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Saturday, July 17, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Piquing Reader Interest on Page One

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 21.

This week’s question:

By diving into the inciting incident in the first 280 words of ch 1, will it peak the reader’s interest or is it too jarring?

Market/Genre: Paranormal Mystery

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

Planet Geebon


Curled up in her father’s overstuffed chair in the library, Theal considered her upcoming sharing ceremony with foreboding. Dust motes swirled on the shards of morning sunlight between her and the garden window. As one part of her brain analyzed each aspect of the ritual, another part comprehended how badly the room needed dusting. She mentally shrugged at both topics. Dusting was not her forte, and if there was a way to further postpone the sharing ceremony—or better, avoid it altogether—she couldn’t see it. As if on cue, a gentle probing of her brain’s motor cortex signaled an incoming summons. She cleared her random musings and allowed the connection.

“Hello, Ditta. How are you this mor—"

“The ceremony is in six days, Theal. Why have I not received an invitation to the reception?”

“I’m so sorry. After school and the move back home, I focused on my license exam. Time just got away from me. I’ll send the invitations today, I promise.”

“But what is planned?”
the woman whined. “Have you arranged caterers, flowers, entertainment?”

“I have some ideas. Though, I would love your recommendation for a caterer… perhaps a florist… maybe for musicians, as well…?”

“I guessed as much. You have done nothing! Six days, Theal. Six days! Are you not proud and eager to perform your sacred duty? There have been too many delays already. Garve is devastated. He wants a child, and I want to be a grandmother.”
Ditta emitted a well-rehearsed micro-sob on the word ‘grandmother.’

“Of course, you’re right. I will see to everything before sunset today. Now I must go.”

“Thank Ypanae! I will send you—”

Theal veiled her thoughts, disconnecting.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Planet Geebon


Curled up in her father’s overstuffed chair in the library, Theal considered her upcoming sharing ceremony with foreboding. [I expect to learn (soon) why this ceremony would create foreboding] Dust motes swirled [instead, I learn about dust…] on the shards of morning sunlight between her and the garden window. As one part of her brain analyzed each aspect of the ritual [still don’t know what the ritual is or what it means to Theal, so dust motes creep into the lead of my interest], another part comprehended [maybe use acknowledged here?] how badly the room needed dusting. She mentally shrugged at both topics [confusing – this means to me that both topics are equal in importance]. Dusting was not her forte, and if there was a way to further postpone [meaning it has already been delayed? By what?] the sharing ceremony—or better, avoid it altogether—she couldn’t see it. As if on cue [on cue to what?], a gentle probing of her brain’s motor cortex signaled an incoming summons [I understand we’re talking telepathic contact, but ‘probing’ throws me (effectively assigns a kind of creepy feel though. The brain’s ‘motor cortex’ controls voluntary movement, so struggling to relate it to telepathic contact]. She cleared her random musings and allowed the connection. [confirms my speculation about the type of communication and that she controls what she receives]

“Hello, Ditta. How are you this mor—" [this dialogue being in italics further confirms the telepathic communication]

“The ceremony is in six days, Theal. Why have I not received an invitation to the reception?” [this made me think of a wedding]

“I’m so sorry. After school and the move back home, I focused on my license exam. [this made my ears prick up] Time just got away from me. I’ll send the invitations today, I promise.”

“But what is planned?” the woman [why is she called ‘the woman’ here when Theal uses her (assumed) name?] whined. “Have you arranged caterers, flowers, entertainment?” [further supports the wedding idea]

“I have some ideas. Though, I would love your recommendation for a caterer… perhaps a florist… maybe for musicians, as well…?”

“I guessed as much. You have done nothing! Six days, Theal. Six days! Are you not proud and eager to perform your sacred duty? [amended my speculation to forced/arranged wedding by the local religious organization] There have been too many delays [what were those delays? Text is flying over my head] already. Garve [Ditta’s partner?] is devastated. He wants a child, [huh? Not Ditta’s partner – maybe the forced-on-Theal groom?] and I want to be a grandmother.” Ditta emitted a well-rehearsed micro-sob on the word ‘grandmother.’ [‘micro-sob’ made me laugh]

“Of course, you’re right. I will see to everything before sunset today. Now I must go.”

“Thank Ypanae! I will send you—”

Theal veiled her thoughts, disconnecting. [final confirmation of telepathic communication controlled by the receiver – I will turn the page based simply on my general interest in it being part of this world]

The Question:

1. By diving into the inciting incident in the first 280 words of chapter 1 will it pique the reader’s interest or is it too jarring?


