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Saturday, April 10, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Balancing World Building and Hooks

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through April 24.

This week’s question:

1. Does this opening give enough information to hook the reader? In other words, would you keep reading?

Market/Genre: Science Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Rolgen stood at the edge of the sea and watched the lines of waves curling peacefully in to shore, a constant saline wash. A faint scent of home.

“ca’Chourac.”

The beach crunched beneath Rolgen’s feet as he turned, shards of water-worn bone, metal and bloodstone littering the not-quite frozen sands from Bitter Point to New Túfina. For once, he was glad that regulations required that he wear boots.

Lieutenant Jens Harten stood well back from the surf, drinking poteen from his canteen. He’d lasted the longest of the most recent batch of young lieutenants sent out to this forsaken coastline, the Spine of the World. How many surplus sons had left their short stories here?

Reynald and Chancey flew up from the south, their wings scarcely visible against the backdrop of black smoke that drifted out to sea. All too soon, they dropped into human form before trotting up to the Lieutenant.

“The ‘thopters are down, and the trees have crushed them against the sides of the gorge,” reported Reynald. “The crews are all rooted across the opening into the gorge.”

Once upon a time, the Lieutenant would not have trusted the report, would have insisted on going to see for himself. But no more. He had become a believer.

Chancey ventured, “We should start back. It’s not safe ashore in the dark.”

Harten gazed up to the tops of the short bluffs that lined the coast of this part of the Broken Back Mountains. “None too safe even during the day.” He gestured “We have an audience.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Rolgen stood at the edge of the sea and watched the lines of waves curling peacefully in to shore, a constant saline wash. A faint scent of home.

[“ca’Chourac.”] I don’t know what this is, or who says it. And since it isn’t explained, I don’t think it’s necessary. Just use English. There are plenty of other details to show these aren’t humans.

[The beach crunched beneath Rolgen’s feet as he turned,] Perhaps have him turn, and then describe the crunch. Since someone came upon him, I thought he was hearing the crunch at first, not causing it shards of water-worn bone, metal and bloodstone littering the not-quite frozen sands from Bitter Point to New Túfina. For once, he was glad that regulations required that he wear boots.

Lieutenant Jens Harten stood well back from the surf, drinking [poteen from his canteen] the rhyme here reads a bit comical for what I imagine is supposed to be serious scene. He’d lasted the longest of the most recent batch of young lieutenants sent out to this forsaken coastline, the [Spine of the World] Perhaps consider renaming this. This name has appeared in so many fantasy novels it’s become cliched. [How many surplus sons had left their short stories here?] Love this line, but I’m unsure about “short stories.” Feels too human

[Reynald and Chancey] Who? They come out of nowhere and interrupt whatever Jens was about to say or do flew up from the south, their wings scarcely visible against the backdrop of black smoke that drifted out to sea. [All too soon,] Why too soon? This feels important, but I don’t know why they dropped into [human form] So they are human? before trotting up to the Lieutenant.

“The ‘thopters are down, and the trees have crushed [them] Does this refer to the thopters or the soldiers? against the sides of the gorge,” reported Reynald. “The crews are all rooted across the opening into the [gorge.”] Avoid the repeated word if you can.

Once upon a time, the Lieutenant would not have trusted the [report, would] report; he would have insisted on going to see for himself. But no more. He had become a believer.

Chancey [ventured,] be wary of non-said tags. You just used reported, so perhaps use said here. Maybe tag at the end of the dialogue as well, or use a gesture or action instead of "ventured" “We should start back. It’s not safe ashore in the dark.”

Harten gazed up to the tops of the short bluffs that lined the coast of this part of the [Broken Back Mountains.] Since this is essentially the title of a well-known movie, you probably want to change it. “None too safe even during the day.” [He gestured] At what? [“We have an audience.”] Where did this come from?

The Question:

1. Does this opening give enough information to hook the reader? In other words, would you keep reading?


Not quite yet (readers chine in here). It has some interesting elements, and the descriptions of the shore and the battle off screen are nice, but it’s not clear enough to understand what’s happening.

Harten comes overs to Rolgen, but he never speaks (that readers understand) or indicates why he’s there. Then other characters appear out of nowhere and start talking about things I don’t know or understand. I don’t know if they’re human or not (they could be genetically modified to have wings, or be a hybrid species). I don’t know what any of it means or why it matters, so I’m confused, not intrigued.

