Saturday, June 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Fantasy Opening Hook You?

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 July 29.

This week’s questions:

1. Is the opening enough to hook the reader?

2. Is it intriguing rather than confusing?

3. What conclusions can you draw about the world and the characters’ place in it?

4. The POV is close third, how successful is this?

5. The scene ends with the girl waking up. She is the main POV and protagonist. Would you be annoyed not to be in Jessen’s POV again until halfway through book? (The trigger for POV shifts is the protagonist being unconscious.)

6. Would you read on? Why/Why not?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:


The boards creaked under Jessen’s boots, his brothers whispered amongst themselves. He edged closer to the small figure tucked up in bed. Nothing special about her, no great beauty, no obvious threat. No reason for Father or Magus Kyabb to forbid them from seeing her. Disappointed, he twitched the blanket from her neck, exposing the medallion she wore. A mere trinket, he reached out to touch it.

“Don’t.” said his younger brothers.

Ignoring them, Jessen nudged the medallion with his finger. Its smooth surface was ice cold. He snatched his hand back grazing part of her unbandaged tan skin, skin far warmer than the icy stone medallion should permit. Curious. The girl stirred but did not wake.

Facing his brothers, he shrugged, “See? Not worth the fuss. If she was, there’d be guards.”

“Kyabb placed wards on the doors and windows,” said Wynter, the eldest.

Jessen snorted, “a few chanted rhymes and some smelly oil. The Magus may study magic in his dusty old books but even he doesn’t believe magic still exists.” He glanced down at his finger, the one he’d touched the medallion with.

“None the less, he thought it necessary, Jessen.” Wynter’s grey gaze unnerved him. He clenched his jaw ignoring the throbbing in his finger. Perhaps he’d been wrong to suggest this little adventure, to place all of them, to place Wynter, in danger. Goddess knows Jessen did not want to be Crown prince of Abele.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The boards creaked under Jessen’s boots[,] comma splice his brothers whispered amongst themselves. He edged closer to the small figure tucked up in bed. Nothing special about her, no great beauty, no obvious threat. No reason for Father or Magus Kyabb to forbid them from seeing her. [Disappointed,] I like this, as it says a lot about his personality he twitched the blanket from her neck, exposing [the] unless he knew this was there, it would a “a” medallion she wore. A mere trinket[,] comma splice he reached out to touch it. If it’s nothing, why touch it?

“Don’t[.]comma” said his younger [brothers.] together? Or one brother?

Ignoring them, Jessen nudged the medallion with his finger. Its smooth surface was ice cold. He snatched his hand back grazing part of her unbandaged tan skin, skin far warmer than the icy stone medallion should permit. Curious. The girl stirred but did not wake.

Facing his brothers, he shrugged[,] period “See? Not worth the fuss. If she was, there’d be guards.” I wanted a little internalization here, or some sign about what he’s thinking. It seems like he thinks there’s something about the medallion at least

“Kyabb placed wards on the doors and windows,” said Wynter, the eldest.

Jessen snorted[,] period “a few chanted rhymes and some smelly oil. The Magus may study magic in his dusty old [books]comma but even he doesn’t believe magic still exists.” [He glanced down at his finger, the one he’d touched the medallion with.] Why? Is it still cold? If so, perhaps give him a stronger reaction when he touches it

[“None the less, he thought it necessary, Jessen.”] the name at the end reads awkwardly Wynter’s grey gaze unnerved him. He clenched his jaw ignoring the throbbing in his finger. Perhaps he’d been wrong to suggest this little adventure, to place all of them, to place Wynter, in danger. [Goddess knows Jessen did not want to be Crown prince of Abele.] ooo nice intrigue.

The questions:

1. Is the opening enough to hook the reader?

It has some stumbles, but mostly I’m intrigued. The situation itself is interesting, with the boys curious about an unconscious girl and sneaking into her room to see her. I can sense there’s more going on here, and I’m curious how these people fit together. I also like the hint that Jessen might become Crown Prince even though he doesn’t want it, and that Wynter might die.

