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Saturday, January 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Which Opening Page Is Better in This Historical Mystery?

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through February 15.

This week’s questions:

The first excerpt is how I begin the book. I'm setting the stage and introducing the main character. Action does occur in the first scene but after I set things up. My question is, is that okay or should I put the main action first to create more of a hook?

I rewrote the scene with the action happening first but then I'm not sure how to put in the information I think the readers need without slowing down the pace.

Market/Genre: Historical Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Note: The author submitted two versions of the opening for comparison.  

Overnight, the attack on Pearl Harbor plummeted America into a panic. We wondered what would happen next. Would the Japanese bomb the mainland too? Would the Germans invade? No one was sure. We only knew we needed a plan to defend ourselves. So across America blackout regulations, were put into place and air raid sirens were installed. We rationed food, tires and gasoline. We held scrap metal drives and “save your waste paper” programs. My hometown of Orlando, Florida, plastered posters everywhere: “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Remember, your sugar ration is 2 lbs. per month”. We read them at the train station, at the bus station, on shop windows and telephone poles. America was at war and it united us like never before. However, just because I fully backed the plan and participated as much as was possible, didn’t mean I always had a good attitude.

Here is my rewrite of the opening scene that brings action to the very start: (96 words)

Two strangers walked into Trash Can Alley. Their harsh voices scared me so I sank behind a rather nasty overflowing trash can. That was when I noticed Sam, a twelve-year-old skinny street urchin who dressed in rags, scavenged food and didn’t go to school. He was legendary in his own way. He could dodge the police, the truant officer and the Children’s bureau all the while delivering messages and acting as the town courier. He put his finger to his lips and we waited in quiet as anger and fear ignited the back alley with tension.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Overnight, the attack on Pearl Harbor plummeted America into a panic. [We wondered what would happen next.] Don’t think you need, as you show the wondering next Would the Japanese bomb the mainland too? Would the Germans invade? [No one was sure.] Don’t think you need, as that’s clear We only knew we needed a plan to defend ourselves. So across America blackout regulations[,] cut comma were put into place and air raid sirens were installed. We rationed food, tires and gasoline. We held scrap metal drives and “save your waste paper” programs. My hometown of Orlando, Florida, plastered posters everywhere: “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Remember, your sugar ration is 2 lbs. per month”. We read them at the train station, at the bus station, on shop windows and telephone poles. America was at war and it united us like never before. [However, just because I fully backed the plan and participated as much as was possible, didn’t mean I always had a good attitude.] This is where my interest gets piqued, and I want to know why this situation gave her a bad attitude. It also feels like where the story starts for the narrator

Here is my rewrite of the opening scene that brings action to the very start: (96 words)

[Two strangers walked into Trash Can Alley.] A little confusing since I have no context for this and I’m not sure who my narrator is yet [Their harsh voices scared me so I sank behind a rather nasty overflowing trash can. That was when I noticed] This all feels a bit told Sam, a twelve-year-old skinny street urchin who dressed in rags, scavenged food and didn’t go to school. He was legendary in his own way. He could dodge the police, the truant officer and the Children’s bureau all the while delivering messages and acting as the town courier. He put his finger to his lips and we waited in quiet [as anger and fear ignited the back alley with tension.] Not sure what this means

The Questions:

1. Should I put the main action first to create more of a hook?

This is a tough one to diagnose because there’s so much I don’t know about this story (readers chime in here, especially historical readers). But based on the two snippets, and the knowledge that the second snippet is the start of the action after the setup, I’m leaning toward the second snippet—but with some revision to add the setup the author’s instincts are rightly telling her it needs.

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

The first snippet describes how Americans reacted to Pearl Harbor and adapted to the war, and does set the scene, but it’s a description I’d imagine every reader already knows. So there’s nothing to learn other than “this book is set in WWII after Pearl Harbor.” Which readers will also likely know from reading the cover copy, and probably a reason why they picked up the book.

It isn’t until it gets to the narrator (who I assume is female though there’s nothing to say that), that new information is supplied—she backs the war effort, but isn’t always happy about it. This suggests to me that the goal or point of this scene is going to now shift to an example that shows this.

