Saturday, September 29

Real Life Diagnostics: Starting Off With a Bang: Is This Opening Working?

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: Seven

This week’s questions:

Is it showing? Is it telling? Does it hook the reader? Do you actually connect to Kyra or the others? In the line, "Between Zemmy's gold eyes and the tug in her stomach, she would have screamed if someone even poked her" what vibe do you get from it -- like does it seem like Kyra has that strong of a bond with Zemmy, that she can tell when something is off just by his eyes or something else? What type of world do you picture when reading this?

Market/Genre: unspecified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Kyra and her only friends, Viendo and Zemmy, had just finished a semi light-hearted argument when things start to go bad. This is part of my first section, the opening scene.

Kyra shook her head. This is the one thing she hoped would last forever. It was the one thing that made sense in the world and the one thing that didn’t. That’s what made it perfect.

She laughed. A small smile played on her lips.

“What’s so funny?” Zemmy pushed her a little bit.

“How I’m friends with both of you. It – it defies logic.”

“So do fairytales, yet we choose to believe in those.”

Viendo cleared his throat. “Before you two end up kissing or something, let me remind you that I’m still here.”

Kyra’s eyes were saucers. Her? Kiss Zemmy? No. Just no. It doesn’t work like that.

A gun shot echoed around the town.

“The gun fight… Didn’t think it’d actually happen. My life’s savings says Halp wins.” Viendo glanced at the two of them.

“So… Ten bucks?”

“You are –!” Another shot much closer cut Kyra off.

Zemmy’s brow furrowed. “They couldn’t move that fast.”

Something wasn’t right. Kyra could tell. Between Zemmy’s gold eyes and the tug in her stomach, she would have screamed bloody murder if someone even poked her.

A scream. It came from the street. The three of them stood. They walked over to a street-watching position.

A couple – a year older than them Kyra guessed – was standing on the street.

At gun point.

Kyra blinked a couple times. Even without sound, it was obvious they were being threatened. “Probably just another robbery. No one’s going to get hurt.”

BAM! The man shot. The boy dropped. Another shriek.

“Kyra, um…” Zemmy trailed off.

The girl ran away. Blood seeped into his shirt.

“Right… in the heart…”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Kyra shook her head. This is the one thing she hoped would last forever. [It was the one thing that made sense in the world and the one thing that didn’t. That’s what made it perfect.] Love this.

She laughed. [A small smile played on her lips.] feels a little distant, like she's looking at herself and seeing the smile, not just smiling.

“What’s so funny?” Zemmy [pushed her a little bit.] I don't get the sense that he's pushing here, just asking.

“How I’m friends with both of you. It – it defies logic.”

“So do fairytales, yet we [choose to] perhaps cut so it shows he does believe believe in those.”

Viendo cleared his throat. “Before you two end up kissing or something, let me remind you that I’m still here.”

[Kyra’s eyes were saucers] This hit me funny. I get what you mean, but perhaps rephrase so it's clearer her eyes widened from shock. [Her? Kiss Zemmy? No. Just no. It doesn’t work like that.] This shows the shock nicely

A gunshot echoed [around the town.] Feels a little told. How would they know it was around the town, and not just a shot? Do they react to it?

“The gun fight… Didn’t think it’d actually happen. My life’s savings says Halp wins.” Viendo glanced at the two of them. It feels odd that no one is surprised or reacts to this. They obviously knew about it, so how do they feel about it?

[“So… Ten bucks?”] who says this?

“You are –!” [Another shot much closer cut Kyra off.] Feels a little distant. Since the internalization is hers, I assume she's the POV character, but this feels like someone outside watching her. How does she react to this?

Zemmy’s brow furrowed. “They couldn’t move that fast.”

