Sunday, December 8

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at Pacing and Tension on the Opening Page

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: Five


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 18, so there's a bit of a wait for submission feedback. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware.

NOTE: There's a revised snippet up for A Wicked Beginning: Does This Opening Work? for those curious to see how the writer revised.

This week’s questions:

1. The opening is working? Does it hook the reader and make them want to read more?
2. Is it paced well?
3. Can you 'feel' the tension and does it climb appropriately/proportionately?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The story commences in the year 1802.

It had now come to this.

The sheriff, bearing rod of office and warrant in one hand and hat in the other, squinted against the bright illuminations that reflected off white-veined marble as he waited in the palatial, circular hallway of Mortharn House. It seemed to him as if the whole light of day had been sucked inside this circle of space and trapped forever as the front door was opened to admit him, leaving behind the fog-bound streets he had been walking only moments ago. The sheer grandeur and scale of the house in which he was poised to perform the duties of his office both overwhelmed and intimidated him, as did the footman standing sentinel beside him, stern-faced and resplendent in livery.

Sudden movement at the top of the grand staircase caught the sheriff’s eye. He looked up towards the piano nobile in time to see a beautiful woman of some twenty-eight years pause momentarily before descending the stairs, like honey, with an air of elegance that would normally captivate him, but daunted him instead.

Dressed in half-mourning clothes, she held her head high; confident, evincing superiority. Her hand glided gracefully along the highly-polished mahogany balustrade until she came to a halt on the bottom stair, her sparkling, blue eyes dismissive.

The sheriff raised the warrant tentatively and inquired, ‘Do I have the honour of addressing Mrs Victoria Elizabeth D’Alamberte?’

She ignored the sheriff. She looked the footman up and down, her eyes now as cold as a creeping glacier. In an indignant, husky tone, she said, ‘I instructed you to show this gentleman into the drawing room.’

‘Forgive me,’ interjected the sheriff, ‘but, given the sorry business I am about, I declined the invitation.’ He swallowed as she stared at him ungraciously. Her eyes radiated disdain for his impudence. He ventured again to ask, ‘Do I have the honour of addressing Mrs Victoria Elizabeth D’Alamberte?’

She paled. Her nostrils flared as she took in the solemn expression of the small, thin man before her. She looked past his unkempt powdered wig to two men in overcoats standing by the front door and enquired, ‘Who are they?’

My Thoughts in Purple:

It had now come to this.

The sheriff, bearing rod of office and warrant in one hand and hat in the other, squinted against the bright illuminations that reflected off white-veined marble as he waited in the palatial, circular hallway of Mortharn House. It seemed to him as if the whole light of day had been sucked inside this circle of space and trapped forever as the front door was opened to admit him, leaving behind the fog-bound streets he had been walking only moments ago. The sheer grandeur and scale of the house in which he was poised to perform the duties of his office both [overwhelmed and intimidated him] Why?, as did the footman standing sentinel beside him, stern-faced and resplendent in livery. The sentences in the paragraph are long and it drags the pacing. I've colored sections you could cut or edit to tighten it up in red

Sudden movement at the top of the grand staircase caught the sheriff’s eye. He looked up towards the piano nobile in time to see a beautiful woman of some twenty-eight years pause [momentarily] Most pauses are momentary before descending the stairs, like honey, with an air of elegance that [would normally captivate him, but daunted him instead.] Perhaps some internalization as to why? It's all feeling very distant so far, which lessens the tension because there's no character to connect with

Dressed in [half-mourning clothes] This is intriguing, as I wonder who died and if she killed her husband, she held her head high; [confident, evincing superiority.] Could cut to tighten. Holding head high suggests these things. Her hand glided [gracefully] Gliding is typically graceful along the highly-polished mahogany balustrade until she came to a halt on the bottom stair, her [sparkling, blue eyes dismissive.] Sparkling and dismissive feel contradictory to me

The sheriff raised the warrant[ tentatively] Why is he nervous? Good spot for some internalization [and inquired,] Could cut to tighten. ‘Do I have the honour of addressing Mrs Victoria Elizabeth D’Alamberte?’

She ignored the sheriff. She looked the footman up and down, her eyes now as cold as a creeping glacier. [In an indignant, husky tone, she said] Could cut to tighten, ‘I instructed you to show this gentleman into the drawing room.’

‘Forgive me,’ interjected the sheriff, ‘but, given the sorry business I am about, I declined the invitation.’ He swallowed as she stared at him [ungraciously. Her eyes radiated disdain for his impudence] Perhaps pick one or the other to tighten. [He ventured again to ask,] Could cut to tighten ‘Do I have the honour of addressing Mrs Victoria Elizabeth D’Alamberte?’

[She paled. Her nostrils flared] Paling suggests fear or shock while flaring nostrils suggests anger. She could be feeling both, but there's not enough to figure out her emotions [as she took in the solemn expression of the small, thin man before her. She looked past his unkempt powdered wig] POV shift if the sheriff is the POV character to two men in overcoats standing by the front door [and enquired,] Could cut to tighten ‘Who are they?’

The questions:

1. Is the opening working? Does it hook the reader and make them want to read more?


Not yet, because all the detail and description is weighing the story down for me. (Readers chime in here as this is a matter of personal taste) More attention is spent of what the house, woman, and stairs look like than what's going on or what the sheriff is doing there. He's come to arrest her I gather (I assume for killing her husband, but that's just a guess), and he feels uncertain about that, but there's no internalization from him for me to understand what's going on and why any of it matters. So instead of being drawn in, I feel left out.

