Saturday, May 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Start With the Action, or the Characters?

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: Three 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 13.

This week’s question: I've received so many different ideas, advice and suggestions, and don't know now if I'm on the right track. I was told to tell something about the characters before jumping into the action, and that is what I've tried to do with the first few paragraphs. What do you think? 


Market/Genre: YA Romantic Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Sixteen-year-old Dru’s thoughts were on baseball, not boys, as she and her best friend Andy trudged the eight blocks to school. “Did you watch the game last night? The Red Sox won.”

Unlike Dru, boys were constantly on Andy’s mind, especially one named Austin. Andy didn’t answer because she and Austin were texting. When she did speak, it was about another matter. “Austin just invited me to the school dance on Saturday. Do you want him to see if one of his friends will take you?”

Dru’s hair fell over her eyes when she shook her head. With a light touch she brushed the loose strands from her face. The sunlight peeking through the clouds made her long wavy locks glisten like flames in a fire.

“I’m not a charity case! If I want to go to the dance, I’ll ask someone. I don’t need Austin to find me a date.”

“Okay, Dru. I just thought it’d be nice if we doubled.”

Dru regretted her outburst and paused to apologize. “I’m sorry, Andy. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

Andy laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I’m used to your tirades.”

“My tirades!” Dru sputtered, and then she laughed, too. “You’re right. My temper does tend to take over at times.”

Standing at the top of an underground parking garage, Dru heard the loud rumbling sound of the BMW before she saw it. She peered down the slope leading into the garage. The black sports car was racing towards them!

My Thoughts in Purple:

Sixteen-year-old Dru’s thoughts were on baseball, not boys, as she and her best friend Andy trudged the eight blocks to school. “Did you watch the game last night? The Red Sox won.” Starting with this makes me think either boys or baseball are going to be the topic in the conflict in this scene

Unlike Dru, boys were constantly on Andy’s mind, especially one named Austin. Andy didn’t answer because she and Austin were texting. When she did speak, it was about another matter. “Austin just invited me to the school dance on Saturday. Do you want him to see if one of his friends will take you?” This reinforces the boys idea and makes me think that's where the conflict (action) with come

Dru’s hair fell over her eyes when she shook her head. With a light touch she brushed the loose strands from her face. The sunlight peeking through the clouds made her long wavy locks glisten like flames in a fire.

“I’m not a charity case! If I want to go to the dance, I’ll ask someone. I don’t need Austin to find me a date.”

“Okay, Dru. I just thought it’d be nice if we doubled.”

Dru regretted her outburst and paused to apologize. “I’m sorry, Andy. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

Andy laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I’m used to your tirades.”

“My tirades!” Dru sputtered, and then she laughed, too. “You’re right. My temper does tend to take over at times.” Since she gives in so fast, and the potential conflict is over, I’m not sure why this conversation is the first thing readers need to see

Standing at the top of an underground parking garage, Dru heard the loud rumbling sound of the BMW before she saw it. She peered down the slope leading into the garage. The black sports car was racing towards them!

The question:

1. I've received so many different ideas, advice and suggestions, and don't know now if I'm on the right track. I was told to tell something about the characters before jumping into the action, and that is what I've tried to do with the first few paragraphs. What do you think?

This is a tough balance to get right, and you’re not the only writer who’s gotten mixed advice about it. The reason for this advice is this:

Until readers care about the characters, they don’t care about the action happening to them, unless the action in and of itself is fascinating or compelling in some way. So the trick is to find an opening scene that offers readers something to pique their interest, as well as let them get to know the characters and become invested in what’s about to happen to them.

(Here's more on writing the opening scene)

I don’t think this scene is quite there yet, because the conversation feels more like filler before the car races toward them than a real problem the girls are trying to solve. There’s nothing that matters in the conversation. I also don’t learn much about who Dru and Andy are aside from one being a bit boy crazy and the other not. There’s a hint of conflict over the dance, but it’s resolved immediately. The conversation also doesn’t get them to the car in any way (such as Dru gets mad and stalks off, which puts her in the path of the car), which adds to the filler feel. They could be talking about anything and the car would still race out exactly the same.

The rumbling paragraph is actually a more compelling opening for me (readers chime in here). A car is racing out, and something is going on. I’m curious what. What comes next would determine if I kept reading of not.

