Saturday, July 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Turning Infodumps Into Drama

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: Three (+ two resubmits) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 2. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

This opening paragraph seems so different to others I have read, is it too informative? Should I be more vague or even cryptic? As an opening paragraph can it work?


Market/Genre: Young Readers Historical Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:


Young Tom Bandon stared out of his bedroom window that overlooked the squalid ramshackle houses of Patrick Pool below. It was now the year of our lord, fifteen fifty five and Tom’s home city of York had recently reaffirmed its allegiance to Rome, the Pope and to Catholicism. Following the separatist years of King Henry’s reign, Mary Tudor a Catholic now ruled. The tables of treacherous fortune had now turned in favor of the Papist followers. Families that were staunch Protestants, such as Tom’s, were thrown into conflict and disarray. Josiah his father, a clergyman of high standing had venerated King Henry and had, with a clear conscience, persecuted unrelenting Catholics in the York area. His father, because of his noble status, was able to send Tom to a renowned and highly prestigious school not far from the holy York Minster. Arch-Bishop Holgate School was an institution just for boys and one that only a few privileged children were able to attend. It was here that he spent his three year education and had shown himself to be a conscientious student.

When the tables turned a full circle on the once respected clergyman and his family, there were few options open to them but to flee the ancient city. A year earlier the heresy laws had been re-introduced by Queen Mary the first, and during the Marian persecutions that followed, many ordinary people were burnt to death for heresy.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Young Tom Bandon stared out of his bedroom window that overlooked the squalid ramshackle houses of Patrick Pool below. It was now the year of our lord, fifteen fifty five and Tom’s home city of York had recently reaffirmed its allegiance to Rome, the Pope and to Catholicism. Following the separatist years of King Henry’s reign, Mary Tudor a Catholic now ruled. The tables of treacherous fortune had now turned in favor of the Papist followers. [Families that were staunch Protestants, such as Tom’s, were thrown into conflict and disarray.] Perhaps show examples of this by what’s happening in Tom’s life right now Josiah his father, a clergyman of high standing had venerated King Henry and had, with a clear conscience, persecuted unrelenting Catholics in the York area. [His father, because of his noble status, was able to send Tom to a renowned and highly prestigious school not far from the holy York Minster. Arch-Bishop Holgate School was an institution just for boys and one that only a few privileged children were able to attend. It was here that he spent his three year education and had shown himself to be a conscientious student.] Look for ways you can show this aspect of him by what he thinks and does

When the tables turned a full circle on the once respected clergyman and his family, there were few options open to them but to [flee the ancient city.] Is this the problem Tom and his family are currently facing? If so, perhaps show this as it’s happening A year earlier the heresy laws had been re-introduced by Queen Mary the first, and during the Marian persecutions that followed, [many ordinary people were burnt to death for heresy.] Try showing examples of this through what the characters think and say. Just about everything in this opening is an infodump, explaining the history and how things got to be the way they are.

The questions:

1. This opening paragraph seems so different to others I have read, is it too informative?


Yes, because it’s all infodump and there’s no actual story yet. There’s nothing about Tom personally or what his goal is, why he’s looking out the window and what he sees, what it means to him, what conflict he’s facing, what he has at stake, etc. This is all great information for you as the author to know, so take this and think about how it relates to or affects Tom and his story goal. What is he trying to accomplish? What problem is he facing?

(Here's more on infodumping)

It’s also important to remember that younger readers get history lessons every day at school, so most of them don’t want that as part of their entertainment reading. They’re looking for a story, a character with a problem and an exciting adventure of some type. It looks like you have the elements of that here, they’re just hiding under the history right now.

From this explanation of the world and situation, I suspect Tom is on the run with his family to avoid being burned for heresy. This is a fantastic conflict and problem to have, so I’d suggest looking at it from Tom’s point of view and showing this scene through his eyes. What is he doing? Are the authorities close to catching him and his family? How does he feel about his situation? What is the scene you want to show readers to introduce them to this boy and his predicament?

Don’t explain the scene to readers, show it happening.

(Here’s more on writing the opening scene)

2. Should I be more vague or even cryptic?

No. Readers want mysteries and puzzles to hook them, but you want to do it in a way that makes them want to know more about something, not confuse them about what that something is. For example, you might make it clear that Tom is on the run, but not share why right away if you wanted to keep that secret. Readers might wonder, “Who is this boy and why is he running? Is he a criminal? Did he do something wrong?” They’d read on to find out what his situation is. Or you might share the situations right away and say they’re on the run and will be killed if caught, as that’s a pretty high stake and terrible thing to have happen. Readers would read on to see if Tom gets caught or how his family makes it out of this.

Aim for the balance between an interesting situation that creates a need to know how it turns out for readers. Drop enough clues so they understand what’s going on, even if they don’t know what it all means yet.

(Here’s more on what every story needs to do)

3. As an opening paragraph can it work?

Not as is, because there’s no story yet. But it sets up an intense situation for a very compelling opening scene once you dramatize something that would exist in this world, concerning this boy and his family.

Look for a scene that would enable you to suggest the elements of that setup without telling them outright to the reader. Maybe Tom is reading a cherished schoolbook he couldn’t leave behind when they fled to show that he was once in school. Maybe he thinks about the friends he left behind. His family might be talking about friends who were killed and how close the authorities are to finding them. He might be looking out that window to alert his father when the city guards have passed so Dad can slip out without being seen. Whatever works for you story that also gets the plot (and story) started and moving in the right direction.

(Here’s more on the basic goal-conflict-stakes structure)

Overall, I think there’s a lot here to work with and it’s just a matter of finding the elements of this history you want to dramatize for readers. Think about Tom and who he is as a character and where his story goes. Find the best starting place for that story and let it unfold as Tom tries to achieves goals and avoid stakes. Remember, it’s not about giving a lecture, it’s telling a story. Let the history color the story and help you flesh out the world, but make sure the story is front and center.

(Here’s more on where to start your novel)

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.

3 comments:

  1. There is such a temptation for an author to do an early infodump 'just to help the reader understand' but readers will read on if you give them action and an actual story to follow. You can give the truly needed bits of information along the way.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I enjoyed reading the sample provided. It has that feel of the fantasy tale. However, I agree with the suggestions Janice provided. Giving the reading someting to link them to the main character early on can help the reader build that link to them, and give them the desire to keep turning the pages.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree that these opening paragraphs read like a history lesson. It's definitely a tension-filled time in young Tom's life, but I'm not feeling the tension. I'm also not seeing any indication of the fantasy element (not that you have to show that in the opening paragraphs--just that it might draw me in faster than a dry history recital).

    As Janice said, dramatizing these facts would go a long way toward livening the opening. I like the idea of Tom being a lookout. He could overhear his parent's arguing about whether his father should try to go out. The mother can argue of the danger, citing how someone they knew had been caught and burned. The father can claim something like his duties to his parishioners don't end just because of danger. He might even briefly quote scripture. (This is one way to show he's a clergyman without telling us.) And Tom can worry about the fact that his parents are arguing at all, something that never happened before their recent upheavals.

    I can see this being an exciting book for young readers if the story unfolds as an adventure rather than a school lesson. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete