Sunday, October 14

Real Life Diagnostics: So He Says to Me: 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: Five

This week’s questions:

Does this opening work? Am I showing or telling?

Market/Genre: Fiction/Adult Romance 


ETA: Revision at the bottom.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:


It’s hard to believe that this entire situation started a week ago with a simple phone call. And here he was, the person causing it all, hogging my beloved coffee machine.

Patience.

“You’re lucky you’re my favorite cousin,” I say with an annoyed sigh.

“I’m your favorite person period,” he smirks.

“You’re tied with Sarah.”

He considers this and then says, “So if we get divorced then I’m number one all by myself?”

“Shut up,” I say shoving his shoulder.

“Hey,” he quips, “Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder.”

“Complete absence,” I say rolling my eyes.

“That reminds me,” he says. “Sarah wants you to get on Skype.” My confusion must play on my face because it’s his turn to roll his eyes as he says, “Video calling. You know, technology.”

In my best country accent I say, “That’s what you fancy Hollywood slickers call it? Maybe you could put that screen writin’ schoolin’ to use so I can understand.” He narrows his eyes at me and then finally, finally finishes making his coffee. And of course his big come back is, “Whatever freckles.” He knows I hate my freckles. But that’s part of the package of being a redhead.

“So when does your loser friend get here?”

David chuckles while sipping his coffee and then asks, “Is that how you’re going to greet him?” I shrug indifferently, but we both know I’ll be nice. “So how long is this all going to take again?” I ask before that first sweet sip slides down my throat.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[It’s hard to believe that this entire situation started a week ago with a simple phone call. And here he was, the person causing it all, hogging my beloved coffee machine.] The reflective nature of this leaves me a little ungrounded, though I might have more context had I read the cover copy first. But as is, this dumps me into the middle of something, but there's not enough for me to know where I am, and this information doesn't seem to go anywhere as the scene unfolds.

Patience.

“You’re lucky you’re my favorite cousin,” I say [with an annoyed sigh.] I don't know why the narrator is annoyed, so I'm not sure what's going on here. Also telling a bit.

“I’m your favorite person period,” he [smirks.] you can't "smirk" dialog, so perhaps cut this.

“You’re tied with Sarah.”

He considers this and then says, “So if we get divorced then I’m number one all by myself?”

“Shut up,”[I say shoving his shoulder.] With just two people talking, it's clear who says this. You could trim some of the dialog tags. Tagging everything starts to sound awkward after a few lines.

“Hey,” he quips, “Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder.”

“Complete absence,” [I say rolling my eyes.] Perhaps cut this as well

“That reminds me,” he says. “Sarah wants you to get on Skype.” [My confusion must play on my face because it’s his turn to roll his eyes] This feels a little tellish and too aware of the narrator's actions, like they know what they did and why he reacted this way. It's explaining instead of just showing the narrator being confused, and then the cousin reacting to that confusion. [as he says,] don't need “Video calling. You know, technology.”

In my best country accent I say, “That’s what you fancy Hollywood slickers call it? Maybe you could put that screen writin’ schoolin’ to use so I can understand.” [He narrows his eyes at me] perhaps a new paragraph here? Feels like I switched characters and then finally, finally finishes making his coffee. And of course his big come back is, “Whatever freckles.” [He knows I hate my freckles.] Telling a bit. Perhaps show this by having the narrator react to it But that’s part of the package of being a redhead. This seems an odd reaction to the narrator's comment. He's teased them but he can't take a little teasing back? I'm lost.

[“So when does your loser friend get here?”] Who says this? The last few paragraphs are a little confusing as to who is speaking and what goes with what person.

[David] is this the cousin? Perhaps name him right away [chuckles while sipping his coffee] it's hard to chuckle while you're drinking. More likely he chuckles, then takes a sip [and then asks,] don't need [“Is that how you’re going to greet him?”] who says this? I shrug [indifferently] don't need, a shrug means to express indifference, but we both know I’ll be nice. “So how long is this all going to take again?” I ask [before that first sweet sip slides down my throat.] The narrator never picks up or drinks the coffee, so this feels awkward. It's also strange from an action/reaction standpoint. It sounds like they took a sip, the coffee is in their mouth as they speak, then it slides down their throat.

