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Saturday, November 28, 2020

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Short Story 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: Zero

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

This week’s questions:

1. Does this work as an opening?

2. Would you want to read the rest of the story?

3. Does the dialogue seem appropriate to the scene?

Market/Genre: Fantasy Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

"But her blatant and intentional violation of MY ORDER is unjust, irrational, and disrespectful to myself as well as the Council and The Sodality of Themis." The Clan Chief finished, red-faced with beads of perspiration beginning to form on his forehead. He took his seat heavily.

"Does Lysandra have anything she wishes to say?" asked the Head of Council.

"Milords." Lysandra bowed her head slightly, respectfully, as she rose.

"I would first point out that my visit was a small thing borne of curiosity and certainly not unjust, irrational, or disrespectful. I in no way meant to disrespect the Council or the Clan Chief personally, though he appears to take it such…"

The Chief leaped to his feet; his face now scarlet. "This tribune is not meeting about her or me—it's about my DIRECT ORDER to…"

"Please, Sire, the lady does have the floor," said the Head, patiently.

The Chief chuffed as he sat down.

"As I was saying, milords, there was no direct order from the Chief. The Tradition has always been that we do not venture into the Mundane World until we are invited to do so by a Senior member of the Clan. I do understand and respect that tradition, but I had been having unusually vivid dreams of the Mundane World and my Family of Origin. And meeting them. I discussed the dreams with my Clan Elder Sister, and, well, she didn't encourage me to go, but…"

"I see, Lysandra. We on the Council are aware of your exceptional talents and have, in the past, ignored some of your lesser…er…adventures that could be construed as technical violations of our traditions and Code of Conduct. Just what was your involvement with this Mundaner," the Head checked his notes, "Professor Elliot Pfeiffer?"

My Thoughts in Blue:

"But her blatant and intentional violation of MY ORDER is unjust, irrational, and disrespectful to myself as well as the Council and The Sodality of Themis." The Clan Chief finished, red-faced with beads of perspiration beginning to form on his forehead. He took his seat heavily. [I would roll this together, seat him first, then the physical notes. If he sits, you don’t need to indicate he ‘finished’]

"Does Lysandra have anything she wishes to say?" asked the Head of Council. [remove the tag and have him gesture or nod, something to show who he is, what he looks like, or where he is]

"Milords." Lysandra bowed her head slightly, respectfully, as she rose.

"I would first point out that my visit was a small thing borne of curiosity and certainly not unjust, irrational, or disrespectful. I in no way meant to disrespect the Council or the Clan Chief personally, though he appears to take it such…" [why is he so upset?]

The Chief leaped to his feet; his face now scarlet. "This tribune is not meeting about her or me—it's about my DIRECT ORDER to…"

"Please, Sire, the lady does have the floor," said the Head, patiently.

The Chief chuffed as he sat down.
[all of this material is based on the last bit of Lysandra’s dialogue, which reads a little passive aggressive. (grin) What could this page time be used for that would promote bonding with Lysandra?]

"As I was saying, milords, there was no direct order from the Chief. The Tradition has always been that we do not venture into the Mundane World until we are invited to do so by a Senior member of the Clan. I do understand and respect that tradition, but [here comes the excuse for being naughty] I had been having unusually vivid dreams of the Mundane World and my Family of Origin. And meeting them. I discussed the dreams with my Clan Elder Sister, and, well, she didn't encourage me to go, but…" [and this ends the excuse, which is pretty weak – what can be done here to give this some passion?]

"I see, Lysandra. We on the Council are aware of your exceptional talents and have, in the past, ignored some of your lesser…er…adventures that could be construed as technical violations of our traditions and Code of Conduct. [this establishes her history, but I want to know what her talent is?] Just what was your involvement with this Mundaner," the Head checked his notes, "Professor Elliot Pfeiffer?" [this is great fun and prickles curiosity]

The Questions:

1. Does this work as an opening?

Yes and no. (readers chime in)

Part of my issue with this opening is that it appears things have already transpired that have caused the Chief to be red-faced and sweating. This placed me in the position of being someone who just walked into the room/Council chamber and realized that I had just missed a rousing tirade, which I would presume included specific information about the disobeyed order. This leaves me wondering what I missed and feeling that I’m not ‘in’ the story but instead ‘watching/observing’ the story.

This means I’m on the hunt for a connection to a character or the circumstance.

When Lysandra is offered a chance to speak, she minimizes the ‘visit’ that seems to be the crux of her kerfuffle, and then simply parrots the verbiage spouted by her possible nemesis (or is she his nemesis?), then states no direct order was given.

This is the point where I stopped and wondered if this was her defense: no order was given, so no order was disobeyed. But then she continues with an explanation that seems to be her excuse for making a visit that is forbidden to make without particular authorization. She rationalizes that dreams and a conversation with her Clan Elder Sister were viewed, by her, as sufficient to support her decision to betray traditions/rules.

Lysandra’s feelings about this meeting are unclear and her ‘defense’ doesn’t allow me to think she’s clever or exceptionally talented. Why hide what her talent is? Can her talent be shown in this scene so readers can begin building this character?

