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Saturday, January 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading this Fantasy Opening?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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 10.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the opening give one a sense of place; i.e. This is Olympus?

2. Does the opening conflict sound dire enough to be believable?

3. Is the writing sufficient for an opening scene or should it have more conflict?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Charging across the lawns and through the arches, my clattering hooves rang across Olympus, the old home of the gods. The marble statue of Chiron stared across the valley his beloved Lyre in his hands. Pungent smelling bushes scented the warm breeze, oblivious to my haste. “Please Sirs, out of the way!” I shouted. Creatures, human and animal hybrids, reluctantly cleared a path from the patches of sunlight along the way. I exploded down the marble passageway, galloping between the arches toward the amphitheater. My boss Bayard, a large bay horse, gifted with speech is impatient. His voice floated toward me, oh damn he had begun! I should be there.

“The fight for the souls of Pisces has started. The god’s success or failure as the winning harvester depends on us. The winner cannot be Balam, better known as the Devil in human religion. He is one of the most powerful gods and because of his nature, he will ensure by design we are ended as a species, including the human races. If he wins he will harvest our souls and those of men at the end of the age. We will be bound in his Sadistic hell for thirty thousand years. We only have three hundred years of earth time before one of them must win.” Bayard’s words were dire. The meeting had begun. I was late; galloping on the marble was treacherous.

The amphitheater sparkled in the sunlight. The seats were full. My hooves slipped, on the smooth marble floor as I entered the carved doorway; not designed for the likes of us. The copies of the pages of the priceless manuscript ‘The Chilam Balam,’ filled the air as a white fluttering cloud of paper sheets.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Charging across the lawns and through the arches, my clattering [hooves on a lawn wouldn’t clatter & the arches are assumed to be standing upon an unpaved surface] hooves rang across Olympus, the old home of the gods [This establishes the location]. The marble statue of Chiron stared across the valley, his beloved Lyre in his hands. Pungent smelling bushes scented the warm breeze, oblivious to my haste.

“Please Sirs, out of the way!” I shouted. Creatures, human and animal hybrids [This is slightly confusing. As it reads, there could be 3 types of entities (creatures & human hybrids & animal hybrids) or 2 types (animal hybrids and human hybrids), or 1 type (creatures who were hybrids of humans and animals). I vote for the last one. Clarity here would be ‘hybrid creatures of human and animal origin’ or ‘creatures, hybrids of human and animal origins] reluctantly cleared a path from the patches of sunlight along the way [This last bit slows the race though Olympus – taken out, the material sustains the feeling of urgency]. I exploded down the marble passageway, galloping between the arches toward the amphitheater.

My boss, Bayard, a large bay horse, gifted with speech is [should this be ‘would be’?] impatient. His voice floats toward me. Oh damn, he has begun! I should be there.

“The fight for the souls of Pisces has started. The god’s success or failure as the winning harvester depends on us. The winner cannot be Balam, better known as the Devil in human religion. He is one of the most powerful gods and because of his nature, he will ensure by design we are ended as a species, including the human races [The use of ‘species and ‘races’ here is throwing me, as I cannot complete the comparison of species to races]. If he wins he will harvest our souls and those of men at the end of the age. We will be bound in his Sadistic hell for thirty thousand years [I will expect to find out later why the time in hell is this specific number of years]. We only have three hundred years of earth time before one of them must win.”

Bayard’s words were dire. The meeting had begun. I was late; galloping on the marble was treacherous [This feels both out of place and redundant].

The amphitheater sparkled in the sunlight. The seats were full. My hooves slipped on the smooth marble floor as I entered the carved doorway; not designed for the likes of us [This infers that the doorway wasn’t made for ‘the likes of us’] The copies of the pages of the priceless manuscript ‘The Chilam Balam,’ filled the air as a white fluttering cloud of paper sheets [While I like this sentence, I don’t know what has happened to create the fluttering cloud. Did our galloping character have the pages clutched in his/her teeth? Did she/he lose their footing and go sliding into stacks of copied pages? Why are there copies and how were they made in this place where some horses can talk in the old palace of the Gods? This isn’t really a hook, but it does create enough questions that I would pursue answers].

The Questions:

1. Does the opening give one a sense of place; i.e. This is Olympus?

Yes, especially as the first line names the place. Then later, the references to a statue of Chiron, more arches, an amphitheater, and marble floors contribute to the setting. Without the naming, I’m not certain I would have assigned the location as being Olympus. (Readers chime in please.)

