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Saturday, August 29

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Establishing Setting in an Opening Scene

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through September 19.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this work for an opening scene?

2. Does it orient you, grab attention, make you want to read on?

Market/Genre: Women’s Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

I was nearly thirty, but the little girl in me came alive at fun fairs. Something about them: the accordion music, people shrieking with laughter on the rides, then spilling from them like they’ve been at sea for months. The air always tasted of burnt sugar and grilled onions, doughnuts hot from the fryer. But my favourite thing was the Ferris wheel, where anything could happen.

Anthony wasn’t there yet, but the queue snaked all the way to the port-a-loos. I joined the back and gazed up at the rainbow-lit wheel. Had anyone ever died on a Ferris wheel? Incredible way to go, although not as exciting for the fun fair staff. Could you get married on one? The Ferris wheel there at South Jessamine’s half-term fun fair could hold three people in each pod, so it could work. Me, Anthony, and the vicar.

It was March, and evening, and the sky threatened rain. I pulled my coat tight and willed the queue to move. Not too quickly, though. At least not until Anthony arrived.

Had anyone ever given birth up there? Again, not so amazing for the staff, and it might ruin Ferris wheels for the mother forever, but what an entrance to the world. What a story.

I glanced up once more at the circle of light.

How about getting engaged?

I pulled my phone from my coat pocket, studying the glowing numbers. 7:02. Anthony was late.

Anthony was never late.

My Thoughts in Blue:

I was nearly thirty, but the little girl in me came alive at fun fairs. Something about them:[this sounds like the beginning of an explanation – perhaps just listing the things that brought out her little girl side?] the accordion music, people shrieking with laughter on the rides, then spilling from them like they’ve been at sea for months. [I like this, but it mixes things heard with things seen so cripples the connection.] The air always tasted [again, I like this but am unable to relate tasting to what would be things smelt] of burnt sugar and grilled onions, doughnuts hot from the fryer. But my favourite thing was the Ferris wheel, where anything could happen. [I like this, made me smile, so you’ve caught my imagination]

Anthony wasn’t there [wasn’t where? Perhaps: hadn’t arrived yet?] yet, but the queue snaked all the way to the port-a-loos. I joined the back [this is where I would start this paragraph, tucking in the bit about the queue, injecting the location, then the info about Anthony] and gazed up at the rainbow-lit wheel. Had anyone ever died [as in ‘urk!’ I’m dead? Or falling off? This seems an odd thought, so might give a hint of her personality] on a Ferris wheel? Incredible way to go, [I’d like a bit more here to allude as to what element would be incredible – the view?] although not as exciting for the fun fair staff. Could you get married on one? The Ferris wheel there [here] at South Jessamine’s half-term fun fair could hold three people in each pod, so it could work. Me, Anthony, and the vicar.

It was March, and evening, and the sky threatened rain. I pulled my coat tight and willed the queue to move. Not too quickly, though. At least not until Anthony arrived.

Had anyone ever given birth up there? Again, not so amazing for the staff, and it might ruin Ferris wheels for the mother forever, but what an entrance to the world. What a story. [this makes me wonder if she’s a writer or journalist]

I glanced up once more at the circle of light.

How about getting engaged?

I pulled my phone from my coat pocket, studying the glowing numbers. 7:02. Anthony was late.

Anthony was never late.

The Questions:

1. Does this work for an opening scene? Does it orient you, grab attention, make you want to read on?

For quickie answers: yes, and mostly yes. Readers chime in, please.

For starters, the first sentence immediately establishes information about the protagonist. However, the use of ‘fun fair’ put me in mind of summer, not early spring, so that’s where my head started the story. This meant that when timing info was plugged in a bit later, I had to begrudgingly shift my idea of ‘when’ from summer to a chilly, wet, possibly miserable time of year. My resistance was supported by questions like, “Who goes to a fair when it’s chilly and wet?” This only has to do with me, not every reader, of course.

I like all the material presented – period.

You have a good eye for descriptions that step beyond 1 or 2 dimensions and easily incorporate into the story environment. This sideways building gives repeated peeks into the protagonist’s personality, how she looks at the world. The idea that she allows herself to be a child when in this fun fair world reveals that she likes the feeling, enjoys the nostalgia, and is probably holds a pretty romantic view of the world. Several things reinforce this feeling about her, including the series of questions related to the Ferris wheel. Even the one about death on a Ferris wheel is presented as something that could be extraordinary.

The entire opening needs to be stirred up a bit. Essentially, we have her already at the fair, but we don’t know where exactly. Is she heading inside from parking? Is she stopped at some spot looking around where Anthony was to meet her? When he wasn’t at that spot, did she decide to move to the Ferris wheel queue, knowing Anthony would look for her there?

