This is topic Achievement Unlocked in forum Fragments and Feedback for Short Works at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by // mari (Member # 10702) on :
Hector regained consciousness slowly. With the few faculties currently in his possession, he attempted to assess his situation. He was not happy with what he discovered.

He was lying face up in a pile of broken glass. His face hurt. Actually, most of him hurt, but it was the throbbing in his right eye that really stood out. He didn’t appear to be seriously injured in any way, though an inadmissibly large part of him secretly wished for death. It was dark. Well, not dark—more like dim, the kind of dim and yet inexplicably revealing lighting that you would see in one of those Hitchcock movies from the 50s. The 1950s, specifically. He reached for his pack, and was relieved to discover it was still clipped to his belt where it belonged.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Oh, my; a waking up opening scene. extrinsic enters, stage left.

Waiting, waiting, waiting...

Posted by H Reinhold (Member # 10553) on :
Waking up scenes are generally not handled well by beginner writers, and I've heard that a lot of editors don't like stories that open like this. Why? It's overdone. In theory, I guess you could make it work. But I think 'waking up openings' make the already difficult task of orientating the reader that much harder. The character waking up disorientated is a parallel to the reader (or writer) jumping into a new unknown chapter, and, at first, might seem like a good answer to the question of how to introduce a new world--both reader/writer and character get to 'discover' it together. Unfortunately, it's usually not a particularly good way to build immersive conflict or setting. It's been discussed plenty on this forum, and I'm sure some of the veterans have things to say too.

The three main things I personally want to see in the first 13 lines of a story are some hints of the following:

- Character: I'd like to get a basic sense of who the main character is, what the narrative viewpoint will be, I'd like to sympathize with the character somewhat, and see something unusual. I want to feel, as early as possible, that this is a plausible imaginary human being.

- Setting: I'd like to get a visual setting, or some clear way to orientate myself. Are we in a high fantasy tale, urban fantasy, cyberpunk dystopia, space opera, or what? On top of a hint about the genre, I'd also like some visuals of the scene, so that I can start building my mental image of the story. Most readers, I believe, do this inevitably. So give them a few early details to latch onto, or else they will get annoyed when they later have to retroactively 'fix' their 'mistakes' in imagining the world of your story.

- Conflict: What problem(s) does the main character face? If there's no conflict, there's no story.

In your opening, I don't get much sense of either character or setting. Your main character is male, and he's been knocked out and (perhaps?) transported to a new world. Or perhaps he's just been in a car accident. I can't tell. Beyond that, things are sketchy. I don't know what he was doing before this knock-out event, whether he knows what just happened, or whether he perhaps even caused what just happened.

The setting is even harder for me to gauge. Perhaps the story's set in the future--the reference to the '1950s, specifically' might suggest that. But in terms of the scene itself, all I really get is that it's dark and he's lying on broken glass. That doesn't tell me much. It could be a pure pile of broken glass only (perhaps he's been dropped into some massive factory vat filled with glass fragments), or just a thin layer (e.g. broken glass on the side of a road). The darkness is 'inexplicably revealing', but I don't get a sense of anything that it reveals--lampposts, houses? What's the light source?

Likewise, the conflicts currently seem to be Hector's pain and confusion. Pain might work, if I felt more sympathy with the character, but at the moment I don't engage with him enough for his pain to pull me through the story. And his confusion over his location also doesn't work for me, because the setting feels too vague to provoke my curiosity. Part of me also feels skeptical, thinking (perhaps unfairly) that a lack of clear description in the opening will probably be followed up with further unclear passages later on in the story.

I understand that you probably want to go for a mysterious opening, but I'm afraid this currently doesn't work especially well for me. There's so much else out there to read that I need at least one strong 'hook' to engage me and make me want to stick with a story. At the moment, the fragment you posted doesn't offer any strong hooks for me.

However, I think you probably have an interesting story under this. Perhaps it's just not coming out very clearly in this opening. See what everyone else thinks and then maybe try a revised version.

Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
Guys, don't be mean, it's her first time. [Frown] (You're good, Hannah. Your post is awesome.)

A lot of newer writers have a tendency to write stories that open with a character waking up or regaining consciousness. (I've done it myself, before. Most of us have.) The problem I've noticed with those kinds of openings is that the time it takes to describe the protagonist's disorientation often detracts from the opportunity to grab the reader's attention--to really hook them.

This opening might have more opportunity to grab the reader if you start a little earlier--with a fall through glass, if the character fell through a skylight style window, for example. I don't actually know if that's what happened, but that's what my imagination conjured. Describing what happened could introduce a problem right away (fear of falling, for example, is definitely a conflict) and give you the opportunity to begin the story at a faster pace.

