Saturday, January 25

Real Life Diagnostics: Maintaining Focus 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.

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Submissions currently in the queue: Seven (+ 1 Resubmit)
Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 15. 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 questions:

Is there too much going on here for it to work as a beginning? I've been told to 'start with the action,' but I think this might be jumping in too fast.


Market/Genre: YA science fiction

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Background: Charlie's the adopted daughter of an American military officer in a time when the US has colonized Mars and is using it as a base. They're just about to land in Port Ultor, the biggest city on the planet.


The PA announcement over the Hyperloop’s system sounded mumbled, as dog-tired as I was. I opened one eye and glared at the wall screen. It showed me a sunny Earth meadow in early morning. 6:15, to be exact. Green grass backed up against a forest with the sun just rising. They’d even added little bird sounds and a creek.

I growled and tossed a pillow at the wall, which went obligingly dark. To hell with my ‘run the track every morning’ plan. I was taking a break today.

Knock, knock
. Aaaaand….nope. No rest for the wicked, if you consider staying up all night and staring out the window to be ‘wicked.’

“Charlie, we’re landing in an hour,” my dad’s voice said through the door. He didn’t sound tired at all. His voice was chipper, caffeinated, even excited. For him, anyway. To an outsider or to his wife he’d sound as clipped and proper as always.

“Make sure you’re ready, alright? We’re meeting your mother at the shuttle-port.”

I sat up blearily and ran a hand through my short, silky hair. “Miracle of miracles, she’s come back from the grave!” I muttered sourly. That woman was not my mother. No matter how much she wanted to be. Dad had already moved on down the hall, though, so he didn't hear me insulting his wife.

My track shoes sat neatly beside the bunk, mocking me. I kicked them under the bed and shinnied into a pair of black cargos. I wasn't about to get all pretty just for her. Now, if dad somehow managed to bring back my birth parents, that’d be a different story. But for Zoe, well, I happened to like plain white tank tops with my leather jacket and boots. If she didn't like the way I looked, she could go suck an egg.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The PA announcement over the Hyperloop’s system sounded mumbled, as [dog-tired] This struck me as an older term, so it feels almost anachronistic in a sci fi story as I was. I opened one eye and glared at the wall screen. It showed me a sunny Earth meadow in early morning. 6:15, to be exact. Green grass backed up against a forest with the sun just rising. They’d even added little bird sounds and a creek.

I growled and tossed a pillow at the wall, which went obligingly dark. To hell with my ‘run the track every morning’ plan.[ I was taking a break today.] Why? And if she knows she's landing soon, would she even bother to plan a run?

Knock, knock. Aaaaand….nope. [No rest for the wicked] also feels older, if you consider staying up all night and staring out the window to be ‘wicked.’

[“Charlie, we’re landing in an hour,”] Does this mean they're on a ship? my [dad’s voice said through the door.] He says it, not his voice [He didn’t sound tired at all.] Why would she expect him to be? His voice was chipper, caffeinated, even excited. For him, anyway. [To an outsider or to his wife] This seemed an odd thing to say he’d sound as clipped and proper as always.

“Make sure you’re ready, alright? We’re meeting your mother at the shuttle-port.”

I sat up blearily and ran a hand through my short, silky hair. “Miracle of miracles, she’s come back from the grave!” I muttered sourly. That woman was not my mother. No matter how much she wanted to be. Dad had already moved on down the hall, though,[ so he didn't hear me insulting his wife.] She doesn't actually insult her

[My track shoes sat neatly beside the bunk, mocking me.] There's a lot of focus on running, which seems odd without anything to show why it matters I kicked them under the bed and shinnied into a pair of black cargos.[ I wasn't about to get all pretty just for her.] No one asked her to, so this feels weird. Also, if they're landing soon, shouldn't she be packing? [Now, if dad somehow managed to bring back my birth parents] without knowing he's her adopted father, this sounds out of the blue and odd, that’d be a different story. But for Zoe, well, I happened to like plain white tank tops with my leather jacket and boots. If she didn't like the way I looked, she could go [suck an egg.] this also feels old fashioned. And does she have a history of Zoe not liking what she wears? Why is this an issue?

The questions:

Is there too much going on here for it to work as a beginning? I've been told to 'start with the action,' but I think this might be jumping in too fast.


