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Saturday, March 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Scene Make You Care About the Protagonist?

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 13.

This week’s questions:

Does this scene make you care about Nicole? Is there enough conflict to draw you in? Do you hear Nicole's voice and personality? Is the problem clear?

Market/Genre: Christian YA Contemporary

Note: This is a significant and well-done rewrite of previously submitted material. If you’d like to see how the author revised this, find the others drafts in May 2018 and July 2018.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

“Mr. Blackburn wants t’ see ye, Miss Nicole.”

Of course he did. The front door shut behind her with a low creak and a groan. Nicole Blackburn brushed her brown waves out of her face and shifted her backpack on her shoulder. “Now?”

“Yes.” The red-haired butler grimaced for her. “Ye know, I wouldn’t tell ‘im if ye jess went upstairs first.”

“No, Mr. Clarrick. When Grandfather says ‘now,’ he means it.” However inconvenient it was for her. Nicole turned to follow the hallway to Grandfather’s study.

“If yer sure, lass.” Mr. Clarrick followed her and rapped on the study door. “Here’s Miss Nicole, sir.”

Nicole started to slip inside, but Grandfather’s voice stopped her.

“Rory, take her backpack to her room. I do not want it scuffing the wall and making a mess in here.”

The butler caught Nicole’s eye and shrugged. Frowning, she hefted her bag off her shoulder and passed it to him. That was a new one. And her backpack felt heavier than it did yesterday.

She went into the study and shut the door softly behind her. As little noise as possible around Grandfather.

He glanced up from whatever he was working on at his desk. “You have a date on Friday night.”

Nicole’s heart froze mid-beat. “What?”

“Hush, child. I did not ask you to speak, so be quiet.” Grandfather twirled his pen and narrowed his eyes at her. “You have a date on Friday night with one of my students.”

Her jaw clenched. Shy girl going on a date with an acting student. Not a good combo. Especially when that girl had sworn not to date.

Her grandfather leaned back in his chair and tapped his lips. “You have permission to ask who.”

“With whom?” she said evenly. Not really sure she wanted to know.

“Tyler Harwig.”

Her mouth dried suddenly. Tyler Harwig? As in, the Tyler Harwig that had made fun of her in front of everyone at school? Nicole opened her mouth to protest. “Grandfather, I do not-”

“Silence!” Grandfather stood as his voice rose. Nicole shrank back and bumped up against the wall. “No arguing! You are going.”

“But-”

Grandfather’s face was red, and he waved his hand dismissively. “Go to your room. I do not want to hear another word about it!”

My Thoughts in Blue:

“Mr. Blackburn wants t’ see ye, Miss Nicole.”

Of course he did. The front door shut behind her with a low creak and a groan. Nicole Blackburn brushed her brown waves out of her face and shifted her backpack on her shoulder. “Now?”

“Yes.” The red-haired butler grimaced for her. “Ye know, I wouldn’t tell ‘im if ye jess went upstairs first.”

“No, Mr. Clarrick. When Grandfather says ‘now,’ he means it.” However inconvenient it was for her. Nicole turned [to follow the hallway] something about this phrasing makes me feel like the “hallway” is walking ahead of her. Perhaps turned down or headed for? to Grandfather’s study.

“If yer sure, lass.” Mr. Clarrick followed her and rapped on the study door. “Here’s Miss Nicole, sir.”

Nicole started to slip inside, but Grandfather’s voice stopped her.

“Rory, take [her backpack to her room.] Although it says contemporary, this is the first detail that feels modern I do not want it scuffing the wall and making a mess in here.”

[The butler] Would she use his name? They seem less formal caught Nicole’s eye and shrugged. Frowning, she hefted her bag off her shoulder and passed it to him. [That was a new one.] Not keeping it or him shrugging? And her backpack [felt heavier than it did yesterday.] Odd detail, especially to notice now and not earlier. Or was she leaving the house for school, not getting home?

She went into the study and shut the door softly behind her. As little noise as possible around Grandfather. Perhaps a few more modern thoughts or phrases here to flesh out her internalization?

