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Saturday, October 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Work as an Opening? Or Is it Boring?

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: One


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 20.

This week’s questions:

Does this work as an opening? Or is it boring?


Market/Genre: YA Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Mondays suck.

The waiting room outside the principal’s office was pristine, like the rest of the high school, and smelled of new furniture, new paint, and old shoes.

Trent Sutter sat in one of the modern, uncomfortable chairs across the desk from the principal's secretary and waited. The chair was one of those awful bulk furniture store things that looked comfortable, but after a few minutes was miserable. A window on the far side of the room was cracked open to let a little air in, and a large clock above it ticked away relentlessly. Walls painted in a soothing yellow didn’t do much soothing.

He was fairly sure that Patton kept kids waiting outside the office just to see them squirm. Trent would be eighteen in six months. Patton could still make him fidget like a third grader who had to pee an hour ago.

It wasn't like Trent didn't know why he was here. No, getting busted making out with your girlfriend in the locker room during school hours was one of those 'formative experiences' that sticks out in your mind.

Not for the first time, he cursed himself for letting Sarah drag him into something when he knew better. He ran his hands through his short, dark, hair and tried not to twitch too much. But no matter how hard he tried, his foot kept bouncing and his fist kept drumming his jean-clad thigh.

Sarah was in the office now. He could hear her murmured voice contrasting with Patton's firmer, deeper tone.

It didn't sound like Sarah was crying or upset. That had to be a good sign, didn't it?

My Thoughts in Purple:

Mondays suck. [universal grin and head-nodding]

The waiting room outside the principal’s office was pristine, like the rest of the high school, and smelled of new furniture, new paint, and old shoes.

Trent Sutter sat in one of the modern, uncomfortable chairs across the desk from [small shift of wording will put Trent across from the desk of…] the principal's secretary and waited. The chair was one of those awful bulk furniture store things that looked comfortable, but after a few minutes was miserable. [is this necessary? The chair discomfort has been established] A window on the far side of the room was cracked open to let a little air in [how does this contribute to Trent’s discomfort? Maybe flip this to the space being stuffy and wishing the window was cracked open…], and a large clock above it [above the window?] relentlessly ticked away relentlessly. Walls painted in a soothing yellow didn’t do much soothing.[this needs to be stronger or tied to Trent’s feelings or some comparison, that maybe the yellow was meant to be ‘sunny’ or cheerful, but that sure wasn’t how he felt…]

He was fairly sure that Patton [maybe add the title here] kept kids waiting outside the office just to see [or ‘make’? ‘see’ evokes a visual of the principle peeking through blinds or watching kids via CCTV – both are creepy, but could be funny]them squirm. Trent would be eighteen in six months, but Patton could still make him fidget like a third grader who had to pee an hour ago. [good visual – the bent toward humor is sustained]

It wasn't like Trent didn't know why he was here. No, getting busted making out with your girlfriend in the locker room during school hours was one of those 'formative experiences' that sticks out in your mind.[this feels like it’s trying too hard overall, but the 1st sentence is fine. 2nd sentence should touch on the offense and when it happened – was he just now caught? And who caught him – the coach?]

Not for the first time, he cursed himself for letting Sarah drag him into something when he knew better. [internal thought would be a nice here: He shook his head. Why do I let Sarah talk me into this stuff?] He ran his hands through his short, dark, hair and tried not to twitch too much. But no matter how hard he tried [what is he doing to ‘try’ not to twitch – stronger to show him putting hands in pockets or under armpits, grasping his knees, etc. or alternatively, mention something like his jumpy stomach had his left leg bouncing and his right fist pounding his jean-clad thigh (for example)], his foot kept bouncing and his fist kept drumming his jean-clad thigh.

Sarah was in the Patton’s office now. [this is a chance to further set the scene by giving a time frame here – maybe showing Sarah had already been in the office for 30 minutes (he could even look at the clock)] He could hear [again, depth to the scene by defining how well, or what, he could hear – words or just high and low tones?] her murmured voice [‘muffled’ might be more accurate here] contrasting with Patton's firmer, deeper tone.

It didn't sound like [what was he hearing? What did ‘it’ sound like?] Sarah was crying or upset.

That had to be a good sign, didn't it? [another grin at this rationalization]

The questions:

1. Does this work as an opening? Or is it boring?


Yes, overall. It’s not boring to me really, we have a character who’s in trouble for a minor infraction of school rules, who appears to be a pretty ‘normal’ guy, and who has a girl in his life who can manipulate him and does so regularly. The main feeling is humor, not fear of being kicked out of school or other severe administrative action. It’s uncomfortable and the MC isn’t happy, but there’s no feeling of impending doom.

The reference to Sarah prompts the impression that Trent is in love; therefore, she has tremendous power over him, and his attitude and chiding himself about her influence shows that he wants to be strong, but continues to fall short of that. This sets up interest in knowing more about Sarah – and what else she’s talked Trent into, or will talk him into in the future?