She is being, and moving and thinking, but with little stage direction for the reader to follow. So, I’d rather she would be placed in the queue, reveal that Anthony hadn’t arrived yet or she didn’t see him in the queue (maybe that was their meeting place?), and then look around and engage with her surroundings. After all, she’s just standing in line…

(Here's more on Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions) 

You can also include whether the Ferris wheel has been running the whole time, or just started, or might stop soon. This is a tiny piece of info that will add an equal amount of tension. What are her options? As presented, we know the queue is long, but not how long. If it’s threatening rain, does that mean they Ferris wheel ride is off?

In the environment, we have been given the list of things she loves, the things that allow her to engage as a child, but we don’t know the reality of her surroundings. Where is the Ferris wheel in relation to the front gate to the fairgrounds? Do the crowds make it easy or difficult for her to see Anthony – or vice versa?

If she loves the Ferris wheel, and obviously has a very romantic perception attached to it, is this the first ride of the year? Did the fair just open? Have they gone to the fair, ridden the Ferris wheel – is it a tradition of theirs?

(Here's more on Are You Choosing the Best Words to Describe Your Setting?) 

I really enjoy the interplay of the questions, as they build outside information about the protagonist – including the questions about marriage and marriage proposals. If she’s imagining these, then we can conclude that she and Anthony haven’t reached either of these life changes. But it appears that she has them both on her mind.

Again, I feel that nearly everything is here, but it does need some ‘reconstruction’, so it has a stronger core. There is a lot for readers to engage with and learn about this protagonist – and like! You have a nice, mild hook that fits the feeling generated so far. Anthony is late, and he’s never late – so, yes… I want to know were Anthony is, because she wants to know. Yet I have no indication from her that she’s registering any concern – perhaps she’s too wrapped up in her fun fair feelings to feel concern? Or perhaps the next page rockets us off into a mystery.

(Here's more on Why Quieter Stakes Are Easier to Plot With) 

I like what you’ve done very much and can see that you are able to get much of what’s in your head down onto the page. My only concern (and it’s my low-key peeve) is that I have no ‘real’ information about her. No name. No description – not even a sideways/back-handed/delivered by a stranger description. I cling to the ‘nearly thirty’ like a splinter of wood floating in the ocean, sharks circling slowly (grin).

(Here's more on ) describe first person

Some grounding will help the reader ‘get’ the surroundings. Some references that are as brief and image laden as the chill, coat, sky, month would do fine.

Send in your rewrites (if you wish), I’d love to see any changes you make. Good luck and keep writing!

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

2 comments:

  1. This really is a great opening scene. You make the fun fair so, well, fun, and you spin so many thoughts and observations off of it. Plus, you get your heroine's age in just as it all starts in a way that's natural and heads off any misconceptions about the viewpoint.

    There's not much to wish for except a thread of tension through this. "Anthony was never late" (right after the hint about getting engaged) is a great hook, and I wish it didn't take so long to be hinted at. I don't mean cut the scene or jam the hook in earlier, I mean find a way to build toward it.

    You mention Anthony's absence in the second paragraph, but you underplay it with "yet." Are there ways to seed a little more interest in when he'll arrive and what might be at stake, and how she expects him to be punctual? Just quietly hint that he's the spine of this scene, and all the musings about the fair don't fully distract from that. The idea of being caught in the rain can play off that too; like you said, she's hoping the line goes fast but not so fast Anthony misses her.

    One thought: after the first sentence, you might add a form of "anything can happen" that just barely sets the tone for worrying about Anthony, and then split the paragraph there. That would spotlight the scene's setting plus where it's ultimately going in one bite, and let you move on to the larger paragraph with much of the rush of description.

    Small point: you capture all the senses well (sound, smell/taste, even a bit of touch in people staggering off the rides), with one exception. The descriptions are so vivid, the fact that it's actually a bit dark, "evening in March," doesn't come through early enough. That's part of how clear the wheel's lights are in the sky, and the hour adds extra believability to possible rain and Anthony being held up.

    A fun read, that is just a little more held up by its queue than it needs to be. Let's enjoy every moment of it, but get that hint of where we're going too.

    (I so want some popcorn right now...)

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  2. A unique story with deep pov to show the protagonist's worldview and feelings. I wanted to read more when Anthony is missing but not before, not that I didn't appreciate the beginning. But raising the stakes about him throughout the beginning would have drawn me in sooner. Some internal thought she worries about. Maybe even move up the late time issue sooner. A little more orientation as stated would help, too--an easy fix. You have a great start.

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