Saturday, December 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Wake Up Scene Work?

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 site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

Does the opening work? Is it too blah or slow? I'm having a hard time with Elsi because she keeps her emotions very close to the vest. Do you get a sense of voice here with her? Do I need to rethink opening with her waking up since that's so cliché? 


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

“Elsi, wake up.”

Warm hands grip my shoulders and startle me from sleep. Nadu stands over me, her grey hair barely visible in the dark room. I rise up on my elbows and glance out the window. Darkness presses through the glass. There’s no telling how late it is.

“The Council needs you,” Nadu says.

Well of course they do. Tossing back the covers, I stand and thrust my legs into the pants Nadu hands me. I throw my nightgown on my bed and pull on my tunic. Nadu doesn’t have to tell me to hurry like she does the others. I glance down the length of the room where all ten of the female heralds room together. The rest are all still sleeping. There are eleven boys in the room across the hall. Twenty other people they could send, but instead this is my third interrupted night of sleep in the past few weeks.

I tiptoe past the other beds and grab my cloak. The braid I sleep in hangs loose and messy over my shoulder. It will have to wait. I follow Nadu to the door of the house.

“I’ll spare you the lecture on how to act.” Nadu flashes a cheeky grin as she hands me the lantern.

The newer heralds have to be reminded of our protocol and how to act when called by the Council. You can hardly blame them. Everything is new when we come here, pulled from our families and lives as soon as our fate is known. I smile at Nadu. “I think I remember.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Elsi, wake up.”

Warm hands grip my shoulders and startle me from sleep. Nadu stands over me, her grey hair barely visible in the dark room. I rise up on my elbows and glance out the window. Darkness presses through the glass. There’s no telling how late it is.

“The Council needs you,” Nadu says.

[Well of course they do.] I'm not sure if this is meant to be arrogant or sarcastic, so this could be a good spot to add something to show how she means this. She rolls her eyes, she smirks, etc. Tossing back the covers, I stand and thrust my legs into the pants Nadu hands me. I throw my nightgown on my bed and pull on my tunic. [Nadu doesn’t have to tell me to hurry like she does the others] I'm curious what she's thinking about now. Is she worried? Excited?. I glance down the length of the room where all ten of the female heralds room together. The rest are all still sleeping. There are eleven boys in the room across the hall. [Twenty other people they could send, but instead this is my third interrupted night of sleep in the past few weeks.] I like this as it suggests some conflict, but I'm not sure how she feels about it. She seems annoyed, but is being chosen a good or bad thing?

I tiptoe past the other beds and grab my cloak. The braid I sleep in hangs loose and messy over my shoulder. It will have to wait. I follow Nadu to the door of the house. Good spot for some emotion clue, such as a churning stomach or the like. How does she feel about seeing the Council?

[“I’ll spare you the lecture on how to act.”] Perhaps make this more of a question so it flows a little smoother into her explanation? Nadu flashes a cheeky grin as she hands me the lantern.

The newer heralds have to be reminded of our protocol and how to act when called by the Council. You can hardly blame them. Everything is new when we come here, pulled from our families and lives as soon as our fate is known. [I smile at Nadu.] She smiles, which suggests she's not worried at all, but should she be? Possible spot for an emotional clue “I think I remember.”

The questions:

1. Does the opening work? Is it too blah or slow?


I think it's working, but I also think it could be stronger with a few tweaks. Something is clearly going on and Elsi is needed, but there's no sense that trouble is brewing or there's a problem, so I'm just hanging out waiting to see what's going on. I'm not hooked, though I am curious.

I'd suggest tossing in a few emotional clues and some internalization to let readers know how Elsi is feeling and how they ought to be feeling (suggestions for possible spots in the text). For example, if she's apprehensive, then readers will worry about what she's about to be thrown into. If she's angry, they'll wonder why. You don't need much, one or two would probably do it, but right now, Elsi is quite calm and there's no sense that this is important. She's mostly feeling annoyed at being woken up for the third time but I've no sense that this will cause her any trouble or be a problem.

She does say she knows to hurry, but that could be because making the Council wait makes them mad, not because there's a potential problem brewing.

(Here's more on POV and judgment and how it can affect a scene)

2. I'm having a hard time with Elsi because she keeps her emotions very close to the vest. Do you get a sense of voice here with her?


Hints of it, but she's still a little blank since I'm not getting a lot of judgment from her. She can still keep her emotions in check, but she'd have thoughts and reactions about what happens to her. She can show them to the reader, but not anyone else.

