From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Historical 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 question:

Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Historical Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

New York City, New York
December 1927

I leaned against the bar in a speakeasy on 52nd street while waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping. My lips parched, expectant. A young woman got up from the table where she’d sat with three other people and came over to me.

She caught my eye and her gaze took me hostage. Her long ruby red fingernail poked the liquor-guzzler next to me. “You’re in my seat.”

He drained the gin until it oozed from his lips, smacked the glass on the bar, then dragged his hand across his mouth. “Is that so?”

Guzzler‘s head shot back as he drank her in from head to toe. Perfect finger waves swept her platinum hair onto a bare-shouldered black satin dress that clung to her ample bosom. A silver-jeweled belt cinched her hour-glass silhouette. Patent red heels polished off the perfect shape of her legs.

She kept her eyes locked on mine as if Guzzler never even said a word.

Heat crawled up my neck until it singed my ears.

Guzzler looked at the dame again before he snatched his hat. Curses spewed along with his stinky breath. He teetered and turned in my direction. “You’re playin’ with fire, Bud.” A loud belch followed his warning.

She glided next to me, took the glass from my shaky hand, lifted her pinky, and sipped the liquid.

I followed its path down her long, slender neck.

Her perfume cut through the smoke-filled haze, more potent than any liquor buzz I could have manage on my two-bit salary. That skin, those lips, the wave in her hair. I’d seen her before, I was sure of it. On stage. No, a woman this refined wouldn’t work in a burlesque show.

My Thoughts in Blue:

New York City, New York
December 1927

I leaned against the bar in a speakeasy on 52nd street while [reads better without this] waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping. My lips parched, expectant. [I like this, but as a part of the first sentence] A young woman got up from the table where she’d sat with three other people and came over to me. [is this a move he sees or narrative?]

She caught my eye [confusing – seems like this should come before her coming over to the presumed protagonist] and her gaze took me hostage. [really like this phrase] Her long, ruby red fingernail poked the liquor-guzzler next to me. “You’re in my seat.”

He drained the gin until it oozed from his lips, [this sentence is good, but consider: He drained his glass until gin oozed from his lips, then smacked the glass on the bar and drug his hand across his mouth.] smacked the glass on the bar, then dragged his hand across his mouth. “Is that so?”

Guzzler’s head [this earned a big grin] shot back as he drank her in from head to toe. Perfect finger waves swept her platinum hair onto a bare-shouldered black satin dress that clung to her ample bosom. A silver-jeweled belt cinched her hour-glass silhouette. Patent [I wanted ‘leather’ added here] red heels polished off [not sure what this means – accentuated?] the perfect shape of her legs.

She kept her eyes locked on mine as if Guzzler never even said a word. [I would reference Guzzler’s actions, not what his words – she’s ignoring him, but that isn’t clear enough here]

Heat crawled up my neck until it singed my ears. [great line]

Guzzler looked at the dame again [he was still looking at her, wasn’t he? This isn’t necessary to re-establish] before he snatched [up] his hat. Curses spewed along with his stinky breath. He teetered and turned in my direction. “You’re playin’ with fire, Bud.” A loud belch followed his warning.

She glided next to me, took the glass from my shak[ing]y hand, lifted her pinky, and sipped the liquid. [don’t need this]

I followed its path down her long, slender neck. [this is confusing, but I believe you mean her swallow is observed.]

Her perfume cut through the smoke-filled haze, more potent than any liquor buzz I could have managed on my two-bit salary. That skin, those lips, the wave in her hair. I’d seen her before, I was sure of it. On stage. [reader is left to figure out if this is a statement or question] No, a woman this refined wouldn’t work in a burlesque show.

The Question:

1. Does this opening scene work?


Yes, overall… (Readers chime in!) After reading several times, plus aloud, my enjoyment of the setting and style were entertaining to me, but I had no clue about the narrator! I felt this opening scene could just as easily occur later (any time later) in the book—that was the feeling of it—like we should already know the protagonist.

Great character build on the flirty woman and the drunk, but the presumed main character is left to be a passive piece. He’s apparently enough of something to attract the blonde’s attention and yet harmless enough to have the drunk warm him off the blonde. Nora could be his sister, girlfriend, work pal, neighbor or wife. So, his attraction to the blonde could be normal, as a single guy, or forbidden, as a married guy. You do a good job of using characters playing off characters to reveal intent or raw reactions, so I believe you can give us a stronger view of the protagonist.

(Here’s more on Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

The first sentence was easy to visualize, until the parched, expectant lips part, which is segregated and feels clumsy. Bring those two first sentences together and we have a nice smooth ride. From this opening set up, I am also expectant, waiting for the drink to come, the first sip, etc. Then, perhaps, looking around an noticing the killer blonde. Read aloud, I heard the missing links between our narrator and the immediate interaction with the blonde. I wanted to ‘live’ his satiation and discovery of her. Then I would be content to watch her through his eyes and reactions.

Love the Guzzler character. You keep it tight with him and the narrator’s anxiety comes through as well. The tough part for me was that we have a lot of page time given between the blonde’s one line dialogue and the Guzzler’s retort. Great description, but it feels like the wrong place for a leisurely stroll through her looks. I wanted the pace and intensity maintained and not interrupted by the description. Guzzler can look her up and down without adding the description. This allows just a brief pause, close to live-action timing, before Guzzler splits. His exit is very well done, by the way. Once he’s gone, the narrator can drink in her looks as she commandeers his drink. This is, to me, a more natural place where the narrator (the important person in the scene) would be the observer instead of the drunk.

