Saturday, December 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Engaging Enough for a First Scene?

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: Seven 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 21.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this engaging enough for a first scene?

2. Is this combination (inner conflict & she being locked and alone) overwhelming?

3. Are the descriptions enough for you to picture the scene?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Melissa kicked the door, but it didn't budge an inch. She kicked the hinges a few times, but it just raised a smelly cloud of clay. She choked and backed away from it, coughing her lungs out.

Scoundrels.

She was locked up in a small pit, which looked as the bottom of a colossal canyon. No one ever appeared and she couldn’t tell how many hours had passed since she had woken up.

“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything,” she screamed with a raucous voice.

She sat down on the floor, creating a small puff of clay, and hugged her legs.

“I already paid my time.”

The scene started flashing on her mind again. Oh, the pain. The anger. The way he did it. The shot…

She scrambled towards the door.

“I accept it.”

She stared at the command engraved in the door’s metal surface: accept.

“I accept it,” she said, shaking her head intensely.

Stillness prevailed.

No one is out there, she thought.

Melissa gave up fighting. Delirium rammed her mind and she had to lay down. There was the maddening sound of his sandals slapping the hard floor and she could feel the taste of sour beer. Time became elusive while the scene rolled over and over. The flip-flops, the shot, a thundering sound of metal clasping against metal echoed.

Wait. That’s not the bedroom’s door snap.

She peeked over her shoulders and saw that the cell’s door was wide open. She remained still, but only the smell of old rust came to greet her.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Melissa kicked the door, but it didn't budge an inch. She kicked the hinges a few times, but it just raised a smelly cloud of clay. She chocked and backed away from it, coughing her lungs out.

Scoundrels.

She was locked up in a [small pit] pit and door don’t feel like they go together, which looked as the bottom of a [colossal canyon] this contradicts with “small pit”. No one ever appeared and she couldn’t tell how many hours had passed since she had woken up.

“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything,” she screamed with a raucous voice.

She sat down on the floor, creating a small puff of clay, and hugged her legs.

“I already paid my time.”

[The scene started flashing on her mind again. Oh, the pain. The anger. The way he did it. The shot…] I wanted a little more information here to understand what’s going on.

She scrambled towards the door.

[“I accept it.”] I get lost here, because I don’t understand what this means. Perhaps a little internalization to show what she’s trying to do

[She stared at the command engraved in the door’s metal surface: accept.] Perhaps put this first to show this is why she says “accept”

“I accept it,” she said, shaking her head intensely.

Stillness prevailed.

No one is out there, she thought.

Melissa gave up fighting. Delirium rammed her mind and she had to lay down. There was the maddening sound of [his] who? We haven’t met anyone so I feel lost here sandals slapping the hard floor and she could [feel the taste of sour beer] you don’t feel a taste. [Time became elusive while the scene rolled over and over. The flip-flops, the shot, a thundering sound of metal clasping against metal echoed.] This is a repeat of earlier, and it still doesn’t tell me enough to understand the context

[Wait. That’s not the bedroom’s door snap.] I don’t understand this.

She peeked over her shoulders and saw that the cell’s door was wide open. [She remained still] why? She’s been trying to get out, but only the smell of old rust came to greet her.

The questions:

1. Is this engaging enough for a first scene?


Not yet, because I’m having a hard time understanding what’s going on. I can see Melissa is trapped in a pit/cell, but the details contradict each other (such as a small pit but a colossal canyon), and she isn’t giving me enough to grasp the context of the scene. There are details that I feel I ought to know based on how they’re use (such as the “accept” on the door), but there’s nothing to show me what that means.

I’d suggest slowing down a tiny but and letting Melissa think about her situation a little more. This doesn’t feel like a world readers would recognize right away, so try adding a few more details so they can understand the scene and the world Melissa lives in. For example, instead of “I didn’t do anything,” maybe say “I did do X” and say what she’s been locked up for (if she knows of course. If not, maybe find something else that would help show why she might have been locked up).

