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Saturday, January 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Science Fiction 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 we 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: Three 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the opening work?


Market/Genre: Science Fiction Crime

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Titrius Mertinus felt perplexed by the devastation he heard Rhumborus Rorltus speak of, because he simply didn’t know what to do about it. His palms were sweaty and his stomach queasy. He sat opposite Rorltus, his Ministry of Defence legate. Opposite each other at the dark-orange, oval table. Rorltus read aloud a report about disconcerting events, which sounded flat and stony in Mertinus’s ministry office in Xintito.

Rorltus spoke with a twang.

While Mertinus listened, he casually ran a fingertip along the edge of the table’s top, and felt the polished finish.

The legate declared aloud, like a priest at the pulpit, the latest Hrexan incursions into Cuian-controlled space, and highlighted atrocities committed against Cuians in those places. Mertinus noted Rorltus’s stork-of-a-frame, thin and gaunt. Hair cropped short. His tawny beard was long and pointed. His eyes dark orbs, recessed in his pale, light-bulb skull. His legate’s uniform was the blue-black of his office.

Mertinus, however, considered himself a patient, steadfast, dilettante. Almost an autocrat. And today, felt his age, but not badly; saw his reflection in the table’s mirror finish, and noted the hair streaked with white. He smeared a sweaty palm on the cloth of his robes of office, was smooth to the touch, and the pride rise in him like smoke of incense from a slowly swung brazier.

He scanned the large oval table, from end to end, as he listened to Rorltus. Noticed the thick rays of sunlight that streamed through a side window, a slit in the wall; beams of soft yellow light. Noticed how some of the beams touched his upper back, could feel the warmth as some of the rays rested between his shoulders.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Titrius Mertinus felt perplexed by the devastation he heard Rhumborus Rorltus speak of, because he simply [didn’t know what to do about it.] This feels like it might be the conflict, but nothing more is ever said about it, so it's not diving the scene His palms were sweaty and his stomach queasy. He sat opposite Rorltus, his Ministry of Defence legate. Opposite each other at the dark-orange, oval table, Rorltus read aloud a report about disconcerting events, which sounded flat and stony in Mertinus’s ministry office in Xintito.

Rorltus [spoke with a twang.] This says he spoke, yet there’s no dialogue shown in the scene

While Mertinus listened, he casually ran a fingertip along the edge of the table’s top, and felt the polished finish. This is an odd detail without some context or reason. And he was queasy before, but this feels like something someone does when they’re bored

The legate declared aloud, like a priest at the pulpit, the latest Hrexan incursions into Cuian-controlled space, and highlighted atrocities committed against Cuians in those places. Mertinus noted Rorltus’s stork-of-a-frame, thin and gaunt. Hair cropped short. His tawny beard was long and pointed. His eyes dark orbs, recessed in his pale, light-bulb skull. His legate’s uniform was the blue-black of his office. This paragraph starts with a declaration, but the rest is a description. Are they Curians? Is he unhappy about this?

Mertinus, however, [considered himself a patient, steadfast, dilettante.] This is a personality comparison, yet the previous description was physical details Almost an autocrat. And today, [felt his age,] why? It’s a hint of further conflict or a problem, but it doesn’t go anywhere but not badly; saw his reflection in the table’s mirror finish, and noted the hair streaked with white. He smeared a [sweaty palm] does this mean he’s nervous? Why? on the cloth of his robes of office, was smooth to the touch, and the pride rise in him like smoke of incense from a slowly swung brazier.

He scanned the large oval table, from end to end, as he [listened to Rorltus] this is the third time you’ve mentioned listening, yet we haven’t actually “heard” any dialogue. Noticed the thick rays of sunlight that streamed through a side window, a slit in the wall; beams of soft yellow light. Noticed how some of the beams touched his upper back, could feel the warmth as some of the rays rested between his shoulders. Why is noticing the sunlight important?

The questions:

1. Does the opening work?


Not yet (readers chime in). I get the sense there’s something here that could work to hook readers, but it’s getting lost in all the description and summary of what’s going on.

