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Saturday, March 14

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Historical Fiction Opening

Critique By Maria D'Marco

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through March 28.

This week’s question:

Does this scene work?

Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

The King’s Highway, Gilead, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:32-3

Elijah grabbed the wineskin, bent his knees, and lifted.

A child’s shrill cry shot across the trail.

The wineskin slipped from Elijah fingers and burst at the feet of his brother Nathan.

As Dad’s wine puddled in the dust, a boulder lodged in Elijah’s gut. Who screamed? Shielding his eyes from the sun, he pivoted toward the valley where camels climbed onto the road.

In the heat beside the caravan, a little girl crawled through the grass.

Elijah’s breath caught in his throat.

The girl struggled to her feet and stumbled away from a long line of girls. Dirt caked her face. Red mud matted her black hair. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but only shuddered.

They needed Dad, but he was across the meadow buying mutton with hot peppers for Elijah and pickled cabbage for Nathan.

The girl fell to her knees.

“Nathan.” Elijah whispered. He ignored the pooling wine, Dad’s ninth sale of the day, and stared open-mouthed at the little girl. Elijah stood a head taller than Dad, and not a finger higher than Nathan or mother. His knees and elbows poked out at awkward angles, yet he pruned vines beside Nathan with swift, sure strokes. Although Nathan’s beard had come in thick and black a year ago, their mother could still caress Elijah’s bare cheeks and coo, “My baby boy.”

Elijah riveted his gaze on the child. She tugged at his heart. Dad would be here to help any moment.

My Thoughts in Blue:

The King’s Highway, Gilead, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:32-3

Elijah grabbed the wineskin, bent his knees, and lifted. [the image this evokes is of a gigantic wineskin that must be hoisted up, perhaps slung over a shoulder, before carrying off somewhere – not]

A child’s shrill cry shot across the trail. [this is grounded in nothing, so I’m speculating like mad – ‘across’ indicates the sound comes from Elijah’s left or right]

The wineskin slipped from Elijah’s fingers and burst at the feet of his brother, Nathan.

As Dad’s [switch of POV here/also use of ‘Dad’ seems out of place] wine puddled in the dust, a boulder lodged in Elijah’s gut. [I am so ungrounded that I literally envision a large rock slamming into Elijah – the POV switch primed this misunderstanding, meant to describe Elijah’s emotional reaction to the child’s cry] Who screamed? Shielding his eyes from the sun, he pivoted toward the valley where camels [is this the caravan mentioned in the next sentence?] climbed onto the road. [is this also the ‘trail’? – I am still trying to orient the scene]

In the heat beside the caravan, a little girl [I envision 5- to 7-year-old] crawled through the grass. [wine puddling in the dust, heat, camels, and a caravan led me to envision the desert, not grass or greenery]

Elijah’s breath caught in his throat. [I wonder why…no indication that the little girl is in danger or that there is something startling happening]

The girl struggled to her feet and stumbled away from a long line of girls. [This has a sinister feel to it, but again, this is only speculation] Dirt caked her face. Red mud matted her black hair. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but only shuddered. [Is she close enough he can see her shudder? Her appearance says distress, but perhaps traveling in those times results in a dirty face and mud in one’s hair?]

They needed Dad, [Why? For what?] but he was across the meadow [abandoning desert terrain idea] buying mutton with hot peppers for Elijah and pickled cabbage for Nathan.

The girl fell to her knees.

“Nathan.” Elijah whispered. He ignored the pooling wine, Dad’s ninth sale of the day, and stared open-mouthed at the little girl.

Elijah stood a head taller than Dad, [switched POV] and not a finger higher than Nathan or mother. [this is difficult and must be parsed out] His knees and elbows poked out at awkward angles, yet he pruned vines beside Nathan with swift, sure strokes. [Is this saying that Elijah is crippled in some way? Why else would the comparison be made with Nathan?] Although Nathan’s beard had come in thick and black a year ago, their mother could still caress Elijah’s bare cheeks and coo, “My baby boy.” [this entire paragraph is in the wrong spot for an infodump on physical particulars]

Elijah riveted his gaze on the child. She tugged at his heart. Dad would be here to help any moment. [I wonder why Elijah cannot help the child. Is he too young?]

The Question:

1. Does this scene work?

Not yet… (readers chime in)

Although, with a bit more information to clarify, I believe you would have a suspenseful scene. Consider the paragraph of descriptive material, which presently serves to confuse and delay the progression of the scene – if it is removed, you have substantial space to build more clarifying detail into the scene.

After re-reading your sample three times, I was able to shove around assumptions and environs imagined to create a scene that might be accurate to the story.

I built it more through rejection of ideas and speculations, trying to answer questions.

(Here's more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

It begins with Elijah and the giant wineskin. At first, I assumed he was going to drink from the skin but rejected that for the info presented: bent knees and lifted. The saying is to lift with your legs, so I envision a 50-pound wineskin being heaved up, maybe to a shoulder?

