YA Fantasy alternative opening

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Plucky Novice

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Hi all,

I'm trying out an alternative opening to my YA fantasy novel. It sorts out some POV issues for me and helps me cut about 4k words by starting in a different place. I'm happy to receive detailed critique but what I really want to know is whether this is engaging and hooky.

All thoughts welcomed as always.

Thanks,

PN


Rain drops spat and hissed as they struck the boy’s bare skin. His eyes snapped open to a web of jagged blue lines crackling in the dark and he heaved in a lungful of cold air as if it were his first.

Staggering on stiff legs, he slumped against an unyielding rock column. The crackling stopped and the rain no longer hissed on his skin as he walked his hands up the hot smooth surface to right himself.

He blinked water from his eyes and stepped into the impenetrable night. A burning smell flirted with his nostrils, before the soles of his feet found soft, wet grass. After a few tentative steps, a bolt of lightning ripped through the atmosphere with an ear-splitting crack and the boy fell as he leapt away from where it would strike the ground.

He glimpsed a tree line at the top of a slope and clambered towards the refuge from the downpour. The rain continued to pepper his skin but the accompanying thrum had gone, replaced by a disorientating ringing in his ears. He made the cover of the trees and walked on, not knowing where he was headed.

The cold of the night began to invade his body and he rubbed his goose-bumped flesh to no avail. Involuntary twitches rippled round his body, he had to find shelter and quickly. Adrenalin forced his stiffening limbs into a jog and an ember of warmth returned to his body, extending his shuffling gait into a run. Outlines of trees and bushes leaped out of the dark, fleetingly illuminated by flashes of lightning as branches and undergrowth tore at his numb skin.

Desperation drove him on but it wasn’t enough to defeat the cold penetrating his muscles and joints, and he ground to a painful hobble. Scouring the way ahead, he spotted a glimmer of light peeking through the trees, rekindling his hope of escaping the storm. He struggled on; arms clutched to his chest as large globules of frigid water splattered on him from the canopy above.

As he left the shelter of the trees, he was battered by a fierce wind that almost toppled him over. Gusts tore painfully at his skin, as though bombarding him with a thousand icy shards and for a moment he contemplated returning to the numbing cold of the forest. But an innate desire to survive drove him on towards the soft pin pricks of light in the distance, one painful footstep after another.

A flash of lightning lit up a large stone edifice, flanked by tall buttressing towers with domed roofs; ominous and uninviting through the murk of the downpour. A clap of thunder broke overhead, disrupting the unrelenting din of the storm and the boy ducked as if to avoid it.

Uninviting or not, it was his only chance and he broke into a short shuffling run once more, gritting his teeth against the cold. But he could not escape its icy grip. Running turned into plodding and, as the boy’s body began to shut down, it became an effort of will to drag one foot in front of the other. He shook violently; the promise of warmth and shelter beyond his reach.

The sickening sorrow of death was beginning to build in his stomach when two men strode out of the gloom. They were waving and shouting but the boy couldn’t hear their words and sunk to his knees, unable to stand any longer. They leaned heavily on staffs as they made for him and for a moment fear gripped him uselessly. He was powerless to defend himself.

The larger of the two, all beard and shaggy hair, swept a large animal skin round his shoulders that cut out the biting wind. He hooked a powerful arm around the boy’s waist and hoisted him half off his feet.

The boy let himself be whisked along; he had little choice and the world began to blur as his energy waned. He thought he heard a scream and became vaguely conscious that their progress through the storm had ceased. He no longer cared.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
For me, there's too much scene building at the beginning and I always find it hard to get engaged when a character isn't given a name, so that's a problem for me. Is there a (really, really, really good ;)) reason he can't be named?
 

