Saturday, March 8

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Fantasy Opening: Would You Read On?

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 (+ 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 it show or tell; is the POV clear; is the character interesting; is there too much or not enough setting; and does it make you want to keep reading? 


Market/Genre: Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Rez Hann pelted down the wide arcaded hallway, racing through the bright rectangles of sunlight spilling in from the gardens. His scarlet and black robe–of–office billowing and flapping behind him, yanked at his shoulders. He can’t die. He can’t die ran through his mind over and over like a mantra. Astonished nobles and servants scrambled out of the way with worried faces. Anxious voices called out but he ignored them. His lungs were starting to burn. Please Gods, don’t let him die.

A burly noble stepped into his path and held up an imperious hand. Hann dodged around him. “Not now.” Idiot. Why do they always show up when you don’t have time?

One of his red, curly–toed slippers flew off as he skidded around the corner to the royal apartments. He kicked the other one free and ran on, bare feet slapping against the cool marble. Ahead one of the famously stone faced guards gaped at him, the rest were made of sterner stuff. The day serjeant barked “Open”. The guards yanked the tall gilded doors back. Hann acknowledged the serjeant with a nod as he dashed past into the entry hall. The doors boomed closed behind him

He gasped in deep breaths. Must appear calm. Must be calm. He forced himself to wait for his lungs to ease. He made use of the pause to shake out the flared skirts of his smoke grey kotahl, and make sure they properly covered the knees of his matching breeches. Silly. The floor length robe would hide them.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Rez Hann pelted down the [wide arcaded hallway, racing through the bright rectangles of sunlight spilling in from the gardens] I get a colonnade/palace vibe from this. [His scarlet and black] This detail feels outside looking down, so it suggests this is an omniscient POV [robe–of–office] Tells me he's government in some way billowing and flapping behind him, yanked at his shoulders. [He can’t die. He can’t die ran through his mind over and over like a mantra.] This makes me wonder who he's afraid might die. Perhaps add a little internalization afterward to hint at why he's worried about this to show the stakes [Astonished nobles and servants scrambled out of the way with worried faces. Anxious voices called out but he ignored them.] This feels like an omniscient narrator is well. Nobles and servants suggests a monarchy of some type, reinforcing the fantasy vibe His lungs were starting to burn. [Please Gods, don’t let him die.] "Gods" suggests a multiple god religion structure. This also feels limited third person POV

[A burly noble stepped into his path and held up an imperious hand.] Burly and imperious suggest an omni narrator Hann dodged around him.

Perhaps put this on its own line. “Not now.” [Idiot. Why do they always show up when you don’t have time?] This feels like a limited third POV. It also shows Hann has a bit of an attitude about nobles

One of his [red, curly–toed] Suggest an omni POV [slippers] Curly toed slippers makes me think Arabic-inspired culture flew off as he skidded around the corner to the [royal apartments.] Another monarchy clue He kicked the other one free and ran on, bare feet slapping against the cool marble. Ahead one of the [famously stone faced guards] Makes me think of the British Palace Guards, which reinforces the monarchy/fantasy vibe gaped at him, the rest were made of sterner stuff. I wanted some internalization here to explain why he notes the guards are made of sterner stuff

Perhaps start new paragraph here. The day serjeant barked “Open”. The guards yanked the [tall gilded] Suggests an omni POV doors back. Hann [acknowledged the serjeant with a nod] It's interesting to me that he blows past nobles, yet acknowledges the guards, suggesting they hold higher status or value to him as he dashed past into the entry hall. The doors boomed closed behind him

[He gasped in deep breaths. Must appear calm. Must be calm.] Feels like limited third POV He forced himself to wait for his lungs to ease. [He made use of the pause to shake out the [flared skirts] Feels robe-ish and suggests a priesthood perhaps of his smoke grey kotahl, and make sure they properly covered the knees of his matching breeches.] Feels a little told, or a detached third omni POV. Breeches makes me think fantasy again [ Silly. The floor length robe would hide them.] Feels like third limited

The questions:

1. Does it show or tell?


Aside from one line that felt a little distant where it explained how and why he made use of the pause, shown. I didn't get the sense of the author stopping to explaining anything else. It felt as if it was happening in the moment.

