Thursday, July 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Opening With Violence. Does it 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: Eight (+one re-submit)

Note: Right now I'm booked up to August 31 on submissions. I'll double up on the weekends when I can to clear out the queue, but this is the most I've ever had waiting. Sorry about that, guys! I'll get to them all soon as I can.

This week’s questions:

Does this work as an opening?

Do you have enough of a sense of what is going on? More information is revealed later in the chapter, including a rundown of what happened in the drug bust, but is that too late? I don’t want to put too much information up front, but I also want the reader to feel grounded enough in what’s going on.

Is there enough showing vs. telling?

Do you want to read on?

Market/Genre: YA thriller


Note: There is some R-rated language in this submission 

Note 2: New text at the end of the original submission.

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Si’s three eyes glare at me: two from the front of his head, the third—the eerily lifelike one inked into the back of his bald head—reflected in the broken window of the shed. Amber light spills in through the same window. My hostage squints, but he can’t so much as lift an arm to block the sun. His wrists and ankles bleed against the cable ties. Last night’s dinner climbs in my throat. The sun isn’t even fully up, and already, I’ve fucked up. Royally.

“Are you a fucking retard, Tay?” Si peels his lips back over his yellow teeth. “I told you to get the money, hand over the shit, return. How the fuck did you manage to come back with no money, no drugs and this son-of-a-bitch?”

His fist slams into my face so hard I do a full rotation. Stars appear, then blinding, red-hot pain. I wait for the warm, slippery trickle of blood, but it doesn’t come. If only. Si likes blood. When he catches a glimpse of it, it’s like … I don’t know .... like when Papa used to finish the Sunday crossword, back when he could still do crosswords. Satisfied, appeased, relaxed.

Why didn’t I just let the cops arrest me? Arguably a better idea than turning my gun on my customer and bringing him home like a souvenir. I’d have probably just got a date with the Magistrate and been back home in time for lunch. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was a stressful situation, and in the heat of the moment, I panicked.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Si’s three eyes glare at me: two from the front of his head, the third—the eerily lifelike one inked into the back of his bald head—reflected in the broken window of the shed. Amber light spills in through the same window. My hostage squints, but he can’t so much as lift an arm to block the sun. His wrists and ankles bleed against the cable ties. Last night’s dinner climbs in my throat. The sun isn’t even fully up, and already, I’ve fucked up. Royally.

“Are you a [fucking] Language doesn't bother me, but the two of them right in a row feels overdone retard, Tay?” Si peels his lips back over his yellow teeth. “I told you to get the money, hand over the shit, return. How the fuck did you manage to come back with no money, no drugs and this son-of-a-bitch?”

[His fist slams into my face so hard I do a full rotation.] Small thing, but he asks her a question and then hits her, so she can't possibly answer. Stars appear, then blinding, red-hot pain. I wait for the warm, slippery trickle of blood, but it doesn’t come. If only. Si likes blood. When he catches a glimpse of it, it’s like … I don’t know .... like when Papa used to finish the Sunday crossword, back when he could still do crosswords. Satisfied, appeased, relaxed.

[Why didn’t I just let the cops arrest me?] This feels like the wrong question. Why did she bring the hostage? Wouldn't she be wondering that? [Arguably a better idea than turning my gun on my customer and bringing him home like a souvenir. I’d have probably just got a date with the Magistrate and been back home in time for lunch. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was a stressful situation, and in the heat of the moment, I panicked.] This doesn't feel like it's part of the conversation. She's wondering about things she hasn't asked or been asked. Paired with an actual question, this feels off kilter. It's also dropping into a scene readers haven't seen yet and likely don't care about at this time.

The questions:

Does this work as an opening?

Yes and no. I'm curious why she took this guy hostage and what's going on, but then the focus changes and I feel lost. Since she's doing something violent and illegal, knowing her motives will help me decide if I like her or not. Si isn't a nice person, so he doesn't draw me in as a reader. Tay might if she gives me reason to care about her. Why she did this obviously wrong and dangerous thing could be a strong hook, but I'm not sure I care enough yet to follow her story.

(More on narrative focus here)

That's one of the risks with an opening like this. Lots of action and danger, but if the reader isn't grounded or given some sort of lifeline to connect them to the story and make them care, it's just empty details. If the details are particularly dark, readers have to decide if they want to spend a whole novel in this world or not.

(More on writing action scenes here)

Do you have enough of a sense of what is going on? More information is revealed later in the chapter, including a rundown of what happened in the drug bust, but is that too late? I don’t want to put too much information up front, but I also want the reader to feel grounded enough in what’s going on.
I can tell there's been a drug deal gone wrong, and Tay's partner/boss is unhappy about it. More than that I don't know, but I don't need to know the details of the bust at this point. That's not what's at stake here, it's in the past. What interests me is why she took the guy hostage and what she plans to do next. More on that would draw me in.

I'd suggest changing the question she ponders from the arrest to the hostage. Since readers don't know about the arrest, her thinking about it comes out of the blue and gives them insight into something they don't know or care about yet. But you've already posed an intriguing question with clear conflicts. Why did she take this guy hostage? If you have her think about that, then the focus stays tight and readers get the next piece of the puzzle to draw them in and hopefully make them relate to and care about Tay.

Is there enough showing vs. telling?
Yes. I didn't feel like things were being explained to me, though the musing about the arrest thing started to get a little infodumpy. But mostly because it didn't matter to the scene. Later, when it matters, it would be fine.

Do you want to read on?
I'd read on a little more to see if my question was answered. If it kept wandering off that topic, I'd probably stop. It's interesting, but I don't yet have a character to connect with and care about to really hook me. From a reader's perspective, why should they care about this drug dealing criminal? The average person roots for criminals to get caught, so why should they root for her instead of against her?

I'd suggest adding a little to make readers care about Tay and what she's doing, because then they'll worry about her choice and her situation and want to see how this situation turns out.

(More on making readers care here)

Overall, there are a lot of interesting things going on here. It's a tense situation and has solid conflict. I'm just not clear on what that conflict is, so it feels a tad ungrounded. If you clarify that, and make readers care about Tay, I think readers will be drawn in much faster.

Resubmit

Si’s three eyes glare at me: two from the front of his head, the third—the eerily lifelike one inked into the back of his bald head—reflected in the broken window of the shed. My face is also reflected. [Did people really used to say I was pretty? Beautiful? Now, my ‘pixie-like’ face is pale, gaunt, sapped.] This struck me as an odd thing to think about in this circumstance. It also uses the mirror cliché to describe a first-person POV. Almost as frightening as Si’s.

“Are you a retard, Tay?” Si peels his lips back over his yellow teeth. “I told you to get the money, hand over the drugs, return. How did you manage to come back with no money, no drugs and this son-of-a-bitch?”

I steal a look at my hostage. He blinks against the early-morning light, but he can’t so much as lift a hand to block it, his wrists bleed against the cable ties. I’d have felt sorry for him, if I wasn’t so busy crapping myself. [He had his reasons for getting involved in this world… didn’t we all? The drugs, the money or the thrills. Or, like in my case, you were born into it. In those cases, as Si liked to remind me, you’d die in it. One way or another.] This feels out of place here since it doesn't answer Si's question. Tay doesn't have to speak out loud, but I'd expect her to at least think about why she brought this guy back and try to figure out how to answer.

[Si’s fist slams into my jaw.] Small thing, but she focuses on what a body part does not the person. Is she trying to separate Si from his action or would she say Si hit me? Stars appear, then blinding, red-hot pain. I [have to] don't need fight the urge to cry out—Si wouldn’t like that. Water streams from my eyes and I spin around, once, maybe twice, then hit something, a wall … no, a metal stacking shelf. I slide to the ground as it teeters, back-forth, back-forth. Please, God. With all those paint cans and power tools it might even kill me. But after a second or two it settles back on four feet.

I should be so lucky.

My Thoughts

Overall this reads stronger than the last snippet, though I'm still not seeing what feels like the key piece--why she brought the hostage back. This is the big question and one readers will likely want to know as much as Si. It's a great hook.

I'd suggest moving the second half of paragraph three and having Tay reflect on why instead. Let her answer Si's question, even if it's only in her head and she's trying to figure that out as well. That will help establish who she is and why readers should care about her.

