Monday, September 16

Real Life Diagnostics Week: Developing Conflict and Character 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 re-submit)

NOTE: It's Real Life Diagnostics Week! (cue the dancing chickens) . To catch up on my overly full queue right now, I'll be doing crits all week (sans the regular guest posts, those will happen as usual). Next week, the off days will also have RLDs. By next Saturday, I should have all the older ones finished and be on the ones I've received over the last few weeks.

This week’s questions:

I tried to include some action and set up the conflict. More importantly, I want the reader to connect with my protagonist and her goal. I'm not sure if I succeeded. Does this opening hook you? Is there enough conflict and character development? Does it make you want to get to know Taela better?

Market/Genre: YA fantasy 


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Taela folded deeper into the shadows and watched the man in the leather jerkin creep along the road like a scrap-rat skulking down an alley. Hawke of Westhall would have to be cautious, considering the generous bounty the King’s Guard was offering for his head. He turned south and Taela knew what that meant—the village’s only tavern lay in that direction. Fronting the main road near Rhall’s southern border, the tavern had been Hawke’s second home for the past two days. Taela followed, keeping her head down.

She wasn’t after the reward, though she certainly could have used it. A promise made on her father’s deathbed had brought her here.

Tonight Hawke would pay for what he did to her sister.

He reached the tavern door and paused to scan the area. Taela ducked behind a tree. Had he felt her watching? He adjusted his pack, pulled the door open and slipped into the tavern’s dim interior.

Taela slid her back down the tree truck and drew her knees to her chin. Nothing to do but wait while he drank himself into oblivion.

Some hero.

Folks called him a freedom fighter. Resistance leader. Defender of the weak. Even Harken’s Champion. But it was all lies. Taela could see that for herself. This shining example of manhood was nothing but a traitor and a criminal. How had her smart, perceptive sister fallen for such a snake?

My Thoughts in Purple:

Taela folded deeper into the shadows and watched the man in the leather jerkin creep along the road like a scrap-rat skulking down an alley. Hawke of Westhall [would have to be] This felt a tad off because he is being cautious, and "would have to be" suggests he ought to do it and isn't cautious, considering the generous bounty the King’s Guard was offering for his head. [He turned south and Taela knew what that meant—the village’s only tavern lay in that direction. Fronting the main road near Rhall’s southern border, the tavern had been Hawke’s second home for the past two days.] Perhaps combine these sentences to tighten? Taela followed, keeping her head down.

[She wasn’t after the reward, though she certainly could have used it. A promise made on her father’s deathbed had brought her here. ] Nice, as this suggests she's down on her luck. It' also hints at the goal to draw me in. I wonder what that promise was and what's she's actually after.

[Tonight Hawke would pay for what he did to her sister.] And now another clue--she's there for revenge. Nice goal statement, and shows some stakes. Also makes me wonder what he did.

He reached the tavern door and paused [to scan] telling a bit the area. Taela ducked behind a tree. Had he felt her watching? He adjusted his pack, pulled the door open and slipped into the tavern’s dim interior.

Taela slid her back down the tree truck and drew her knees to her chin. Nothing to do but wait while he drank himself into oblivion.

[Some hero. ] Love this, as it's unexpected. Hero is not what I would have thought this guy was.

Folks called him a freedom fighter. Resistance leader. Defender of the weak. Even Harken’s Champion. But it was all lies. [Taela could see that for herself.] Could cut since she's the POV so we can assume these are her thoughts This shining example of manhood was nothing but a traitor and a criminal. How had her smart, perceptive sister fallen for such a snake?

The questions:

1. Does this opening hook you?


Yes. I don't know the details, but I know Taela is stalking this guy to avenge her sister. I'm curious what happened, and how this "hero" isn't really a hero. I wonder if she's going to kill him or just do something to expose who he is. I'd read on.

(More on hooking readers here)

2. Is there enough conflict and character development?

There's no actual conflict per se (nothing is preventing her from her goal), but there's inherent conflict in the situation. She wants to enact revenge, and I doubt he's going to be okay with that. There is a solid sense of things about to happen, and I'm eager to see that, so there's tension to keep the scene moving. I'm also curious what's going to happen after she gets revenge on a local hero. The potential for conflict there is high.

If you wanted, you could add some conflict by having her goal thwarted in some way, like she can't follow him inside, or she's forced to adapt her plan or something.

Too soon to tell on the character development. I definitely want to know how this turns out, though I haven't connected to Taela yet. I like her for avenging her sister and keeping a promise to her dying father, but I haven't seen enough of her personality yet to get a solid feel for her.

I'd suggest a thought or two from her to show her personality and get some more of her judgment into it. I like the "some hero" thought, as it shows a bit of her attitude. The line where she mentions him being cautious could be a good spot for internalization. "He'd better be cautious cause I was coming for him" type deal (or whatever her attitude is). Maybe another thought when he goes into the tavern and she stays outside. A few details here and there would be enough.

(More on writing natural-sounding internalization here)

3. Does it make you want to get to know Taela better?

Yes. I want to know her better and find out how she got here. What she's doing appeals to me so I'll read on to learn more about her.

(More on making readers care about the characters 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. Hey, I'm hooked! I also like the "some hero" line, and the further details about his public reputation as a freedom fighter. Now I'm curious about who he's fighting and why, what's happening in the kingdom at large, how it impacts Taela, and whether she'll get embroiled in the larger conflict. Not to mention all the excellent questions Janice pointed out!

    Re the tavern line: "He turned south and Taela knew what that meant—the village’s only tavern lay in that direction. Fronting the main road near Rhall’s southern border, the tavern had been Hawke’s second home for the past two days."

    You could perhaps combine it to something like "He turned south, toward his second home--the village tavern." Hmm...maybe...I like the detail about Rhall, because it helps establish the fantasy setting, but I'm not sure how you would include that.

    Good luck!

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  2. I really liked it and can't add anything to what Janice has said.

    That beginning had me cringing in my chair in three sentences. So major kudos on that.

    I would like some more "air" right after. Air would give me a chance to breathe, look around and get an idea of where and when I am being taken as a reader.

    Great job, solid hook. Write on!

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  3. I was hooked once the line about her sister came up. Not necessarily because I wanted to know why she was following him -- but because it totally flipped my incorrect assumptions on why she was following him. I assumed she wanted the reward...but it got way more interesting when she wanted to avenge her sister. And even MORE interesting that whatever happened was so bad that she didn't even care about the reward. So, yeah, I'd definitely read on. :)

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