Saturday, April 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Dealing With Setup and Infodump 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: Five

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 31. 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 hook clear/interesting? Is there enough action? Is the main character likable or interesting? Am I info dumping or is the set-up OK? There is one sentence in the second paragraph that feels to me like backstory, but I’m curious what you think.


Market/Genre: Romantic Comedy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

What I’m about to do isn’t the sort of thing a guy would ever do. But I’m not a guy.

I’m a thirty-one-year-old car geek with a fantastic opportunity to chuck my regrets and dive into a delicious pool of bachelors. I’m not particular, just aiming for eligible – no more two-timing cheaters. It’ll be easier keeping tabs on a man now that I’m in the same time zone. Only one thing could foil my plans, but I’m placing my last hope on a friend who’ll do me a favor. That friend is a guy and also my new boss.

I’ve gotten used to guys around here calling each other bastards. It’s the last industry on the planet where testosterone-driven wannabes wear expensive suits, puff exotic cigars, and drink Scotch so manly it makes them believe they could do more than one stinking pull-up. Those who still drone on about privilege and entitlement, they’re the ones I’d like to choke. We’re the fifth generation of Detroit automotive engineers. Quit making excuses. Dwelling on what is and isn’t fair only makes a person bitter or crazy. Besides, I’ve heard that a see-through blouse gets things done faster than cursing like a West Seven Mile rapper.

Fair or not, what I need to do won’t be easy, but I swear on my dead Aunt Sally’s rosary it will work.

Wearing a new pair of four-inch pumps and lugging a thirty-pound box of cast iron samples, my hips swing with each torturous step. A bead of sweat hugs the curve of my temple then rides a long chestnut-blonde wave to its dead end. I blow a stray curl from my eyes and survey the empty back hallway of Fowler-McWilliams.

Where is a man when you need one?

My Thoughts in Purple:

[What I’m about to do isn’t the sort of thing a guy would ever do.] This makes me think the narrator is a guy [But I’m not a guy.] This contradicts the opening line and makes me wonder why I needed to be told that information, and leaves me a little confused. 

[I’m a thirty-one-year-old car geek with a fantastic opportunity to chuck my regrets and dive into a delicious pool of bachelors.] This makes me think this is her goal for the scene, but it later seems her goal is business related I’m not particular, just aiming for eligible – no more two-timing cheaters. [It’ll be easier keeping tabs on a man now that I’m in the same time zone.] Does this mean she travels a lot for work? [Only one thing could foil my plans, but I’m placing my last hope on a friend who’ll do me a favor. That friend is a guy and also my new boss.] Without knowing any details about the plan, I feel lost here This entire paragraph feels like infodump to me. It explains the setup, not shows her trying to accomplish a goal. I do like that it's in her voice, but because the info is a bit all over the place, it doesn't feel like her thinking to herself, but details slipped in for the reader's benefit.

I’ve gotten used to guys [around here] I don't know where here is so I'm lost calling each other bastards. [It’s the last industry on the planet where testosterone-driven wannabes wear expensive suits, puff exotic cigars, and drink Scotch so manly it makes them believe they could do more than one stinking pull-up. Those who still drone on about privilege and entitlement, they’re the ones I’d like to choke.] This contradicts "delicious bachelors" and I don't see how this pertains to her goal of meeting a guy  We’re the fifth generation of Detroit automotive engineers. [Quit making excuses.] For what? I'm confused Dwelling on what is and isn’t fair only makes a person bitter or crazy. Besides, I’ve heard that a see-through blouse gets things done faster than cursing like a West Seven Mile rapper. This paragraph also feels infodumpy. She's explaining her life and how it works, but I'm not getting a sense of where she is or what she's trying to do.  I'm also not sure how any of this relates to her goal.

[Fair or not, what I need to do won’t be easy,] Some indication of what this is would help draw me in. I no longer think meeting a man is the goal, but I don't know what the goal actually is but I swear on my dead Aunt Sally’s rosary it will work.

