Saturday, November 17, 2012

Real Life Diagnostics: A Wicked Beginning: Does This Opening Work?

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: Four

This week’s questions:

Does Krinn seem evil? Is this an engaging hook? Does this opening work? My friend says it isn't a good hook because there's no conflict yet. Is this true? Am I showing or telling? What type of world do you think of when you read this?

Market/Genre: Fantasy 


NOTE: Revised snippet at the end of the post

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Master?” The demon asked again.

“Yes?” The Master responded icily, making the creature hesitate.

“I sense your distaste, Master Krinn, but please listen,” The creature pleaded.

“If I do so, will you shut up afterwards, you pathetic excuse for a demon?” Krinn snarled.

“Y-yes, Master,” The demon said.

“Then continue, Drital,” Krinn told him.

“Master, you shouldn’t be so angry. I know we failed, but there is always next time! Be patient,” Drital, the demon, said.

“Patience? I have waited two years! Two long, excruciating years! How’s that for patience?!” Krinn yelled.

“B-but Master, we will try again! There is time!” Drital said in a calming tone.

Krinn’s eyes narrowed, fire in them. “Time? You imbecile, we are running out of time! The Sentries are suspicious, and they grow impatient. Soon they will find me out, and I will be taken to the Council!”

“I do not see anything bad with that. Manipulate them, as you always do,” Drital reasoned.

“I do not have the time! Vae will figure out how to trigger my weapon. He will use it to demolish me and all of Yibaar will be happy. They think he’s a hero,” Krinn spat.

“But make a counter weapon, Master Krinn! You are a clever demon-hunter and can outwit any of those juveniles!”

“A counter weapon? I cannot. Those ‘heroes’, they made me lose everything when I was exiled.”

“What did you lose?”

“My pride, my weapon, my respect, my trust. My home. I lost everything. And I was forced into hiding here, in the remote caves!”

“But… how?” Drital asked.

Krinn looked away.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Master?” The demon asked again.

“Yes?” The Master responded icily, [making the creature hesitate.] telling some here, because this explains the hesitation. Try showing the creature hesitate. Look for ways he (it?) can act that someone hesitating would do. Even something as simple as "The creature hesitated. "I sense..."

“I sense your distaste, Master Krinn, but please listen,” [The creature pleaded.] Telling because the "please listen" shows it's pleading.

“If I do so, will you shut up afterwards, you pathetic excuse for a demon?” [Krinn snarled.] Dialog doesn't need to be tagged on every line.
“Y-yes, Master,” The demon said.

“Then continue, Drital,” Krinn told him.

“Master, you shouldn’t be so angry. I know we failed, but there is always next time! Be patient,” [Drital, the demon, said.] Since these characters know each others names, it sounds odd to suddenly be told who the demon is. Perhaps use his name right at the start.

“Patience? I have waited two years! Two long, excruciating years! How’s that for patience?!” [Krinn yelled.] All the exclamation points indicate yelling, so you don't need to say it here

“B-but Master, we will try again! There is time!” [Drital said in a calming tone.] Telling here. This explains the tone the dialog is spoken in, yet the dialog has a lot of exclamation points, which contradicts that tone. Try using words and actions that are calming and soothing.

Krinn’s eyes narrowed, fire in them. “Time? You imbecile, we are running out of time! The Sentries are suspicious, and they grow impatient. Soon they will find me out, and I will be taken to the Council!”

“I do not see anything bad with that. Manipulate them, as you always do,” [Drital reasoned.] Telling. His words show this, so the tag isn't needed.

“I do not have the time! Vae will figure out how to trigger my weapon. He will use it to demolish me and all of Yibaar will be happy. They think he’s a hero,” Krinn spat.

“But make a counter weapon, Master Krinn! You are a clever demon-hunter and can outwit any of those juveniles!”

[“A counter weapon? I cannot. Those ‘heroes’, they made me lose everything when I was exiled.”

“What did you lose?”

“My pride, my weapon, my respect, my trust. My home. I lost everything. And I was forced into hiding here, in the remote caves!”
] This feels a bit "As you know, Bob" dialog. Information stated for the benefit of the reader.

“But… how?” Drital asked.

Krinn looked away.

The questions:

Does Krinn seem evil?

He does. I get a sense that he's your traditional evil overlord type.

Is this an engaging hook?
I thought so. It seems like Krinn is evil, but working against his own evil Council, and I'm curious where this will go. I've always been a fan of evil villains, and this has the flavor of a "evil dude is the real hero" type. Not sure if that's true or not, but I'd read on. (Readers chime in here since this a matter of personal taste and I happen to like bad guys)

Does this opening work?
Content-wise, I wanted to know more, so yes. It does have some technical issues I'd suggest working on though. Those issues would have made me put the book down had I picked it up in a store, and the weaken the piece overall.

