Saturday, September 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Dealing With Telling and Backstory 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: Eight (+ one resubmit)

This week’s question:

Is this a strong opening, does it draw in the reader?

Market/Genre: Unspecified 


NOTE: Revised snippet at the end of the post 

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Two high school football teams played with brutality for the chance to move on to the finals. They were fueled by the excitement of fifteen thousand spectators. From Le Duc, David Dryer, an all-star quarterback for the Rangers, was the only strong player from his county. The area was mostly farmland and sparsely populated. The Pumas had three all-stars, their quarterback, a wide receiver, and a defensive-back who liked to punish his victims. He was Bob Eklund. His distant cousin was quarterback David Dryer playing his last year for the Rangers.

Bob crashed through the line again, found David, grabbed him from behind, and worked him to the ground. David was not an easy tackle.

“You’re mine pussy!” He shoved himself up and spit into David’s helmet, kicking him while he was down.

A young referee was stopped by another more seasoned one.

“Hey! What? Did you see that!? And a kick too!”

The older referee started to pull him back to position.

“The guy on the ground is a descendent from the Le Ducs who founded the county. The guy that tackled, spit, and kicked him is from up north. They’re cousins. Just steer clear and let the family settle this one and we won't get our asses beat.. C'mon, PLAY BALL!” The older referee motioned with big arm movements.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Two high school football teams played with brutality for the chance to move on to the finals. They were fueled by the excitement of fifteen thousand spectators. From Le Duc, David Dryer, an all-star quarterback for the Rangers, was the only strong player from his county. The area was mostly farmland and sparsely populated. The Pumas had three all-stars, their quarterback, a wide receiver, and a defensive-back who liked to punish his victims. He was Bob Eklund. His distant cousin was quarterback David Dryer playing his last year for the Rangers.] This paragraph is telling, explaining information to the reader instead of showing it through dramatization.

[Bob crashed through the line again, found David, grabbed him from behind, and worked him to the ground. David was not an easy tackle.] This feels more like an opening. Who's the POV? I'm not sure which character I'm supposed to be connecting with

“You’re mine pussy!” He shoved himself up and spit into David’s helmet, kicking him while he was down.

[A young referee was stopped by another more seasoned one.] Telling what's going on. This also feels a bit stuck in because it's happening separate from the action and it's not clear who the POV is or how this relates

“Hey! What? Did you see that!? And a kick too!”

The older referee started to pull him back to position.

[“The guy on the ground is a descendent from the Le Ducs who founded the county. The guy that tackled, spit, and kicked him is from up north. They’re cousins. Just steer clear and let the family settle this one and we won't get our asses beat.] Infodumping through dialog here C'mon, PLAY BALL!” The older referee motioned with big arm movements.

The question:

Is this a strong opening, does it draw in the reader?

Not yet because it's more explanation of a situation, not a scene with a character trying to solve a problem. It's mostly told, and jumps around a lot so I'm not sure who or what I'm supposed to be focusing on. There's no solid POV to ground me and let me know who the protagonist is. There's also no goal or sense of anything happening. I can see there's stuff going on, but it's not making it onto the page yet because there's no clear narrator.

(More on POV here)

I'd suggest identifying who the protagonist is and showing the scene from his perspective. Who is the main character in this story? This will give readers someone to connect with. What's his goal? This will give readers something to root for. What is he trying to do and how does this fight affect that? This will provide some stakes and make readers worry it'll happen or he'll lose. You might also consider what problem he's trying to solve over the course of the novel and figure out how this opening scene relates to that. Why is this the most important thing readers need to see first?

(More on POV and description here)

There's conflict here with feuding families, and there's an interesting dynamic that people stay out of it even during a high school football game. That hints are some intriguing story possibilities. You might consider ways to show that through the characters' actions. Instead of the referees discussing the situation on the sidelines, perhaps pick one of the boys and show the tackle from his perspective. What does he see and think? Is he annoyed by one ref holding the other back when there's clearly a reason to call a penalty or get involved? Does he shoot the older ref a warning look to keep the younger one away, showing that he has influence over them? Look for ways to show the family dynamics at work here without explaining them.

