Sunday, October 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Too Slow? Hooking the Reader With a Quieter Beginning

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 question:

Is this opening 250 words is too slow for an opener? My hook--when the MC has to stop a bullet from killing a friend--comes another 280 words later, taking up the rest of the 1150-word scene. But I don't know if this opener is too contemplative, or just has nothing happen for long enough that I'll lose the reader.

Market/Genre: Adult suspense/paranormal/sci-fi


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I was tired of being prey, though I hardly remembered a time when I wasn’t. Always on the move, living in the shadows, on the edge of life. Would this always be my normal?

I stepped out onto the sidewalk of Third Avenue and breathed in the scents and sights of Manhattan. After the fluorescence of Vee’s Diner, the neon and headlights on the street felt easier on the eyes. The sidewalk was crowded. Danger and safety at once. A group of laughing pedestrians passed me by. They took no notice of me.

Someday the hunter would find its prey. What city would be next?

What if I stayed?

That almost made me laugh. Almost.

Into my second-hand coat pocket went my black apron and the tag that read Justine. A yellow cab dropped off a man in a suit at the curb. The cabbie asked with his eyes if I would be his next fare. “Money’s not even warm in my pocket. I’ll hold onto it tonight.” He nodded and drove off.

I walked north, crossed the street against the light with a group of chatty kids. Been a while since I’d taken this route. Should be safe. I glanced down dark side streets as I passed them, and behind me occasionally for good measure. No one too close, no one paying too much attention, no one I’d seen before.

More people filled the sidewalks of Second Avenue, enough to get lost among them. Made it harder for the hunter to stalk its quarry.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[I was tired of being prey, though I hardly remembered a time when I wasn’t.] Intriguing. Makes me wonder why Always on the move, living in the shadows, on the edge of life. Would this always be my normal?

I stepped out onto the sidewalk of Third Avenue and breathed in the scents and sights of Manhattan. [After the fluorescence of Vee’s Diner,] This threw me just a tad because I didn't get the narrator stepped out of the diner. Perhaps mention where the narrator is to ground the reader in the scene. "I stepped out of the diner onto..." kind of thing. the neon and headlights on the street felt easier on the eyes. [The sidewalk was crowded. Danger and safety at once.] Nice A group of laughing pedestrians passed me by. They took no notice of me.

[Someday the hunter would find its prey. What city would be next?] This feels redundant to me. It says the same thing the opening paragraph does.

What if I stayed?

That almost made me laugh. Almost.

[Into my second-hand coat pocket went my black apron and the tag that read Justine.] Not sure I get this. She puts the apron and tag in her coat pocket? The "went my" is awkward A yellow cab dropped off a man in a suit at the curb. The cabbie asked with his eyes if I would be his next fare. [“Money’s not even warm in my pocket. I’ll hold onto it tonight.”] perhaps make this its own line and tag it? Feels like the cabbie says this at first He nodded and drove off.] This paragraph is tad confusing and took me two reads to figure out. I think it's trying to convey too much information at once. Does she work at the diner? Is she Justine or is that just a pseudonym? How does the cabbie fit it? Just to show that she has no money? All nice details, but perhaps add a little internalization and flesh it out so the details have some context.

I walked north, crossed the street against the light with a group of chatty kids. Been a while since I’d taken this route. Should be safe. I glanced down dark side streets as I passed them, and behind me occasionally for good measure. No one too close, no one paying too much attention, no one I’d seen before. I'm drifting as a reader about here. This paragraph is very similar to the early one, so I'm not learning anything new.

More people filled the sidewalks of Second Avenue, enough to get lost among them. [Made it harder for the hunter to stalk its quarry.] Explaining why lessons the tension and feels repetitive. She's already said she was being hunted, and the great "danger and safety" line already told me this.

The question:

Is this opening 250 words is too slow for an opener?

Yes, but not because of what's happening. There's a nice sense of wariness, and enough hints at a greater problem to hook me. I want to know why this woman is prey and what's hunting her. I'm curious why she's considering staying. She's tired of running, but is there something special about this place? Someone special? She's being cautious, but there's a sense that something is going to happen despite her caution.

