Saturday, July 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Scene Work?

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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Submissions currently in the queue: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 5.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this scene seem to work?

2. Is the POV right?

3. What about when Cole trips and bumps into the table and spills the coffee? 


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Marisol sat in the hospital cafeteria stuffing her face with a turkey sandwich and clutching on to her latest paperback thriller. The book was all the company she needed. It had already been one hour past her shift and she was in no hurry to go home. Instead she stayed reading her book enjoying her sandwich and a warm cup of coffee. The cafeteria was now sparsely occupied by other nurses and some physicians. White lab coats and colored scrubs dotted the central portion of the area, while some visitors and families strolled in and out possibly awaiting some patient who probably was now in a surgical procedure.

Marisol twisted her strawberry blonde hair in a spiral pattern while swinging her crossed leg slowly and rhythmically back and forth. She was unmoved by the sound of the cash register and the fry cook’s yelling out orders to the other workers. This was a ritual for the single and attractive 35-year old therapist who would come and sit and read on her last evening shift.

Suddenly, someone had tripped behind her chair and coffee spilled onto her table. Marisol jumped up grabbing her book and shoving her chair behind her looked up to see a police officer grabbing napkins and apologizing for the mishap.

“I’m so sorry,” Cole said. “I apologize miss, I hope I didn’t spill coffee on your uniform,” he said grabbing bunches of napkins furiously and wiping off the table.

Marisol also was wiping the table and the side of her lab coat which was spattered with coffee.

“Oh, gosh, I did get some on your jacket there,” he said as he went to wipe off the stain.

Marisol’s initial feeling was anger but in a moment, that changed when she found herself looking at the most handsome face she had ever seen.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Marisol sat in the hospital cafeteria stuffing her face with a turkey sandwich and clutching on to her latest paperback thriller. The book was all the company she needed. It had already been one hour past her shift and she was in no hurry to go home. [Instead she stayed reading her book enjoying her sandwich and a warm cup of coffee.] Feels repetitive, so you could cut this The cafeteria was now sparsely occupied by other nurses and some physicians. White lab coats and colored scrubs dotted the central portion of the area, while some visitors and families strolled in and out possibly awaiting some patient who probably was now in a surgical procedure.

Marisol twisted her strawberry blonde hair in a spiral pattern while swinging her crossed leg slowly and rhythmically back and forth. She was unmoved by the sound of the cash register and the fry cook’s yelling out orders to the other workers. [This was a ritual for the single and attractive 35-year old therapist who would come and sit and read on her last evening shift.] Feels told. You didn’t specify your POV style, but this paragraph feels like an omniscient third person narrator

Suddenly, someone [had] don’t need this word tripped behind her chair and coffee spilled onto her table. Marisol jumped up grabbing her book and shoving her chair behind her looked up to see a police officer grabbing napkins and apologizing for the mishap. There’s a bit of trouble with how things play out in this paragraph. More on this below

“I’m so sorry,” Cole said. “I apologize miss, I hope I didn’t spill coffee on your uniform,” he said grabbing bunches of napkins [furiously] which verb does this apply to? and wiping off the table. You tag his dialogue twice, though I think it’s revision smudge

[Marisol also was wiping the table and the side of her lab coat which was spattered with coffee.] reads awkwardly. She also never reacts or responds to what just happened

“Oh, gosh, I did get some on your jacket there,” [he said as he went to wipe off the stain.] You don’t need to tag or include stage direction in every every line of dialogue

Marisol’s [initial feeling was anger but in a moment, that changed when] feels told she found herself looking at the most handsome face she had ever seen.

The questions:

1. Does this scene seem to work?


For me, not yet (readers chime in). It’s a little too told and confusing in parts for me to fully engage in the character. There’s also no sense of anything happening to pique my interest and draw me in (no goal or conflict). Marisol is sitting and reading when Cole bumps into her. I’m guessing this is a romance meet-cute, but it’s not “cute” enough to grab me yet. I think perhaps because spilling coffee seems mundane and common, and Marisol is a gal who clearly dreams of excitement (she’s reading thrillers).

