Saturday, March 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Hooking a Reader While Establishing the Story World

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 have enough action to hook the reader? Does it make you want to read more? More importantly, does it establish the world and situation Fallon lives in?

Market/Genre: Unspecified


On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Ethereal wisps of cloud hovered close to the ground, obscuring the hunting lodge. It was distant enough to be out of range for all but the strongest archer, but I could make out sleek, fat shapes bent peacefully below the monolith, dim through the clouds.

The rising sun gilt the edges of the fog and lit up the tentative green mist which covered the skeletal trees. I glanced ruefully at my own hands, noting the prominence of knuckles and bones.

Focus, Fallon,” an exasperated voice hissed from beside me. I sucked in cold air and glared witheringly at my brother, but the boy didn't seem to notice. Or if he did he pretended not to. Twitching splayed fingers as a polished nub of bone played across, Dominic ran his other hand through his hair. He narrowed bright eyes undulled by winter's hunger.

“You remember the signal, right?”

I smirked. “Don't tell me you forgot it again, Greyjay?” Dominic was just fifteen, so of course he'd try to hide his fear by acting tough and trying to boss me around.

Dominic caught the marble between finger and thumb, then glowered at me. “No,” he snapped. “You're the one who forgets things.” He shifted his bulky form uncomfortably. Despite the hunger, he'd filled out a little over the winter. No surprise there – we didn't just stop living and working because it was cold outside. Not even if the snow was up to our knees. Or even, as was the case this year, if some nasty pompous Avien happened to come by and steal all the food we barely had in the first place. It seemed so easy: Go out, shoot a deer, roast it. There was just one little thing in my way: the twelve-foot razor wire fence enclosing the deer herd. For the Aviens' easy hunting pleasure, we'd starved all season. Their wings and claws and the convenient fact they couldn’t understand our language meant were lower than them. Not second-class citizens, not even slaves. We were animals. Pets. To be traded, sold, caged, slaughtered at will. As if that weren't enough, now they'd stolen our deer herd as well. How did they expect us to live without the deer? On rabbits? Oh, that's right. They didn't care.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Ethereal wisps of cloud hovered close to the ground, obscuring the hunting lodge. It was distant enough to be out of range for all but the strongest archer, but I could make out sleek, fat shapes bent peacefully below the monolith, dim through the clouds. There's no sense of a POV yet, so I'd suggest adding something here to show the first-person narrator and at least a hint of why she's there.

[The rising sun gilt the edges of the fog and lit up the tentative green mist which covered the skeletal trees. I glanced ruefully at my own hands, noting the prominence of knuckles and bones.] personal taste, but this paragraph feels a little overwritten to me. The focus is on the description, not a person readers can connect to

Focus, Fallon,” an exasperated voice hissed from beside me. I sucked in cold air and glared witheringly at my brother, but [the boy] would she really call her brother "the boy" or just he? didn't seem to notice. Or if he did he pretended not to. [Twitching splayed fingers as a polished nub of bone played across, ] I don't know what this means Dominic ran his other hand through his hair. He narrowed bright eyes undulled by winter's hunger.

“You remember the signal, right?”

I smirked. “Don't tell me you forgot it again, Greyjay?” Dominic was just fifteen, so of course he'd try to hide his fear by acting tough and trying to boss me around.

Dominic caught the marble between finger and thumb, then glowered at me. “No,” he snapped. “You're the one who forgets things.” He shifted his bulky form uncomfortably. [Despite the hunger, he'd filled out a little over the winter. No surprise there – we didn't just stop living and working because it was cold outside. Not even if the snow was up to our knees.] Seems like an odd thing to reflect on at this moment. Perhaps have her think about the problem and the risks involved to clarify the goals and show the stakes [Or even, as was the case this year, if some nasty pompous Avien happened to come by and steal all the food we barely had in the first place. It seemed so easy: Go out, shoot a deer, roast it. There was just one little thing in my way: the twelve-foot razor wire fence enclosing the deer herd. For the Aviens' easy hunting pleasure, we'd starved all season.] This seems to be the point of the scene, but it feels lost down here, more like explanation than the goal driving the scene [Their wings and claws and the convenient fact they couldn’t understand our language meant were lower than them.] If she knows this she'd probably not explain it to herself. [Not second-class citizens, not even slaves. We were animals. Pets. To be traded, sold, caged, slaughtered at will. As if that weren't enough, now they'd stolen our deer herd as well. How did they expect us to live without the deer? On rabbits? Oh, that's right. They didn't care.] This feels a bit infodumpy the way it's used, but I think it could work if mixed with a more obvious goal. It's close, but off a little because there's no strong trigger for her to think this. The fence is an afterthought, not the problem.

The questions:

Does this opening have enough action to hook the reader?

Not yet, because there's no action. It's two people sitting outside a fence talking, and one is thinking about the situation. They haven't actually done anything.

(More on character goals here)

I'd suggest making why they're there stronger and clearer from the start. You set up the scene in the first few lines, then there's a perfect opening to slip in what they're doing there. They have to figure out a way past the fence to hunt the deer so they don't starve. Great goal, solid stakes.