If the story shifted to a description of the car and focused solely on the action of it, I’d probably put it down. Without context for the car or why it matters, I will likely lose interest fast, because there’s no conflict or mystery to hold reader attention (which is why people advice against “starting with the action”).

If the story shifted into a description about Dru and Andy and what they’re doing on that street, explaining who they are and how they got there, I’d probably also put it down, because it loses all the momentum from the racing car. Why show something about to happen and then veer off to infodump with nothing going on? (Which is why people advise “starting with the action”).

If the story showed Dru’s reaction to the car, and that reaction illustrated her personality, and I saw her protect Andy or do something likable, and the car led to some conflict or a mystery I wanted to see answered, then I’d have a lot of things to pique my interest and I’d keep reading (which is why my advice concerning the opening scene is, “start with something interesting happening to interesting people”).

(Here's more on hooking readers)

As is, there’s no interesting something happening to interesting people quite yet. I don’t know Dru or Andy enough to see what makes them great characters, and the car is a random car racing out. The car could hit them, and something bad might happen, so that catches my attention a little. But it’s also possible it will veer off and zoom past them and become a “something weird happened in the garage and this is a clue” device. The girls will say “whew, that was close” and go back to walking to school and talking about boys.

Such is the problem with “random event happening out of the blue” in an opening scene. Readers have no context for it, so they can’t care or anticipate anything.

(Here's more on context)

For this scene, I think it’s going it depend on what happens next, and what you want the car to do/be. If this is a big moment and things happen that affect the plot or Dru’s character arc, you could start with it and let readers get to know Dru and Andy as they experience the “car event.” If this is a clue or a foreshadowed event and the car is a near miss, you’d likely need another conflict to drive this opening scene. It’s hard to build off a “protagonist is just the wrong place at the wrong time” trope, because it often winds up feeling like setup and not story.

Since this is a romantic thriller, it’s possible the dance plot is vital to the plot and this conversation will actually affect how the story unfolds. If so, then you might consider making it longer and showing the conflicts and problems in this arc. Does Dru have a goal connected to the dance? Is the romance connected to the car in any way? Is there an ongoing conflict between her and Andy?

I’d suggest looking for a way to merge the action with the character that lets one lead to or affect the other so there’s a sense of forward story momentum. From a plotting standpoint, romance = character, while thriller = plot. So you'll have both character and action expectations to satisfy. You'll want readers to feel like something thrilling is about to happen, even if it's not what they expect, and see where the romance aspect will come from.

What is going to make readers keep reading? What will they worry and wonder about? You could also look for subplots or conflicts later in the book and see if any could start here (even if they started small) to lay groundwork and provide a plot-driving conflict for the opening scene. Or you could make the dance a stronger conflict.

(Here's more on knowing where to start your novel)

Overall, my instincts say this isn’t the right opening yet, and what happens now that the car has appeared will suggest what the right opening should be. Try thinking about the point of the car to the story and what you want readers to think after this 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.

10 comments:

  1. I agree with Janice the rumbling paragraph is a more compelling opening. Also a great lead in to tell more about your characters through dialogue as the cars gets closer in the background (sounds of revving engine, squealing tires). This would hook me. Marcia

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  2. This is a bit nit-picky, but I was thrown off right away with two girls having boys names talking about baseball. Why male names for both? Also, I had to stop and think about what it meant to stand at the TOP of an UNDERground parking lot.
    I agree with Janice. This would not compel me to keep reading. The car coming out of nowhere seemed a wee contrived, in that I thought they were walking down a sidewalk on their way to school and suddenly they are at the top of parking lot. Sorry, it just doesn't resonate with me at this point.

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  3. Janice's blog has helped me completely reimagine how first chapters can work, so by all means look at the links she gives. I'd say mainly, I like the idea of starting with something before the big action (2 minutes before the plot twist, like you have it, is classic)... but that something ought to be precisely picked so it shows that character is the exact one who turns out to be hurt, challenged, or changed by the twist more than anyone else would. (And, able to grab the reader in its own right, before the gears shift.) One thing that sometimes helps: you don't have to write your first lines first, you can wait until you've written everything else and you're immersed in *exactly* what this story is about, and then write the opening that matches it all.

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  4. Like an earlier comment mentioned, I was stopped trying to visualize being on top of an underground parking garage. Once I decided to place them on the sidewalk that went in front of a driveway that went down into the underground garage, I had to go back to the beginning of the piece and remind myself that they were walking to school.

