From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Finding the Right Problem for Your Opening Scene

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: None

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s question:

Is this opening working?

Market/Genre: Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

After ten hours on my feet, I would have loved to slip off my flip-flops, but I wasn’t willing to step on a spilled drink, or worse, a dropped hot dog smothered in mustard. Hosting an annual barbeque party outside our surf shop was a longheld family tradition and the November social event in our small California beach town. This close-knit crowd stayed the entire day, hanging out in the water, playing on the sand, and shopping in the store. Closing time hadn't come too soon.

Layne locked the door behind the last customer and we both released a loud yippee. She breezed behind the counter and joined me at the register. “That was our final sale of the month and the year. How’d we do, Sis?”

“Let’s hope running out of hot dogs equals big numbers.” I pressed the register buttons for the final tally of the day and hoped my sigh of relief was convincing. “Whoopee. We’ll be able to pay the overhead for several months and restock the inventory.” But not my salary.

She pulled off her SurfLover cap and fluffed up her hair. Even though we were both sun-kissed blondes, her waves were so much prettier than my straight, limp locks.

Opening the drawer under the register, she scooped out a bundle of envelopes. “Time to go through this stack."

"I'll never understand why you wait until the end of every month."

"What's the hurry?" She started leafing through the pile, tossing half the letters in the trash. “We bring in the cash, but the bills keep coming.”

“That’s how it works.”

“I think we deserve to go out for a beer and save the cleaning for morning. Better yet, let's slip into our wetsuits and hit the water There's no wind. Six-foot swell. It'll be glassy and perfect.”

My heart lifted just thinking about surfing. The rolling waves and rhythm of the sea still had a hold on me, but I just couldn't bring myself to risk the ocean's brutality again. “You’re never going to give up trying to get me back out there, are you?”

“You used to love it, Nik. I know you miss it.”

“Everyday. But you know I'd freak if I got sucked into another double-up.” A shudder overtook me as I remembered the two waves meeting and spinning me inside the ultra-hollow, fighting the powerful energy. I'd clung to a piece of foam, unable to breathe and fought for my life. “I won’t make it out of a beast like that next time.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

After ten hours on my feet, I would have loved to slip off my flip-flops, but I wasn’t willing to step on a spilled drink, or worse, a dropped hot dog smothered in mustard. Hosting an annual barbeque party outside our surf shop was a [longheld family tradition] I’m unsure whose family this is. I thought hers at first, but I don’t think that’s true and the November social event in our small California beach town. This close-knit crowd stayed the entire day, hanging out in the water, playing on the sand, and shopping in the store. [Closing time hadn't come too soon.] I’m a little confused about this opening. The focus is on the barbeque, yet the narrator is actually in the surf shop, correct? Why aren’t they at this social event of the season?

Layne locked the door behind the last customer and we both released a loud yippee. She breezed behind the counter and joined me at the register. [“That was our final sale of the month and the year.] feels a bit infodumpy and not like natural dialogue How’d we do, Sis?”

“Let’s hope [running out of hot dogs] who ran out? Them? equals big numbers.” I pressed the register buttons for the final tally of the day and [hoped my sigh of relief was convincing.] Perhaps a little more that they’re worried about finances? “Whoopee. We’ll be able to pay the overhead for several months and restock the inventory.” But not my salary.

[She] Feels like you need the name here since you haven’t referred to her for a full paragraph pulled off her SurfLover cap and fluffed up her hair. Even though we were both sun-kissed blondes, her waves were so much prettier than my straight, limp locks.

Opening the drawer under the register, she scooped out a bundle of envelopes. “Time to go through [this stack."] Of what?

"I'll never understand why you wait until the end of every month." I wanted some internalization from her here to understand how she feels about this, and not getting paid, and the state of her and the shop

"What's the hurry?" She started leafing through the pile, tossing half the [letters in the trash.] So she doesn’t look at any of the mail for a month, or she’s tossing out bills? “We bring in the cash, but the bills keep coming.”

“That’s how it works.”

“I think we deserve to go out for a beer and save the cleaning for morning. Better yet, let's slip into our wetsuits and hit the water There's no wind. Six-foot swell. It'll be glassy and perfect.” Since they were on their feet for ten hours, I assume it’s late, so wouldn’t it be dark? Also, if Layne is so clear on what the waves are doing, it seems like that would be her focus and not the beer

My [heart lifted] she says this, yet she’s too scared to going into the water, so I don’t think this would be her first reaction. More likely a stab of fear just thinking about surfing. The rolling waves and rhythm of the sea still had a hold on me, but I just couldn't bring myself to risk the ocean's brutality again. [“You’re never going to give up trying to get me back out there, are you?”] Feels a bit too on the nose about her internal issues

“You used to love it, Nik. I know you miss it.”

“Everyday. [But you know I'd freak if I got sucked into another double-up.”] This also feels too “summed up” about her issue A shudder overtook me as I remembered the two waves meeting and spinning me inside the ultra-hollow, fighting the powerful energy. I'd clung to a piece of foam, unable to breathe and fought for my life. “I won’t make it out of a beast like that next time.” If this is how she feels, her reaction to a suggestion to go surfer would have been much stronger and more like this

The Question:

1. Is this opening working?


Not yet (readers chime in). There’s not quite enough to show me what the problem is or why I should care about these sisters and their surf shop. There are issues, but the lack of narrative focus makes it hard for me to know what I’m supposed to pay attention to and care about.

The story is a romance, but there’s nothing that suggest romance is on the horizon, or that Nik wants it. That’s not necessarily bad, as there’s time to get to that, but so many other potential problems are slipped in that it seems like this story is about other things.

