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Saturday, February 06, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Building Tension in a Scene

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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through February 13.

This week’s questions:

1. What does/doesn't work in this scene?

2. Is there a sense of caring/identifying with the character?

3. Is there enough showing instead of telling?

4. Is the hook strong enough?

Market/Genre: Romantic Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Note: This is an in-progress scene.

Why would a special investigator want to discuss Catherine Hudson’s nature preserve photos? Did he find an issue in her newspaper feature? She’d have her answer in a few minutes.

The window view from Mr. Kahale’s tenth-floor office waiting area beckoned. The postcard-like scene of Honolulu, Diamond Head Crater and the Pacific Ocean displayed another perfect example of fulfilling her photojournalist’s dream, sharing Hawaii’s beauty. She often reminded herself she had landed a job and lived here. Little Cat from a poor, Ohio background.

She lowered her head, smoothed her hands over her pale, green skirt and tapped her toe against the white tile. But maybe she’d face an obstacle, depending on what Mr. Kahale had to say. Had she photographed something she shouldn’t have during the shoot?

A door creaked open. A tall, well-built man with black hair, dark eyes and a huge smile caught her gaze. His voice was deep and rich. “Aloha, Miss Hudson. Glad you could make it. Please come in.”

The man was welcoming enough. “Thank you.” Cat entered and sat in the straight-back chair across from his small, streamlined desk. His certification hung on the wall in the otherwise neat but simple office and suggested all business to her, not luxury.

He stood behind his desk. “I’ll get right to the point.”

Yup, all business. Cat folded her hands. “Of course.”

“What I’d like is for you to take aerial shots for us in an ongoing case of utmost importance. I’ll be honest. It’s serious business."

My Thoughts in Blue:

[Why would a special investigator want to discuss Catherine Hudson’s nature preserve photos? Did he find an issue in her newspaper feature? She’d have her answer in a few minutes.] It wasn’t until I read more that I realized Catherine is the protagonist. This reads as if the protagonist is asking this question about Catherine Hudson. If this is Cat’s POV, then she’d say “her photos.”

The window view from Mr. Kahale’s tenth-floor office waiting area beckoned. The postcard-like scene of Honolulu, Diamond Head Crater and the Pacific Ocean displayed another perfect example of fulfilling her photojournalist’s dream, sharing Hawaii’s beauty. She often reminded herself she had landed a job and lived here. [Little Cat from a poor, Ohio background.] I wanted a bit more here to finish this thought, as it feels important to the character. Little Cat…what? Had made it? Wasn’t going hungry anymore? Got out?

She lowered her head, smoothed her hands over her pale, green skirt and tapped her toe against the white tile. [But maybe she’d face an obstacle, depending on what Mr. Kahale had to say.] This reads like a note about the scene, not something Cat would think Had she photographed something she shouldn’t have during the shoot?

A door creaked open. A tall, well-built man with black hair, dark eyes and a huge smile [caught her gaze.] Perhaps a different phrase? The door creaking and her describing the man shows she looks his way, so catching her gaze feels off. She’s already looking at him [His voice was deep and rich.] She describes the sound of his voice before speaks, so the stimulus/response is off. Put the description after he speaks, perhaps after “Miss Hudson” “Aloha, Miss Hudson. Glad you could make it. Please come in.”

[The man was welcoming enough.] I wanted a teeny bit here that showed her trying to figure out why she was here. The “enough” suggests more to her comment “Thank you.” Cat entered and sat in the straight-back chair across from his small, streamlined desk. His certification hung on the wall in the otherwise neat but simple office and [suggested all business to her, not luxury.] I like this note, but I think the sentences needs another word to clarify. It’s that he only has the certification as decoration that makes her think this, correct?

He stood behind his desk. “I’ll get right to the point.”

Yup, all business. Cat folded her hands. “Of course.”

[“What I’d like is for you to take aerial shots for us in an ongoing case of utmost importance.] This feels off, because she’s worried about photos she’s already taken, but this dialogue suggests she hasn’t taken any yet. I’ll be honest. It’s serious business."

The Questions:

1. What does/doesn't work in this scene?


Aside from a few tweaks, it’s working. It’s always harder to critique a snippet of a scene in progress (I think—it didn’t say it was the opening scene, just a scene), since there’s a lot that happened I’m not aware of. But it starts with Cat worried about why she was called to see this guy, which gives it drive. I’m curious, same as Cat.

