From Fiction University: We're aware of the recent commenting issues and are working to resolve them. We apologize for any inconvenience and annoyance this has caused. Hopefully we'll have it fixed soon, and we appreciate your patience while we get this straightened out. ETA: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, November 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening, With More Action, Work Better?

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 December 17.

This week’s question:

Does this opening, with more action, work better than the original?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Thump!” A sound came from inside the house. Granny Jane emerged onto the back deck with one arm already in her dressing gown. The dawning sun lit up her red hair like a lion’s mane. That was why Johnny had come straight to Granny, the fierce protector of Bendoon!

“Granny, something is happening to Mr Snaggle’s house. Something bad. I heard someone screaming and bellowing and now there is a machine in the garden ramming the house,” gasped Johnny struggling to get his breath.

From Granny’s back deck, on the peak of Mt Kaboom, they could see Johnny’s home next door and Mr Snaggle’s wonky cottage beside that. Sure enough the first rays of light outlined a big black shape charging into Mr Snaggle’s wooden house making it shiver and groan.

Mr Snaggle!” Johnny’s stomach twisted like the shattered walls. “Granny! We have to warn him!”

“Don’t worry about Old Snaggle. I spotted him being driven away in a big black car late last night,” Granny assured him. “The strange thing is he had that dreadful Hawaiian shirt on that he always wears on his holidays, and two suitcases. Not like him to keep a holiday quiet … we usually hear about it for months beforehand!” she added.

Screeeeech! Bellow!

“That’s it. That’s the noise!” said Johnny his face pale and eyes wide.

“That’s the male koala, Johnny. It’s the noise they make when they are stressed or fighting,” said Granny frowning.

“The koalas in the gum tree in Mr Snaggle’s garden! I forgot about them. The joey is just out of the pouch! The mother won’t leave the tree!” cried Johnny.

“Quick! Grab the old car horn from the shed, Johnny,” Granny said. When he bolted back with the horn Granny handed him a string bag with a bottle of home-made lemonade and a few apples.

“Now Johnny, I have to find out what’s going on. By law that gum tree is protected but only while there are koalas in it,” said Granny. “I need you to be my Wildlife Defender on the scene. Sound the horn if you need help. Don’t leave the tree house unless you are in danger. We have to protect the koalas.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Thump!” A sound came from inside the house. Granny Jane emerged onto the back deck with one arm already in her dressing gown. The dawning sun lit up her red hair like a lion’s mane. [That was why Johnny had come straight to] This part feels a little told Granny, the fierce protector of Bendoon!

“Granny, something is happening to Mr Snaggle’s house. Something bad. I heard someone screaming and bellowing and now there is a machine in the garden ramming the house,” [gasped Johnny struggling to get his breath.] This feels a little melodramatic. He also says a lot for someone who is struggling to breathe.

From Granny’s back deck, on the peak of Mt Kaboom, they could see Johnny’s home next door and Mr Snaggle’s wonky cottage beside that. Sure enough the first rays of light outlined a big black shape charging into Mr Snaggle’s wooden house making it shiver and groan.

“Mr Snaggle!” Johnny’s stomach twisted like the shattered walls. “Granny! We have to warn him!”

“Don’t worry about Old Snaggle. I spotted him being driven away in a big black car late last night,” Granny assured him. “The strange thing is he had that dreadful Hawaiian shirt on that he always wears on his holidays, and two suitcases. Not like him to keep a holiday quiet … we usually hear about it for months beforehand!” [she added.] don’t need

Screeeeech! Bellow!

“That’s it. That’s the noise!” said Johnny [his face pale and eyes wide.] perhaps cut or move, as most of his dialogue has a description in it, and it’s making it feel a little over the top

“That’s the male koala, [Johnny.] Don’t need. His name is used a lot It’s the noise they make when they are stressed or fighting,” [said Granny frowning.] Since all the tags are the same, perhaps start this sentence with “Granny frowned” to help break it up some.

“The koalas in the gum tree in Mr Snaggle’s garden! I forgot about them. The joey is just out of the pouch! The mother won’t leave the tree!” [cried Johnny.] don’t need

“Quick! Grab the old car horn from the shed, [Johnny,] don’t need” Granny said. When he bolted back with the horn Granny handed him a string bag with a bottle of home-made lemonade and a few apples.

“Now [Johnny,] don’t need I have to find out what’s going on. By law that gum tree is protected but only while there are koalas in it,” said Granny. “I need you to be my Wildlife Defender on the scene. Sound the horn if you need help. Don’t leave the tree house unless you are in danger. We have to protect the koalas.”

The question:

1. Does this opening, with more action, work better than the original?


Yes. I get a much better sense of the problem and what Johnny is going to do to stop the demolition and save the koalas. It's doing what an opening scene should do--present a problem, show the stakes, and show what the protagonist is going to do about it.

It has a few things you might want to address, however. It’s coming across a little melodramatic because Johnny’s emotions are a bit over the top. The names are used a little too much, and most of his dialogue has exclamation points in it, so it feels as those he’s shouting all the time. I’d suggest cutting out most of the exclamation points on only keep the ones that truly matter, and trimming back on the names and dialogue tags a little. Let the action happen on its own and don't try to force the excitement.

For example, look at Johnny’s tags:

“Granny, something is happening to Mr Snaggle’s house. Something bad. I heard someone screaming and bellowing and now there is a machine in the garden ramming the house,” gasped Johnny struggling to get his breath.

Mr Snaggle!” Johnny’s stomach twisted like the shattered walls. “Granny! We have to warn him!”

“That’s it. That’s the noise!” said Johnny his face pale and eyes wide.

“The koalas in the gum tree in Mr Snaggle’s garden! I forgot about them. The joey is just out of the pouch! The mother won’t leave the tree!” cried Johnny.

Everything he says and does is overly emotional, so it gets exhausting fairly quickly. Try trimming back just a little so the fear can come through but not be so obvious. I think the twisting stomach and the pale face lines could work, but perhaps cut the others or rework them to be less dramatic. You might break it up some more by shifting “his face pale and eyes wide” to the start of the sentence as a reaction to the noise. “Johnny’s face paled and eyes widened” or the like. Mixing up where the tags and stage direction fall helps keep the narrative flowing smoothly.

(Here’s more on tagging your dialogue)

Overall, it’s a great revision and has the right pieces now. It’s just a matter of polishing the text a bit and smoothing the rough edges. Nice job.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. This revision is fun. I haven't read many stories set in Australia and I think the unusual setting really helps add interest.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've been to more than a few First Pages readings and I've seen a lot of editors stop reading at the first word if it was a sound.

    ReplyDelete
  3. And exclamation marks are a big turn-off, too.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A couple of lines stood out too much. 1. Why would he grab the car? Get the car would be less noticeable. 2. The's a sentence with twisted and shattered in the same sentence that made me stop to consider if a twisted thing could shatter. The answer is unimportant. What is important is that it stopped me.

    ReplyDelete