I suspect there is a decent hook in here however, and the mystery as to what this woman has done and why the sheriff is reluctant to (and intimidated by) arresting her could be intriguing. But there aren't enough clues to draw me into the story yet. Knowing more of what's going on in the sheriff's head would help draw me in and give me something to worry about.

You might also try thinking about what you as the author want readers to worry about. What do you want them feeling and wondering in this opening? Then edit to help create those emotions and story questions.

(More on fixing common opening problems here)

2. Is it paced well?

Pacing is a subjective thing, but for me, no (Readers also chime in here). If felt slow with the attention on things that didn't move the story forward or shed light on who these characters are. Heavy description is notorious for bogging the pacing down, and this scene is mostly that. The vocabulary is also rather formal, which might fit a story set in 1802, but it added to the slow pacing just because it took longer to parse what the sentences were saying.

(More on fixing pacing problems here)

I'd suggest using your POV here to show what matters and why. What would a sheriff in 1802 be looking at in this situation? How would he feel about it? What matters to the scene itself? She's rich, but it doesn't take many details to show that. Just being inside a palatial house is enough to get that idea across. What about the setting or people tells readers something they can't figure out by a basic description of "inside rich woman's house?" What details make him worry? This will help pick up the pace.

(More on describing your setting here)

3. Can you 'feel' the tension and does it climb appropriately/proportionately?

This didn't feel tense to me because I had no real sense of who these characters were or what their issues were (aside from the arrest), and no sense of stakes. I could see that the sheriff was nervous, and the woman was rude and dismissive, but never any sense that something unexpected might happen. Tension comes from the unexpected, both in what could happen or what someone might say. A sheriff going to arrest someone who thinks she's above the law typically ends in very predictable ways, and there's nothing here yet that suggests this will end differently than expected. He also doesn't have a name, which is a clue to readers that he isn't worth worrying about, which also lessens the tension.

Internalization from the sheriff would help raise the tension, because readers would see what's going on in his head and how he feels about this. His worries can translate to reader worries and they could more easily see where the trouble in this situation lies. He can think unexpected thoughts and show why this isn't the typical "arresting a killer" scene. He can show readers why this scene is the first thing they need to know to enjoy this story.

(More on creating tension here)

Overall, I'd suggest tightening it to pick up the pace, and letting readers inside the sheriff's head a little. If he's the POV, then perhaps give him a name so readers can connect with him. If he's not the POV character, then perhaps consider why the story opens with him and how that allows you to hook readers in a way using the POV character does not.

(More on internalization 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.

7 comments:

  1. I liked the writing overall. As usual Janice nailed it. This should start right at the opening line and dump everything in front of it. You can tuck in descriptions and internalization as a way of tension building. Literally weave it into the dialog and actions while skipping the show. Suggestion: if you can do anything to make that sheriff likeable do so as soon as possible. Establish his fondness for cats, anything like that. Avoid the stereotypical 'sheriff guy' and let us into the human being who needs to serve papers on the 'high profile' Victoria which still rattles ones wig to this day :) Write on, this is good stuff.

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  2. Hi
    I agree with Harry, I enjoyed the writing, and found the descriptive stuff evocative, but, as Janice says, it does feel quite slow.
    In terms of setting the scene, perhaps all the outside stuff and city could wait until they leave, or the sheriff leaves, depending on what happens next.
    Another thing I thought you nailed Janice are the various adverbs and reasons for reaction. I think with a little more internalisation early on, helping to set the scene, you could rely more on the reader to understand why people are reacting the way they are.
    Good stuff, though, and I am interested in what happens next. :)
    cheers
    Mike

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  3. I agree with everything Janice has said to tighten the story - think you'll like it much better when you make the cuts. The reader may already understand the context of this scene (blurb/cover/title) but the word sheriff conjures certain images - checked shirt/leather chaps etc etc - so I think you want to nail the right period detail early on. Perhaps he is itchy under his wig but is resisting the temptation to scratch and you could mention that in the opening line.

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  4. I'm one who's big on description, so although I do agree there is lots here to cut, I like an opening scene where the reader is grounded in setting. This piece is heavy on the "where," but as you pointed out, weak on the who and why. I also feel that historical pieces innately require more world-building, since it's not one the reader may be familiar with. That being said, I am awed at how sharp an eye Janice has. I learn so much from these critiques :) Thank you for submitting, and thanks to Janice for sharing her advice with us.

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    Replies
    1. Aw, thanks so much. I've always found that seeing examples in actual work makes it so much easier to get something. And I love that you guys are so helpful and come here to make comments as well. Other views are so important for a critique.

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  5. No need to echo much sense Janie was spot on with identifying items that drew the pacing longer than desired and did not give way to the desired tension. But I will say that the very first line opened the story with a great hook factor. I was immediately intrigued and wondered what it had all come to.

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  6. I loved the first line, but wanted it hooked to this intriguing woman. I thought of a line in Dennis LeHane's Live by Night (I'm going from memory here), he says something like--everything good or bad that has happened in my life began when I crossed paths with Miss Georgeous. Give me something about that woman to go with that short hook and I'm in for the description. mysteryshrink

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