Next is the child’s cry and Elijah letting go the wineskin, which bursts at his brother Nathan’s feet – in the dust. Assumption is that the cry is nearer a scream, startling enough to cause Elijah to lose his grip. The switch in POV alluding to ‘Dad’s wine’, followed by the miscreant boulder slamming into Elijah’s gut stopped me cold. I do tend to take such things as boulders to the gut in cartoon terms, like Bug Bunny and Yosemite Sam.

I now have a scene with a man and his brother, big wineskins, and a nearby child who has cried out. The locale is dusty, with bright sun (Elijah shields his eyes from it). Elijah and his brother are near a trail of some sort, and there are camels. I create a desert environs – or at least arid…

Elijah looks about, sees a child crawling in grass next to the caravan coming onto the road. His breath catches – but I don’t know why, so begin scrambling to speculate.

(Here's more on 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)

In some instances, all this speculation is just fine – if you are intentionally pushing the reader in that direction, wanting them to be a bit frantic as you dole out little bits of information. However, if that isn’t your intent, then you have only succeeded in creating a distracted reader – or one who isn’t able to be invested enough to want to read on.

As I progress into the scene, I discover that Elijah is terribly distressed over this little girl who appears to need help. The child’s cry is translated to a ‘scream’ in Elijah’s internal thought, which heightens the impression of bad things happening.

So, I need to know why Elijah cannot help the little girl and why he’s so upset about it. I also need to know whether his brother is also upset.

Since I’m unsure what Elijah and Nathan are doing (loading wineskins? Delivering wineskins?), if they are on the road or the trail, and what cultural aspects might be dictating their actions or inaction, I’m left to imagine or wait for more information.

(Here's more on Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

The mention of ‘a long line of girls’ put me in mind of slavery or gave the impression that the girls were not with their families, but rather victims of something nefarious. Elijah’s reaction cements that impression – that it’s a generally known ‘bad thing’ – and Dad knows how to handle it.

In the end, you have a scene where a child, who is apparently attached to a long line of girls alongside a caravan, is in distress, which is observed by two young brothers who are left with their father’s wineskins that are full and for sale. The father is across the meadow, apparently a shorter walk (football field?), getting lunch for his boys. The little girl falls to her knees and it is assumed she was the one who cried out. The boys cannot run to her aid. They must wait for their father.

This is enough to get some interest going, but you need to consider writing it tighter and leaner to create tension or add details that give some substance to the ‘why?’ of the scene. Ensuring that readers are grounded in the locale and culture could also strengthen the scene.

(Here's more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

A well-placed hint or two could enhance any mystery or danger. Perhaps the little girl reminds Elijah of his sister, long ago taken by [the evil one], never to be seen again – and all Elijah has left is the memory of her screams as she was whisked away that terrible day.

To me, you have some good bones here – and I encourage you to continue playing with this scene. Have fun, trust your readers, give us an ‘in’ into Elijah…

Good luck!

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.

Website | Twitter

1 comment:

  1. Like Maria said, this is a good dramatic moment for a story to start, that isn't clear enough on what's going on.

    For instance, hoisting the wineskin gave me the same problem in a different form: I pictured a small skin and Elijah as a child small enough to have trouble with it.

    For a scene like this --especially with the umpteen pressures of opening a story-- the key might be to look very deeply and slowly at everything that's going on that you need to show. You have a good focus for the scene, so what does the reader need to understand for every instant as Elijah's attention moves through it, to let us appreciate it all? What's vital for the story (is that "line of girls" as sinister as it sounds?), what misunderstandings could a reader have if you don't plug them, and which descriptions does the reader want some detail in (or a moment of real zing) just because that thing is interesting enough to deserve it? Line by line, moment by moment, what do you need to keep this perfectly on track without losing momentum?

    Two other thoughts:

    The wineskin opening line has another way it could be improved: since it's just one instant away from an actual scream, it would be much stronger to put the scream itself in that line. (Something like "It was the scream that made Elijah drop..." or "Elijah had almost wrestled the wineskin up when he heard the scream.") If you had reasons to start the story a whole minute before the scream, the wineskin is a unique enough moment to start with on its own (if it's clearer), but with the scream so close it feels unnatural to separate them.

    The other is the second-last paragraph, that's so full of detail about the brothers and their mother. We're about to get some reaction about the girl in need, so this is an awkward time to slow down for background. (At least, for *much* background -- it's common to have a fast few paragraphs and then squeeze in a detail or two now that we're hooked. Just a mention of Nathan and Elijah's heights together here might work, for instance. But five lines of it that include a thought of their mother is simply too much in the middle of things.)

    You have your finger on the heart of this scene, and probably the whole story here. The next step is doing the work so the reader can see it as clearly as you do.

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