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Saturday, September 19

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Finding the Right 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: Zero

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are open.

This week’s questions:

1. Is there too much telling and not showing?

2. Am I’m forcing too much background into the opening?

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable? Is there too much dialogue?

4. is there anything you think I should improve on that I didn’t notice?

5. Would you want to keep reading?

Market/Genre: Unspecified

Note: This is another story we’ve followed through multiple revision.

On to the diagnosis…

Summary of Previous Openings:

The 1st opening scene was a dream sequence, followed by Tom (later iterations name him Nick) meeting with a co-worker, Brian – the focus is a blue-eyed woman in the dream who seems to need Tom’s help. There is no indication of chips or dead friends.

The 2nd iteration places us with Nick (formerly Tom) at an induction meeting with his new employer, where he finds out he has to have a new implant done. He must make a decision that involves having the old chip replaced with a new chip that is a suspect (for unknown reasons) in his friend, Chris’s death. He signs an agreement but is extremely conflicted – wanting to find out more about his friend’s demise, yet realizing the inherent risk involved.

This 3rd iteration of the opening places us at the funeral of Nick’s friend, Chris, with Chris’s fiancĂ©, Megan, and Chris’s parents – and a stranger representing Chris’s former employer, who wants to extricate the chip from Chris’s body before burial.

Original Text:

I stared at the dark wooden casket waiting for Chris to open his eyes, sit up, and climb out. “My best friend shouldn’t be dead at age thirty two. It doesn’t make sense. Unlike me he ran every day, at least since our undergrad, but he died of a heart attack and I’m fine.”

“I know,” Megan said. She hugged me. I felt her tears on my neck. All I could say was, “I’m sorry.” I think she shook her head as I tried to comfort her. They were engaged to be married in six months. She was Chris’s girlfriend since Chris and I were competing for grades as grad students.

We separated after a few minutes. I started to say something, and then stopped

“I understand Nick,” she said.

Her dull blue, half-closed eyes said she wasn’t getting enough sleep.

“I don’t understand why his new company made him change his imbedded brain chip? He had the fastest enhancement chip in the market. Much more capable than mine”

“He said it was required for the job. I personally think it had something to do with his death.”

“I suppose it’s possible. Who’s that guy over there that keeps staring this way?” He wore a light gray suit that allowed him to almost disappear into the gold walls and dark-patterned carpet.

“I assume he’s a relative.”

With only a few people left in the room, the man approached Chris’s parents who were standing next to us.

“Mr. and Mrs. Norton? The funeral director pointed you out. I work at TransChip Corp where Chris worked.”

“Are you a friend of Chris’s?” Mr. Norton asked while reaching his hand out.

“No. I’m here on business. Chris signed an agreement to have the company chip implanted in his head, and when he left the company, he agreed to return that chip. He was on a classified project and the chip can’t be buried with him. I’m sorry.”

“What are you saying?”

“We need to extract that chip before he can be buried.”

Mr. Norton stared directly at him. “He will be buried tomorrow.

My Thoughts in Blue:

I stared at the dark wooden casket [this appears that he’s staring at the casket, not Chris] waiting for Chris to open his eyes, sit up, and climb out.

“My best friend shouldn’t be dead at age thirty-two. It doesn’t make sense. Unlike me he ran every day, at least since our undergrad, but he died of a heart attack and I’m fine.”

“I know,” Megan said. She hugged me. I felt her tears on my neck. [this is a bit passive – I don’t envision an embrace that would mean a tears/neck connection] All I could say was, “I’m sorry.” I think she shook her head [why is this important? Doesn’t seem a reaction to his words] as I tried to comfort her. [telling – what is he doing?] They [She and Chris] were engaged to be married in six months. She was [had been] Chris’s girlfriend since Chris [he] and I were competeding for grades as grad students.

We separated after a few minutes. I started to say something, and then stopped.

“I understand, Nick,” she said. Her dull [is this meant to also indicate lack of sleep or are her eyes always a ‘dull’ blue?] blue, half-closed eyes said she wasn’t getting enough sleep.

“I don’t understand why his new company made him change his imbedded brain chip? [this isn’t a question] He had the fastest enhancement chip in the market. Much more capable than mine.” [this dialogue would benefit from some gesture or body language]

“He said it was required for the job. I personally [unnecessary qualifier] think it had something to do with his death.” [this made me wonder why she thought this – and why Nick’s response-reaction was so mild.]

“I suppose it’s possible…” [we need a break here, either he points, nods toward the man, etc., which explains why he doesn’t pursue Megan’s odd statement and also reestablishes the dialogue pattern of speakers] “Who’s that guy over there that keeps staring this way?” He [The man/stranger] wore a light gray suit that allowed him [the suit color cannot allow anything, but it can make it difficult to see the man] to almost disappear [things disappear or they don’t – deeply blend in with] into the gold walls and dark-patterned carpet. [cannot imagine light gray nearing invisibility with gold and a dark carpet—confusing]

“I assume he’s a relative.”

