Saturday, March 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Clarifying Your Goal, Conflict, and Stakes in the 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 (+ 1 Resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 12. 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:

Does this work as an opening? Would you read more, or put this down?


Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

There’s this theory that everyone’s either an asshole or related to one.

Leo stroked the runes on the Lunarium’s door, his fingers sliding effortlessly across every inch of his marble-etched inscriptions. Each groove spiraled hypnotically to the portal’s central insignia, a carving of the Darkmoon and Daymoon in an orbiting embrace around a thin slit, where his inlaid wards leached a soothing aura of Leiyan. The waves of magic assured Leo that the sacred grounds beyond were still pure.

He unsheathed a knife and shoved it through the opening until the booming crack of split rock shook the whole shrine.

Sensing his treachery, silver lights sped towards the central rune though the grooves, along the blade, and ripped into his arm, leaving blazing trails of agony beneath his skin.

Leo recoiled with a hiss and shook the phantom pain from his fingers. He was getting too rusty…or too good.

“Can’t you bust that open faster?” his sister nagged.

He suppressed a bitter chuckle. Salei never fails to prove the asshole theorem. Leo rolled his eyes and slammed his palms against the door, forcing every iota of Leiyan he could spare into the network of seals he wasted all year maintaining.

“Pick up the pace,” said Salei. “I think I hear Cora coming.”

Leo stole a glance over his shoulder. There was nothing, except for his sister and two torches mounted on the walls, but their incandescence faded to darkness at a distance. Best not linger.

He turned his attention to the door and focused even harder. Every rune glowed afire in protest, their luminance stinging his eyes. More comets of pain tunneled into his palms, ricocheting about his insides, head to heel, for every second he spun his ruinous web.

At last, fractures radiated from the now white-hot marble under his palms. Cancerous fissures spread throughout the portal until the construct crumbled to dust and pieces—along with every oath Leo ever swore.

Looks like I prove it, too.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[There’s this theory that everyone’s either an asshole or related to one.] This sounds very tight, like a first-person POV, but it switches to distant third in the next line, so it feels disconnected.

Leo stroked the runes on the Lunarium’s door, his fingers sliding effortlessly across every inch of [his] who does this refer to? marble-etched inscriptions. Each groove spiraled hypnotically to the portal’s central insignia, a carving of the Darkmoon and Daymoon in an orbiting embrace around a thin slit, where [his] who does this refer to? inlaid wards leached a soothing aura of [Leiyan.] Hard to know what this is in context [The waves of magic assured Leo that the sacred grounds beyond were still pure.] Feels a little distant. I'm a bit lost here because I don't know what a Lunarium or a Leiyan are. Lunarium felt like a person or title (it was "his" door) and Leiyan feels like maybe a god, but I'm not sure so it's hard to ground myself in what this means. After "pure" is also a good spot for some internalization about how he feels since we find out later that he's about to (I suspect) desecrate that purity.

He unsheathed a knife and shoved it through the opening [until the booming crack of split rock shook the whole shrine.] Feels a little distant

[Sensing his treachery,] Feels a little distant silver lights sped towards the central rune though the grooves, along the blade, and ripped into his arm, leaving blazing trails of agony beneath his skin.

Leo recoiled with a hiss and shook the phantom pain from his fingers. [He was getting too rusty…or too good.] This is the first sense of Leo as a character, and I like his voice. Love to see more of this to connect me to the character

“Can’t you bust that open faster?” his sister nagged.

He suppressed a bitter chuckle.[ Salei never fails to prove the asshole theorem] The asshole line was funny, but it feels anachronistic. That line feels modern, but everything after feels very other-world fantasy. Leo rolled his eyes and slammed his palms against the door, forcing every [iota] feels anachronistic of Leiyan he could spare into the network of seals [he wasted all year maintaining.] This is intriguing. Perhaps a little internalization here to show how he feels about this and what it means? If he spent all year maintaining them, why? Was it his job?

“Pick up the pace,” said Salei. “I think I hear Cora coming.”

Good spot for some internalization as to why this is bad Leo stole a glance over his shoulder. There was nothing, except for his sister and two torches mounted on the walls, but their incandescence faded to darkness at a distance. Best not linger.

He turned his attention to the door and [focused even harder.] To do what? I can see he's trying to break in, but if they're his runes, why does he have to? Every rune glowed afire in protest, their luminance stinging his eyes. More comets of pain tunneled into his palms, ricocheting about his insides, head to heel, for every second he spun his ruinous web. I wanted a thought from him here, perhaps why he has to do this, or the importance of it. Even if that's just "We can't let her see us" or the like.

