Saturday, June 29

Real Life Diagnostics: Opening With a Vision. Yes or No?

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: Eight (+one re-submit)

NOTE: There's a revised snippet up for the prologue about the mysterious man in black who was breaking into an old building for those curious to see how the author revised.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening work? I’m worried it’s a little boring and cliché. I’m trying to establish the visions of the gray world and her worry over starting a new school. Her grandfather has just died for the second time leaving her mom this house. This is a subplot in the book and is touched on about halfway through the first chapter, but I’m considering cutting this and starting there. Would that be confusing since the visions is the main plot?

Market/Genre: YA urban fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I rest my forehead against the cool glass, letting my breath fog the window. This is it, the first day of school. I’m going to end up a world class freak. The thought of the visions coming during class makes panic bubble up in my throat. I take a deep breath trying to keep myself grounded. It doesn’t’ help. The rough window sill digs into my hands as my knuckles turn white.

The gray world is coming. A vibration spreads over my skin, numbing my body. My heart pounds against my chest, trying to explode or escape. The world sways. The colors drain away like a melting water color. Then my room is gone and I’m standing outside facing the gray forest. It feels like a creepy black and white movie. The utter silence smothers me, making it hard to breathe. Not even the wind moves. Hidden in the fog, I can feel something watching me. It’s always there, always waiting. Squeezing my eyes shut, I pray for it to end.

Then everything snaps back into place like a rubber band and I’m at my window. Shivering, I yank my blanket closer. It feels like I’m going crazy, but crazy people aren’t supposed to know their crazy. At least I hope that’s true, maybe you just forget what sanity feels like. I look over my new room that was once an attic. My dingy furniture looks sad in the gloomy light. It doesn’t match our new house. This is the nicest place we’ve ever lived. No more crumbling apartments with druggie neighbors.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I rest my forehead against the cool glass, letting my breath fog the window. This is it, the first day of school. I’m going to end up a world class freak. The thought of the visions coming during class makes panic bubble up in my throat. I take a deep breath trying to keep myself grounded. It doesn’t’ help. The rough window sill digs into my hands as my knuckles turn white. I don't think you need this paragraph, because it's explaining things instead of creating a situation that draws readers in. The next paragraph is much more compelling.

The gray world is coming. A vibration spreads over my skin, numbing my body. My heart pounds against my chest, trying to explode or escape. The world sways. The colors drain away like a melting water color. Then my room is gone and I’m standing outside facing the gray forest. It feels like a creepy black and white movie. The utter silence smothers me, making it hard to breathe. Not even the wind moves. Hidden in the fog, I can feel something watching me. It’s always there, always waiting. Squeezing my eyes shut, I pray for it to end.

Then everything snaps back into place like a rubber band and I’m at my window. Shivering, I yank my blanket closer. It feels like I’m going crazy, but crazy people aren’t supposed to know their crazy. At least I hope that’s true, maybe you just forget what sanity feels like. I look over my new room that was once an attic. My dingy furniture looks sad in the gloomy light. It doesn’t match our new house. This is the nicest place we’ve ever lived. No more crumbling apartments with druggie neighbors.

The questions:

Does this opening work? I’m worried it’s a little boring and cliché. I’m trying to establish the visions of the gray world and her worry over starting a new school.
Opening with visions or dreams has become cliché, but if the visions and the gray world are central to the plot you might be able to overcome that. However, there's nothing happening in the scene so far, it's mostly setup. That's hurting it more than the potential cliché.

What's your goal for the scene? Do you want readers to know about the visions right away, or give them time to get to know the narrator before the funky stuff appears? You don't have to start with the visions.

Perhaps open with her starting school, and feeling a vision coming on. That would add conflict and stakes to the scene instead of just showing how her powers work. She's the new kid with all the issues that brings, but wait! There's this whole other problem that could ruin her life she has to hide when all eyes are probably on her.

(More on getting critical character traits into an opening chapter here)

Her grandfather has just died for the second time leaving her mom this house. This is a subplot in the book and is touched on about halfway through the first chapter, but I’m considering cutting this and starting there. Would that be confusing since the visions is the main plot?
"Died for the second time" totally got my attention. I don't know what this means, but it's intriguing. Without seeing the text it's hard to say if you should start here, but there's nothing wrong with having a goal and problem to open the book that isn't part of the main plot. If the problem is one that leads to the main plot, it works as a bridge to get your protagonist where you need her to go.