I get the sense that the fence is new, so that might be the way to get the world building in without infodumping. Perhaps they're out hunting, wondering why the deer have been so hard to find this year, and then see the fence. This could be the first time they encounter it, and Fallon can get angry and think about the Aviens and how they're making her life miserable. She'd have a reason to think about how they don't care about her people. (If this all fits the story of course).

I'm looking for a way to insert a problem they need to fix that will draw readers in and give you opportunities to world build and set the scene at the same time. Some of that is here, but the problem and the reason for it feel a little too told and explained as is, and that's stopping the story instead of drawing me into it. But with a little shifting around, it could work well as a hook.

Don't feel you have to explain everything right away. It's okay to let the details unfold a bit. Remember, some of the world and setup with be on the cover copy/query, so odds are the reader knows going in a little about the world. Let readers see the problem and what's at stake first, then start slipping in the world details.

Just having Fallon complain about the Aviens is enough to let readers know they're the bad guys here. They stole the herd and Fallon's people will starve unless she gets past the fence. If the Aviens have wings, maybe there's no gate on the fence for her to open, and she can think about that in a way that feels natural and still gets that info in. Look for things that can trigger the thoughts you want her to have about the world and show that world in action.

(More on making critical aspects of a character or situation part of the plot)

Does it make you want to read more?

Not yet, but the potential is there. A brother and sister risking their lives to find food for their starving people is a strong reason to care, and if you get the goal, conflict, and stakes across, I'd want to know more.

(More on adding conflict here)

More importantly, does it establish the world and situation Fallon lives in?

It explains more than establishes, but again, it's close. Try shifting your thoughts from telling the reader why things are this way to showing them as they are and letting the reader figure it out. Fallon hating the Aviens is showing, and when she's thinking about how they don't care, it feels like her reacting to the fence and being unable to get the deer. But her thinking about their wings and claws and being unable to understand them feels like information inserted for the reader's benefit. It can be a subtle shift, but it can jar a reader out of the story and sap the tension from a scene.

(More on infodumps here)

Perhaps get what the Aviens looks like across by actually seeing one. If they're a threat, that could be something Fallon has to deal with to get the deer. If the Aviens don't see humans as a threat at all, then perhaps show Fallon trying to be a threat and being ignored (show how ineffectual she is) and let her react to that with what she thinks and says. Or maybe getting caught and turned into pets is the risk here and they have to get past Aviens and the fence to get the deer. Whatever works for the story, but try looking for ways to show the world in action vs explaining it.

(More on grounding readers in your world here)

This scene has all the potential to do that. It feels like it has the right pieces, just try dramatizing it more.

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. By the time I got to "skeletal trees", I'd had about enough of adjectives and adverbs. (But don't lose "ethereal mist", because that's a nice phrase.)

    There isn't enough *story* here yet to really catch my attention, but I like the elements. I love brother-sister duos, especially when there's a little bickering involved, and bird-masters make intriguing villains. I'd be interested in your rewrite!

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  2. I love the idea of this column -- the dissection/crit is fascinating and a wonderful lesson for all writers.

    So thanks to the brave writers who submitted and thanks Janice for critiquing.

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  3. I spent a lot of time trying to figure things out during the first few paragraphs. I went back and re-read to make sure I hadn't missed things. Although much of the writing has a poetic style, it mainly establishes scene and information. There wasn't a clear placement with a character early enough to form a bond with at least one of them.

    Janice's notes are spot on. I could see the ways in which the stakes could be introduced earlier and also the POV established so we, the readers, could begin forming that bond and be ready to follow on the journey.

    With a few enhancements, I can really see this beautiful writing intensified to really hook the reader.

    Wishing the very best for the submitter of this piece and thank you :-)

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  4. Wait, did I miss something? Where is everybody getting that Fallon's female? I don't see anything clarifying gender. I got the impression that Fallon was an older brother. There's nothing naturally feminine about the name "Fallon," either.

    Or is it just that nowadays, by default, it's presumed a 1st person protagonist is female? There's a whole lot of them.

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  5. Very helpful critique. I struggle with how to put world building in without info dumping and this gives a wonderful example. Thanks to the submitter for being brave and thanks to Janice for critiquing.

    As to the female thing, I assume the POV is female because of the feel. To me, a female's more likely to analyze her fingers or think about her brother's motives whereas a male's more likely to wonder if the two of them are strong enough for what needs to be done. (Then he might consider physical traits). But I could be wrong. Just a side thought.

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  6. I also thought Fallon was a guy... but either way I enjoyed the excerpt, sure it was a bit info dumpy but I was curious enough about their position to let it slide, Janice's suggestions would make great enhancements however.

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  7. This is a frequent submitter, so I know the story a bit by now. Even so, I also forgot Fallon was female until I was reminded by another email from the author :) There's actually nothing in the text itself that clearly proves gender either way.

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  8. I like to read more, sensing something like THE HUNGER GAMES. There are two many sentences that can be deleted making it moving quickly. For example, I will start with the third passage of
    "Focus Fallon" ... eliminating the first two, and maybe take a little from the first two passages and insert it later in pages 1-3. But I like the world of these two youngsters feeling like animals, pets, to be traded. Best wishes with the novel.

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