(Here’s more on The Recipe for Writing a Great Scene)

2. Is there a sense of caring/identifying with the character?

Yes. It’s weaker since this isn’t an opening scene or an introduction to the character, but she displays some vulnerability with being worried, and there’s a hint that she overcame a tough life to get where she was. The hint she might lose that and doesn’t know why makes me care a bit. If I already liked her, then I’d care more.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Create Likable Characters)

3. Is there enough showing instead of telling?

There are a few told lines and odd POV shifts, but cut those and it eliminates the told parts. And again, I read this as a scene in progress, so I assume you've already established a lot. I don't feel lost, but I also don't see the setting as well as I could.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

4. Is the hook strong enough?

Yes. Why Cat is there is a question I’m curious about, and it ends with Kahale saying there’s something important he needs her help with, so it poses another question for readers to wonder about.

(Here’s more on 4 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Suspense in Your Novel)

This looks like the continuation of the opening scene that’s been submitted before, and I think it’ll flow nicely from that. It builds on why Cat is there, and suggests she’s about to be tasked with a problem to solve.

If this is the opening scene, my comments still stand, but I’d suggest a little more about who Cat is after the second paragraph. (The one that ends with “Little Cat.”). That’s a good spot for some background about her and why she’s there. You'd also tweak a little so it was clear who the protagonist was and whose head this was in in that opening paragraph (which is paragraph two of this). 

Overall, this reads like a good transition piece that moves Cat from whatever she was doing previously into the office and her new task, and makes readers curious to see where it goes. 

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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5 comments:

  1. Thank you, Janice. this has helped me tremendously. It is the opening scene, first submission, which I should have noted. A few months ago, I submitted three different openings on a previous work. It got the attention of editor, and she has requested it in full, thanks to all who advised me!

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  2. I agree, this is a nicely-chosen first scene. It's clearly Cat on the threshold of learning something ominous or important, with a sense of what she already wants and where she came from to give any change impact.

    You might build a bit more on that, even within this moment. Maybe there's one project she desperately wants to do next and she's afraid whatever this is will get her in too much trouble for it, or there's a recent one she thinks stirred up some controversy. If there's an actual plot thread like this ahead, perfect; if not, just a token thought here could capture the sense of what she *thinks* is at stake and be a placeholder for the real changes to come. This might be the "spine" of part of this, the thought that she keeps coming back to as she walks in that defines the rest. You have a chance to build suspense and clarify Cat's situation so far, and that could add a lot to this moment. So could Janice's suggestion of saying a fraction more about who she used to be; even a hint that a character has a past, a trajectory, makes her more interesting in an instant.

    Janice called out a few times that the wording here isn't quite smooth or clear, and my own first thought was the same: "discuss Catherine Hudson?" You might make a point of reading your scenes out loud whenever you edit -- it really is an all-around intuitive way to catch phrases that don't quite flow.

    Picking the right start for a story is one of the most important choices you make, and this does that well. Maybe smooth it out and dig a little deeper to what's in this moment, and you'll be well on track.

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  3. What fun! I recognized your story in the first line. :o) Love the change of the protagonist's first name, and the nickname makes the character have a bit more snap -- plus, though she's still nervous, she seems stronger, more confident, prepared to defend herself. Nice.

    Janice has hit all the nail heads and I believe the cart-before-horse tendency in action/reaction is one that I've seen in each iteration. However, this is such a simple fix -- and the habit easily amended, eh?

    I also love the change that brings vibrancy to the 'boss' -- good choice there.

    I would suggest pushing the idea that she is worried that her last assignment -- perhaps her first one on the job? -- has some problem that has caught the attention of her boss. You're wanting to show that she's obsessing over this one point of possible failure so that when the boss offers a new assignment (a plum assignment for a newbie?) it's a mental tire screecher for her.

    I really like this version, not only because you've shoved your characters into stronger, more viable personalities, but because there is a stronger vein of action, anxiety, and anticipation.

    You've done a great job of letting go of your writer's intro 'padding' and dropping us into an active scene. We've gone from our protagonist traveling to a place, thinking about what's to come, meeting receptionists, etc. and now are in the scene where the story actually starts.

    I'm tickled that you seem to have grabbed your story by the throat, so to speak, and are ready to firmly set readers alongside Cat, who is now a young woman with backbone and primed to get involved in mysteries and trouble and romance.

    Thanks for sharing your diligent work -- keep it up! :o)

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  4. Thank you, Maria for your helpful advice!

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