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Sunday, November 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Fantasy Opening Draw You 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: One 


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

This week’s questions:

1. This is an opening scene, how does it do? Does it incite the reader, or does it need to be fleshed out more?

2. It is written from Rhys' POV (Limited Third Person) have I contained myself to that POV properly?

3. Does the fighting feel realistic, or stilted?


Market/Genre: YA to Adult Fantasy Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Rhys could taste blood on his lips, hot and sticky where it ran down his face. Pain lanced through his forehead, and he felt a flutter of confusion run through him. Shock that his opponent had managed to lay a hand on him. Anger that they had brought a knife to a fistfight He breathed deeply and let his years of training take over.

He took stock of the young man facing him. Taller than he was and thinner too with pale blond hair flattened against his high brow.

Rhys licked the blood from his lips and chuckled, winking at the boy.

“That was a nasty choice you made. I’m the High Fighter, and I’ve held that title longer than most. You’re a dirty fighter, but you'll never match me in skill.” Ripping past the knife, he threw a punch into the boy’s face. His knuckles crunched into flesh.

He had to back step quickly as the boy returned a swipe of the knife. Rhys growled and swung his foot as he spun, sending his boot into the young man's stomach. The move was dirty, but this wasn’t a clean fight anymore. The boy doubled over, wheezing, and dropped the blade. Rhys grabbed him by the hair and broke his nose with his next blow, then he snatched the knife from the sand and held it to the boy's neck.

Rhys turned his eyes to a pavilion, set on the edge of the sandy fighting pit, where the nobility of Vallaria gazed down at him, some grinning at the turn of events, and some clutching handkerchiefs to their open mouths.

“Jackals, all of them,” Rhys muttered.

“On that, I concur.” The boy said.

“Shut your mouth, cheater.” Rhys pressed the knife harder into the skin. “Or would you like a permanent reminder of me?” The boy gurgled a no. Rhys squinted up at the pavilion, waiting for the King to signal the end of the competition that would ensure his continuing reign as High Fighter for another five years.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Rhys [could taste] tasted if you want to keep it active and tighter in his POV blood on his lips, hot and sticky where it ran down his face. Pain lanced through his forehead, and [he felt a flutter of confusion run through him.] tellish Shock that his opponent had managed to lay a hand on him. Anger that [they] he knows the gender, so “they” feels odd here had brought a knife to a fistfight [He breathed deeply and let his years of training take over.] feels a little distant

He took stock of the young man facing him. Taller than he was and thinner too with pale blond hair flattened against his high brow.

Rhys licked the blood from his lips and chuckled, winking at the [boy.] is he a young man or a boy? I picture different things with each. And Rhys would see him differently as well depending on his own age

[“That was a nasty choice you made. I’m the High Fighter, and I’ve held that title longer than most. You’re a dirty fighter, but you'll never match me in skill.”] Feels a little infodumpy and not something a fighter would say mid-fight Ripping past the knife, he threw a punch into the boy’s face. [His knuckles crunched into flesh.] And the boy never flinches?

[He had to back step quickly as the boy returned a swipe of the knife.] tellish. He moves before readers know why. The “had to” adds to this. Rhys growled and swung his foot as he spun, [sending his boot into] feels a tad distant the young man's stomach. The move was dirty, but this wasn’t a clean fight anymore. The boy doubled over, wheezing, and dropped the blade. Rhys grabbed him by the hair and broke his nose with his next blow, then he snatched the knife from the sand and held it to the boy's neck.

Rhys turned his eyes to a pavilion, set on the edge of the sandy fighting pit, where the nobility of Vallaria gazed down at him, some grinning at the turn of events, and some clutching handkerchiefs to their open mouths.

“Jackals, all of them,” Rhys muttered.

[“On that, I concur.” The boy said.] He seems calm for the situation. Also older than a boy

“Shut your mouth, cheater.” Rhys pressed the knife harder into the skin. “Or would you like a permanent reminder of me?” The boy gurgled a no. Rhys squinted up at the pavilion, waiting for the King to signal the end of the competition that would ensure his continuing reign as High Fighter for another five years.

