Saturday, February 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Developing the Setting 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: Six (+ 2 Resubmits)  

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 5. 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 the environment developed enough? Is the character interesting? Would you read on?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I stood in a section of hallway where war was being waged against the insane brilliance by a dying fluorescent tube. It was the perfect sanctuary for waiting.

A pulsing buzz throbbed through the air as I counted my teeth with my tongue. There was no pain, but that didn't mean anything. I was sure I'd lost at least one tooth. As I felt the familiar contours of a broken molar, a nurse approached from the left, walking quickly, staring straight ahead. At the edge of the war zone her pace slowed a fraction and she glanced up. Then, like an animal that enters the shadow of a cloud and hurries to the sunlight, she quickened her step. She never looked at me.

I stared at her ass, lost my tooth count, and turned to scan the nurse's station that was lit up like a rocket staging platform.

The snick of a door knob turning jerked my attention back to the right. Two doors up and across the hallway a man in blue scrubs suddenly emerged and briskly walked toward me. Just as he crossed into the war zone, the light finally failed and he stopped a few feet away. Information spilled from him, rapid fire. His words shot into snug mental slots as I stared at the toes of his red Chuckies swathed in sterile gauze footies.

There was a pause and then five final words. They hung suspended, mid-delivery, like airborne toxins.

"Your friend is very lucky."

My jaw shoved forward as my gaze shot up to check his expression, but the surgeon was already striding away, seeming to flee the scene.

I pulled my cell from my left coat pocket and plunged my right hand through my hair. It was still wet.

No – he's isn't lucky.

I pressed my left thumb against the phone's screen to activate encryption.

And he isn't my friend.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I stood in a section of hallway where [war was being waged against the insane brilliance by a dying fluorescent tube.] This stopped me to figure out what it meant It was the perfect sanctuary for waiting.

A pulsing buzz throbbed through the air as I counted my teeth with my tongue. There was no pain, but that didn't mean anything. I was sure I'd lost at least one tooth. As I felt the familiar contours of a broken molar, a nurse approached from the left, walking quickly, staring straight ahead. [At the edge of the war zone her pace slowed a fraction and she glanced up. Then, like an animal that enters the shadow of a cloud and hurries to the sunlight, she quickened her step.] There's a lot of attention to what is probably a flickering or broken light, so it's pulling focus from what's going on [She never looked at me.] Is this good or bad? He wants to hide, but I can't tell how he's feeling

I stared at her ass, lost my tooth count, [and turned to scan the nurse's station that was lit up like a rocket staging platform.] This doesn't fit the first part of the sentence. He's gets distracted by her ass (which is funny), but immediately turns away for no apparent reason. Is he worried about the nurse's station? Hopes they come over to help him?

[The snick of a door knob turning jerked my attention back to the right.] He's changing focus yet again, so I'm getting a bit lost about what I should be looking at. Is this suggesting he's jumpy? If so, it's not clear because there's no internalization from him, about his emotional reaction to it Two doors up and across the hallway a man in blue scrubs suddenly emerged and briskly walked toward me. [ Just as he crossed into the war zone, the light finally failed and he stopped a few feet away.] I don't understand why so much attention is spent on this light, so it's distracting me from the story [Information spilled from him, rapid fire. His words shot into snug mental slots as I stared at the toes of his red Chuckies swathed in sterile gauze footies.] This feels a bit overwritten so it's hard to follow. And why won't he look at the doctor?

There was a pause and then five final words. They hung suspended, mid-delivery, like airborne toxins.

"Your friend is very lucky."

My jaw shoved forward as my gaze shot up to [check his expression] why?, but the surgeon was already striding away, [seeming to flee the scene.] This is intriguing, like the friend's injuries are something he wants no part of

[I pulled my cell from my left coat pocket and plunged my right hand through my hair. It was still wet.

No – he's isn't lucky.

I pressed my left thumb against the phone's screen to activate encryption.

And he isn't my friend.] These lines hook me. Here's where I get interested.

The questions:

1. Is the environment developed enough?


Not yet, because the focus feels like it's on the wrong things. There are three different mentions of the flickering light, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with the story. It's also described in an odd way (the war zone) which took me a while to figure out what it meant. With so much attention spent on it I expected it to mean something, but it's just a broken light.

I get the sense that this opening is trying too hard to describe an emergency room without using many medical terms, so I had to work to understand the setting. That made it hard to connect to the character and slowed down the pacing. It also made things feel a little overwritten. For example, a flickering light is a "war was being waged against the insane brilliance by a dying fluorescent tube."

I do like that the descriptions are in his POV and hints that he's an agent or solider, or someone with battle experience in some way, but I'd suggest making that clearer overall. Him staying in the shadowed areas vs the bright light, checking out the nurses, scanning for trouble--these are all good examples of his POV and personality, but they're a tad hidden so far.

