Sunday, July 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Game On: Does This Opening Hook You?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s question:

Is this opening scene working to hook the reader?

Market/Genre: Young adult 


NOTE: Revised scene at the bottom

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

If looks could kill, the new guy would be dead already. Emma took a step toward him, her glare firmly in place. “Excuse me?”

Mike—the new guy, the arrogant guy, the guy who needed to learn that Saturday morning basketball games didn’t start with insults—glanced at the other guys to make sure he had their attention before looking back at Emma. His eyes dragged over every inch of her. “You’re a cheerleader, right?”

Tom closed his eyes and shook his head, Jerry winced, and the rest of the guys suppressed laughter as Riley grabbed the back of her sweatshirt and pulled her away from Mike. Her face burned, her hands balled into fists, and her mouth clamped shut to prevent a stream of vicious words from spilling out. Why did the new guys always feel like they had to take a jab at her to fit in?

“Em,” Riley said, unable to hide a smile at her reaction, “take it easy.”

“Take it easy?” she growled. “He called me a cheerleader.” Talk about an insult. No way would she associate with girls, especially not the type who flipped their skimpy skirts and flicked their frizzy hair all in the name of school spirit. Not to mention the squealing, the whining, the crying. Girls. Ugh!

Jerry cleared his throat. “Now that we’ve all met, how about we play?” He tossed the basketball to Emma and with a smirk turned to Mike. “And just for fun, you can guard Emma.”

Her mouth twisted into a smile. Payback. Nice. Her one opportunity to prove to Mike not all girls were cheerleaders, and not all boys were basketball players. She pulled free from Riley’s grip to meet her victim at half court.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[If looks could kill, the new guy would be dead already.] This is cute, but it's become a cliché so you might consider something else to get this idea across. Emma took a step toward him, her glare firmly in place. “Excuse me?”

Mike—[the new guy, the arrogant guy, the guy who needed to learn that Saturday morning basketball games didn’t start with insults] Cute, and it makes me wonder what he said to get her so riled up —glanced at the other guys [to make sure he had their attention before looking back at Emma.] If this is Emma's POV, then this feels like a POV shift. Emma can see him glance over, but she won't know why His eyes dragged over every inch of her. [“You’re a cheerleader, right?”] Perhaps some internal reaction here so we know why this is insulting

[Tom closed his eyes and shook his head, Jerry winced, and the rest of the guys suppressed laughter as Riley grabbed the back of her sweatshirt and pulled her away from Mike.] Can Emma see all this? Her face burned, her hands balled into fists, and her mouth clamped shut to prevent a stream of vicious words from spilling out. [Why did the new guys always feel like they had to take a jab at her to fit in?] I like her anger, but I feel like I'm missing something so I'm confused about what's going on.

[“Em,”] Perhaps use her whole name here? There are a lot of people introduced and it's a bit hard to keep track of who's who Riley said, [unable to hide a smile at her reaction,] Feels like a POV shift. Emma can see her smile, but she wouldn't know why “take it easy.”

“Take it easy?” she growled. “He called me a cheerleader.” Talk about an insult. No way would she [associate with girls,] Isn't Riley a girl? especially not the type who flipped their skimpy skirts and flicked their frizzy hair all in the name of school spirit. Not to mention the squealing, the whining, the crying. [Girls. Ugh!] This feels like a little too much. It also makes her seem about 12.

Jerry cleared his throat. “Now that we’ve all met, how about we play?” He tossed the basketball to Emma and with a smirk turned to Mike. “And just for fun, you can guard Emma.”

Her mouth twisted into a smile. Payback. Nice. Her [one] why one? opportunity to prove to Mike not all girls were cheerleaders, and not all boys were basketball players. She pulled free from Riley’s grip to meet her victim at half court.

The question:

Is this opening scene working to hook the reader?

Not yet for me, though there are things here I like. My biggest issue what that it starts too fast, so I'm not grounded in what's going on before things start happening. I don't know who Emma is, who these other people are, where they are, what the problem is. Emma's already mad, so I feel as though I walked in on a fight without context. It's a little disorienting.

(More on planning your novel's beginning here)

I do like that there's conflict right away, that Emma has something to prove by taking on (and taking down) Mike, and proving something she feels strongly about. It offers reader questions like "Can Emma prove girls can play basketball?" and "Will she show up Mike?" which are both potentially good hooks to draw the reader in.

I'd suggest starting a little earlier to establish Emma and the scene before the trouble starts. I don't understand why Mike thinks Emma is a cheerleader (I assume she's not dressed as one) or why he'd ask her that. (Fitting in doesn't seem plausible based on the situation. Why insult the friend of the guys you want to join?) I'd expect him to ask if he can play, maybe be surprised that Emma is also playing and comment about that. "Cheerleader" feels like a question designed solely to let Emma get upset over it, so it isn't ringing true to me.

(More on where to start your novel here)

Perhaps show Mike walking over, he makes some comment Emma doesn't like and she can react to it (both internally and externally so we understand her feelings). Maybe the guys say something since I assume they're used to her reactions by now? I wanted to get to know Emma a little before a lot of other people are introduced and the situation is thrown at me.

