Saturday, May 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Scene 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: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 11.

This week’s question:

Does this works well as a first scene?

Market/Genre: Christian Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

A hospital gurney held her mother’s blood-laced body. Shock and horror raced through Kate Scott as she witnessed involuntary spasms rip through her mother. Finally, the horrific trembling subsided and a moment of clarity appeared to work its way back to her mom. She opened her eyes. Her usual bright blue eyes lost their shine, but lent the only color on her mother’s pasty face. It was as if she’d aged twenty years.

Kate moved closer and held her mother’s cold, clammy hand. “I’m right here, Mom.”

Mom’s breathy rush gave way to pressured speech. “Someone came out of nowhere. He grabbed me from behind. Large hands, then a shiny blade. It sliced into me twice.”

Her mouth gaped open. The image sickened her. “Oh, Mom. You’re going to be okay now.”

“I tried to scream, but he covered my mouth. I struggled, but I didn’t get a good look at his face. Yet there was something familiar about him. I can’t place it.”

What a shocking, nightmarish blur. She couldn’t believe it. Her sister, Jenna would be so upset, to say nothing of their grandmother. And who would do this? It couldn’t be. Kate wanted to do something for her, anything, but she couldn’t think.

“Let the police worry about that for now. Save your strength.”

Her voice stripped down to a whisper. “My hands feel numb.”

The convulsive shaking started again and Kate tried to warm her mother’s icy hands. She pulled the white blanket up higher. Her eyes grew watery and her voice hitched. “There, Mom.”

“I made so many mistakes with you girls over the years. I wish I’d been more open about my life. Especially with you. About what happened. Funny how revelations like that come to mind at the worst of times.”

What in the world could she be talking about?

My Thoughts in Purple:

A hospital gurney held her mother’s blood-laced [body.] Body made me think she was dead. Shock and horror raced through Kate Scott [as she witnessed involuntary spasms] feels a little clinical and detached rip through her mother. Finally, the horrific trembling subsided and [a moment of clarity appeared to work its way back to her mom.] feels distant She opened her eyes. Her usual bright blue eyes lost their shine, but lent the only color on her mother’s pasty face. It was as if she’d aged twenty years.

Kate moved closer and held her mother’s cold, clammy hand. “I’m right here, Mom.”

Mom’s breathy rush gave way to pressured speech. “Someone came out of nowhere. He grabbed me from behind. Large hands, then a shiny blade. It sliced into me twice.” This feels too well thought out and complete for someone who’s dying
Her mouth gaped open. The image sickened her. “Oh, Mom. You’re going to be okay now.”

“I tried to scream, but he covered my mouth. I struggled, but I didn’t get a good look at his face. Yet there was something familiar about him. I can’t place it.”

What a shocking, nightmarish blur. She couldn’t believe it. Her sister, Jenna would be so upset, to say nothing of their grandmother. And who would do this? It couldn’t be. Kate wanted to do something for her, anything, but she couldn’t think.

“Let the police worry about that for now. Save your strength.”

Her voice stripped down to a whisper. “My hands feel numb.”

The convulsive shaking started again and Kate tried to warm her mother’s icy hands. She pulled the white blanket up higher. Her eyes grew watery and her voice hitched. “There, Mom.”

“I made so many mistakes with you girls over the years. I wish I’d been more open about my life. Especially with you. About what happened. Funny how revelations like that come to mind at the worst of times.”

What in the world could she be talking about?

The question:

1. Does this works well as a first scene?


Note: Some of my comments here are based on a synopsis sent with the submission that wasn’t posted due to length.

Yes and no. There are some good emotional layers here, with a dying mother and a secret to uncover, but it’s feeling a little too detached right now. I’m not getting a sense of who Kate is as a person, or how horrible this must be for her. It feels more like an explanation of what happened in Kate's past to setup the story to come.

(Here's more on the difference between good setup and bad)

Mom also seems too coherent for someone who has been stabbed, and that detachment is making things feel a little told. Her dialogue seems there more to explain what happened than her speaking, trying to tell her daughter a truth she might never get to say otherwise. So what ought to be a really emotional scene falls a little flat for those who don't already know these characters and the situation.

(Here’s more on telling through dialogue)

I think this is a critical moment in Kate’s life, but I suspect the story is jumping in too soon, so it’s hard for readers to connect to what’s going on. They don’t know who Kate is or her mom, so they don’t yet care enough about what ought to be a very emotional scene. But if they did, then this would mean a lot more to them.

(Here’s more on why starting with the “action” can be hard to get right)

Based on the synopsis, I’m wondering if this is the right place to start, as this almost has a prologue feel to it. It looks like the conflict develops after Mom’s death when Kate finds her journal. You might consider keeping this scene as a memory for later,and starting with Kate grieving for her mother, cleaning out her things and being at a major crossroads in her life with Jake (her fiancĂ©).