(Here's more on how narrative distance affects show vs. tell)

2. Is the POV clear?

That depends on what POV this is aiming for. There were more places that felt like an omniscient narrator, because they were details that someone in a panic over somebody about to die probably wouldn't notice. There were also places that felt like a limited third centered on Hann. I get the sense that Hann is the POV either way, it's just a matter of how close the narrator is. I enjoyed the tighter POV aspects more because it's easier to connect to the character that way, but that's a personal preference. (Readers chime in here)

Let's look a little closer at the omniscient clues:

[His scarlet and black] robe–of–office billowing and flapping behind him, yanked at his shoulders. If he's in a panic, he's not going to think about the color of his robe. If he's noticing the robe pulling at his shoulders, there's a probably a reason--like it's slowing him down. An outside narrator could comment on the color though.

[Astonished] nobles and servants scrambled out of the way [with worried faces.] Anxious voices called out but he ignored them. Same thing here. He'd see the people in his way, but would he pay enough attention to discern the looks on their faces? If he does notice these things, then why? Are they worried because he's running and freaked out? Does he notice it because he knows he's causing panic among the nobles and that's bad?

A [burly] noble stepped into his path and held up an [imperious] hand. Same thing here. Burly could go either way, as seeing a large person could be something you'd notice in this situation. Holding up an imperious hand focuses on the other person, but says little about how Hann feels about it. He dodges around him, but is this normal? Can he just ignore the nobles or is this something that might get him into trouble?

One of his [red, curly–toed] slippers flew off as he skidded around the corner to the royal apartments. The color and shape of your shoes is probably not something you'd remark on if you're running so fast you lose them.

The guards yanked the [tall gilded] doors back. You'd also probably not remark on what the doors you go through every day look like.

He [made use of the pause to] shake out the flared skirts of his [smoke grey kotahl], and [make sure they properly covered the knees of his matching breeches]. This feels more told because it explains why he pauses and what's he's doing when he pauses. He doesn't just stop, shake out his skirts and cover up his breeches.

The narrative distance is what makes these feel more omniscient vs. limited. Either works, but if the author is going for a tighter limited POV, then these details are pulling away from that POV. If an omniscient POV is the goal, then this is achieving that. 

(Here's more on omniscient POV)

3. Is the character interesting?


I don't know him well enough yet to tell. He's worried about this man dying and he has some governmental role, and he's in a hurry to get to the royal apartments, and wants to appear calm even though he's not, but that's all I really know about him.

There were a few details I found intriguing about how he interacted with people, but there wasn't enough to get a larger sense of his world. He doesn't appear to think much of the nobles, yet he showed respect to the guards. He's in a rush to get to the royal apartments, so he does care about royalty--but because he likes them or there are serious ramifications if the man dies is unclear still. I'm curious where his "office" fits in this society.

I'd love to see a little more internalization from him about his state of mind and what he's worried about (aside from this man dying). From a reader's standpoint, why should they care about Hann and what he's worried about? Why should they spend the next 400 pages reading about him?

(Here's more on introducing characters)

4. Is there too much or not enough setting?

I didn't feel the setting was lacking any. It feels like a fantasy with the robes, guards, marble, royal apartments, multiple gods, etc. However, these are all fairly common details in any fantasy world, so I'm not getting a sense of what makes this world unique to this story. There may not be anything, as this could be a classic medieval Europe-type fantasy, and I did get that vibe.

The general details played a role in making this feel more omniscient however, so if the author wants a tighter POV, I'd suggest choosing some details that mean something to Hann and his state of mind as this scene opens. It might be worth doing even if it stays omniscient to help flesh out the world and raise the tension.

(Here's more on how much to describe your setting)

5. Does it make you want to keep reading?

Not quite yet because the focus is more on the details of the setting and a guy running through what's probably a palace than a puzzle or story question to draw me in. I do wonder who he's worried might die, and a royal apartments suggests a king or the like, but since I have no sense of why this is bad (beside the obvious) I'm not yet hooked. (Readers chime in here)

I'd suggest making the stakes more obvious. For example, right now I don't know if the dying man is someone Hann is going to spend the book trying to save, or if this death triggers the actual plot of the book, so I don't know if I should care. Is this just "setup" or is the dying man important in a bigger sense? I also don't see the conflict yet, though I suspect it's about to get into that. This is one of those openings where knowing the cover copy would likely make a difference as I'd have some context for these events and know where the story was going.

(Here's more on developing the stakes)

Overall, this has some good pieces to work with, as the death of a monarch is something that will no doubt cause a lot of trouble. If I had a better sense of what might happen and how this personally affects Hann, and I worried about Hann, then I would be more drawn in. I don't think it's that far off from doing that, though.

