Saturday, January 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Are the Stakes Clear in This Opening?

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: Three 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 4.

This week’s question:

Are the stakes clear in this opening?


Market/Genre: YA Contemporary

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

If anyone asks (which they won’t) why I’m barreling toward the Battersall Pass Bridge, my fingers gripped tight to the handlebars of my bike, pebbles flying from the pavement, I could say it’s my way of purging a rotten school year.

Close, but not exactly.

I have a plan, and I can’t get it wrong. My jump off the Battersall Pass Bridge has to work; it’s my ticket to making the swim team next fall.

I’m breathing hard when I pull to a stop in front of Primm’s Food Mart in need of a bottled water before I tackle the last four miles to the bridge.

A car drives up, a dull green Volvo, circa ten years ago, and five high school girls spill out. They’re all laughing and falling into each other, showing off for the two guys standing outside the mart guzzling sodas.

One of the guys is Wick Markman. Already rumors abound he’ll be a factor in Henry Higman High’s swim team making it to the state tournament this year. He frowns at something on his phone, his head bent, not noticing them—or me.

The girls from the car move closer. One of them, my ex-best friend, Lally Waller smiles and nods, but we both know nothing has changed. Soon, she’ll pile into a car full of friends, and I’ll disappear into the shadows of the bike path leading to the bridge.

How I wish I could flop down on the curb of Primm’s, Lally beside me.

My Thoughts in Purple:

If anyone asks (which they won’t) why I’m barreling toward the Battersall Pass Bridge, my fingers gripped tight to the handlebars of my bike, pebbles flying from the pavement, I could say it’s my way of purging a rotten school year. Love the voice.

Close, but not exactly.

I have a plan, and I can’t get it wrong. My jump off the Battersall Pass Bridge has to work; [it’s my ticket to making the swim team next fall.] this feels like the stakes so far

I’m breathing hard when I pull to a stop in front of Primm’s Food Mart in need of a bottled water before I tackle the last four miles to the bridge.

A car drives up, a dull green Volvo, circa ten years ago, and five high school girls spill out. They’re all laughing and falling into each other, showing off for the two guys standing outside the mart guzzling sodas.

One of the guys is Wick Markman. Already rumors abound he’ll be a factor in Henry Higman High’s swim team making it to the state tournament this year. He frowns at something on his phone, his head bent, not noticing them—or me.

The girls from the car move closer. One of them, my ex-best friend, Lally Waller smiles and nods, but we both know [nothing has changed.] a hint that things are not good between them. Potential stakes or problem here  Soon, she’ll pile into a car full of friends, and I’ll disappear into the shadows of the bike path leading to the bridge.

[How I wish I could flop down on the curb of Primm’s, Lally beside me.] This also feels like something at stake—their relationship

The question:

1. Are the stakes clear in this opening? 


If it’s to do something dangerous to make the swim team and win Lally’s heart, then yes. If it’s not that, then no.

Although there’s no specific gender tag for the protagonist, it feels like a guy (he wants to make the swim team, and he mentions a guy on the swim team), and it feels like he likes his ex-best friend and wants to be with her. At the very least, he wants to be friends again.

However, I suppose it could be a girl wanting to make the swim team to impress the guy (Wick), and resume a friendship that had been lost (but I don’t get that vibe from this).

(Here’s more on creating stakes in your novel)

I don’t know yet what the plan at the bridge is, but I don’t feel I need to know at this time. I can tell something is going on, it’s a big risk with stakes that matter to the protagonist (make the team, get the girl, make up for a bad year), it’s probably going to be a little wild and reckless, and it might not work. Whatever the plan is, it’s important to this person and they think it will make up for an entire rotten year.

If I’ve gotten the stakes wrong, I think just adding a line or two to draw attention to it would make it clear. If I’m close, then you can probably just let it come out in a page or two wherever it fits naturally. I have a sense of “teen life and happiness at stake” even I’m not sure yet what that entails. That’s enough to keep me reading.

Overall, I feel a sense of stakes that are personal and important to the protagonist, even if I haven’t gotten them right. I’d keep reading because I love the voice and I’m curious about what this person plans to do at the bridge. There’s heart behind this action, even if the details are still hidden. It’s a solid opening and I’m hooked.

Easy diagnostic this week. I enjoyed this page a lot.

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.

3 comments:

  1. This sounds like a story YA readers will enjoy. They love drama. So why not ramp it up a notch? Consider making your opening more enticing by making it mysterious. Keep the wording simple. You could say the following:

    I have a plan, and I can't get it wrong. My jump off the Battersall Pass Bridge has to work; it's my way of purging a rotten school year.

    Don't divulge his reason for going there until he gets to the bridge. Just a thought. All the best as you write.

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  2. I liked the fact that stakes were spelled out: it was enough to leave me wondering how a jump off the bridge had anything to do with the swim team without being too vague or cryptic.

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  3. At the very beginning, I wasn't sure if the protagonist was a girl or boy, but after the ex-best friend comment, I am certain the MC is a girl. I like this. The voice is there and so are the stakes. You may identify gender by adding a more girl or boy clothing detail. Flowery flip flops vs. birkenstock or something the like.

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