Saturday, April 19

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Fantasy Opening Scene. Is it Working?

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 

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:

1. Am I showing or telling?

2. Does this scene work, aka is there a definite sense of the people and who they are?

3. This is supposed to be adult fiction, does the story feel mature enough? If not what could I do to mature it?

4. Are there clichés that could be reworded?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

As the footman pounded his staff on the stone floor to end his speech, Lola and Vera walked through the doors and glided down the stairs hand in hand.

“Oh look, there’s Erik,” Lola whispered to her friend. “Hadn't you better go say hello.” She nudged Vera’s arm.

“Fat chance. I’m all yours for tonight; it’s your birthday so I’m allowed to ignore him. Don’t ruin it for me.” Vera hissed back.

The crowd filling the ballroom parted as Lola walked towards the dais. Her parents stood in front of their thrones. Jari, as usual, was dressed in gold, the color of purity and Aron wore a white robe, embroidered with silver. Their eyes glinted the same bright gold as Vera’s, marking them as ‘Pures’, the race created by the Goddess, Edrea.

Whenever she noticed her parents’ eyes, Lola felt a twinge of self-consciousness at her own unnatural silver ones.

Lola stopped a few feet from the dais and bowed low, her curls brushed against the marble tiled floor.

“You didn’t wear the dress I chose for you.” Jari’s voice was thick and sweet, like honey dripping into your ears.

“The dressmaker failed to make it to your standards, Mother.” Lola tried to keep her voice even while telling her lie.

(I cut out a section here because I want you to ‘diagnose’ the next part!)

“Mother, Father, if I may take my leave?”

Aron nodded and turned away, but Jari grabbed Lola’s arm. Her gold-painted fingernails dug little dents into the soft skin.

“Lola, you must stop eating so frequently.” She hissed in Lola’s ear. Her breath was hot and smelled of white brandy. “You are looking plump.”

Lola swallowed and nodded and then grabbing Vera’s hand she hurried to a dimly lit corner. Vera picked up a glass of rosenberry wine as they passed the buffet table.

My Thoughts in Purple:

As the footman pounded his staff on the stone floor to end his speech, Lola and Vera walked through the doors and glided down the stairs hand in hand.

“Oh look, there’s Erik,” Lola whispered to her friend. “Hadn't you better go say hello.” She nudged Vera’s arm. Perhaps give a hint as to why she's urging her friend to do this? In the next paragraph it seems like she wants to avoid him

“[Fat chance.] This feels too modern slang for the fantasy setting I’m all yours for tonight; it’s your birthday so I’m allowed to ignore him. Don’t ruin it for me.” [Vera hissed back.] Pet peeve, but you can't hiss a word without a S in it.

The crowd filling the ballroom parted as Lola walked towards [the dais.] I'm not getting a strong sense of place yet. Perhaps let Lola look at the room and think about something to show both the world and how she fits in? Her parents stood in front of their thrones. [Jari,] She calls her parents by their first names? as usual, was dressed in gold, the color of purity and Aron wore a white robe, embroidered with silver. Their eyes glinted the same bright gold as Vera’s, [marking them as ‘Pures’, the race created by the Goddess, Edrea.] Feels a little infodumpy. I'm also having a difficult time keeping track of everyone

[Whenever she noticed her parents’ eyes, Lola felt a twinge of self-consciousness at her own unnatural silver ones. ] Telling a bit. She also never says anything to suggest why. Is she afraid she isn't pure? Does this matter?

Lola stopped a few feet from the dais and bowed low, [her curls brushed against the marble tiled floor.] Unless she has very long hair, I'm not sure this is possible without her bending awkwardly low

“You didn’t wear the dress I chose for you.” Jari’s voice was thick and sweet, [like honey dripping into your ears.] Not sure about this phrase, as the thought of honey in my ears is unpleasant, not something sweet

“The dressmaker failed to make it to your standards, Mother.” [Lola tried to keep her voice even while telling her lie.] Feels a little tellish. Perhaps use some internalization here to show why she's lying?
(I cut out a section here because I want you to ‘diagnose’ the next part!)

“Mother, Father, if I may take my leave?”

Aron nodded and turned away, but Jari grabbed Lola’s arm. Her gold-painted fingernails dug little dents into the soft skin.

“Lola, you must stop eating so frequently.” She hissed in Lola’s ear. Her breath was hot and smelled of white brandy. “You are looking plump.”

[Lola swallowed and nodded] Perhaps some internalization here? I don't know how Lola feels about this and then grabbing Vera’s hand she hurried to a [dimly lit corner] so taking her leave just meant going to a quiet place in the ballroom? [Vera picked up a glass of rosenberry wine as they passed the buffet table.] Why would Vera need the wine if Lola is the one who's mother is on her case?

The questions:

1. Am I showing or telling?


It's feeling a little distant overall, because there's no internalization and things are being described in a way that doesn't feel like Lola, but an outside narrator. If the goal is a third person omniscient or more distant narrator, then some of the tellish parts are more acceptable. If this is supposed to be a limited third person with Lola as the POV character, then it feels more told.