(More on how your descriptions can help your story here)

I'd also suggest a little more internalization to get a better sense of who this person is. Until the end, there's not much from the character--just description without a lot of context. He's in a hospital-type setting and has a broken tooth (which could imply he's at a dentist at first), and is preoccupied by a light. There are hints that's he's jumpy, but it's not clear. He could just be cautious or expecting trouble. Knowing what he's thinking would help raise the tension.

I get a much better sense of him at the end, and I like that section a lot. I also like him being distracted to check out the nurse. This humanizes him and makes me curious about who he is and why he's there.

(More on mixing action and internalization here)

2. Is the character interesting?

He becomes so at the end, but it took work to get there. Who he is and why he's there feel like the important parts of this scene, and while you might not want to give certain details away at this point, I'd suggest a little more context and judgement on his part to draw readers in. The POV is the key to that.

Right now, there's no sense that he's there for someone else until the end, but knowing that earlier could help create mystery and tension. Who is he waiting for? Why are they there? Why is he so nervous? Readers will naturally assume he's there out of concern, so the "he's not my friend" part will have extra punch.

(More on setting the tone and mood of your scenes here)

There's also no sense of how he lost his tooth or what happened. He doesn't seem overly concerned about it, which suggests this is normal for him, yet he also seems to be watching the area, which suggests the opposite. I'm also not sure if he's nervous or just waiting. His rapid shifts in attention could suggest he's on edge, but nothing really says that.

You don't have to give secrets away, but knowing his mental and emotional state here could help ground readers in who he is and why he's there.

(More on making readers care here)

3. Would you read on?

Yes and no. The beginning didn't hook me because it was too vague overall. The last four lines totally hooked me. Those are great and make me re-evaluate everything that came before it, which is exactly what a great twist should do. Because this last part is so strong, I'd suggest misleading readers a bit in the opening paragraphs so they naturally assume he's there for a friend, then flip it on them. Don't lie or trick them, but let them naturally assume wrong.

Overall, I think this is trying too hard to hide details and uses the wrong details at the start, but once it finds its feets it's got strong potential. I'd suggest picking the most critical details you want to get across and focusing on those. Perhaps it's that he's in an emergency room waiting to hear the status of someone, and how he's feeling in this scene (scared? resigned? worried?) I think once the beginning has a tighter focus, this will suck readers right in.

(More on narrative focus 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.

6 comments:

  1. Janice is right, the hook is there at the end. (Also, the over-written comments made me wince and think maybe I need to check a certain manuscript of my own...) I have to say, from the way the flickering light was described, I honestly thought the doctors were in the middle of a heated battle and throwing test-tubes at each other. For some reason the line `the dying florescent tube' translated in my mind to a test-tube full of glowing stuff that died when it shattered on the floor. I figured I was reading a dis-utopian tale in which the hospital had become an actual battle-zone. Maybe with evil, mutant-creating doctors against good doctors. Yeah. My mind works in funny ways sometimes.

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  2. This is a perfect example of an opening scene that could easily be transformed from good to great with some judicious snipping and rearrangement. I really enjoyed the author's style, and I think this opening could be quite compelling if the parts that were a bit overwritten were reworked to better advance the story.

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  3. I like the idea of the protagonist viewing the ER as a war zone - it shows great POV - but I agree it needs to be clearer that that is where he is. (Or she, I suppose I shouldn't assume yet.) I think you could easily condense those first five paragraphs down to about two to establish your man, then head right into the hook.

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  4. I agreed that the lines at the end most intrigued me. I'm wondering if there could be a much briefer build up to that and then wham, we find out he's not even the protagonist's friend.
    Things like the "snick of a doorknob" stopped me too. What is a snick? I liked the clues that something awful has happened--he's lost a tooth and I want to know how and why.
    Thanks for sharing this!

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  5. "A pulsing buzz throbbed through the air as I counted my teeth with my tongue." This line really confused me. After the description about the light as a war zone (I also thought it was a literal war of some kind) I thought the buzz was some kind of weapon that made him lose his tooth. Reading it back now, that doesn't really make sense, but I only realised that the third time I read the sentence. It also seems a little odd for him to only just be checking his teeth. At this point, we have no idea what the character has been doing. He might not have had time to count his teeth before this point, but I certainly hadn't picked up on that. I did like the counting though, and the hint that losing teeth is a normal thing for him.
    The bit from "Your friend is very lucky." really intrigues me. If I made it that far, I would definitely read on. The first few paragraphs were quite confusing though, and I had to stop several times to try and work out what was going on.

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  6. I agree with everything Janice said on this one. As a sci-fi fan, it feels like you're trying to set up a futuristic scene at the start based on the language you used (airbourne toxins). I like the ending lines, intriguing stuff.
    cheers

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