The questions:

1. This is an opening scene, how does it do? Does it incite the reader, or does it need to be fleshed out more?


For me, it would depend on how much the cover copy drew me in (readers chime in here). There’s action, and a small sense of something going on, but nothing really driving this scene. I don’t know Rhys and there’s nothing particularly likable about him here to make me care. I’m not getting a sense of him, but of scene setting. If the novel’s hook grabbed me, I’d read on a little more to see where it was going, but on its on there’s nothing drawing me in here.

You said this was YA to adult, but he doesn’t feel like a teen character, so this doesn’t feel YA. He feels older, and I get a mental image of a grizzled fighter in his thirties. Words like “young man” and “the boy” give me this impression.

I’m also not sure about the opponent, since he shows no personality. He’s described as a young man and a boy, and those suggest two different things. Young man make me think he’s over 20, boy makes me think someone still solidly in their teens. Yet his dialogue feels much older and calm, like someone who's been doing this as long as Rhys has. He’s a dirty fighter, but that’s all I know about him. He also doesn’t act like someone fighting for his life and cheating to do it.

I'd suggest clarifying the details and adding a little more personality so readers get to know Rhys and understand why he's there. I don’t yet get a sense of who Rhys is or how he feels about the fight or the cheater, or why I as a reader should care about this fight. Does Rhys have anything at stake here? Does he not want to kill the kid? Is death a consequence here? What’s his goal? Where’s the conflict?

(Here’s more on grounding readers in the setting)

2. It is written from Rhys' POV (Limited Third Person) have I contained myself to that POV properly?

It depends on your definition of limited third person. Typically, limited is a tighter, closer POV, but it doesn’t have to be.

I didn’t see anything that felt outside his POV (as in POV shifts), though much of it did feel more distant than close, almost omniscient. There were enough filter words to give this far narrative distance feel. If you were going for a tight POV, it didn’t quite make it. If you wanted a step or two between Rhys’s POV and the reader, then it feels that way.

It depends on who your narrator is and where they are. Is this someone watching Rhys or Rhys? Is this being told as it happens, or from a time after it’s all over? That affects how information is conveyed. To me, this read like wither someone else telling Rhys's tale from up close, or Rhys telling it in a detached way long after it's happened--so he knows exactly what and why he acted and can relate it factually rather than feel in the moment.

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

The lack of internalization also gave me a more detached feel. There are some lines that could be Rhys’s internal thoughts, but they feel more narrative than internalization. The opening paragraph is a good example:

Rhys could taste blood on his lips, hot and sticky where it ran down his face.

This tells me what he tastes from outside his perspective. He “could taste” not “tasted,” which makes it feel passive instead of active. “Where it ran down his face” also feels more like someone relaying information than experiencing it as it happens.

Pain lanced through his forehead, and he felt a flutter of confusion run through him.

“he felt a flutter of confusion run through him” feels outside again. He also never thinks anything that suggests or shows confusion, it’s just relayed to readers that’s he’s confused.

(Here’s more on filter words and how they affect POV)

Shock that his opponent had managed to lay a hand on him.
This feels distant, but it’s a good line to turn into an internal thought. I’d love to see his shock and get a sense of his personality.
Anger that they had brought a knife to a fistfight.
Same here. The word “they” is also odd, as Rhys knows the gender of his opponent, so it pushes it farther away from him. I suspect you used it to avoid confusion with an ambiguous “he,” but it’s another opportunity to show personality. What would Rhys call this person? Brat? Cheat? Scum?

(Here’s more on crafting solid internal thoughts)
He breathed deeply and let his years of training take over.
This feels outside the moment, so either someone else relaying the info over Rhys’s shoulder, or Rhys telling the story from the future.

I never felt outside of Rhys’s POV, so it did feel third limited, but I also never felt inside his head.

(Here’s more on narrative distance)

3. Does the fighting feel realistic, or stilted?

It felt mechanical, which I think is again due to the narrative distance. I felt like it was an accurate description of the fight, but there’s no sense of a person in a fight. Rhys relays what he does without emotion or commentary. If there was more from him personally, I think it would have read more like someone who does this for a living fighting.

