Tuesday, September 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Pacing and Narrative Drive 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:

1. Is the scene too slow (i.e., do you feel there's nothing much happening) or is the sense of foreboding enough to drive the narrative forward?

2. I've kept the POV somewhat distant in order to allow a context to develop. Does it work, or is it causing too much of a distance?

3. Does it make you want to know what happens next?

Market/Genre: Action-adventure with fantasy elements


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Indraneil huddled in a corner of the log cabin, fighting the numbness creeping up his limbs. The frail door rattled under gusts of a gathering blizzard. The dogs too were getting restless. Indraneil got up and poured stew in their bowls, but they slunk away and stationed themselves on either side of the door. With a sigh, he dragged himself to the door and pulled it open.

The force of the gale pushed him backward. He grabbed the door with one hand and covered his face with the other to keep the flying snow at bay. No one was at the door.

He walked back to his sleeping bag and collapsed in it. What was he supposed to do now? Grandpa should have arrived the previous night. Latest by dawn. The high mountain passes must be waist-deep in snow by now. There was no way Grandpa could make it back before daybreak, if even then.

Food was not a problem, but the box of lake-weed was empty. He had taken the last spoonful of its powder that morning. He should have had his next dose an hour ago.

Indraneil rubbed his hands, fighting the numbness that was getting hold him again. Like an icy finger probing his mind. He gritted his teeth. He would make it through the night. He just had to will it. He held his head in his hands and tried to shut out the buzzing sensation inside, but the sound kept gathering strength. There was a cadence to it - as if there were words.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Indraneil huddled in a corner of the log cabin, [fighting the numbness creeping up his limbs] Gives a sense of trouble brewing. The frail door rattled under gusts of a [gathering blizzard.] Nice image to increase a sense dread The dogs too were [getting restless.] Another nice tension detail Indraneil got up and poured stew in their bowls, but they slunk away and [stationed themselves on either side of the door.] These are dogs expecting trouble [With a sigh,] This lessons the tension built up so far because it shows he's not worried, despite all the signs that say worry he dragged himself to the door and pulled it open. Why does he open the door?

The force of the gale pushed him backward. He grabbed the door with one hand and covered his face with the other to keep the flying snow at bay. [No one was at the door.] You could raise the tension here with a little internal thought from him. Is he looking for someone or did he hear something?

He walked back to his sleeping bag and collapsed in it. What was he supposed to do now? Grandpa should have arrived the previous night. Latest by dawn. The high mountain passes must be waist-deep in snow by now. There was no way Grandpa could make it back before daybreak, if even then. Nice details to suggest something bad might have happened to Grandpa.

Food was not a problem, but the box of lake-weed was empty. He had taken the last spoonful of its powder that morning. [He should have had his next dose an hour ago.] I sense that this is important, but I don't know if it's medicine or a drug, so I'm not sure how to feel about it

Indraneil rubbed his hands, fighting the numbness that was getting hold him again. [Like an icy finger probing his mind.] He mentions his hands, then describes it as a finger in his mind, so I'm a little unsure what's numb He gritted his teeth. He would make it through the night. He just had to will it. He held his head in his hands and tried to shut out the buzzing sensation inside, but the sound kept gathering strength. There was a cadence to it - as if there were words.

The questions:

1. Is the scene too slow (i.e., do you feel there's nothing much happening) or is the sense of foreboding enough to drive the narrative forward?


It has plenty of hints that something is going on, but there's not quite enough context for me to understand what I should be worried about as a reader. Is it Grampa lost in the snow or not having his drug? And is that drug vital to his survival or recreational? Someone stuck in a blizzard without his medication who might die is very scary, and creates good tension. Someone without his drug who might go through withdrawal less so, especially since I don't know him yet.

I suspect he's more worried about Grandpa returning with the drug than anything bad happening to him, which lessons the fear about Grandpa, and makes him seem a little cold (no pun intended) That could be some fun conflict to play with if it works for the story. He needs his meds, but he's also worried about Grandpa. But he hopes Grandpa is risking his life to get to him in time.

