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Saturday, September 26

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a First Chapter Ending

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through October 17.

This week’s question:

Would this be a good enough dramatic ending for the first chapter to make you want to read more?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Historical

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Freddy sat on the couch in his living room with the newspaper in his hands, while Gran Mamie watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report on the t.v. He re-read the article and shot a glance at the clock hanging on the wall; it was almost eight p.m., and his dad still wasn’t home.

“Hurry up, Dad!” He said out loud, looking at the clock once more. His feet were twitching faster.

“Don’t fret, Freddy,” Gran Mamie said. “He’ll be home soon.”

“How come he always does this, Gran?” He looked at his grandmother, tears brimming his eyes. “He done told me we wuz goin to the Meet ‘n Greet tonight. How come he cain’t come home when he says he’s gonna?”

She didn’t have an answer.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and rechecked the newspaper for the millionth time. The paper said the meeting was from six to eight p.m. If his dad didn’t get home soon, they’d miss it. Five minutes to eight, his dad stumbled through the front door and plopped down on his chair in front of the television.

Freddy jumped from the sofa and tugged on his dad’s arm. “We gotta hurry, Dad!” The pungent odor of liquor filled the room and stung Freddy’s nostrils. “C’mon, Dad, we gotta go!”

His dad lifted his head with effort and stared at him; his eyes looked out of focus. His head lolled to one side then fell back on the chair, his eyes closed.

Gran Mamie gently pulled him away from his sleeping dad. “Let him be, son. I reckon there’s no use ‘n tryin no more.”

Freddy let go of his dad’s arm, and it fell to the side of the chair.

“I HATE HIM! I HATE SCHOOL!”

He ran to his room, crying and slammed the door leaving his grandmother staring after him with pity in her eyes.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Freddy sat on the couch in his living room with the newspaper in his hands, while Gran Mamie watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report on the t.v. He re-read the article and shot a glance at the clock hanging on the wall; it was almost eight p.m., and his dad [still wasn’t home.] How does he feel here? Is he angry? Worried?

“Hurry up, Dad!” He said [out loud,] if he said it, we know it was out loud looking at the clock once more. His feet [were twitching] Perhaps twitched to keep it active faster.

“Don’t fret, Freddy,” Gran Mamie [said.] Perhaps add some body language or sense of emotion here. Is she worried? Calm? If she’s hiding her own fear and trying to keep it from Freddy, that would underscore the tension “He’ll be home soon.”

“How come he always does this, Gran?” He looked at his grandmother, tears brimming his eyes. “He done told me we wuz goin to the Meet ‘n Greet tonight. How come he [cain’t] Perhaps stay with can’t. Remember—this is for younger readers still learning to read, and some of them might have trouble with the dialect come home when he says he’s gonna?”

[She didn’t have an answer.] Perhaps a hint of her emotions here as well. How does Gran feel about her son’s behavior? You don’t have to spell it out if you don’t want to, but a bit of subtext would help readers see deeper into this family

He wiped [the tears from] could cut to tighten his eyes and rechecked the newspaper for the millionth time. The paper said the meeting was from six to [eight p.m.] If the meeting ends at eight, and it’s not even eight yet, why is Freddy upset Dad isn’t home? Wouldn’t he come home after the meeting ends? If his dad didn’t get home soon, they’d miss [it.] I assume readers will know what this refers to from earlier in the chapter, but since looks like it’s important, stating it again here might not be a bad idea (ETA: I missed the previous Meet & Greet comment (or I thought Dad's meeting was the Meet & Greet), so perhaps use this moment to show why Freddy want this so badly. For example, "...he'd miss his chance to know at least one person before school started so he wouldn't be the odd kid out" type thought.  Five minutes to eight, his dad stumbled through the front door and plopped down on his chair in front of the television.

[Freddy jumped from the sofa and tugged on his dad’s arm.] Perhaps a sense of emotion from Freddy before he does this. I assume he’s relived, but is he also angry? Apprehensive they won’t make “it” in time? “We gotta hurry, Dad!” The pungent odor of liquor filled the room and stung [Freddy’s nostrils.] Does he have a reaction or a thought here? Such as, “Oh no, drunk again” or maybe he wonders if Dad was at the meeting at all. Or was this an AA meeting? If so, the liquor would probably trigger a sadder or more hopeless reaction “C’mon, Dad, we gotta go!”

[His dad lifted his head with effort and stared at him; his eyes looked out of focus. His head lolled to one side then fell back on the chair, his eyes closed.] There’s nothing really wrong with this paragraph, but Freddy is there tugging on his Dad, clearly agitated, and this is the moment he realizes Dad isn’t going to come through for him. It’s a missed opportunity for deep emotion, because it’s from the omniscient narrator’s perspective, not Freddy’s. Consider putting this in Freddy’s POV and showing how this makes him feel.

Gran Mamie gently pulled him away from his sleeping dad. “Let him be, son. I reckon there’s no use ‘n tryin no more.” Perhaps a sense of what her voice sounds like

Freddy let go of his dad’s arm, and it fell to the side of the chair. Since Freddy has such a strong reaction and screams next, perhaps a sense of that building here. Maybe some internal thoughts to show what he’s struggling with, some physical sensations, an emotional reaction, then he explodes.