What's dragging for me is the repetition of ideas. The first two paragraphs do a solid job of setting the scene and problem, then those same details are used again several times. That gives the opening a "you told me that already" feel to it that encourages skimming to get to the next new bit of information.

(More on POV and description here)

I'd suggest trimming out the repetition and fleshing out your narrator a bit more with some internalization. The setting and situation is working, so let readers get to know the narrator a little so they worry about a hunter finding her as well. It could also be a nice fake out if the bullet she stops in a few pages isn't from a hunter. Readers will be expecting a hunter to pop out, but surprise! It's a different danger (if that's how it goes, just guessing here). You give them what they expect, but not in the way they expect it.

A good spot for this is after the cabbie. Taking that cab is probably safer than walking, but she can't afford it. There's an opportunity there to let her think about her situation and what she wants, transitioning nicely into her walking and using the chatty kids as cover. You could also suggest where she's going. Home? Another goal? Meeting the friend? Not knowing what she's doing lessons the hook for me, so some hint there would draw me back in. If she's meeting the friend, a quick mention will also set that up nicely.

(More on internalization here)

A little internalization would allow for description without bogging down the story (or repeating similar images). I like how the narrator's actions show she's being cautious and how she looks at the world differently than someone who isn't being hunted. I'd love to see more of that to help flesh out who she and make readers care more about her. What kind of person is she? What does she notice and how does she feel about that? What does she consider doing? It wouldn't take much, a line here and there, but it would help establish the narrator before things get hairy. If readers don't care about her when the bullets start flying, it won't be as compelling. But if they like and care about her, then they'll be hooked.

(More on POV and incorporating description details here)

Overall, it's a solid start with the right pieces in place. I think with a little polish and tightening it'll be a strong opener.

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.

8 comments:

  1. You had my complete and total attention, right until "someday the hunter will find his prey." The opening line is fantastic, and you set the moody scene very well.

    Maybe I watch too much TV, but something about the way you worded her slipping her name tag into her pocket made me wonder if it's an alias. Given her wariness and the fact she's being hunted....

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  2. Thank you, Janice AND Rachel6, thank you, thank you! Wonderful critique, wonderful comments. Rachel, your TV watching paid off. It is an alias, but I was trying to tell the reader her name in a natural way.

    Janice, I really appreciate your time. This has been very helpful.

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  3. I also enjoyed the start but became bogged down by unnecessary detail and repetition. It felt like I was being told over and over that the protag is the "prey" and that they are being hunted. Here are but a few incidences:

    1. I was tired of being prey,...
    2. Always on the move, living in the shadows, on the edge of life.
    3. Danger and safety at once.
    4. Someday the hunter would find its prey.
    5. Should be safe.

    As a result, the final line: "Made it harder for the hunter to stalk its quarry" lacked punch.

    This has a lot of potential. If you are able to tighten it a little, the pacing would go up, up, UP! :) Then we can get to the part where the protag stops a bullet from killing a friend!

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  4. Thank you, virtuefiction! That's very helpful.

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  5. I like the beginning a lot, but it does become repetitive.

    I would put the internalization when she thinks of the warm cab longingly. I was confused by the apron in the pocket with the cash. I missed that she worked at the diner. Reword above so the readers know she is leaving the diner. Aching back and tired feet and the lingering smell of food come to mind as a way to ground your reader. You are on the right path. Put this opening on a diet and feed it some super healthy internalization. I want to know where she is heading too.

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  6. I agree that while the beginning lines were very intriguing the last couple had my eyes ready to skim

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  7. A yellow cab dropped off a man in a suit at the curb. The cabbie asked with his eyes if I would be his next fare. “Money’s not even warm in my pocket. I’ll hold onto it tonight.” He nodded and drove off.

    This might be better if internalized. The cabbie asks with his eyes, and she answers with a shake of her head. The money wasn't even warm in my pocket yet. I'd hold onto it tonight.

    For one thing, that's too long and subtle a thing for her to speak to the cabbie who is in the driver's seat inside a cab while she is on the sidewalk outside the passenger side on a noisy street.

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  8. Just saw these additional comments! They're so helpful. Just what I need. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to comment.

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