Saturday, November 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Using Emotion to Hook Readers

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: One


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 29.


This week’s questions:

Do you get a sense of scene, particularly the house being impressive in some way? Do you get a sense of how the protagonist (Alexis- she is named before the page is out) is feeling in this moment? What are you curious about and what areas need to be fleshed out more to increase your interest?


Market/Genre: Young Adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is a novel for approximately ages 12-15. It's an adventure story that weaves together elements of reality with fantastical elements.

I stood staring at the house. My whole life was in two suitcases, one on either side of me at the top of the wide driveway. I couldn't help but giggle nervously. I couldn't believe this house was going to be my home.

The driver who had taken me there was picking up my bags for me.

“Oh no, I can get it,” I protested feebly.

He hadn't said a word to me on the way over and he didn't say a word now. He just took the bags up to the front step. Was I supposed to follow? I dawdled, unsure.

It was just that the house was so intimidating. My group home had been big, sure, but that was because it housed 13 girls. So on the inside, it wasn't that big after all. But this house was so much more than I had imagined. So big, in fact, that in my mind I pictured it called “The House”, with capitals like it was the House of all houses or something.

The driver was looking back at me from the doorstep so I hurried to catch up. Clearly I had been expected to follow. As I climbed the steps to the elegant glass-paned double doors, the driver swung the door open for me and I gasped again. The inside was as big and intimidating as the out.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I stood staring at the house. My whole life was in two suitcases, one on either side of me at the top of the wide driveway. I couldn't help but giggle nervously. [I couldn't believe this house was going to be my home.] I can see she's excited about being here, and I'm curious why

[The driver who had taken me there was picking up my bags for me.

“Oh no, I can get it,” I protested feebly.
] This made me wonder if he was a chauffeur or staff in some way
He hadn't said a word to me on the way over and he didn't say a word now. He just took the bags up to the front step. [Was I supposed to follow? I dawdled, unsure.] Her hesitance here is interesting, because if this is her home, why is she unsure about going inside? Makes me curious

[It was just that the house was so intimidating. My group home had been big, sure, but that was because it housed 13 girls. So on the inside, it wasn't that big after all. But this house was so much more than I had imagined. So big, in fact, that in my mind I pictured it called “The House”, with capitals like it was the House of all houses or something.] Things start to click about why she's there now, and I like that she calls it The House.

The driver was looking back at me from the doorstep so I hurried to catch up. Clearly I had been expected to follow. As I climbed the steps to the [elegant glass-paned double doors,] Although this is the first descriptive detail about the house, I already feel like I have an idea of what it looks like from her reactions the driver swung the door open for me and I gasped again. The inside was as big and intimidating as the out.

The questions:

1. Do you get a sense of scene, particularly the house being impressive in some way?


I do. Her uncertainty about what to do or where to go suggests that she's unsure about this, maybe doesn't feel she fits or belongs despite saying right away that this was her new home and she's excited about being there. I'm curious about her situation, and when I find out she's from a group home I can clearly see why she's reacting as she is and the clues fit together nicely.

I like how she never actually gives specific details about the house until the double glass doors, which signal rich and impressive all on their own. I had a vision of a grand house in my head without you having to describe it. I love that it's The House, as that says so much. Some readers might want more details, so see how your beta readers feel about this (readers chime in here).

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

2. Do you get a sense of how the protagonist (Alexis- she is named before the page is out) is feeling in this moment?

Yes. She's excited to be living in this huge house, even though it's intimidating right now. I like how her uncertainty about whether or not to follow the driver mirrors how she might be unsure about living there or her role there. Like a subtle hint she might not feel she belongs or will know how to act in this new environment. It creates a little potential conflict to anticipate.

(Here's more on characters living in the moment)

3. What are you curious about and what areas need to be fleshed out more to increase your interest?

I'm curious why she's there and why she's being dropped off by a driver and not picked up by new "parents." It has a foster home/new adoption feel, but things are a little off so there's more going on than meets the eye and I'm intrigued. I'm also curious about what will happen inside, because things are clearly about to change for this girl, but I don't yet know what. I'm anticipating a problem appearing fairly soon, once she's inside and the reality of where she is clashes with her first impressions (that might not happen, but the sense that it might is a hook for me).