More focus is on what happens when she gets punched than on how she feels about the situation, so it feels a bit detached. Try shifting it so she's worried about what she's done and consequences of that action. That will allow you to get in her personality, motivations, her goal for doing this, and the stakes all in one fell swoop. By the time Si punches her, readers will be worried about the repercussions. Right now, the punch comes so fast there's no time to anticipate or worry about it, so it loses some of it's (forgive the pun) punch. And Tay does nothing but stand there, so she's not being a very compelling POV yet.

Nice revision. It's getting close.

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.

9 comments:

  1. All these RLDs are awesome!

    Language does bother me, so I wouldn't pick this up in a store. That said, I like the lines after Si hits her. Most people would rather *not* bleed, so having Tay wish for that, and tying it to her father's reaction to finishing a crossword, is both fascinating and creepy. That, and the three-eyes detail. I went from "so...mutants?" to "that's disturbing, bravo."

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  2. I actually thought at first that Si was the hostage...

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  3. I have nothing against swearing, and I probably swear too much myself. But I think swearing is more for the spoken than for the written. Be careful, don't overuse in writing. It just gives the impression of lack of writing skills.

    I'm not in favor of explicit violence (I rather take some hot sex). Violence in the opening of a book would not hook me.

    Cold As Heaven

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  4. I'm glad I was not the only one who thought Si was the hostage! And the mention of the three eyes - even though the third was explained as a tattoo, because I'm a fantasy reader I felt automatically set up to envision Si as alien, and then I had to change my thinking.

    I don't mind bad language, but it did feel a little overdone - maybe cut out the second use of the f-word? And I'm wondering why people are calling Tay "she." I assumed that Tay was a he - but that may be because the voice seems masculine to me.

    I enjoyed reading this, one I got past my initial confusion.

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  5. I thought Si was the hostage, too. And while the third eye is an interesting detail, it was a bit of a non sequitur. I'd consider moving it later, and starting with something more central to the scene. You also might benefit from getting out of your protag's head and putting in a little more action. I'd like to get drawn into what is happening to her before I get her backstory.

    I think this scene could be very exciting with a few tweaks.

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  6. I'm a dark and twisty reader and writer. I started one novella with a woman dying so a bit of violence at the beginning is no biggie.

    Because of my tendency toward fantasy/sci-fi, I immediately thought the mention of three eyes was going in that direction so I would recommend a rework in case other readers with active imaginations get wild with the three eyes :-)

    I couldn't place Tay until a little later and with no clue if Tay was a guy or girl, I just kind of went with the flow.

    Now, I don't know what it is like to get punched in the face. The only times I've fought, well, I'm a black-out fighter. I would imagine getting punched would be followed mostly with reactions and not as much introspection. Just something to consider. I'm sure different people may have different reactions.

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  7. Add me to the cadre of folks who thought Si was the hostage. I think it's because just after Si is introduced, the author says "The hostage squints," and so I assumed that this was a way of saying Si is a hostage.)

    I also didn't know that Tay was a girl although it didn't bother me, as I figured it would become obvious soon.

    I really liked the third eye detail, except the whole reflection/amber light discussion drew too much attention to the staging (i.e. I actually canoodled over whether you could see a reflection when the sun was shining in the window, which doesn't matter to the story and is totally my problem, but there you go.)

    No issues with the language, except for the repetition. And note that I've been told by a very good agent that dropping the F bomb on the front page is not a good idea if it can be helped. I know, artistic integrity and all that, but she was thinking marketability. It turns too many people off right away, but if you hook a reader first, they'll be more likely to forgive it later. Just a thought to consider.

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  8. The opening line is very clever, but it suggests fantasy/ SF so it might come across as a abait and switch to s omebody who likes that genre. Then again, if it were a published text, the reader would already be aware of the genre from the cover, so maybe I'm worrying you for no reason.
    I thought the narrator was a guy - hoping, too, because I find men hitting women to be a reason to stop reading. I like the detail about the father and the crossword puzzle, nice juxtaposition of the high-octane scene with a banal situation. Gives us a nice glimpse into the MC's middle class background. Good job.

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  9. The language bothers me, and it feels a little overused. If your audience is used to that type of language, then use it. If not, it might be an issue.

    The first sentence was great, especially the way you described the reflection of the third eye. The verb "ink" could cause some confusion, because it makes it sound like a tattoo.

    But other than that, I think it could turn out to be a great hook!

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