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Saturday, October 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Fantasy Opening Draw Your In?

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: Two 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 11.

This week’s questions:

Does the hint of backstory related to the primary character's sword feel intriguing or too much to handle this early? Does the close 3rd person POV maintain throughout the scene? Regarding the sentence: "The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable." Is the phrase "but unmistakable" seem like it is telling? To me, it heightens the drama and is something that the character would think, so I don't believe I have lost the close 3rd person POV. Do you agree?

Regarding the phrase: "Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink." This is telling, but I feel it's OK in this instance. Do you agree? If not, what would you recommend for a rewrite? Regarding the sentence: "Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment." I think this avoids telling as it would be logical for the primary character to be thinking in these terms. Do you agree? Regarding the phrase: "His hand floated to the hilt..." I am not one of those authors opposed to writing in the style of the "disembodied body part". What are your thoughts on this?

Is the setting clear? Have I succeeded in adding in enough conflict? (Conflict between the two characters and also the pending conflict with whatever is lurking in the orchard) Do the characters feel real? Do you feel tension/danger at the end? Any other Show, Don't Tell opportunities?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Behind the Arabica with the shepherd's beard.”

Lying prone atop an embankment forty paces uphill from endless rows of coffee trees, Arusha strained eyes upon the one Catuai pointed to. The tree wore a swarm of fuzzy black-flecked white gypsy moths hanging in a pointed bunch from its lowest branch. He would report this to the Orchard Maester upon their return for immediate pruning before the pests spread their damage. But there was nothing else to spy. Nervous Catuai - always glimpsing monsters in the winter orchards.

“Curse you Cat." Arusha rolled onto his side and reprimanded his childhood friend. "We’re forty fields from Autumnheld and black approaches in the hour. Time spares no hunt for your phantoms or…”

The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable. Arusha whipped back and strained again. Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink. The winter grass crunched under the pressure of Arusha’s flattening body. Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment. Squint and strain. The rotted-sweet scent of decaying apple blossoms fragranced the winter air. Squint and strain. His hand floated to the hilt of Sarchimor, the sword his great-uncle struck in the forges of Sulawesi. Squint and strain.

Too many moments later Arusha ordered, “Retreat.”

“But Commander...”

“Shut your mouth. Retreat.”

Arusha gripped his soldier by the collar of his ring-armored jacket and stood him up. Now, it would be a race.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[“Behind the Arabica with the shepherd's beard.”] Perhaps tag this to provide some context.

Lying prone atop an embankment forty paces uphill from endless rows of coffee trees, Arusha strained eyes upon the one Catuai pointed to. The tree wore a swarm of fuzzy black-flecked white gypsy moths hanging in a pointed bunch from its lowest branch. He would report this to the Orchard Maester upon their return for immediate pruning before the pests spread their damage. But there was nothing else to spy. Nervous Catuai - always glimpsing monsters in the winter orchards.

“Curse you Cat." Arusha rolled onto his side and reprimanded his childhood friend. "We’re forty fields from Autumnheld and black approaches in the hour. Time spares no hunt for your phantoms or…”

The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable. Arusha whipped back and strained again. Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink. The winter grass crunched under the pressure of Arusha’s flattening body. Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment. Squint and strain. The rotted-sweet scent of decaying apple blossoms fragranced the winter air. Squint and strain. His hand floated to the hilt of Sarchimor, the sword his great-uncle struck in the forges of Sulawesi. [Squint and strain.] Using this three times felt a bit repetitive

Too many moments later Arusha ordered, “Retreat.”

“But Commander...”

“Shut your mouth. Retreat.”

Arusha gripped [his soldier] is this Cat? I’m not sure who it refers to, and I thought it was just the two of them by the collar of his ring-armored jacket and stood him up. Now, it would be a race.

The questions:

1: Does the hint of backstory related to the primary character's sword feel intriguing or too much to handle this early?


Too much, because it serves no purpose here, and it’s adding more made up names without context. But if you trimmed it to just “the sword his great-uncle forged” it would be fine. A family sword is easily understood.

2: Does the close 3rd person POV maintain throughout the scene?

Yes. It felt third person, medium narrative distance. It’s far enough away to provide a bit of oversight, yet some of the narrative still felt like the POV character’s thoughts.

3: Regarding the sentence: "The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable." Is the phrase "but unmistakable" seem like it is telling? To me, it heightens the drama and is something that the character would think, so I don't believe I have lost the close 3rd person POV. Do you agree?

It struck me as a phrase someone trained to notice those things would think. But this doesn’t feel close third POV to me. Third limited for sure, but I’m sensing a layer between character and narrator. Nothing as far as omniscient, but I don’t feel inside Arusha’s head like a close third would feel. I’m more on his shoulder.

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

4: Regarding the phrase: "Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink." This is telling, but I feel it's OK in this instance. Do you agree? If not, what would you recommend for a rewrite?

For this narrative distance and POV, it reads fine. The narrator is not Arusha, though they’re following him and his story. They’re just outside enough to notice and remark on such things, but aren’t pulling too far away to over explain. If this were Arusha thinking it, it would feel more told, because he likely wouldn’t think that (or at least not in those words).

(Here’s more on narrative distance versus telling)

5: Regarding the sentence: "Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment." I think this avoids telling as it would be logical for the primary character to be thinking in these terms. Do you agree?

Yes. Again, the POV style and narrative distance also supports this.

6: Regarding the phrase: "His hand floated to the hilt..." I am not one of those authors opposed to writing in the style of the "disembodied body part". What are your thoughts on this?

Your call. It didn’t yank me out of the narrative, so I had no issue with it. A disembodied body part is a problem only when it creates funny lines or distracts from the story. It’s something to be aware of, but it’s fine to use them as long as they work.

(Here’s more on the problems with disembodied body parts)

7: Is the setting clear?

A coffee orchard in a fantasy world. There’s not a lot of time here to fully set the scene, but it’s enough to give me a sense of where they are. I wanted a little more context in the opening line to help set the scene though. I have no idea who’s speaking or what the line means.

8: Have I succeeded in adding in enough conflict? (Conflict between the two characters and also the pending conflict with whatever is lurking in the orchard)

The character conflict is fairly minor (Arusha seems more annoyed at his friend than in actual conflict), but I do get a sense of something about to happen and a problem about to appear. I don’t see any goal, and without a goal it’s hard to see the conflict to that goal. But the potential for both is here.

9: Do the characters feel real?

I haven’t seen enough of them to really tell (readers chime in here). They feel like fantasy characters—a little stiff and formal. Arusha’s internalization makes him a bit more personable, but I still don’t know much about him. There’s nothing here that makes them feel two dimensional though.

10: Do you feel tension/danger at the end?

Yes. I don’t know the details, but I suspect an attack of some type, even if it’s on a small scale. Can Arusha alert someone before the bad guys get there?

11: Any other Show, Don't Tell opportunities?

Not really. Nothing stood out as told for this POV.

Overall, this read like an epic fantasy opening and fits the genre well. There’s a hook to draw readers in and enough mystery to pique curiosity.

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.