The dialog tags are a bit distracting. It's not necessary to tag every line, especially with non-said words (which are often used so you don't use "said" over and over) It starts to sound repetitive and a little comical after a while. When I read this without reading the tags it's much stronger. With all those tags, it's less interesting.

I'd suggest cutting almost all of them. Only keep them to remind the reader who is speaking. Actually, I'm going to suggest an exercise. Try rewriting this without using any tags at all. Only use stage direction and internalization. Right now, it's two heads talking in a white room. More internalization and description would help flesh out this scene and give you opportunities to get rid of all those tags with things that will help the story.

Also, the punctuation is off on the tags themselves. When the tag is part of the dialog, you wouldn't use a capital. For example:
“Master?” The demon asked again. Should be “Master?” the demon asked again.
You'd only use a capital if the dialog and the next sentence were both full sentences. For example:
“Master?” The demon cocked his head.
The dialog is one thing. The head cocking is another.

(More on formatting dialog here and common dialog problems here and general dialog tips here)

My friend says it isn't a good hook because there's no conflict yet. Is this true?
There is conflict, but it's quieter. Krinn is upset because his plan failed and he doesn't want to try again. The demon wants him to try again and is trying to encourage him to do so. There's also the risk of Vae figuring out the weapon and using it, so Krinn has something at stake and something working against him. The story question here feels like: Will the demon be able to convince Krinn to make a counter weapon before Vae triggers the weapon and kills them? Krinn wants to give up, the demon wants him to try, and there are stakes (Vae killing them) if they fail here. That's conflict with stakes.

Conflict doesn't have to be huge fight scenes or breath-taking action. It's just someone who wants something, and something or someone is preventing them from getting it. Good conflict is when the reader cares about the outcome, which typically means having stakes they care about. There are stakes here. Krinn's life is in danger. If the reader cares about that, the hook will work. If they don't, it won't.

(More on quiet conflicts here)

Am I showing or telling?
Telling so far. Much of that is due to the dialog tags. The scene is relying on your explanations to paint the picture. Try adding more description and internalization so readers can get to know Krinn and see his world. What's he thinking about as he's yelling at his poor demon? Where are they? Right now I have no sense of what they look like or where they are. Just evil guys in an underground lair.

Try looking for ways to show the things the dialog tags explain. What actions might the demon do that show hesitation? He licks his lips? Glances away and wrings his hands before speaking? Uses works like "Um...well..."? Think about how someone hesitating would act, then describe those actions. Take your dialog tags and use them to inspire you on how someone who was doing that would act or think.

(More on showing vs telling in dialog here)

What type of world do you think of when you read this?
Since there's nothing to suggest otherwise, I get the traditional fantasy setting vibe. Castles, medieval-level technology, magic and demons. The weapon hints at more, but it could be a magical weapon. If this isn't the right setting, then I'd suggest adding specific details that counteract the default fantasy setting image. Find things unique to your world and details that show what this world is like right away so readers don't assume incorrectly.

(More on setting here)

Overall, I think there's something fun building here. Some technical things to work on, but the foundation is strong. I want to know what happens, and oddly enough, I like Krinn and his supportive demon. I know they're evil, but there's something about them I find compelling. I could even see rooting for them, though I suspect this is going to shift over to the heroes very soon. (And I find that oddly sad)

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 Snippet:

“Master? I…I come with news. Bad news,” Drital said.

Yes?” [The Master responded icily. ] Since you just used Master, perhaps cut it here to remove some of the extra dialog tags. Especially since Drital calls him Master many times in this snippet.

[He sighed. “I sense your distaste, Master Krinn, but please listen.” This seems like an odd thing to say since Master is listening.

“Will you silence yourself afterwards, you pathetic excuse for a demon?”[ Krinn snarled.] Don't need. It's clear it's just the two of them speaking.

“Y-yes, Master.”

“Then by all means, continue, Drital.”] I don’t think you need this exchange after he says "yes?" It delays the action and doesn’t offer anything to hook the reader. Could also cut his name in the dialog to tighten.

“Master, we failed,” [Drital said.] Don't need, we know he's speaking He looked at his Master nervously.

[Krinn snarled.] Don't need. And he just snarled so it's repetitious.Again?”

[“W-what about next time? Be patient, Master!”] Perhaps show Krinn being impatient first

Patience? I waited two years! Two long, excruciating years! Am I patient enough now?!” Krinn threw a rock at the cave wall.

“B-but Master, we will try again! We’re in no rush, we have time!”

Krinn’s eyes narrowed, fire in them. “Time? You keep saying time. You imbecile, we are running out of time! The Sentries are suspicious. Soon they will find me, and I will be taken to the Council!”

[“I do not recognize the problem. Manipulate them, as you always do.”] This doesn't feel like something Drital would say. He's kind of back talking his Mater. Perhaps phrase more as a question? "Can you manipulate them again?"

