Saturday, December 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Will This Opening Draw in the Reader?

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 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 25. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s question:

Will I draw in the reader with this opening?


Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Henry de Grey tightened his grip on the pommel of his sword. The young knight’s gaze caught on the masts of boats anchored at Southampton’s docks and the throng of soldiers wending their way through the streets. Henry straightened in the saddle, thoughts focused on crossing the sea and joining King Richard’s army at Tours. Sombre, his destrier, pawed the ground. He stroked the dark bay’s neck, calming both man and beast, and nudged him along.

His heart told him he’d made the right decision. He quieted the noise of his father’s misgivings. What good was it to get your spurs and not answer the King’s call? And what better service than to take the Cross, to free Jerusalem from the infidels.

Henry’s fingers strayed to the crucifix hanging round his neck. This path You have laid out for me. Though he’d left Lincolnshire more than a week earlier, his journey to the Holy Land began here.

Scents wafting from a bakeshop collided with the smells of stall after stall of fresh and salted fish. An argument at one cart drew stares. A fishwife with mussed gray hair haggled over prices with a round-bellied customer. She waved a huge gutting knife at him, spurring Henry’s sixteen-year-old servant Roger to draw up beside him.

Henry tipped his head. “I’d place my silver on the old woman with the blade.”

The man cursed, waving his arms, but she crossed her own, that knife aimed conspicuously at his throat.

Applause erupted across the road. Roger turned toward the noise. Four full-bosomed women crowded an upstairs window, cheering the fishwife and gesturing suggestively to men on the street.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Henry de Grey tightened his grip on the pommel of his sword.] This suggests he feels he might need it (which is good), yet there's no actual threat after this, so it's a bit misleading. Why does he tighten his grip? [The young knight’s gaze caught on the masts of boats anchored at Southampton’s docks and the throng of soldiers wending their way through the streets.] He's looking at things up in the air and on the ground, so it feels a little off Henry straightened in the saddle, thoughts focused on crossing the sea and joining King Richard’s army at Tours. Sombre, his destrier, pawed the ground. He stroked the dark bay’s neck, calming both man and beast, and nudged him along. This first paragraph feels unfocused, so I'm not sure what the important part of this is. There's nothing to hook readers, but more of a list of statements.

[His heart told him he’d made the right decision. ] This has hooking potential, as it suggests some inner conflict. His heart says yes, but does that mean his brain says no? [He quieted the noise of his father’s misgivings.] Another good spot for potential conflict. Is he going against Dad's wishes? How does he feel about that? [What good was it to get your spurs and not answer the King’s call?] I don't understand what this means. Is "get your spurs" a knight thing? Whose thought was this, his or Dad's?  [And what better service than to take the Cross, to free Jerusalem from the infidels.] Now I see a direction for the story. Henry is about to go on the Crusades and isn't sure about it

Henry’s fingers strayed to the crucifix hanging round his neck. This path You have laid out for me. Though he’d left Lincolnshire more than a week earlier, his journey to the Holy Land began here. How? This is a good spot for some internalization to know how he feels about all of this. I'm getting hints, but not enough for me to understand the conflict.

[Scents wafting from a bakeshop collided with the smells of stall after stall of fresh and salted fish. An argument at one cart drew stares. A fishwife with mussed gray hair haggled over prices with a round-bellied customer. She waved a huge gutting knife at him, spurring Henry’s sixteen-year-old servant Roger to draw up beside him.

Henry tipped his head. “I’d place my silver on the old woman with the blade.”] I like Roger, but I'm unsure what this has to do with the story. It feels a little stuck in

The man cursed, waving his arms, [but she crossed her own, that knife aimed conspicuously at his throat] How can she aim a knife at him with her arms crossed?.

[Applause erupted across the road. Roger turned toward the noise. Four full-bosomed women crowded an upstairs window, cheering the fishwife and gesturing suggestively to men on the street.] Same thing here. I like the sense of the street and its people, but the details feel random

The question:

Will I draw in the reader with this opening?

The potential is there, but it feels a little unfocused to me so far. I like the idea of a conflicted knight heading off on the Crusades, unsure if what he's doing is right or not (If that is indeed the case here. I'm guessing based on a few clues). But Henry isn't doing anything in this opening and doesn't seem to have an immediate goal. There's the potential for trouble with the fishmonger--will Henry risk missing his ship to intervene in a fight?--but that never turns into anything.

What does Henry want in this scene? What's driving the plot as the story opens? He's about to board a ship and head off to war, but what specifically is he doing here? That would help hook readers because they'd have something to wonder and worry about right away. Maybe it's as simple as "will Henry make his ship?" and there are obstacles in his way that might prevent that. If combined with his uncertainty about whether or not leaving is a good idea, and any issues with his father, that could also offer a "if he misses the ship, is that a bad thing?" question as well.

(More on where to start the story here)

I'd suggest tightening the narrative focus to show what matters most and what the reader ought to be worrying about. The opening paragraph is a good example here. Let's break this down to individual sentences and look at what they're doing:

Henry de Grey tightened his grip on the pommel of his sword.

The young knight’s gaze caught on the masts of boats anchored at Southampton’s docks and the throng of soldiers wending their way through the streets.

