Sunday, March 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Exposure Yourself: Handling Exposition in Your Opening Scene

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: Five
Note: Due to the RLD backlog, I'll be running them on Sunday as well for a few weeks to catch up.

This week’s questions:

1. How am I dealing with exposition? Is the situation and setting clear?
2. Is the buildup sufficient or too drawn out?
3. Is this an opening that would keep you reading? What are the questions that you hope this scene will answer?

Genre: YA fantasy

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:
This wasn’t the first time Misha had relived a memory that wasn’t hers. She stood in front of a man who sat behind a large mahogany desk with an expression of despair.

Out of habit, she casually waved a hand in his face, but he didn’t seem to notice. She studied his face, young in canvas, but old in its lines, trying to figure out who he was, whose memory she was experiencing. He held a newspaper in a bloodless fist, a teacup that quivered in the other, but his eyes were rapt on a telephone, white as bone.

Misha sighed. Memories were supposed to be like clouds, made up of vapor and imagination, floating, morphing into whatever duck or baby others wanted to see. She wondered if dreaming a memory made it less real. But when she saw the newspaper, packed with vertically arranged words, obscure Chinese characters mixed into the Korean colloquial, dated 1960年9月1日, she knew that this memory wasn’t vapor, but a solid forty years old.

And only seven years since the civil war had ended. Misha cocked her brow at the grand study, particularly a black casket inlaid with mother-of-pearl dragons weaving through ornate clouds. The windows were enormous, with the silk curtains yanked back. The house was on a hill that looked down on the thatched shanties and dirt roads below. To live in a European-style mansion during these impoverished times, this man must have been universally despised.

The door opened. The man jumped in his seat—prompting Misha to jump—as if the phone had rang instead.

While Misha scowled at him, a little girl tiptoed her way in.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[This wasn’t the first time Misha had relived a memory that wasn’t hers.] Although I like that it gets right to the point here and sets the scene, I wonder if it would have more impact if you didn't know exactly what was going on. She stood in front of a man who sat behind a large mahogany desk with an expression of despair.

Out of habit, she casually waved a hand in his face, but he didn’t seem to notice. She studied his face, [young in canvas, but old in its lines,] I love this phrase, even though I'm not 100% sure what you mean by young in canvas trying to figure out who he was, whose memory she was experiencing. He held a newspaper in a bloodless fist, a teacup that quivered in the other, but his eyes were rapt on a telephone, white as bone.

[Misha sighed.] This could be a good spot for some internalization to let readers know some about Misha. It feels distant so far, like I'm watching her watch him [Memories were supposed to be like clouds, made up of vapor and imagination, floating, morphing into whatever duck or baby others wanted to see.] Is this Misha's thought or the author explaining how memories work? It could go either way [She wondered if dreaming a memory made it less real.] Is this a dream or a memory? I don't know where she is [But when she saw the newspaper, packed with vertically arranged words, obscure Chinese characters mixed into the Korean colloquial, dated 1960年9月1日, she knew that this memory wasn’t vapor, but a solid forty years old.] telling a bit here. Perhaps show her seeing it and then having a reaction to it. Does it matter that she questions whether this is a dream or a memory? And if she can relive memories, wouldn't she automatically know it's a memory? She can't relive dreams can she?

[And only seven years since the civil war had ended.] I assume you mean the Korean War, but since this is fantasy so it could be any war. Perhaps say which war you mean here to ground readers. [Misha cocked her brow] not sure what you mean here. How do you cock a brow? [at the grand study, particularly a black casket inlaid with mother-of-pearl dragons weaving through ornate clouds. The windows were enormous, with the silk curtains yanked back. The house was on a hill that looked down on the thatched shanties and dirt roads below.] Nice descriptions, but why is she looking at it? I have no sense of what she's doing there aside from looking around [To live in a European-style mansion during these impoverished times, this man must have been universally despised.] Nice unexpected twist on the details, and I like how she makes a judgement call here. She must know her history (If this is Misha thinking this. If not, telling a bit).

The door opened. The man jumped in his seat—[prompting Misha to jump] telling she jumped instead of showing her just doing it—[as if the phone had rang instead.] Not sure you need. Why is the phone ringing more startling than the door suddenly opening?

[While Misha scowled at him] why? , a little girl tiptoed her way in.

The questions:
1. How am I dealing with exposition? Is the situation and setting clear?

I can see that Misha experiences other people's memories, and she's currently inside the head of a man thinking about Korea in 1960, possibly on the day of a funeral. It's our world, since she mentions the civil war. I can see the memory itself, but I have no real sense of Misha yet. She's an observer here, not trying to do anything, so I wonder how she fits in. There's a slightly detached tone, like someone else is watching Misha watch this man.

I'd suggest adding some internalization to show what Misha is doing there, why she's there, and how she feels about it. You might also give a sense of where she is now in relation to this memory to provide context for the reader. She mentions the memory being 40 years old, so I assume this takes place around 2000? She also refers to the war as the civil war, which makes me think she's Korean and this takes place in Korea. (Without a detail to say what war, I assume she refers to a civil war in her own country)

Shifting the few distant or told sections might also here help, as it'll put the world into context, and that can allow you to mix in some judgment and attitude on Misha's part. She can show readers what's normal and what she expects, which will help them understand this world better.

2. Is the buildup sufficient or too drawn out?
I'm not sensing any build up yet, so I'd have to say it's too drawn out. I don't know what Misha is doing there, so there's no way for me to anticipate anything happening. You might consider adding in a hint of what this is building up to. Does Misha have a goal? Is she there on purpose or does she accidentally relive memories?

3. Is this an opening that would keep you reading? What are the questions that you hope this scene will answer?

Not yet because of the lack of a goal for Misha. The idea of her reliving other people's memories is a cool one, but I don't yet know if it means anything. If all she does is see memories, it isn't very compelling to keep me reading. But if this is a secret government project, or a power that gets her into trouble, or a fluke where she sees something that forces her to act in some way, then I'd be intrigued.

As for questions, I'd like to know what Misha is doing there. Why is she reliving this man's memory? Does this memory have significance in some way? Why does Misha scowl at the man? Who is the little girl and does she carry some significance to Misha?

Overall it's an interesting concept. Once you get that sense of purpose into it, and readers can start to worry about X happening, then it would be a very compelling opening.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I like the idea behind this story: a girl that can relive others' memories. Otherwise, you haven't really given her a goal or created any tension in this scene, so I, the reader, am not really spurred to read on. Also, I noticed a misplaced modifier in the first paragraph, second sentence. Since "with an expression of despair" is describing the man, not the desk (I assume), it should follow "man" not "desk" for clarity. Just a suggestion to increase clarity. Hope this helps, and it's always a good idea to look for such misplaced modifiers everywhere in your writing, because even though you, of course, know what you are saying, it may not always be obvious to the reader.

    Good luck and Happy writing!!
    Becca

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  2. From the part with Misha waving her hand in front of the guy's face I got the feeling that Misha's in the past, but outside the timestream, but the door slam and the little kid moving means that's not the case. If Misha's outside time, the lengthy description makes sense because she has a chance to look around, but since the rest of the scene makes it clear that the memory isn't static I'm wondering where Misha has the time for so much observation.

    I love the detail about the inlayed casket and Misha figuring out where she is by the print on the newspaper, I'm just wondering if the details should be spread among the action instead of all clumped together.

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  3. Hello, I've been wanting to thank you all very much for this incredible help! The suggestions are all wonderful and keeping them in mind, I'll try to improve the pace, motivations, and tension in the next revision. Thanks, Janice, for hosting this great blog!

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