At last, fractures radiated from the now white-hot marble under his palms. [Cancerous] Feels anachronistic fissures spread throughout the portal until the construct crumbled to dust and pieces—along with every oath Leo ever swore.

[Looks like I prove it, too. ] This is the first sense that he's not happy about what he's doing. Knowing that earlier would have helped draw me in.

The questions:

1. Does this work as an opening?


It starts with something happening--Leo and his sister breaking into a portal in a shrine, and they're doing this in secret. I'm curious why, especially since Leo set the wards, and I'm wondering why he has to break in to break them. He's also breaking an oath, which is interesting.

I'm having trouble grounding myself in this world though. Most of my issues occur in the second paragraph however, so I think fleshing out the world building just a tad there would fix it.

Let's look at the entire paragraph and what world-building clues I take (right or wrong) from it:

Leo stroked the runes on [the Lunarium’s door,] This feels like the title of a person, and an important one at that since it's capitalized. So I think they're breaking into someone's room.

his fingers sliding effortlessly across every inch of [his marble-etched inscriptions. ] The "his" makes me think the Lunarium made the inscriptions, so he's got some magical protection.

Each groove spiraled hypnotically to the [portal’s central insignia, ] Portal suggests a gateway to something, likely magical based, so now I question what I thought I knew about the Lunarium. Maybe it's not a person but a place. But that doesn't fit with "his etchings" so I'm not sure who "his" refers to. It's enough to pull me out of the story trying to figure it out.

a carving of the Darkmoon and Daymoon in an orbiting embrace around a thin slit, Love the two moon names, and I suspect this world has twin moons and you see one at all times. It also feels central to the religion, and "Lunarium" now feels religious (lunar = moons). So maybe a gateway to the moons? Or it could be symbolic. But "portal" has certain connotations in fantasy, so I still think gateway of some kind. I gather they're breaking into a place, though I don't know why.

where [his inlaid wards leached a soothing aura of Leiyan.] Not sure who "his" refers to, especially since I'm now sure the Lunarium isn't a person but a place. The only person "his" could mean would be Leo, which makes no sense to me, because why would he have to break into his own wards? If he set the wards, can't he just turn them off? No solid idea of what Leiyan is, though I guess the magic of this world. Also not sure "leached" and "soothing" work together in this context, unless his wards are dissolving the Leiyan in some way (which is possible). I suspect you mean the wards are radiating the aura?

The waves of magic assured Leo that the [sacred grounds beyond] were still pure. I'd guess this is a portal to the sacred grounds (though I'd almost expect that to be capitalized if it has such religious significance, unless it's not named "Sacred Grounds"). If he's concerned about the purity, does that mean he wants to keep it pure or needs it pure for whatever reason they're breaking in?

That's a lot of information in one paragraph, which is great, but I don't think it's taking me where you want me to go yet. It's a little too hard to parse what's going on and what it all means.

If the Lunarium is indeed a place, then perhaps say "the door of the Lunarium" instead of "Lunarium's door." That would make it clear it's a place and not a person right from the start. Also, is it the only one or is this what all shrines are called? If it's just their word for shrine, then perhaps lunarium, which would further show it's a place and not a person.

(More on grounding readers in the world here)

You might also consider a little more internalization from Leo to nudge the world building in the right direction. You don't have to give things away if you want the mystery, but a little more context would help pull me in as a reader. Like, I don't have to know why they're breaking in or what they're after yet if you want that a secret, but if I knew how Leo felt about it, I'd know if this is a good or bad thing. Are they trying to protect the portal or is this a long-term heist?

I know from your email that what they're doing is explained in a sentence or two, so I'd suggest adding a hint of that earlier. They're after a book and they need it before Cora gets there. Knowing they're breaking in to get it makes the goal clear, knowing they need it before Cora gets there gives you a ticking clock, and knowing they need to steal it before she can provides conflict. Add in a hint of the stakes and you'll have it all.

It's not important yet what the book is or why they need it, and that can come after when it's relevant. But knowing the goal, conflict, and stakes will create a strong hook and draw readers in.

(Why every scene needs a goal, conflict, and something at stake here)

The narrator also has me a little confused. The opening line feels first person and modern, yet it immediately shifts to third omniscient and formal fantasy. Throughout the snippet, modern-sounding words are used that feel anachronistic in a fantasy setting. For example:
  • Asshole theorem (this sounds like something you'd hear in our modern world)
  • Iota (slang, but also a Greek letter, which doesn't mesh with a non-Earth fantasy world)
  • Cancerous (Modern disease, which doesn't feel like it fits a non-Earth world)
If the voice was more modern throughout, these probably wouldn't have bothered me as much, but the formal fantasy voice combined with modern-sounding terms just felt off. (Readers chime in here, as this is a very personal thing)

(More on omniscient narrators here)

This is one of those examples where had I read cover copy, I might have the context needed to better understand what's going on, but without it, I'm a little confused. Since writers can no longer guarantee readers will have read the cover copy right before the book (thanks to e-books), you'll have to decide how much context you want to add or not.