Henry straightened in the saddle, thoughts focused on crossing the sea and joining King Richard’s army at Tours.

Sombre, his destrier, pawed the ground.

He stroked the dark bay’s neck, calming both man and beast, and nudged him along.

The only sentences here that build off each other are the last two, where the horse paws the ground and he pats it to calm him. The other sentences have no connection to each other, so they aren't directing the story yet. You could rearrange them and it wouldn't change anything.

(More on narrative focus here)

But there's potential for more in every one. Let's look again:

Henry de Grey tightened his grip on the pommel of his sword. Tightening your grip on a sword indicates you think you might need it or you want it. That suggests fear or apprehension or even a threat. Does he see an actual threat that he feels he might have to defend himself from? What makes him tighten his grip? What's worrying him? This is an interesting detail that hints of impending trouble, and that certainly is a possible hook to draw readers in. But only if you go somewhere with it.

The young knight’s gaze caught on the masts of boats anchored at Southampton’s docks and the throng of soldiers wending their way through the streets. Masts on a ship are not going to make someone grab his sword, so immediately the tension from the opening sentence is gone. But what about the masts and soldiers catches his gaze? I know from later paragraphs he's uncertain about his journey, so is this a moment where he's reconsidering? Is that why he's looking at the ships and men? There's good potential to delve deeper into the inner conflict here.

Henry straightened in the saddle, thoughts focused on crossing the sea and joining King Richard’s army at Tours. Once I know about his uncertainty, I can see a link between these two sentences (but it's not there on a first read). He sees the ships, and he thinks about what he's about to do. Another good spot to expand on his feelings and show the conflict of this scene. Readers want to know what the problem is, so show them what conflict Henry is facing at this moment.

Sombre, his destrier, pawed the ground. A nice undertone of his own mood. Nervousness, agitation. The horse is a good external symbol of his internal turmoil.

He stroked the dark bay’s neck, calming both man and beast, and nudged him along. Why does the stroke calm him? I like that is does, and it shows he's nervous about this journey, but why does he calm down? Has he reached a decision? Remembered something? Given himself a pep talk? The next paragraph mentions his heart saying he made the right decision, so it's a good lead in to his emotional state and the conflict he's facing.

(More on conflict here)

I'd suggest pinpointing the conflict in this scene and fleshing out the details to show that conflict and let Henry drive the plot toward a goal. Right now, this scene is "a guy rides through a street and looks at a ship" and that doesn't offer readers anything to sink their teeth into. But an uncertain knight embarking on a Crusade has more potential. Add something external Henry wants and has to overcome to that, and you'll have a solid opening with all the conflict and emotion to draw readers in.

I think you have it here, it's just under the surface right now. Try looking at the world through Henry's eyes and see this scene through his perspective. How does he feel about his life and what he's doing right now? What significance does the fishmonger hold that he focuses on her? Or the prostitutes at the end? Or even Roger? This is a major moment for Henry (I assume), so let readers see that. Let them anticipate and fear the same things Henry does, so they'll want to know what will happen.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I liked the details, the fidgeting and the calming of ones self while patting a hoarse. I had a grounded sense of purpose after rereading and finally why he may have been so wound up.
    If the details are to be left in then have their affect be felt by the character and communicated to the reader.
    His traveling to the ship could be either an ascension to higher purpose or decent into hell.
    From what I can see this is really close to working well hook wise if I start liking this Knight right off. The fight, big boobs and fish smells got my attention and I was wondering if he thought they were the same old sots or perhaps something he will sorely miss in the coming years?
    If you have not finished your novel then keep going, this will sort out later please don’t get stuck making this perfect. Good stuff write on man!

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  2. Great critique and writing sample.

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  3. I read this as an introduction to the character and situation of Henry. I personally didn't need any other goal or driving force - but that's just the kind of reader I am. It reminded me of the start of classic The Riddlemaster of Hed, which is a gentle scene-setter (although the initial phrase sums up the heart of the story.) Scene-setters can be great at engaging our hearts and then our minds will follow.

    My advice would be the same as Harry's - deepen Henry's character, perhaps with more musing, so we will attach ourselves to him. Already I like him as it is.

    On the level of the nitty-gritty, I don't think you need all the identifiers - "the young knight", "his destrier". Trust your readers will absorb that information through the descriptions you give.

    Keep writing! :-)

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  4. Janice, Thanks so much for your insights. You've given me plenty to think about. BTW, the granting of spurs - which one of my critique partners thought sounded right out of a Western - is referenced as a part of knighting ceremonies. The earliest ones consisted of girding of the sword belt; later customs included the accolade, the all-night vigil, and bestowal of spurs or other gifts. These customs may have become more common in the 13th or 14th centuries, so I'm stretching the history a bit, but so far, beta readers familiar with the 12th century haven't dinged me on it!

    Harry, Carol & Sarah - I appreciate your comments. I'm revising the 1st draft of this manuscript now and hope to begin revisions 'round 2' by mid-January.

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    Replies
    1. Most welcome, glad they were helpful. I had a feeling the spur thing was a knight detail. I think it was the combination of the detail and not knowing whose thought it was that made it confusing. The detail itself is probably a good one for the historical aspect.

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