Maybe Kate is thinking this is a good time to leave and take the job in Jacksonville, or she’s trying to decide if she should marry Jake or not. You have multiple great tough choices for Kate to make, so there’s no lack of overall conflict. Any one of them would work as the choice she faces as the story opens, complicated by finding the journal and having her sense of identity thrown into chaos.

This moment feels like it might be better suited to later in the story when readers want to know what happened with Mom. You can tease them with the details, so by the time you show what happened, they’ll be very interested.

(Here’s more on writing strong opening scenes)

Overall, I think there’s a lot of good conflict in the story itself (based on the synopsis I read), but this scene doesn’t feel like the right opening for it. I’d suggest either starting before this and establishing Kate’s problems and the choices she faces, or starting after when she finds the journal. That will allow you to show who Kate is and the emotional pain she's feelings, so when she starts her emotional journey it will have the depth and resonance it needs to really keep readers hooked.

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. Thanks for your comments, Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comments, Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  3. If I may: firstly, we know almost nothing about the scene. We see "a hospital gurney" and "a white blanket", but that's all. Also, and in keeping the whole “diagnostic” idea, while I am not an ER nurse, I am a nurse, and a woman in spasms after having been stabbed twice would *not* be attended only by her daughter. Here’s what my imagination (from being in many code blues and rapid responses) supplies: The daughter would have been escorted away if the woman was in imminent danger of bleeding out, and the "blood-laced body" implies that she is bleeding a lot. The ambulance crew would not have just left her somewhere if she was bleeding a good bit. There would be a confused mass of people around her, all doing something different and important: several nurses (starting an IV if the ambulance crew hadn’t, or starting a second IV, maybe cutting off her clothes - or perhaps the ambulance crew would have done that, putting on electrodes for a heart monitor, putting a pulse oximeter on her finger, hanging IV fluids, maybe putting an oxygen mask on her if her O2 is low, ambulance crew giving the nurses report “57 year old female, multiple stab wounds to ______, Blood pressure, pulse, oxygenation”), aides running off to get something for the nurses, perhaps a crash cart being wheeled in or wheeled to right outside the door, someone telling the secretary to call a "Rapid Response" which would be piped out over the hospital-wide intercom (6 times total: three from the secretary at the ER, then 3 times by another person - I'm not sure who -perhaps security, to make sure everyone knows where to go: "Rapid response, Emergency Room; Rapid Response, Emergency Room; Rapid Response, Emergency Room”), several doctors would appear shortly after the Rapid response was called, etc etc. We have no noises of the place she is, and even if she and her daughter were alone, there would be a good bit of noise from the rest of the patients and staff. There’s always a lot of beeping (of many different tones) in the ER. Finally, medically speaking, I’d like to know *where* she was stabbed, and why it’s causing the convulsions (I can’t imagine what kind of stab wound would cause convulsions); maybe she could be shivering in cold as she loses blood, but again, we need a bunch of medical people responding to this emergency. At this point in my writing career (namely, the very beginning), I feel more qualified to critique the medical aspect than I do the writing aspect. :) I hope this is helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'll put the TL;DR at the top, then get to the big critique: I didn't like this, and I agree with Janice, this should be cut entirely. Maybe used as a flashback with some serious revisions.

    The first line is weak. Your subject is a gurney, and it's holding a body. Not interesting or even particularly gripping. Like Janice, I also thought the mother was dead at first, so you already also have the reader having to readjust what they think the scene is in the second line.

    All the emotion in this piece feels told. "Shock and horror raced through her"; "what a shocking nightmarish blur"--telling. There is good shown emotion with "her mouth gaped", but then we're smacked in the face with "the image sickened her". We can tell. Her mouth is gaping. "Her eyes grew watery, and her breath hitched" is great. You're not outright telling us how she feels or over-explaining. More like that.

    The dialogue from the mother is not particularly compelling. To me, the problem with that is the mother isn't speaking like someone who was attacked. In the first bit of dialogue from her, the attacker was the subject the whole time. The mother only ever mentions herself as an object. "He grabbed me" not "I was grabbed". "It sliced into me" not "I was stabbed". Later on we have "my hands feel numb", not "I can't feel my hands".

    The times when the mother does focus on herself, it's still distant. Her description of the attack feels like she's talking to cops about what happened. And her last lines "I wish I'd been more open" are trite. I feel like the author is behind the characters with a giant THIS IS IMPORTANT BUT SECRET AREN'T YOU CURIOUS BE CURIOUS NOW sign.

    It's also really weird that the mother is dying, and first, Kate thinks her sister and grandmother will only be "upset"? Does everyone else hate the mother? Second, Kate's mother is dying, and she's got the composure to think "who would do this?"

    All of these issues rob the scene of any sense of urgency. I don't know Kate, so I don't care about what happens to her, and I don't care about the mystery of who killed her mother.

    ReplyDelete