Saturday, November 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Beginning Fall Flat? Showing, Not Telling, in Your Opening Scene

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:

1. Does the story jump off the page, or does the beginning fall flat?
2. Is Marnie relatable or does she seem contrite? Are her reactions realistic?

Market/Genre: Not specified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The bookstore bell dinged as Marnie rushed inside the shop to hide from her step-mother.

It wasn’t like Sindi seemed to want her along anyway. When she wasn’t rifling through hangers or punching numbers on her cell phone, she threw babyish dresses with paisleys, flowers and other hideous patterns over the dressing room door for Marnie to stuff her thighs into. If Marnie had to squeeze one more tight waistline past her protesting hips (in front of a mirror, no less), she probably would have lost it.

So when Sindi peered at a jewelry display, shielding her face with a shopping bag to keep the sun from crinkling her newly smoothed botox, Marnie whisked herself inside the downtown bookstore to get away.

Shelves overflowing with musty tomes beat out a clothing rack any day. She loved the smell of the old books, the feel of their pages between her fingers.

The bell sounded, but Marnie didn’t hear it. She was too busy peering at a tower of un-shelved books amid the store’s stained glass windows, narrow doorways, and low ceilings.

A gold glint caught her eye, leading her to a leather book with Celtic designs buried beneath the stack. Hand-colored etchings sketched with breathtaking detail were woven along the spine, where gold swirls intertwined with tightly-woven knots. A chainmail of art.

But what shocked her more is what happened when she reached toward it.

The spine’s top corner angled toward her fingers, while the tomes on either side dropped away. Above, the tower of books was suspended in space, hovering when they should have fallen.

Marnie’s heart thundered in her ears, and her arm seized. Was this really happening?

My Thoughts in Purple:

The bookstore bell dinged as Marnie rushed inside the shop [to hide] telling a bit here. This explains motive, it doesn't show actions that would allow a reader to guess she was hiding from her step-mother.

It wasn’t like Sindi [seemed to want] the seemed to weakens this. Marnie would have a clear opinion here since she's hiding already . her along anyway. When she wasn’t rifling through hangers or punching numbers on her cell phone, she threw babyish dresses with paisleys, flowers and other hideous patterns over the dressing room door for Marnie to stuff her thighs into. [If Marnie had to squeeze one more tight waistline past her protesting hips (in front of a mirror, no less), she probably would have lost it.] I like the internalization here. I'm getting a sense of who Marnie is.

[So when] Explaining here, which stops the action. Sindi peered at a jewelry display, shielding her face with a shopping bag [to keep] the sun from crinkling her newly smoothed botox, Marnie whisked herself inside the downtown bookstore [to get] away. There's a lot of telling motives here

Shelves overflowing with musty tomes beat out a clothing rack any day. She loved the smell of the old books, the feel of their pages between her fingers.

The bell sounded, [but Marnie didn’t hear it.] If she didn't hear it, and she's the POV, then she'd not mention it. [She was too busy peering at a tower of un-shelved books amid the store’s stained glass windows, narrow doorways, and low ceilings.] Telling what she's doing and what the store looks like, but I'm not getting a sense of Marnie at all

A gold glint caught her eye, [leading her to] explaining motive a leather book with Celtic designs buried beneath the stack. Hand-colored etchings sketched with breathtaking detail were woven along the spine, where gold swirls intertwined with tightly-woven knots. A chainmail of art.

[But what shocked her more] I never see her shocked at all, so this feels told [is what happened when she reached toward it.] Telegraphing what's to come. If Marnie is the POV, then she won't know things ahead of time.

The spine’s top corner angled toward her fingers, while the tomes on either side dropped away. Above, the tower of books was suspended in space, hovering when they should have fallen.

Marnie’s heart thundered in her ears, and her arm seized. Was this really happening?

The questions:

1. Does the story jump off the page, or does the beginning fall flat?
It's not working for me yet because it's mostly setup and explanation, and the story isn't being dramatized. There's very little from Marnie as a character to draw me in, and her actions and motives are being explained so there's nothing for me to wonder about and hook me. The story hasn't actually started yet.

(More on telling motivation here)

There are quite a few lines that feel like summaries of a scene, which adds to the told feel. A good example of this is:
So when Sindi peered at a jewelry display, shielding her face with a shopping bag to keep the sun from crinkling her newly smoothed botox, Marnie whisked herself inside the downtown bookstore to get away.
This is an explanation of what happens and why, but it's also a description of a scene. Getting away is important since it puts Marnie on the path to finding the book. It's an opportunity to show her frustration with her step-mother and how she feels. Her need to escape. Try putting yourself (and readers) in Marnie's head and showing her emotions as she's dragged from store to store. Have her see Sindi distracted by the window and not paying attention. Marnie spots the bookstore and inches away, debating whether or not to make a run for it. She does, and slips away, heart racing, to escape.