It might not work for the story, but it could be fun to have this meet-cute fall more in line with her reading preferences. Something thrilling. The “thrill” could be something that fits the hospital setting, but meeting a handsome cop out of one of her books could be an interesting way to open this.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the told and confusing sections:
“I’m so sorry,” Cole said. “I apologize miss, I hope I didn’t spill coffee on your uniform,” he said grabbing bunches of napkins furiously and wiping off the table.
It’s quite possible this is just revision smudge, but the dialogue is tagged twice. I’m also not sure if he’s grabbing furiously or wiping furiously, as the adverb is in an awkward position. I think you’re just trying to do too much all at once here. Try breaking his actions down into separate sentences for better flow.
Marisol also was wiping the table and the side of her lab coat which was spattered with coffee.
Same here. She doesn’t need to wipe the table as well. It’s also an awkward sentence that takes a few reads to fully understand the action. It explains the reasons why she acts after she starts acting.
“Oh, gosh, I did get some on your jacket there,” he said as he went to wipe off the stain.
Three times it basically says “he spilled coffee on her and wiped it off,” which feels repetitive. The dialogue tags also all include stage direction, which makes everything feel a little heavy and overworked. Again, there’s just too much going on at once so it’s hard to parse the information.

(Here’s more on stage direction)

Think about the action here. Cole bumps into her. He spills coffee. He apologies. He wipes it off the table. She wipes it off her coat. He realizes he did spill it on her and apologizes again. But most of these lines have all of those things trying to occur in one or two sentences. Let the action happen, and then let people react to that action.

(Here’s more on stimulus and response)

2. Is the POV right?

You didn’t specify which POV style you were doing, so I took a guess based on the text itself.
Marisol twisted her strawberry blonde hair in a spiral pattern while swinging her crossed leg slowly and rhythmically back and forth. She was unmoved by the sound of the cash register and the fry cook’s yelling out orders to the other workers. This was a ritual for the single and attractive 35-year old therapist who would come and sit and read on her last evening shift.
This feels like an outside narrator, which makes me think this is an omniscient third person point of view. If that’s the case, then yes, your POV is right. If you’re doing third person limited, then no, it’s not right. Third limited only shows what the POV character can experience and conveys it the way the character would convey it. For example, in third limited, the POV character would never call herself “the single and attractive 35-year old therapist.” That’s someone else describing Marisol, not Marisol living in the world and being a single and attractive 35-year old therapist.

(Here’s more on understanding point of view)
This was a ritual for the single and attractive 35-year old therapist who would come and sit and read on her last evening shift.
This feels told to me even for third person omniscient. You’ve already established this is a ritual by showing her doing it, so there’s no need to sum up and explain it. It also described Marisol in a distant, impersonal way.
Marisol’s initial feeling was anger but in a moment, that changed when feels told she found herself looking at the most handsome face she had ever seen.
This also feels told to me, explaining her feelings without showing her actually having them. I never her angry, or even react to getting coffee spilled on her. I’m told she had feelings. It’s a subtle difference, but it affects how much I connect with the character. What does she actually feel? How are her thoughts when this happens? What does she see when she looks at Cole from her perspective?

(Here’s more on show, don’t tell)

3. What about when Cole trips and bumps into the table and spills the coffee?

That paragraph was problematic for a few reasons. I think you’re just trying to do too much at once. Let’s break this down some:
Suddenly, someone had tripped behind her chair and coffee spilled onto her table.
I’m told someone trips before I ever see them. The coffee spills onto the table, yet a lot of focus is later spent on how she got coffee on her jacket. Yet there’s nothing that says that, and with a omniscient narrator, what readers see is typically what actually happened. “Suddenly” is always troublesome because it relies on the word to convey surprise, yet saying it tells readers that a surprise is coming—defeating the purpose of the surprise. The shock is to have Marisol splashed with coffee and then see her reaction to it.

(Here’s more on narrative focus)
Marisol jumped up grabbing her book and shoving her chair behind her looked up to see a police officer grabbing napkins and apologizing for the mishap.
Eight separate actions with two different characters happen in one sentence, which is too much to parse as a reader. Marisol jumps up. She grabs her book. She shoves her chair back. She looks up. Cole grabs napkins. Cole apologizes. Next, the scene goes on to repeat most of that same information, some of it more than once.

I think you have a good idea of how these events play out, but it’s not making it clearly to the page yet. I suspect you’re trying to explain how and why things happen instead of just having them happen and letting readers figure it out. If you describe Cole grabbing napkins and apologizing, you don’t need to have Marisol “looking up to see” it. Readers know it happened because it’s shown in the scene.

