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Saturday, January 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Infodumping in the Opening Page

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: one

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through January 11.

This week’s questions:

Is it show, don’t tell? Does the opening page work?

Market/Genre: Mythological Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

"I shouldn't have returned to Earth after, as a salamander, I slid into a river between a man and a virgin. Her screams and his grunts stirred in me new thoughts: What must it be to feel flesh on bones? The idea jolted me back to the sky."

In the beginning, I was the Archangel of Light, most brilliant of angels my kind; now I am Ayekah the Damned Sylph. In this tale, I will attempt to describe when we, Heavenly Beings, came to be, how I saw our existence on Earth, what happened when I fell from grace, and my reality as a Sylph: a being without a soul.

Eons before, life unfolded The Almighty released multitudes of Celestials or Supernatural and Timeless Spirits, I will refer to in most common human terms as Angels, to witnesses the diverse processes of Earth's evolution and origin of Humanity. A hallmark of our angelic hierarchy became brilliance. I, the Archangel of Light, was the brightest of all spirits.

We are all eternal, and although invisible, can take on the form of seraphs, winged heavenly messengers, or any living creature but are not glorified human beings. Not male or female and cannot reproduce as humankind does.

In short: From times unknown, as the universe contracted and expanded Earth came to be, and we witnessed oceans recede, giving way to the expansion of land.

As energy flowed, in chaos grew order. Random matter transformed, leaving mere traces of what had preceded. The surviving essence continued to reproduce and evolve into a life force of microscopic organisms that grew into myriads of creatures, some almost invisible, others enormous as dinosaurs. Then explosions destroy nearly all, but what endured, after unprecedented changes, emerged as simple life forms from which rose an intelligent terrestrial existence.

My Thoughts in Blue:

["I shouldn't have returned to Earth after, as a salamander, I slid into a river between a man and a virgin.] The punctuation is off in this sentence Her screams and his grunts stirred in me new thoughts: What must it be to feel flesh on bones? The idea jolted me back to the sky." It could be a formatting issue, but since this is in quotations, I assume it’s dialogue. But this has the feel of a literary quote introducing the chapter, even though there’s no attribution to it.

[In the beginning, I was the Archangel of Light, most brilliant of [angels my kind;] missing a word? now I am Ayekah the Damned Sylph.] How does this relate to the opening paragraph? In this tale, I will attempt to describe when we, Heavenly Beings, came to be, how I saw our existence on Earth, what happened when I fell from grace, and my reality as a Sylph: a being without a soul. This paragraph essentially says “I’m about to explain this story to you,” which makes it feel told. This reads more like an essay than a story. There’s nothing personal from Ayekeh to establish him as a character, even though it’s first person.

Eons before[,] life unfolded [comma here] The Almighty released multitudes of Celestials or Supernatural and Timeless Spirits, I will refer to in most common human terms as Angels, to witnesses the diverse processes of Earth's evolution and origin of Humanity. [A hallmark of our angelic hierarchy became brilliance.] I don’t know that this means I, the Archangel of Light, was the brightest of all spirits. This paragraph explains backstory and terminology

We are all eternal, and although invisible, can take on the form of seraphs, winged heavenly messengers, or any living creature [but] that? are not glorified human beings. [Not male or female and cannot reproduce as humankind does. ] Sentence fragment. This paragraph explains what the narrator and his people are

In short: From times unknown, as the universe contracted and expanded[comma] Earth came to be, and we witnessed oceans recede, giving way to the expansion of land. This doesn’t summarize what the previous paragraphs explain, so it’s not really a short version of it. It also pushes Ayekeh away from the narrative with “we witnessed” instead of “I witnessed.”

[As energy flowed, in chaos grew order.] Confusing Random matter transformed, leaving mere traces of what had preceded. The surviving essence continued to reproduce and evolve into a life force of microscopic organisms that grew into myriads of creatures, some almost invisible, others enormous as dinosaurs. Then explosions destroy nearly all, but what endured, after unprecedented changes, emerged as simple life forms from which rose an intelligent terrestrial existence. This is a difficult paragraph to parse, and feels over-explained to essentially describe the Big Bang(?). I’m not sure what it’s trying to say.

The Questions:

1. Is it show, don’t tell?


It’s told, as it’s an explanation of how the world was created, who and what the characters in the story are, and how they came to be. Even though it’s first person, it quickly drops the pronouns and loses any sense of a character in a story, which makes it feel external. There’s no character with a problem, it’s a history lesson.

A first-person narrator who has literally seen the birth of the universe can be tricky to write, since they do have a god-like omniscient view of things. But this doesn’t read as Ayekeh telling a retrospective story about his experience, with his opinions and judgement on what happened. There’s no sense of him here beyond the first few lines. It’s all world-building infodumps telling readers details and information they’ll “need to know” to understand the story, but no actual story yet.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

Let Ayekeh explain these things for a reason that’s not “readers need to know this.” That’s the author’s reason. What’s Ayekeh’s reason? How does he feel about this? How does this relate to his current problem and what the book is going to be about? Why is he starting his tale here and not the day his life changed when he…saw the girl? Decided to visit Earth again? I don’t know, but there must be a moment when he made a choice that caused the story to happen. What s that moment?

(Here’s more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

2. Does the opening page work?

Not yet (readers chime in). Perhaps this is a rough draft, but the incorrect punctuation and awkward sentence structure made it difficult to read and understand. I suspect the writer is going for a lyrical, biblical flow, but it’s not quite working yet.