    I would have preferred much of this opening scene to have been set-up via Dru's internal thought. She could have been thinking about the baseball game, noting that her pal was, as always, texting someone (probably that Austin guy, her latest and greatest). This would put me in the assumed MC's head, reveal a lot of her attitude toward life in general, and would also put the focus on what was happening, would frame the dialogue, allowing us to feel and receive it as Dru does.

    I could then imagine Dru as the observant one of the two girls, and Andy (yes, she should have a more feminine name-unless she's only recently become boy-crazy, which Dru could also make an observation about as internal thought/narrative) as the self-absorbed one. Sans any other conflict in the scene, I'd gladly latch on to the conflict of two longtime friends who are maturing at different speeds.

    I'd also like to see more body language to show Dru's impatience with the offer of a dance date, even something as simple as her stopping and making an irritated noise - which, in turn, makes Andy stop and turn around to apologize (while still texting). When we 'see' small actions like that, it prepares us mentally for the impending action of the car (though we don't know we're being primed).

    And lastly: why identify the car as a BMW? Why can't it just be a black sports car? Once it's out of the shadows and can be seen - if it's important for it to be a BMW, then it can be identified when the girls see it.

    I enjoy the premise so far and would read further if the scene was stronger and the sub-conflicts were more focused.

    Good luck and a bow to your bravery! :D

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  5. Things to consider as you continue to work on the opening scene:

    1. Would Dru be less likely to disregard the idea of going to the prom if she knew a potential date played high school baseball or was related to a baseball player? If she hates dating but loves to meet ball players, you have built-in internal conflict from the start.

    2. Would the car make more sense if it belonged to a famous ball player? What if, for example, Dru was there BECAUSE she knew this player was staying at a particular hotel and she was waiting to see him, even just in passing? Or maybe they're outside a ball park. Why is Andi there? To keep her friend company. And ball players are guys, after all. Boy crazy girls are especially drawn to athletic boys.

    3. Why text each other if they're in the same place? I know this is what kids do, but it sure confused me. I couldn't imagine how they could see each other smiling if they were texting, which I automatically conclude means the characters are not together.

    4. Give the girls some other reason to be where they are. They're waiting for a parent to pick them up, for example. Or they're waiting to cross a street to get to a theater in the same vicinity. Or to a mall.

    5. The conversation makes me think it's just beginning. What if the girls have already been arguing? There's a break, then Dru sighs and texts the question about the Red Sox as an ice breaker.

    6. This may expose my ignorance of texting and teenage behavior, but if you're writing for a YA audience, shouldn't the texted lines be written in text-ese? I don't text, but I still expected that.

    One way to determine whether or not your opening scene is vital to the story is to imagine the story as a line of dominoes. The first scene happens and knocks over the next domino. Each falling domino represents the advance of the story.

    If you can remove this domino without changing the rest of the story, then it probably isn't necessary.

    Best wishes on the writing!

    Carrie

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    Replies
    1. Just curious, but where do you see the girls texting each other, or any texted conversation? Your numbers 3, 5 and 6 threw me - I see two girls talking to each other while one is also texting Austin, her current boy interest...

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    2. Hi, Maria. Your comment confused me, as I suppose my story did you. The girls weren't texting each other. Only Andy (AKA Andrea, now nicknamed Andi - more feminine) was texting her boyfriend, Austin. I think it was Carrie Lynn's comments that led to this confusion.
      When the girls text to each other in other chapters, I have them using the texting shortcut lingo used by teenagers.
      Dru is actually Drusilla, named for her dad, Andrew, and her mom, Priscilla. Explained later in story.
      I took your advice about the car, and I changed the wording to say the girls were by the exit of an underground parking garage, hoping that clarifies matters there.
      So much good advice and insight! Thank you for your help and input.

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  6. Thank you, Janice, and everyone who commented. Wonderful ideas, suggestions and critiques. I am constantly learning as I write, and getting such good advice from others help me in this process. It's time to rethink and revise.

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    1. Hi Deb,
      I've been where you are and it's definitely a hot seat. :) You'll do great!

      Figure out what the take away is for the scene and frame it from there. Check out Janice's other posts and info, as noted, and voila!

      again, good luck!

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    2. Thanks, again Maria. Janice does have spot-on advice.

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