“It will take too long. Vae will figure out how to use my weapon. He will use it to demolish me and all of Yibaar will be happy. They think he’s a hero,” [Krinn spat.] Be wary of dialog tags other than said or asked. Too many in a row stand out and distract from the story, and many of them are things you can't actual "say." Also, this feels disconnected to the problem of the Sentries finding him, so I'm not sure what the problem is

[“Well, you are a clever demon-hunter! You must know what to do!”] Feels a little infodumpy.

Krinn sneered. [“I am a demon hunter no longer. Do not refer to me as a creature of such filth.”] If he was a demon hunter once, why is it filth now? These two ideas don't really work together without understanding why they're filth now when they must not have been when he was one.

“My apologies. But we shall win eventually. We are resilient.”

[Krinn scoffed.] He just sneered. Of the two, I think scoffed works better here “Obviously you know nothing of the world! [Now leave my cave before I kill you, I might regret it in the morning.”] Cute.

Krinn is coming across more clich├ęd evil than really evil this time around. He snaps, snarls, is mean to his demon, is behaving like a bit of a jerk. I’m not getting the same sense of evil overlord as the previous snippet. The sense that he was working against his own people and he was really the hero is gone in this version. I liked that part, as it suggested there was more to him than meets the eye.

Perhaps come at this from a different angle and have the demon’s report be about something truly evil that Krinn has sent him to do. That would give the scene a goal to help hook readers and provide some conflict. Maybe say specially what failed so readers see what he tried to do.

Who is the POV character here? Which one is the reader supposed to connect with? If it’s Drital, then perhaps start a little earlier and have him worrying about what Krinn is going to do when he hears the news. The scene is about delivering the news, the goal is to do so without punishment, and the stakes are the punishment. The conflict comes from Drital trying to keep Krinn from punishing him when he's just doing his job.

If Krinn is the POV, then perhaps angle it so he's the one with the goal. Starting a little earlier could also work, as he's thinking about his plan and wondering if it worked or not, anxiously waiting for news. The conflict can come from him wanting the news and Drital trying hard not to tell him (knowing that punishment is coming). Maybe Krinn's first instinct is to kill him (since he's an ex-demon hunter) but he needs him so he's resisting. His goal might be to get the answers without killing someone he needs to fulfill his larger plan.

Overall, I'd suggest picking one character to be the POV and then writing the scene from his perspective with a specific goal in mind. Right now, I get the sense you're trying to explain the setup of the story, so there's no POV or setting to ground readers. Try using some internalization from the POV character to help fill in the information gaps. That will also show who the POV is more so readers can connect with him and be curious about what he's doing.

4 comments:

  1. Dialogue tags can be tricky, because we are so used to skimming them in reading that we sometimes don't notice them when we write either.

    Autocrit has a dialogue tag feature (as well as a redundancy check, for that "please" he pleaded sentence) that might be helpful to the writer.

    You can put this same sample into Autocrit's free service and see what it comes up with--but Janice covered it pretty thoroughly!

    Good luck!

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  3. I too love villains, they are so often the most interesting characters in a story. I especially love villains who turn out to be the hero, or heroes who are ostensibly bad guys. For example, in Eragon, Murtagh was way more interesting than Eragon.

    I would have cut out 99% of the dialogue tags here. I would have added more scenery and more movement so we had some idea of where they were, not only in relation to each other but also to the rest of the world. That would have helped to set the mood better, giving us a stronger sense of danger, misery, or frustration.

    For this part ...

    “What did you lose?”

    “My pride, my weapon, my respect, my trust. My home. I lost everything. And I was forced into hiding here, in the remote caves!”] This feels a bit "As you know, Bob" dialog. Information stated for the benefit of the reader.

    ... You could have him remembering those things, rather than saying them. A flashback or memory will make the scene slightly longer, but richer, and help convey how he feels about his losses. It will enable us to better empathise with him.

    I like the idea of the story. Same as Janice, I have a very strong tendency to align with the villains, so I sympathise with Krinn already. Which makes it tricky because with the scene fixed up I would read on, I am intrigued ... but then again I might *not* read on, if I knew a bold, brainless and beautiful hero was going to be the main character. ;-)

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  4. I'd suggest reading the first few pages of Dianna Wynne Jones' "Dogsbody." It shows how to introduce an unfamiliar world to your reader while hooking them into the story. What are the rules of the world you've created? How will your reader know what they are?

    I also highly recommend the first few pages (if not the whole book) of Janice's "The Shifter." She really knows how to do this well.

    Dialog tags are tricky, and I was well into my second draft of my novel when I discovered how unnecessary they were. Ctrl +F (find) on your manuscript for "said" and "asked" will help determine which dialog tags need to stay, and which don't.

    But I'm also intrigued by AutoCrit (thanks, Angelica!), and may try it also.

    Good luck!

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