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Friday, October 12, 2012

Critique of October's Winner

Scroll down to yesterday’s post to read October’s winner, 1012CL (to preserve anonymity). Today I’m posting my critique. Since my opinion counts as only one person’s perspective, not to mention that I can’t possibly cover everything, please—BIG PLEASE!—add your comments to extend the benefits to 1012CL.

HOOK: Opening your story with a hook is crucial. If you don’t snag your reader within the first page or two, she may abandon your story without giving it a “fair” chance. You open with the effective hook of surprising the reader with the discovery that the car did not hit David Danforth but, instead, someone who saved him. This twist prompts the reader's curiosity to read on and discover who, how, and why. 

To make your worm wiggle even more, there are two strategies you could use to reel in the reader.

One is to clarify what is at stake (or at least give a hint). David appears to have been saved for some purpose he will discover as the story progresses. But what’s his problem, to begin with? Does he have one? Or is he just a pawn in the grand scheme of things? If the reader has a reason to care about David (e.g., he feels he’s a failure in his ministry, or his mother just died, or he has cancer), she will be more likely to keep reading to find out what happens to him.

A second strategy is to use a scene goal to entice the reader’s interest. David learns his life has been saved by someone who pushed him out of the way of a car but got hit himself. The reader doesn’t know David; she doesn’t know how David will respond to this news internally. Reveal this with David’s scene goal. Yes, in action he gets up and goes to the man, but why? Guilt? Curiosity? Because he’s a clergyman and therefore should help?

By clarifying David’s goal, you take the reader a step closer to caring about him. David’s goal gives a glimpse of what he is like because of what he wants. The goal also gives the reader something concrete to expect in the action that follows—what’s supposed to (but might not) happen. More importantly, the goal gives the reader a reason to root for David—to connect with and, yes, care about him!

CONFLICT: A must for a scene is conflict—obstacles that hinder the character in achieving his goal (another reason to clarify what the scene goal is!). Is David hindered in his “external” goal of getting to the man hit by the car? No. It’s a green light every step of the way. Well, is he hindered in his “internal” goal? Perhaps, but we don’t know because we don’t know what his internal goal is. All we see is a man meeting his rescuer, who dies after asking for his Bible to be delivered to his wife.

The reader will no doubt surmise that conflict will be generated by fulfilling this request … but will the reader hang in there? Has the soft journey from the first paragraph to this last one deterred her from wanting to investigate the intrigue brought up by David’s encounter with the dying man? Eeeeeek, I hope not! But don’t chance it—set up obstacles along the way to make it hard for David to achieve his goal. Win the reader into rooting for David’s success, and then spring the wonderful intrigue of the encounter.

CHARACTERIZATION: David is identified as a clergyman. He feels responsible to assist the man hit by the car. Check off one external fact and one internal. That’s about all we know, one thousand words into the story. How can the reader get to know David better?

One way is to get inside his head. You did that with “Someone was hit?” We can sense all the questions that tumble off that one biggie. We catch David’s bewilderment and the horror of what this fact implies. Give the reader more of this. As the scene progresses, give David’s internal responses and reactions to events and to people. By revealing David’s thoughts and feelings, you bring the reader closer to him, whereas limiting the reader to only David’s actions creates distance. Unless there’s a reason to coat David in Teflon, make him more engaging by opening up his head and heart to the reader.

A second way to acquaint the reader with David is to give snippets of backstory that are relevant to the scene. The key words here are “snippets” and “relevant.” Backstory should be revealed only to help the reader care about David in the context of how his past pertains to what is happening at this exact moment of time.

STORY GOAL/QUESTION: This is powerfully presented through the rescuer. In effect, he says that his purpose has been accomplished and David’s is about to begin. Definitely a curiosity-arouser!

DIALOGUE: A few times I was confused in identifying who was talking because you separated a paragraph about a person from what that person said. The two belong in the same paragraph. As an example, here’s how paragraphs four through eight should be correctly formatted:

“You okay?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
He shook his head and blinked, then started to press his left hand to his eyes. Blood smeared across his palm halted the motion and shocked him back to his senses. “What happened?”
“That man just saved your life,” the stranger replied.
David looked up to see a bear of a man kneeling beside him, concern written all over his cragged features. “What man?”
“The one who was hit.”

Your dialogue hits this problem several times in the story. Don’t make the reader stop to figure out who is saying what.

DESCRIPTION: I had no trouble visualizing the setting. Your details brought me right into every event as the story progressed. Not only did I see the big picture and its relevant details, but I felt the tactile contacts (ouch), heard the myriad street noises, and caught a few unpleasant whiffs as well. You used visceral responses—clogged throat, lump in throat—to evoke empathy. Some description could have been more effective if “shown” rather than “told,” but, overall, your description was highly successful.

LITERARY DEVICES: I fail miserably at recognizing all the figures of speech, but I love a good simile or metaphor, and I enjoyed yours: “cutting a path through the crowd like a freighter through Boston Harbor,” “arms and legs twisted like a rag doll,” “his voice a thin, frayed ribbon on a sighing breath.” Similes and metaphors add dimension and color, and they delight the intellect. Kudos to you for brightening your story with them!

GRAMMAR: A track document will be sent to 1012CL on grammar corrections. There were very few.

Your story intrigues me, 1012CL. I’d read on to find out where it is headed. However, I need David to hurry up and capture my interest before I’d commit to a long journey with him.

BLOG READERS: PLEASE ADD YOUR  INSIGHTS AND OPINIONS! I will run this post until October 17, when guest blogger Carrie L. Lewis will add her critique. So pitch in, keep coming back, and let’s give 1012CL a lot of take-away!


  1. I like your writing, 1012CL. I want to say that right off the bat and as a base for anything else I might say. I can tell this WIP was worth your while to get out and dust off. I hope you continue on with it. As Steph said, I got confused as to who was speaking when. And, for instance, when the big guy in the business suit kneeling over David talked to him about the other guy who had saved him, and then you gave the bear size description, I got confused as to whom this description belonged. I had to go back and read it again, and I know you don't want your reader to do that. I believe a lot of will be fixed if you organize you dialogue as Steph suggested. I also wanted you to give me more reasons to like David earlier on. The up side is that I definitely didn't DISlike him. But I need to care about him more than just the fact he is clergy. Know what I mean? And....I just wonder if you are giving away too much too soon. Don't know, of course, because I haven't read the rest of your manuscript. But, please finish it so I can! And remember me if you want an influencer. You go!!

  2. You've got me curious 1012CL. I want to know what David's purpose was, what his internal reactions are to what's happening. I would read definitely read on at this point.

    Steph - awesome, thorough critique as always!


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