Saturday, December 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Come Into My World: Getting Readers Onboard Without Infodumping

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: Six

This week’s questions:

I have been told "don't open with dialogue", but I have also seen the need to open in the middle of a situation and not being info-dumpy. Since this scene establishes the MC and an important secondary character (who isn't human), I want to make sure the opening flows well, is not confusing and doesn't do the opposite of info dumping--not explaining enough.

Market/Genre: Urban Fantasy

NOTE: There's a new opening for an older post for those curious to see how the writer changed things.


On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

“A zombie wedding?”

I smirked at my harbinger sitting in the passenger seat and checked the text again. “I think she means a zombie at a wedding. Cheer up. Moira has been vague before. Remember the ‘zombie hooker’ in Pahrump?”

Harvey groaned. “A ‘zombie madam’ is so not the same thing.”

Laughing, I pushed my way out of the beat up Toyota. Harvey sauntered across the seat to the driver’s side.

“This is what, the fourth one this month?” he asked. He curled his tail around his feet as he sat back on his haunches.

“Yeah,” I answered, “and we’re not even half way through April. I think Moira is getting pissed.”

“Of course she is,” he replied. “Fate is not kind to people dabbling in her business.” He stretched himself out in the late morning sun. “Do you think she would notice if I sat this one out?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “You’re trying to get an afternoon off?”

“It would be nice.” He flopped his cat carcass across the driver’s seat. “The vinyl is just the right temperature.”

“Those seats are pleather and you know it,” I chided. Several older ladies in sun dresses filed into the church. The wedding would start soon. “But if you want to stay in there with those burritos cooking, be my guest.”

He glanced at the dashboard. “Ew. Those are going to be nasty.” A grease spot was slowly growing in the corner of a brown bag tucked under the windshield.

“You’ll still eat them,” I said. “Come on. No point in dragging this out.”

He stood and took a step forward, launching himself into the air and changing into bat form before he cleared the edge of the window. He circled once before landing on my shoulder.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[“A zombie wedding?”] Who says this?

I smirked at my harbinger sitting in the passenger seat and checked the text again. “I think she means a zombie at a wedding. Cheer up. Moira has been vague before. Remember the ‘zombie hooker’ in Pahrump?”

Harvey groaned. [“A ‘zombie madam’ is so not the same thing.”] I almost get the joke, but I feel like I need a little more context to understand this world.

[Laughing, I pushed my way out of the beat up Toyota. Harvey sauntered across the seat to the driver’s side.] They stopped the car? The transition here is a bit jarring. This is a good spot for some internalization to explain the zombie joke and provide a little world building context

“This is what, the fourth one this month?” he asked. He curled his tail around his feet as he sat back on his haunches.

“Yeah,” [I answered,] Don't need. It's clear he answers. “and we’re not even half way through April. I think Moira is getting pissed.”

“Of course she is,” [he replied.] Same here. “Fate is not kind to people dabbling in her business.” This is a good spot for some internalization to explain a little more about Fate. Maybe make the next part a new paragraph. He stretched himself out in the late morning sun. “Do you think she would notice if I sat this one out?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “You’re trying to get an afternoon off?”

“It would be nice.” [He flopped his cat carcass across the driver’s seat.] If he's just going to lie down, why did he change seats? “The vinyl is just the right temperature.”

“Those seats are pleather and you know it,” I chided. [Several older ladies in sun dresses filed into the church.] What church? I don't know where they are so I feel lost The wedding would start soon. “But if you want to stay in there with those [burritos cooking,] Uh, what? be my guest.”

He glanced at the dashboard. “Ew. Those are going to be nasty.” A grease spot was slowly growing in the corner of a brown bag tucked under the windshield.

“You’ll still eat them,” I said. “Come on. No point in dragging this out.”

He stood and took a step forward, launching himself into the air and changing into bat form before he cleared the edge of the window. He circled once before landing on my shoulder.

The questions:

Note: The submitter sent is a query as well on this to provide context, but since the question was about having enough context, I didn't read it before I did this critique. I did read it after however, to get a better understanding of what was going on so I could offer more targeted advice.

I want to make sure the opening flows well, is not confusing and doesn't do the opposite of info dumping--not explaining enough.
I do feel a little lost, and a little more context to set the scene and ground me in this world would help. After reading the query I get a better idea of what's going on, but there are things I'm still confused about, and that's keeping me from being drawn in. And I want to be drawn in, because this looks like a fun book.

