Saturday, September 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Opening Working? Fixing Infodumping and Telling

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 questions:
Does this opening work?
Is it an adequate hook to keep the reader interested?
Am I telling or showing?
How is the pace?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Geoff Vincent, a fourteen year old boy with no friends, regularly sneaks into his father’s study. His father is a well known archaeologist and anthropologist who teaches at the local university. His father conducts his research in his study at home–being allowed to do so because of his status in the academic community. In his father’s study Geoff finds a strange white alabaster key that transports himself and two other teenagers to a strange world full of magic, werewolves, vampires, and dragons. This is the beginning of the novel.

“He who controls magic controls destiny.” The thin, blond boy sitting at the large oak desk frowned and leaned back in his chair while he rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. It was a strange phrase, what did it mean? He took a deep breath, leaned forward and read it again. He was wearing surgical gloves to prevent the oils in his fingers from damaging the scroll he gently held. He ran a finger along each rune on the brownish-yellow parchment, comparing them to a handwritten page on a legal tablet sitting in front of him. The tablet contained a list of symbols and runes his father had translated, but it was far from complete. The runes reminded Geoff of a cross between ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Japanese characters. He had never seen the language before, nor had his father, Henry Vincent. Mr. Vincent was considered by many to be an authority in two fields, anthropology and archaeology, having published a number of acclaimed books and papers concerning social behavior in ancient civilizations.

The strange symbols on this scroll, however, had stumped Mr. Vincent for nearly a year. Geoff’s father had a knack for being able to decipher ancient languages and symbols. Geoff had inherited the same ability from his father and, on rare occasions, was allowed to assist him with his work. However this was not one of those rare occasions. Geoff was forbidden to enter his father’s study, or workroom, unless his father was present. But Geoff had observed his father hiding the key to his workroom above the doorframe three years ago and ever since he made regular clandestine visits each week. As far as Geoff was concerned, his father’s workroom was a treasure trove full of wondrous items and adventure.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[“He who controls magic controls destiny.”] Since this is in quotes I assumed someone spoke it, but later on I find out this was read. Perhaps use italics or plain text or some other way to make it clear this was read, not said [The thin, blond boy sitting at the large oak desk frowned and leaned back in his chair while he rubbed his chin and thought for a moment.] A lot happens in this one sentence, so perhaps break into two. Or combine parts of this to the opening line to also get in Geoff's name, since it's several lines before you introduce who you protagonist is and the reader can feel ungrounded  It was a strange phrase, what did it mean?

Perhaps add a paragraph break here He took a deep breath, leaned forward and read it again. [He was wearing surgical gloves to prevent the oils in his fingers from damaging the scroll he gently held.] Telling here, which stops the action. This pulls back to inform the reader Geoff is wearing gloves instead of showing that fact by how it's described. It also explains the reason for the gloves, which the reader never asked for He ran a finger along each rune on the brownish-yellow parchment, comparing them to a handwritten page on a legal tablet sitting in front of him. [The tablet contained a list of symbols and runes his father had translated, but it was far from complete. The runes reminded Geoff of a cross between ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Japanese characters.] These are borderline telling. They inform, but they could be Geoff thinking this. He had never seen the language before, nor had his father, Henry Vincent. [Mr. Vincent was considered by many to be an authority in two fields, anthropology and archaeology, having published a number of acclaimed books and papers concerning social behavior in ancient civilizations.] Infodumping here. Geoff knows this, so he'd likely not stop to think about this. This information is placed here solely for the reader's benefit, yet it doesn't matter to the scene.

[The strange symbols on this scroll, however, had stumped Mr. Vincent for nearly a year. Geoff’s father had a knack for being able to decipher ancient languages and symbols. Geoff had inherited the same ability from his father and, on rare occasions, was allowed to assist him with his work. However this was not one of those rare occasions. Geoff was forbidden to enter his father’s study, or workroom, unless his father was present. But Geoff had observed his father hiding the key to his workroom above the doorframe three years ago and ever since he made regular clandestine visits each week. As far as Geoff was concerned, his father’s workroom was a treasure trove full of wondrous items and adventure. ] This whole paragraph is telling and infodumping. It explains the situation and traits of the characters, stopping the action of the scene. By now, the reader has likely forgotten what the point was and there's nothing to draw them into the story.

Does this opening work?
Not yet because of the telling. It's almost all backstory and infodumps to explain who these people are and what the situation is, not a character with a problem the reader wants to see solved. Geoff isn't even mentioned by name until eight sentences in. The opening line is never mentioned again after the first few lines. There's no goal, mystery, or sense of stakes to make the reader want to know what happens next.

(More on infodumps here)

Is it an adequate hook to keep the reader interested?
The idea is great and there is a hook here with some tweaking. A boy sneaking into his father's study where he shouldn't be and reading an ancient scroll with mysterious and ominous phrases has wonderful potential. It's got an Indiana Jones vibe (but inside a house) with that sense of wonder and lost treasures. It's a solid concept to grab readers.

