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Saturday, March 21

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

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 April 4.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the reader need additional information on the characters at this time?

2. Does the setup catch your interest and leave you with a lot of questions you want the answers to?

3. Are there areas that definitely need more work?

Market/Genre: Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Barty and Sharon were parked in his faded red Mazda, engine idling. In the back seat, four-year-old Tonya played on a tablet. A UPS truck passed by. Barty checked his note. “That’s the one.” He put the car in gear. “Here we go.” They followed the truck.

The driver left the package on a porch.

“Is that the one, Barty?”

“Sure is, pumpkin. Get ready.”

Once the UPS driver was out of sight, Barty pulled to the curb. Sharon jumped out, grabbed the package, and made a mad dash back to the car. Only she slipped on wet grass and fell hard.

“Barty,” she gasped.

Barty looked around, then helped her limp to the car.

“Mommy, are you all right?” Tonya’s voice trembled.

Sharon bit her lip. “Mommy’s fine, baby.”

***

They parked at Lula Lake, their favorite place, the package on Sharon’s lap.

Barty grinned. “Want to open it?”

“Sure.” She grabbed the cutter to slice the tape, but Barty put his hand on hers.

“Hold on a minute, pumpkin. I need to visit the bathroom first.”

“Mommy, I need to go potty too.”

Sharon hesitated. “Barty, do you mind? My ankle’s hurtin’ somethin’ awful.”

He wavered, then said, “Sure.”

After a while, Sharon grew restless. She picked up the package. Fingered the tape.

Darn it. Barty knew she hated waiting.

“I’ll give you one more minute,” Sharon said aloud. She waited two. “Okay. That’s long enough.” She stabbed the tape and slid the cutter across the top. The last thing she saw was a bright flash of light.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Barty and Sharon were parked in his faded red Mazda, engine idling. In the back seat, four-year-old Tonya played on a tablet. A UPS truck passed by. Barty checked his note. “That’s the one.” He put the car in gear. “Here we go.” They followed the truck. I get the sense that they’re following someone, but perhaps give readers a bit more to ground them in the scene and the story first.

The driver left the package on a porch.

[“Is that the one, Barty?”

“Sure is, pumpkin. Get ready.”
] This is a repeat of what’s said in the opening. Also, “pumpkin” is typically a term used on a child, but it sounds like Sharon asked the question, not Tonya, so I’m a little confused there

[Once the UPS driver was out of sight, Barty pulled to the curb.] A bit tellish Sharon jumped out, grabbed the package, and made a mad dash back to the car. [Only] Tellish she slipped on wet grass and fell hard.

“Barty,” she gasped.

[Barty looked around, then helped her limp to the car.] No reaction from him? He doesn’t seem concerned about this

“Mommy, are you all right?” Tonya’s voice trembled.

Sharon bit her lip. “Mommy’s fine, baby.”

***

[They parked at Lula Lake, their favorite place, the package on Sharon’s lap.] Even with the break, the transition to this is a bit jarring, as we go from the car to a new location without anything suggesting we moved. There's also nothing to "wrap up" the previous scene before we're in a new location

[Barty grinned. “Want to open it?”] Any internal thought about what’s in it or what they hoped to get?

“Sure.” She grabbed the cutter [to slice] telling motive the tape, but Barty put his hand on hers.

“Hold on a minute, pumpkin. [I need to visit the bathroom first.”] This is an odd thing to say since he was the one who just asked her to open it.

“Mommy, I need to go potty too.”

Sharon hesitated. “[Barty] when it’s clear who’s speaking, you don’t need to use the names, do you mind? My ankle’s hurtin’ somethin’ awful.”

He [wavered] why?, [then said], “Sure.”

[After a while, Sharon grew restless.] Tellish. It’s also another jarring jump in time with nothing else going on She picked up the package. Fingered the tape.

Darn it. Barty knew she hated waiting.

“I’ll give you one more minute,” Sharon said [aloud] if she said it, readers know it was out loud. She waited two. “Okay. That’s long enough.” She stabbed the tape and slid the cutter across the top. The last thing she saw was a bright flash of light.

The Questions:

1. Does the reader need additional information on the characters at this time?


Yes. There’s little internal thought or any sense of who these people are, so I can’t connect to them or know what they’re thinking or feeling. I also have no idea whose point of view this is in, since no one character or narrator stood out as the protagonist. It’s has good bones, but it’s too bare for me to understand enough about what’s going on to hook me as a reader. There were also some jarring transitions, so I felt a bit jerked around and wasn’t able to ground myself in the setting.

Quick note...the submitter was concerned they edited it too far down for the word count restriction, which could be why this felt sparse.

(Here’s more on Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is?)

Here’s what I needed to know as a reader:

What’s the point of view? Right now, it’s a very detached omniscient third, with no sense of any one character or a strong narrator. It reads much like the author describing the basic situation. That's fine for an early draft, but readers will need more fleshing out to fully immerse themselves in the scene.

Who’s the protagonist? Since Sharon is the one who stays in the car, I’m guessing she is, but Barty also seems to be the one driving the scene by his actions. I don't know who's story this is yet.

Who are these people? I don’t need their full backstories, but I wanted some hint of their personalities and feelings about what they’re doing. What do they look like? What are they worried about? What’s their relationship like? They seem like a young family, but that’s just a guess. Sharon never refers to Barty as Dad, and he wavered on taking Tanya to the bathroom, so I don’t know if he’s her father or just Sharon’s boyfriend. Or even if they’re a couple. They might be siblings.

What are they thinking and feeling? I have no sense of what’s going on in anyone’s head, or how they feel about this theft. Are they scared? Nervous? Excited? Do they worry they’ll be caught or spotted? Is this a critical item they need or does it has another purpose? Again, I don’t need all the details since wondering what’s in the package is part of the hook, but I did need a sense of emotion from them to create tension and show stakes. What internal thoughts and external actions and body language will show readers what these characters and thinking and feeling?