This is a classic example of context not making it to the page. I’m sure all of these comments and details make perfect sense and carry more meaning for the author or anyone who already knows the story and world. But for new readers, there’s not enough context to understand what’s happening.

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

I’d suggest slowing down a bit and giving readers more information about the situation and what is going on. If Harten is going to walk over, and you’re going to spend time introducing him to readers, then let him speak and have a reason for being there beyond “he needs to be there so the other guys can report to him where Rolgen can hear them.” Establish who Rolgen and Harten are first, let them give enough details for readers to understand the basic setting and situation, and then bring in the other guys with the problem.

(Here’s more with Who's There? Introducing Characters in a Scene)

I’d also suggest clarifying what these people are. Many of the terms are human military, as are the names, but the characters have wings and are obviously not on Earth. The “faint scent of home” with the salty sea hints that maybe they were once Earth Humans, but nothing’s clear. I don’t need a full explanation at this point, but even a “dropped into their human form” would clue me in that human was normal for them a bit more. With all the modern Earth terms, I’m trying to reconcile how these people are from our world, which keeps me out of the story.

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

The pieces to make a good opening are here. There seems to be something going on (a battle), conflict (they keep getting useless leadership that dies due to not believing), a problem (soldiers down and trapped), and people watching them (the audience). There’s just not enough yet for me to understand it.

Rolgen seems to be the protagonist, and he offers some insights into the situation. I’d suggest letting him think about the critical details readers need to know to ground themselves in this scene so they can keep up with the story. I’d also let Harten and Rolgen have a short conversation to set the scene. Even a few lines could provide the needed clarity, so you don’t have to do a lot to make this work. Ground readers first, then bring in the problem of the gorge.

(Here’s more with 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World)

Overall, I think there’s plenty here that will hook readers after the specifics are clarified and readers can easily get on board with the setting and world. The bones are good, I just need to know what some of these things mean and be able to make sense of them to be drawn in.

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 paranormal thriller series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
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2 comments:

  1. This is a particular kind of ambitious storytelling: it starts with a poetic moment by the beach and flows into a situation all its own without ever slowing down to tell us what's going on. When you casually mention that people have wings... that's commitment.

    Still, there's room to guide us along more than this. The opening three paragraphs could flow into the rest better: they could mention the black smoke and a hint that something had crashed (or is it burned, or something), so we'd be more ready for the sense that there's an incident to report. And you could put the paragraphs after them more in terms of Rolgen observing the other soldiers' actions, if he's the protagonist. He seems to start out as that, so you don't want him to vanish from the next part -- or if the dynamics are different, keep that clear.

    And "ca'Chourac" really needs to be explained as who's speaking to who, or if it's the sound of the beach crunching (then it would be in italics, not quotes), if it's really adding much. "Left their short stories here" is also more odd than anything else; do you simply mean "ended" their stories, their lives?

    If those flow better, the general thrust of this is powerful, understated stuff -- this world has some threat that they're all scared off, and yet Harten needed time to believe it was possible. And it gets real power from the mention of wings and human form for the soldiers, just worked in to the rest of it. And most of all from... "the trees have crushed them" and "the crews are rooted"? That's the best glimpse we have of what the actual danger is, and it's fascinating: is it the *vegetation* on this world that's the threat?

    --Personally, I'd like the phrasing to be a fraction clearer in saying that yes, the danger is the trees right now. You don't have to give up this authentic worlds-weary feel by overexplaining, but it's worth looking for ways to tweak the phrasing so readers lose less time wondering if that's what they really read. Hostile trees are the heart of your hook so far, so make sure they work.

    I'd like to think the "audience" line is the moment the story was about to pass its spotlight back to Rolgen as the protagonist. That makes the Harten-centered section and its warnings well-paced -- if they included a couple mentions of it being Rolgen observing them (eg clarify he's the one noting that Harten's now a believer) so we understand how the sections fit together.

    I love the construction of all of this: from what seems to be hostile plantlife as the center of a threat, to the determination to show the story through the characters' eyes. The caution may be to be a bit clearer whose eyes they are, and watch for what details shouldn't be lost in the, um, weeds.

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  2. You have some interesting and intriguing elements here, with the potential of good conflict, IMHO. But I wasn't grounded enough to understand the characters and their world. If that is enhanced, then I would want to read more about them.

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