Saturday, January 23
Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Fantasy Opening Work?
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.
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This week’s question:
Does this opening work?
Market/Genre: YA Fantasy Fiction
On to the diagnosis…
My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest, it was racing so fast. A cold sweat broke out over my entire body as I tossed and turned in my bed, tangling my limbs in the sheets so tightly it felt like someone had tied me up. I fought to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t wake up. I was locked in my nightmare. Not my nightmare, the thought slowly came to me. The panic that had taken over my entire body started to subside as I realized what was happening. My twin sister, Lillian, was having a nightmare.
Well, not exactly a nightmare, but a vision. Lillian could see the future in her dreams. It didn’t happen very often, but when she had a particularly strong vision it would pull me in with her if I was close enough. This one must have been pretty intense. I tried to recall the images but very much like real dreams or nightmares they were fuzzy and fleeting. The only thing I could remember was being afraid.
The panic returned as fast as it had left as my thoughts continued to drift towards my twin. She hadn’t woken up yet! I wanted to run to her. To shake her awake and hug her to me. But I couldn’t make myself move. The room was dark and full of shadows that I had never seen before. Just the thought of putting my feet on the floor sent chills coursing through my body.
My Thoughts in Purple:
My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest, it was racing so fast. A cold sweat broke out over my entire body as I tossed and turned in my bed, tangling my limbs in the sheets so tightly it [felt like] Be careful using two “felt like” statements in a row someone had tied me up. I fought to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t wake up. I was locked in my nightmare. Not my nightmare, the thought slowly came to me. The panic that had taken over my entire body started to subside as I realized what was happening. My twin sister, Lillian, was having a nightmare. The narrator feels very self aware in this, so it feels a little overwritten.
[Well, not exactly a nightmare, but a vision.] Twice now there’s been a “this, no that” type phrasing [Lillian could see the future in her dreams. It didn’t happen very often, but when she had a particularly strong vision it would pull me in with her if I was close enough.] Feels a little info dumpy This one must have been pretty intense. I tried to recall the images but very much like real dreams or nightmares they were fuzzy and fleeting. The only thing I could remember was being afraid.
The panic returned as fast as it had left as my thoughts continued to drift towards my twin. [She hadn’t woken up yet!] I can’t tell if she’s afraid for her sister or if it’s the vision’s panic [I wanted to run to her. To shake her awake and hug her to me. But I couldn’t make myself move.] Feels a little tellish The room was dark and full of shadows that [I had never seen before.] I feel like this means more, but I don’t quite get it [Just the thought of putting my feet on the floor sent chills coursing through my body.] Feels a little tellish
1. Does this opening work?
For me, not quite yet (readers chime in here). There are some intriguing elements here—a girl with visions, linked twins, something scary in the future—but it’s not showing me enough yet to want to know what’s going on. It does open with something happening, but it’s vague images and a general sense of “bad things” that don’t actually tell me anything. All I know is that the narrator is a twin, who has a sister who has visions and she just had a scary one.
Why this isn’t grabbing me yet, is that there’s no context for any of this, so I don’t care as a reader. I don’t know who these characters are, I don’t know what the vision is or what it means, I don’t know anything about this world or the type of people in it. This could be a vision of Lillian’s fear of public speaking and she has to give a book report at school the next day (it’s probably not, but there’s nothing in this to suggest the vision is something dire. It assumes I know, but I don’t).
(Here's more on hooking readers in three easy steps)
The scene also feels detached and too self-aware to me, which makes it seem overwritten. The narrator wakes up in terror and is able to describe how the sheets are tangled and the emotion coursing through her veins. She feels like someone watching from afar, not experiencing these things herself, so I don’t yet feel connected to her. I hear the author, not the character.
The narrator tells us one thing, then changes her mind and says it’s something else a few times, which is a little jarring. If she’s self aware enough to know how the sheets are situated, and can explain all about her sister’s visions, then she’s probably aware enough to know right away it’s a vision. So it’s vague only when trying to create mystery, but detailed when it needs to explain what the mystery is (which kinda defeats the purpose if it).
(Here's more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)
It also hits one of the common YA cliches: waking up with a nightmare. These openings feel like they should work, but they typically only work for the author, who knows what everything means. For a reader, none of the details make sense so they end up lost and trying to figure out what’s going on.
There’s no conflict in a nightmare scene. No one is in trouble, no one has a problem, and no one is at risk for anything. Opening scenes need conflict, an intriguing puzzle, or an amazing voice to hook readers. Where are those moments as this story begins?
(Here's more on the problems with a wake up scene)
Think about why you chose this to open your novel. Is it just to show that Lillian has visions? If so, it might be worth taking a moment and considering if this is this the right opening for the novel. If this is all about explaining the world and the fantasy mechanics, there’s not enough to hook readers and give the a reason to read on. Where’s the conflict in this situation?
Is there a place a few pages in that has conflict and shows the narrator trying to do something? It seems like she wants to get to her sister, but why? Is that a better spot to start? Does anything happen after this scene that shows the conflict better? When does a problem appear?
If this is the right opening, I’d suggest finding ways to bring out the conflict and give the narrator more to do (a goal). If getting to Lillian means more than “I need to comfort my sister” (which is sweet, but not strong enough as a hook), let readers see what the problem is so they worry about what happens if she doesn’t get to her, or if she doesn’t wake up. Is she just worried about her? Is not waking from the vision yet unusual? Is she afraid for what she saw? Why does this vision matter? What makes it different from the other visions Lillian has no doubt had?
(Here's more on knowing where to start your novel)
Perhaps show how the narrator feels and what’s going through her head during this vision. Clearly this has happened before, so she likely knows what a vision feels like vs. a regular nightmare. Let readers see glimpses of it, and how the narrator reacts to it.
Overall, I think the cool aspects of this scene and situation aren’t making it to the page yet. Once those aspects are more fleshed out, I suspect this will work the way you want it to.
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.