The other thing I feel like this opening could use in order to grab the reader is a more concrete sense of setting.

It was dark. Well, not dark—more like dim, the kind of dim and yet inexplicably revealing lighting that you would see in one of those Hitchcock movies from the 50s. The 1950s, specifically.
This doesn't actually give me a lot of information as a reader. It... maybe implies the story is set in the future? I'm not sure. My attention would be more riveted if there were descriptions of the silhouetted objects Hector could see out of the corner of his eye or what the sky looks like if he did indeed fall through a skylight window.

Essentially, the job of a story's opening (especially a short story) is to hook the reader's attention and to keep them reading. I think you were trying to do that here, but there might be better ways to do it in future drafts.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
An individual regains consciousness after some unstated prior brain trauma event.

The narrative point of view is consistent -- third person narrator close omniscient access limited to one persona. The narrator reflects Hector's inside looks about perceptions, some looks outside himself, some looks inside himself, the latter, notably, nociception (pain sensation).

The grammar and language suit either the narrator or the viewpoint persona, somewhat characterizes each a degree; that is, somewhat emotionally charged of a feminine nature. Multiple otherwise emotionally empty -ly adverbs used as intensifiers is a feminine language trait. Feminine, not per se female, also common to young persons of either sex, and -- well, television political gossip pundits who want to overemphasize a point, often an opinion they don't expect to be taken on its face. Those doth protest overmuch, forceful language which signals tentativeness and emotional state.

Ten empty -ly adverbs in thirteen lines is overmuch for prose. For prose, empty -ly adverbs usually signal, otherwise, little to no dramatic circumstance realized from which to draw emotional charge. More appeal, less missed drama, entails unmodified, robust and dynamic verbs more so.

Wake-up scenes are widely deprecated due to the common tendency to open the page and explore for some start point, to develop an event, setting, and character dramatic situation. A wake-up scene at the start is often artless, undramatic due to it is an effect without a prior cause given. And is as well an effect that then doesn't become, in turn, an immediate cause. A first cause of all the drama to come is an essential for a start. This fragment starts later than might be a best practice -- what caused Hector's unconsciousess.

Nor is the wake-up itself the primary action, rather, wake-ups are best secondary to a main action's design. The core of such action is complication: a personal want-problem satisfaction design. So, what does Hector want that is a problem hard to satisfy; or vice versa, what problem does Hector want to satisfy? The former, want foremost, is proactivism; the latter, problem foremost, is victimism. Those two, are as well masculine and feminine orientations; proactivism, masculine; victimism, feminine.

Is Hector's loss of consciousness due to outside forces? Is he done to, a problem action? Ergo, victimism. Or is his situation due to his want actions? Ergo, proactivism. In any case, the cause of his lost consciousness is a stronger event, time, place, and situation to start.

A first cause often entails a why question's answer. Why is Hector unconscious? Because . . . Someone threw him through a glass ceiling? He fell through a glass ceiling while attempting what? Another why question then in either scenario, why was he thrown; why did he fall through glass? The why answer derives from what circumstance complicates Hector's life from the first moment of it until his final satisfaction of whatever it is. What does Hector want? Why?

"Glass ceiling" is my projection, perhaps erroneous, I don't know, though its metaphoric ramifications are profound and ripe for prose commentary: satire. Such is how a thing becomes an essential component of a meaningful narrative. Thrown down through a glass ceiling, the wrong way? Rich.

The six W questions taught and learned from grade school composition coursework into later grades and throughout life are as essential for prose as for all communication; they are context: who, where, when; and texture: what, why, and how. Why is foremost for prose, for life, really. Why are we here? Why is Hector here? Why are readers here to receive this story? For a transformative emotional-moral experience.

Best practice would start earlier in time, when Hector does whatever it is that leads to him falling into and breaking glass that he then lands in and at some time loses consciousness. Most so because the cause of the brain trauma must be given sooner or later, though is problematic if recollected or a flashback. Unless a nonchronological timeline is more apt, best practice to follow a linear timeline.

Hector can't have been unconscious a long time -- he recovers to find himself unattended -- so the fall can't have been a severe trauma. About equivalent to a 2-G deceleration trauma, about the equivalent of a fall from a one-story height, 10 or 15 feet or so. Little to no amnesia when he recovers; he'd still be attuned to whatever complication he strives to satisfy.

Nor is Hector being alone at this moment an ideal dramatic situation. He's by himself, alone with only his thoughts to spark complication. He's navel contemplating -- stuck alone in a bathtub.