(Here's more on And Pretty Words All in a Row: Tightening Your Narrative Focus)

At first, it starts with the barbeque and Nik being tired, and quick notes about a longheld family tradition, so I assume the narrator is part of the family and it’s their party. But by the end, she’s in the store and I don’t know how the store relates to the barbeque or whose family is having the party. I don’t think the party relates to the shop or the sisters, aside from it being a source of revenue. So I wonder why this is the first thing I see as a reader. Why do I need to know about this barbeque and Nik’s tired feet before anything else?

The focus then shifts to the sales, and I can see they didn’t make enough this month to pay everything, especially Nik’s salary. So I think maybe this is about a store with money troubles trying to survive, and that’s how the love interest will appear. But that’s not really embraced or discussed, and Layne doesn’t seem concerned at all and just wants to have fun.

Which could indicate one reason why the store has issues, but since Nik never thinks anything along those lines, it doesn’t feel like the problem of the scene or the story, even though it’s mentioned.

Then it’s shifts again to surfing and Nik’s backstory about nearly drowning, which makes me wonder if this is about her overcoming her fear to get back into the water, and the love interest will come from there. This seems like the best spot for it, as surfing again is clearly an internal issue and something to build a character arc around. Meeting a guy who gets Nik back into the water and in love is a solid romance + character arc.

But if so, how does that connect to the store or their financial troubles? Or the barbeque? 

Although there are several story questions here with potential, none of them stand out as the conflict of the scene and the problem driving the story so far. It feels like setup, not story, and I don’t think I’ve gotten to the real meat of the tale yet. I suspect it’s the surfing and the surfer boy who will steal her heart, but that’s just a guess.

(Here's more on Are You Asking the Right Story Questions?)

I’m also not connecting with Nik as a narrator, because I don’t “feel” her in the story. She’s there, but I’m not really in her head or hearing her thoughts, and I don’t know how she feels about things. She also has conflicting emotional reactions to her accident. Id imagine if you almost died surfing and were too scared to go back into the water, your heart probably wouldn’t lift thinking about it.

(Here's more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

I get some emotion from her about nearly drowning, but it doesn’t truly feel relevant to the scene, even though Layne wants her to go surfing. It’s more like a way to slip in backstory than something driving the story forward. Nik shudders, but that’s all, even though her words describe something far more horrific and obviously life-changing if she’s stopped doing something she loves. 

(Here's more on What “Setup” in a Novel Actually Means)

I suspect this is starting in the wrong place, and the barbeque, store, and general beach setting are merely setup before the main story starts. I’d suggest looking farther into the story and finding a scene or moment where the conflict starts.

Or, you might rethink this general opening and finding the conflict here to play with. Maybe Nik is cleaning up while her sister goes surfing, and not only does she feel annoyed that she does all the work she her sister plays (if that fits of course), but she’s conflicted over wanting to hit the waves and her fear of doing so.

(Here's more on The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel)

Since this is a romance, I’ll also leave you with this question: What problem or situation is going to force the two love interests to work together or interact? Odds are whatever this is, is right about where your opening is. Whatever gets Nik and the love interest to have to interact is probably the issue that will launch the story. If it’s not that, it’s likely right before that.

(Here's more on Why Conflict Is so Hard to Create in Romance)

Overall, I think this is still searching for the right opening scene, though it looks like there are several issues in the story itself to provide conflict around the romance. I don’t think it’ll be too hard to find the right problem to start this story with.

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. 
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

1 comment:

  1. As an opening, this paints a good picture of a slice of life... but like Janice said, it's not moving in a particular direction to start a story.

    You touch a lot of bases here: the scramble of a busy day, the finance problems (and Nik putting herself last on the payment list, poor kid), Nik's fear of the surf, and overall the dynamic between the sisters: Layna is "prettier" and more carefree, Nik is responsible and maybe timid.

    What's your plan to use these? Is Nik going to find that romance through facing the sea again, or is it going to be managing the shop, or something else? Which of these are the real issue about Nik's romantic needs and fears, which are a proper B-story, and which are less important? You may not need a different opening scene, but you want to have total clarity how this scene's focus leads where you want (and if that means a different opening would be better). A romance's first scene doesn't need to be the couple meeting, but its hook should be partly about what romantic obstacles and opportunities people like this will have.

    Eg, if the surfing is a secondary plot, it could be a throwaway line now, and the next scene could have Nik leaving the shop and glancing at the sea for a paragraph or so -- that would downgrade that thread but show it will matter in turn, and that's a common way for romances to make time for everything. If it's more important but not key, it might get several thoughts in scene one and a longer stretch in the next scene; if it's key it should dominate the cleanup scene or call for a whole different opening scene.

    In particular, can you choose your opening to be sure Nik comes out sympathetic in the way you want? You have some of that because it's easy to relate to a "practical girl" in her sister's shadow. You could go further to show why we should like her, what issues she'll need to deal with, and how Layne is part of the problem but nice enough in her own way. Her lack of salary and her putting up with it is a definite clue in that direction, especially if Layne does get paid (or maybe she doesn't but just doesn't care).

    A recurring thought I had was that you often use several lines to establish a point about their lives, when you could have reduced it to one line and just made sure the rest of the scene was consistent with it. That makes this scene look like you're trying to get comfortable with the sisters' world, but you aren't ready to push the story forward. If you firm up your sense of what the reader should get caught up with first and what's less important, you can make more choices about what to make into a main flow here and what to trim back and use later.

    One last thing: can Layne use Nik's name earlier? (And if it's usually "Nikki", be sure that's what she says the first time.) Her saying "Sis" in the second paragraph sounds natural, but I think getting the name in is worth more: until it's said we're inside a protagonist that has no name, and that's awkward.

    Building a sense of characters and their world is a big part of a story, especially a friendly one like a romance. You build quite a little world here -- but what we most want is to focus on what's about to change, as the world moves into a story.

    ReplyDelete