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: Five
Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 29.
This week’s questions:
Does this provide a strong enough hook? Is the pacing working?
Market/Genre: YA science fiction
On to the diagnosis…
Background: Below is the first page of my YA Sci Fi novel. It immediately follows the inciting incident, and the MC is still not sure about what happened to him. Immediately after this, the rest of chapter one details how he got to this point.
The shivering was the worst. I couldn’t stop it. I struggled to sit up, but restraints bound me to some kind of table. A killer migraine got worse with every move I made.
I yelled, but a weak croak was all that came out. It took several tries to find my voice.
“Hey! Is anyone out there?” A puff of steam punctuated each word. “Where am I?”
No response came at first, but someone was listening after all.
“That Jason Martyr kid just woke up,” a male voice said in the distance. “He doesn’t sound bad off though.”
After my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I turned my head to the side. A body lay on a gurney a few feet away, covered with a sheet from head to toe. Long blond hair spilled out from underneath the sheet. It was a girl’s body.
Panic set in, and I screamed again. My skull wailed in agony.
“There’s a dead body in here! C’mon man, get me out!” Laughter was the only response.
I gave up hope after yelling for a few more minutes. But then a second voice whispered nearby. “Is it true what they said? He resisted her?”
“Yeah, Quinn drugged him before she brought him in. He’s not a normal case.”
Then I remembered how I got to this place. It all started with Lorelei Quinn. I should’ve known she was trouble the first time I met her.
My Thoughts in Purple:
The shivering was the worst. I couldn’t stop it. I struggled to sit up, but restraints bound me to some kind of table. [A killer migraine got worse with every move I made.] This feels like one detail too many for this paragraph. If the shivering is the worst, I’m curious why. Is he cold or scared? How long has he been there? I get the sense he just woke up, but he’s not acting afraid. This is a good spot for some internal thought to let readers get a sense of who Jason is
I yelled, [but a weak croak was all that came out. It took several tries to find my voice.] This feels very matter of fact, like he’s too aware of what he’s doing. You show him yell next, so you could cut this to tighten.
“Hey! Is anyone out there?” [A puff of steam punctuated each word.] So he is cold? Would he try to figure out where he is based on these clues? “Where am I?”
No response came [at first, but someone was listening after all.] This suggests he knows what’s going to happen, which makes this feel retrospective.
“That Jason Martyr kid just woke up,” a male voice said in the distance. “He doesn’t sound bad off though.” No response from Jason to this?
[After my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I turned my head to the side.] He never mentions it being dark or dim, so this feels out of the blue. He also never reacts to the man speaking. Knowing what he thinks here would help draw me in more and provide a little context A body lay on a gurney a few feet away, covered with a sheet from head to toe. Long blond hair spilled out from underneath the sheet. It was a girl’s body.
[Panic set in] I haven’t felt any panic from him so far, and I screamed again. My skull wailed in agony.
“There’s a dead body in here! C’mon man, get me out!” [Laughter was the only response. ] This also feels too detached for someone who’s panicking. And is he really more worried about the body than the fact he’s strapped to a table?
[I gave up hope after yelling for a few more minutes.] Same here. This feels like he’s telling the story after it happened, not experiencing it now But then a second voice whispered [nearby] I’m unsure about logistics here. Before, the voice came from a distanced, now it’s nearby. Where are they in relation to Jason? “Is it true what they said? He resisted her?”
“Yeah, Quinn drugged him before she brought him in. He’s not a normal case.”
[Then I remembered how I got to this place. It all started with Lorelei Quinn. I should’ve known she was trouble the first time I met her.] This explains the retrospective feel.
1. Does this provide a strong enough hook?
Yes and no (readers chine in here). I like that he wakes up strapped to a table and something nefarious is going on. It offers a problem and stakes right away for readers to worry about. That he’s resisted something and is different is also intriguing. But I'm not yet connecting to Jason to care about this situation. Then it suggests it's about to jump back into explanation.
And that's the part that sets off my warning bells:
Below is the first page of my YA Sci Fi novel. It immediately follows the inciting incident, and the MC is still not sure about what happened to him. Immediately after this, the rest of chapter 1 details how he got to this point.