He glanced up from whatever he was working on at his desk. “You have a date on Friday night.”

Nicole’s heart froze mid-beat. “What?”

“Hush, child. I did not ask you to speak, [so be quiet.] don’t need” Grandfather twirled his pen and narrowed his eyes at her. “You have a date on Friday night with one of my students.”

Her jaw clenched. Shy girl going on a date with an acting student. Not a good combo. Especially when that girl had sworn not to date.

Her grandfather leaned back in his chair and tapped his lips. “You have permission to ask who.”

“With whom?” she said evenly. Not really sure she wanted to know. I like how she corrects him, but I wanted a little more thought from her here

“Tyler Harwig.”

Her mouth dried [suddenly.] don’t need Tyler Harwig? As in, the Tyler Harwig [that] who had made fun of her in front of everyone at school? Nicole opened her mouth to protest. “Grandfather, I do not-”

“Silence!” Grandfather stood as his voice rose. Nicole shrank back and bumped up against the wall. “No arguing! You are going.”

“But-”

Grandfather’s face was red, and he waved his hand dismissively. “Go to your room. I do not want to hear another word about it!”

The Questions:

1. Does this scene make you care about Nicole?

Yes (readers chime in here). She seems like a girl stuck in a really awful situation, having to put up with a terrible grandfather. It has an old-world feel to it, like the grandfather thinks he’s some Lord who can gain political advantage by marrying off his granddaughter. But he's just an acting coach or teacher, so him putting on airs feels super pretentious. She has to put up with that.

However, there’s a detail from previous snippets that’s missing, and I think knowing it earlier would make readers care even more. Today is Nicole’s birthday. If readers see her being treated so badly on her birthday, and maybe the butler remembering it but not her grandfather, they’d likely feel sorry for her and want to root for her. Perhaps let the butler wish her Happy Birthday at some point before he leaves her. I wanted to see the two of them have a different, softer bond, and her have a friend in this horrible place. It would also give you more opportunity to show her personality.

(Here’s more on Making Readers Care About Your Story)

2. Is there enough conflict to draw you in?

Yes. She clearly doesn’t want to date anyone, especially Tyler, and Grandfather has a weird agenda by forcing her to do so. I’m curious to see what, and what happens with Tyler.

(Here’s more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

3. Do you hear Nicole's voice and personality?

Bits and pieces, but not enough to get a strong sense of her. I like that she subtly corrects her grandfather’s grammar, and she stoically holds herself together when dealing with him. But I also don’t see a softer more normal side of her, or have a good sense of her voice.

The butler is a good opportunity to show what she’s really like (unless she and he aren’t friendly, but they do seem that way). His offer to “miss” her so she can avoid the meeting shows he wants to spare her the abuse. If their exchange was a little longer, readers could get a better sense of Nicole as a person to contrast how she holds herself back when dealing with her grandfather.

It would also allow you to get a more modern tone into this. Because of the subject matter and the sternness of the grandfather, this still reads historical to me, and something set in the late 1800s early 1900s (readers chime in here). The backpack detail helps some, but Nicole doesn’t feel “modern teen” to me yet. She doesn’t have to be slangy or anything, but more mentions of things that are clearly modern day at the start would place this as contemporary and not historical.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

4. Is the problem clear?

Yes and no, and that’s okay. I can see she has issues with her grandfather, he wants to use her for some reason, she’s putting up with it, and this isn’t what she wants. She has a past with the boy he wants her to date. Why any of this is happening I don’t yet know, but that’s part of the hook. Wanting to know how Nicole got into this situation and how she’s going to get out of it, or change it, is a solid story question to keep me reading.

I was unclear about a few things, and fleshing those out would also give you opportunities to “modernize” the setting to play off the formality of the grandfather. I didn’t know the time of day or if she was coming home from school or leaving. I assumed coming home at first, but then she wasn’t sure why her backpack was heavier, and that made me think maybe she was leaving for school and had just picked it up. I also didn’t understand why the weight of the backpack mattered. It felt like it was important in some way, but that wasn't clear.

