Saturday, July 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Fiction Opening 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.

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 22.

This week’s question:

Does this work as an opening and does it hold a reader’s attention enough to keep turning the pages?


Market/Genre: Historical fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The last time James Lawson’s world changed dramatically was due to his hesitation, this time it was because he acted quickly, on impulse. Ironically, the results were the same. He stood fixed in front of the mirror looking at his appearance, as if he were truly seeing himself for the first time. The deep furrows on his lean, tanned face made him look older than his twenty years.

In a slow gesture he raised his left hand, wiped the sweat off his brow and slicked back his black hair. As he did so, he caught a whiff of a sweet, ferrous smell that made his stomach tighten. That was when he noticed his sweat was replaced by a deep red, sticky smear resembling tribal war paint. His right hand held a heavy object which he ignored, but the object would easily explain to the casual observer the intensity in his dark, chestnut brown eyes staring back from the reflection.

A woman’s piercing scream startled him. A blink of his eyes shattered the image in the mirror and brought everything in the room back into focus. His fingers lost their grip on the object and it hit the floor with a loud thud. It was a large, bloodied monkey wrench.

That afternoon when he walked through rear entrance of his family’s home in Gloucester James knew something wasn’t right. Normally his mother would be doing woman’s work in the kitchen and prevent James from heading toward the parlor in his work clothes. She would chastise him for tramping through her house stinking of fish from his day’s work on the docks. ‘That’s what the mud room is for’, she would tell him, as he would attempt to sneak up the stairs to his room. It was the game they played out every day, but not today.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The last time James Lawson’s world changed dramatically was due to his hesitation, this time it was because he acted quickly, on impulse.] An interesting first line (though I think perhaps a period or em dash after hesitation? Feels like it needs a longer pause than a comma) Ironically, the results were the same. [He stood fixed in front of the mirror looking at his appearance, as if he were truly seeing himself for the first time. The deep furrows on his lean, tanned face made him look older than his twenty years.] Describing the main character by looking in the mirror is a cliche, so perhaps reconsider this

In a slow gesture he raised his left hand, wiped the sweat off his brow and slicked back his black hair. [As he did so,] even with the third omniscient narrator, this feel a bit told he caught a whiff of a sweet, ferrous smell that made his stomach tighten. [That was when he noticed] Here too his sweat was replaced by a deep red, sticky smear resembling tribal war paint. His right hand held a heavy object [which he ignored, but the object would easily explain to the casual observer] Telling here as well the intensity in his dark, chestnut brown eyes staring back from the reflection.

A woman’s piercing scream startled him. A blink of his eyes shattered the image in the mirror and [brought everything in the room back into focus] It never says the room was out of focus, so this feels off. He actually seemed quite focused on his reflection. His fingers lost their grip [on the object] Since this is third omniscient, there’s no need to hide details from the reader like this. The narrator knows what it is even if James doesn’t and it hit the floor with a loud thud. It was a large, bloodied monkey wrench.

[That afternoon] The jump back here is jarring and yanks me out of the story when he walked through rear entrance of his family’s home in Gloucester James [knew something wasn’t right.] Telling a bit Normally his mother would be doing [woman’s work] this is the first indication that this might not be present day in the kitchen and prevent James from heading toward the parlor in his work clothes. She would chastise him for tramping through her house stinking of fish from his day’s work on the docks. ‘That’s what the mud room is for’, she would tell him, as he would attempt to sneak up the stairs to his room. It was the game they played out every day, but not today. This entire paragraph feels unnecessary.

The question:

1. Does this work as an opening and does it hold a reader’s attention enough to keep turning the pages?


Not yet (readers chime in here). The opening line is intriguing, and I like how James’ world has changed at least twice (“the last time” is a great word choice here, like this is a regular thing). It makes me curious about what changed now, and what changed before that made him so drastically alter the way he did things. This does capture my attention and as a reader, I want to see this explored.

Then the story shifts and describes the protagonist by looking into a mirror. This is problematic for a few reasons. 1) It’s a classic cliche. 2) It’s not needed since this is told through an omniscient third person narrator, so you can describe what James looks like without him staring into a mirror. 3) It stops the action and doesn’t capitalize on the good opening line that did hook me.

(Here’s more on cliches)

It does have some interesting details, however, so I think you could easily cut the mirror part and just have him do what he does. He wipes blood into his hair (he can see it on his hands), he realizes he’s holding a bloody wrench, etc. He hears a scream and then…what?

The flashback here feels unnecessary, and is hurting the opening for me. There’s something going on, possibly a murder, and then the action stops and shifts to earlier that day and will likely explain why James is there and what happened. If this information is critical to the story, consider starting there and working your way to the “incident” with the wrench. If it’s just setup explanation, cut it and continue with the scene and what happens after he hears the scream (which would be my suggestion, as this is where the action is).

(Here’s more on flashbacks)

I’ve also having a tough time grounding myself as a reader, because the focus in on what James looks like more than what’s happening or where he is. There’s no sense of setting or character yet, and only a few small details to let me know that this is historical fiction—woman’s work and parlor, which suggest the past. But I’ve no other hints as to when this takes place. I don’t really know where Gloucester is, so I’m not sure where this is set either. Massachusetts? England?

While you don’t have to spell out the setting in great detail on the first page, a few more clues to ground readers and set the scene would help put everything they see in context. For example, what are a few key details that would say “X time period” and “X location” for your setting? Are there electric lights? Is there a natural detail like a moor or a coast? An item of clothing exclusively used at this point in time? What are the elements that scream “this is my historical time period”?

(Here’s more on grounding readers in your world)

Giving a greater sense of who James is would help as well. There’s no internalization from him so far, and I feel very detached from him as a character. Much of this is due to the omniscient narrator, but knowing what he was thinking and how he feels about all this would help me connect to him and worry about him. If I don’t know him well enough to care about him, I won’t care about what happens to him, and thus won’t read on.

(Here’s more on internalization)

You might also consider reworking some of the more detached and told passages. Even with a third omniscient narrator, too much narrative distance between reader and character feels explained and told instead of shown. It can feel like the author is butting in to tell readers why things matter and explain what they should be able to assume or figure out by what happens in the scene. For example, the phrases here: As he did so, That was when he noticed, which he ignored, but the object would easily explain to the casual observer, knew something wasn’t right--these are all the author or outside narrator explaining the scene, not showing it unfold.

(Here's more on narrative distance)

I’d suggest building on what’s strong here. The intriguing opening line, a confused man who likely just did something rather bad, the woman’s scream and what happens next. These are all good elements capable of hooking readers with a some fleshing out. Perhaps let us inside Jame’s head a little and see how this scene unfolds and what he does next.

Overall, I think the focus is just on the wrong things and the good stuff is getting lost. You don’t need to step back and explain things to readers, just show what happens in the scene and what James does. They’ll figure it out. Add in the details relevant to this scene and cut the ones that don’t matter right now (like the flashback and where he works). If knowing he works on this docks in important, perhaps slip that detail in another way, such as he smells the blood and the fish at the same time. Or the wrench is something fish/docks related (if that works for the plot of course).

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.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for your feedback Janice! I look forward to going through every sentence. I felt stuck and the page sounded stilted. Now I know where to start. Love your site.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Terrific post, Janice. I so look forward to your Real Life Diagnostics pieces.

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  4. Great comments, Janice.
    I wanted to add that the action starts in the third paragraph. Everything else can be added in to set the scene later.
    Also, this is 'telly' and takes me out of James's experience. For me, the details that are most compelling are left out: how did he feel about what happens here?
    The time period is interesting. I did want to know more about the bloody wrench! Thanks to the author for sharing this.

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