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

This opening reads to me like someone who sees this scene in their head, and describes it as they know it happens. So everything is coming across distant and out of sync when reading it for the first time with no knowledge of what’s going on.

I’d suggest figuring out who your narrator is (either Marisol or an outside narrator, whichever you prefer), and writing the scene from that perspective. Be mindful of who does what and what that action triggers. Show events as they happen and the results of those events, don’t try to sum it all up on one sentence. Slow down and take your time.

(Here’s more on determining who your narrator is)

Overall, I suspect the real issue here is with the POV. I think the distant narrator is keeping you from seeing this scene through your protagonist’s eyes, and that’s causing you to describe from afar. Unless you have a strong preference for third person omniscient, I’d recommend shifting a little closer and putting this in Marisol’s POV. Forcing yourself to see this scene through her eyes and write what she experiences will help you focus on the action and reactions and not rehash and summarize the same event multiple times. You’ll have more to work with, because you’ll have opportunities and reasons to show what’s going on inside and outside of Marisol’s head.

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. One thing I had trouble with was Cole's name being dropped before he had a chance to introduce himself to Marisol. When I first read it I thought she got coffee spilled on her, looked up, and saw that the person tripping was her friend Cole -but later in the scene we're told that she doesn't actually know Cole. If she's just meeting him, she's not going to think of him by name she's going to think something more like `Agggh! Hot-hot-hot- what kind of clumsy bozo- Whoa! This guy is hotter than the coffee!'

    (That might not be at all how Marisol talks to herself. Actually she seems a bit more formal than that, so whatever she'd say to herself that means -I'm furious- wait! Cute guy alert!)

    If this is an omniscient narrator and you want to get Cole's name in there before he talks, you could always introduce him by name in the proceeding paragraph where he spills his coffee all over the gorgeous nurse.

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  2. You asked about POV, and like Janice said, it really can be essential. Reading this made me think how many excellent bits and pieces this has that point toward a romance, but also how they could be better presented.

    Romance *lives* in POV, for that moment when Marisol sees "the most handsome face" and the contrast with her other unique thoughts about why she should and shouldn't be with Cole. Or, it often has other scenes with other POVs (like Cole's own?), and might be omniscient if one scene switches back and forth between a couple of characters (if you want rapid contrast between Marisol's feelings and Cole's, or her and a friend's). But stepping outside of any one set of eyes at a given moment is usually bad for the mood.

    For instance, something like her being 35 and single would go much better if you worked in a "small Since", a way to mention a part of her world that shows how she sees it and who she is through her assumptions about it. She might glimpse some other nurse with boyfriend troubles and be grateful or wistful she's out of all that; you could mention her having been in the hospital for some years to hint she's not in her 20s any more. (This is in a way more interesting than telling us a fact; seeing her react to someone's boyfriend problems points more directly to how she'll view Cole.)

    --One thing, though: her twirling her red hair does work for me. Because twirling is an action she's taking it lets her notice her hair a little (unlike the fact that she's single), and adding the fact that her hair's red is something readers let you get away with: hair color adds so much to their picture of her and yet it's hard to mention without stepping back from strict viewpoint. (Unlike age, size, clothing choice for the day, and so on, that are more "tangible" and easier to find an in-the-moment thing that will interact with them.) And, it's just a fun instant that sets the scene, for her personality as well as her looks.

    Some other viewpoint particulars: when she first sees Cole she calls him a police officer, but we don't know why. If he's in uniform you want to make that part of the first instant she sees about him. (Or if he's a plainclothes detective, you might let her see he's been "walking from the cop's table" where a couple of uniforms and probably-detectives had been huddled together talking about a case.) You could also watch how many seconds he can be near her and still turned away before she can see that stunning face yet, and whether she thinks of him as "Cole" before he introduces himself.

    You've got a great sense of the building blocks this scene needs. Try thinking more about how "the camera reveals the photographer more than the picture" and you can make the best use of them.

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  3. I'm sorry to say that you lost me at "stuffing her face" while reading. Speaking from my own experiences, I don't stuff my face while reading. I take a bite or two between scenes.

    Nevertheless, I pushed on. The comments posted by Janice, Chicory and Ken pretty much cover my own thoughts.

    Is this a scene for the two love interests to meet? Because the spilled beverage (coffee) is a common Meet-Cute trope. I would suggest he would be far more impressive if he almost spilled the coffee but saved the day (and her jacket) by quick thinking and heroic actions :)

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