Saturday, January 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Easing Readers Into Your Story

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.

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 March 7.

This week’s questions:

I was wondering if this opening does a good job of captivating the reader without being confusing, and how to make the character development better.

Market/Genre: Young adult historical fantasy

NOTE: There's a revised query up on the story about magical servants and a class uprising for those curious to see how the author reworked it. They did a good job, so it might be interesting to those struggling with queries right now to see how one writer revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

As soon as the guard banged the door shut on his way out, I fumbled in the darkness for the window latch and forced the window all the way to the top. A soft summer breeze blew in through bars that prevented me from going any further, but I had what I needed –

The creaking of the door from the other side of the room made me suck in a sharp breath. I hurried away from the wall. Leaning forward, I gripped the marble bars, straining to see the far left with the aid of the meager light the torches on the walls outside of the cell provided.

Finally, a tall figure stepped out of the shadows. The flames cast an eerie, reddish glow over him, all the way from his chestnut waves to the black boots of his uniform. This twisted, sinister light suited him. I would know better than most.

A pang of dread slowly filled my stomach as recognition fully set in. It was unreal, almost like seeing a ghost. I should have expected to see him here sooner or later, but honestly, Broden Blackwood had been the last thing on my mind…until now.

And it was infuriating to me how even now my gaze couldn’t help but be drawn to him; that his presence demanded to be felt, despite the fact that I was no longer in awe and hadn’t been for a long time.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[As soon as the guard banged the door shut on his way out, I fumbled in the darkness for the window latch and forced the window all the way to the top.] This was a little cumbersome to read. Also, if it's dark, how do they know there's a window or a latch? A soft summer breeze blew in through bars [that prevented me from going any further] feels a little tellish, as bars on a window imply the narrator is trapped there, but [I had what I needed –] I'm not sure what that is. Light?

[The creaking of the door from the other side of the room made me suck in a sharp breath.] A little tellish, as this explains what happened instead of showing the action as it happens. The door creaked. The narrator sucked in a breath. I hurried away from the [wall] the wall or the window?. [Leaning forward, I gripped the marble bars,] I'm confused, as the narrator was just at the window, then left a wall, and now is back at the window straining to see the [far left] of what? with the aid of the meager light the torches on the walls outside of the [cell] cell and bars suggest a jail, but a window with a latch suggests a holding room, so I'm not sure where the narrator is provided.

[Finally] this suggest the narrator has been waiting for this person, a tall figure stepped out of the shadows. The flames cast an eerie, reddish glow over him, all the way from his chestnut waves to the black boots of his uniform. [This twisted, sinister light suited him. I would know better than most.] Nice

[A pang of dread slowly filled my stomach as recognition fully set in.] The narrator just described this person and acted like they knew who he was and were waiting for him, so this feels off It was unreal, almost like seeing a ghost. I should have expected to see him here sooner or later, but honestly, Broden Blackwood had been the last thing on my mind…until now.T he narrator was looking out the window for someone specific, so if not him, then who was it?

And it was infuriating to me how even now my gaze couldn’t help but be drawn to him; that [his presence demanded to be felt, despite the fact that I was no longer in awe and hadn’t been for a long time.] I like the character voice here

The question:

1. Does this opening do a good job of captivating the reader without being confusing?

Not yet (readers chime in here). I was confused about where the narrator was physically. It started off like they were in a room with bars on a window, then it felt more like a jail cell. The narrator's position in the room was confusing as well (they go from window to wall to window, but I don't think they ever moved more than once). Time of day was uncertain, since they open the window and mention summer (which suggests sunlight), but don't mention it's dark or any torches, so I assume it's day, then it's suddenly night.

I suspect this is trying to avoid a block of text to describe the room (good instincts), but in this case, I think a little description to set the scene would help ground readers better. I don't really know what's going on, and I'm struggling to place myself in the world as well as figure out what's happening there.