However, the second snippet doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the “attitude” of the narrator or the suggestive promise of that line. So if hiding in the alley is the first moment of action in the first scene, I wonder what one has to do with the other. I don’t yet see how readers get from “I don’t always have a good attitude about the war” to “hiding from violent strangers in an alley with a street-smart street urchin.”

This suggests to me, that either these two events are indeed connected and the narrator’s attitude somehow gets her into that alley with Sam, or these two events have nothing to do with each other at all and one of these doesn't belong in the opening scene.

Understanding how these two paragraphs fit together is probably the key to figuring out how to open this novel.

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

If the attitude does indeed get the narrator into the alley, then some combination of the two could work to draw readers in. Trim a bit of the opening paragraph and get to the suggestion of “action” with the attitude line, then go from there into whatever the narrator does because of her attitude.

For example:
Overnight, the attack on Pearl Harbor plummeted America into a panic. Across America, we adopted blackout regulations and installed air raid sirens. We rationed food, tires and gasoline. We held scrap metal drives and plastered posters everywhere: “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Remember, your sugar ration is 2 lbs. per month”. America was at war and it united us like never before.
However, just because I fully backed the plan and participated as much as was possible, didn’t mean I always had a good attitude about it.
Here, I’d add something to transition between these two thoughts—how does the narrator get to that alley and why? What about the attitude led to this moment? Something as simple as “Angry about XX,  I cut through Trash Can Alley on my way to…" or the like. Something that shows how the attitude put the narrator in that alley at that moment. If it takes a paragraph, that’s fine, as long as it’s showing the narrator in motion and doing something that relates back to the attitude comment.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

If the attitude comment has nothing to do with the alley, I’d suggest starting with the alley and fleshing out that scene a bit so readers understand where they are and what the narrator is doing there. The first few lines in that snippet are a bit told, probably because the author is trying to explain what’s going on instead of setting the scene and letting readers figure it out as they read.

Perhaps start a minute or two before the strangers enter the alley. Why is the narrator there? What is she looking for? What about their harsh voices triggers her response to hide? I get the sense that something bad is happening in the back of the alley, but I don’t know how that relates to the strangers who just walked into it. Is one beating up the other? Who’s in the back of the alley, the strangers or the narrator and Sam?

The situation has a lot of potential since something is going on that puts the narrator at risk, but it’s not fleshed out enough yet for readers to understand what’s going on.

One thing to remember about “action,” is that it doesn’t mean “summer blockbuster Michael Bay action-movie action.” It just means “start with the protagonist doing something.” You don’t have to throw readers into the middle of an action sequence with no setup at all, you just need to start with the protagonist being active in some way.

(Here’s more on Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

In snippet one, the protagonist isn’t doing anything but musing. Musing can be “action,” but only if the musing is about a task the protagonist is actively attempting. For example, in my own novel, my protagonist muses about the differences between stealing eggs and chickens while she’s in the process of stealing eggs out from under a chicken. In Snippet 1’s musing, the protagonist is musing about the war and America’s reaction to it, but isn’t doing anything that relates to that war.

In snippet two, there’s action, but there’s not enough “musing” to help readers understand what’s going on. The narrator hasn’t told us enough about the situation for readers to get on board with the scene. They’ve essentially turned to the channel ten minutes into the show and have no idea how the characters got to this moment and what the point of it is. It’s hard to follow when you don’t know how the characters got there or what they’re doing.

I’d suggest finding a compromise between the two. Muse enough to set the scene, but let the protagonist muse about the situation she currently finds herself in. If that connects back to the attitude comment in Snippet 1, even better. That might allow you to bring in Snippet 1 at a later point in the scene to help further flesh out the setting.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between Good Setup and Bad Setup)

You might also try looking at your original pre-edited scene and pinpointing where the alley action starts. Not the “action” part, but the setup to that part. Odds are this is where the story begins, and with a little tweaking (or none at all), that’s where the best opening page lies.