[Wearing a new pair of four-inch pumps and lugging a thirty-pound box of cast iron samples], This pulled me out of the story because I was trying to decide if she could even walk and carry something that heavy, and why she'd dress this way for business my hips swing with each torturous step. A bead of sweat hugs the curve of my temple then rides a long chestnut-blonde wave to its dead end. I blow a stray curl from my eyes and survey the empty back hallway of Fowler-McWilliams.

Where is a man when you need one?

The questions:

1. Is the hook clear/interesting?


From this snippet I'm not sure what the hook is. The summary line you submitted was fun (It’s a story about an engineer, of unrecognized genius, who uses an algebraic formula to guide her love life) but I'm not seeing any of that in this opening so far. The narrator doesn't come across as an engineering genius with a formula, and I'm not sure what she's doing besides lugging a heavy suitcase in a sexy outfit.

The hook of a female auto engineer is fun though, so there's potential in that. I like the concept of using a formula for love, and seeing how she decides to try that would be a lot of fun. Structurally, that moment feels like it would come at the end of act one, where she decides to change her life and this is her plan. I'd assume the opening/act one would show her life and what problem she has and why she decides to create and/or use this formula.

I'd suggest making her goal in this opening clear and show how whatever she's doing is going to impact her life. I'm guessing the sample case has nothing to do with her love life, so why is that the first things readers are going to see? I suspect it will establish her story problem and she'll likely have her "meet cute" scene with the love interest (and that will likely establish why she needs the formula?), but without knowing what she's trying to do, it's not drawing me in yet as a reader.

(Here's more on hooking the reader)

2. Is there enough action?

There's no action yet besides her carrying a heavy suitcase. It's all narrative so far. I suspect that whatever happens next is probably the real opening of this piece. She has a goal that involves her dressing sexy and carrying samples. Maybe she's going to show them off at a meeting or some event, but I don't see where this is going quite yet.

I'd suggest focusing on what she's trying to do and have her think about the things relevant to that goal. For example, I don't know where she is right now, but there's a lot of information about the types of people in her industry. Setting is something I need to know for the scene to make sense, not the history of the people. I can learn that when she encounters these people.

What is she doing? Right now, it's all about what she knows and what she thinks about things that aren't even in the scene yet. Try shifting it to her physical actions and mix in the relevant narrative where needed.

(Here's more on mixing action and narrative)

3. Is the main character likable or interesting?

I'm getting a contradicting vibe off her so it's hard to connect to her. She doesn't speak well of the men she works with, yet she calls them delicious. She talks about the guy's guy mentality, yet she's going in there in a see-through blouse and high heels, which plays right into the sexist attitude, and she acts like she expects to be taken seriously that way.

From this snippet, I get the sense she doesn't like or respect men, so it's hard to picture her as someone looking for love. It also bothers me that she's happily dressing sexy to be noticed instead of being professional. Overall, she feels manipulative, not an unrecognized genius looking for love through math. I'd guess that's not the intent here.

I do like your summary description of her though, so I'd suggest showing her being an unrecognized genius. I'm guessing the samples are something she created and she's trying to achieve something here, so it feels like a perfect moment to show how no one treats her seriously. If I see her being smart and competent and the guys ignore her, I know it's for other reasons and you can show those reasons. If she's all tarted up and they don't take her seriously, I just assume it's because she looks unprofessional. If the reader can't take her seriously, they won't be surprised when the other characters don't. Perhaps let them see her being competent first to establish what she's up against, then show her trying different things to get noticed.

(Here's more on making readers care)

4. Am I info dumping or is the set-up OK?

It feels like infodump to me so far. I like that it's in her voice, but I don't yet see why any of this information is relevant to the scene. It also feels a little scattered, so I'm not sure what the point of knowing it is. Why is she there? What is she trying to do? Where is she? She says she has a plan, but I don't know what that is. She mentions other time zones and a new boss, but why does that matter right now? Is she more focused on meeting men or whatever her plan is? Or does she expect to meet men using whatever is in the sample case?