To be frank, I encountered no ‘diving into’, so also encountered no ‘jarring’ effect. *grin*

I wonder if this is a case where your knowledge and familiarity with the ‘sharing ceremony’ is so strong that you are misperceiving the impression/understanding the reader actually receives.

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

I had foreknowledge from your notes about the background of the ceremony, but none of that knowledge is presented in this opening. Theal is in a comfy spot, stewing about an upcoming event, only days away (we learn later), which has been delayed, but she wishes to delay it further – or escape from it. This is pretty serious stuff. She also admits she can’t come up with any answers to her dilemma. Unfortunately, readers have no clue what she’s so freaked out about – plus, she isn’t shown as being that upset. She shrugs off the event she thinks about with foreboding along with the whole dust mote attack. *grin*

Through this snippet we can gather that she might be a habitual procrastinator or refusing to prepare for the coming ceremony is simply how she’s handling a situation she has no way to get out of – yet. I have no feeling about Theal or what she’s feeling. Telling me that she has a feeling of ‘foreboding’ doesn’t let me into her concerns.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

The element of telepathy is one of my favs – presents so many interesting challenges and options – so, this alone will push me to give the story one more page to engage. If it continues to talk over my head, without further information about the obstacle Theal seems determined to get out of, I’ll probably walk away.

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

Let’s consider the idea of inciting incidents…

I would perceive a jarring inciting incident as encountering Theal in the first scene, moments before the sharing ceremony, tearful, shaking, in near panic mode – and then, make a dash for it, being spotted, people shouting and chasing, she runs and runs, commandeers a mode of faster travel (horse to magnetic-force-mobile) and speeds away. Whew!! Perhaps she gets away and hides somewhere, where her actions catch up with her – she’s now a fugitive! Perhaps she races along and is waylaid by a scoundrel, who takes her captive! Perhaps she crashes/falls, and her world goes dark – to wake later to ????

A jarring inciting incident can be 1,000 different things, but the purpose is to snatch readers from their chairs/hammocks/beds and force them to experience something utterly disruptive. This can also give you time to feed bits of info once the scene changes (post hiding/waylaying or crashing). It also gives you a broader base to bring in other characters who can become interrogators, asking questions and gaining info for readers or have Theal facing the reality and consequences of her actions/escape. What do you want her to be? What do you want readers to assume/speculate about her?

(Here’s more with Story Structure: How the Inciting Event Works in a Novel)

I gently suggest booting the dust motes, or making them as stronger contrast in her thoughts, and drawing readers in with her fears/disgust/etc. about the ceremony, what does it mean to her (or not mean) and how dedicated is she to rebelling against it? Give the reader just enough to care about her – right away. She isn’t being shown with any emotion, so consider presenting her a fired up, angry, terrified, plotting, speculating – she may not be moving in this scene currently, but she can move. She can leap from the comfy chair and stomp around the library. She can tear up, reach out for the ray of sunshine, watch the dust motes fly wildly about and relate to their chaotic movement…

Currently, she isn’t interesting. She seems a younger female who is troubled about an upcoming event she doesn’t want to participate in – this sounds like a petulant child refusing a duty all younger females do – a sacred duty to boot. Give her a stick and a reason to use it to bash up the situation. *grin* Readers will root her on!

(Here’s more with The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

You indicate genres including paranormal mystery and historical fiction (the story pops into various past Earth timings). The title speaks of vampires, which I assume will be alluded to further into the book. I do not associate telepathy with vampires (my problem probably), so for me, Theal can be alien, ancient Earth race, witch, vampire, god-like creature, etc.

Have fun with this and don’t be afraid to truly toss readers into the maelstrom in the opening scene. Good job – come back to us, eh?

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

9 comments:

  1. Like Maria says, you want to think if this is the scene that will introduce the situation best -- and especially how to make the character stand out in contrast from that.

    Is this a story that really begins later, with Theal trying to escape, and the rest is the kind of background you can fill us in with as we go? Or is it earlier, when she thought she had a reason to avoid the sharing, and found out she couldn't? Is she learning something about her fiance, her own condition, or sharing that makes it worse for her than she thought?

    Or it could begin right here, with a focus on Ditta -- if conflicts with her are the best way to explore the story at first. Is Ditta just making noise about tradition and grandchildren, or are the different opinions and possibilities in there where the story should focus for now? Characters that disagree are a great signpost for story conflict, as long as real action and change hinge on what gets said.

    The big one: eight lines big, that first paragraph. A paragraph that big can slow down any scene in a book if it isn't placed with care. As a first paragraph it would *desperately* need to pull readers in fast, and hold them so well it actually did work best in that huge block form. This isn't that.