The job of a first page is to pique a reader’s curiosity and make them want to turn the page and keep reading. This page offers a difficult to understand history lesson without a strong character to connect to or a problem that needs solving. I suspect it’s there once we get past the explanations, so perhaps look farther into the chapter and find where the story actually starts.

An explanation of how and when Heavenly Beings came to be is unlikely to hook readers (unless this is an interest of theirs and they’re reading for more educational purposes than to enjoy a story), but how an angel fell from grace and became a Sylph might be. This has a hint of conflict and plot to it, which is something you can build a story from.

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

Show readers who Ayekeh is by what he does and how he thinks. Show his divine and supernatural world by how he interacts with it. Save the history for when it’s relevant to the scene, or find a way to add more of his voice to this and a reason he’s explaining all of this to readers before we even know anything about the story yet.

Give Ayekah a problem or a goal that will pique reader curiosity and make them want to see how it turns out, or what he’s going to do about it. Don’t explain the backstory, show readers a story. Treat Ayekah as you would any other character—he just happens to have a lot more backstory than most do. But it’s all still backstory, so treat it same as you would a mortal character.

I’ve also used religious mythology in my own writing, so I know how hard it can be to walk that line between keeping the story focused and providing enough source material so readers will understand the history behind the myths. But remember that readers pick up a novel to read a story first, and handing them too much history and information will likely lose them before they get to that story.

Also consider what you want your first page to accomplish. If you want to set the scene on a grand scale, find a way to do it that also bring your protagonist into it more. Why is this the first thing you want readers to know about? When does Ayekah’s problem actually begin? What do you want readers to know about him? And most importantly, what opening scene is going to hep establish your protagonist and your plot to hook your readers into this story?

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Overall, I think this is trying too hard to front load the world and history and not giving readers any time to meet and connect to the protagonist. I think you can find a middle ground that allows you to bring in this information and introduce Ayekah if you stay deep in his point of view and use his voice and experiences as he tells his tale. Or just start with his problem and mix in the history when it becomes relevant to the scene.

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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5 comments:

  1. I agree - I am looking for a protagonist with a mission or problem to attach to and to ground me. I think that once this is established and once a story line is formed, this backstory will fit better into the novel. It's very hard to get a reader hooked by backstory - and perhaps some of this information might even come up in dialogue so not to feel as if we are being told the story.

    I think it is always good for an author to write this so they have the information to go back to after they sort out how to introduce the protagonist and set up the inciting incident that will make us want to follow them.

    Always brave work to send in these submissions! There's surely a story in there - and with some more work it will definitely emerge - good luck!

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  2. You definitely could think more about weaving story into this scene.

    One of the ways to look at the relationship between plot and character is that character (including background and moments for building feeling) is the overall sense of what that person *might* do and how they live; plot is what they *do get to do* in this case. From one perspective, plot is an example of character, from another character is a way to predict and appreciate plot.

    What you've given us is all character. You want us to understand who Ayekah is before anything happens. That makes sense in theory, that appreciating plot once we know the character is easier than the other way around... but it's hard for readers to grasp a character as a whole as the first impression. (Even a human character, not one who has Creation in their backstory.)

    Your first paragraph is actually different from that. It's a specific moment -- a *very* specific one that will cause strong reactions in your readers. If that's the opening moment you want, I'd like to see how Ayekah's reaction to it and what happens then are the best first things for your story. Let those give us a bite-sized sense of this cosmic being (hard as that is! but that makes it all the more necessary). Something that lets you add just a bit of backstory or character theory as you keep the plot going, and you keep building on it.

    Janice didn't mention it, but her own book *The Shifter* has a quotably perfect first scene. A starving girl is trying to steal breakfast, and that leads us to why her world has her hungry and just what this girl can do under pressure.

    First chapters are easily the hardest specific thing in writing, because everything else depends on them. So, start in a place where you can lead where you need us to go, one step at a time.

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  3. I'll be brief, as this contributor has some wonderful advice so far...

    The first paragraph quickly engaged me and I wanted to know more about this character and their awareness. I expected more of this character's world to unfold from this same perspective, which was an interesting one and hinted (to me anyway) of mysteries to come. I liked the point of view, the position of observer.

    The material following the first paragraph reminded me a bit of the prologues I encounter when working on first book manuscripts. As Lynne mentions, this material would be great as reminders of what bits of back story need to be shown as the story proceeds.

    Follow the great advice you have so far and don't be afraid to be truly fantastic with this unique perspective. You had me interested in the first few lines, so now please let us learn about this character and the world they live in...

    Good luck!!

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  4. I agree with the comments so far. I also was intrigued by the visual and sensory imagery in the first paragraph. I wonder if this couple will have anything to do with the story, or are they merely a tool to introduce the protagonist and his trigger to return to Earth? Although I know little about the story, I wonder if a subtle reference to them later might pull a few threads together.

    Enjoy the process and thank you for sharing!

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  5. I had a different reaction to the first paragraph that I thought I would mention as I'm probably not the only one who feels this way. While it is the most engaging paragraph, it also sounds like the woman is being raped which for me would have meant that I wouldn't have made it to sentence two. If that's not what you intended, then you might want to change the wording. If that is what you intended, then you should probably be aware that it will put off some readers.

    ReplyDelete