You mentioned starting with dialog, so let's start there. It's fine to start with dialog if it works. The advice against it is because it's hard to do well. I like the dialog line itself here (admittedly I'm biased to like zombies), but I don't know who says it or in what context, so it's not quite working.

This is a good spot for a little internalization from the POV to establish who he is and what they're doing. Even moving the "I smirked" line up to the dialog (if the narrator is saying it) would help clear this up. I'd know he said it. If Harvey said it, a little description of where they are and what they're doing would provide some setting.

(More on starting with dialog here)

The zombie madam joke also feels a little vague. The characters are kidding about something I've yet to figure out, so I feel lost instead of laughing with them. Is this a world that has zombie hookers and a human madam running them? Or is there an actual zombie madam? Are zombies in this world sentient? I'd imagine they'd have to be if they could organize and run a brothel. A little more here would clear up the confusion. For example:
"A zombie wedding?" Harvey said, cocking his fuzzy head. "Are you sure about that?"

I took one hand off the steering wheel and checked the text again. “I think she means a zombie at a wedding. Cheer up. Moira has been vague before. Remember the ‘zombie hooker’ in Pahrump?”

“A ‘zombie madam’ is so not the same thing.”

No it wasn't. (a quick line or two about why and what happened)
With a few lines, you've established this is not the world readers live in, and offered something unusual to pique their curiosity. Perhaps pull back a little here and set the scene. When things are so different from what readers expect, a little telling isn't a bad thing, especially if it's in the voice of your protagonist. I think you could easily do a paragraph here to setup what's going on before Harvey says his "fourth time this month" line.

The location is also a bit fuzzy. They're in the car, then the car is stopped and they're changing seats. I'm not sure where I am so I get jarred out of the story. Then I discover I'm at the church, so I'm unsure how much time has passed. Is this the church the zombie is at? Were they on their way to the church before they got the text? If not, how did they get there so fast? It also appears out of nowhere.

(More on establishing setting here)

I think more internalization will fix these murky areas, and give me needed information on the protagonist. I don't know much about him yet, as the focus is more on Harvey and the fact that he's not human. But from the query, neither is the narrator (technically). But aside from hanging out with supernatural creatures, there's nothing to suggest what the narrator does for a living or why he's different.

(More on internalization and world building here)

There's also no goal driving this scene. Are they on their way to the wedding anyway and get this text? Are they off doing whatever they do and the text comes in and diverts them? Nothing about this is "normal" for the reader, so establishing what's normal for the characters is important to getting the reader on board. Why is this zombie important? What are they doing before they get this text? This "job" appears routine since Harvey wants a nap and doesn't seem bothered by it, so where are the stakes to make readers want to keep reading? What conflict will hook readers? Aside from "look at this cool world" why should a reader care about what's happening?

Overall, I like the tone and writing here, and I think with a little fleshing out this could be a good opening. It's an interesting world, so try adding more details to bring readers into that world.

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 have to admit, I'm not a reader of zombie material, but the tone of this really is great. I like the voice. Like Janice pointed out, it's vague in a couple of places but I'd definitely keep reading. It's clear this is another world or at least not earth as we know it. I am a little confused as to whether they're going to the zombie wedding now (which is why they're at the church) or they're at the church for some other reason. The story sounds like it's going to be fun.

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  2. In reading this and the critique, I think I noticed a couple of things that I do in my own writing. I better go check and see if I can address a thing or three :-)

    Thanks to the volunteer for taking a chance and to you, as well, for the great advice :-)

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  3. I like the twist on the zombie theme- they appear to have integrated into your world, and invite the living to their weddings. Great!

    FYI, the line about the passenger curling his tail around his legs made me think the fellow was a demon, which piqued my interest even more - demons are a part of your society, too? Tell me more! After a few lines I found he was a talking shape shifter in cat form. Interesting, but not as much as a demon side kick.

    Keep going, I think it's got lots of merit.

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  4. This sounds right up my street :) zombie, shifters, a great voice, fun and interesting. The only bit that jarred me was the bit with the church, got a little confused thinking they were suddenly in the church. Would love to read this book when it's finished x

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