This is a mystery, so I’d imagine the protagonist is going to find herself embroiled in a crime of some type by the end of the first chapter. Is that the alley scene? Does she witness something? Are either of these snippets the inciting event? If not, how do each of these snippets get the protagonist to the inciting event? At least one of them should be a step to that in some way.

Overall, I think the right opening depends on what the goal of the first scene is and where the chapter is going. Where is the protagonist being active? A little musing isn’t bad if it shows voice, but if all it does is set the scene, odds are it’s not the strongest opening for the novel.

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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3 comments:

  1. I agree, so much comes down to deciding what kind of action you want to start with. And "action" doesn't mean explosions for their own sake, but it does mean giving an *example* of what your protagonist might do and how the war background and other characters bring that out.

    If this is about the narrator seeing more sides of the world than the war effort, you could show that with Sam doing something delinquent that's disrespectful to the war, and the narrator hides him from what looks like too-serious punishment. Or Sam does something super-patriotic, and she thinks it's sad because Sam has always been such a free spirit before. Or Sam does something delinquent and she turns him in out of a moment of patriotism, and then regrets it.

    Those are random examples, when of course I don't know your characters or your plot. But if your story is about the wartime environment, getting to an incident like that quickly would give us something we can relate to more than the musings. It would be a single point (or one with contrasting messages we could mull over) that would be the first steps into understanding your story, wherever it went from there.

    True, the more you're writing literary or historical drama, the more your readers may want musing at the beginning. But for historical, you may want to focus on making any early thoughts about less well-known facts or a really strong insight about how some of them fit together, and how it leads in to the events ahead. For literary, it might be symbolism or precision of description. In either case, you want to be sure you're justifying the space you're taking before the story proper begins.

    It all comes back to what your story's path should be, through the points it needs to make. You can take more time or less to ease into it, but you want to keep your eyes on where you're going when you pick your pace.

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  2. Thanks for doing real life diagnostics and thanks to the writer for subbing their work. It's hard to put yourself out there.

    I typically like to read more than a hundred words to make an assessment but given what is presented, my thoughts are:

    Version 1: As stated in the assessment above, there is really nothing new presented here (we already know about WWII details, even if not history buffs), we don't know who the protag is, and it is all telling. While the author did establish setting (i.e. WWII) there are no visceral details in 1st version to give a true sense of place.
    I read historical because I want to be transported to a different time and place--I want to feel like I'm literally right there.

    Version 2 was better, & of the two my choice, but it was missing some key elements. Some thoughts, which may or may not be relevant since I really don't know what's going on yet:

    1) Since there are so many genre mash ups out there, in that opening line or two the person shrinking behind the trash can could be a talking cat for all I know. Not being facetious, but serious.

    2) It's hard trying to figure out how much to introduce in the opening paragraphs (I struggle with that all the time), but I need to know enough about the protag to care. The author mentioned the rationing of WWII in the previous version--is mystery protag in the alley scavenging for food because something happened to his/her rations? Give a reason for them to be there--something we can hold on to.

    3) Another way to put the reader immediately into the scene is not just to have the two harsh voices enter the alley, but right away introduce dialogue about what they are arguing about.

    4) The most interesting thing about version 2 is Sam. But we don't know if protag and Sam are of peer age. If of peer age but coming from totally different backgrounds (I don't know if they are or not) then how does unknown person know he delivers messages? Is mystery person an adult? I can't tell.

    Make mystery protag's introduction to Sam more active--skip the "that's when I noticed Sam" part. Jump right from the bit about mystery person shrinking behind the trash can to getting another scare when Sam taps him/her on the shoulder, finger to lips, to give them a tip on how to remain undetected there behind the cans. But for that to work, we need to have an idea why EITHER of them is scared/wary of the two people who come into the alley. The author doesn't have to give everything away, but I as a reader need a reason to feel tension in that opening scene.

    The author's opening concept has a lot of great potential for a tense opening scene once revised.

    ReplyDelete
  3. From the author: Thanks for taking the time read and for all the good ideas! The intro questions that occur about who and what do get answered in the first chapter.

    ReplyDelete