“I HATE HIM! [I HATE SCHOOL!”] I understand being mad at Dad, but I don’t understand how school fits into this. Though it might have to do with whatever he wanted his father to go do with him. If school is the reason, then I’d suggest making that more clear earlier with the “it” reference to it. This also feels like the moment where Freddy decides to do something that will hook readers to turn the page. What is that? ETA: Freddy thinking about how not going to the M&G and how that will hurt him could work nicely here. He might remember past schools and times he was treated badly, so readers can really worry about what will happen when he shows up at school 

[He ran to his room] to do what? Is it just to try or is there more? More would help add that hook, crying and slammed the door leaving his grandmother staring after him [with pity in her eyes.] Perhaps show some of this earlier in those areas I mentioned

The Question:

1. Would this be a good enough dramatic ending for the first chapter to make you want to read more?


It’s always tough to critique an ending when I haven’t read the rest of the chapter, but I’ll do my best.

I think the pieces look pretty good. Freddy is anticipating something that matters to him, and he expects his father to show up for it. But Dad goes out and gets drunk again, and then lets Freddy down (again, I assume).

What was missing for me here, is a sense of what that was, why it matters, and what happens next.

I imagine those details are covered prior to this ending, but since Freddy is thinking about it here, I wanted a little reminder of what was at stake, and where this moment is going to go (the goal moving forward).

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running) 

I’m guessing the “it” Freddy is talking about has something to do with school since he screams that he hates both his dad and school. But there’s nothing in the actual moment that shows me what Freddy is upset about, or how this is going to affect him. Since this seems like the pivotal moment in this chapter, I wanted it to be stronger and clearer to really hook me.  (ETA: I just realized the Meet & Greet was mentioned and I missed it. Just goes to show how easily a detail and slip by, and why we sometimes need to repeat things -grin-). 

It’s heartbreaking, yes, but there’s nothing in this ending that encourages me to turn the page. Is Freddy going to go to the “it” by himself? Is he going to sneak out in anger? Dad let him down again and…what? There’s no sense of where the story goes after this. What is Freddy going to do next, trigger by what just happened? ETA: Maybe Freddy decides to go by himself with disastrous results? Going to the meeting actually makes things worse, not better?

(Here’s more on A Simple Trick to Keep Readers Turning the Pages) 

There’s also no sense of why this is bad for Freddy aside from just showing an example of how tough his life is. It does generate sympathy for Freddy, but it doesn’t move the story.

I’m also unsure how the characters feel about all this. Freddy has some tears and he shouts, but those are general emotions. I wanted to know the specifics about how this is affecting him. What does he think about? How does his father’s actions affect him emotionally and mentally? He’s being let down, and this is probably common, but what are his thoughts and feeling about this?

How does Gran feel about it? She has a look of pity at the end, but I wanted a better sense of how she feels about Dad acting this way. For example, the tone of her voice, the look on her face, her body language, maybe even her dialogue. She’s not the POV, so this would all show in the subtext and what Freddy observes.

I also wanted a touch more from Dad. He comes in and passes out. Does he say anything to Freddy? Is there a moment where he realizes he let Freddy down and a flicker of shame flashes across his face before he passes out? Is he angry that Freddy is bugging him?

(Here’s more on What Are You Really Saying? (The Use of Subtext)) 

Good news is, I don’t think this needs much to develop those missing pieces. The bones here work.

I’d suggest making Freddy’s goal, motives, and the stakes clearer. What is “it” and why does “it” matter? ETA: A little more to develop this would help, since I so easily missed it. Not all readers will, but it's the heart of this problem. Is he about to miss parent/teacher night? Does that mean Freddy starts school at a disadvantage or with some negative? This let down is the cause, but what is the effect?

(Here’s more on Getting the Best Response From Your Characters)

Why does this moment matter to the plot? It clearly matters to Freddy, but how does it advance the story? What does tis moment, this letdown by his dad, cause Freddy to do? And how can you get a sense of that into this ending to hook readers to turn the page?

Overall, I think the basics are right, it’s just not as developed as it could be (normal for early drafts—and even some late drafts). The focus is on the external, so now flesh out the internal. Think about ways to hook the reader and give them a reason to turn that page. Once you tap into the emotions and the reasons this is so bad for Freddy, and give him an action or goal to drive the plot forward, this should work as a solid chapter ending.

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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8 comments:

  1. I agree, this seems to be on track -- although we have to guess what its track is.

    It works best if the chapter has been building up to Freddy having one chance to start this move and especially this school on the right foot, if the "Meet & Greet" is a school event. (If you made it clear earlier, it won't have to be here now, but he might or might not think about how school is harder or easier depending on this.) Then his dad comes in late and drunk and dashes those hopes. That works very well. (Of course if the Meet weren't specifically a school event, it'd be a huge stretch to have Freddy add "I hate school" here.)

    It might work even better if the story until now has finessed around revealing his father's an alcoholic, so this is a double-whammy of not only failing Freddy once again but revealing what a huge problem the whole family has.