What didn’t quite work for me was a lack of enough clues to really understand what’s happening here. Aside from a room, I don’t know where they are or why they’re sneaking in to see the girl, which does have a bit of a creepy vibe. Three boys staring and touching an unconscious girl? At first read it comes across more curious and sweet, but the longer I think about it the creepier it gets. But if I had a stronger sense of why they were there it would seem less creepy.

I’d suggest dropping in a few more details to establish the setting, and make it a tad more clear why they’re there. I like the curiosity and going to see her just because they were told not to, but I wanted a teeny bit more clues about their motives, especially where the medallion is concerned. Jessen seems drawn to it, but aside from “curious” he never really remarks on it.

(Here’s more on establishing the setting)

2. Is it intriguing rather than confusing?

Mostly intriguing, though there were punctuation issues that made it confusing at first. There were several sentences with comma splices that I had to read over because the sentence didn’t make sense. I was also never clear on why Jessen was acting, so I was a bit confused by his motives.

Just a few bits of internalization here and there would probably clear this right up though.

(Here’s more on crafting third person internalization)

3. What conclusions can you draw about the world and the characters’ place in it?

It’s a monarchy, these boys are royal, Wynter is the eldest and the heir, they believe in a goddess, and the world has magic even though no one thinks it exists. Aside from that, there aren’t enough details yet to get a sense of the story or world.

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

4. The POV is close third, how successful is this?

Successful. I felt in Jessen’s head, and he did feel like the POV here.

5. The scene ends with the girl waking up. She is the main POV and protagonist. Would you be annoyed not to be in Jessen’s POV again until halfway through book? (The trigger for POV shifts is the protagonist being unconscious.)

Yes, that would annoy me (readers chime in here). I’m already curious about Jessen and wondering if he’s somehow going to wind up heir and how this girl is going to connect to that. I feel that he’s my protagonist, so switching would make me feel that I was starting to book over. Of course, if I knew going in from the cover copy that she was the POV, I might be less annoyed and think there are just alternating POV characters.

Unless she’s unconscious a lot (which would really need a good reason, though I can see how it would work in the right circumstances), Jessen is only going to be POV a few times in the novel, which is probably going to feel like he’s there only to show what she can’t. He won’t have enough page time to have a story of his own, so he’ll likely feel like filler.

If he’s important enough to deserve his own POV, then consider splitting it between these two characters. If he’s not, and there are only a few scenes in his POV, I’d suggest just staying in her POV. Third option…if her being unconscious is due to some plot-driving trigger and happens with a certain regularity, then it might work if he’s the POV when this happens, and he’s the one figuring out the mechanics behind the medallion or whatever. But if so, I’d still suggest starting with her and the showing the switch so readers begin with the right protagonist.

(Here’s more on writing multiple POV characters)

6. Would you read on? Why/Why not?

I’d read a few more pages to see where this went (readers chime in). It could use some polish, but the foundation of the scene is working for me. But as odd as this will sound, if Jessen isn’t the protagonist, this opening could actually hurt more than help, making readers care about a character they rarely see again. If readers invest in Jessen, and don’t connect to the girl as strongly, it could be enough reason to stop reading.

I’m going to ask a crazy question here—in your email, you said something that makes me question the premise of this novel, even though I know nothing about it aside from what’s here: “The last line is really what gave me an insight into the POV character and helped me decide he was the one to open the book with.” The last line is about Jessen not wanting to be Crown Prince, which packs a lot of foreshadowing and conflict into one line. This makes me think this is the summary of his character arc and story. This seems like what the book is going to be about. If this is so important that you feel it defines this character and was critical enough to open the novel, then why isn’t he the protagonist? Why is the girl the protagonist if she’s not even important enough to start the novel with? You had some hints in the original text in your email (this was not posted due to revised copy) that suggests answers, and if it’s going the way I suspect, it might be fun to see both POVs more often.

(Here’s more on determining if you have the wrong protagonist)

Overall, I think this is a judgment call on your part. You’ll have to decide how important it is for readers to see the story from Jessen’s POV and if you want this to be the first thing they see. What makes this more important than opening the novel in the girl’s POV? Why do readers need to see this first before they even get to know the main character?

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.

