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Saturday, August 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Horror Opening 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.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 23.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening work? Would you read on? 


Market/Genre: Horror

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Ania blearily stretched into the scorching heat of the sun that radiated from the glass windows, seeping into her eyelids and seemingly setting her on fire.

She was in a tiny room that stretched in every direction. It was made completely out of crumbling brick, including the floor and the ceiling. It was in a crazy, squiggly shape, and it was tiny.

There were no windows, but there was an open space directly above Ania, where the sun shone. The only other object in the room was a small jacket that reeked of an odor that reminded Ania of expired mayonnaise.

Ania grumbled as she got up, with no recollection of this room. The window was too small to squeeze through, even though Ania was very skinny.

She ran her fingers over the hard brick, checking for trap doors or secret tunnels. Nothing. There were no trapdoors on the floor, either. But the ceiling…

The ceiling was low enough to reach, and Ania ran her fingers across it until her fingers hit something, and the roof shifted to the sides, revealing open air.

Hope bubbled inside of her. She reached for part of what used to be the ceiling, and hauled herself upwards, using the little strength her flimsy arms had. She reached the top, dangerously standing on the narrow roof. The room she had been in was very high up, all of the floors awkward and weird shapes. It was completely made of brick, and there was no other buildings or people nearby.

She cautiously leaned over to see if there was any way to safely make it down, but there was only sky and grass to be seen.

"Ania! I am so glad I found you!"

The unfamiliar voice startled her. She screeched and fell forwards, her head turned towards the grass...

My Thoughts in Purple:

Ania blearily stretched into the scorching heat of the sun that radiated from the glass windows, seeping into her eyelids and seemingly setting her on fire. This feels a bit overwritten. The words also seem mismatched. “blearily stretched” suggests someone slowly waking up, but “scorching heat” suggests something painful

She was in a tiny room that [stretched] used stretched twice in two sentences [in every direction.] this doesn’t fit a tiny room. “Stretched in every direction” suggests something large and vast, not tiny. It was made completely out of crumbling brick, including the floor and the [ceiling] can you make ceilings out of brick?. It was in a [crazy, squiggly shape, and it was tiny.] Used tiny twice in this paragraph. Also, what is the size? Tiny, stretching in all directions, or crazy and squiggly? This room has three different descriptions about what it looks like

There were [no windows,] it says the sun radiated from the windows in the first line but there was an open space directly above Ania, where the sun shone. The only other object in the room was a small jacket that reeked of an odor that reminded Ania of expired mayonnaise.

Ania [grumbled as she got up, with no recollection of this room] for someone waking up in a strange environment, she seems very calm. She also seems more annoyed by the smell than being in a weird room with no memory of how she got there The window was too small to squeeze through, even though Ania was very skinny.

She ran her fingers over the hard brick, [checking for trap doors or secret tunnels.] It’s odd that she wakes up and this is her first though. How would she even know to do this? Why does she? Nothing. There were no trapdoors on the floor, either. But the ceiling…

The ceiling was low enough to reach, and Ania ran her fingers across it until her fingers hit something, and the roof shifted to the sides, revealing open air.

[Hope bubbled inside of her.] This is the only indication that she’s at all worried about this situation She reached for part of what used to be the ceiling, and hauled herself upwards, using the little strength her flimsy arms had. She reached the top, dangerously standing on the narrow roof. The room she had been in was very high up, all of the floors awkward and weird shapes. It was completely [made of brick] this has been mentioned quite a few times, and there was no other buildings or people nearby.

She cautiously leaned over to see if there was any way to safely make it down, but there was only sky and grass to be seen.

"Ania! I am so glad I found you!"

[The unfamiliar voice startled her.] It just said there were no other people around, so where did this person come from? She screeched and fell forwards, her head turned towards the grass...