    It could also have minor turning points about Freddy's understanding of it all. You could imply that this is the first time Freddy has started to think about some side of his situation a little more maturely. Maybe he's really starting to consider that because of bosses and such his father might not be in control of what promises he can keep (a milestone for any child) -- so that's also dashed when it turns out Dad's Just Drunk Again. His grandmother could be part of that, or say something else she hasn't said before. (Actually, is her "no use trying no more" exactly that, her giving up on her son overall instead of just for the night?) Or you could set up that Freddy's always held back about his frustration a little (or is vowing to this time), just enough that saying "hate" out loud is crossing a line. Or there could be some buildup about an object for the Meet & Greet (potluck food? new clothes?) that gets abandoned or spilled at the end. These are ways this moment could have some extra resonance beyond being the latest of many disappointments, and ideally they could point toward the specifics that the rest of the story is heading into.

    I wonder, is part of the story ahead that when Freddy gets in trouble with that teacher (from other excerpts), he's too angry at his father to get his help? If it is, the chapter could also be building up to him trying to trust and rely on his father again, so that bond is broken here and leaves Freddy feeling alone.

    One particular here: you have Freddy still pulling at his father even after he smells the liquor. You probably want Freddy starting to feel his despair the moment he smells it, or even when he sees his father staggering, though Freddy will probably keep trying for a few seconds longer before the truth fully sinks in. Letting that truth creep over him during a few seconds is more powerful than just realizing it all at once, and it makes sense that Freddy will start to recognize what's happened early.

    The last line is slipping out of viewpoint. This seems like it's a focused Freddy perspective (or it should be, and it would take work to show it's more omniscient), so it's a cheat to "notice" how his grandmother looks when he's gone, or recognize that the look is pity when the narrator is too worked up to read it. It's slightly acceptable because a scene-end can be a moment to loosen the viewpoint, but it would be more natural to have Freddy just notice something before he leaves.

    Again, a chapter end or other transition ought to be judged by what's been leading into it and what it goes on to, as well as its own drama. If those are what this scene makes them look like, this works nicely.

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  2. Doh! I just realized I totally missed the Meet & Greet comment while commenting on something else in that paragraph. That does add more drive to the scene, though I do think seeing how it will affect Freddy and what the stakes are will help raise the tension.

    Going back now to tweak a few things. Sorry! It's so easy to miss something, even when I try to catch it all.

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  3. thank you Janice and Ken for your insights. You pointed out so many things that I took for granted and failed to notice (small details that make this scene seem natural) that the reader would need in understanding this scene. I love the WIP Diagnostic and appreciate your help so much!

    Roxie Weesner

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  4. The biggest thing I missed was a hook at the end to make me wonder what would happen next. Just driving the point home again, as suggested and in answer to the question.

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  5. While young readers won't catch this, you might want to check for the time of day when the news program aired. On the east coast, it would have been over for almost an hour if the story is set at almost 8 pm.

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  6. It's nearly 8pm, the meet-n-greet is concluding, the opportunity lost. Freddy has been waiting for over 2 hours for his dad to return from work (presumably). Maybe Dad made a promise, one of many in the past that were broken. Maybe Freddy is just old enough that the consequences of poor adult behavior are becoming intolerable. We don't want to hate our parents, but if the conclusion that they are the cause of our pain can no longer be ignored, even as a middle grade kid, we're going to cross that barrier of 'hey, big people don't care' with enormous anger.

    Freddy's explosion isn't surprising, considering the presumed circumstances (man, imagine any middle grade kid waiting for something and then being denied? [mushroom cloud]

    I would read on if Freddy didn't just run to his room, but 'stormed' to his room, still shouting, maybe threats "I'll show you!" or something else that said he had been pushed too far and was going to take action. Had he ever given even slight thought to harming his dad? Getting the old man out of the picture -- removing the obstacle to ??? This sounds extreme, but I would read on if I thought Freddy's judgment switch about his dad had been flipped. Gran might be aware, might follow him to his room, fearing he would do something extreme.

    I used to babysit a lot as a teen - a middle grade kid can be like a Tasmanian devil, if riled up... :O)

    Previous knowledge about Freddy from an earlier critique allowed me to more easily cast the meet-n-greet as a (new) school function, and a chance to meet classmates with the 'protection' of his parent. Which meant his dad being late and drunk could be seen by Freddy as a real betrayal. I wanted to see Freddy show disgust, anger, and maybe shake a fist at Dad while yelling out his hatred. How wide was the line he had to cross to actually say the word 'hate'?

    The previous material in this chapter should build to this point, then give the reader a 'jump of the cliff/possible mayhem' moment as he heads for his room, Gran in quick pursuit --
    We don't know what Freddy has in his room, but apparently Gran would be concerned.

    oyes, Gran is the classic enabler position, so she and her actions stand on a precipice, just before Freddy might consider her complicit in his dad's behavior and betrayal.

    You've got what the bones you need, now pack some meat on them. :O)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Maria. Great ideas you have provided. I am learning first drafts are mere skeletons of a story and later will become a real fleshed out living creature called a novel!
      Can't wait to learn how to apply meat to the bones! Ha!

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