I have on more than one occasion been knocked out. No concussions, though, maybe mild traumatic brain injury. I recovered consciousness soon thereafter for each. A few seconds of memory from the moments before impact up to moments after the impact were gone and stayed gone, an instantaneous amnesia, though I recollected what caused the events, what I wanted foremost to do and at which I'd failed. Some of the lost consciousnesses were caused by outside forces, persons who attended; some were solely my doing while around others; some were some of both. No matter, what does matter here is the causal want-problem complication was still with me when consciousness returned, and was ever more so unsatisfied and yet ever more so wanted satisfaction.

The title, "Achievement Unlocked," doesn't express or imply much. "Unlocked" is a metaphorical verb in that use, though vague due to "Achievement" is a vague noun-subject of the verb-predicate. A more specific subject is warranted.

When a year date is abbreviated, contracted, actually, say, 1950, an apostrophe precedes the contraction: '50. If a typeface which uses the curly apostrophes and quote marks, "smart quotes", the close apostrophe mark is wanted. The concave side faces left, the convex side faces right.

I would not at this time read on as an engaged reader, due most to that I think the start is later than a best practice asks.

[ July 05, 2017, 04:23 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by // mari (Member # 10702) on :
Wow! These are awesomely detailed replies! Thank you! [Big Grin]

Just for the record, I'm taking all of these posts as complimentary, for two reasons. First, most of what is being said here is "Gee, this story doesn't grab me. Why's he in broken glass? Who is he? What's he like? Where is he?". So......yeah. The story did grab you. You want to know these answers. Why? Because you're the kind of people who like literature. If you weren't, you wouldn't be here. Besides, if you were the sort to want the entire story wad blown in thirteen lines, you'd read the Sunday funnies instead.

The second reason I feel complimented is that in almost all cases, when people made guesses about the story, they were right. So it's clear to me that on some level, I managed to convey quite a number of things without saying them. Most notably, at least to me, was extrinsic's quote:

Ten empty -ly adverbs in thirteen lines is overmuch for prose. For prose, empty -ly adverbs usually signal, otherwise, little to no dramatic circumstance realized from which to draw emotional charge.

Yep. Precisely. Hector waking up in a pile of broken glass is a total non-event, the anti-climactic end to an unremarkable evening.

I'm impressed, you guys picked up a lot about my writing style in a few short lines. I look forward to hearing any other feedback.
Posted by H Reinhold (Member # 10553) on :
Originally posted by // mari:
First, most of what is being said here is "Gee, this story doesn't grab me. Why's he in broken glass? Who is he? What's he like? Where is he?". So......yeah. The story did grab you. You want to know these answers.

I'm afraid not. I'm not asking these questions because I have a particular interest in the answers. I don't. I'm asking the questions to highlight the areas in the opening that don't work for me. I wouldn't read the rest of the story precisely because none of these questions seem to be answered in the fragment. Does that make sense?

There's a difference between asking a question because I'm personally interested in the answer, and asking a question to highlight an incongruity.
Posted by Jay Greenstein (Member # 10615) on :
Hector regained consciousness slowly. With the few faculties currently in his possession, he attempted to assess his situation. He was not happy with what he discovered.
Clearly, the narrator is explaining the story to the reader, rather than placing the reader into the story as a participant. You refer to the person, as an outside observer would, three times in the first paragraph.

You say he regained consciousness slowly. Given that at this point we don’t know who he is, where he is, or what’s going on, who cares how long it took? Is “slowly” over a week? A day? Ten seconds? Without knowing the situation the reader can’t even guess. And since he doesn’t act till he’s awake enough to think/act purposefully, does the time matter? If not, why waste the time to read how he woke. And in any case, unless he notices it and reacts to it, like fighting dizziness, or struggling to pull himself together, it’s irrelevant information.

My point? From the first line you’re making it clear that you, the storyteller, are alone on stage talking about the story, not making the reader live it.

How do you change that and make it more immediate? Tell the reader what matters to the one experiencing the events and how he handled it. You might, for example, say:

Pain was the first thing Hector noticed—pain so pervasive that it was hard to focus. Being awake was better then being unconscious, he supposed, but not by much.

Not your story, or writing style. It’s just a quick example of another approach. But, see how that shows what matters to him, and limits us to his impression of the situation rather than the author’s dispassionate external observance?

Instead of using terms like “facilities,” tell the reader specifically what hit him first and why, and what he does about it. “First” might be several of the things that contribute to his pain. He might notice that it felt like his cheek was lying on broken glass, then check, and find that it is. That’s very different from you presenting a list of what’s there for you to notice. It takes more words that way, but it’s an emotional response which can entertain. Facts usually don’t. And why do people read? To be entertained. Present it in the character’s viewpoint and instead of you telling the reader that he’s not happy with what he discovered, the reader will decide that, without having to be told. And in deciding, care. That matters, because unless they care they won’t turn to page two.