The questions:

Does this opening work?

Not yet, because I'm lost as to what's going on and who these people are. I also don't know what the point of the scene is or what I'm supposed to be worrying about. The setting is absent, so I don't know where they are. An office? The narrator's house? It's all a little too vague.

It opens with mentioning an event that the narrator is unhappy about, but that's never discussed further, so starting with that sets up an expectation that that's going to be the focus on the scene (so I keep trying to figure out what the scene has to do with the opening paragraph). Then it jumps into Sarah wanting the narrator to go on Skype, but I have no idea why or how this is important. Then a loser friend is mentioned, but again, I have no idea why or who even asks that question. There's not enough information yet for me to know what's going on so I can't follow the story.

The two people in the scene aren't named, and David isn't named until the last paragraph. The only person who is named early is Sarah, who doesn't seem to have anything to do with what's going on. I also don't know if the narrator is male or female. Many of the lines feel female, but the overall attitude and interaction feels male. I'd suggest having David use the narrator's name right away.

(More on common problems in an opening chapter here)

More clarification overall would tighten this scene and help readers know what's going on and why this all matters. I suspect David did something a week ago that involves the narrator doing something they'd rather not do with a loser friend. It's a romance, so possibly a blind date or setup, or maybe a business deal or favor if the narrator is male.

I'd suggest making the problem in this scene clear so readers can follow the plot. Look for a way to mention what happened a week ago, let the narrator think about or say what they're trying to do or get out of doing. Mystery is good in an opening scene, but not the confusing kind where you don't know what's going on. Readers need a basic understanding to ground them in the story, even if some details are vague at the start.

For example, knowing David is forcing the narrator on a blind date they don't want to go on provides context. Not knowing why they don't want to date or why they're mad about this setup can be left a mystery for the reader to discover and wonder about. They'll read on to learn why the narrator doesn't want to go, while they probably won't read on to figure out what "situation" these two are talking about.

(More on overcoming false starts on opening chapters here)

Am I showing or telling?
Mostly showing, with a few told-ish lines. One thing that did jump out at me however, were the dialog tags. Almost every line is tagged, so it's sounding like someone telling the story, not seeing the story unfold. Like if your friend was telling you about their day in a... "So then he says, "Is that what you're going to wear?" and I say, "What's wrong with this?" and he just rolls his eyes and goes, "Well,..." style. Trying to add in those tags is causing some funky situations like the coffee line.

(More on dialog tags here)

Not every line of dialog needs to be tagged, so many of them can be cut, especially ones where there is stage direction and a says tag. For example:
“Complete absence,” I say rolling my eyes.
You can easily cut the "I say rolling my eyes" and it's still clear who says this. Or just have them roll their eyes.
“Complete absence.” I roll my eyes.
I'd suggest trimming out most of the dialog tags and adding in some more internalization to help ground the reader in the scene. That would also help flesh out the narrator and they can clarify what's going on. Try describing the actions and showing the dialog, but don't explain it. For example, this paragraph has an explanation feel to it, yet it's still murky as to what's going on:
David chuckles while sipping his coffee and then asks, “Is that how you’re going to greet him?” I shrug indifferently, but we both know I’ll be nice. “So how long is this all going to take again?” I ask before that first sweet sip slides down my throat.
Perhaps try something like:
David chuckles. “Is that how you’re going to greet him?”

I shrug, but we both know I’ll be nice. “So how long is this all going to take again?” I take a sip of coffee and that first sweet sip slides down my throat.
Now that you know what happens in this scene, perhaps take another pass and flesh out what's going on so it's clear for the reader. I suspect there's more here than is coming across, and it's just a matter of bringing the interesting bits to the surface. Remember, the reader doesn't know the story like the author does, so things that seem clear to the author, aren't always so clear on the page.

(More on working dialog tags in with the narrative here)

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 text:

[I was painfully exhausted for being only thirty. The career I lived, breathed and loved had left me burnt out and begging for a break. I wearily ran a hand over my face. The stubble on my jaw was a stark contrast to the knit hat on my head.] I'm not sure you need any of this. It's setting up and telling what you show later in the scene As the plane landed I tugged the hat lower and slid on sunglasses, [needing to disguise myself.] telling here. When someone pulls down their hat and puts on sunglasses, they probably don't want to be recognized, so that shows this idea well.

