Sunday, June 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Starting With a Bang: Hooking and Orienting the Reader in the 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

This week’s questions:
Does this opening "hook" the reader? Does it orient my reader enough? Do I show more than I tell?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The clock ticked down:

07 years: 00 weeks: 07 days: 12 hours: 32 minutes.

Sophie opened her eyes to see her world upside down and burning.

The earth crackled beneath her. Smoke rose like steam, filling the air with a thick fog of gas. Grey shadows shifted in the morning light to form shapes too mean for words. The fire continued to feast.

Sophie coughed, her throat stinging, lining her sensitive organs and squeezing them with a painful twist. This was how Sophie imagined people died in the third bomb when the radiation reached them. She coughed again.

It seemed the earth wanted her to suffer.

But Sophie wasn’t suffering – she was dying, gasping, hoping but knowing that she’d lost the one thing she couldn’t do without.

“Mother,” Sophie whispered, still on her back and looking up to the sky that mocked her with its clarity and light. It had been so dark moments before. Sophie didn’t know when the sun had time to rise.

The eternal clock still hung in the sky, numbers counting down to something Sophie didn’t understand. Her father had told that when the numbers read 00 00 00 00 that she should run and find a place to hide. But why?

A spark from a small fire burned her arm. She flinched and moved her hands to see if they still worked. They did.

She sat up, wincing as her muscles resisted the motion. She stopped in the dead silence and found her village left as a blackened skeleton – bones that would never rise again.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[The clock ticked down:

07 years: 00 weeks: 07 days: 12 hours: 32 minutes.

Sophie opened her eyes to see her world upside down and burning.
] Since Sophie's eyes are closed before this, she's not going to see the clock to be able to tell readers it's ticking down. So you immediately establish an omniscient narrator here. Is that the intent? The "to see" also tells, but "and saw" would put it back in her head.

The earth crackled beneath her. Smoke rose like steam, filling the air with a thick fog of gas. Grey shadows shifted in the morning light to [form shapes too mean for words.] nice The fire continued to feast.

Sophie coughed, her throat stinging, [lining her sensitive organs] this doesn't sound like something a teen would say and squeezing them with a painful twist. [This was how Sophie] using her name again here gives this a very distant feel. I'm not Sophie, I'm someone watching Sophie and explaining her life to me imagined people died [in the third bomb] this intrigues me because it's so specific. Were there two other bombs? when the radiation reached them. She coughed again.

[ It seemed the earth wanted her to suffer.] I get the sense this is man-made, not natural. Why blame the earth here?

[But Sophie wasn’t suffering – she was dying, gasping, hoping but knowing that she’d lost the one thing she couldn’t do without.] Telling.

“Mother,” Sophie whispered, still on her back and looking up to the [sky that mocked her with its clarity and light.] nice It had been so dark moments before. [Sophie didn’t know] tells a bit, and feels distant when the sun had time to rise.

The [eternal clock still hung in the sky,] this intrigues me, so perhaps use this in the opening line numbers counting down to something [Sophie] feels distant. "She" would bring it closer didn’t understand. Her father had told that when the numbers read 00 00 00 00 that she should run and find a place to hide. [But why?] I'd also think where.

A spark [from a small fire] feels a distant burned her arm. She flinched and moved her hands [to see if they still worked.] telling motive They did.

She sat up, wincing [as her muscles resisted the motion] feels distant. She stopped in the dead silence and found her village left as a blackened skeleton – bones that would never rise again.

The questions:
Does this opening "hook" the reader?

There are some intriguing things here. Very post-apocalyptic, and the eternal clock in the sky made me want to know what it was counting down to. I'm curious about the "third bomb" and the history of this world. However, I'm not curious about or drawn to Sophie yet because the point of view is so distant. It feels like you're doing an omniscient narrator (was that the intent?) and the outside looking down tone keeps me at a distance and prevents me from getting to know Sophie and caring about her. It has a bit of a prologue feel to it actually.

I'd suggest more internalization from Sophie so readers can get a sense of who she is and what she wants. I'd also add a goal to give the opening drive. I like the idea that her father told her to run when the clock reached zero, but since that's seven years away it's not anything I need to worry about right now. Aside from lying there coughing, what is Sophie doing? What does she want? She's not scared, so I don't get the sense that this was a recent attack, just the way her world is. What's the first problem she faces that will make readers curious?

The omniscient narrator is also making it hard for me to connect with the character (but I admit I'm not fond of omni narrators so readers chime inhere). Because I feel like someone is relaying Sophie's life to me, I never feel in her head or see the world through her eyes. I don't know how she feels about any of this.

Do I show more than I tell?
The omni narrator and the explanation of motives and feeling gave this a fairly told feel for me. Someone besides Sophie is telling me everything. I'd suggest rephrasing those areas so they're more in Sophie's head looking out. For example:
This was how Sophie imagined people died in the third bomb when the radiation reached them.
This tells me how she imagined something, it doesn't show her imagining it or thinking about it. It's outside explaining how she feels. Even changing her name to a pronoun would help bring it closer to her POV. But there's no sense of fear or pain or any emotion you'd associate with someone thinking they might be dying of radiation.

Let's look at this sentence as well:
But Sophie wasn’t suffering – she was dying, gasping, hoping but knowing that she’d lost the one thing she couldn’t do without.
This explains what's happening to Sophie, but this isn't Sophie thinking this. I don't see her gasping, or dying, or hoping for survival. If I felt these emotions and saw her struggling to survive I'd be drawn to this poor girl. But I don't feel she's in any real danger despite the setting.

