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Sunday, January 10, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Fantasy First Page

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: None

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

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Pitch: When Dan Young hears a strange rattle in his head, he thinks he's going crazy. When he finds himself drawn into an alien world where every myth has come to life - he's sure of it. When he discovers he's a pawn in a god's deadly game with only one rule - kill or be killed, he realizes there's only one way he can save himself. Up the stakes, refuse to conform to the rules and team up with the other opponent to beat the system. But what happens when you discover that nothing about yourself is real and everything you once believed in is a lie.

The first time the dice rattled in Dan's head, he thought he imagined it. The second, third and fifth time, not so much. But now, they had morphed from sound to sight. Eight-sided. Brushed bronze. Carved with intricate symbols and mythological beasts, yet undeniably dice.

They rattled again as he pulled the stretcher out the ambulance back door. Not now. Not on his first day back. He slammed the van door shut and tried to block the sounds in his head.

Rattle, rattle, clatter, roll.

This time, a peal of high-pitched laughter and the clink of glasses joined the spinning dice. Don't let it get to you. You are not a nut case.

"Dan!" Damn, Sam was staring at him like he was insane. "What the hell's wrong with you? Focus. Could be an active shooter situation. Person who called it in heard gunshots and screams."

"Sorry, partner. Got distracted for a sec. Go ahead." He had a job to do, people counted on him. No time to succumb to insanity.

"I need you, man," Sam said. "Don't flake out on me now."

"Won't happen again." Please god, don't let it happen again.

Sam nodded, grabbed the front end of the stretcher and hauled it toward the house they'd been called to. Hammered on the front door. "Paramedics!" No answer. He banged on the front door again. It creaked open. He shoved it aside with an elbow and stepped in. Dan followed, stopped short at the carnage in front of them. Sprays of dark red stained the floor and walls and the coppery stink of blood hung in the air. A man and a woman lay collapsed on the floor. He steeled himself as he locked the brakes on the stretcher and drew on latex gloves. How could anyone ever get used to this? Was it any wonder he was losing his mind?

My Thoughts in Blue:

[The first time the dice rattled in Dan's head, he thought he imagined it.] Intriguing The second, [third and fifth] small thing, but since this just skips one, it jumped out. Was the fourth time believed? I get the gist here, but it’s a little awkward time, not so much. But now, they had morphed from sound to sight. Eight-sided. Brushed bronze. Carved with intricate symbols and mythological beasts, yet undeniably dice. I wanted something about how he feels now that he sees them.

[They rattled again] I wanted something to ground me to the timeframe here. It says “first day back” in a few lines, but here I’m not sure if it’s “present day” or still reflecting on his issue as he pulled the stretcher out the ambulance back door. Not now. [Not on his first day back.] Back from what? I wanted a bit more here to help ground me. Even just a word or two. He slammed the van door shut and tried to block the sounds in his head.

Rattle, rattle, clatter, roll.

This time, a peal of high-pitched laughter and the clink of glasses [joined the spinning dice.] Does he wonder about the new detail? Worry it’s getting worse? Don't let it get to you. You are not a nut case.

"Dan!" [Damn, Sam was staring at him like he was insane.] Don’t need italics since this is narrative vs an internal thought (past tense vs present) ["What the hell's wrong with you? Focus.] I didn’t get the sense that he wasn’t focusing. He seemed to be doing his job even with the rattle [Could be an active shooter situation. Person who called it in heard gunshots and screams."] This sounds more like a cop than an paramedic to me

"Sorry, partner. Got distracted for a sec. [Go ahead."] and do what? He had a job to do, people counted on him. [No time to succumb to insanity.] There are quite a few mentions of his mental state, but not enough for me to really understand how he’s feeling or what he’s struggling with.

"I need you, man," Sam said. "Don't flake out on me now."

"Won't happen again." [Please god, don't let it happen again.] I get the sense this is why he’s “back” at work.

Sam nodded, grabbed the front end of the stretcher and hauled it toward the house they'd been called to. Hammered on the front door. "Paramedics!"

Perhaps a new paragraph for pacing? No answer.

He banged on the front door again. It creaked open. He shoved it aside with an elbow and stepped in. Dan followed, stopped short [at the carnage in front of them.] Could cut to tighten the impact, or give him a moment to react before the description. Sprays of dark red stained the floor and walls and the coppery stink of blood hung in the air. A man and a woman lay collapsed on the floor.

Perhaps a new paragraph for pacing? He steeled himself as he locked the brakes on the stretcher and drew on latex gloves. [How could anyone ever get used to this? Was it any wonder he was losing his mind?] Perhaps show him react first, then have him pull on the gloves

The Question:

1. Does this opening work?


Yes and no (readers chime in). The bones are good, but it feels condensed a bit too tight, so it’s hard to ground myself as a reader. It’s also hurting the pacing, since a lot happens in one paragraph at the end, and there’s no sense of tensions building.

The first paragraph is setup, and it doesn’t flow well into the rest of the scene yet for me. I have no sense of how long the dice issue has been going on, and how readers get from “this is what’s happening to Dan” to Dan in the present day living his life.

I’d suggest slowing down a little and letting readers into Dan’s world and what’s going on with him. The idea of the dice opens the story, and a guy hearing and then seeing weird dice is intriguing. Dan wonders if he imagined it, then he knows he didn’t, and he says it morphed into visuals now, but then never says how he feels about it (at that time).