(Here’s more on writing fight scenes)

Overall, I think the general pieces are good, but the emotional and personal aspect of the story isn’t coming through yet, so I don't care as a reader. I’d suggest thinking more about why this is the opening scene and what you want to convey to readers. Right now, I get the sense it’s to world build, not show a protagonist with a problem. But if you can shift more into why this fight matters to Rhys and why it either is a problem or will lead to a problem, then you can probably make it work with some tweaking.

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. Janice, great notes. I am intrigued by this opening in that the possibilities offer so many possible directions from this point. So much so, I would like to extend an invitation to talk more with this writer with an eye toward them joining the crit group we started through your Critique Connection. If interested, follow me on Twitter and send me a DM. @MorgynStar

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  2. Pulling a knife in a fistfight is a classic in fiction, and too often in real life too. Here, I think you come close to what it would mean, but don't quite reach it.

    The challenger's didn't just cheat, he tried to murder Rhys in the ring-- anyone using a knife in a fight is creating a very real chance of that. What is the King going to do: bar him from fighting, beat him bloody and throw him out, execute him? Does the challenger think he could get away with it, or is he an assassin who just came to kill Rhys?

    I mostly like Rhys's counterattack: he's that much better, and he simply uses it. But Rhys's trivial bleeding in his lip doesn't fit with facing a knife, unless you mention that his opponent punched him with the other hand while Rhys was fending off the knife. You might mention the kind of complex attacks that's threatening just before Rhys "let his training take over," so that's what he has to outmaneuver.

    Finally, I'd say be careful letting Rhys say two lines in the middle of the fight. That creates the impression that the danger is suspended, but it might go better if you show the boy pausing a little at Rhys's first words so we see there's a tiny truce to let him finish. And of course when Rhys wins the moment he's done, it implies how fast Rhys really is, and how foolish the boy was for not attacking when he was at least a little distracted.

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  3. The first paragraph set the scene for me -- some form of 'fight club' situation - and being a fantasy tale, it could be happening for many reasons: entertainment for the big wigs or an initiation (for either fighter).

    Whatever the basis, the younger one has brought a weapon, breaking the 'rules'. The young vs. old situation, the shock of the older fighter that he had allowed himself to be injured immediately establishes the pride involved -- is the younger fighter challenging the older fighter's status?

    The impression to me is that this might be an impromptu fight or challenge, because the MC is ready to put the 'pup' on his heels -- but no talk of killing or maiming. And when overcome, the younger fighter isn't swiftly ended, rather the MC takes the time to trash talk.

    The intent may have been to immediately engage the reader in action, but the distant POV, the interruption of action by the MC's monologue, and the slow pace made it feel like a scene that had been plucked from the interior of the novel and plugged in as the intro.

    The opening is pretty loose overall, as it appears the reason for the fight is to maintain the MC's title as High Fighter. This is an empty goal to the reader, even if you explain it later.

    Also, the referenced blood on the lips, which is mentioned twice, comes off as color-text only, as no reference is made to the actual injury. Is this from a simple busted lip? It is loosely tied to the opponent's knife, but we don't know if the MC was cut with it or not. If this is an inciting moment, consider starting with the MC recoiling from a slice to the face, seeing the knife, and then re-considering his young adversary.

    Currently, the sizing up of his opponent makes me think the MC took the young fighter for granted, perhaps the MC is a pompous, self-absorbed fighter who deserves to be toppled from his High Fighter seat?

    If the sizing up can concentrate on the knife, and that the younger man is lacking muscle, so may be the kind of man who must use a knife, because he lacks natural strength. I didn't want a description of the opponent. I wanted to 'see' what the MC was 'seeing', as a professional fighter. What elements would he assess, as a fighter, just before taking the cheater down? And might he chastise himself for not noticing a 'tell' or considering the possibility of a knife?

    If the scene was more strongly set up, it would work. I would even enjoy internal thought as an opening, where the MC is psyching up, showing his emotion/passion about or for the fight. Put out what makes this important -- or a joke, of sorts, to the MC.

    Thanks to the author for sharing their work with strangers. You've got a fertile scene to tune up here -- good work! Best success to you as you work through it.

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