Something wasn’t right. [Kyra could tell.] telling. She just said something wasn't right so we know she can tell [Between Zemmy’s gold eyes and the tug in her stomach, she would have screamed bloody murder if someone even poked her.] feels told here as well. This is explaining what details she uses to pick up on something not being right, not her actually feeling and noticing them

[A scream.] Any reaction from them? It came from the street. The three of them stood. [They walked over to a street-watching position.] walk seems calm considering what's going on. Also, what is a "street-watching position?" The paragraph feels list-like as well.

A couple – a year older than them [Kyra guessed] telling a bit. Try a word that shows her guessing, like maybe or about – was standing on the street.

At gun point.

Kyra blinked a couple times. [Even without sound, it was obvious they were being threatened.] "Without sound" makes me feel like she's watching this on TV not in person. Also feels a bit told. What does she actually see and hear (or not hear)? Give the reader the same clues so they can also sees the threat [“Probably just another robbery. No one’s going to get hurt.”] Her calm about this is interesting, as it shows this is nothing new to them

BAM! The man shot. The boy dropped. Another shriek. Any reaction from her?

“Kyra, um…” Zemmy [trailed off.] the ... shows his words trailed off, so saying so tells
The girl ran away. Blood seeped into his shirt. What about the gunman?

[“Right… in the heart…”] who says this?

The questions:

Is it showing? Is it telling?
Both. There were a few spots that slipped out of Kyra's POV and explained things, but all easy things to shift it back into her head. There's some nice internalization here, so I'd suggest continuing that style into the told areas so the reader sees and feels the same things Kyra does all the way through. For example:
Kyra’s eyes were saucers
In context, this probably means her eyes widened from shock at the idea of kissing Zemmy. Her internalization afterward is good and shows that. But this line feels like someone else looking at Kyra and saying she has saucer eyes. I don't feel that this is Kyra feeling the shock that widens her eyes.
“You are –!” Another shot much closer cut Kyra off.
Same here. I can see from the broken dialog that she was cut off, so you don't need to tell me. The important detail is that another shot was closer. Perhaps have her react that that instead of explaining what the dialog shows. Like with a "Whoa, that sounded really close" vibe, and why that matters to them.
A scream. It came from the street. The three of them stood. They walked over to a street-watching position.
While I like how the short sentences pick up the pace, they go on a little too long and lose the tension instead of build on it. This reads more like a list of what's happening than them experiencing it. A little internalization will fix this though. I'd suggest a reaction from Kyra after "came from the street." They hear the scream, they react, then they act on that. I'd also clarify what a street-watching position is. That feels like an explanation instead of what they're doing. They ran over and crouched behind a bush? Stood on the curb with hands shielding their eyes?

Does it hook the reader?
It has the potential to. The characters aren't hooking me yet, but the situation is intriguing. Their reactions to gunfire and robberies make me curious about this world, and why no one would care about a gun fight or someone being robbed. I don't get the sense that these three are criminals, just kids, so I'm curious.

There's also no goal for Kyra or the trio to set the scene. They're just talking and goofing off and something bad happens. I'd suggest giving them a goal so they're doing something when this opens, and the robbery is an obstacle to what they wanted, or something that distracts them from it. It doesn't have to be a major plot-driving goal, but some sense of what these three do with their lives that might help readers understand who they are, what world they live in, and why we should care about them to read on.

(More on beginnings here)

Do you actually connect to Kyra or the others?
Not yet because I don't know them. I'm starting to get to know Kyra, and with more internalization I'd connect with her better. When I see her thoughts and know how she feels I do like her, I just haven't gotten enough yet. The boys don't say much so I don't have a feel for them yet. I like Viendo more than Zemmy, because Zemmy was pushy, and Viendo was kinda funny with his kissing line. When you create your goal, I'd suggest picking one that also allows for the guys to show a little more about who they are. Like if Zemmy is the cautious one, let him be worried about whatever it is they're doing. If Viendo is adventurous and impulsive, let him act that way.