From a structure standpoint, the inciting incident (also called the inciting event) happens somewhere in the first one to thirty pages of the novels. It’s what triggers the plot and starts the story. So you can’t really have an inciting event that happens before the story opens. What happens before is backstory. That backstory might greatly affect the current story, and it might be the catalyst that creates the situation the protagonist finds himself in at the start, but it’s still backstory.
(Here’s more on the inciting event)
You say the rest of chapter one is an infodump explaining how Jason got here, but you don’t want to stop the story to explain the story, you want to let the story unfold. Readers should be able to figure out what’s gong on and why it matters by what’s in the scene. It’s okay if some things are ambiguous, but what’s going on should be clear.
For example, I can clearly see Jason is in trouble and there’s something strange going on. It might even be a government experiment, or some other nefarious purpose involving a girl who isn’t typically “resisted.” I can see Jason is special in some way, and this might have even saved his life since there’s a body next to him. I don’t need to know the details to be intrigued by these elements. I just need to care about Jason, and want to know the answers to these questions.
Right now, this hits half of that. I’m intrigued by the mysterious events, but I don’t yet care about Jason because I don’t know him. There’s no internalization from him to give a sense of his personality and how he feels about what’s happening. I see his physical discomfort, but not his emotional state. He doesn’t share any information about his world or how he feels about what’s happening to him. He conveys the information in a detached way that makes me feel that he doesn’t particularly care either, which makes it much harder for me to connect to him.
I’d suggest adding a few lines of internalization to show what’s going on in his mind and what’s he’s feeling. That would allow me to get to know him and care about his plight. For example, someone speaks, but he never reacts to it. Wouldn’t he respond to them? Try to figure out who they are? He sees a body beside him, and he’s more concerned with getting away from it than the fact that he’s strapped to a table. It’s as if he “knows” what’s going on and what he needs to worry about so he doesn’t worry about the rest, though any normal person would be freaking out over those details.
(Here’s more on internalization)
I’d suggest getting rid of the flashback explanation and infodump and just add in the minimum amount of details to help readers understand what’s going on. Jason can think whatever someone in this situation would think at this moment, for example… “Lorelei. I knew that milkshake tasted funny.” Or, just start with Lorelei drugging him. That would allow readers to see him and get to know him before things go sideways in his life. (just make sure that scene is compelling on its own)
(More on the trouble with flash forwards)
2. Is the pacing working?
Not quite yet due to the above issues. I’m not getting a sense of urgency from Jason or what’s going on, so I don’t feel like the story is moving yet. And the “how I got here” line suggests everything I’ve seen doesn’t matter, because I’m not going to get answers to it any time soon (and if the rest of the chapter is explanation, then that would indeed kill your pacing more likely than not). It feels like a tease I’m supposed to care about and want to know how Jason got there, but without knowing who he is or caring about him as a character, none of it means anything to me.
(Here’s more on pacing)
However, I think if I did care about Jason, then I’d be more drawn in and the pacing would feel solid and pull me into the story. Adding words to flesh out this scene would probably help the pace. I don’t think it would take much, a few lines here and there to show how Jason is feeling and what he’s thinking. But that would make me feel that I was with him in that room trying to figure out what just happened to him, instead of feeling like I’m watching strangers from the sidelines do something unknown to me.
This is a fairly common problem with opening scenes that put a character in dire straights before readers have a chance to care about them. What feels exciting to the author doesn’t translate to a reader, because they don’t have the same connection or information about the character the author does. The author knows why this scene is important, but none of it is on the page yet.
(Here’s more on the troubles with starting with action)
Overall, I don’t think this is far off from working as intended. If the “how I got here” infodump is the rest of chapter one, it will probably be an easy fix to simply delete or move it to the front of the story. Seeing Jason get drugged could be a compelling opening, and then him waking up here would be a big surprise. Or we might not need that and the critical details can be slipped in as he’s trying to deal with this problem and escape (or figure out what’s happened to him). It depends on what you want for the story.
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.