I fairly easily ‘built’ the Chief and the Head of the Council. Their dialogue framed their purpose, intent, and personality to enough of a degree that I could set them aside and just ‘listen’ to them.

Lysandra bows her head but I have no clue how she feels. I don’t know her age, her status or circumstances, so she is simply a name speaking dialogue. And that dialogue denies the charge of disobeying an order, that no order was given – but then, she goes on to explain and excuse her action that the Chief charges she was ordered not to do. Or is that the case?

An opening scene that relies on dialogue is difficult to manage, as the scene needs to be grounded either through the dialogue or narrative bits that become the glue for framing the scene. Here, we are in white space, with three characters exchanging dialogue with few specifics. If the scene is a ‘court’ or tribunal setting, then a way needs to be found to establish where each character is located in relation to the others, give just enough description (direct or inferred) of each character for a beginning sketch, and employ a few bits of stage direction to provide some movement. Readers don’t need much to ‘build the room’, so even if you simply indicate indoors or out, lighting sources, a significant object (in a regular courtroom scene this would be a gavel) that helps to identify the function of the scene.

This opening makes some assumptions of information, while also allowing the dialogue to override character introductions and bonding. The scene’s purpose is clear enough, but we need a way to care about what’s happening.

The last line is where my ears pricked up… (grin)

(Here’s more on Writing Dialogue: 4 Ways to Avoid Floating Head Syndrome!)

2. Would you want to read the rest of the story?

Yes (readers chime in!) because I would want to find out what all the information presented pertained to – what this world was, what Family of Origin means, what the Mundane World is (which instantly made me think of Muggles), why Lysandra’s apparent contact with the Mundaner is such a big deal, etc.

You managed to hook me with the inquiry about the Mundaner, Professor Pfeiffer. I would read on simply to find out who this mystery person might be, figuring there was a story behind any involvement she had with him. (Forbidden fruit?)

I would read on to find out why Lysandra was having dreams and what they meant.

I would read on because I had many questions about things that were not covered in the dialogue. I would read on to search for a way into the story, to bond with a character, to learn about how Lysandra felt.

(Here’s more on Starting a Scene With Dialogue)

3. Does the dialogue seem appropriate to the scene?

I would suggest considering what you want to accomplish in the dialogue. What do you want the reader to have in mind while reading this scene? What emotions do you want to incite? What information does the reader need to have to successfully move into the story?

I believe this dialogue needs to first show the Chief declaring his charges, being upset, and now readers will know why he’s so upset. If you include a bit of Lysandra’s history of breaking rules, readers will understand that this is not the first offense. This will set the framework of the scene, the reason the scene exists.

Now, with Lysandra being accused of something specific, defined by information about the traditions and rules of this world, readers can view her as a rebel or as disrespectful or as a victim of the Chief’s obsession with her or whatever you wish. And when she speaks, she can allude to her age, her status as citizen or student or apprentice (again whatever), and can then deliver her statement and explanation for her betrayal in one of the various tones that will support who you want readers to believe her to be. 

If she’s a rebel, her turn to speak might be as fiery as the Chiefs. If she’s a victim who has met punishment at the Chief’s hand before, she might plead forgiveness or mercy. If she’s exceptionally talented, then she will speak of that talent and why it makes her life more difficult or why it drives her to explore things that might seem disrespectful, but her heart, intent and beliefs are otherwise. 

Some of her dialogue may currently present some information that readers can be exposed to on the next page. Perhaps some of what is said in her current dialogue can be revealed to someone later, after the formal proceedings end? Perhaps she approaches the Head of the Council and speaks to him in low tones about the dreams and talking with her Elder Sister, and then the Head of the Council stops her, waves her back to her position in the room, and addresses her.

Small things woven into dialogue allow readers to build and speculate and be surprised and look forward to new information. Just consider what the scene is establishing, from all angles, and what you want the reader to know and understand about the characters and your story.

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

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

7 comments:

  1. Let's just run through the questions (grin).

    1. Does this work as an opening?

    Yes and no. The idea did intrigue me, but I felt like it started too late, throwing me into the fray before I had a chance to get my feet. The opening paragraph jarred me and made me think I missed the real opening. I don't know Lysandra yet, or care about her problem, and there isn't enough here to see her problem and start rooting for.

    I think if I had even a paragraph or two of Lysandra waiting to go into that room, worrying about what she'd face, and some clue about her emotional state as she prepares so I could anticipate and look forward to the "confrontation," I'd have been hooked more.

    2. Would you want to read the rest of the story?

    I'd give it a little more time to see where it went and decide. I don't feel like it's started yet, this is all still setup and as soon as this is decided, the actual story will begin. But if I had a sense that what Lysandra did here actually caused the story to happen, then it would make me want to know more.

    3. Does the dialogue seem appropriate to the scene?

    What little I know of this world so far, yes. Seems like a military or political dressing down, in a fantasy world. But it also feels a little more like information to set the scene that the scene unfolding to show me who the protagonist is and what the problem is. That's good in some aspects, as it puts the world building in the action, but I wanted a little more than just that.