Later in the scene he says he’s not a nut case, but I wanted something in a second paragraph that puts me in Dan’s head and shows how he feels as the story opens (the first paragraph is all refection). Something that would work as a transition between the reflection and where he is now to help readers move from the setup of the dice to arriving at the scene.

I get the sense that Dan flaked out before, and had to go on leave, and now he’s back and his partner is worried about him. But I wanted a teeny bit more to make that clear. Right now, it’s just ambiguous enough to leave me feeling left behind more than intrigued. I don’t need to know the whole story now, but a line to help clarify would work to create sympathy for Dan and make me curious to see how he handles this first day back.

The fear that he might flake out again would also be a hook and raise tension, because he did before, and now his dice issue has escalated. That puts even more pressure on him. Not knowing anything about what happened before makes it hard to worry now.

There’s also nothing in the scene to show Dan flaking out or doing anything to warrant Sam’s comments and worries. What did he do at that moment to make Sam stare at him like he was insane? If we had some hints of what happened previously, we’d worry more about it happening again here.

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

I’d suggest expanding the final paragraph to tighten the pace and raise the tension. They’re heading into a dangerous situation, but they don’t act nervous or wary. They walk into a house that could have a shooter inside. Is this normal procedure for paramedics? I don’t know how that works, but walking into a house where there’s been a shooting seems off to me, which pulled me out of the story. Can they legally do that? Wouldn’t someone call the police if they heard shots and screams, not an ambulance? And why isn't whoever called the ambulance waiting there or coming out to meet them?

(Here’s more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

Then they go inside and see something awful. But since it’s in the middle of a paragraph, there’s no real impact. And neither man reacts to it, they just get to work. Dan has some thoughts afterward, but the moment of “first shock” is over, so they don’t have the same impact after the fact. This might also be a trigger for Dan to flake out again, and would add more pressure for both Dan and Sam to worry about. Maybe Sam checks on his partner to make sure he's okay.

I also wanted to see a connection between the dice and the scene (if there is one). The dice are just something that Dan is seeing, and I’m not sure if things would play out any differently here if he hadn’t heard the dice rattle. So the dice feels like unnecessary backstory, not something that’s affecting the scene. But since the book opens with the dice, it feels like that should play a role in what’s going on. Even if it’s just showing Dan’s struggle to live his life while this is happening to him.

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

Overall, I think this opening just needs some fleshing out and a little tweaking to take advantage of what’s here. If you build the tensions and make readers care about Dan and his struggles with the dice, worry about this call and how he’s going to act on his first day back, and hint that there’s more going on, they’ll likely be intrigued and wonder how his issue is connected to this grisly crime scene.

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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4 comments:

  1. I concur with Janice's comments. Overall I liked the tilt of this snippet. This is the start of what looks to be a pretty darn good tale.

    Two things bothered me.

    First was the "active shooter" angle. I have to believe this is to up the ante of this scene. I don't like it for the same reason as Janice mentioned: I can't square a couple paramedics going into a building where there's an active shooter and no police anywhere to be seen.

    Second, under the presumption we'll get a lot of Dan's internal thoughts throughout the story - I wouldn't italicize them. I'm a big fan of italicizing internal thoughts when it's occasional. If there are a lot of internal thoughts, and thus italics everywhere, then it can become too much.

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    Replies
    1. Brian - good point that I forgot to mention - 'active shooter' changes the dynamics entirely and needs to be given thought as to whether that is the appropriate description for what is going on -

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  2. Lots of good things in this passage and a fun premise - I agree the end leaves us a bit flat - we are building to something - let us feel that when they enter the door. I almost feel like something that is going on in his head needs to be on the other side of the door.

    This reminded me of John Dies In the End - a fun book with lots of crazy things going on. It might be worth visiting. I liked the voice, the stakes - especially that he's a medic - which is why going into that house has to have bigger stakes. And I doubt few people ever get used to dead bodies and blood, so let's see that reaction.

    Over all lots to work with - yes, slow down and continue to build stakes, tension and conflict. Great job!

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  3. This really is a strong choice for the start of a story, good.

    I have one main thought here: I think it's the least bit vague about how his problem actually affects him. And could do more to zero in on that as the scene's exact center.

    I mean, how strongly does he see and hear those dice now? How much does the image actually block out his view of his surroundings, and the sound cover up his hearing -- either literally or the equivalent in holding his attention on "compelling imaginings." This scene is about the immediate heart of his problem, so the key may be to show *precisely* how distracting these images are, and play that off his surroundings.

    Let him trip over something. Let him miss a sound, that could have been his only warning of the shooter. Pick specific moments and ways where he's losing his struggle with the visions, and suspense-building consequences for those.

    If you make that the spine of this scene, you make the visions easier to relate to than if you talk in general about being distracted. You can show it happening, and you can play that off of his partner's reaction and the horrors (and dangers?) inside the house. It also lets you do less Telling in the first paragraph, and instead use a quicker summary of his problem to give the basics before Showing the problem in action, then put more background in after his first stumble so we have the larger context. (Or start right away with him missing something important, then add "Not again!")

    I really like this idea, and especially the choice of this as your first scene. So I think maximizing the clarity and the suspense about just how distracted he's getting would bring out the most potential from it.

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