Friday, September 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Testing Clarity and Wordiness 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 (+ one re-submit)

This week’s questions:

Is it clear who is doing what to whom? Is it too wordy? Does it persuade the reader to continue? Is it too obvious that this is the student? Does it telegraph that she probably isn't dead?

Market/Genre: Mystery


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: It's about a woman who agrees to go to Mexico to search for a student missing from an archaeological dig.

He was shorter than she was. Not by much, but enough that her stomach shouldn’t clench at the sight of him. She tried to calm her breathing, to soften the muscles around her eyes so he wouldn’t see the fear in her face.

When he first came to the camp, it had taken only a couple of encounters before she had started avoiding him. The others said that lately he had been asking questions about her. The last time she saw him alone, face to face, he had actually snorted when she denied clandestine visits to the field lab.

None of the others had been of any help.

Now he was here in front of her, solidly planted on the sidewalk, his eyes, dark and fierce, staring into hers, his hand on the passenger door of the car, holding it open for her. The smile on his face, not wide enough to show his teeth, told her he thought he had her trapped.

The sun was high overhead and there was no shade anywhere on the street, but she shivered.

She wished she hadn’t lied to her friends about where she was going. But then again, this man was one of the reasons she had done so.

He had forced her to make a decision. Now she needed to follow through on it, and she wouldn’t get the privacy she needed if she had gone with them.

He might have to look up at her, but there was no question who was the stronger. His powerful arms flexed through his shirt sleeves.

She let out the breath she had been holding. She smiled, knew it was weak, hoped it conveyed that she thought this encounter was a genuine coincidence. Not daring to trust her voice, she shook her head to refuse his offer of a lift and moved to step around him.

He barely shifted his weight, but it was enough to block her and make her hesitate. He told her it was no trouble and widened the already open passenger door for her.

She shook her head again, took a firm step past him.

The sunshine dimmed. A sharp pain exploded at the back of her head. From behind, he caught her around the waist, grabbed her left arm, shoved her into the car.

Stunned, she was still able to stiffen her arm on the front seat and use it to resist being pushed into the vehicle.

She felt his arm leave her waist. Another sharp, heavy pain radiated from the same spot on back of her head. For a split-second, her view was obscured by a black hole, just before she fell forward and it swallowed her.

My Thoughts in Purple:

He was shorter than she was. [Not by much, but enough that her stomach shouldn’t clench at the sight of him.] Interesting. She's scared, even though he's not physically intimidating She tried to calm her breathing, to soften the muscles around her eyes so he wouldn’t see the fear in her face.

[When he first came to the camp, it had taken only a couple of encounters before she had started avoiding him. The others said that lately he had been asking questions about her. The last time she saw him alone, face to face, he had actually snorted when she denied clandestine visits to the field lab.

None of the others had been of any help.
] Not sure you need this, as it explains that she's scared of him, and that's already been established by the first paragraph. The details also suggest she's the missing student.

Now he was here in front of her, solidly planted on the sidewalk, his eyes, dark and fierce, staring into hers, his hand on the passenger door of the car, holding it open for her. The smile on his face, not wide enough to show his teeth, [told her he thought he had her trapped.] Telling a bit. What does she think of this smile? How does she feel about it?

The sun was high overhead and there was no shade anywhere on the street, but she shivered.

[She wished she hadn’t lied to her friends about where she was going. But then again, this man was one of the reasons she had done so.] Feels a little detached. Perhaps show this concern in her voice. It's also a little vague, like it's trying to keep it a secret from readers.

[He had forced her to make a decision. Now she needed to follow through on it, and she wouldn’t get the privacy she needed if she had gone with them.] Same here. It's explaining why but not actually conveying any information, so it doesn't do enough to pique interest.

He might have to look up at her, but there was no question who was the stronger. His powerful arms flexed through his shirt sleeves.

She let out the breath she had been holding. She smiled, [knew it was weak, hoped it conveyed that she thought this encounter was a genuine coincidence. Not daring to trust her voice, she shook her head to refuse his offer of a lift and moved to step around him.] Feels a bit detached

[He barely shifted his weight, but it was enough to block her and make her hesitate. He told her it was no trouble and widened the already open passenger door for her.

She shook her head again, took a firm step past him
.] Perhaps dramatize this so there's a sense of action?

The sunshine dimmed. A sharp pain exploded at the back of her head. From behind, he caught her around the waist, grabbed her left arm, shoved her into the car.

[Stunned, she was still able to stiffen her arm on the front seat and use it to resist being pushed into the vehicle.] Feels detached

She felt his arm leave her waist. Another sharp, heavy pain radiated from the same spot on back of her head. For a split-second, her view was obscured by a black hole, just before she fell forward and it swallowed her.

The questions:

1. Is it clear who is doing what to whom?


Yes. He attacked her, and most likely shoved her into the car. Looks like a basic kidnapping to me.