    More from Lysandra would do it. If she's the protagonist, I wanted a better sense of who she was and what she was after here. As a reader, why should I care about her? Why should I want to know what she'll do next? What did she break the rules to do this?

    You don't have to give it all away of course, but even a sense that she had motivations for all this would help. She has excuses, but that doesn't make me care about why she did it like her motives would.

    Overall, it's a good start, and with some tweaks and fleshing out, this could be a lot of fun.

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  2. I love the idea of starting the story at this point. Short stories live and die by their efficiency, and dialogue --especially a pivotal moment like a hearing-- is a strong way to drop up right into the middle of conflict. Courtroom dramas and similar settings can be powerful stuff.

    That said, that means you can laser in on what the core of that conflict is, and decide how to present it and how much to pad it out with other issues. This looks to me like the essence is: Lysandra broke a tradition by visiting the Mundane world, the Chief equates that with breaking a rule (which it isn't), and Lysandra has reasons that might justify what she did.

    So, you might think about the best ways to present those. Maybe the Chief keeps using his turn to talk up Lysandra's "disrespect" and "bad history" and really does pretty well at blurring the line between a tradition and an order, even though Lysandra keeps trying to make that key distinction. Maybe she has to struggle to get any mention of her reasons in at all.

    Another part of that suspense: if visiting Mundania is so important that it lands Lysandra practically in a criminal trial, what are the dangers that make it so important? The risk of being seen, that could reignite some infamous witch-burnings? Is the tradition of staying away just that revered and longstanding? These are things the Chief would love to hammer Lysandra with, and they'd convince us she's gotten herself in real trouble here.

    Similarly, what happens if Lysandra loses? Is she imprisoned, or thrown out of the Society (which hurts her in what way)?

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  3. (Continuing:)

    One thing that should lead all through this is, who is Lysandra as a person? If she's naturally rebellious we'd see her clenching her teeth all through this to make calm arguments -- if she's more diplomatic she'd be at home, but worried that she's damaged her relationships -- if she's more nurturing she might want to just get past all this and talk about the people who needed her help. Half of any story comes from the sense of what kind of person is living it, so the sooner you can start putting this in terms of who she is and how we can appreciate what she might do next, the better.

    Two things you might tone down: talking about Lysandra's great talents and having the Clan Chief shushed by the rest of the Council. "Talent" in a protagonist (or rather, calling it that rather than *showing* signs that she's capable) is something some authors use to make a protagonist seem more special in a hurry, and readers may think it's being too easy on her. And having the Chief attack her out of turn and be caught on it makes the Chief look foolish and less threatening -- he'd be more intimidating if he kept his attacks to making the most of his actual opportunities, or if the others were too in his thrall to object properly. Giving the heroine advantages or making the villain clumsy make the story look like the lighter kind of comedy when it could get more out of its moments.

    I agree, this could do more with the physical setting. And the more you plan out how to present the essentials of her plea and its conflict, the more you have room to slip in quick mentions of how things look and feel, that cover the basics and also amplify our sense of what's happening in them. You do describe the Chief's red face, and you could do more, in bits and pieces. One part of this might be to break up some of these paragraphs, especially the last two; would these be stronger if someone only said part of it in one block, then someone else spoke, and then they finished it while saying something else? Those would make smaller paragraphs with more focus on the separate steps you're leading their speech through, and those paragraphs or the gaps between them would have more room for bits of description to amplify them as well.

    Dropping someone into a tribunal like this makes a powerful start for a story, and gets us eager to know both why she did it and whether it'll win her case. It also puts all the focus on how well you can pace that debate -- the better you show that, the more this can bring out all the excitement it's built on.

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  4. Thanks, all, for your comments and insights. I certainly have things to think about now.

    To keep within the word count (give or take) I posted about the first half of the scene. The 2nd half adds a bit more information; the next scene is Lysandra meeting privately with the Council, without the Chief. (There are no ex parte laws in the Sodality of Themis.) This story is seeming to get bigger each time I work on it. It might end up a series of short stories (is that ever done?) or a novella.

    Anyway, thanks again for you kind comments, and the opportunity to get some critiquing.

    Paul

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  5. Almost forgot: On behalf of all us color-blind folks, thanks for putting in-line comments in blue, not red!!!

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    Replies
    1. hey Paul! I never would have realized that about blue instead of red. Janice went with the blue, so she may have been aware of the advantage. Thanks for the heads-up! :)

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  6. I found Lysandra to be mischievous, although I'm not sure if that's the right word. Maybe 'impish' is better. I enjoyed her irreverant tone with the Chief, and what appeared to me to be her only somewhat concealed lack of regard for his intellect. If found her intriguing as a protagonist and also enjoyed the line about Professor Elliot Pfeiffer.

    I stuggled with the word 'unjust.' It didn't seem to make sense with the scene. In what way did the chief find it unjust? Did Lysandra take something away from others? As in her going meant that someone else couldn't go? I was curious if this word was deliberately chosen or just snuck in there by mistake.

    I enjoyed your writing style and look forward to reading more.

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