One thing I didn't know, was how old she was. This might be something on the cover copy that I'd knowing going in, but she could be 12 or she could be a teen, and that could change how I interpret her reactions here. Problems a 12 year old might encounter are different from something a 15 year old might.

(Here's more on hooking readers on the first page)

Overall, I think it's a solid mix of subtle clues and character reactions that pique curiosity and set the scene. I have no idea what the story is about, but that doesn't matter to me because I can see something odd in going on here and I already like the protagonist (her naming it The House did it, and her casual attitude about living with 13 other girls like it was no big deal). She's anticipating living here and she makes me anticipate what is going to happen once she walks through those double doors.

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. I enjoyed reading this, and I've noted down my thoughts below. Also, as a side note, I'm thinking it would also appeal to the upper end of YA as well, given your word-choice and description.

    For my notes, I've put the bits from the blurb in quotation marks, and noted my thoughts below the quotes.

    "My whole life was in two suitcases, one on either side of me at the top of the wide driveway."

    I like this detail. It tells me quite a bit about the character, and gives a quick detail about the place.

    "I couldn't help but giggle nervously. I couldn't believe this house was going to be my home."

    You asked if we get a sense of how the protagonist is feeling, and I'd say yes.

    "The driver who had taken me there was picking up my bags for me."

    Small nitpick, take it or leave it, maybe cut 'was' and change picking to 'picked,' or have a tiny bit of a transition between this and the previous paragraph. Might be a tiny spot for fleshing out, though you wouldn't need much.

    "“Oh no, I can get it,” I protested feebly."

    This further shows her nervousness and insecurity.

    "He hadn't said a word to me on the way over and he didn't say a word now. He just took the bags up to the front step. Was I supposed to follow? I dawdled, unsure."

    This gives it a great sense of eeriness. Very nice. Plus, you're keeping to the mysterious feeling of the place and her nervousness. However, I did feel a little jarred by her question. Maybe cut 'Was I supposed to follow' and instead have it say, 'I dawdled, unsure if I was supposed to follow.' That might be a matter of voice, though, so you might see what other people say.

    "My group home had been big, sure, but that was because it housed 13 girls."

    A nice hint at her past and who this character is.

    "But this house was so much more than I had imagined. So big, in fact, that in my mind I pictured it called “The House”, with capitals like it was the House of all houses or something."

    Nice voice, and also does add to the sense of grandeur about the place.

    "The driver was looking back at me from the doorstep so I hurried to catch up. Clearly I had been expected to follow."

    I think cutting 'was looking' and changing it to 'looked' would help the transition to this paragraph read smoother.

    "As I climbed the steps to the elegant glass-paned double doors,"

    Nice detail. It adds to the elegance of the place.

    "The inside was as big and intimidating as the out."

    Part of me would prefer you went directly into showing us this place, but this might work here because of the voice, and because I don't know what happens immediately next in the story. However, I am intrigued at this point to continue reading and find out what happens next.

    As for your questions:

    "Do you get a sense of scene, particularly the house being impressive in some way?"

    Yes. It feels mysterious and a little creepy, and big... like where you get the sense of its size but you've only been shown a little piece of it, and in the grander scheme of things, it feels even bigger.

    "Do you get a sense of how the protagonist is feeling in this moment?"

    I sense that she's nervous, and a little unsure of herself, and she's in awe and impressed and maybe a bit worried all at the same time.

    "What are you curious about and what areas need to be fleshed out more to increase your interest? "

    I'm curious to know about the house, and the driver's relation to the house. I want to know if there are other girls here, and if so, what are they like. Or is she alone? I want to know what secrets this house holds, and why the protagonist is here. And the driver... I'm curious as to how other people react in this house and in regards to the house.

    Overall, I enjoyed this little blurb thus far, and it caught my attention. Good luck with your writing. :-)

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  2. I agree with your answer on number three. I'm also wondering why the driver opened the door to the house. Just opened it, like he lived there. But I'm also still picturing this driver picking up both suitcases which were on either side of a person.
    Still, this sounds like it will be a very interesting story.

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  3. This drew me in and I loved the character's voice, which for me is the most important thing. I would definitely read on :)

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