Sunday, September 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Balancing Internalization and Action in an 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 it 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:

Does it work? Is it a good hook? And I'm also wondering about the balance between internal monologue and dialogue/plot-advancing action/description. I know this is kind of a small sample, so it might be hard to say for certain, but some of the input I've gotten has indicated that I don't have enough internal monologue.

Market/Genre: YA Science Fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I'm pretty sure my palms didn't have some arcane symbol carved into them last night.

I blink the sleep out of my eyes as I stare at my hands. Three smooth intertwining loops decorate each palm now. The skin around them is flushed, raised, and warm to the touch.

Frowning, I look around my room for my dad's old Swiss Army knife. It's on my dresser, not under my bed like usual. I’ve sleepwalked and sleep-texted before – maybe asleep-me thought that was a pen.

Must’ve been one hell of a dream.

"Caitlin, are you up?" That would be Mom. I always forget she doesn't have classes till eleven on Wednesdays. Mumbling incoherently, I kick my sheets off and drag myself out of bed.

When I get to the main room, Mom’s sitting at the table, a bowl of oatmeal in each hand. Her hair, the same shade of chestnut as mine, is pinned into a no-nonsense bun. She looks up as I shuffle over. “You got up the first time I called you,” she says, sliding one bowl over to my place. “I’m impressed.”

I yawn conspicuously as I sit across from her. “Well, you don’t sound like Foghorn Leghorn.” Unlike my horrid alarm clock.

“What’s that on your hand?” she asks, pointing.

My heart skips a beat, and I grasp my mug with both hands to cover the scratches. “I tripped yesterday,” I fudge. It’s almost too easy to lie to her nowadays.

She swallows it (no surprise there).

My Thoughts in Purple:

[I'm pretty sure my palms didn't have some arcane symbol carved into them last night.] Perhaps move this to the end of the next paragraph? It feels like it jumps in a tad too fast and I missed something.

I blink the sleep out of my eyes as I stare at my hands. Three smooth intertwining loops decorate each palm now. The skin around them is flushed, raised, and warm to the touch.

[Frowning, I look around my room for my dad's old Swiss Army knife.] Why is this the first thing she does? No reaction to finding the cuts? This is a potential spot for some internalization to show her state of mind It's on my dresser, not under my bed like usual. I’ve sleepwalked and sleep-texted before – maybe asleep-me thought that was a pen.

[Must’ve been one hell of a dream.] Her calm at seeing this isn't ringing true to me. Is finding symbols carved into her skin normal for her?

"Caitlin, are you up?" That would be Mom. I always forget she doesn't have classes till eleven on Wednesdays. Does she worry about what Mom will say about her hand? Possible spot for internalization [Mumbling incoherently] feels too detached for first person. She knows she's being incoherent and thinks about it that way?, I kick my sheets off and drag myself out of bed.

When I get to the [main room,] not dining room or kitchen? So they eat somewhere besides there? Mom’s sitting at the table, a bowl of oatmeal in each hand. Her hair, the same shade of chestnut as mine, is pinned into a [no-nonsense bun] small thing, but this word package is a bit of a cliché. She looks up as I shuffle over. “You got up the first time I called you,” she says, sliding one bowl over to my place. “I’m impressed.”

I yawn [conspicuously] is she faking this? Why? as I sit across from her. “Well, you don’t sound like Foghorn Leghorn.” Unlike my horrid alarm clock.

“What’s that on your hand?” she asks, pointing.

My [heart skips a beat] careful of clichés, and I grasp my mug with both hands to cover the scratches. “I tripped yesterday,” I fudge. [It’s almost too easy to lie to her nowadays.] Nice line. I'm curious why she's been lying so much

She swallows it (no surprise there).

The questions:

1. Does it work? Is it a good hook?


There are some interesting things here, but I'm not quite hooked because I can't figure out what's going on yet. I like the hint that Caitlin is lying to her mother and probably has been for a while (suggesting conflict there), and I'm curious why and what their relationship is like. But things aren't tracking for me, so I little confused. Caitlin accepts finding arcane symbols carved into her palms like this is normal, which doesn't feel right. I'd expect someone to be pretty freaked out by that. If this is normal for her and has happened before, then perhaps drop a small hint that that's the case. Because if this is normal, that's pretty interesting.

I'd suggest a little more internalization to show how she feels about what's happened to her a give a sense of what she's going to do about it (even if that's to ignore it). Does she want to hide them? Bandage them? Throw on fingerless gloves to cover them? What's her reaction to this situation?

There are also some clichés and word choices that jumped out at me and pulled me out of the narrative. The occasional one is fine, but there were a lot in a row so they stood out. Also, it's first person, yet she refers to herself almost in a third-person way. For example, "mumbling incoherently" and "yawn conspicuously." These phrases feel like someone outside describing her, not her describing herself.

(More on POV and description here)

I'd suggest tweaking so it feels more in her head. If she's trying to fake a yawn, show why. If she mumbles, perhaps just let her mumble or show whatever it is she says (or maybe have her grumble or some other word that implies incoherency). Let readers see what she does without the adverbs. Being tighter in her POV would also help readers connect to her better and know who she is a person so they can care about what's happening to her.

(More on goals and narrative drive here)

2. Is the balance between internal monologue and dialogue/plot-advancing action/description working?

A little more internalization would help establish her character, her emotional state, and make her goal clearer. Right now, she gets up, goes downstairs and lies to Mom, but I don't get a sense that she's trying to do anything or achieving anything, or that any of this has an effect on her. What do the symbols mean to her? What's her goal as she starts her day? Is she trying to figure out what happened? A greater sense that the symbols are affecting her would help draw readers in more.

(More on mixing internalization and action here)

Overall, I get the sense that the story hasn't started yet, and this is still setup. I suspect something is going to happen shortly that causes Caitlin problems, and then the story will get underway. Perhaps look for another moment in the first chapter where things are just about to happen and see if that makes for a stronger hook. Caitlin can always mention finding the symbols on her palms this morning to a friend to show how it happened.

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.

2 comments:

  1. The mysterious symbols pulled me, and I like the writing quality.

    Ditto on what Janice recommends with regard to the symbols.

    A couple story points I would have liked more data on: How old is Caitlin? What time is it? The author makes mention of mom not leaving for work until 11 a.m. on Wednesdays, which makes me think it's 'later in the morning', so I can't tell if she's woken Caitlin for school or what.

    I found Caitlin's comment about mom not sounding like Foghorn Leghorn confusing, in relation to why she got up the first time her mom asked her to.

    Another spot for internal thoughts is right after mom asks what happened to her hands. I want to know too! (or something like that.)

    It sounds like a good start to an intriguing read. Best of luck with it!

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  2. First line definitely caught my attention, though I agree with Janice: I think it would sound even better at the end of the following paragraph.

    Foghorn Leghorn also left me puzzled. Is it good or bad she doesn't sound like him? What does not sounding like him have to do with getting up the first time she was called?

    It's an interesting opening and it definitely sparks interest (she...sleep-carves?). Good luck with the editing!

    ReplyDelete