Sunday, April 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Raising the Tension in a Flat 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: Seven 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 7. 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:

I've been reworking the opening chapter to my manuscript and I keep being hit by the feeling it sounds too flat. Is there enough tension in this scene and does it make you want to know what happens next? (The protagonist is male, but I've also had comments he sounds feminine, which seems to be another issue.)


Market/Genre: YA Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I strolled along the hall, my heart pounding. The book shifted under my shirt and I hugged it tight to my body. One of Faror's Ants gave me a lingering look and under his critical eyes I noticed the faint mud stain on the left ankle of my trouser leg, something no employee would be caught dead with. But he turned back to the files in his arms without comment. My breath threatened to pour out my lungs in a gasp, but I held it in. If I acted weird, the finest suit in the world wouldn't stop them realising what I was.

A thief.

A couple of guards stood by the door to the reception area, pistols at their belts. Two great blockades between me and the exit. My heart thundered so loud I swore the guards would hear it, but I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth. Got to keep it together. I strode forward and the doors slid back. So far so good –

“Hold it.”

I flinched. What an amateur. Hopefully the guards would think I was just nervy, but they were more likely to leap to the right conclusion. I pulled my face into what I hoped was more of a winning smile than a grimace and turned. The guard on the left watched me, his thumb tucked into his belt, way too close to the gun.

I folded my arms across the book. “Can I help you?”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[I strolled along the hall, my heart pounding.] I like how strolled conflicts with the pounding heart, which suggests he's trying to appear calm, but isn't The book shifted under my shirt and I hugged it tight to my body. One of Faror's Ants gave me a lingering look and under his critical eyes I noticed the faint mud stain on the left ankle of my trouser leg, something no [employee] so this is a bookstore? would be caught dead with. Perhaps something internal here to get a sense of his personality and the setting? I don't know where he is But he turned back to the files in his arms without comment. My breath threatened to pour out my lungs in a gasp, but I held it in. If I acted weird, the finest suit in the world wouldn't stop them realising what I was.

[A thief.] You might try cutting this. If readers don't know what he is that might add some tension.

A couple of guards stood by the door to the reception area, pistols at their belts. Two great blockades between me and the exit. If you cut "a thief" this could be a good spot to bring in the book again to show that's the issue and that he's stealing it. Something internal and personal that suggests his reason for doing this My heart thundered so loud I swore the guards would hear it, but I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth. Got to keep it together. I strode forward and the doors slid back. So far so good –

“Hold it.”

[I flinched. What an amateur.] This doesn't feel like a strong reaction, so the stakes of getting caught don't feel that high. Perhaps make his reaction stronger so readers know this is bad? Maybe say what he faces for getting caught with the book? [Hopefully the guards would think I was just nervy, but they were more likely to leap to the right conclusion.] Perhaps something more personal that shows stakes or suggests why he's here and why this is so important? I pulled my face into what I hoped was more of a winning smile than a grimace and turned. The guard on the left watched me, his thumb tucked into his belt, way too close to the gun.

[I folded my arms across the book.] Wasn't he already clutching it to his chest? “Can I help you?”

The questions:

1. Does it sound too flat?


I suspect this is one of those snippets where knowing the cover copy would help a lot. It's clear he's stealing a book, but since I don't know why or how it fits into the bigger picture I don't really care as a reader. If I knew the context and stakes better, I'd be drawn in more.

I'd suggest adding a few more hints to suggest the bigger picture so readers can get a sense of why stealing this book matters to this person. As far as readers know, he's committing a crime, so why should they care if he gets away with it? But if they see why him escaping with the book is a good thing (or an important thing), then they'll root for him or worry about him.

(Here's more on opening with action)

I'd also suggest a little more internalization to show his voice and personality. To get readers to worry, they'll need to like him or at least be intrigued by him. He's not doing anything out of the "ordinary" here to set him apart or make him unique--he's just a guy stealing a book from some company. Without any details to flesh that out, it's too generic to draw me in.

