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Saturday, August 21, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Starting with Action in an Opening 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: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through September 25.

This week’s questions:

I’d appreciate your opinion on whether this opening captures the reader’s attention without losing them wondering what’s happening, when and where. I’ve had some critiques mention that starting in the action has to ‘be earned’, so I’d be interested in your take on it. I’m trying to tell less and show more without leaving too much out.

Market/Genre: YA Post-Apocalyptic

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

Background: Polar-ice-cap-flood orphans called annies work at an avocado orchard, a walled-in green patch above mold-blackened, storm-battered Slag. Theia’s enhanced vision that makes her an outsider, also makes her an effective killer who protects the crop, pickers and wall watchers from giant rats and wolf spiders. Even though Malum is the only mother the annies remember, Theia suspects she’s not the saviour she pretends to be, and another destiny awaits beyond the wall that protects and confines.

The scritch-scratch of bony, clawed feet through wet grass churns the acid in Theia’s empty stomach. Her eyes widen to grasp movement. There, through the trees, the pointy black nose and hunched shoulders that come up to her knees, the gnashing yellow teeth that can take off a finger.

“Yaaas, got a ratchet,” Theia whispers.

The rat sees her and lunges. Her heart hammers, her every sinew taut as she swings her wooden club and cracks under its massive grey jaw, flipping it over on its back in the grass.

The white, muscled underbelly convulses. Theia stands over it, clutching the club with both hands above her head. The rat writhes, squealing in pain. She wants to spare it, just scare it, but the orchard won’t rid itself of vermin. She brings her club down again, smashing the windpipe, the blow reverberating through her clenched hands Hot saliva floods her mouth, and she spits beside the rat’s corpse.

Theia eyes the grey fur that still looks smooth and soft to the touch, even now that the chest no longer rises and falls. She shivers as a single drop of blood oozes from its nostril. Theia wipes the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and breathes deep to slow her heart.

Rats eat the avocados and threaten the pickers like her best friend, Solskine. She is a killer, plain and simple, or so Malum their adopted mother tells her. She can’t let softer thoughts gain purchase and turn her into a pile of mush like dead baby gulls thrown from their nests by the latest storm surge.

My Thoughts in Blue:

The scritch-scratch of bony, clawed feet through wet grass [Love this image, but would wet grass allow for scratching? I associate scratching with dry] churns the acid in Theia’s empty stomach. Her eyes widen to grasp movement. [tell-ish, as the “to grasps” tells motive, not shows action. Also, people tend to narrow their eyes to focus, not widen them. Widening typically suggests surprise] There, through the trees, the pointy black nose and hunched shoulders that come up to her knees, the gnashing yellow teeth that can take off a finger. [Something is a bit off about this sentence. More below]

Yaaas, [Is this a name or an exaggerated was of saying yes?] got a ratchet,” [I’m not sure if this is a typo (get), a question (ratchet?), showing a dialect, or if that’s the rat] Theia whispers. [Good spot for some internalization to help clarify all that.]

The rat sees her and lunges. [This suggests the POV of the rat, so I assume this is an omniscient narrator] Her heart hammers, her every sinew [I immediately wondered if sinews tightened, and if you meant muscles, which pulls me out of the story] taut as she swings her wooden club and cracks under its [a bit ambiguous since the last noun was her sinews] massive grey jaw, flipping it [here, too] over on its back in the grass.

The white, muscled underbelly convulses. [without “the rat’s” here, it sounds like the underbelly is its own entity] Theia stands over it, clutching the club with both hands above her head. The rat writhes, squealing in pain. She wants to spare it, just scare it, but the orchard won’t rid itself of vermin. [Telling. But this is a good spot for some internalization] She brings her club down again, smashing the windpipe, the blow reverberating through her clenched hands. [period] Hot saliva floods her mouth, and she spits beside the rat’s corpse. [How does she feel about all this?]

