Saturday, May 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Scene Foreshadow Danger?

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.

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This week’s question:

Often writers are told "Don's start with a character waking up." What I'm trying to do in the first few paragraphs is to have the siren sound and the the DJ's commentary signaling danger coming to this girl who so far has been lost in the crowd? Does the scene work?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:


A siren’s sound in the night woke her from a deep sleep. After the sound faded, Taylor fell back into a fitful doze, and when her alarm buzzed in the early morning, she started awake, her tongue gritty, her left cheek mottled from the imprint of her pillow. Groaning, she clicked off the alarm and snuggled back into the embrace of her warm bed. When the alarm sounded again, she knew. She’d have to scramble.

She grabbed a wrinkled sweatshirt, pulled on the same jeans she’d worn yesterday, and twirled her hair into a messy knot. No way she’d wow with her beauty today, but it wasn’t as if this day would be any different from any other day at Wayne County High. After almost six weeks, she was still New Girl Nobody.

She stepped from the wide veranda turning her headphones on full blast. Even though she hated the local broadcast called “The Mouth of the South,” she tuned in every morning because she couldn’t help wondering what nonsense the DJ would be spewing to a half-awake world.

“… a monogramed handkerchief left behind, the name Terry spelled out in blood-red stitches.” A long pause. “Terry?” the DJ said, acting surprised at his own story. “Do you suppose the dude could be the infamous Terry Waller?”

Taylor pulled the headphones from her ears, tired of the DJ’s babble. That’s when she heard it. A throat cleared. A shoe scuffled on the gravel path.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[A siren’s sound in the night woke her from a deep sleep.] Since this has no context and never goes anywhere in the scene, it does not foreshadow danger to me After the sound faded, Taylor fell back into a fitful doze, and when her alarm buzzed in the early morning, she started awake, her tongue gritty, her left cheek mottled from the imprint of her pillow. Groaning, she clicked off the alarm and snuggled back into the embrace of her warm bed. When the alarm sounded again, she knew. She’d have to scramble. Nothing in this opening paragraph suggests something about to happen

She grabbed a wrinkled sweatshirt, pulled on the same jeans she’d worn yesterday, and twirled her hair into a messy knot. No way she’d wow with her beauty today, but it wasn’t as if this day would be any different from any other day at Wayne County High. [After almost six weeks, she was still New Girl Nobody.] This could be a potential foreshadow moment if things have happened in school. It’s a natural transition to thinking about school.

She stepped from the wide veranda turning her headphones on full blast. Even though she hated the local broadcast called “The Mouth of the South,” she tuned in every morning [because she couldn’t help wondering what nonsense the DJ would be spewing to a half-awake world.] I wanted to know why she listens. This was intriguing, and a tad more would show insight into her personality

“… a monogramed handkerchief left behind, the name Terry spelled out in blood-red stitches.” A long pause. “Terry?” the DJ said, acting surprised at his own story. [“Do you suppose the dude could be the infamous Terry Waller?”] This suggests something has happened, but without knowing who this is or how he connects to Taylor, it’s just a random detail.

Taylor pulled the headphones from her ears, [tired of the DJ’s babble.] She hears something that could be a clue, but dismisses it immediately, which suggests to the reader it’s not important. That’s when she heard it. A throat cleared. A shoe scuffled on the gravel path.

The question:

1. Often writers are told "Don's start with a character waking up." What I'm trying to do in the first few paragraphs is to have the siren sound and the the DJ's commentary signaling danger coming to this girl who so far has been lost in the crowd? Does the scene work?


Not yet (readers chime in). The wake up paragraph adds nothing to the scene and is a solid example of why wake up scenes don’t work. She turns her alarm off several times before she gets up, so there’s no sense of anything happening or any sense of immediately. Even being late for school is no big deal, because there’s nothing at risk. A teenager sleeping late and rushing to school is a cliche—we see it all the time so there’s nothing new or unexpected there.

There’s also no goal driving the scene. I don’t know what she wants or what she’s doing, aside from going to school. She’s not thrilled with being the new girl, but as a reader, why should I care about this? What makes her “new kid” story worth investing in?

(Here's more on hooking your readers in three easy steps)

I don’t yet get the sense that she’s “lost in the crowd.” She’s new, but aside from being New Girl Nobody there’s no indication that she’s unnoticed or left out. She thinks she’s a nobody, but that doesn’t mean she has no friends or feels lost. There’s a good setup line to suggest what her life at school is like, so you might consider adding a line if internal thought in that paragraph. Maybe she’s feeling sad because no one ever talks to her, or she fears she’ll be friendless and alone all year. This is a good moment to foreshadow danger by having her think about things she’s dealing with that aren’t good—even if they’re not “dangerous” in and of themselves. A worry of what might happen makes readers worry as well.