The protagonist (I’m guessing) is perplexed about what sounds like an attack, but he isn’t really thinking about it or doing anything about it. He’s instead focusing on describing various things around the room. There’s no sense of a goal driving him, or why this matters to readers. There are a few details that suggest he’s nervous about something, but most of what he does seem like the actions of someone who is bored and calm.

Is Titrius upset about this latest attack? Is he nervous about it? What does perplexed by it mean to him? This seems to be the core of the scene, yet I don’t understand it or why I as a reader should care about it. I don’t know who these people are or which side of the battle they’re on.

(Here’s more on three things every scene should have)

It’s also heavy from a text perspective, which slows the pace. It’s more told than shown, and even though what Rorltus is saying is mentioned several times, there’s no actual dialogue. There’s also no internalization for readers to get to know Titrius and get a sense of who he is as a character. Some internal thoughts would help show why he might be nervous and why he’s perplexed about what to do.

I’d suggest using what you have here as a blueprint for the scene and rewriting it. You know what happens, so this time dramatize the action. What is being said? How does Titrius react to it? What is going on in the room from a physical standpoint, such as, body language or other people moving around?

(Here’s more on dramatizing a scene)

You might also look for ways to show Titrius’s goal and conflict to give readers a story question they want to see answered. This is will help hook them and draw them into the story. Why do readers need to know this information before anything else? Why is this the hook? How is it going to pique reader curiosity? Those are the things you want to think about.

(Here’s more story questions)

Overall, I think this just needs to be fleshed out more and dramatized so the descriptions flow with the scene, and readers understand why this meeting matters and what problem Titrius is facing. The current focus is on the descriptions, so try instead to focus on the mystery or problem that will make readers curious to see what happens next and what Titrius might do.

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.

About the Critiquer

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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6 comments:

  1. Janice pretty much said it all here, but I'll add how much focusing on a goal could strengthen this. Kurt Vonnegut said "Make your character want something right away, even if it's only a glass of water." I think the more specific the goal Mertinus has, the more the scene comes together. He thinks he's helpless about the devastation, which is the opposite of that in itself-- but if he can't solve the problem, what does he want right now instead? For people to stop bothering him about it? To develop a plan that can change things? To spot if one of his men is lying to him? For one buzzing fly in the ceiling to drop dead? Picking something like that helps us sort out all the options he thinks he does and doesn't have, and gives us something to root for in the moment.

    One other thing: he "considered himself a patient, steadfast, dilettante. Almost an autocrat." Is Dilettante really the word to combine with Patient and Steadfast? There might be some relationship those concepts could have (and maybe Autocrat too), but you may want to explain the connection more.

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    1. Thanks for your response. I hadn't thought about it like that. I had just thought, as the story progressed, it would all become clearer.

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    2. I believe what Mertinus really wants is to live in a world free of conflict. The Hrexan raid them every year. And though they fight them off, they keep coming back.

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  2. While this didn't work for me, it's because there's no story problem, and because the POV character is focused on describing what apparently is a room he spends a lot of time in. Why does he note things he already knows? To me, Deep POV should be used to show what a character feels about what is happening. I suspect the author has picked the wrong point to start his story. He should be noticing things he cares about, and we should know why he cares. Where in the beginning is the POV character frustrated by something going wrong? How does he react? -tc

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    1. Ah, an interesting thought. Thanks. I am re-writing this chapter to accommodate these ideas. This was a tricky chapter to write because it is the 1st book in a series and I played with many intros before settling on this one. These characters aren't the main characters - it's a multiple perspective story, which is supposed to be a prologue to explain what happens in book 2. But these characters do belong to the antagonistic culture that causes problems for protag culture and it's duke. I couldn't think of a way to introduce the protag culture first, but I could think of an inciting event that would bring them kicking and screaming into the story.

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  3. I felt the opening paragraph was a little slow.I think it might be more grabbing if it started out either with Rhumborus Rorltus talking about the devastation he saw, or maybe evena descrdiption of the devastation.

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