Saturday, September 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Raising Tension 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: Seven

Note: There's a revised submission up on the snippet with Si and Tay and the hostage for anyone who'd like to see how the writer revised.

This week’s questions:

I find I'm really struggling with hooking my audience. Everything I write tends to lean more towards introspection and I have a hard time writing action or tense scenes. So my question is, does this excerpt work as a good "hook" opening? What could I do to rev up the tension?


Market/Genre: Fantasy (likely YA)

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original text:

Blinded, Penn reared back against the gate and ducked her chin down as headlights cut twin lines across the road. A beat-up truck sped by, veering to the right and over-correcting, one wheel pitching over the edge into the ditch. The Soviet issue machine gun mounted over the cab swung in a slow arc and bounced its muzzle off one soldiers head. A chorus of cheers and hollers erupted from his comrades as he toppled off the side of the truck into the dirt.

Heart pounding, Penn felt across the rusted chain link fence and curled her hand over the inside of the gate. The hinges creaked. She watched the soldiers carrying on, pressing back into the shadows and holding her breath. The trucks engine cut off and Penn shoved past the gate, broken links scrapping her arm.

The only building close by was the ticket office. Three sides were glass, including the door; still she squeezed inside and dropped onto the floor. It was dusty and humid on the inside. Broken glass crunched under foot as she crept closer to the door, peering outside.

“Damn it,” she cursed. She’d left the gate wide open.

Patrol routes never came this far west. Penn hadn't seen another person in the three nights she’d been searching. Well, searching may be a tad disingenuous. Trespassing was more like it.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Blinded, Penn [reared back against the gate and ducked her chin down as headlights cut twin lines across the road] This tells me she's hiding, and I'm curious why. A good spot for a quick internal thought to ground readers in her head and POV A beat-up truck sped by, veering to the right and over-correcting, one wheel pitching over the edge into the ditch. The [Soviet issue machine gun] Intriguing. I'm even more curious where she is and what she's doing mounted over the cab swung in a slow arc and bounced its muzzle off one soldiers head. A chorus of cheers and hollers erupted from his comrades as he toppled off the side of the truck into the dirt.

[Heart pounding] emotional clue that she's scared, Penn felt across the rusted chain link fence and curled her hand over the inside of the gate. [The hinges creaked.] Good moment where she might be exposed. Another good potential spot for internalization She watched the soldiers carrying on, [pressing back into the shadows and holding her breath.] Another example or her trying to hide, will they see her? The trucks engine cut off and Penn shoved past the gate, [broken links scrapping her arm.] Potential clue, as she might have left blood on the fence. Will anyone notice?

[The only building close by was the ticket office.] Around here I wanted a little more about what she's up to. Doesn't have to give it away, just a hint of her goal Three sides were glass, including the door; still she squeezed inside and dropped onto the floor. So she went into the building? It was dusty and humid on the inside. [Broken glass crunched under foot ] Is she concerned about the noise? as she crept closer to the door, peering outside.

“Damn it,” she cursed. [She’d left the gate wide open.] Another possible way for her to be exposed, and a problem she might have to solve before she can continue.

[Patrol routes never came this far west.] Is she concerned about this? That something might be happening? Penn hadn't seen another person in the three nights she’d been searching. Well, searching may be a tad disingenuous. Trespassing was more like it.

The questions:

1. Does this excerpt work as a good "hook" opening?


I'm hooked. I'm curious why she's there, what she's doing, and what type of situation this is. Soviet-issue machine guns on beat up trucks suggests this isn't the Russian military, yet she mentioned soldiers so I'm guessing some kind of dystopian society or world in decline version of our world. The soldiers also don't seem like trained men, which suggests there's more there than meets the eye.

I'd suggest a few thoughts from Penn here and there to give a stronger sense of her goal so I understand what's at stake here. Not a lot, a word or two, maybe a sentence. Just enough to get a better feel for who she is and why she's there without giving anything away. The mystery is working as a hook. I'd rather find out her specific goal when she gets there, but a hint would help draw me in even more. You have my brain, and a little more of the personal from Penn will get my heart. I'd read on.

(More on hooking reader's brains and hearts here)

2. What could I do to rev up the tension?

It's pretty good already, but perhaps a ticking clock or sense that she has to do X before Y happens. I like how there are clues that might expose her and the implication that she has to decide if going back to close the gate is worth it or not. You could make that clearer if it's at risk of being discovered, but there's also a risk if she takes time to go back.

Some internalization will also help, as readers will feel a more personal connection to Penn and will worry more about her. I start to hear her voice right at the end and I like it, and a glimpse of that earlier would endear her to me even faster.

(More on creating tension here)

Overall, this is working for me and my suggestions are minor.

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.

7 comments:

  1. I was hooked when I read "Soviet issue machine gun." Is this Cold War?? Soviets! Excellent antagonists!

    However. In the first line, she's blinded by the headlights? Wouldn't a person caught in the light be pretty noticeable to the soldiers?

    I loved everything else, and I'd enjoy more internalization as well.

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  2. I'm hooked. I agree that an occasional "road map" POV thought would help, but if I were standing in a bookstore reading the polished version of this first page, I'd buy this book. Keep writing! I want to know what happens! (In fact, I got halfway through and thought, "Darn! This is just a sample. I'm not going to find out how this gets resolved." I was THAT hooked.)

    Meanwhile, thanks, Janice, for making that comment about "you have my brain...have my heart." That is a GREAT test we can all use for our own hooks. Do we have the reader's head and heart?

    Great post!

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  3. The first line certainly intrigued me but as it continued, I may have gotten a bit confused.

    I see that Penn is a girl and she appears to be against a gate at the time this truck careens off the road. But then there are soldiers cheering about, I'm guessing, what happened to the truck? I think so. I'm not sure if Penn and these soldiers are all against this gate or if she is solo from the group. Because of my uncertainty at this point, I'm a bit tenuous as I continue reading.

    Perhaps a little hint or maybe a separation of some kind so I know that Penn is or is not meant to be a part of the soldiers.

    Otherwise, I appreciated the tightness of wording.

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  4. I like the tense scene, the girl trying to stay out of sight of the soldiers, and the implied dystopian situation.

    For me, the fist line has an an action/reaction bump, and a little too much going on in one sentence. I think it would read better to start with the 'action' (headlights cutting across road) then show her physical reaction to the light in a separate sentence.

    I agree with the suggestion to add a bit more 'mission facts' so the reader has a better sense of what this girl is up to.

    Altogether, it's a strong start on what sounds like an intriguing story. Best of luck with it!

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  5. I liked it. The tension was good, and the voice of the character was beginning to come through.

    One small tweak you may want to consider: things read better if you have first the cause then the effect in a sentence. For example, as Alex said above, your first sentence could be improved by showing the headlights first, and then Penn's reaction to them. It would increase the tension too.

    Another example: "A chorus of cheers and hollers erupted from his comrades as he toppled off the side of the truck into the dirt." Switch this around and it will make for a more robust sentence.

    Otherwise, good beginning and I'd like to read more!

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  6. Deborah, thanks, that was something I learned years ago from author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro at a panel. I loved the idea of intellectual hooks vs emotional hooks. In essence, the plot arc vs the character arc in a way.

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  7. I was hooked too!
    Congrats to you, brave one. :-)

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