For example, in the first paragraph she wakes up, sees it's Nadu and immediately looks out the window. At first I don't know why, and it takes the next two lines to figure out she does it to check to see what time it was. It reads fine as is, but there's an opportunity there to show her voice by showing her reaction before she rises up on her elbows. A groan, a racing heart, an "Oh no not again" thought, etc. I see this annoys her later, but what's her reaction now?

(Here's more on adding emotional layers)

Voice often shows up in how a character judges the world around them. "Well of course they do" clearly has attitude and a little voice in it, but without any other clues I'm not sure how she means it. It is a sarcastic, "of course, because I'm the one they hate and they only wake me in the middle of the night, those jerks" (which could suggest conflict between her and the Council when she gets there) or an arrogant "of course, because I'm the only one who knows what I'm doing around here" (which could suggest conflict with everyone else and an attitude problem on her part) or even a nervous "of course, because I can't take much more of this and I'm about to snap" (which could suggest being summoned in the middle of the night is a very bad thing and this will not turn out well). A physical clue here can put this thought in the proper context. A sigh might show she's tired and weary of this, a racing heart could show nervousness, a scoff or huff could show arrogance.

Same goes for her not having to be told to hurry. Why not? Is she just good? Learned a lesson? Eager to get there? You don't have to explain it (that would be bad and slow the pacing), but a little hint would provide some context and give a better sense of her personality and voice.

(Here's more on providing emotional clarity)

3. Do I need to rethink opening with her waking up since that's so cliché?'

I don't think so. It doesn't bother me (readers chime in here) because it jumps right into the action, but in a carrot and a stick way. Something is going on and readers are offered a mystery right away upon Elsi waking. It's not a case of the clichéd "what's going on this doesn't make sense, I don't understand what any of this means?" it's more of a "something is happening, but I don't know what yet and I want to" situation, and that's good. She also wakes and acts, she doesn't wake and immediately start a long internal dialog (a common problem with wake up scene).

If you wanted to avoid the cliché, you could consider having her lying in bed awake, worried that Nadu was going to come for her a third time (if this fits of course). One small paragraph before the dialog and the cliché is gone. She's not being woken up, she's waiting for another call she knows is coming and is dreading/anticipating/expecting it.

(Here's more on why the classic "wake up scene" can be problematic and how to avoid it)

Overall, I'd read on to see why she's being called to the Council. A "herald" is traditionally the bearer of news or a harbinger of some type, so calling on her is probably not a good thing and I expect trouble. A few tweaks could add a nice emotional layer to go over the mystery part that I think would really make this hook readers nicely.

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.

5 comments:

  1. You mentioned that your character keeps her emotions close. Since this is first person, though, you can always clue the audience in -unless she's keeping her emotions from herself too (that gets tricky.) A good book to study might be `The Thief' by Megan Whalen Turner. Her main character, Gen, keeps everything close, but his internal monologue is snarky and fun even though he doesn't show what he's thinking to those around him.

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  2. Love it! This doesn't seem like a cliched "waking up" scene to me at all. A little more internalization might flesh it out, but I'm not bothered by the lack of it this early in the story - in a way it just creates additional "tell-me-more" anticipation.

    This snippet deftly sets up enough information to ground me in the world without info-dumping. Only one word stopped me: the word "cheeky". I assume Nadu is much older than Elsi because Nadu has grey hair but Elsi refers to the other heralds as "boys". But Nadu's grin is "cheeky". Why? In our society, a younger person might offer a cheeky grin to someone older, but not the other way around. So is Nadu a servant? Are heralds of higher social stature than elders? It draws me into wanting to know more, but it did briefly stop me in the story to try to figure out the relationship.

    One more sentence could clarify the relationship; maybe some internalization about how Nadu is cheeky to all the heralds despite her servant's status, or only to Elsi because she knows Elsi is fond of her, or whatever the case is. Or if Nadu is actually a respected elder, you may want to consider using a different word altogether.

    But regardless, it's a great opening and I'm hooked! I would definitely read more.

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  3. The waking up scene as an opener is something I've been told to avoid, that only established authors should go with this kind of opening and it not be a bad thing. My belief is that you should write the beginning that fits your story.

    For this story, the waking up is used in a less cliche way by using it as a call to alertness. The comments provided by Janice would really work toward strengthening the opening overall. And the comments thus far touch on some helpful matters as well.

    Good luck with this. I would read more.

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  4. Thanks so much for the feedback, everyone! I see what you mean about internalization and how that's missing. Already revised with these suggestions and wow, it definitely makes a difference. It never ceases to amaze me what having outside eyes on my work can do for it. Thanks so much!

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    Replies
    1. Oh good, glad it was helpful. It's so hard to catch everything in our own work. My beta readers are worth their weight in gold.

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