I'm not getting a sense of who the narrator is, though Lola looks like the protagonist. She calls her parents Mother and Father in her dialog, but the narrative refers to them by their first names. That suggests someone else is telling the story, not Lola. If Lola was telling the story, she'd refer to her parents as Mother and Father unless she needed to use their names for some reason (like introducing them to someone).

(Here's more on narrative distance vs telling)

2. Does this scene work, aka is there a definite sense of the people and who they are?

I don't think it's quite there yet. I had a hard time keeping everyone straight, because there are a lot of characters in this snippet, and they all have short, similar names: Lola, Vera, Jari, Aron, Erik. I kept having to check back to remember who was who. I'd suggest varying the names so it's easier to tell them apart. You might also consider just calling Aron and Jari Father and Mother until their names become important to the story or you can slip them in naturally. That would help cut out the number of people the reader has to remember right away.

(Here's more on naming characters)

I can see this is a royal family. Jari seems mean, and very judgmental and critical of her daughter. Vera might not like her boyfriend. I've no sense of Aron at all yet. Lola doesn't like her mother and lies to her. I don't feel a connection to anyone yet, though because I'm outside looking in.

I'm getting the what (description and stage direction), but those details mean nothing because I don't know who these people are or what Lola wants. I'd suggest more internalization about how these characters are feeling and what they're thinking. If Lola is the POV, perhaps try showing how she sees her world and the people she interacts with. Is she dreading this party? Looking forward to it? Why didn't she wear the dress her mother picked out for her? How does she feel about her mother criticizing her and not even saying happy birthday?

(Here's more on internalization)

She also has no goal and I'm not sure what she expects from the party. From a plot standpoint, what's the point of this scene? What do you want readers to wonder about and be willing to read on to get those answers? What is she trying to do?

(Here's more on giving your character a goal)

3. This is supposed to be adult fiction, does the story feel mature enough? If not what could I do to mature it?

I read a lot of YA and any novel that opens with two girls lying to a critical Mom and avoiding boyfriends says "YA" to me. The problem of the scene also feels like a typical teen problem (critical Mom), and Mom is treating Lola like a child. But someone who doesn't read YA might see this differently (readers chime in here).

To mature it, write the characters with an adult mindset. If they sound and think and act like adults it'll give it an adult feel. If they act and sound like teens, it'll feel younger.

The opening scene can also set the tone and expectations for the reader. Right now, the opening feels younger because it's something that teens often experience--Mom being critical and judging them like a parent does to a child. There's also the two girls holding hands, which is a younger girl thing to do (unless this is a hint that they have a romantic relationship, but if so it isn't clear). "Boyfriend" also suggests teen, as does the fat chance slang.

If this scene focused on an adult issue and Lola and Vera acted like adults, and were treated like adults, then it would feel more like an adult novel.

(Here's more on reader expectations)

4. Are there clichés that could be reworded?

I didn't see any, though the overly critical mother has become a cliché in some genres, like YA and women's fiction (chick lit).

Overall, I'd suggest fleshing out the scene to show what's going on on the inside as well as the outside. Let readers get to know Lola and how she thinks and feels, and what she's trying to do (or avoid) in this scene.

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 was actually most struck by the question as to whether this sounds like "adult" fiction - the author clearly realized that this was an issue - and I agree with Janice that it does not. The behavior of the girls, the language used, the avoidance of the boy, the critical mother - these all sound like teen concerns. However, I'm guessing that your story is heavily dependent on all of these factors for its main thrust, which would mean that you can't just eliminate them without fundamentally altering the concept. Have you considered trying to make it more "New Adult"? You'd still be dealing with young people, just slightly more mature ones. A woman in her early twenties might very well lie to her mother - but she would have a sense of shame about it because she knows she's supposed to be grown up enough to make her own decisions. It's not only teens who avoid a boy for one reason or another - heck, I still do that! - but an older person would be unlikely to admit that that's what they were doing. My suggestion would be either to age this up a bit to try to make it appeal to a slightly older market - or alternatively, reconsider whether you might want to make it YA after all.

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  2. Perhaps throw in a few cuss words and more sexual content to give it more of an adult feel?

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  3. One way to make it feel more grown up is to have a less-stilted dialog. For example:

    “Oh look, there’s Erik,” Lola whispered to her friend. “Hadn't you better go say hello.” She nudged Vera’s arm.

    "There's Erik." Lola nudged Vera's arm. "Shouldn't you go say hello?"

    “Lola, you must stop eating so frequently.” She hissed in Lola’s ear. Her breath was hot and smelled of white brandy. “You are looking plump.”

    The above seems too on point. It's a tell. A variation: Her gold-painted fingernails dug little dents into the soft skin. [I liked this!] Her hot breath stunk of brandy. "Don't you want to stay? There are still a few more [blankety blanks that help flesh out the room] to eat. Your dress seams are only on the edge of bursting open."

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  4. #2 I liked it and would press on. Get some more sense of who is feeling what and skip past some of the details that will drive one on to read more.
    ~Write on!

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