(More on openings here)

There's another line that does something similar. It's an important moment and one that could really grab a reader, but instead of being dramatized, it's explained--even worse, it explains it before it happens, stealing any tension.
But what shocked her more is what happened when she reached toward it.
Before I read the scene I know something shocking happened, so the mystery and tension is gone. I don't get to feel Marnie's shock, see what shocked her, experience that moment along with her. This is a great moment, so bring the reader along for the ride.

(More on stimulus response here)

There are plenty of interesting things here that could be fun if you fleshed them out and turned them into scenes. Marnie shopping with a step-mother she doesn't get along with has the potential for conflict, and would show her relationship and what she's dissatisfied with about her life. This feels like a "find a magic item/portal and life changes" type story, so establishing that life and why Marnie would want to change this is important. Readers will want to see her life so they know what she's running from/wishing for/avoiding, etc. Jumping into the story too fast actually leaves the reader behind and they don't care enough to come along. Try establishing the real world for Marnie before things change for her. That way, readers can see the difference in her life and how she grows as a character.

I'd also suggest establishing a goal for Marnie at the start to give the opening some drive. As is, it has a "here's how she gets the book" explanation, and I suspect the real meat of the story isn't going to happen until she opens it and starts reading. That's too long to make a reader wait and they're going to want something interesting to happen right away. If there's already a theme of escape (guessing due to the book and the way these stories typically go), maybe have Marnie trying to get away on this shopping trip, or show what the big problem she has is. What goal or need can she want here that will lead to or mirror what the core conflict of the book is about?

(More on goals and narrative drive here)

2. Is Marnie relatable or does she seem contrite? Are her reactions realistic?
I don't know yet, because I haven't really met her. There's very little internalization for me to see who she is or know what she wants. I assume she's a teen since she's shopping with a step-mother, and probably a young teen, like 12 or 13 if the step-mother is giving her little-girl type clothes, (suggesting she's close to child age, more tween than teen). She's possibly a little overweight (she mentions her thighs, squeezing into things, and not liking the mirror). I know she likes books and doesn't like her step-mother. But those are all surface details and they don't tell me who Marnie is. What she thinks, how she feels about the world around her. I want to know those things so I can get to know her.

(More on POV and description here)

I'd suggest adding more internalization so readers can get a sense of who she is and what she wants. Let the reader see by her actions and thoughts how she feels about her step-mother and this shopping trip, and how she feels about that bookstore. There's one spot where I start to feel in Marnie's head, and I like that. More like this would really add to the scene.
If Marnie had to squeeze one more tight waistline past her protesting hips (in front of a mirror, no less), she probably would have lost it.
This feels like Marnie thinking and I get a sense of her frustration. If you used "she" instead of Marnie, you'd be even tighter in her POV and I'd feel even more in her head.

(More on internalization here)

Also try showing the world through her eyes. The POV feels very distant and omniscient right now, and that makes it hard to connect to Marnie as a character. Everything is stated with no personal judgment or opinion from her, so I don't know how she feels about anything. A good example of this is here:
It wasn’t like Sindi seemed to want her along anyway.
The "seemed to" keeps me at bay as a reader. Would Marnie care what Sindi "seemed" to want or would she care about what she thought Sindi actually wanted? She'd have an opinion about this. If she thought Sindi didn't want her there, she'd think "she didn't want her along anyway." She wouldn't qualify it. Even if she's wrong and Sindi does want her there, if she feels that way, it's her opinion about what she describes and thinks.

There's potential here for a good scene, so I'd suggest taking what you know happens and fleshing it out so the reader can see all these things unfolding. Give Marnie a goal and let the step-mother be the obstacle to that goal so you have conflict and stakes driving the scene. Let the discovery of the book be something that might solve Marnie's problem (even if it isn't) and gives her a goal moving forward. Flesh this out so readers are dying to know what happens when she opens that book.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I am no expert, but I liked it. The first sentence hooked me immediately. Yes there were improvements needed in the piece, and my main question was - how old is Marnie? But I personally related to her, liked her.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What Janice said.
    I think the concept is strong, and girls aged 8 -12 would relate to an indifferent stepmother trying to get her to wear childish clothes (although I understood that to mean she was giving her clothes for a younger kid, not that she was overweight. It would have been more insulting if she'd passed her clothes a few sizes too large!). I also like the idea of a book reaching for her. (I always think books are wanting me to read them). It's a good place to start a story, and at this stage I'm guessing the book will lead her to another world for lots of adventures. You just need to tighten the voice and POV issues as suggested.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Janice, especially about the reaching for the book. That particular piece jarred me more than any other as the timing is off.

    Also, I had no real concept of age at all. Janice detailed why it might be young teen, but I couldn't even get that. Her attitude about her stepmom feels much older, but the term 'babyish' muddles that idea for me.

    Thanks for letting us see the review.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Interesting dissection. I like how you broke down everything and gave a reasonable explanation of why.
    I learned. Thank you for that!

    ReplyDelete