dreams as an opening stems from most people find listening to friends' dreams as exciting as looking at friends' vacation snapshots. More exciting for the friend than you.

    Sure, there are a few who enjoy them (like me!), but most appreciate it if you keep your dream-recounts and travel shots brief and snappy.

    I admit to finding the opening sequence a little long. As much as I love the beach, the description was too long for an opening. I suggest you save the description for later once the reader has invested time in the narrative. The opening needs a hook, and the sequence could benefit from the mysterious ring beng introduced earlier.

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  8. Of course you can start with a dream. Borges does it in one of his best stories: 'The Secret Miracle'. Only problem is dreams are hard!

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