Take a look at this article, one I often recommend. It’s a condensation of a very good way to make the reader feel involved with the story. It’s a parallel of how we live our own lives, as a linked chain of cause and effect, motivation and response, that begins at waking and continues to the moment of sleep. And if that’s how we live, can our characters do otherwise and feel real?

Chew on it for a while, till it makes sense. I think you’ll like the result of using it on a stretch of prose.

Hang in there, and keep on writing.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Originally posted by H Reinhold:

There's a difference between asking a question because I'm personally interested in the answer, and asking a question to highlight an incongruity.

H Reinhold makes a good point. When readers ask such questions, they may be (or may be not) expressing interest. However, when critiquers - which Hatrack participants are acting as - ask such questions, they are letting you know what you failed to include, what needs to be answered to make the reader interested.

You don't want readers to ask what OSC calls "faith, hope, and clarity" questions, which are, respectively, "oh yeah?" (why should I believe this?), "so what?" (why should I care?), and "huh?" (what is going on?).

The author's duty is to make sure the reader doesn't ask such questions, and when critiquers ask them, they are trying to tell you that you need to work on answering them in the story.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The rhetorical question in all its glory!

Curious thing about workshop and rhetorical questions -- a principle of workshop is not to prescribe or dictate method, content, organization, etc., yet human nature, being what it is, the urge to "correct" the faults of others' works won't let shortfalls alone. Countered by social responsibility's respectful etiquette that proscribes correction, writing workshop is one of few situations where grammar correction might be apt.

In the alternative, instead of prescriptive commentary, descriptive commentary is more the spoonful of honey with the medicine than prescriptive is. Rhetorical questions serve the descriptive-type function, among other critique methods.

Other critique principles include, address the writing, not the writer; and one of Hatrack's more substantive principles, plus more organized and thought-out workshops, comments address what works, strengths, and what doesn't work, shortfalls, for a given commenter -- realizes that each and all comments are subjective, open to interpretation. A writer knows the intended design and may take or leave any or all comments.

Also, comments best practice note shortfalls a commenter perceives publication culture deprecates. The wake-up start is one wide deprecation, which is a challenge to tame. Another relevant workshop principle notes that, if several commenters note the same shortfall, or strength:

From "Being a Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction" by David Smith of Clarion workshops, "Snark rule. 'I tell you once, I tell you twice, what I tell you three times is true.' Lewis Carroll, 'The Hunting of the Snark.' When three or more critics concur on an element in a story, it is highly likely to be true. (Jennifer Jackson)"
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Well, //mari, this has been a brutal introduction to critiquing here at Hatrack. As I re-read your introductory post I noticed you said you just ‘write for fun’. Nothing wrong with that, lots of people do that; it’s just that most people here take their writer’s journey a lot more seriously. In fact, most of the people here want to be published, and that requires the study of some of the more advanced aspects of story construction and the development of dramatic prose.

Because of this, the critiques you’ll get here can be brutal in their analysis of any publication shortfalls contained within just a few lines, no matter how small they are. Which will probably make some issues you think of as being trivial seem blown out of all proportion, because you just want to write stories; but for these writers these are issues that are literally publication game-killers. Hence their criticism.

The hardest thing to do when writing a story is to find the right place and manner in which to start it. It is also the part most fraught with danger in that their inability to get the start just right can cause a writer to abandon their story in frustration. Personally, I have had two novels languishing for six years because I could not find the right place to start them. I have now, but only because I’ve learnt what questions I have to ask myself in order to find that right place.

My advice at this early stage, don’t take the criticism to heart; hang in here and see what you can learn. We’ll all help; you just have to ask. And don’t worry, no question is ever too silly. [Smile]

Posted by walexander (Member # 9151) on :
Mari, my best advice, is taking it in little doses.

Many here will be the first to point out that something has been done to death. Like a waking scene, or a dream scene, or a mirror scene, etc. The greatest irony is, all these things are in full use by professionally published writers on a daily basis, but because they are already published, they are allowed to break the rules.

You read any current top ten fantasy and I bet you'll find a waking scene, a dream scene, and a mirror scene, all in the same book.

But the rule of thumb is you try not to use it at the start because if you're trying to break into the biz, you have to get your story passed the slush pile. So unless you got a new spin on an old theme, it's a tough starting point. But if you are just having fun, I say God bless, take what you need from the scrap pile, and build on it until you're happy.

Posted by Metta (Member # 10744) on :
Hi Mari
I like your post. It will be interesting to find out where your main character is and how he found himself in such a predicament.

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