(More on opening scenes and inciting event bridges here)

I'd suggest looking for the conflict and starting there. Where does the trouble start? You don't want an opening that just sets the scene and explains how the world works, you want a problem readers can dig into right away. What's the first problem with stakes the narrator runs into? Or how might you add a problem and conflict to these opening scenes?

(More on adding conflict to a scene here)

I suspect the visions aren't the actual plot, it's the conflict and problem the visions cause. That problem (or one that leads to that problem) is probably where the story starts. You might consider stepping back and looking for that moment when the narrator is thrust into the conflict that will lead her to the main problem of the book. Odds are your opening is right around there.

Don't be afraid to ease into it a bit. Yes, you want to "start with the action" and get to the point quickly, but it's much more important to give readers a question they want to see answered to draw them in. If you get to the visions in the first chapter, that's probably soon enough, even if it's at the end.

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.

15 comments:

  1. There were several lines that worked exceptionally well for me. Grandfather dying again was one of them. "Maybe you just forget what sanity feels like" was another. And the third was "No more crumbling apartments with druggie neighbors."

    I agree with Janice that the first paragraph doesn't do a lot. The opening line of the second paragraph--"The gray world is coming"--is intriguing and points to a reality shift, so I think you'd be fine if you open with that sentence. As long as this vision fits into the story, creates a problem of some kind and doesn't just say, "hey, I have this problem with visions that will cause conflict later on", this could be a really cool opening!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Where is the link to the revised version? I clicked on the recommended one above but it takes us to a different story....what am I missing????

    ReplyDelete
  3. At the risk of sound like an echo, the items Janice pointed out are great and commenter Rachel6 mentioned some of the same lines that caught my attention.

    ReplyDelete
  4. At the risk of sound like an echo, the items Janice pointed out are great and commenter Rachel6 mentioned some of the same lines that caught my attention.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow, I liked this alot. I honestly feel a twinge of sadness that it's not a real book in the library right now so I can keep reading! Your writing is good and your scenario intriguing. I'm going to go against the popular vote and say that I appreciated the first paragraph, in my opinion it contained good information, connected me with her character, and provided the set-up for her slipping into her vision.

    Keep writing, I'm looking forward to buying this book when it is published :-)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I liked the second paragraph more--especially the first sentence as the opener. The lines Rachel6 pointed out were the lines that also stood out to me the most.

    And this: "I'd suggest looking for the conflict and starting there. Where does the trouble start? You don't want an opening that just sets the scene and explains how the world works, you want a problem readers can dig into right away. What's the first problem with stakes the narrator runs into? Or how might you add a problem and conflict to these opening scenes?"

    Just made me have an "oh CRAP" moment, as I realize that, aside from a minor confrontation that leads to something huge in a future chapter, there's no trouble.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I liked the first paragraph, however, the second is a much stronger 'hook'. Like many others who've commented the line 'Her grandfather has just died for the second time leaving her mom this house' really leapt out and grabbed me. The second time?! How is that possible? Why? I must know more! - You get the picture ;) Keep writing, I too would like to find out more.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Marcia, the revised link is for a different story than this one. Sorry if that wasn't clear enough!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great suggestions, I think they make the story stronger. Crafting an opening that is new and different is tough.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks, Janice...guess I should sign my name Marcia not-so Smart :) I just assumed it was a revision of the piece posted...rule #1 - never assume anything!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Marcia, no worries :) I could have made that clearer. Next time I'll make sure it is.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I just found this blog and discussion. Thanks you Janice. This is a great idea, but especially thank the writer.
    As for the opening, I'd say finish the work then re-write. It sounds early to me, but some great language. I liked the feel of the windowsill and the breath fogging. First day of school is probably important, maybe start there as others recommend.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I really struggle with "first day of school" openings. To me, this is as cliched as "waking up" scenes.
    I agree with some of the other commentators that there is a lot of intrigue in the notion that her grandfather has died for the second time. Maybe that gives better potential for an opening than the first day of school...?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Welcome Beverly! Good to have you on the blog. Thanks for helping out with feedback ;)

    ReplyDelete