Where is this taking place? I’ve no sense of setting. The package is put on a porch, but the porch of what? A house? A business? Is this in a suburban area? A city? A rural community? What’s the temperature outside? The season? Time of day? What are the details that will help readers figure out where and when this is taking place?

I’d suggest adding more internal thought, emotion, stage direction, and setting to help readers understand the scene and what’s going on. Still keep some of the mystery, but provide enough details to ground readers and get them to care about these characters.

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

2. Does the setup catch your interest and leave you with a lot of questions you want the answers to?

Yes and no (readers chime in here). They’re stealing something, and a family with a young child committing a crime is intriguing, but there’s not enough information for me to understand what’s going on. It’s a bit too vague to engage with the story as is, even though I do have a few strong story questions.

But I am curious about what’s going on, and if the rest of the scene was fleshed out, I’d likely be drawn in. The basic setup is working, it’s just too sparse as is.

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

3. Are there areas that definitely need more work?

It’s all a bit too distant at the moment. That’s not uncommon in a mystery, but even with omniscient narrator’s there’s still a sense of character. I suspect once this is fleshed out it will work, and perhaps the original first page already does.

There’s a fine balance between vague and intriguing, and this tips too far into the vague side. But it has the potential to hook because it’s an unusual situation and offers readers an interesting story question right from the start—why is this young family stealing a package off someone’s porch?

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

Overall, the basic scene is good, it just needs fleshing out and the details added to bring it to life. Since this was trimmed down, there’s a decent chance much of what I wanted got cut, but it’s not a bad idea to check to make sure the original does indeed have the necessary layers—the internal thoughts, the emotions, the setting, the clear transitions, and a strong point of view with a clear protagonist.

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 think how much description and background this needs depends on your purpose and your style.

    For the scene's purpose, that final "flash of light" makes one obvious way to read this be these are disposable characters you created as your way to reveal "someone's leaving bombs on doorsteps." Or this could be the setup to Barty trying to avenge Sharon -- or she could be fine, and the flash isn't a bomb at all.

    So, decide what you want readers to feel at the moment. If the flash is a surprise bomb, you want to guide our early sense of Sharon and their stealing to make us interested in them for the page she has to live, but also hint that something very different from just package-snatching is about to happen. Some writers would have them argue about getting out of the grabbing game after this (implying fate won't give them the chance), others would have them talk about rumored bombings or just begin with "On what would be the last hour of Sharon's life..." If Barty becomes the protagonist, you want to focus on him but especially his awareness of Sharon. If there are other wrinkles in what the flash is, or who these people are, include enough of them.

    You might look at other mysteries to study how they introduce a character or situation quickly. There's an art to giving the reader just enough information so they grasp and care about the basics right away, so you can fill them in more as you go along -- or pull the rug out from under those assumptions. Here, you give us enough to assume these people are a family (or maybe a family of convenience) that are simply grabbing packages until something goes wrong. If that's what you want, you've got it mostly covered, but you probably want to fill in a few more aspects about it: Barty's relationship to Sharon, how he reacts to her ankle, and a bit more about what they're thinking and feeling at the moment. Often thoughts like "let's get this done and get back to arguing over dinner" (or "never think about anything else while a theft's on") do a huge amount to make characters more real, more compelling, and give the sense you want of what their lives are beyond this moment.

    As for your style:

    This is very sparse writing right now. It's almost entirely a string of "what"s that happen, like working in Sharon twisting her ankle and Barty "wavering" about taking Tonya to the bathroom. All those "what"s have almost no "how"s about how anything looks or sounds, how someone says something, or what people think along the way.

    That could be what you want. Some writers work that way.

    I'd suggest you ask yourself, "Is this the degree of description I'd want to write EVERY TIME I come to a scene that's equally important?" That's my definition of "style": how much of each kind of writing you're comfortable using again and again. If you decide you want things this bare, think hard about how tiny plot twists and good dialogue can carry the story entirely on their own -- you're on track for that already by how original it is to open with package thieves, and in a family. If you want just a bit more color, look at how writers use well-placed minimal description to give readers enough of a picture without taking a lot of words. If you want more, work on how to add more layers than this, so you get comfortable with it. You make your own choice about how you'll write, and choose which skills to develop to make that work.

    This is a clever beginning to a story, if it's about thieves and a bomb, or it could be many other things. The more you choose which tools you want for this, the better you can bring it to life.

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  2. I agree the script is very bare bones with not a lot to grasp on to. The good news is there is a lot to expand upon. I'm not sure who the protagonist is here, and there is opportunity for it to be any one of the three characters we have met so far. I also want to be more grounded in who these people are, what their mission is, their relationship, etc. Before I can care about the package exploding, I need to care about them.

    Using some of the five senses might help expand the piece. Showing empathy from the protagonist, whoever that is, might latch us on to that person a bit more.

    Couple smaller specific items - If they went through all this trouble to get the package, I don't buy Barty grinning and asking if she wants to open it. They just broke the law for this package, there must be a good reason why. To that point, I also have a hard time believing that Barty wouldn't wait to go the bathroom to open the package. If this excuse is to get Barty and the girl out of the car, then perhaps something that is more urgent and can't be ignored - like the girl about to throw up - that's something that can't be put off.

    They're are lots of great ideas and directions this story can go. With a little work, it will have your readers glued to the page.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for your good suggestions. As Janice mentioned, I edited it down to fit the word count. I do have more description of the characters and their relationship and also a car full of already-opened boxes. One question I wanted to leave for the detective to come -- who was the intended victim and did Barty plan this all along?

    ReplyDelete