(Here's more in adding internalization)

2. Is there enough tension in this scene and does it make you want to know what happens next?

Almost (readers chime in here). All the guards suggests he's stealing this book from someplace important, a business of some type, but I don't know what that is to make me worry or anticipate anything. This book could be any book. But, for (very random) example, if he was stealing a novel from a library that was this well guarded, I'd be intrigued why a library and books were heavily protected. Or say, if getting caught stealing was punishable by something horrific, I'd worry more.

I'd suggest tossing in some hints about the book itself so readers have a better sense of how these pieces fit together and what they should be worried about. You don't have to give all the details away, but a few hints to provide more context and show the reader why they want to know what happens next would help raise the tension.

(Here's more on raising the tension in your scenes)

I'd also suggest adding a few more setting details so readers get a better sense of place. This doesn't feel science fiction yet to me because there are no details we wouldn't find in our own world right now (though this could be science fiction set in our present-day world and the sci fi part comes from something else). If readers see where he's stealing the book from, that could also raise the tension as it would suggest stakes and why the book matters.

(Here's more on grounding readers in your world)

3. The protagonist is male, but I've also had comments he sounds feminine, which seems to be another issue.

I knew he was male going in so I didn't get that sense, but I can see why others might have. (readers chime in here) Books tend to be "girl" things, and without any gender-specific details this could feel more feminine.

I'd suggest adding a detail or two that is clearly male. Maybe the guard says "Boy, hold it" or something. Or the narrator wipes sweat off his upper lip and feels stubble (if he's shaving age). One or two details is probably all you'd need. All we have right now is trousers and suit, and girls can wear those as well as boys.

(Here's more on describing your first-person narrator)

Overall, I think some more detail on what's unique about this person, action, and world would bump it up to where the author wants it. The action is something that ought to hook, but the vagueness is likely creating that flatness and lessening the tension. Turn some of those generic details into story/world specific details, toss in some personal thoughts, and I suspect this will pop a lot better.

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.

10 comments:

  1. I have to agree with you that there needs to be more stakes on why this particular book is so important. Is it something that can save someone's life? Bring about a curse? With the feminine feel--I'd say the readers may think he's a girl because of the concentration on his feelings, and I'm not saying the age old, guys don't display their emotions here, it depends on the guy. Is he young? Untried? His first time stealing? Again, is the book meant to save someone's life? Or bring about he downfall of his enemy? You might think about giving us more detail of who he is. And like suggested, perhaps have the guard address him as "boy." Hope that helps.

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  2. As originally presented, the piece piques my interest. After reading through Janice's comments and thinking how you might incorporate the internal reactions and add a tiny bit more info (tweak using as few words as possible the stubble as gender indicator, importance of the book and the barest hint of what will happen to him if he is caught). These would convince me to read further though the book is not my usual "type." tracikenworth's comments right on target as well. Good luck!

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  3. I think it's this sentence in particular that sounds like a feminine gesture:
    "The book shifted under my shirt and I hugged it tight to my body."

    The first time I read that sentence I didn't notice the 'under my shirt' bit and instead pictured a nervous fourteen-year-old girl hugging her books close to her body. I now realize that wasn't the picture you were trying to paint, but the verb 'hugging' immediately sounded like a (stereotypically) feminine gesture of nervousness. Also, I don't think it accurately describes your action. Maybe he had to pin his elbow in to his side to keep the book from shifting, which then gives him an even stiffer walk? Or, if he's wearing a suit, wouldn't it make sense to put the book in the inside pocket? I think most men's suits have those handy inner pockets and women's suit jackets don't (I always envy them!). In fact, men's clothing just has many more pockets in general than women's--maybe those are the kind of subtle details you could use to clue the reader in and make it feel real?

    If you change the mud on the pant leg to a ketchup stain on his tie, that could both identify him as male and accomplish the same goal of making his disguise not-quite-perfect.

    Good luck!