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 definitely sense the urgency and get a good feel for the setting and the MC's role. But like Janet said, I don't know anything about him to draw me in. Maybe a little less about him hurrying through the building and more about why he needs to get where he's going.

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  2. I felt there was so much focus on the clothes and other non-essential details, this watered down the sense of urgency for me. You could perhaps incorporate the descriptions more into the action - eg his robes billowing as if trying to make him fly down the corridor, or the contrast of bright outdoors light and indoors shadow making the moments seem broken. When he is smoothing his clothes, he could be restoring the quiet grey dignity of his office, but his trembling or sweating fingers may snag on the soft cloth of the long kotahl, betraying how upset he still is.

    As a reader, I seldom need to know exactly what a character is wearing in order to get a sense of the clothing or the setting - a few key adjectives are all that are necessary to create an impression. Heavy, dour, fierce, rich, lush, ostentious ...

    I would like to read more, to know who is dying and why, and whether they can be saved :)

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  3. Although I feel I know the difference between omniscient and 3rd limited POV, trying to keep the POV in my stories "tight" on the POV character is something I struggle with.

    In this passage, I agree that Rez Hann wouldn't be thinking about the color of his *own* robes and slippers (mostly because they're not in his field of view), but I can't see how noticing the size of someone standing in his way makes it feel omniscient. He's pelting down a corridor with a fair number of obstacles (people), and at some level, he's going to be evaluating size, shape, and distance, as well as figuring out a way around each one.

    Humans have the ability to take in an astonishing amount of data in less than a second. We can and do recognize faces and expressions and attitudes in a single glance. Even if Rez isn't paying attention to the words people are saying, I can't help but think he would register tone of voice: angry vs anxious vs cheering are going to feel very different.

    Granted, some of this processing is going to be done at a subconscious level, but it seems like there has to be a balance between showing the reader what's happening and being true to the details that would go through the character's head in word form.

    I think this author did a great job conveying both urgency and a sense of place/time. I agree with the others that a little more about why it's important would help, but I would most certainly read on to find out. I tend to give authors some leeway getting to the heart of the matter as long as the prose is vivid and well-written.

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    Replies
    1. I was looking at the entire piece in context. Had it just been "burly" it wouldn't have stood out to me, because as I said, size is something that would be noticed. But combined with all the other external-feeling descriptive tags, it felt more external than internal. Same with the voices. Any of those details on their own might not have triggered the same sense for me, but cumulatively they did. I already felt detached by the time I got there so the words had a different tone.

      Does that make more sense?

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  4. People in a panic tend to get lost in their own thought loops, shutting out the details of the world around them. I'd expect Hann to be pretty much on autopilot as he moves through the palace - falling back on old patterns of how to behave in that environment instead of thinking about them clearly. In that case, would he really notice everyone else's shock at his behavior? (He sounds like he occupies a high position, so that sort of social savvy wouldn't be surprising.) But, if he does notice, I'd expect him to relate those reactions to consequences: Nobles A-K saw me, Important and Dignified Personage, running through the palace, which will be a problem because...

    I think, as Janice indicated, you can't have it both ways. Either he is just really concerned, and thus has enough self-control and awareness to control his behaviour and notice the world around him, or he is over the line into panic and his entire brain is occupied with this potential death.

    I, for one, would like to find out. :)

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  5. I liked the writing. I had a hard time being drawn in. Starting a novel with a chase scene without enough internalization makes me want to know something behind all that action. I think just a few words on who he is and maybe who he likes might work. Other than that once I got reading I wanted to keep going.

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  6. I enjoyed this. The ambiguity over his role interested me. He clearly has familiarity with the palace and those within it, and the contempt Janice mentioned makes it fun.
    I agree with Janice though about the level of detail the guy gives to describing his world. It's a handy way to world build very quickly, but takes away from his sense of urgency, and judging by how stressed he is at the impending death, probably quite unlikely, as well as the POV confusion.
    I would want to read the back blurb. I'm inclined to read a chapter or two before giving up and I think a great deal would be revealed by then, so on the strength of just this, I'd happily read on. Also, just in contrast to what people have said above, I think you can get away with less internalisation to keep the pace fast, as long as you fill it in once you get in the room. Keep that breathlessness going for the first few paragraphs and then give context.
    cheers
    Mike

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