[I wasn’t worried about paparazzi here, but the general public could recognize me.] On the verge of telling. The flight attendants and a few passengers had noticed, but there was nothing that could be done about that. And hopefully they would assume I was staying in New Orleans to film another movie.

I walked off the plane and fished my phone out my trousers. The instant I turned it on it rang. I expected it to be my publicist Rachel, but it was my ex-girlfriend, [which caused an automatic groan.] Telling a bit here. He groans, and readers can see it's because the call is from the ex. She earned that title about a month ago.

Just as I pressed the Ignore button, someone tapped my shoulder. [It was a familiar request from an unfamiliar person.] Nice I signed the piece of scrap paper they offered, took a picture, and was saved from an awkward escape by my phone ringing. This time it [was] Perhaps italicize. Feels like it needs to be emphasized Rachel.

I [started to] telling. He does walk. Perhaps "I buried myself in the crowd" or the like to tighten walk again, burying myself into the crowd. “You have impeccable timing.”

[She asked,] don't need. We can see she asked a question from the dialog “David’s picking you up right?”

I kept my head down except to read the signs. Someone said my name from behind, but I pretended not to hear it. “That’s the plan. I hope he’s not late because someone else is pointing me out.”

“Do you have on your Aviators?”

“Of course.”

“Then don’t see them,” she said. “I have another call coming in. But keep the phone to your ear so you look unapproachable. And please enjoy the next few weeks. You desperately need it.”

My Thoughts:
 
Good revision. The sense that this is a celebrity is clear, I can see he wants to get away and not be a celebrity for a bit, and things are in the way of that goal. I'm curious as to why he's so tired and what he plans to do here. (or will be if the opening lines are cut) and what will prevent him from getting that rest.

A few telling spots, but easily fixed. It's not uncommon to feel you have to explain things to the reader and overdo it. The disguise in this is a good example of that. You show him trying to stay inconspicuous. He doesn't want to be seen. Telling the reader that is unnecessary.

Let's look at the difference:
As the plane landed I tugged the hat lower and slid on sunglasses, needing to disguise myself.

I wasn’t worried about paparazzi here, but the general public could recognize me. The flight attendants and a few passengers had noticed, but there was nothing that could be done about that. And hopefully they would assume I was staying in New Orleans to film another movie.
Versus:
As the plane landed I tugged the hat lower and slid on sunglasses. The flight attendants and a few passengers had noticed me, but there was nothing I could do about that. Hopefully they would assume I was staying in New Orleans to film another movie.
This gets the same idea across without explaining that he's trying to disguise himself and not be recognized.

I do like the paparazzi line, though, since it hints that's he's not there to film another movie, but he says that a few lines later, so I don't think it's necessary. You could probably tweak it some to make it fit of you wanted to keep it.

The opening few lines are also things you could probably cut. They setup the story, explain who the narrator is and how he's feeling, and tells me right away this is a tired guy in need of a break. So when that shows up later, I already know what the problem is. I think it's a more effective opening to show him being tired and trying to stay incognito, and not being there for a movie. That way readers will wonder why he is there, and that will help hook them until that detail is mentioned.

Overall, much better. I'd read on.

5 comments:

  1. This is a great series - the volunteers are definitely brave, and generous. I think these examples can help all aspiring writers! Maybe even some of the already published ones :)

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  2. A few tiny extra notes. If he's calling her "Freckles" then the line should be "Whatever, Freckles" or at least "Whatever, freckles," but capitalize if it's a common nickname.

    Also "Hey" is not a quip, so I'd cut that tag. I really like the relationship between these two characters, though, so adding a bit of conflict will give it all more depth.

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  3. Like what Janice brings up. I also thought the "Whatever freckles." Should be: "Whatever, Freckles."

    I can see the potential in this though. I was thinking the 'loser friend' might be a blind date???

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  4. Oooh, I may have to try this sometime. Such great advice here. And as always, I love that you post examples to help us see a direction to move on similar parts of our own novels.

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  5. Trisha, thanks, that's the plan :) I think it's easier to get something when you can see it in practice. I love examples.

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