8 comments:

  1. I think I'd be bothered by the point of view switch, too if Jessen wasn't shown to still be a major character fairly early on. I lost interest in `Six of Crows' because the story started with this guard struggling with a moral dilemma, then switched to a whole lot of people getting ready to pull a heist, and no indication that the guard wasn't forgotten forever. `Six of Crows' is a popular book and it could be the guard actually comes back in and is important (the book had to go back to the library before I got past my disappointment) but opening with him when he wasn't a main character was a significant stumbling block for me personally. (The fact that I'd read the first chapter as a teaser before the book came out and had time to get curious about the guard might have had some bearing on my disappointment.)

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  2. Great analysis by Janice. Polishing and correcting the punctuation is easy. Overall, the opening works. Engaging prose and solid pacing move the story along nicely. The writer's biggest challenge is how to continue development after the strong start.

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  3. I agree, maybe have the medallion calling to his mind (since the medallion if the focal point it has to represent something more...) Or build on the intrigued of it somehow. Maybe, have it the reason they are coming into the room instead of knowing it's a girl, they descover she is a girl after pulling planket down to expose the medallion. For me this takes the "creepy" out of it.
    If the medallion is a "mere trinket" and isn't key to the story... Ditch it.

    I like the idea, and would read more... Instead of "no don't" the younger brothers say... I would introduce a name for one of the brother's, this would help me visualise it better and maybe have him reach out to grab jessens's arm.

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  4. I agree, it's a well-focused opening that could use some refining. There's a lot going on here and excellent use of Jessen's view to convey it all, even his royal attitude.

    Starting with the non-protagonist worries me too. We expect a first chapter to show us what the book is, and starting in a different head doesn't do that. It sounds like you wanted to write as a mix between the two views, but didn't follow through for the next half of the book. If you added scenes here and there after this that brought us back to Jessen's view, you'd cover all your bases and you could keep developing how he sees the girl to add to depth the story.

    Or you could rethink this scene and try to give an introduction like this through the girl's eyes, probably just after she wakes up. If what matters most is starting with what she seems like before you fill in what she really is, you could open with her just awake and eavesdropping on the others talking about her, or her answering questions that at first tell us more about what people assume she is.

    (Or if you really wanted the contrast between Jessen's scene and many scenes for the girl, you could call this a prologue. That's a classic way to say it's a bit separate from the rest, but it does make some readers think they can skip it.)

    If you keep this Jessen's scene, I do think you should do more about the creepiness problem. You might have two excuses for Jessen in your mind that aren't making it to the page: One, there's gentleness in his motions that shows right then he's not going to do anything nasty. Two, that as a prince he thinks she's a commoner and isn't afraid he's risking anything to himself by intruding on her-- so the act of sneaking in itself doesn't raise the stakes. (That and, he has to assume she's *deep* unconscious; pulling the blanket down on someone who's only asleep is begging for a scream.)

    How old are Jessen and his friends? In any YA story it would be vital to give this to the year, right away, because the difference between just say 12 and 14 is so huge it distracts the reader until they know. But of course with a potentially creepy scene like this it's more vital yet to know if they're innocent (and reckless) 10 or ominous 17.

    I really like how much this scene does, all at the same time, covering so many of the challenges of a first chapter. Most of its gaps seem to come from the same place, you knowing the moment so well and not getting it all onto the page yet. One way or another, I hope you'll find ways to bring the rest of this to life too.

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  5. It falls a bit into exposition dialogue (the boys telling each other what they presumably already know regarding the Magus). Starting a few minutes earlier, with the boys going through the wards and kind of rolling their eyes about it might help.

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  6. Just a few thoughts...

    "The boards creaked under Jessen’s boots, his brothers whispered amongst themselves. He edged closer to the small figure tucked up in bed."

    I would suggest having the first part of the first sentence be followed by the second sentence: The boards creaked under Jessen’s boots as he edged closer to the small figure on the bed. Behind him, his brothers whispered among themselves.

    The reader now sees what Jessen is doing, as well as seeing his goal. The brothers are now behind him, whispering, which means they are either younger or older and more cautious. For me, this small change reads smoother and establishes more in the scene.