(More on show don't tell here)

This reads like you're not sure where the opening is and you want to explain this history so readers understand the characters. But explanations tend to bore readers. Characters, action, and mystery hooks them and draws them in. There are pieces here that can do that if dramatized. Two boys who clearly have a problem with each other, yet the refs do nothing, shows that something is unusual about this situation. Readers will likely be curious to find out why.

(More on backstory here)

Overall, I'd suggest picking a protagonist and showing the scene from his perspective, giving him a goal, conflict, stakes, and a mystery to draw readers in. Make the opening scene about something other than an explanation on what this situation is. Take what you know about these people and find ways to show those feelings and attitudes in how they act. Get inside the POV's head, let readers see what he thinks and how he feels, and what he wants during this game.

(More on crafting strong openings 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.

Revised With Comments:


David did not see his cousin coming. The punch to the side of his head could have been lethal except for the helmet he wore. It was the only way [Bob Eklund] Is Bob his cousin? If so, perhaps not use the last name, as David probably wouldn't refer to his cousin that way could quickly work him to the ground after crashing through the offensive line for the third time.

David [felt] the kick to his side. He rolled over [saw] These words are telling red flags, so perhaps think about how this would feel and just show the action without using "saw" his cousin bending down toward him to spit through his facemask.

“I own you boy, don’t bother getting up”. Bob walked back to his high fiving teammates. Is there any reaction from David here? I'd suspect this would get a response

Pete his right tackle came over to help him up. An older referee pulled a young one away back to the open part of the field. David [could hear] perhaps "heard" to be more active him say something about staying out of the fight. Does he feel this is a good idea? This is a good spot to show what he's thinking.

Losing this game was inevitable. The pumas have a bigger line. David [the quarterback for the Rangers] Feels awkward here, as he wouldn't think of himself this way. It's also an odd thought considering what's going on. He never reacts to what's happened thought. He was a short bullet pass away from a first down. His team was already behind by a touchdown and field goal they could not prevent. Barley slowed them down.

Perhaps start a new paragraph here In Davids mind the world came to a near stop in the crisping fall air in the Midwestern town of Le Duc. Why? This suggest something happened to make his world stop He scanned around the stands. To his left his hometown to his right the visitors from up North. The cacophony of their voices was just a buzz to him. [He felt the cool sensation that would well up just before he did something crazy.] telling a bit, but I like that he's about to act

This is stronger after the revision, nice job. I'm getting a better sense of being there instead of watching. There's conflict with the cousin, and the spitting says there's more here than just basic competitiveness, which makes me wonder what the deal is between these two.

I'd suggest a little more internalization from David to center this in his head. He's not really "in" the scene, because he's not reacting to the things that are happening to him. His cousin spit in his face and he doesn't give it any thought or have any reaction. That's a great spot for him to react and show some hints about the feud and how these families feel about each other. Doesn't need a lot, just a quick reaction thought.

Same when he hears the ref say stay out of it. How he feels about that would help readers better understand the dynamics between these two guys. Is he mad they're doing nothing? Happy they are staying out of it because it's a family matter? Annoyed that the feud has more gossip to spread? His reactions will help ground the reader in this scene and better understand what's going on.


You might also consider adding a thought when his world stops to show why things have changed and what made him decide to do whatever it is he's about to do, even if it's not a conscious choice.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! This helps me figure out my own stories!

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  2. I was pretty confused by the refs. It seemed at first that the older one stopped the younger one to point out the foul, but the line about not interfering also seemed to come from the older ref, which makes no sense. I'm guessing the younger one pointed out the foul and the older one said don't worry about it, because that makes sense...but I have to guess.

    The tackling line also struck me as a "first line".

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  3. Nice work Janice! Thank you Chris and Rachel. I thought this would have issues. I have the whole novel finished and I can now see its just too rushed in the beginning. I will get this redone from Davids POV.

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  4. You made some great points regarding POV. I agree that the second paragraph felt more like it would work better as the first line.

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  5. Good one Angela, I saw that after I read the critique. It is critical to never confuse a reader which is easy to do when the story is so familiar to you.

    I already rewrote all of it in my head and will resubmit next month.

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  6. Thank you again Janice. I was starting to expect what you said in purple and that means you and this site have helped me immensely.
    I do for once understand everything you said and agree.

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    1. Oh good! That's a great step and I've no doubts the next revisions is going to bump it up another level at least.

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