(More on creating characters here)

In the line, "Between Zemmy's gold eyes and the tug in her stomach, she would have screamed if someone even poked her" what vibe do you get from it -- like does it seem like Kyra has that strong of a bond with Zemmy, that she can tell when something is off just by his eyes or something else?
Not really, because none of that is shown. The line explains it, but readers don't see it. I'd suggest showing more emotions and reactions from Kyra so the reader can figure this out. She notes the change in his eyes (I assume his eyes change? What about them being gold is a warning sign?), feels the tug in her stomach, feel tense and nervous and on the edge. Not only will this let the reader see the bond she has with him, but it will up the tension because they'll feel just as worried as Kyra and wonder what's about to happen.

What type of world do you picture when reading this?
A violent one. None of the characters seem to care about gunshots or people having a gun fight. Robbery is no big deal and happens all the time. The murder seemed like a surprise though. The trio doesn't feel like criminals or part of the violent aspects of this world, because they didn't exhibit street-smart reactions or try to take advantage of the situation. They also seemed shocked at the murder. And Zemmy believes in fairy tales, so there's an optimistic vibe that makes them feel like regular teens in a rough world.

It feels like our world, though maybe a dystopian one. I'm not getting a real world vibe because the trio isn't gritty enough for this to be set in our world in a rough neighborhood. But it's not otherworldly enough to feel like a fantasy.

(More on opening scene world building here)

Overall, I think adding a goal and having them existing in their world doing what they do before things go wrong will give you the opportunity to flesh out everything you want to show and ground readers in this world. You can show more details about the world, let the characters show a little more character so readers can get to know them and like them, and create a situation and story question that will hook readers and draw them into the story. Perhaps think about what a normal day for these three is like, and look for something they might be doing that will show all the aspects you want readers to know right away.

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.

5 comments:

  1. The line `the girl ran away. Blood soaked his shirt.' really threw me. When I got to the blood soaked-ness I thought it was still talking about the girl, so when I got to `he' I had to stop and figure out what was going on. I don't think that would be too hard to fix. Just let people know a little sooner that you've switched focus from the running girl to the shot man.

    As for the world, in my mind all three were lounging on a park bench in a well tended suburb. I agree that their reaction to the violance was interesting. Do people fight duels here? Is that why the gunshots were considered more of a novelty than a sign of something really wrong?

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  2. dont know why but I pictured them in a building or warehouse, so the silent murder made more sense if it they were looking through windows. Nice flow and characters, but agree it could be more.

    Maybe some more on why Kyra and Zemmy's relationship didnt 'work like that' would both shed light on his character and their bond.

    All in all I liked it :)

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  3. Fantastic series, Janice. Your feedback seems spot on, and helpful.

    I agree that it holds a great deal of potential. It left me wanting more—more than dialogue, more that draws us in and engages us emotionally.

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  4. Same as sjp, I thought they were in a building or warehouse, higher up and looking down on the scene. I am intrigued by the opening and definitely want to know more, and I liked the trio, the ease the messed about and bantered with one another. The voice of this is great :)

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  5. Great critique as always. I enjoyed this story and I would love to see a polished version. Just a few things:

    1. Regarding the name 'Zemmy', I had no idea whether this was a male or female character.

    2. "She laughed. A small smile played on her lips."
    This combination of actions was really hard to visualise because they are so different. I would keep either one, depending on how you want to characterize Kyra. That being said, I can't count the number of times I've seen smiles "playing on lips" in other writer's WiPs.

    3. I agree with Janice on the short sentences, too. Also, "The three of them stood." made no sense to me whatsoever. Aren't they already standing? And if they're about to move, why mention it?

    4. Something about the use of the all-encompassing sound of BAM! pulled me out of the story. While it has a contemporary vibe to it, it nevertheless reminded me of old school style comic book heroes that punch to the sound of "Bam!", "Biff!" and "Pow!". If you're going to have Kyra, Viendo and Zemmy fighting in later scenes, are you going to have them punch or kick to the same sound?

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