Sunday, June 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This an Effective 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: Nine (+two re-submits)

This week’s question:

Is this an effective opening scene?

Market/Genre: Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Two shots presented choice to Athson. Arrow nocked, he knelt on one knee measuring the targets looking from deep shade under trees onto open grass stretching above the rocky shore of the Sea of Mists. He considered the pheasant a trickier mark for dinner than the rabbit. His skill either meant a nice supplement to his supplies for a few days.

A ranger of Auguron, Athson weighed each animal. He gauged the wind. Glancing at the movement of tree limbs well above ground, he judged the necessary lead should he require a shot at the bird in startled flight.

The pheasant's green head, striped neck and long, chestnut tail feathers tantalized the archer with as a colorful target as well as its meat. But the speckled rabbit scuttled in the grass closer than the bird. Athson waited, calculating his choices, his campsite set early due to his afternoon arrival fulfilling his lonely patrol of Auguron Forest's western marches.

Athson stood without noise. Situated upwind, he feared no alerting either animal. Decision made, the archer drew back the arrow, aimed, released his breath. He blinked, turned and released.

The arrow sprung away in silence – no plucking the string for an Auguron Ranger. His aim proved true and unwavering striking through the head. Athson stepped from hiding preparing to clean his kill, high grass tangling at his shins. The rabbit – and her kits – hopped into their hole at his movement.

The kits saved their mother. Athson spotted the young rabbits as he aimed for the doe so he chose the male pheasant. The latter took no part in raising young but the kits needed the rabbit doe for weeks yet as Athson judged by their size. He arrived at the pheasant, squatted and started pulling feathers.

Athson turned his head, spied the rabbit-hole. He thought children needed their mothers – and fathers.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Two shots presented [a?] choice to Athson. [Arrow nocked, he knelt on one knee measuring the targets looking from deep shade under trees onto open grass stretching above the rocky shore of the Sea of Mists.] Reads awkwardly. You might consider tightening to smooth it He considered the pheasant a trickier mark for dinner than the rabbit. [His skill either meant a nice supplement to his supplies for a few days] or a what? He started with either but there's no second option.

A ranger of Auguron, Athson [weighed each animal.] A little awkward as he's not weighing the animals, but the decision about which one to shoot. This is also the third time this idea has been mentioned He gauged the wind. Glancing at the movement of tree limbs well above ground, he judged the necessary lead should he require a shot at the bird in startled flight.

The pheasant's green head, striped neck and long, chestnut tail feathers tantalized the archer with as a colorful target as well as its meat. But the speckled rabbit scuttled in the grass closer than the bird. [Athson waited, calculating his choices, his campsite set early due to his afternoon arrival fulfilling his lonely patrol of Auguron Forest's western marches.] Reads awkwardly, and there's a loss of narrative focus here

Athson stood without noise. Situated upwind, he feared [no alerting] Could just be typos, but there are quite a few incorrect or missing words in this snippet, and some mission punctuation. either animal. [Decision made,] Telling. As soon as he shoots we know he made the choice the archer drew back the arrow, aimed, released his breath. He blinked, [turned] Why does he turn after he's already aimed? and released.

The arrow sprung away in silence – no plucking the string for an Auguron Ranger. His aim proved true and unwavering striking through the head. Athson stepped from hiding [preparing to clean his kill] telling a bit, high grass tangling at his shins. The rabbit – and her kits – hopped into their hole at his movement.

[The kits saved their mother. Athson spotted the young rabbits as he aimed for the doe so he chose the male pheasant.] Telling. This is also explaining his motives after the fact. Perhaps show this happening and have his switch targets then, so readers see why he changed his mind [The latter took no part in raising young but the kits needed the rabbit doe for weeks yet as Athson judged by their size.] Explaining why, but not killing a mama with babies is pretty obvious He arrived at the pheasant, squatted and started pulling feathers.