Perhaps start with the narrator being put into the cell/room and making it clear where they are first, then move on to what they're doing. Work in the description so it shows how the narrator is feeling right now (which will help with characterization). For example, if they're worried about escape, they would notice the details that could help them do that. If they need to find someone outside the window, they would notice the window and go right to it (as they do).

This opening feels written as if the reader already knows where the character is, so I think what's in the author's head isn't making it to the page just yet. Starting with action and something going on is good, but don't be afraid to flesh it out and add the description needed to create the world as well. Someone has been locked up--that's a hook to make readers wonder why, so you can afford a little time to set the scene. The narrator also has a goal--to find something outside the window. I don't know what that is or why, but I see this character isn't just sitting there staring at the walls. These elements work to help draw readers in while you flesh out the world for them.

(Here's more on knowing what to describe in your setting)

2. How can I develop the characters better?

Internalization is a great development tool, as it lets readers see inside the character's head and get to know who they are. There are some good internal thoughts here, but you might flesh those out a little as well to give a stronger sense of what's going on and what this person is trying to do. Right now, what they think and what they do are conflicting a bit. Such as going to the window to find someone, then being surprised at seeing Broden. Were they expecting someone else?

(Here's more on internalization)

There's a great opportunity here to fix both issues in one fell swoop. How the character sees this world and what they think about it will both describe it, and show who they are as a character. For example, a thief will see the room and all the ways they can break out of it. Someone without skills to escape might see all the ways it's keeping them trapped. Someone who's been in this situation before might remark on the similarities of the last cell that tried to hold them.

Try looking for ways in which the personality of the character can be used to describe something to set the scene. You might also try showing what's happening and how the narrator reacts to it. That would help eliminate some of the tellish areas that are trying to explain instead of just showing and letting the reader figure things out.

(Here's more on POV and description)

Overall, I think the pieces are here to captivate a reader and draw them in, it's just a matter of fleshing it out and taking a little more time to ease readers into the 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.

3 comments:

  1. One quick comment: I didn’t feel confusion about the movement. I saw the narrator move directly from window to cell door following the door creaking. (I ignored the “wall” as it seemed not to fit, LOL. Sorry, it’s what readers do, I guess.) I did wonder about marble bars on the cell door, that seemed out of place, but maybe it’s part of the world-building.

    There were things that confused me, and Janice, you touched on most of them.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  2. I'm with Janice: this could benefit from some hints at who the protagonist is, how she's (honestly this seems like a female) seeing the situation, and so on. The kind of thing that she adds when Blackwood,appears, a line here or there that gives us a bit more of the basics of what she wants right now. Probably not much yet (no doubt Blackwood will open up some useful dialog, and you're enjoying this scrabbling around before then), but just a little more.

    You seem to have written this with the plan of digging deep into the senses to make it intense. That's a powerful promise, especially if it means the rest of the story is something like this detailed; it would tell the reader you'll keep delivering this power and you've written enough of it to do it well. Although like Janice said, some of those details aren't as clear on the page as they may be in your head.

    I also think you could look at some of your phrases and ask which of its words are adding gritty detail and which are slowing down an impression that's already there. "I fumbled in the darkness for the window latch and forced the window all the way to the top"-- do you need to say it's a "window" latch when five words later she's lifting the window? or that when she raises it it's all the way up? Sometimes these bits strengthen a passage, sometimes they don't.

    One more thing: I enjoyed her reaction to Blackwood's sinister light, but the way you followed that with "as recognition settled in" sounded a little out of order. You make the latter sounds like it's capturing the moment (or the last instant in a process) that she recognizes him, but that should be before she thinks whether the light suits him. They're strong impressions, but they'd work best if you were sure they were in the best order to build on each other the sense of the moment.

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  3. All the items that jarred me from the read have been addressed by Janice's comments and the previous comments. I'd like to add to tonyl's comment that as I read, I also tend to "skim" over things that may seem out of place so that I can continue forward.

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