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Sunday, January 17, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at an Urban Fantasy 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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through January 23.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it grab attention?

2. Would you read on?

3. Does each character seem to have a personality?

4. Does it work?

Market/Genre: Urban Fantasy Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

“So, instead of a fish, I got a dish, much to the amusement of my friends and the others who had gathered to watch.” Samuel slowly shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m missing or doing wrong, Franklin. I can get close—but no cigar. Something needs to change. Anything to help—please.” His voice trailed off as he spoke.

Franklin was a Full Wizard, head of the Edabury Sorcerer’s Guild, and Sam’s friend.

“Well, many of our peers have noticed that you’ve been having problems lately,” Franklin said. “The episode with Ms. Russell’s terrier talking to her about the weather got our group noted in the paper. You know that we can’t have that sort of publicity and still command respect in Edabury.

“Since the Guild asked me to talk to you, and I called you here, I must do something. So, in accordance with our by-laws, I direct you to attend remedial sorcery lessons with an advanced Sorcerer. I believe someone you don’t know will be best. I shall work out the details, and let you know.”

Samuel sighed. “Franklin, sometimes I wonder if I’m sorcerer material at all. I know about my family lineage. I’m honored to have been selected and schooled as a Sorcerer, but I’m not sure if I have the true desire anymore.”

“I did suspect your waning interest. I urge you to be patient for a bit. There may be other powers at work here. Or maybe you’re trying too hard.” He assessed Samuel for a moment. “It’s my choice whether to suspend your sorcery permit or not, and, at this point, I choose not. I believe in you, Sam; you have a good heart.

“Now, just between you and I, as friends, why not find yourself a girlfriend, or a pet? Someone with whom you can share your angst and dissatisfaction. It’s just you and your carved birds right now, Sam. You’re a good man and deserve more of life. Think about it, OK? Someone with whom you could take your long walks.”

“OK, Franklin, I’ll try not to cause any further embarrassment, at least. I don’t know what to think right now. But maybe I’ll take one of those long walks now.”

He eased the door closed behind him. Frank pursed his lips and stroked his beard.

My Thoughts in Blue:

“So, instead of a fish, I got a dish, much to the amusement of my friends and the others who had gathered to watch.” Samuel slowly shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m missing or doing wrong, Franklin. I can get close—but no cigar. Something needs to change. Anything to help—please.” [I feel in the midst of a conversation where Samuel has told a story, and this is the end of it – so am waiting to be ‘clued in’] His voice trailed off as he spoke. [end his dialogue with an ellipse to show this, and it’s assumed he’s still the speaker]

Franklin was a Full Wizard, head of the Edabury Sorcerer’s Guild, and Sam’s friend. [this reinforced my impression that this is a casual conversation between friends, Sam looking for advice, not anything punitive]

“Well, many of our peers have noticed that you’ve been having problems lately,” Franklin said. “The episode with Ms. Russell’s terrier talking to her about the weather got our group noted in the paper. You know that we can’t have that sort of publicity and still command respect in Edabury.

“Since the Guild asked me to talk to you, [this reorients the purpose of the conversation and was a little jarring] and I called you here, I must do something. So, in accordance with our by-laws, I direct you to attend remedial sorcery lessons with an advanced Sorcerer. I believe someone you don’t know will be best. I shall work out the details, and let you know.”

Samuel sighed. [by this point, I’d like some small info on where this conversation is taking place] “Franklin, sometimes I wonder if I’m sorcerer material at all. I know about my family lineage. I’m honored to have been selected and schooled as a Sorcerer, but I’m not sure if I have the true desire anymore.”

“I did suspect your waning interest. I urge you to be patient for a bit. There may be other powers at work here. Or maybe you’re trying too hard.” He assessed Samuel [what is he doing that indicates he’s assessing Sam?] for a moment. “It’s my choice whether to suspend your sorcery permit or not, and, at this point, I choose not. I believe in you, Sam; you have a good heart.

“Now, just between you and I, as friends, why not find yourself a girlfriend, or a pet? Someone with whom you can share your angst and dissatisfaction. It’s just you and your carved birds right now, Sam. You’re a good man and deserve more of life. Think about it, OK? Someone with whom you could take your long walks.”

“OK, Franklin, I’ll try not to cause any further embarrassment, at least. I don’t know what to think right now. But maybe I’ll take one of those long walks now.”

He eased the door closed behind him. [Sam isn’t taken to the door, so at first I thought Franklin was easing the door closed] Frank [this use of the shortened version of his name reads off to me – perhaps if Samuel used it in dialogue first?] pursed his lips and stroked his beard.