With only a few people left in the room, [this made me wonder if the service had been completed or not started yet – ‘left’ infers it has been completed – if that’s the case, you could have Nick gaze around the room, establishing that there were only a few people still left] the man approached Chris’s parents, who were standing next to us.

“Mr. and Mrs. Norton? The funeral director pointed you out. I work at TransChip Corporation, where Chris worked.”

“Are you a friend of Chris’s?” Mr. Norton asked while reaching his hand out. [need to show the finish of this movement – do they shake or is his gesture of greeting ignored?]

“No. I’m here on business. Chris signed an agreement to have the company chip implanted in his head, and when he left the company, he agreed to return that chip. He was on a classified project and the chip can’t be buried with him. I’m sorry.” [a movement, such as pulling a document from his jacket pocket, could be used here to show the crassness of the man, that he’s ready with proof of what he says]

“What are you saying?” [again, a small reference to Mr. Norton’s reaction would deepen this exchange]

“We need to extract that chip before he can be buried.”

Mr. Norton stared directly [staring presumes that the gaze is direct] at him. “He will be buried tomorrow.” [mild confusion – reorient my perceptions to this being the wake, not the funeral – is this correct?]

The Questions:

1. Is there too much telling and not showing?

This is essentially all dialogue, so not much happening. However, dialogue can also be telling, if it becomes statements that feed information only, but not particularly from the proper person. This relates to my comment below regarding what I noticed that might be of help – showing used with each speaker allows the scene to be ‘fleshed out’, to grow awareness of the situation and the characters with each exchange.

Showing can also be presented in affirmation of the pacing of the scene, illustrating building emotions, shock, anger, etc. The line where Nick starts to speak, then stops is essentially fine, but could be so much more. He opens his mouth, then clamps it shut, grits his teeth and shakes his head. This is, perhaps, what he does in that sentence, yet we are just told Nick ‘started to say something, and then stopped’. How can you show what he did? And then, what internal thought might be added to show his despair at not being able to find the right words?

(Here's more on Infodumps Through Dialogue: Your Words Are Dead to Me)

2. Am I’m forcing too much background into the opening?

No, not to me. (readers chime in) You establish who Megan is and that she has suspicions, which is a switch from previous iterations, and which also presumes she will remain in the story as an ‘action’ character.

To me, this opening works as part of the setup to the 2nd iteration, where Nick has applied to Chris’s former employer and must face the new chip implant decision. Things must happen, of course, prior to that induction scene, but you have a good beginning.

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

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable? Is there too much dialogue?

This first line is a chance to show Nick’s emotions. Sometimes using short, clipped sentences with pauses can indicate that this is all the person’s mind can handle at the time. Other people may rattle on, stream-of-consciousness, pressure of speech style, their emotions gushing out uncontrolled.
“My best friend shouldn’t be dead at age thirty-two. It doesn’t make sense. Unlike me he ran every day, at least since our undergrad, but he died of a heart attack and I’m fine.”
“It doesn’t make sense. He was only thirty-two, like me [or …only thirty-two, a year younger than me]. He ran every day – for years now. I don’t run. I don’t even think about running. He has the heart attack. And I’m fine … just doesn’t make sense.”
Since this is our introduction to Nick, what do you want this first impression to achieve with readers? The presentation of his dialogue can set the tone for his emotions. Is he talking more to himself than anyone else? This is the impression I got…

You give information that shows Nick feelings of bewilderment over his friend’s death, which will support any paranoia or suspicions he expresses later. You also establish that Nick is probably Chris’s age or nearly so.

On too much dialogue, considering that the entire scene is essentially dialogue, with a couple minor character movements, this would make me lean toward it being too much. However, the idea isn’t how much is too much, but rather is the existing dialogue doing the work you want it to or that it needs to do?

As a side note, I like the idea that Megan is suspicious before Nick is – this may have always been the case in your mind, but that wasn’t clear before – which makes it even more probable that Iteration #2 was simply out of order.

(Here's more on  Do You Have Too Much Dialogue?)

4. is there anything you think I should improve on that I didn’t notice?

With all this dialogue, I would suggest using physical movements/gestures and internal thought to push that dialogue along. Such additions allow the reader little tidbits of imagery, which allow the scene to continually morph and gain depth. If we’re riding on the nose of our protagonist, we want to see what he sees and relate to what he feels.

(Here's more on How to Subtly Boost Your Dialogue’s Power With Body Language)

5. Would you want to keep reading?

This is the iteration where I can wholeheartedly say “Yes!” I would read on. (readers chime in) I want to see the rest of this scene, what kind of confrontation the creepy guy’s demand brings on, everyone’s reaction (somebody punch him in the nose, eh?) and where that takes the story. 

