Saturday, July 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Beginning Work and Flow Nicely?

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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 25.

This week’s question:
 

Does this beginning work and flow nicely? I can't quite figure out how to end it.

Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This story follows a girl named Laura who was chosen for a project in the future that is trying to create the "perfect" race. At first Laura cooperates, but after the project murders her second child because his genes are not flawless, she knows she has to escape.

It's hot. The early days of August, melting into a sticky puddle around my feet. I sit under a cool tree, jostling for space in the shade with some of the other perfects: Max, Isabella, Alex, Una, David, Owen, and Charity.

"Laura," Alex's voice, crisp, loud, and smiling, feels like a glass of ice water in the middle of this heat. "What's your schedule like this semester?"

"Um," I pulled a paper out of my bag. It had been delivered to my dormitory room that very morning, along with Isabella's, Una's, and Charity's. "First hour is Stress Ed. Second is Pregnancy Nutrition. Then double Child Development/Anatomy. Last hour I have Physical Activities," I say, reading off of the bleached white paper.

"Stress Ed?" David jumps in. "You mean with Professor Gardner?"

"Yeah, why?"

David laughs, "He's only the creepiest professor in the entire academy. I would NOT want him for Stress Ed!"

"Oh, please," I say. "Get real David."

"I don't know," Alex says mischievously. "What I do know is that I wouldn't want to meet him down a dark alley." Alex pokes my side and I swat him away, laughing. Our conversation turns to other things...

My Thoughts in Purple:

It's hot. The early days of August, melting into a sticky puddle around my feet. I sit under a cool tree, jostling for space in the shade with some of the other perfects: [Max, Isabella, Alex, Una, David, Owen, and Charity.] This is a lot of people for the reader to keep track of.

"Laura," Alex's voice, crisp, loud, and [smiling] his voice s smiling? , feels like a glass of ice water in the middle of this heat. "What's your schedule like this semester?"

"Um," I [pulled] it changes tenses here a paper out of my bag. It had been delivered to my dormitory room that very morning, [along with Isabella's, Una's, and Charity’s] Since their schedules aren’t important, perhaps not use the names. It’s more for readers to remember. "First hour is [Stress Ed. Second is Pregnancy Nutrition. Then double Child Development/Anatomy. Last hour I have Physical Activities,”] These are wonderfully creepy I say, reading off of the bleached white paper.

"Stress Ed?" David jumps in. "You mean with Professor Gardner?"

"Yeah, why?"

David laughs, "He's only the creepiest professor in the entire academy. I would NOT want him for Stress Ed!"

"Oh, please," I say. "Get real David."

"I don't know," Alex says mischievously. "What I do know is that I wouldn't want to meet him down a dark alley." Alex pokes my side and I swat him away, laughing. [Our conversation turns to other things…] This feels a little told. Why not just show the conversation turning?

The question:

1. Does this beginning work and flow nicely? I can't quite figure out how to end it.


There are some interesting things here (the classes alone give me chills contrasted with the happy college kids setting) and it is flowing fine, but it’s not grabbing me yet for the same reason I suspect you’re having trouble ending it—it doesn’t go anywhere.

Laura has no goal, there’s no real conflict, and there’s nothing happening to move the plot. Without that narrative drive, there’s nothing for the characters to do (and nothing to hook the reader). Find that goal and conflict, and you’ll clearly see what your protagonist has to do next.

(Here’s more on narrative drive)

This strikes me as a classic “I’m not sure where to start my novel” issue (and we all face this from time to time). If this novel is already written, I’d suggest jumping ahead to the next scene and seeing if that makes a better opening, and keep doing that until you find one that works. If it’s a first draft, try skipping ahead to the next scene and write that, then re-evaluate and see if your opening is there instead. It’s possible you just need to write a bit in this world before you find the right spot to begin.

If you’re sure this is the right place, try making a list of why it’s important to start here. Then look at the opening again and see if those reasons are appearing in the scene. Also look at the reasons themselves. Are they all backstory or infodump reasons, explaining the world and setup before you get to the actual story? If so, look for ways (or a better scene) to show those details in a plot-driving way.

(Here’s more on backgrounding your world and setting)

What do you want this scene to accomplish? What is Laura’s goal here? What is the conflict? What do you want readers to wonder about as this scene unfolds? As is, I’m not getting the sense that any of this matters to the story, and I’d be able to figure these things out by watching Laura interact with Gardner in Stress Ed class. It’s not a bad scene, it’s just not serving the story as is.

(Here’s more on giving your characters a strong goal)

From what’s here, it looks like the problem is going to come from Gardner. You might consider jumping ahead and looking at the scene where Laura goes to his class. That might make a stronger opening if it has a better goal—conflict—disaster setup.

(Here’s more on scene structure)

If you want to do some world building first (and this has that feel to me), you might look for something for Laura to do or anticipate to drive the scene. Maybe she’s happy about her pregnancy? (Is she pregnant here?) Maybe she’s eager for something coming up? Or something she’s dreading? If the problem comes from the doctors wanting to kill her child, then maybe she’s worried about her baby here—just not the way it actually turns out. Get readers (and Laura) worried and then surprise them with a different problem (if this fits the story of course).

Overall, I think your instincts are telling you this scene isn’t going anywhere (and why you can't end it). Trust yourself and move forward. Odds are you’ll find your opening scene farther in, or you’ll figure out what’s missing here and be able to revise so this does move the story forward.

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.

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