(More on fixing ambiguous pronouns here)

2. Is it too wordy?

It is for me, though tastes do vary (readers chime in here). A lot of the same images and ideas are repeated throughout, like he's short, but dangerous, she's trying not to be afraid, and there are explanations that feel a little told and pull me out of the story. It's a lot of words to essentially say a short man knocked out a woman and shoved her into a car on a sunny day.

One thing that bogged this down is that it's detached, explaining the situation not showing a character with a problem. I don't get a sense that the girl/woman is the POV character, she's just being watched by an unnamed narrator (the author) who describes what's happening and why it matters. It's essentially all told, because the girl has no goal, has no internal thoughts, has no job other than to be kidnapped. There are hints that she has a reason for being there, but it's getting lost.

You might consider tightening it up some, cutting the explanations or editing them to be more in her voice to raise the tension and streamline it. If there was a person readers could connect to and feel for, it might feel more compelling.

(More on tightening the narrative focus here)

3. Does it persuade the reader to continue?

Not yet, because it's too detached. It reads like a prologue, so I think this is just something that the author feels readers "need to know," but the story hasn't actually started yet. Since I assume this is the student who was kidnapped, I suspect it is indeed a prologue. If so, then it tells me nothing I wouldn't know by reading the cover copy. The girl was kidnapped. Since I'll know that going in, there's no suspense. These are also nameless, faceless people so there's nothing to make me care about them. There's also no goal to hook me or draw me in.

I'd suggest cutting it and starting when the woman who goes to find her gets involved. She sounds like the protagonist and that will put a story-driving character with goals and stakes up front to draw readers in.

(More on the pros and cons of prologues here)

4. Is it too obvious that this is the student?

The book is about a woman trying to find a missing student, and this is about someone being kidnapped, so yes, it all points to this being the missing student. I don't know if that's the case, but as a reader, I'd assume so.

5. Does it telegraph that she probably isn't dead?

I assume no since it's about finding the girl, not finding out who killed her. And the man seems more interested in taking her than killing her, which he could have done in easier ways.

(More on telegraphing clues here)

Overall, I don't feel like this serves the larger story of finding the missing student. It doesn't pose any questions to hook the reader, and answers ones readers will no doubt have when the actual story starts, so they'll be no mystery about why she's missing. As the woman goes looking for her, readers are going to know what happened, so any clues she finds might feel anticlimactic.

If you could tweak this so it makes readers more curious about what actually happened, and poses a puzzle (but beware of being vague and confusing just to sound mysterious), then it might work as an opening. You might consider playing up whatever reason she's there more. Readers will know she gets kidnapped, but if the focus is on what she's trying to do (it can still be kept a secret) then the scene becomes more about what her plan was that went wrong, not that she was kidnapped. That poses a questions readers can wonder about. What was she doing? Why did she place herself in that situation?

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.

6 comments:

  1. The situation is certainly intriguing, but as Janice pointed out, the character seems detached because of the telling. Maybe add some dialogue on the attacker's part. "Need a lift?" or "Get in the car" or something to change it up.

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  2. I don't mind the telling as much, but the vagueness is irritating. Where is she going that she shouldn't go?

    The situation and the kidnapper intrigue me, and I'd read on to see what happens next, but the girl isn't catching my attention.

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  3. The last part was interesting and might work better at the beginning. I'd keep reading if that were the case. Start out with that event and then everything else can slip in as the story progresses. Pronouns were all over the place and gave the start kind of a "He did", "She did" feeling. Easy to fix with the link in Janice's response.

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  4. The first few lines were intriguing and pulled me in, and There is good tension throughout this piece. What began to erode this opening for me was the flow, combined with what Janice pointed out--the sense of the reader trying to 'hide' things from the reader. In answer to the last two questions posed by the author, no, for me, this does not clearly indicate the 'bad guy' is the student, nor does it clearly indicate whether the 'she' is a student herself. Too much ambiguity to really get my arms around it on the front end. I agree - it reads like a prologue because of that, and not necessarily an effective prologue. It raises too many questions, and not in a good way. Give me the simple stuff up front (who he/she are), and save the ambiguousness for the real clues.

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  5. Thank you, Janice. I appreciate your analysis. And thanks to the commenters too. All is very helpful.

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  6. Personally I found it too detached. There was no way for me to engage with either character or the events - no names, no dialogue, no pacing, too much telling. I also felt there was too much information missing.

    I think you could have infused a great deal of tension and drama into this by filling in the gaps, fleshing out the characters, adding dialogue. Someone once said that the more readers know the scarier the story can be. You can create tremendous suspense even if your readers know the character is going to be kidnapped - for example, give her choices along the way and have her make bad ones and it leads to the kidnapping. That will ramp up the tension as she could have avoided her fate. Or make her charmed by the guy, which infuses the story with dramatic irony as the readers know he's a baddy. (See the start of Stolen by Lucy Christopher for a great example of how this can be done.)

    Good luck with your story, it's an intriguing idea and I find myself wanting to know more :-)

    ReplyDelete