I'd suggest a little more narrative focus on what you want readers to worry about. If Indraneil is in trouble, make that clearer. Let readers get a better sense of what he has at stake here and if he expects Grandpa to show up to save him or not. He doesn't seem to, but I suspect that might be something you want readers to hope for or anticipate. Making Indraneil more uncertain would help add tension there.

(More on narrative focus here)

2. I've kept the POV somewhat distant in order to allow a context to develop. Does it work, or is it causing too much of a distance?

Personal taste here (readers chime in). I prefer a tighter narrative, so I wanted a little more internalization to help me understand the situation. Indraneil doesn't seem all that worried, even though it looks like he's going to be facing a rough night. Since he's not concerned, it's hard for me to worry.

I'd suggest a few more personal hints that he's in trouble. Perhaps change the sigh at the start to something that shows his fear (or whatever he's feeling) that fit with the dogs' attitudes. Maybe a few more words that imply concern or fear. I can see there's a problem, but I'm not feeling it from him yet. The scene is missing the emotional layer that would make me connect with him as a character and care about what he's about to go through.

(More on narrative distance here)

3. Does it make you want to know what happens next?

Yes and no. I'm not drawn into the story yet since I'm not connecting to the character, though the thought of someone trapped without a drug/medicine has intriguing possibility. There's a problem here, but it's not hooking me yet, because I don't really feel that Indraneil is in danger and I don't know him enough to care either way. He's probably in for a bad night, but nothing appears life threatening.

I'd suggest making the stakes clearer. If I had a better sense of why this is a bad thing and what will/might happen without the drug, then I'd know what Indraneil is facing. If it's mixed with a little more internalization and personality from him, I'd care more about what he's about to go through as well.

(More on stakes here)

Overall, the pieces look like good details for a strong opening, but I'm not feeling the tension yet. I think if you add an emotional layer and tweak the stakes, it'll hook readers faster and have that sense of foreboding you're looking for.

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.

8 comments:

  1. Good details. Just don't know if I care about the POV enough to want to continue reading.

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  2. It grabbed me enough to keep reading for a bit....there's definitely tension there. As long as something becomes clear soon...what the drug is, where grandpa is, why he's stuck in that cabin in the first place...I'd continue.

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  3. I was a little pushed out of the story where the main character mentions his grandpa being expected `the previous night.' It felt a little too educated or something -like the sentence didn't quite fit with the snowy cabin.

    I was getting a pioneer vibe from the opening. Aside from the mention of lake-weed and the main character's non-traditional name, this read like historical fiction to me. That isn't necessarily a bad thing -it shows that you have a strong sense of place. If the lake-weed is some sort of magic something, though, you might want to find a way to work that in.

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  4. I was gripped by the tension but a slightly tighter narrative may cause more desire on my part, as a reader, to vest in the character. Right now, the distance is a bit much. But the suggestions Janice offered sound like the right way to go about addressing that.

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  5. The foreboding is enough to keep me reading for the moment, and I'm quite curious about lake-weed.

    Chicory mentioned "the previous night" as sounding too educated. I suspect you can combine that thought with the following sentence to get the same effect: "Grandpa should have arrived by dawn at the latest. Now it drew toward night. The high mountain passes..." Something like that.

    It's a well-written opening!

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  6. Your comments are always instructive! Thanks for sharing so much--am recommending your blog to my writing class.

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  7. Since I'm a "dog person," I noticed their response to Indraneil's pouring stew into their bowls. Ordinarily, dogs will jump at the chance to eat a meal (especially stew-yum!), yet they slunk away and stationed themselves on either side of the door. For me, this canine behavior conveyed their anxiety at something outside, which is why Indraneil dragged himself to the door and pulled it open.

    This is a gripping opening paragraph. That said, I agree with Janice's suggestion that a little internal thought could raise the stakes (or, as the dogs would prefer, steaks, Lol) and create more drama.

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  8. Thank you so much, Janice, and all the readers, for your points. The advice makes a lot of sense to me.

    It's funny how analysis of just one page can apply to the entire draft! I feel I need to add these layers and tighten up things elsewhere too, and it's nice to have something specific to focus on instead of me sitting at my desk, scratching my head, and simply thinking, "I wish I could make this better!" :)

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