I don't think it's too fast, but it does feel like it's trying too hard to put a lot of background information in that isn't advancing the plot.

I know Charlie is tired, "wants" to run but really doesn't want to, doesn't like her stepmother, is overly antagonistic toward her for unknown reasons, might be adopted, is on a ship of some type going somewhere and is very put out about something.

None of these details are meshing well to give me a bigger picture of what's going on here and why it matters. Some of them also contradict each other, which muddies things even further.

For example, Charlie has issues with Zoe, but calls her adoptive father Dad. This implies that Zoe is more stepmom and possibly new to the family (if she'd been there all along, Charlie wouldn't be acting like she's a newcomer invading her family and calling her Zoe). Dad is accepted, Zoe is not. Yet I'm not sure that's the case because she makes a point out of bringing up her birth parents and being willing to look nice for them, which suggests she doesn't want to be there and this might be a new adoption. But if so, then why call Dad Dad? If they're dead, then "birth parents" also feels odd, because birth parents implies she was given up for adoption, not that she was orphaned. Dead parents suggest orphaning. Birth parents also implies that she doesn't know them. Her lack of emotion about them also suggests she doesn't think of them as her "parents", but if so, then why focus on them?

Because of these odd and conflicting details, I'm not sure how she feels about Dad, Zoe, or her birth parents or how these relationships work. It feels both that she's new to this family and that she's been there a long time, so I'm confused. And since they're the focus of the scene, I feel like this is something important to the plot. However, I suspect that they're just there to say "she's adopted." If so, then her family dynamics don't matter at this point and have no bearing on the scene.

This is one area I think might be "too much" for the opening if it isn't affecting the goal of the scene. Right now, I don't know what Charlie wants aside from stay in bed. As a hook, that's not enough to draw me into the story. There's a little conflict with Zoe, but with nothing to understand why she dislikes her so, Charlie comes off as the unreasonable one. It's also a tad clich├ęd--teen daughter can't stand stepmother.

I'd suggest clarifying what you want from this scene and focusing on that. Unless it matters to what's going on right now, the fact that she's adopted can probably wait until it fits naturally into the scene. But if she was just recently adopted and is going to her new home, everything would have a very different feel and these details would be much more relevant.

(More on narrative focus here)

What is going on as this story opens? They're landing, but I'm not told where or where they're coming from. She has a room, so this trip was more than just a casual flight, and I suspect she's coming from Earth. She stayed up all night staring out a window, but I don't know why. Is she excited about where they're going? Dreading it? Is there more to the Zoe issue and that's what kept her awake? She noted Dad wasn't tired, so did she expect him to be? Is there reason for it?

(More on how character mood affects a scene here)

I'm also not sure how she fits into this world. If going to Mars is new to her, she'd probably be excited or feel some strong emotion about it. If she's just going home, then her attitude would be different, but she'd still have one. This is an area where more would be good so readers understand the setting and world better.

(More on grounding readers in the world here)

What's her goal? What's about to happen that will draw readers in and make them want to know what happens next? I'm not getting a sense of anything happening yet, that this is just routine for Charlie. Being on a space ship is no big deal, landing on Mars is normal, and she's more annoyed about the wife than anything else.

(More on goals and motivations here)

Overall, I have a feeling this is still setup and the real story hasn't started yet. It feels like it's trying to get character details and backstory in, but none of those details are driving the plot yet. After Charlie lands, what happens? What might you do to bring that into this opening? If Charlie is anticipating something after landing (good or bad) then that might be enough to drive the scene and draw readers in. If not, then perhaps start the story closer to when something does 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.

4 comments:

  1. Just another note since it wasn't mentioned -- it starts with a character waking up. That's on the agents' top 10 of how not to start a story. While it can be done effectively, here it tends to feels like it's just the story getting started in the wrong place.

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  2. I also had the impression that the story was waiting to start. As a reader, I was hurrying through the description of Charlie, picking up details on the way (prefers cargo pants to pretty clothes, tense family relationship), but I wanted her to get out of that room and do something.

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  3. Janice's notes captured the items that gave me pause. Addressing those would probably help with strengthening the opening :-)

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  4. I agree with Janice's points, and the narrative structure was a bit muddled. But I really enjoyed the author's voice--and once the sequencing issues are addressed, this scene should definitely pop.

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