I'd also like to understand why she feels this way. She's so anti-girl that she feels a bit over-the-top. This was especially confusing since I thought Riley was a girl (still not sure about that, but based on the scene I imagine she's a he) Is Emma's problem with all girls or just cheerleaders? Or people thinking she can't do what she wants to do? Perhaps clarify her feelings here to what the real issue is. She flies off the handle pretty fast.

(More on introducing characters here)

I don't know the ages of these characters, but an "I don't like girls" attitude feels younger to me, and at that age boys don't girls either, so playing with her could feel off. If they're older, a girl protesting so much to dislike girls also feels off. If she's spent her whole life as one of the guys, then she'd likely not be so volatile about it. Is she a girl trying to prove herself in a boy's world, or a girl who's always lived in that world and takes offense at anyone who wants to push her out of it?

Overall, there are some fun lines and a good voice, and I don't think it would take much to clear up the things I was confused over. A slower start could allow the tension to build some so readers want to see how this confrontation turns out. They'll have time to care about Emma and her cause and want to see her beat Mike.

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.

Revised/Alternate Scene:

Emma Wrangton hated when her dad and brother fought. The shouting, the slamming doors, the car tires spitting gravel as her brother fled the scene. The last thing she needed was a family dispute to distract her from a Saturday morning basketball game with the guys. Okay, so maybe morning wasn’t entirely accurate considering it was almost noon, but since most of the guys showed up unshowered with their eyes still half closed from sleep, it was morning in every other sense of the word.

Shaking her head to dislodge the memory of her dad and brother’s most recent confrontation, Emma tried to focus on the basketball hoop in front of her. It was no use. The repercussion of their anger still lingered in her thoughts and sent chills down her spine. Would they ever be able to reconcile their differences? She searched the gray clouds overhead for a glimpse of the sun—a sign of better days to come. Not finding so much as a speck of blue sky, she sighed and tossed up a shot. The ball circled the rim before popping out of the basket and falling to the ground.

Riley raised an eyebrow like he always did when she missed a shot, which wasn’t often. “You’re not losing your touch, are you?”

She glared at him. “You wish.”

Riley chuckled and took a shot of his own from outside the key, making it with ease. He rebounded the ball and snapped it back to her. She jabbed right, spun left and sunk a three-pointer, proving to Riley her touch was still intact.

My comments in purple:

[Emma Wrangton hated when her dad and brother fought. The shouting, the slamming doors, the car tires spitting gravel as her brother fled the scene. The last thing she needed was a family dispute to distract her from a Saturday morning basketball game with the guys.] This section feels a little distant and told, like it's explaining the setup instead of showing the fight and her leaving [Okay, so maybe morning wasn’t entirely accurate considering it was almost noon, but since most of the guys showed up unshowered with their eyes still half closed from sleep, it was morning in every other sense of the word.] This end part feels more in her head and her voice

Shaking her head [to dislodge the memory of her dad and brother’s most recent confrontation] telling motive, Emma tried to focus on the basketball hoop in front of her. It was no use. [The repercussion of their anger still lingered in her thoughts] feels told, and not something Emma would think and sent chills down her spine. Would they ever be able to reconcile their differences? She searched the gray clouds overhead for a glimpse of the sun—a sign of better days to come. Not finding so much as a speck of blue sky, she sighed and tossed up a shot. The ball circled the rim before popping out of the basket and falling to the ground.

Riley raised an eyebrow [like he always did when she missed a shot, which wasn’t often.] this tells this situation, when his actions and dialog show it “You’re not losing your touch, are you?”

She glared at him. “You wish.”

Riley chuckled and took a shot of his own from outside the key, making it with ease. He rebounded the ball and snapped it back to her. She jabbed right, spun left and sunk a three-pointer, [proving to Riley her touch was still intact. ] telling some. What might she say or think to show this instead?

The reason for her anger is more apparent here, but those reasons feel told, so I'm not connecting to Emma as strongly as I would if I saw her in this rough situation.

I'd suggest dramatizing those told parts. Perhaps start with her getting ready for the game and she hears the argument, then reacts to it and runs off. I'd see her problem right away, feel sorry for her, and understand why she's so rattled at the game.

It could also provide a goal for her, as she's using the game to distract herself, but that doesn't work because the new guy pushes her buttons and sets here off. This feels almost there.

5 comments:

  1. I loved the voice of this and, although I do agree with the points raised, there was enough of a hook for me to want to carry on reading :)

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  2. I totaly agree with yeti... this hooked me, and I would turn the page without hesitation.

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  3. This does have a great voice, but I agree with Janice. I'd be a lot more hooked if I understood the underlying reason for the heroine's anger issues.

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  4. i am total agree with yeti ,,,,,
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  5. I much preferred the original scene rather than the revised one. The voice I love on the original scene seems to have been lost on the revision. I'm coming to realise that voice is much more important to me as a reader than a lot of other things. If I love the voice of a book I'll happily read on even if some of the plot points etc aren't as stong.

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