I can now imagine Nick and Megan sleuthing, plotting and deciding on strategies to dig out information. Nick going ‘undercover’ might be a bad idea that goes very wrong. The company might bring legal action to obtain Chris’s brain chip – would they steal the body? Is it a simple process to remove? 

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Write Stronger Opening Scenes)  

You’ve triggered my speculation button, so I will read on. This is the strongest version you’ve done so far. Congratulations on your hard work and for believing in your story. Thank you for sharing!

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

4 comments:

  1. To answer your 5th comment, after escalating exchanges between Chris's father and the company lawyer, I have: I got angrier by the second by the way he was bullying Mr. Norton. He was probably six foot two and two hundred and twenty pounds but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t help myself. I took three quick steps and hurled my hundred and sixty pound body at him when he wasn’t looking at me. He fell sideways and then backwards when he couldn’t catch his balance.
    “Get the hell out of here,” I yelled as I fell on all fours.
    Everybody, including myself, was stunned. I looked back at Mr. Norton.
    He said, “Yeah. Get to hell out of here,” in a surprised voice, still looking at me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. For a scene like this, the first question is, it it the place you want to start the story? The last iteration focused on Nick starting a job and worrying about chips and Chris; here the spotlight is on Chris's death. This is a start that's more relatable and dramatic, at the cost of needing more work after this to convince us Nick might get a job with these "body-snatchers."

    My main thought here is that you may not be convinced this is the concept you want. The background here seems, not exactly too much, but like you wrote it determined to get all these points in without having a firm sense of how the scene feels in its own right.

    What the scene doesn't seem to have is emotion. Nick and Megan talk more about the facts behind their feelings than what it means to be here -- or the cliches and deflections that people might use that show they're trying to push through pain. There's definitely room for at least a few physical actions or bits of description: a lump in the throat, a weird sense that the day outside is too sunny for a death. How can you *pull* the reader into what it's like to be Nick right now?

    I think this section has three goals. One is the basic fact of Chris's death, along with a passing mention of who Megan is (but any more about how long who's been who's friend or girlfriend is probably excess right now). The second is slipping in the fact that Chris got a new chip, and that one's tricky to make come up naturally. Nick might have a small, stubborn thought that the new chip was the only change in Chris's life, but not think it's enough to say out loud, or Megan could have a moment of ranting about it -- or one could hint at it and stop and then realize the other had the same thought. Then it all flows into the scene's third part, the corporation barging in and confirming the chip matters -- how should the previous suspicion have left us hanging before this is triggered? Or should nobody think of the chip at all until the company reminds them of it?

    Those three (or two) points seem like the essentials of the scene. How do you want to pare down, spice up, and bring to life what happens here so you make the most of them?

    Maria has a point about Nick's opening line: it's your chance to nail Nick's personality as well as the circumstances, and it doesn't feel right. Is Nick someone who'd babble at a funeral? Or would he say just one or two sentences, more or less complete thoughts, and leave the depths unsaid? Or a couple of words, or no words at all, or would he go into a complete half-random anecdote or idea as a distraction? Go to that specific moment, imagine being it, and find the EXACT angle that Nick would come at it from... and then time the moment so its message (both about Nick and the circumstances) comes through most clearly.

    That's the kind of insight and precision I'd like to see here. This should be a deeply emotional moment with a sharp plot twist, and right now it looks like you haven't gone as deep as you could in using the idea's strengths.

    This could be the perfect scene to start the story. If you do it justice.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks. I was trying to get too much information into a certain number of words and I know I left a lot of the emotion out. I'm in the process of rewriting it again with more emotion.
    I like this better as a starting point than the previous one but your input will help me definitely get there. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sasha Anderson9/20/2020 8:13 AM

    I'm not a fan of Nick's first line of dialogue. I think it's trying to tell us too much background info - would he really be saying that Chris was 32, that he ran, that he died of a heart attack? The person he's talking to already knows all that. And that brings me to my second issue with it - Nick is saying all this to Chris's fiancee, which makes him come across as tactless, at best. It reminds me of that circle diagram, don't remember exactly what it's called but it's something like support in, complain out. Nick can vent about losing his best friend to his own partner, or to another mutual friend, but not to Megan if he has any empathy.

    The conversation about the brain chip also sounds way too much like trying to tell us things we 'need to know', to me. And I thought the transition to the guy over there, when they'd just been talking about the company, was a bit awkward, but that's a minor issue that can be smoothed out.

    I'm intrigued by the conflict around the chip removal, though, and want to find out what's going on and what's so secret about it! (And I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that they wouldn't have already sorted this out before the funeral...)

    ReplyDelete