Brian G Turner

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You've got some nice touches in this - clearly you like working with visuals. The trouble is, it makes the whole piece very distant. We're never in the boy's experience, but kept at arm's length. This is missing a real trick, to have the reader emotionally connect with their pain, confusion, discomfort and disorientation - as instead we're just left watching someone wander around in the dark for a few hundred words where nothing happens. There's also some unnecessary overwriting in this - a common stage in the writing development process - and the sooner you learn to cut those out or nip those in the bud the better, as rather than enhancing your descriptions it's undermining them.

All that said, I think some judicious editing to this piece could really make it come alive, and there's certainly a lot of promise you could draw out from it that you're not doing at present. But, we've all been there. :)

So my suggestion would be to stop thinking about this in visual terms and more in emotional terms - what the character is feeling and experiencing - to make this piece a lot stronger.

Of course, you could mostly get a way with it as it is now, but objective styles are increasingly considered old-fashioned and don't engage readers so easily.

2c. :)
 

Plucky Novice

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For me, there's too much scene building at the beginning and I always find it hard to get engaged when a character isn't given a name, so that's a problem for me. Is there a (really, really, really good ;)) reason he can't be named?
Unfortunately yes, he has amnesia which he never recovers from. He is given a name by another character early on.

I'll take a look at this from an emotional perspective and try to bring the POV closer.
 

L.L.Lotte

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The description is very vivid, but so much that its turned a bit purple to me -- and if I'm the one saying that then you know its difficult to read. ;) The imagery is definitely overwritten but I'm often guilty of that myself.

I concur that it could do with focusing on the emotions of the character, rather than the repeated descriptions of the dramatic weather. If he has amnesia, there definitely has to be a "who am I?" "what am I doing here?" reaction as soon as he wakes up.
 

tinkerdan

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I'm interested in where this is headed; however it is almost out weighed by the confusion over the POV and what you might, as a writer, be trying to do with this piece.

Mind you I'm just coming out of reading Dashiel Hammett's five novels and he writes very distant POV with less showing and more telling with a lot of adjectives and adverbs, which are all those things we are today cautioned about and I'm not absolutely certain why. However the point here is that your writing seems to be trying to keep distant while avoiding telling and that can become difficult to near impossible.

In the past if you got too distant then you used the adjectives and adverbs to help describe and tell the reader what the characters might be feeling or guide them to what might be behind their thoughts. Trying to show everything from a distant POV can almost become tiring and often lead to digressing into something that looks like passive writing as you wander too far from the task at hand. But let's get back to this piece.

I'm confused at the onset and not sure what the character's status is because of the distancing and the jumping right into actions that have no basis because we're thrust into the middle of something without any information.

"Rain drops spat and hissed as they struck the boy’s bare skin."
An interesting beginning that is rife with questions. At first I envision a shirtless boy in a rainstorm, the hissing raindrops are bit confusing in that they might denote that his skin is really hot, which it could be; however later it's not a certainty and only a open-ended guess.

"His eyes snapped open to a web of jagged blue lines crackling in the dark and he heaved in a lungful of cold air as if it were his first."

This is interesting first in that on some level it seems almost a fancy way of saying, 'He woke with a start.' If it is: then the actions that follow might be misleading. If it's not then the lack of firm context as to what is going on leaves me as the reader too confused about what it is exactly. If he is waking into this I'd expect some visceral response to this similar to a non-swimmer being thrust into the deep end of a pool, with a lot of thrashing around and desperation.

As the story goes on I begin to wonder that he might be entirely naked and that the rain is cold and that there might be more to his waking within this whole scenario with no preparation to the conditions, though it's still not certain. More disturbing is that some moments we almost feel close to him yet get pulled away every time he is referred to as the boy which indicates more of someone watching him as the narrator so I'm not sure you have nailed the POV or your distant POV is drifting too close and almost into his head while trying to stay far enough out of his head because of the amnesia aspect. And, that amnesia aspect is not at this point nor at the end of this piece at all clear.

It takes too long to go through the whole process and then it yields very little evidence of anything and I have to wonder how necessary that is. It might be alright because perhaps and before the end of the chapter some of these things are addressed. I'm not encourage though, so it might be something you want to get to earlier.