Does it orient my reader enough?
I'm still lost on a lot of things, so I'd have to say not yet. I don't know what's going on, I don't know where Sophie is or what's happened to her. She's calm, so I get the sense that whatever happened to her village was a while ago, yet the ending makes me think this attack might have just happened. "Village" also makes me think low-tech, with doesn't mesh with the clock in the sky or the radiation. She says the earth wanted her dead, but Earth is lowercase, so does she mean the ground or the planet? Is this set on Earth in our future or a made up world?

There's also a lack of narrative focus. It starts with the clock, then jumps to the burnt village, she thinks about the third bomb, then blames the earth for her suffering (not the bombs), then she's dying, then she thinks about her mother, then wonders about the sun, then goes back to the clock and how her father told her to run and she doesn't know why, then tests her hands and sits up (she's not dying anymore), then looks at her village.

As a reader, what am I supposed to take away from this opening? What do I worry about? What question or mystery do I want an answer to? What problem does Sophie have to solve? A lot of details are being throw at me, but I don't know what any of them mean or which ones matter. And many of them contradict each other.

I'd suggest using Sophie to show the reader what's important. That would fix the telling issues and well as add that narrative drive to hook the reader and draw them into the story. If this attack just happened, let us see her fear, her confusion, her search for her mother and finding her dead. If it's not, let us see how she reacts to her life now. Give her an immediate problem she has to solve to show the world and who she is by how she solves that problem. If the clock and her running plays a role, perhaps not have it be so far in the future. It's hard to worry about something so far off. If the running part isn't important right now, perhaps just use the clock as a world building tool to set the scene.

There are a lot of interesting things here, but so far I'm only getting hints of them. Instead of trying to do it all at once, try picking a few of the most critical elements to set your scene and world and flesh those out so the reader understands what's going on. Pick things relevant to Sophie's goal and opening scene problem. For example, running when the clock reaches zero doesn't appear to affect this scene, so there's no need to mention it yet. If this bombing just happened and she's looking for her mother to see if she survived, that's a relevant and solid goal that'll make readers care. If this is after the bombing, show whatever problem Sophie has to deal with now. Burying her mother? Finding food and shelter? Find that goal and problem and build the rest of the scene around it.

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.

9 comments:

  1. One thing, and I'm sort of nitpicking here:
    7 days equals one week, so the clock should read 07 years: 01 week(s): 00 days: 12 hours: 32 minutes.

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  2. Ooh, there are parts of this that are really intriguing. This has great potential.

    I agree that Sophie can't see the clock, so it puts the reader at a distance right off. Mathematically, as pointed, out your clock is off.

    I am not sure exactly what is going on here, which is fine to some degree. Here is my guess - this will help you see if from the reader's point of view.

    I think this is post apocalyptic as the bombs indicate. Here is the problem. I get the sense that her mother just died and she is waking up after the last blast, but this is just a guess. She knows her mother is dead, so this makes me believe she saw her die.

    If she is waking up disoriented, she might have flashbacks to the horror. Otherwise, she would be searching for her mother. From this bit:
    She stopped in the dead silence and found her village left as a blackened skeleton – bones that would never rise again.

    I get a sense of her situation. This is great imagery, but it needs followed by internalization. How is she reacting to all this?

    I would think she would be freaking out about being alone. We know her father is dead or gone already.

    I feel like Sophie's goal isn't clear. Does she have one? I think it is okay to paint a picture of the surroundings and the situation for the reader as long as I am more in Sophie's head.

    This is Janice's amazingly helpful cheat sheet of words to watch for. I will save you the trouble of searching for them. These words equal telling or places where you could tighten your writing.

    to
    when
    as
    in
    could see
    the sound of
    realized
    in …when

    is, am are, was, were, has, have, had. Being, been, and be are all pretty good red flags for passive voice.

    I think with a few tweaks, this could be really hooking. Narrow the focus - unless your intention is her bouncing thoughts because of her shock. I still think she would be more focused on the here and now - make me feel it with her.

    Good luck!

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  3. I was really intrigued by many aspects of this including her father's exhortation to run. I wondered if the bomb had come early.

    I'd just like to say/ask Janice something about the omni narrator vs third. I don't mind the omni narrator and I often wonder what is the point of using third person which is so subjective that you can't go outside her/him? Why not use first person? Is the answer just that in subjective 3rd you can hop to another head in another scene/chapter?

    Sorry, that turned out to be more than one question - but perhaps Janice could direct me to an article on this. I've been curious for a while.

    One other comment on today's text - the one thing I had a problem with was something Janice liked - the use of the term "mean" to describe shadow shapes. This term is ambiguous between "meagre/thin" and "nasty" (the ambiguity particularly crops up with a teenaged narrator, otherwise I'd be inclined to assume you meant "thin"). I'd switch it to either "nasty" or "thin" - either would be more sinister than "mean".

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  4. Great post, great discussion. All on things I have wondered about. Thanks to the volunteer and to you, Janice, for your critique!

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  5. I had a problem with the inconsistancies, i.e. if Sophie is dying, why would the clock matter? Wouldn't she be gone by then? Even in sci fi/fantasy, logic is improtant.

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  6. Basty, third person adds a layer between the reader and the narrator so you get more narrative distance. Some folks prefer that thin later, because first person is *too* close. And you can have a distant third that feels closer to omni without the head hopping. That would allow you to describe things the POV might not see, but is in the same area.

    There's a lot of variety in limited third depending on what narrative distance you choose, it's not just a third person version of first person. If you want more filtering, you might use a medium distant third for example.

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  7. AS a result of this post I was able to change some writing from "tell" to "show." Yeah! Still struggling to figure out all of this 3rd person POV stuff though.

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  8. Thanks, Janice - I'll have to read your reply ten times over before I understand it though. (Not your fault, just my brain - sigh!)

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  9. Carol, AWESOME! I love hearing that.

    Batsy, you can always email me with questions or to discuss further if you want :)

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