(More on how cover copy--or the lack thereof--affects the opening scene here)

2. Would you read more or put this down?

This one's a tough call. As is, it's not enticing me to read on, but it has a lot of elements that I typically enjoy, so if I knew more about the book I might. My instincts say it's missing that personal connection between protagonist and reader, and if I knew Leo a bit better and cared more about him I'd be sucked in. How he's feeling and what he's thinking here would help establish the conflict and stakes, which would tighten the hook right up.

Right now I'm spending more time trying to figure out where I am and what's going on, so I'm not getting caught up in the story. But once that's clarified and the world flows seamlessly past, the story will jump out and be more gripping. It looks like it has all the right pieces to be a solid opening.

Overall, I think this is close and it's just a matter of clarifying what's going on and why it matters.

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. Interesting passage. It definitely makes me want to read more. I feel it has more of an epic fantasy feel compared to regular YA fantasy, which, to my tastes, is great.

    Having said that, I agree with Janice's comment about about clarity. I can see there's something interesting going on - the protagonist is trying (perhaps reluctantly) to break into a sacred place that he's possibly guarded so far. But some of the writing felt too 'dense' - keeping me stuck within the prose instead of pushing me forward relentlessly into the story.

    Also, sentences such as this: "More comets of pain tunneled into his palms, ricocheting about his insides, head to heel, for every second he spun his ruinous web" felt overwritten - even to an epic-fantasy fan like me.

    I didn't mind the narrative distance as I felt it gave good breathing space. I guess it's a matter of personal taste. I don't enjoy very tight POV most of the time as it makes me claustrophobic, so I actually enjoyed the distance. But again, like Janice said, there's too much zooming in and out within the short passage, which gets disorienting. A bit more consistency here would make it excellent.

    On the whole, I really enjoyed the premise here. With a bit of tweaking here and there, this would make an interesting fantasy tale.

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  2. Like Swati Chavda, I like the epic fantasy feel to this opening and don't mind the narrative distance. Also, the second paragraph didn't confuse me. I just assumed they were Leo's inscriptions and wards, and that the writer was using 'portal' as a synonym for door. I can see how it could be misconstrued though, especially in a fantasy novel.

    The one other thing I would point out is that the first sentence feels out of place, even beyond a pov or modern language issue. We aren't given any context for it until the 6th and 7th paragraphs. Why was Leo thinking about asshole relatives while his sister was being silent, (the reader doesn't even know she's there yet) and he was supposedly focusing so hard on the door's runes? Wouldn't that thought be more appropriate after his sister complains? Then the reader would have instant context for the line without needing to be told that 'Salei never fails to prove the asshole theorem.' To me personally, it comes off as if the writer is trying to force a clever first line, when the second line does a much better job setting the tone of the story.

    But I like the writing style. I like Leo. I especially like that he's having doubts about what he's doing, and I would read on for this line alone: '...fissures spread throughout the portal until the construct crumbled to dust and pieces—along with every oath Leo ever swore.'

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  3. The clever first line got a grin from me, but the second paragraph felt completely unrelated. I'm with Leila; I think it would come better when Salei nags him. Also, "asshole" is not a word I'd expect in a fantasy novel. "Bastard" feels more appropriate, though it loses the modern sense of "jerk", I think.

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  4. I liked the way this was written but had a hard time being pulled in. Simply put all the popular novels I have read start out with easy to grasp plots. Then they get into world building and details. It feels like you started a little too late, back it up and get us into a setting that gets us motivated to want to follow them into the temple. It's good writing keep on.

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  5. Hi everyone!
    I'm the person who submitted this piece, and I wanted to let everyone know how grateful I am for the comments and advice. This diagnostic helped me discover that I hesitate to internalize for some strange reason. Looking through the comments, I realize that the common denominator for most of the faults stems from not connecting to the POV. Now I know that I need to spend more time closing the gap between reader and character, and I'm looking forward to approaching this with a fresh stance.

    I can't emphasize how grateful I am for everyone's help and encouragement--yay for Fiction University:)

    Happy writing!

    PS-I tried commenting before, and I think it failed to post, but if this is a duplicate response--sorry!

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