[Athson turned his head, spied the rabbit-hole. He thought children needed their mothers – and fathers.] Telling, and this is clear because he spared them

The question:

Is this an effective opening scene?


Not yet, because there's no reason for me to keep reading. While Athson does have a goal to drive the scene (find dinner) there is no conflict or stakes to make me worry or a story question to draw me in. He's not starving, it's just extra food for him. There's also no sense that he's not going to hit what he's aiming at. What problem is he facing as this story opens?

(More on goals, conflict, and stakes here)

There's also very little to connect me to the character. I do like that he spares the rabbit with the babies, which says a lot about him. I'd suggest making that decision happen in real time and not explain it after the fact. Seeing him decide not to kill a mama with babies will endear him to the reader. I sense that there's more to this, so that could also be a good spot to have a little internalization that reflects why he's sparing the rabbits. Maybe a memory, or quick line that relates to his problem or beliefs.

Perhaps he has no other choice, is hungry, but spares the rabbits anyway. That would certainly say a lot about him.

(More on making readers care here)

There was also a lot of repetition, and you might also consider revising to eliminate those. For example, in the opening five sentences, three of them are about his choice of which animal to shoot. Several lines later there's another. One sentence is all you need there to set the scene.

There's also a lot of focus on the bow and aiming, which slows the pacing down. It also stretches credibility a bit, as I'd imagine hunters don't have a long time to choose prey, as both of these animals can vanish in a moment. If he's a great marksman, he'd probably act quickly.

I'd suggest tightening the entire thing up. He's out hunting, he sees the rabbit and the pheasant, he picks the rabbit and takes aim, then switches at the last second when he spies the kits. Not only will that show his compassion, but his skill at being able to change targets on the fly.

(More on tightening the prose here)

I'd also suggest adding more internalization from Athson so readers can get to know him a little. What's he's doing out there, what his problem might be. He's on patrol, but what does that mean? Is he worried about an attack or is this a boring assignment? Even just a line or two to pique the reader's curiosity would be enough. Look for something that shows why a reader should care about Athson and want to follow his story.

(More on internalization here)

Overall, I think this is trying too hard to be descriptive and it's bogging down the story. Readers don't need to see every action, just the ones that matter. What's strong here is Athson's decision not to kill a mama with babies, because he has a personal connection to that in some way. That's something that readers will like about him, and if they like him they'll read on.

(More on overcoming false starts in the opening 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.

3 comments:

  1. The writing is too complex and the choice of whom to kill isn't that interesting. As Janice posted, the choice will be more interesting if he thinks before shooting about the killing the mom and leaving her kids alone. For me , more interesting will be if after he makes his shot, he turns around and finds out that somebody is aiming to shoot at him. From the hunter he becomes the target. My advice is the read the Hunger Games how the author writes about Katniss hunting in simpler words. Best wishes.

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  2. I had problems with your sentence construction - missing words, incorrect punctuation, sentences that don't finish properly. For example, you dropped in the fact of him being a ranger but didn't connect it meaningfully with the second part of that sentence.

    I believe that this scene could work well if it was condensed into two or three sentences as a snapshot of your character before he encounters real drama.

    Good luck as you continue on your writing journey :-) I actually have an image of Athson in the forest now, and would be interested to know how you progress with your story.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Janice on most things said. The intro needs a hook to keep me reading. I also find that bogging down an opening with odd names/fantasy terms can deter me as a reader. I don't care who he hunts for yet because I don't know him and I don't know what that group of hunters is. I do start to get the sense that they would be skilled hunters from later on but I don't have much context to ground this fantasy world in.
    I also find myself turned off in the opening of a book by a "perfect" character. Not to say you should drop all your character's flaws right from the get-go, but having a skilled, silent hunter who's compassionate is just not keeping me reading. Consider examples like The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and even the Chronicles of Narnia. All those fantasy protagonists are famously under-qualified for the task at hand and that's why I empathize with them.
    Keep world-building, I know you'll get there!

    ReplyDelete