I'd suggest giving Geoff a goal and something at risk in this scene, and give the reader a story question they'll read on to see answered. Will Geoff get caught? Will he figure out the phrase? Maybe he's just found the last piece of the puzzle and has translated that one line. Or maybe he's close to it and the goal is to finish that line. He who controls what controls destiny?

If he's not supposed to be there, maybe there's a good reason. This scroll is too dangerous, too fragile, his father has been oddly secretive about it and Geoff wants to know why, whatever fits the story. You're looking for a sense that something will either be discovered or something bad might happen at any moment--or a combination of both.

(More on goals here)

Am I telling or showing?
Mostly telling, because the story is stopping to explain information to the reader. I'm not sure what POV you're going for, third limited or third omniscient, but this feels like an omniscient third, which also adds to that sense of told not shown. The farther your narrative distance the more outside looking in it feels. (A common problem with omniscient point of view) Good news is you have a solid idea of how this unfolds, so revising to show won't be too hard. Try adding in the details so they show in the background and action. You have all the right pieces to do that.

(More on narrative distance and telling here)

You might also think about your narrative focus. This snippet wanders from sentence to sentence, losing sight of what the original idea is. (Because it keeps trying to explain instead of staying in the scene) A tighter focus on what you're trying to get across would help you know what details to keep and what to get rid of. If this is about Geoff translating the scroll, then anything that doesn't affect that can go. Readers don't need to know about his father right now since that doesn't affect the scene.

(More on narrative focus here)

Geoff is reading the scroll and trying to translate it, so you have the perfect situation to show he knows how to do this and what's involved. Perhaps start a few minutes sooner and have him preparing to work. Then you can show him pulling on the protective gloves and being careful with the scroll. You don't have to explain why he wears the gloves, readers will figure it out. If you want to get the oil idea in there, he rubs his chin with the gloves on, then touches the scroll. Wouldn't that transfer oils from his face to the scroll and defeat the purpose of the gloves? Maybe he realizes this and has to change gloves. Though don't force a detail in there if it doesn't naturally fit. Readers won't care about the technicalities of reading old scrolls, they'll want to see where the story goes. The goal is to draw them in and entertain, not educate them on how to handle old scrolls.

He's actively translating the scroll, so perhaps use more internalization of him trying to figure it out to get in the details about the runes. This one looks like the Japanese word for X, this like the Egyptian one for Y. Maybe he gets excited because he's never seen this language before and wonders what it might mean. If he figures it out after Dad couldn't, will he be even more famous than his father? He might imagine seeing his name on the books on the shelf alongside his father's. The trick is to look for situations where Geoff can see/think/interact with the details you want to get across to the reader in a way that feels natural to what's going on in the scene.

If he's not supposed to be there, try showing that by how Geoff acts and the other details you provide. Is it late at night and he's sneaking in there? Is he jumping at sounds that might be Dad coming in? Is he on a time limit to get in and get out? Maybe even start as he's sneaking in so readers can wonder where he's going and what he's up to. You don't have to spell everything out, and doing so actually hurts the story since there's nothing for readers to discover and figure out for themselves.

How is the pace?
Slow due to the telling and lack of something happening, but this will quickly change once it shifts to a shown scene. It's not an action-packed scene so it won't be super fast-paced, but it has enough inherent tension to keep readers reading to find out what the scroll means and if Geoff can find out before he gets caught. Creating tension will be the key on this.

I'd suggest looking more through Geoff's eyes, even if this is third omniscient. Let him see what matters, act in ways to convey important information, think about what it means and what he wants. Give readers a character to connect with and want to spend time with.

(More on pacing here)

Overall, the pieces are there, and with some fleshing out this can be a good opening scene. I'd suggest playing more with the discovery concept and show Geoff trying to figure out the scroll and succeeding, and then moving to what that might mean and draw the reader in. Give a hint of where the story is going and why readers will want to join Geoff in this adventure.

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. One thing I picked up from this, author, is that you're trying to ground the reader with exactly who and what is going on. You don't need to. Most readers are happy to sit back and learn as the story goes on; right now, all we need to know is that Geoff is sneaking in where he shouldn't and translating an old scroll. It's okay if we don't find out for a little while that his dad is an archeologist, or that Geoff is sometimes allowed to work with him. That can come up later...maybe in a conversation.

    This story sounds intriguing, and I love the set-up!

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  2. I agree that it would really help to have Geoff's name right away. The opening is a bit like looking at a picture, rather than feeling the story. I think you have a great premesis. I like that Geoff is so knowledgable about how to deal with ancient manuscripts.

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  3. I'm not sure the promise of that opening line is fulfilled. It just sits there with the only thought directly relating to it is that Geoff doesn't know how to interpret its meaning. His response to the possibility of magic is clinical, and while characterizing him as different than your average 14 year old, doesn't lead me to want to spend time with him. I'd like to see more wonder and excitement as far as his actions and reactions go. I also agree with Ms. Hardy that Geoff needs a personal goal. Some internal motivation for why he needs to translate this particular scroll. This is a good start though. I can see many possible directions this story could follow; I would just like a hint at which one it could take.

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