Most important is: is the main character only now becoming aware; as in he somehow has been dumped into the scene with no memories and no warning to the conditions around him. It almost seems that way, so this would really be like a he awoke with a start moment. As a reader this would be important to know and everything that follows seems to walk around the issue as though it is not important. However it is really important to know if he knows how he got there in that condition or not. Did he deliberately leave the house without an umbrella knowing he would be caught in a rainstorm or is this just something thrust upon him and most important why is it that you chose to avoid telling the reader anything at all about that--ie. is it really important to keep that potential confusion or admission of unpreparedness of your character from the reader at this point.

Again: there may be a reason and it might be resolved quickly after this small piece, that is something I can't at this time know--I can, though, say that if it doesn't begin to make sense soon then I could easily give up before the big tell arrives.

If you mean to be distant then you might look to where you get too close and if you don't mean for the distance you might reconsider such things as 'the boy' and stick with he, him and his.
 
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Plucky Novice

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@tinkerdan thanks for the thoughtful and extensive feedback.

You are not supposed to know what exactly is happening here because the character doesn't know either. So an element of guesswork and uncertainty is fine but I think I need to convey that in a closer POV to the character, that also makes clear he has amnesia, which I've failed to do here. On reflection, this is only going to work if you are close enough to the character.

This is interesting first in that on some level it seems almost a fancy way of saying, 'He woke with a start.' If it is: then the actions that follow might be misleading. If it's not then the lack of firm context as to what is going on leaves me as the reader too confused about what it is exactly. If he is waking into this I'd expect some visceral response to this similar to a non-swimmer being thrust into the deep end of a pool, with a lot of thrashing around and desperation.
A better way to think about this is that he is being born but he will not realise that, nor do I want to come straight out with it. The idea is that you learn more about him, and the world he is in, as he does. Again, I need to get the POV closer to him.

I had not appreciated that use of "the boy" was making the POV distant in and of itself - really useful feedback thanks.
 

tinkerdan

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I did something just like this in my first novel and I do know that it can be rough conveying what you want without giving away too much; however I believe I got pretty close to the character and I let her wake up with a start despite all advice against that. As to how well it works; I think the jury is still out on that one.
 
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I enjoyed this, but I would enjoy it more if the description was toned down a bit as per the feedback from the others above. To me, it seems that some words are forced to be something more complicated than they need to be.

For example;

arms clutched to his chest as large globules of frigid water splattered on him

Do you need to say "globules" when "drops" may be sufficient?

I would reiterate that I did enjoy it though, and would very much like to see where you are going with it. Best of luck!
 

Plucky Novice

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Thanks @the_philmarillion. Glad you enjoyed it.

The point on language is taken but if you're interested - globule because I was trying to convey large drops of water that may gather and fall from trees. "Large drops" just doesn't seem particularly eloquent to me even for a YA. That said I'm not sure it's the right word anyway.
 

Plucky Novice

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Just realised I used the adjective anyway so was clearly taking nonsense above!
 

JBGood

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I hope I don't come in too harsh. So let me preface this by saying that this is just my opinion and I won't be offended at all if you choose to ignore it (Specially since I tend to prefer quick paced stories over beautiful literary works).

To be honest, I couldn't get into the story. I felt it was overpopulated with description.

IMO many times the adjectives were unnecessary/redundant. For example:
unyielding rock column


the soles of his feet found soft, wet grass.
I liked this part. It made sense with the confusion/amnesia to have the character tentatively prod the floor.

Several times I felt like a description could have been simpler and still work.
shuffling gait

In some cases it can be great to have really specific descriptions. However I feel like there are too many which made it difficult to get into the story and really slowed the pace.

I think you succeeded at setting the tone but at the cost of properly getting me hooked.
 

pambaddeley

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he broke into a short shuffling run once more, gritting his teeth against the cold.

Just a technical note but if someone is running in the cold, they are likely to be gasping. Can't see it being possible to grit your teeth in those circumstances.
 
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