    Bluntly: you might LOSE HALF the readers who start this page, just by starting with an eight-line paragraph and the bland word "considered."

    So if this story does begin with Theal getting Ditta's call (or anything else breaking into this setting), you really want to cut that paragraph down to a couple of lines that make the opening situation vividly clear, and either right then or in the next paragraph start introducing changes or added revelations that build on that. We want a hook, or better yet several hooks that build on each other and work together.

    As for not jarring the reader... that can be a separate, related question to how to grab their interest. I think of "jarring" (in a bad way) as presenting a situation that's too big, too "wrong", or too many layers of oddness at once for the reader to catch up on. This is a little more jarring than it could be because the sharing is just dropped on us as something that has to happen Because Tradition, which isn't as persuasive as starting with a slight glimpse of why this world requires it as well as why it bothers Theal. But mainly, a character worrying and another pushing her are smooth enough ways to set down the basics quickly and get the story going. Telepathy like this isn't jarring either, to a willing reader.

    This story could pique the reader's interest here, if you refine it (and dynamite that text block at the top), or it could start in many other places. Which one is right for this?

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  2. Wow! Thanks for the deep dive. The issue I'm facing with the first chapter is that it's an essential set up (and a bit of an info dump) for everything to come in this book and later ones. I haven't found a way--yet--to introduce any of the material more gradually since once Theal finds a way off her planet, everything in chp.1 becomes of little consequence. But you and Janice are spot on about the opening paragraph and I'm dropping the whole "dust or not to dust" element and shortening it. This is still very much a WIP. Thanks again.

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    1. You have some great suggestions from those who have commented in support of your story. As I read through these, I thought that the conversation with Ditta could be much more confrontational, and could also be used to inject some needed information. This could be much more an argument that it's clear has been going on for some time. This plants the idea that Theal has been shoving back on this tradition, perhaps even having Ditta reference other traditions Theal has rejected.

      Telepathy as the 'usual' mode of communication seems to be a strong positive -- lots of potential there.

      Good luck - and as before, I invite you to return with your rewrites. Also, check out Janice's new critique group options!

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  3. I like to enter a scene know whose story it is, what they want, where they are. I'm not sure of these things quite yet. I also did not see the inciting event - that should be where something major changes for the character. Here we immediately see her thinking of her upcoming sharing ceremony, so that is not an inciting event. I use HUNGER GAMES when I think of inciting events: It's the day of the reaping. We feel something foreboding about it and learn a little more as time goes. The inciting event, however, is the moment that Katniss takes the place for her sister - that's when everything changes and puts the story into motion. What does she want? To save her sister, survive the games, but even more to overthrow the government. That single event sets the entire book up.

    Thinking of that example, helps us understand the importance of the inciting event. You have good ideas here that will pop with revising, clarifying, and editing. Good luck!

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  4. You're right--the inciting incident actually occurs two paragraphs down. I'd overlooked the fact it wouldn't appear with the 200+ word limit when I wrote my intro. Many of the questions are answered in the next two paragraphs, but it is still a weak opening that needs work. Thanks for your input.

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    Replies
    1. It's a great start with a fun premise - I have no doubt you will figure it all out as you reimagine what the opening can look like - I love trying multiple openings to see which I like best -

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  5. I'm very curious about the telepathy, the sharing ceremony, and why there's a reception afterwards, so there's definitely a hook here. I'm also curious about who Garve is and how the sharing ceremony relates to having kids. That said, the scene is lacking some tension at this point that I think would be helped by giving us a little more info on why she doesn't want to do the sharing ceremony.

    Also, I think someone said something similar above, but it's not clear right now if the ceremony is just an annoyance that she'd rather avoid or something that she's really dreading.

    There's a lot of novelty here that draws me in -I think it has a lot of potential once you get it figured out but I think it needs a little more to help us connect to the character and understand her state of mind.

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  6. I really like the premise of a telepathic society on another planet, and the way Theal is being forced into something she doesn't want creates immediate conflict.

    This opening would be even stronger if we were given reasons why Theal wants to avoid the ceremony - as it is, I didn't feel much empathy because I didn't understand why the ceremony was so bad (or what it entailed). If the inciting incident happens a few hundred words later, it might be best to start with that, and add in any essential explanations as you go. A character pondering alone is not the strongest setup for a first page, and the telepathic phone call didn't feel particularly threatening either. There needs to be something active happening, preferably something bad for Theal - sympathy and conflict generation all in one!

    All the best with this, and I'm glad you're ditching the dust motes!

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    1. Thanks, NLiu. It's definitely a work in progress.

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