Theia eyes the grey fur that still looks smooth and soft to the touch [Why? What is she looking for?], even now that the chest no longer rises and falls. [Awkward. Also, I’m not sure how breathing affects the smoothness of the fur] She shivers as a single drop of blood oozes from its nostril. [Possible stimulus/response flip. Does she shiver as it bleeds, or does the blood make her shiver?] Theia wipes the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and breathes deep to slow her heart. [Tellish]

Rats eat the avocados and threaten the pickers like her best friend, Solskine. [This reads like a told infodump more than an internal thought. It also sounds like Solskine is a threat like the rats, not a picker] She [ambiguous pronoun. Sounds like Solskine is the “she” since you mentioned her last] is a killer, plain and simple, or so Malum, [comma] their adopted mother[comma] tells her. She can’t let softer thoughts gain purchase and turn her into a pile of mush like dead baby gulls thrown from their nests by the latest storm surge.

The Questions:

1. Does this opening capture the reader’s attention without losing them wondering what’s happening, when and where?


Not yet (readers chime in). It has the potential to, though. Hunting giant rats to protect friends helps show Theia’s situation, the world, and sets some stakes. It’s active, shows Theia as someone who has compassion (she doesn’t want to kill this rat, but has to), and introduces a strange world that looks hard and dangerous.

A few things are keeping me from being drawn in, however.

The third-person omniscient present-tense narrator is keeping me at a distance, so I’m never in Theia’s head. There’s no internal thought or personal sense of how she feels or what she thinks, and that lack of internalization never allows me to know who Theia is or get a glimpse of her personality. I’m told she wants to let the rat live, but I don’t feel it, because she doesn’t feel it. It reads like someone watching her from the side, describing everything as she does it.

I’d suggest adding more internal thought that better shows Theia’s personality, her judgement about the world, and her emotions.

(Here’s more with What You Need to Know About Internalization)

2. Is the action earned?

I’m a bit unsure what “action has to be earned” means, but I suspect it’s just that action for the sake of action in an opening scene rarely works, because readers haven’t had time to connect to and care about the characters in those action scenes. That’s the case here.

Not knowing enough about Theia as a person makes me feel like an outsider watching her, and it’s hard to care about a total stranger no matter how much danger they’re in.

Adding internalization will help here as well, and give readers the information they need to get to know Theia, and care about the danger she’s in while hunting the rat. The action is fine, it’s just the personal layer that makes readers care about that action is missing. Once you add that, it should work.

(Here’s more with Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

3. Does this tell less and show more without leaving too much out?

This is a tough question because of the omniscient narrator. Omniscient is more told by its nature—it is an outside narrator telling the story. If that’s your goal, it’s probably fine, though some of those told lines are what’s keeping me from engaging with Theia and the story.

If you’re aim is a tight or limited third person, then this feels fairly told (again, much of this has to do with the lack of internalization).

(Here’s more with How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

The detached nature is also affected by the present tense. Third-person present tense reads as if the action is happening right now, and the description is a running commentary of what the narrator is seeing. This is different from first-person present tense, where it reads like the protagonist describing what they’re doing as it happens. In first person, if reads like the character. In third person, it reads like an outside narrator. One pulls the reader toward the protagonist (first), the other pushes them away (third).

Let’s look a little closer:
Her eyes widen to grasp movement.
The “to grasp” here tells why her eyes widen. It’s a small tell and most readers won’t even notice it (even in a tight POV). But combined with the distant narrator and other tells, it adds to the told and distant feel. It’s also explanation, not a description of action. “Theia scanned the tall grass, but no blades rustled” describes action, and suggests motive—she’s looking for movement.
The rat sees her and lunges.
While it’s possible that she can tell the rat has seen her, this reads more like someone watching the situation who knows what’s going on. There’s no indication of how she knows the rat saw her. Did it turn its head toward her? Did it bristle its fur?
She wants to spare it, just scare it, but the orchard won’t rid itself of vermin.
This tells how she feels, but I don’t get any real sense of Theia here. Does she feel sorry for the poor hungry rat? Does she dislike killing in general? There’s a hint that she feels a responsibility here, and that this is necessary, but not enough for me to connect to her.
Theia wipes the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and breathes deep to slow her heart.
The “to slow” here again tells motive. It’s not a terrible tell, but while I’m told she’s trying to slow her heart, I don’t get a solid sense of how she feels about it. Is she doing it because this freaks her out? Just the normal adrenalin rush of the hunt? Does she need to be calm for the next threat?