If you want to avoid any potential boredom, I suggest trimming this down until every word has a purpose. This is a small scene, set within a confining space and mentality. So, use that idea and experiment with short, definitive sentences that come in bursts – indicating this is how Trent is taking in the space and the situation. He isn’t sure what is happening in the principle’s office or what he is going to face. He anticipates Sarah coming out, we presume, and will take note of her expression to try to gain hints of what’s coming for him.

(Here's more on conveying emotions in your writing)

You may do this in the next line or two, but if not, I suggest you have the voices in the office get louder (because the speakers are nearer to the door) and then the door immediately opens, and Trent hears (whatever you need him to hear: laughter, Sarah saying thank you, Patton saying something brief, etc.) – this would bring the scene to one tipping point. The other would be to go to this point, then have eyes meet, Trent reacts, and Patton orders Trent into the room. Scene then changes to the interior of the office…

I like this as an opening scene for a YA novel as we have a number of options for the future. Is this the last straw for Trent as far as Sarah goes? Does Patton give some kind of ultimatum? Does Patton give sage advice? Does Sarah pounce on Trent afterwards, seemingly non-the-worse, ready for more mischief?

(Here are seven ways to raise the stakes in a scene) 

Trent is likeable in such a brief showing, and he seems to be just a guy, not nefarious or choir boy, just a regular guy. The offense they are in trouble for is innocuous. Their authority figure to ‘beat’ is a school principle. You can hear the story police now: “nothing to see here, move along…”.

The strains of humor give the scene some extra juice, and if you strip the language down add a sense of jumpy tension, the reader will be entertained enough to tolerate any slower realities (someone waiting).

The paragraph where we suddenly take a ride into windows and clocks and yellow walls is a morass of clumsy descriptions. Consider encapsulating each of these as 1-second observations Trent makes from his perspective of waiting. The window observation, as is, doesn’t contribute to the environment of feeling confined/trapped/waiting. The sentence about the yellow walls assumes that the yellow is meant to be soothing, but Trent has no way to know this – and I would think ‘sunny’ yellow walls might be intended to evoke ‘happy’ or ‘cheery’ feelings. Trent could easily make this comparison, and that he felt anything but happy or cheery.

(Here are three things to consider when writing descriptions) 

Once this little section is cleaned up and turned into concise, Trent-subjective, observations, the reader will breeze through – all the while gathering nuggets about who Trent is and how he feels about this situation.

Also, as mentioned above, if you can tighten the material, you will probably have a first-page length that allows you to include Sarah’s exit and the end of Trent’s waiting – and a nice mild hook and scene break. The seed you plant here can lead the reader into a number of directions. For all we know, the next scene leads with Sarah, not Trent in the office…

A good start that doesn’t stop the reader, but you better deliver sparks on the next page.

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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3 comments:

  1. This is a good choice for an opening scene, and I wouldn't call it boring-- but I remember Kurt Vonnegut's priceless tip "Every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water." The scene hasn't really dug into what Trent wants right now, and that's what gives first scenes their power.

    In this case it isn't that Trent needs a goal but that we want to feel his emotions and expectations around what getting caught might do to him. He isn't furious about old grudges with Patton, or panicked that it could threaten his college plans, or mortally embarrassed, and this doesn't have to be a story where he is, but what *is* he feeling now?

    He seems more laid-back and seeing this as closer to a nuisance than a problem. If that's where the story needs to start, the scene's core ought to be showing us how he has places to be, how he can't help being a bit worried and angry but he tells himself it isn't serious, and how the environment feeds into that-- and how it's all tension-building for what's actually about to be revealed. Maria suggested stripping down and rethinking most of the description as you have it, and I'd agree: a scene like this needs *everything* in it to be contributing to that.

    Trent doesn't quite seem like he's near 18. If he were younger he'd probably be more emotional, but if he's a few months from "adulthood" and isn't outraged, there should still be more of an undercurrent that he's too grown up to be bossed around over this. "Rite of passage" seems like an odd, too-casual spin on it, at least for a scene where we don't know him well yet.

    In particular, Sarah. As a romance I expect this story is about how he meets a better girl than Sarah (it's more likely than being how these two found out how right they really are for each other), and in fact I'd give odds he's about to hear that Sarah told Patton something awful about him to save herself. The hints you give about Sarah do a bit to set her up for those: he likes her, she often gets him in trouble, and she's oddly calm in there. Positioning how he sees her now and what she's set up for can be key for how she changes the story or gets out of its way.

    (Or this could be setup for Sarah being the protagonist... but that only works if Trent stays a strong number two in the story so the opening isn't misleading.)

    All it all, this is a good place to start a story and I'm thinking you have a proper handle on who Trent is and where it's going. The trick is making sure everything here builds our need to see what's next, whether it seems large or small so far.

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  2. I enjoyed the opening - All good comments above. I also think maybe just another thread of conflict with Sarah - another boyfriend, crazy strict parents, etc. that would raise the tension even more. Love the first line. Also, really like the quietness between her and the principal - it gives a aura of trouble.

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  3. Thanks to Maria and the comments from the readers. I appreciate all the feedback and gave me quite a bit to work with an on...although 'morass of clumsy descriptions' did sting a bit!

    Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment!

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