(Here’s more on What Are You Really Saying? The Use of Subtext)

Overall, a great revision from previous snippets. A few nudges and tweaks will put the shine on this, but it has good bones to work with. I’d suggest giving Nicole a little more internalization to show her modern side (even if she is well-spoken and educated, she’s still a teen), and mention a few modern details at the start. Perhaps sounds, a phone, her thinking about going online, etc. The butler asking her about her birthday could also work to establish the modern setting if she has plans to celebrate it with friends, or some way that uses technology.

Nice job.

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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 (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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8 comments:

  1. Nice job indeed. This does exactly what a first scene should, establishing a proper conflict that makes us care about Nicole. And Janice's thoughts have so much that could refine it-- we do want a moment of sympathy with the butler, and a well-placed "And, Happy Birthday."

    If you want to deepen this, the level that could add to it might be subtly showing more of who Nicole is and what her situation is. "Subtly" is the key, because this works so well in getting us quickly to the conflict itself, and you don't want to slow down with more than a couple more words here or there. But you might think about what you want us to know about Nicole as a person, and a bit more of her situation, and see if you can weave a little of it in without crowding things.

    Can you drop other hints that this is the modern world, for all the old-time manner her grandfather has? Can the surroundings or her thoughts hint that he's an acting coach rather than a lord-- that would let the way Nicole reacts to those hint (just slightly, in passing) at what mix of respect and distance she has about his world, so we feel the impact when she'd made to take his most obnoxious student into her life.

    If there's one thing that could reinforce this perfectly, it's a better sense of Nicole herself. Good opening scenes can make more of an impression with the situation than how the character has a chance to be anyone specific in them; better openings give us a clear hint of the person too. Nicole calls herself too shy to date Tyler, but otherwise we mostly see her as the person this is happening to. What small, subtle ways can how she describes things or reacts to them give us a sense of who she is? Do you need to add a quick moment in the middle of this where she does or deals with something else, so the contrast between that and her grandfather's commands sticks out to us. ("With who?" was one contrast like that, but it's tiny.)

    --And, if Nicole has as many other things going on as she has in previous versions of this, the sense of her here needs to be compatible with what's coming. Maybe not overshadowed or rushed, but it should fit.

    Right now it's a genuinely good scene because it focuses on one thing. It could be a great scene if it revealed the person in the middle of it too.

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    1. A. Julian12:09 PM EDT

      Thank you guys so much for your feedback! I admit, openings are far and away my weak place, but you all have been so helpful in showing me how to make a great scene.
      I see what you mean about introducing that it's her birthday earlier on. I could, in the third paragraph, do something like this:
      "Yep. Happy birthday." The butler grimaced for her. "Ye know, I wouldn't tell 'im if ye jess went upstairs first."
      Happy birthday, indeed. At least someone was being sweet to her today.
      Nicole smiled and gave him a quick hug. "Thank you, Mr. Clarrick, but no. When Grandfather says 'now,' he means it." However inconvenient it was for her. Which it was since he probably wanted her to do something. Nicole turned and headed for the hallway to Grandfather's study.
      *Insert descriptive, voicey bit about the Old Hollywood decor here*
      And Janice, thanks for pointing out the filter words! Can't believe I missed them after all of the posts about eliminating them!
      The mention of her backpack being heavy was kind of a foreshadowing for the next scene where I reveal the cancer problem. Her cancer is weakening her, and she's starting to notice. I wasn't too pleased with how I worded that part, so I'll definitely be playing with it more.
      Thanks again!

      Delete
  2. You should be so proud of how far you've come with this opening. I remember your other RLD submissions and appreciate the hard work you've done. :o)

    I only have a couple comments, nothing big.

    I was stopped and had to giggle at the butler catching Nicole's eye. This is my problem, as I'm very visual, so instantly 'saw' the butler 'catching' Nicole's eye -- no mention of her popping it back in the socket...

    On the non-modern feeling:
    I think this is more in how the grandfather is portrayed. If he's an old theater guy, like from decades ago, then some reveal as to who he is could be presented by the environment -- old posters? old photos of gramps and famous people from the past?