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  4. About making the passage more masculine:

    1. I agree with K.Hutton's comment, and another such instance is the protagonist giving a winning smile to the guard - something that sounds more like a feminine strategy than masculine. A boy looking at male guard would think along the lines of disarming his suspicions instead of winning him, so if he gives a 'disarming smile' instead of a 'winning' one, he could sound more male.

    2. Similarly, a 'lingering look' is something that a (lecherous) male guard might give to a teen girl - or rather - a girl would recognize such a gaze as 'lingering' whereas a boy might simply think of it as 'searching' in this context.

    3. He has referred to his body/visceral sensations quite a few times within this passage. In my experience, most boys and men are not so keenly body-conscious, and are more focused on the unfolding situation, especially if the said situation has high stakes. Perhaps changing some of the visceral sensations into internalization about the situation/stakes would make him come across more as a male?

    The passage itself was intriguing, and I would certainly want to read on to know what happens next. Loved Janice's suggestions on internalization.

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  5. I think how you describe the way he "hugged" the book to his body sounds very feminine. In my high school that's how girls carried their books to class. Perhaps if you used another word such as clutched?

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  6. Thanks for the great article. Having soon finished my first first draft in english, I'm happy about every good revising/editing advise. One question though: For me strolled is not only a kind of walking, but has also a strong mindset component. I can't stroll, when I'm stressed or angry or anxious, but I can try to appear strolling. However, as english is not my mother tongue (writerinaforeignland.blogspot.com), I might not get all the connotations of the word. What are your thoughts?

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    Replies
    1. I liked the word *because of* the mental component to it. It contrasted to how the character was feeling, which showed his attempt to sneak past the guards. But I can see how someone might be confused by it, especially if English isn't their first language.

      Word choice matters, and one word can change how someone reads a sentence or interprets a paragraph. The writer would have to decide if the word worked the way they wanted it to or might be confusing for some readers.

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  7. ...Wow, I'm going to have to disagree with mostly everyone who has commented. I simply loved it. The opening sentence is gold, the following sentence immediately sets up stakes without having to set up backstory which is something that takes skill and talent.

    The, "A thief," comment is needed, in my opinion, because I personally don't like being confused for too long. There's already one unfamiliar concept (Farar's Ants) and so you clearly telling me that he's stealing something literally made me put down my breakfast so I could fully give myself to your novel.
    I don't think you need to justify his actions just yet. You've already pointed out that he's stealing something, and that this is very risky. Telling readers why, right away, will eliminate some of the suspense.
    I'd get rid of the, "So far so good," because you're striding implies the success you've encountered so far. It'd be cleaner if you went straight to, "hold it."
    Finally, "I flinched" seems appropriate to me because you're already set up how the smallest reaction would be noticed by the guards. In this case, flinching seems like a world of a difference.

    Keep on at it, I simply loved it, and I am usually not up for scifi. I'd love to contact you so we could talk about our work. Reach me on twitter @muhaddisah

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  8. At first read I thought it was quite good, and once I read what Janice and some of the others said, I agree with them. So I won't rehash any of that, but I would like to point out a sentance that stuck out to me.

    "One of Faror's Ants gave me a lingering look and under his critical eyes I noticed the faint mud stain on the left ankle of my trouser leg, something no employee would be caught dead with."

    At first glance, I think this should be split up in to several sentances. I am not sure what "Faror's Ants" are, but I don't think that "lingering look" has the tension you are looking for. [One of Faror's Ants shot me a piercing gaze.] The next part "under his critical eyes I noticed" sounds like the MC is viewing himself through the Ant's eyes. Here you might want to have your MC follow his gaze to the mud stain, or simply have him think something like "I hope he doesn't notice the mud stain; no self-respecting employee would ever be caught dead like this."

    Overall, nice work, I would definately like to read more.

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  9. I'm late to this discussion, but I agree with Binary's comments about the trouser leg. I was lost with the "Faror's Ants" (who? What?) and the trouser leg really threw me off. But I liked the one word sentence, "thief." I liked everyone's suggestions on how to make him sound masculine. I want to read on--didn't sound flat to me at all.

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