I'd suggest not trying so hard to set the scene and just show her living her life. Readers will see the way the men act when she interacts with them, so there's no need to explain that all ahead of time. Perhaps focus on showing readers where she is and what she's about to do, and letting the rest of it happen naturally. Try focusing on the basics: goal--conflict--stakes. What is she trying to do here? What's in her way of achieving that? Why does she lose if she fails?

(Here's more on infodumping)

5. There is one sentence in the second paragraph that feels to me like backstory, but I’m curious what you think.

I'd guess it was the fifth generation one, but nothing in that paragraph felt like backstory to me. It did, however, feel like infodump. Backstory is more about explaining the character's past or setting history. For example, if you spent a paragraph talking about her childhood and how she always loved to build cars with Dad, that would be backstory.

(Here's more on backstory)

I suspect this just isn't starting in the right place and it's trying too hard to establish the world. I'd guess once she gets to where she's going with that sample case, things will pick up and the story will "start." It sounds like there's a lot of inherent conflict in the narrator's world, so just dive on in and show her existing in that world. All these details will come out there and feel natural. It'll also allow you to show her goal and what she's trying to accomplish, which will work better to draw readers in.

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. I can't begin to give as good a critique as Janice has. Just to say that it did feel a little bit confusing and too much information. But unlike Janice, I loved the line about her wearing the 4 inch heels and sweat dripping off her hair. I could really see that! Her voice does come through so that's cool. If I were you, I'd just listen to all of Janice's advice. She knows her stuff! Thanks for sharing and best wishes!

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  2. Definitely agree. It seems like this section wants to just hint once at *all* the bases in the character's emotional life before it helps us sort them out. Is it that she likes some men and is sick of others? Carrying the box in high heels put me off too: the image is meant to be weird (even weirder if she's supposed to be a genius), and we just don't have a context like "I never should have let them talk me into those heels" or "Sometimes heels solve more problems than they start." So, like Janice said, it would be better to start in a place that shows her living her life and, instead of hinting at everything at once in isolation, picking the most important of these things so we can see how they play out and relate to each other.

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  3. Oh…the power of a pair of high heels! I really wasn’t going for the image of my main character being “all tarted up.” Notice, she didn’t say she’s wearing a see-through blouse, only that she has heard it can be effective. So now I’m debating if that image works for me. If I insert “Italian sling-backs” instead, it changes the image, no?
    Thanks for your kind feedback. I have work to do. It sounds like I’m trying to do too much with the opening page. That makes me feel better yanking the sentence about being in the same time zone. I can address that later.
    A word about the 30 lb box - I’m hoping to subliminally tap into something hard-wired into my target audience. Thirty pounds is the average weight gain in pregnancy. I don’t intend this to be obvious, so it’s OK if everyone simply takes it as an incredible feat in heels. Let me tell you, it is! Anyone else make it through their pregnancy wearing heels?

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    Replies
    1. For me, it was the 4 inch detail that made me pause. Heels I would have been okay with, but the height put the image of stilettos in my head (even though I know they're not technically stilettos). That combined with the see-through blouse (I did not pick up that it was a general reference, not what she was doing) created an image that was obviously not what you intended.

      Italian sling-backs would not have given me that same impression. If it was clearer that she wasn't wearing a see-through blouse, but had just heard of other women doing that, that would fix that.

      Interesting about the 30lbs. I worked with a gal who wore very high wedges all through her pregnancy. I think what threw me off there is that I lug around a 28lb box of cat litter on a regular basis, and I'd killed myself if I tried to carry that in very high heels.

      Also keep in mind, if that's the image you want to go with you still can. Just use the comments here to adjust things so what you see in your head is what others see on the paper. It looks like you got clear feedback on what's sending the wrong signals so it should be much easier to tweak.

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