The Questions:

1. Does it grab attention?


This is a very passive opening to me, and there is no ‘grabbing’. I have some interest due to the strong information given about the characters, Sam’s family, the Guild – and there is a hint of humor. I get the feeing that the author can ‘hear’ this dialogue in his head but hasn’t quite gotten what he hears onto the page yet. (readers chime in!)

Sam expresses his frustration, but seems apathetic about any solutions, almost ready to give up. My first impression was that he had come to his esteemed friend to ask for advice about these frustrations. I envisioned the two in a common social setting and we are brought into the conversation after Sam has related several recent sorcery snafus. His more experienced friend is being sought out for some hints on what Sam might be getting wrong.

It was a bit jarring when the dialogue switched to Franklin though, and suddenly we learn that Sam was ‘called in’ (to where?) by Franklin to discuss his recent faux pas, including the talking terrier incident. This switch made me feel sorry for Samuel, as I put his frustration first, the person asking for help, who I now learn is actually being called down for his actions.

Starting out with dialogue is tough for several reasons. However, you’ve given acceptable information on each character that allowed me to have some perspective of them, which I assumed would be soon expanded upon.

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

2. Would you read on?

I would read on to learn more about the characters. I have only the barest story premise to pursue though. One sorcerer, from a family of sorcerers, doubts his ability. With no knowledge as to where he is in his training though, I can’t determine if he’s just young and wanting to perform beyond his training or if he’s relatively seasoned and has hit a wall or is in a slump. In other words, I have no real perspective of how serious his concerns are – and being directed to pursue more training with a senior sorcerer doesn’t really tell me much.

I'd hope the next page or two would give me enough information to care about Sam and to better understand the depth of his problems. The material indicates that he’s a loner, but again, I don’t know if this is just his age or circumstances – or if he’s an eccentric.

Overall, I’m being left to make the decision to read on, as the opening is not hooking me into wanting to read on. I’m not particularly concerned about Sam going for a walk and thinking, or what Franklin might be considering while stroking his beard.

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

3. Does each character seem to have a personality?

Hmmmmm – yes, I want to believe that they do. Franklin’s seems stronger than Samuel’s, as the former gets more page time. Samuel is a bit of an unknown and being frustrated or questioning your career choice (with being given the limitations of it) aren’t very telling.

I know Sam comes from a family of sorcerers, has doubts about his ability, and hasn’t (apparently) asked them for help with his problems. I don’t know how extensive his problems are, how long he’s had doubts and has been having trouble getting a fish when he wants one, or how long he’s been a practicing sorcerer. My knowledge is gained from statements/opinions given by Franklin and some narrative, not from anything Sam does or says, so I’m left feeling Sam is a reluctant sort, an artist, lacks confidence, but also may not wholly apply himself to his sorcery efforts. Perhaps there is a basic misunderstanding in him or a rejection of being a sorcerer?

Franklin is presented in a more straightforward manner and his personality is easier to read. He is kind, but common sensical. He has a sense of humor balanced with practicality and sees beyond the surface. It is easier to build a visual on Franklin, as you allow his personality to be projected strongly in his dialogue.

I also wondered if the beard stroking meant that Samuel didn’t have a beard. And why do all sorcerers have beards? I’ve wondered this for decades…

So, yes, Franklin’s personality is well enough defined and exposed to craft a good visual, even if we know next to nothing about him physically (which might change the personality profile a bit).

And Samuel needs some help to define his personality better and more solidly. Based solely on this opening, I would suggest that physical appearance would be a benefit, more body language and gestures to project his emotions, and stage direction that could indicate deference to Franklin – or show where the conversation takes place and Sam’s reaction to that place.

(Here’s more on 5 Questions to Turn a Character from Flat to Fabulous)

4. Does it work?

Overall, this opening feels too like material from a later point in the book, after we’ve learned more about the two characters. These two are friends, yet it’s difficult to create the relationship when one is obviously more experienced and probably significantly older than the other. If the friend is also a mentor, known since childhood, often a visitor to the younger’s houseful of sorcerers, then I have a basis for the current relationship – and Franklin’s desire to support and encourage Sam.

The scene is also entirely lacking any environment, which adds to the assumptions about what the conversation is about and where it is happening. If that can be established up front, then we might view Sam’s opening dialogue as a defense of sorts, an explanation to Franklin’s question about what was going on.