The questions:

1. Does this opening work? 


Not yet. It does start off with Ania in the middle of a problem—waking up trapped in a strange room—but I never get the sense that she’s scared or even concerned about what’s happening to her. She immediate goes from waking up, to grumbling (which indicates she’s annoyed more than scared about her situation), to knowing exactly how to look for and find the trigger for the secret exit.

As a reader, I know even less than she does about what’s going on, so even though all these odd things are here, they mean nothing to me. I can’t connect to what’s happening because it’s too strange and I don’t know who Ania is or what she wants.

(Here’s more on writing opening scenes)

The third person omniscient point of view is also keeping me at a distance, and much of this feels detached and told, as if the narrator was watching Ania try to escape and knew why she was doing everything she did. I never got the sense that Ania was in the story trying to figure out where she was or what to do about it. Without any emotion or internalization from her, I couldn’t connect to her as a character or care about her predicament.

I’d suggest adding more emotion and internalization to this to show Ania is scared or how she feels. If she isn’t scared in this situation, then why not? Why does she know to start searching for secret doors? Why doesn’t she examine the only other clue in the room (the jacket)?

(Here’s more on crafting tighter third person POV internalization)

2. Would you read on?

No. The distant point of view and telling make it hard for me to care about Ania, and the lack of clues about what’s going on don’t draw me in. There’s not enough here yet for me to wonder about Ania or what’s happening to her, and since she doesn’t seem to care either, I don’t worry about her at all. She does have a goal to “get out,” but she achieves that so easily it’s never really a problem driving the story, so there’s no conflict or sense of a plot unfolding to pique my interest. There’s a small story question with “what is this place and why is Ania there?”, but it’s not strong enough to keep me reading to find the answer.

(Here’s more hooking readers)

I’d suggest slowing down a little bit and giving readers a chance to understand where there are, who Ania is, and what the problem is here. It’s not just her being stuck in a weird room, since she gets out of that right away. It could be her waking up in a strange place with no memory, but again, she doesn’t seem upset or even worried about that. Let readers get inside her head a bit and learn ore about what this situation is from Ania’s perspective. Offer some clues so they have enough to understand the scene or the context of the scene.

Horror is all about the emotional and psychological scare, so tap into the scary and the fear to make readers worry about Ania and dread what might be coming.

(Here’s more on creating emotion in your scenes)

Overall, I get the sense this is a rough draft still, since there’s a lot of inconsistencies in the text. For example, it describes the sun coming in through the windows in the first line, yet a few lines later it says there are no windows. The room is described three different ways so I’m not sure what it actually looks like. Many details are also repeated throughout, which makes me think you were figuring this out as you wrote it (there’s nothing wrong with that, just make sure to check for consistency and repetition at some).

I suspect you’re still finding your story and maybe jumping to the “good stuff” you want to write, and skipping over the parts that will build the apprehension and mystery a horror story needs. Try slowing down and letting your story build to those scary moments, and give readers plenty of time to worry and get scared along the way.

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. I concur with your analysis. Too many adjectives and adverbs, too much tell and not enough show. That said, I would encourage this imaginative writer to develop her skills and press on.

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  2. Such a brave soul to put her work right out here in the open for us all to analyze. I never, ever would have know what to say for how to improve it, so I will try to learn from this. And I just might get my courage up to submit a piece of my own work.

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  3. Not much to add, Janice pretty much covered everything. My big problem is how the text contradicts itself, which in horror could work ... later on. You could use the contradictions to show deteriorating mental state, magical forces, whatever. But in an opening, it looks like the author can't keep track of their own story from line to line.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree with the contradictions in he description. I would also love to have had more description of were Ania is, other than its a long, short brick with a smelly piece of clothing. Are there sounds? How does Ania feel about that? From what we were given, she seems to have very little feeling about the situation. There is only one light source in the room.. So, are there shadows? Bugs? Gravel crunching under foot as she steps? Also, maybe stay away from subjective descriptors like "weird".

    ReplyDelete