    If so, Nicole can reinforce this idea by internal thought that alludes to the grandfather's delusions and tolerating his demands. Yet she faces the demands and is ready to handle whatever he's come up with this time.

    Perhaps the grandfather, now way past some prime, now teaches (and feeds off of) young actors?

    You could explore why she's with the grandfather. Hint at whatever is in her backstory that has landed her in this environment -- what she feels she owes him -- or doesn't. We need reactions from Nicole to establish why she takes his abusive manner. Has he harmed her before? Locked her in her room?

    The butler seems to be sympathetic and ready to collude with her to avoid contact with the grandfather, so the feeling is that he would be protective beyond this, and would disallow any physical abuse.

    When the Butler offers the way out, this is a good spot to speak of her birthday, and in a way that shows her anticipation of the grandfather ruining her birthday -- he doesn't even remember it, what can he want now?!

    Teens have defiance running under their skin 24/7, so it would be good to show that she has some 'gumption', sees her grandfather for what he is, an egotistical butthead old man, who only lives for himself. This would be nearly intolerable to an insightful, thoughtful teen -- which I seem to be assuming Nicole is...

    I feel your way 'in' as far as giving this a more modern flavor, is to explore the relationship between Nicole and the grandfather. I do wonder if he knows of her illness. Is he such an ogre that he forgets this fact? Is the 'fix-up' date just another thing the grandfather has demanded, or is it unusual? Why must Nicole submit? She's old enough to just say 'no'. What would the grandfather do? You could hint at what his reaction might be if she defied him. And if she considers defiance, you could reveal some new facets of her personality.

    I think Gramps is dictating the 'feel' of the material. The environment can tell the tale of a man living in the past, and Nicole's internal thought and reactions can establish that this is a modern story. If you deepen the tie between Nicole and the butler, I think this alliance will provide opportunities for fun and humor, if you let it.

    Good luck and have fun! Great effort!

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    1. A. Julian6:35 PM EDT

      Nicole actually does choose avoidance/defiance in a later scene, but she has another mental obstacle or two to get past before I felt that she could take that route.
      Your perception of the grandfather character is correct! I appreciate your suggestions for how to make it more modern and I'm seeing some similarities with what you and Ken are saying: set a modern scene and insert Nicole's thoughts about it.
      As to teens having defiance running in them 24/7, I disagree. Even my mother would say I didn't have that problem, lol, and I've known plenty of quiet, submissive teens. Just a matter of perspective, I guess.
      Thanks for all your help!

      Delete
  3. Anonymous7:03 PM EDT

    I agree with all the above comments. Since I am editing my own wip and consciousness of filler words..one filler word popped out at me. In the sentence...He glanced UP from whatever he was working on.. Would it be possible to rework that sentence to eliminate the filler word UP? Also, when she corrected grandfather... With Whom? Would a teen know the difference between who and whom?

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    1. A. Julian8:27 PM EDT

      Great question! There actually is nothing implicitly wrong with filter words, it just has to do with preference and whether or not the word's presence creates redundancy in the sentence/paragraph/dialogue. If it's redundant, it's keeping your prose from being tight and professional. In this particular case, there is no redundancy and it would take too much effort to take it out when I could possibly result in an awkward sentence.I
      In the case of the protagonist teen knowing when to use who and whom, I actually didn't think about it. As it is, it suits her character as she appears throughout the book and provides a touch of comedy in the middle of a tense exchange, so I probably won't change it.
      I appreciate you commenting!

      Delete
    2. Up isn't a filter word, as glancing up is an action the narrator sees. And someone can glance in any direction, so up is needed to understand which way he glanced.

      You'd cut the directional word in case where the direction was already clear, such as, "He fell down." Falling implies down, so unless he fell up somehow, you wouldn't need to say down. Same with "She climbed up the stairs." Climbing implies up, and while you can say "She climbed down" that's usually not used with stairs.

      Delete
  4. Anonymous7:06 PM EDT

    Oops...Meant to write Filter words.

    ReplyDelete