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)
Rats eat the avocados and threaten the pickers like her best friend, Solskine.
Theia knows this, so her stating it feels like an external explanation for the reader’s benefit. You could show more with something such as (just throwing something out here):
Theia wipes the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. Things are getting worse. She’s killed so many more rats this year, and just last night, Solskine confessed that she and the other pickers were too scared to even enter the avocado orchards.
Obviously, you’d write something that fits your story and voice, but this is a mix of action (she wipes her brow), and internal thought that shows the world and situation (lots of rats and pickers), and a hint of what’s wrong (too many rats, fearful people).

I’d suggest brainstorming how Theia would think about this situation, and what would worry her, and use that to slip in her personality and show the world at the same time.

This sentence is also a little off, and reads like Solskine is a threat like the rats. There were a few other sentences that were a little difficult to parse as well.
There, through the trees, the pointy black nose and hunched shoulders that come up to her knees, the gnashing yellow teeth that can take off a finger.
I get the gist of this, but the “There, the point black nose…” structure is hard to understand. It reads as of the nose has teeth, not the rat. To clarify, try:
There, through the trees, the ratchet’s pointy black nose and hunched shoulders creep closer. It gnashes yellow teeth that can take off a finger.
The “a” also pushes readers away from Theia. It’s her finger she’s probably worried about, so saying “her finger” versus “a finger” would bring it closer to her point of view.

Or…
There, through the trees—a pointy black nose, hunched shoulders, and gnashing yellow teeth that can take off her finger.
Are you trying to describe the action of a rat sneaking up on her, or pointing out the physical traits of the rat? Or both? That will determine how you write it and what the focus of the sentence is. 
“Yaaas, got a ratchet,” Theia whispers.
I’m not sure what this sentence means. At first, I thought yaaas was a variation of yes, then I wondered if it was a name of someone she was hunting with, since it looked like she was asking if Yaaas had a ratchet (which sounded like a weapon or tool). Then I wasn’t sure if it was slang or dialect. After I read it multiple times, I started to wonder if ratchet was what she called the rat, and she was happy she found one (but she says rat after that). If the rat is called a ratchet, then be consistent throughout.

This is a good example of how an internal thought after the dialogue would clarify what these terms are and what Theia is feeling about things.
Her heart hammers, her every sinew taut as she swings her wooden club and cracks under its massive grey jaw, flipping it over on its back in the grass.
I had trouble parsing this sentence as well. Sinews are tendons, and tendons probably do tighten, but it was unusual enough that it pulled me out of the sentence to figure out how they were different from muscles. The pronouns are also ambiguous, because it never says she’s attacking the rat. It’s implied, but without saying “rat” here, it’s just a little confusing.

These are small stumbles as I read, but they add up after a while. I’d suggest a few tweaks to clarify what she’s attacking.

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

Overall, the bones are working and the “girl hunting rats to protect the orchard and her people” concept is a good setup for an opening scene. I think if you layer in Theia’s personal thoughts and emotions, readers will be able to connect to her more, and the action will work as the hook you want. I’d also suggest tweaking the more confusing sentences and just clarifying what’s going on so readers can stay with you.

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.
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4 comments:

  1. I love a story that gets into the weeds (literally here) about sensations and action, and this revels in it more than any Diagnostic we've had here in a while.

    That's nice to see, and the action here is good, perceptive, and generally does the job it's trying to. (Generally; see Janice's notes about the moments it could be better.) Still, could it be doing more?

    Janice said that this could layer in more thoughts and emotions. Let me put this a different way: if the story is really about the world beyond the wall and how Malum's explanation isn't the truth, should her doubts about that be mentioned only after the attack? Putting it there feels like Theia needs to show she can fight to earn the right to have an opinion -- it ought to be more the other way around.

    That doesn't mean the story can't start with the action. But "The bartender sees the crowd, the decorator sees the barstools, and the soldier counts the exits." How can you pace and slant these descriptive details to show us more about Theia? Maybe the flow of this has a pattern that she keeps wanting to dislike killing, but every second the familiar details and sheer pattern of *need* to survive keep sucking her thoughts back into the steps that win the fight. Maybe she keeps seeing bits of beauty around her like an artist, or worries about her friends keep crossing her mind, or she's physically exhausted already and showing her courage in pushing on. How would any of those patterns steer this narrative?