(Here’s more on foreshadowing)

The aspects I find far more interesting (readers also chime in here) are how she’s fitting into her new school in the South, why she feels the need to listen to a DJ she dislikes, and what her connection to the handkerchief and Terry Waller is. If it’s mentioned, it must be for a reason. Yet she doesn’t even remark on it, so it feels like it’s either not important, or a telegraphed detail saying “this will be important later” that doesn’t really mean anything now. And if she likes to listen to this DJ, why turn it off after one sentence? That’s not enough for her to be tired of it. It feels like she listens only so you can tell readers about the bloody handkerchief. And why does she pull the earphones out at that moment, just in time to hear someone behind her? I feel like the only thing that matters is that someone came up to talk to her, and the rest is just filler (not saying that’s the case, but there’s nothing to indicate it means much).

(Here’s more on telegraphing)

Are the details you’re foreshadowing (the siren and the DJ commentary) actual things that will be part of the plot, or are they “scary details” that mean more to you as the author? An ignored siren in the night could be anything, and there’s nothing to suggest it’s connected to Terry at all. Since I don’t know who Terry is, him potentially being in trouble also means nothing to me.

You might be able to make these details work as intended, though, if they mean something to Taylor. If the siren triggered some sense of apprehension in her it might linger, or if she felt something about the commentary or Terry. It doesn’t have to be overt, but if for example, (just spitballing here since I don’t know the story), Terry was picking on her at school, and she had a moment where thinking of him not being there was good, it could suggest there’s trouble at school, hinting at potential danger down the road by giving readers a sense of dread.

I suspect either this isn’t your opening or there’s not enough here to show why this is your opening. It might actually start when this snippet ends as someone approaches her. There’s a sense that something is about to happen there, and her leaving the house to go to a school she’s not happy at might work better than having her wake up and hear commentary she has no real interest in. But if you fleshed out why the commentary matters to her, and showed a goal or something she was trying to do, it could be enough to draw readers in and make them worry about her.

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

Overall, I think what’s in your head isn’t making it to the page yet, so what’s going on means more to you than to a reader who knows nothing about the story. But if you can show why all this matters, or suggest more that is does matter, then it could work to create the sense of danger you want to have.

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. Thanks to the author for allowing strangers to give feedback.

    My impression, overall, is that this material sounds like 'notes-to-self' by the author. The guts of the scene can be cut down to an alarm going off, Taylor's internal thoughts about another day at a new school where she's miz new nobody, then get her out and on the street, headed for school.

    Her walking, btw, made an impression on me, as it means her school is close by. Perhaps she runs a block, meets a new friend, who is older and has a car? Or maybe, (wincing) she has to catch a bus?

    I was also struck, with all this prep material, that there is no mention of parents, siblings, or any interaction prior to her leaving her home.

    Point is, all the prep material isn't telling us about the character and her life. As Janice mentions, all teens hate to get up (science now shows this to be an actual fact tied to their growth needs--who knew?), so what you give the reader is generic info that isn't particular to this character.

    You can cut all that and open with her hurrying out of the house, fumbling with her earbuds (they're always tangled), while introducing the reader to her morning via her internal thoughts. She can be irritated about being late, comment how that isn't like her/or that it's too much like her (and she wants to change that--or embraces it). Finally popping one earbud in, she turns the volume up on the radio show. You can then show her reacting to her own actions by shaking her head at herself, and asking via internal thought why she even listens to the show. This can be presented as her being irritated about doing something (else) that she doesn't understand why she's doing it. She can then hear the information given by the DJ, which makes her slow her pace a bit (or stop) -- the other earbud still in hand, poised near her other ear. The reader is anticipating her reaction to the radio, because you have set things up that way, so they're poised to be carried forward. And then, she hears the footsteps behind her.

    note: if you use the gravel description, you need to show that she's on a gravel path/road. This would also give you an opportunity to give a small indication of her surroundings. Perhaps she moved from the city to a very small town and she's now walking down the gravel drive of her house? Perhaps she moved from the city to a rural area, where gravel roads are common and she must hurry to reach a bus stop?

    This is a small thing, but would set up some environmental bits that will enrich the scene without going into big descriptions.

    The steps coming from behind are the only 'mystery' so far. We won't know for a few more words if this is a bad encounter, an unexpected or expected encounter. By cutting down this opening to the core actions, you can bring the answer to the footsteps quickly into this opening scene, which should give you the opportunity to put the appropriate tension behind the radio information and Taylor's reaction to it.

    As Janice advised, if you don't immediately tie that info to the character, it will be seen as unimportant. Better to have her reaction to it delayed by the footsteps, and then expanded or deflected.

    I concur with the idea that you've not quite gotten your story out of your head...but you will! Good luck!

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  2. Good constructive critique. I read it and wondered what the clues meant. In the end throat cleared and shoe scuffled on the gravel path piqued curiosity. More inner thoughts and character status would give the the best clues. Overall, the description and idea was good. Keep working on it. You'll make it great. Christine

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  3. Good article, In my novella which I am writing Lotus's story. Both mother and daughter have the same vision of a fire at a village called hope.

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  4. And also to relate the hope villagers to safer ground.

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