Also, because the scene is so passive, it’s tough to get interested. When I reached the mention of the talking dog, I instantly thought: ‘ah! What if he started with this event and the spectacle of it, the reporter showing up, and what Sam’s reaction to it was – then when it’s mentioned in this conversation, we have background and sympathy for Sam in place.’ (grin)

I suggest considering a way to introduce the reality of Sam’s effectiveness as a sorcerer as an opening scene, then transitioning to this conversation, thus establishing/showing the problem first so discussion of it means something to the reader. Set up the example of Sam’s failure, show his reaction and possibly a domino effect of related debacles, then show him being called in to see his friend/mentor/superior, knowing things have gone too far.

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

There is some great stuff here – I see the potential for humor, some broad and some more wry, plus the hint at family expectations and pressure. I believe you have a stronger starting point in the material you’ve already written for this story, so just try on different hats until one cuts the right line, front and profile. And have fun with it!

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. Maria covered the story part of this, so I’m going to focus on the technical side. Heavy-dialogue scenes are tough, because there’s not a lot of text spent of non-dialogue elements. This snippet has a few common missteps, but ones that are easy to fix.

    With two people having a conversation, you don’t need to use their names so often. There’s a natural “turn taking” structure to conversation, so when you start a new paragraph, readers assume the other person is speaking.

    There’s only one paragraph in this that doesn’t use a name, and most of them use both. Readers know from the first paragraph who is on the room and who is speaking, so you only need to tag when it might be unclear who is speaking. Using the names so much makes the dialogue clunky and unnatural.

    There’s also a POV issue here, which I think it causing some of the extra names. It feels like Sam is the protagonist, but I’m not getting a strong sense of who or where the narrator is. Is this omniscient? Is it third person? Is Sam the POV character?

    I think not knowing exactly who and where the narrator is makes it harder to “see” the scene and choose the right details to bring it to life. Since it’s more external than internal, the details are described from the author’s POV, not a character in the scene.

    For example, if this was firmly in Sam’s head, then he’d notice things about Franklin to clue him in on how Franklin feels about this problem. Does Sam notice his friend’s expression? His body language? His tone of voice?

    And what about Sam’s body language, expressions, and tone of voice? How does someone who is worried look and sound? What does he think? There’s no internalization here to let readers know what’s going on in Sam’s head.

    Now that you know how this scene unfolds, try another pass to add the internal layer.

    Here are a few articles that might help in those areas:
    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/06/do-you-know-who-your-narrator-is.html
    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2009/06/tag-youre-it.html
    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2018/10/what-you-need-to-know-about.html
    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/03/is-your-description-helping-your-story.html

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  2. The first thing I notice is the dialogue feels off - I don't know if two friends would talk to each other like this - and are they really friends or is Franklin an older person who is "friendly" to Samuel.

    I don't get a sense of Samuel wants - we, as readers, want to follow a character who wants something - badly. Samuel tells us he doesn't have the desire. If he doesn't have the desire to go on, why should we?

    The good news is this is an easy fix - give Samuel something he really wants. Then put some blocks between that desire and his achieving it. If he really really wanted to be a wizard, but was being prevented from it - what would he do? how would he feel?

    We are too removed from Samuel at this point and need to feel what he is feeling. Franklin is on the first page, so he is important - why? is he going to be the obstacle or helper? It would be helpful to see more of that along with a little more tension woven in the chapter.

    Magic is always a good hook, a few tweaks and fixes will really help this piece get going.

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  3. I think Lynne nailed it here: it's Samuel's want that's missing.

    This looks like the skeleton of a good scene to me. Dialog is good (especially in a space-conscious short story) for a fast way to lay out the history and factors that are making up conflict. This tells us what happened and many of the sides of why it matters.

    What it's missing is the *oomph* between the arguments. Samuel talks about what he's done and what might happen, but this doesn't show the feeling that would get us onboard with it. Is part of his history ("family of sorcerers") a father who's pushing him to get the spells right, or an estate they'll lose if Sam doesn't shape up? Does Sam have a goal he needs the magic for? Or it could be in the description: people have said there's very little setting here, and that could magnify the emotion too if Franklin is surrounded by books Sam may never get to use or Sam starts banging on the table in frustration.

    One thing in particular: the plot during this scene has nothing specific it's centered on. Can Sam have some particular hope or fear about his training, that does or doesn't happen, or some other twist to it? The remedial training could be that: Sam is hoping there's a less humiliating way, or he doesn't even consider that and is shocked that Franklin things he needs it. Or something else, but anything that makes the course of the conversation more specific.

    This scene gives us the *facts* of where Sam is right now. Can it weave in the feelings, and the past or future that they're tied to, that makes us care more about what these mean?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments. You all have given me bunches of grist for the mill. Revision #6 is on its way. Thanks again, all.

    ReplyDelete