(Here's more on the difference between setting and world building)

2. Does the opening conflict sound dire enough to be believable?

I didn’t really see a conflict as such. I saw a character racing to get somewhere, without knowing why. The references to horses infer that this character is a horse, but just as easily could have been a centaur, if we’re considering mythical creatures. Without the reference to Olympus, I might have just assumed this character was a thinking, reasoning hooved critter, who was late – for a very important date… Like the White Rabbit, we don’t know the ‘why’ of the frantic race to not be late.

The concern of being late, and hurrying to not be so, is always believable, but I don’t know the why – and that makes me less invested.

From the bit of the speech, we learn that there is a dire circumstance pending, but 300 earth years seems like a long time. My reader mind says: 300 years? Piffle! I’ll be long dead by then!

If you stick to that time frame, then I would expect to learn of some turn of events or new information that moved the critical point from say, 3,000 years to 300. In other words, give me something to relate the time line of the pending crisis.

(Here's more on creating conflict and stakes)

3. Is the writing sufficient for an opening scene or should it have more conflict?

You could build the conflict by presenting more depth to this character’s race to the meeting. There could be more obstacles that demanded extra effort (jumping streams, picking their way through rocks, brambles, other things that infer that the meeting is in a place that is surrounded/guarded by natural obstacles). If the character is carrying the pages spoke of later, then they could be difficult to manage. If the character was responsible for assembling the copies of the sacred manuscript, and distributing them, or explaining them, then you can show this, which will intensify the need to be there on time.

Internal thoughts that bemoan delays, identify difficulties and project calamities can slowly build the character’s frustration and the reader’s engagement.

You can amplify the surroundings in the amphitheater, the number of attendees, the solemn nature of the proceedings, the silence or reverie – whatever would make the apparently klutzy entrance more dazzlingly disruptive.

For the same reason that we want to know about the White Rabbit’s ‘date’ – curiosity – we will want to know more about the meeting. I would even suggest adjusting Bayard’s speech to give away less and infer more. Perhaps speaking in generalities – presenting that they all know of the dark danger that has threatened their peace, that they all know of the threat they have lived under for these many thousands of years. The bit of speech could be a tickler. Then, we have the statement that Bayard’s words were dire. You could expand upon that to show the state of mind or reaction to those words by his audience…just before our galloping friend hits the skids and makes a grand entrance.

(Here's more on creating tension through the setting)

Janice has some tremendous articles on building suspense and playing with character reactions to close or open or continue a scene like this.

I would read on – and curiosity is a good reason to do so. I wish you the best and encourage you to keep playing with this opening. Have fun with it!

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

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4 comments:

  1. I've seen this kind of opening before. It concentrates much of the world-building and the urgent stakes into one paragraph that a character's in a position to simply speak... very efficient. But I think it runs the risk of being *too* focused.

    You make good use of the hero's galloping to give this an immediacy at the same time (plus making it clear s/he's a horse or centaur, though we'd really like to know which from the start). You could go further, by breaking up the announcement from one big blocky paragraph into pieces that the hero notices in alternation with running up, so it feels more integrated into the moment.

    Actually, I think there's room for more thought about Bayard's report. He seems to be starting at the threat's Square One for the reader's benefit, but so many writers have done that that now readers are aware how this can feel like characters repeating what they already know. You might think out which parts can logically be left out for now since we only need the general thrust of something, and which parts are most important or new-- and which ones the hero (or the voices of the crowd ahead) show some reaction to.

    And like Maria said, 300 years is a tension-draining thing to mention. We don't understand what "harvesting" is and it will take a while for you to explain it-- but you might bring the meeting quickly past the 300-year struggle to a specific battle or mission ahead. It doesn't have to be the decisive one and/or the one the hero gets involved in, just any specific step we can start to relate to for what it says about the rest.

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  2. Not being a fantasy reader, I did not pick up on the fact this was from a horses's perspective. I thought the opening about "my" hooves was a typo :) I should have picked that up with "my boss the talking horse" but didn't. Sorry. Perhaps this could be established a bit more clearly.
    Also, I thought the speech was a bit info-dumpy for the opening page. Maybe establishing the hybrid horse character and why he's racing there to hear the speech, and where the important papers are,his part in that, etc. will invest us to turn the page and hear what the life-changing speech is all about.
    Dumping it at the get-go does not leave me with much suspense. Right now I can decide if the theme is something I want to read or not.
    Please take this with a grain of salt. Again, I'm not a reader of this genre, so maybe my imagination is not as expanded:)
    Other than Cujo, I've never read a book (that I can recall) from the perspective of an animal, so this is an ambitious POV and you should have fun with it.

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  3. Do you need 'smelling' after 'pungent'? It's redundant isn't it?

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  4. thanks all for the insight solid comments

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