(Here’s more on And the Pace is On: Understanding and Controlling Your Pacing)

The final paragraph works very well overall. You don’t push the style as hard and we finally get to ‘hear’ from the protagonist. I noted at the last about the ‘On stage.’ use because it can be a musing question or a statement then refuted in the next sentence – and though maybe a nuanced difference, it is a difference that is left to the reader to determine. Personally, I wanted it to be a musing question.

This is an opening scene that I would pursue for several reasons, including seeing if the style can be maintained in a consistent way. This is a very particular era and having good research into every setting, knowing why it would be so, and the cultural/social norms could really make or break the story. Your treatment of Guzzler was well done, as I’ve mentioned, and by allowing the two supporting characters to be very self-sustained and well defined, you created a comfortable, natural environment.

Another reason I would read on would be the (mild) anticipation created and wanting to know more about the blonde and who she is. A step better would be readers also wanting to know more about the protagonist (grin).

You have a great start here. I suggest (to you and all writers) reading your material out loud after any rewrites. Without fail clunkers will crash on your eardrums and poor or unsupported pacing will cause you to stumble. I’d be excited to see your next iteration – good after it!!

(Here’s more on The Benefits of Reading Your Work Out Loud)

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

5 comments:

  1. I'd read on. I love the voice, and there's a noir PI vibe going on that's appealing. I get a sense of femme fatales and Micky Spillane. I wanted to know who this woman was and what she wants, as she certainly wants something.

    Perhaps add more emotions from the narrator overall. He describes everything well, but I wanted a stronger sense of how he felt about some of these clever observations. Not a lot, just a line or two here and there would ground me more in his emotional layer.

    My comments below (edited for space):

    I leaned against the bar in a speakeasy on 52nd street while waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping. My lips parched, expectant. A young woman got up from the table where she’d sat with three other people and came over to me. **I wanted an emotional reaction here, even if it's just a "Holy cow, what a dame" line.

    [She caught my eye and her gaze took me hostage.] **Great line Her long ruby red fingernail poked the liquor-guzzler next to me. “You’re in my seat.”

    [He drained the gin until it oozed from his lips, smacked the glass on the bar, then dragged his hand across his mouth. “Is that so?”] If the protagonist is held hostage by the woman's gaze, how is he seeing this? He'd have to look away

    Guzzler‘s head shot back as he drank her in from head to toe. Perfect finger waves swept her platinum hair onto a bare-shouldered black satin dress that clung to her ample bosom. A silver-jeweled belt cinched her hour-glass silhouette. Patent red heels polished off the perfect shape of her legs. **Perhaps put this closer to when he first sees her?

    She kept her eyes locked on mine [as if Guzzler never even said a word.] **Been a while since the dialogue, so this feels like something is missing

    [Heat crawled up my neck until it singed my ears.] **Great line

    Guzzler looked at the dame again before he snatched his hat. Curses spewed along with his stinky breath. He teetered and turned in my direction. “You’re playin’ with fire, Bud.” A loud belch followed his warning. **I wanted an emotional reaction here. Does he agree? What's going through his head? How would Guzzler know her?

    I followed its path down her long, slender neck. **I wanted something internal here

    Fun opening.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, and thank you both for your crits!!! I appreciate your help! It is a noir piece and I wanted to keep it staccato and visual. Your suggestions have helped tremendously - as always!!! THANK YOU!!! Blessings! :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Definitely vivid, and all about the period sense of it. There's conflict, humor, and a definite sense that both men are in over their head with a "dame" like this.

    I do feel a bit stalled here. We don't know who the narrator is, and he doesn't do anything except appreciate Miss Fatale here, so you're taking your time with the whole other side of your story. That would be a problem if the opening were less colorful, and it's still not as strong as if you played this page off a sense of what he is and what *in particular* he's thinking as this happens. Does he feel flustered and hopelessly out of his league, curious, calculating, or what? Your opening mention of "Nora" teases that he's already with someone, maybe, but you don't do anything with it yet.

    There's no question that it works as is. Just the idea of leaving the protagonist a blank slate at first feeds the sense that this is a love letter to old-fashioned noir. Still, that doesn't mean it can't have a bit of modern layering too, by dropping a few lines in the middle of this that make the protagonist's own spin on it part of the story from the start.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you, Ken!! This short story takes a major turn and, I could tell you, but I'm hoping to have it published. Someday... :)

    Thanks for your help and encouragement! :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for submitting! First the small details:
    The expectant lips phrasing threw me off. 8-) Also minor, Guzzler's head "shot" back--this seems like an incongruous, rapid action for what is being described here.

    I'm not sure what the proper punctuation rule is here, but I assume Guzzler does not truly KNOW the protagonist, so Bud should probably be lower case.

    Other Feedback:
    This felt like PI noir and if that was your goal, you nailed it, although we don't know what protag does for a living. I was unclear whether protag instigated the woman's attention--is he there fishing for women or was this truly not expected? Needs clarity.

    Last thought: You captured classic PI Noir that I've seen so well that it risks cliche--it literally plays like a scene in my head. My sense is the way to avoid it edging over into cliche is to strengthen the protag. We don't know his name or anything about him except that he's at a bar drinking and makes a two-bit salary. My sense is the protag needs to be stronger, more active to really carry this noir writing to it's full possibilities. I know we're always plagued with how much is too much for a story opening--the challenge is finding that brief bit of dialogue, action or description that makes the protag stand out from the start.

    But you have a great start here. Keep going!

    ReplyDelete