    For me, the first paragraph is confusing as to intent. Apparently, 3 or more brothers have gone against warnings to 'see' this girl. She isn't chained/shackled to the bed, so that should be the signal that she's not a threat. The threat assessment could be taken care of by indicating that a spell/curse had been used to control her. I feel it is important to show *way* she's unconscious.The listing of reasons tells me more about Jessen than the situation. He only sees the surface of things and cares little for rules. He is disappointed, but his actions show disdain. His willingness to expose her, to 'explore' her, with little thought except his own desire to ferret out the 'truth' about her is creepy.

    The medallion isn't portrayed as something he knew about, so his action of exposing it doesn't feel like curiosity, so I was left to wonder why he was ready to uncover her.

    I suggest implicating the medallion, and her being the bearer of it, as why she's off bounds. That would give a stronger reason for 3+ brothers to disobey two authority figures. The brash actions of Jessen need more support -- simple curiosity might mean peeking in the door, silently sneaking up near the bed, and observing her. You have this group speaking in normal tones, debating actions, then taking very bold actions on a presumably unconscious (not sleeping) girl.

    I didn't make a connection that they were all princes, and that Wynter is the eldest. I would have liked a hint that Wynter is Jessen's elder -- something as small as adding 'especially' to Jessen's regret of bringing them into possible danger. That one word would have alerted me to Wynter being something special -- like the Crown Prince.

    You could de-creep the scene by having the boys show some kind of respect for the girl, instead of just being rebellious. You could also insert information that she has been placed under a spell/curse to render her immobile, either by the authority figures or some other nefarious source. You could also give background on the medallion (just a sentence or a few words would do) that implied that the girl was not the master, but rather, the medallion was. The girl is then the helpless victim and sympathy can be shown, to a greater or lesser degree.

    You could also flip the perspective, using the victim perspective, to the girl -- allowing her to be trapped by the medallion or the spell/curse, so she can hear what is being said, can feel fear when Jessen comes close to touch the medallion, and her skin.

    For me, this opening scene isn't intense enough, allows the circumstance of the girl to be disrespected, and portrays the brothers as thoughtless and self-serving.

    I don't like Jessen, so I wouldn't be upset if his POV was dropped for the girl's POV later. :o))

    Good luck and thanks for being brave and going 'public' here.

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  8. Thank you to Janice and everyone who commented. I appreciate the detailed comments. The reponses highlighted the importance of beta readers. I am so close to the characters and story that it is proving difficult to view the story objectively.


    Not once did I think the boys’ actions were creepy! As soon as this was pointed out to me I could see how this was a logical conclusion to draw. I agree that more emphasis on the medallion and its significance would be useful. (Otherwise, Jessen uncovering the girl is threatening.) A few more lines of internalization would also help dispel this. Interestingly my beta readers who have read the whole WIP didn’t find the opening creepy, perhaps what comes after mitigates this.

    Originally the story began with the girl (Mya) waking up and overhearing the boys conversation. This was so confusing that I had to write the names of speakers in brackets! So why start with Jessen? Mya is unconscious; it is the events that lead to this and her placement with the royal family that drive the plot. The events that happen ‘off page’ are recounted later, including them in the opening didn’t work (minor characters took on greater significance.) The series story is ‘their story’ (Mya and the princes) but the first book is focussed most on Mya’s character development and story arc. Jessen and his reckless attitude drive key points in the plot. In the following chapters he is very much present and active, we just see him from Mya’s point of view. (One beta reader LOVED Jessen and didn’t feel deprived by the switch in POV.) Overall I think a few more chapters from the princes’ viewpoints would make sense. I agree that cover copy would be important in setting up reader expectation regarding viewpoints.

    Janice, you were spot on with the last line foreshadowing Jessen’s arc. He and Mya are both partially responsible but this sub plot is secondary to Mya’s story. It’s about her discovery of who and what she is and how the medallion and her relationship with the princes and the kingdom play into that.

    I’m terrible at picking up grammar and punctuation errors in my own work I’m grateful to those of you who took the time to point these out and provide and provide possible ways to fix these.

    Fiction university continues to be my one stop shop for all things ‘writing’. Thank you again to Janice and all of you for your positive comments and constructive feedback. It’s given me the confidence that this revised opening is ‘on the right track’. It’s been great to ‘see’ my characters and story through fresh eyes!

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