    You can show that because people normally juggle several thoughts in the course of a few seconds, (though a story needs to be careful to make them each *quick*), and you can use that combination to show different sides of the scene and make one truth point toward another. This isn't fully exploring that yet, but the degree that you dig into the setting and Theia's physical reactions show that you can be that precise.

    And that's if the fight --with more subtext-- is still the way to begin this. Maybe the story would have a better opening with an argument with Malum or a talk with Solskine, that would have a conclusion that then plays off a rat attack. (Theia says she just won't fight anymore, and then yet another rat attack forces her to kill anyway? And that's just one possibility.) A fight makes a strong opening if you make sure it shows the character as it does, but that's harder than it looks, and you never want to assume it's the only option.

    You could start in a different place, or start here and do more during this scene. Either way, this kind of detail is one of the most powerful tools you can have.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Janice and Ken. Lots to think about in clarifying and distilling my opening through tightening up POV, interiority, and dialect. Slanting details to how Theia would see her world (in terms of what’s important to her and what her role is) is an interesting way to dive back into this story that I wrote many years ago and have changed the opening so many times. I appreciate you giving me a way to see it anew.

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  2. Aggressive giant rats and wolf spiders. The idea of a grove of avocado trees as high value property needing to be guarded. Polar ice cap flood orphans. Yes! *grin*

    For my part, the line of dialogue pricked my imagination and engaged me in the scene. I 'heard' it as something Theia says to herself upon spotting the threatening creature, something hunters say to themselves. The word 'ratchet' was instantly assigned to that same creature, assuming this was a term she had coined. This single line of dialogue produced a reaction to Theia and I was able to easily imagine her tensing, maybe lowering her stance, tightening her grip on her weapon. Psych-up hunter/warrior stuff...

    So, in one line of dialogue, I was ready to engage and be fed more information about Theia such as her location, distance to the rat, and maybe some internal statements/observations about how (perhaps) this was the 4th rat this morning/afternoon/evening/day, which was twice the number as the week prior. I would be anticipating info on how she felt, what else was on her mind, was she hidden, was she outside a perimeter (her location), etc. I would want the anticipation of the attack to be built up with observations, internal thoughts, and maybe the importance of the first strike immobilizing the creature.

    What do you do with a reader who is ready to get involved with your scene?

    If I'm that reader, I'm completely willing to float in white space for a bit (like a minute), engine running in idle, waiting to throw it into gear and roar off in whatever direction you send me. However, all this enticing stuff can only carry me so far before I start scrabbling for some grounding.

    I have already micro-bonded with your MC. This is mostly because she's a hunter/guard/killer and I relate with that mindset. She's watching, always, and that's her 'job'. I relate to that because I'm a watcher, and analytical type. I relate to hunting.

    I mention this personal relating stuff because I can represent a reader who is excited by your unique-to-me premise, the female protagonist in what I consider a 'natural' female role (protector/guardian/hunter), and the giant rats and spiders...

    Everything Janice and Ken have pointed to are must-do's to make the best presentation of your premise, your book's world, and your MC.

    You must also ground the scene -- right away. An eager, engaged reader without grounding will soon become overwhelmed (and irritated) with trying to fill in all the blanks so as to ground themselves.

    On another thought...I was curious about the rat's behavior. A lot of page space given to the rat, its attack, and getting properly bashed to death, so if you give all this such a place of honor, I assume the rats are a pretty important element.

    By demanding I give attention to 'the rat', I feel I have permission to question what's going on. And I did have questions: why are the rats so aggressive? are the rats eaters of humans? have they become higher level predators? do the spiders hunt and kill the rats? what if the spiders could be trained to hunt and eat the rats?

    These are all un-grounded speculation questions that can keep me interested in the story, this world and society, and the protagonist. They might keep me 'entertained' for a few minutes - but - I won't be reading, I'll be indulging in speculation. You want me firmly engaged with this opening scene and learning about Theia.

    Good bones and should become a very fun read.
    oyes...omit 'through wet grass', unless that wet grass is important. Currently, we have been offered trees and wet grass for a setting...
    *grin*

    I like what you've presented so far -- keep going!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sasha Anderson9/01/2021 9:15 AM

    "She wants to spare it, just scare it, but the orchard won’t rid itself of vermin."

    That's my favourite line in the piece - then again, I tend to lean quite omniscient in taste!

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