(Here’s more on the difference between setting and world building)

2. Is this combination (inner conflict & she being locked and alone) overwhelming?

Yes and no. I can see she’s frustrated, and probably falsely imprisoned, but it’s not enough to get a strong sense of how she feels. I also don’t see any inner conflict, because she isn’t torn or conflicted over anything—she wants out. Inner conflict is when you have to make a choice and what you want goes against what you need, or what’s best for the situation. This situation is more external conflict—Melissa wants out of the pit, and whoever is holding her wants to keep her there. Except they let her out, so that conflict is resolved right away.

(Here’s more on inner conflict)

I’m not in her head enough to know how she feels about this. She’s saying things that mean nothing to me as a reader because I don’t know what happened to put her there, what she’d done already that “paid her time,” and what “accepting” means. The memory flashes also don’t provide enough details for me to understand what she’s remembering. It feels like a crime, but it’s too vague to know what it was or how it affects this scene.

(Here’s more on describing your setting)

I’d suggest adding more internalization so readers can understand some of these details. You want to find a balance between clear enough details to know what the general problem is, but hold back (if you want) on specifics that might give too much away. You want readers to see the basic problem and wonder how she’s going to solve that problem, not struggle to figure out what the problem is.

3. Are the descriptions enough for you to picture the scene?

Not yet. I suspect they work if you already know what the scene is about, but what’s in your head isn’t making it to the page yet. I see a giant open canyon with a pit and a door stuck in the wall. But where is this? Why is there a door in a pit? Where does it lead? What’s a prison doing in a canyon? Is it all open to the elements? These details suggest a bigger picture, but I’m not yet seeing it.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

Overall, the situation seems like it could make a good opening scene, but it’s trying too hard to be “mysterious” by not giving enough away to understand what is happening to Melissa. I don’t need to know the why yet, but I need to know what’s going on to care enough about her and her problem to want to read more. This is the first time readers see your story world, so think about what they’ll need to know to understand this, and then look for ways to get that information into this scene.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I liked this until ...I already paid my time. The beginning was engaging. I think if you expanded your one-liners to three sentences, you'd be able to add more elements to clarify the situation your character is in now. Like Janice suggested, allowing Melissa to figure out the present. Keep plugging away!

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  2. Agreed, but I think "already paid my time" might be the start of the most promising thread in it.

    Janice talks about internal vs external conflict and how all Melissa wants is to get out. This idea of paying her time (and is it actually payment in this world, a bit different from "serving" it in our own sense?) hints at extra layers of what's in her head. She's just said she didn't do anything, but now this could be her admitting she had and she only thinks she's been here too long. So that hints at her feeling guilty (good contrast with just wanting out, and it leads on to her "accepting" or at least saying she does) and says what's wrong isn't the prison but something about how long they're keeping her. So that's a promising, layered situation, with hopefully more layers about the different conflicting feelings she has about it.

    I think you're trying to build a thread like that with the pieces Melissa tells us. So the challenge would be being clearer how much adds to the picture at what point, and keeping it in sync with the physical details so we can understand What she's in and find out Why and What It Means at just the right pace.

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  3. I agree with everything said by Janice, Ken, and Lori. Just wanted to add that I hope you will submit again because it sounds interesting - and all those questions that accumulated are still kinda gnawing at my brain! Flip-flops?

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  4. I concur with all above. At some point trying to create mystery goes too far and becomes the coy withholding of information. Mystery pulls people in. Coyness pushes them away. Even so, there are flashes of intrigue. Don't be afraid to reveal more. Some of the problem, too, are the vague allusions that create confusion instead of mystery. Show the internal conflict instead of naming it.

    There are issues with word choice here, as has already been mentioned. The pit and canyon discussion, for instance. Even the flip-flops. Perhaps it varies from person to person, but flip-flops to me are the comics of footwear and when the word came up I grinned, which I'm sure was the wrong reaction. Can flip-flops be menacing? Probably. Anything can be with the right setup, but it takes time.

    This has promise. The scene could grab the reader and pull them into the story, but some changes are needed. Good luck.

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  5. Thank you all for the feedback! I have lots of work to do, but it very rewarding to read that some points are interesting and intriguing. I'm not writing in English, but I'll surely send another scene for Janice, this is a great help and it is something lacking in Brazil.

    Obs: Flip-flops are fairly common in Brazil, so I wasn't expecting it getting attention, LOL. We have a brand, HAVAIANAS, which everyone has at least one and it does a lot of noise in closed rooms.

    Thanks!!

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