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The following is the opening of a short story I'm writing:

Erin stared at Ruth, eyes narrowed. "There was an earthquake last night?"

Ruth nodded. "Around 9p.m. The news says it was a 4.3 on the Ritcher scale."

Erin searched through her memory, but came up with nothing. What I was doing at that time? she wondered. One thing for sure: she wasn't asleep. She didn't go to bed that early. If for any reason she had fallen asleep, the intense shaking would have woken her up immediately. After all, she wasn't a heavy sleeper. It occurred to her that maybe she had indeed felt earthquake, it just that she didn't remember it. But she decided to discard that hypothesis. She didn't consider herself particularly smart. But when it came to remembering things, specially events of that magnitude, her brain never failed her. Only one possibility was left; she didn't fell the earthquake. But how can that be? She asked herself. The idea couldn't fit into her mind.

"I don't remember feeling any shaking," Erin finally said.

"That's strange," Ruth said, and grabbed a cigarette from her purse, and lit it.

They remained silent for a moment, lost in their thoughts. Erin stared at the neon sign beside her. Ruth was smoking her cigarette, and glancing at the other tables from time to time.

  • Does it grab the reader's attention (starting from the first line)?
  • Does this opening make you want to keep reading?
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6 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The problem I have - and it is a promising idea, btw, so keep at it - is that the speaking does not feel natural. People don't actually talk like that, except in very staged situations (or Scandanavian crime stories, where it works, oddly)

"What earthquake?" Erin said, staring at Ruth with narrowed eyes.

"9 last night. A 4.3 they said on the news. Not something you can miss" Ruth replied.

What was I doing, thought Erin. Not sleeping - far too early for that. And a 4.3 on the Richter scale is not something I would miss even if I was.

The most relaxed or casual style draws me into people who have a past together that I want to know about, and the sense of being in the middle of a conversation gives it a sense of immediate speed.

As always, this is just some direction that I would prefer to see in it. Feel free ot ignore if it doesn't work for you.

ETA: Think about your first line - that is vitally important. I think that

"What Earthquake?" said Erin

is a more gripping start than

Erin stared at Ruth, eyes narrowed

You are right into the heart of the action from the start - earthquakes are cool as is the possibility that someone might have missed one. Your start sounds like the introduction to a bitch-fight, not an earthquake story.

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Thanks! I think your are right, the dialogue doesn't sound very natural. I will keep that in mind when I rewrite it. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 20 '12 at 16:22
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Always remember that in normal speech, there is a lot of unspoken context, and a lot of abbreviation, and it doesn't make complete sense. If you can get that down, the reader will have to interpret the rest of the story to understand it. –  Schroedingers Cat Jun 20 '12 at 17:44
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@alexchenco, Not sure about the others' opinions but I'd say "Write numbers in letters when in dialog." It's just that dialogues sometimes have phonetically spelled colloquialisms, usually used to show 'relaxation in conversation and informality'; this leads to an expectation of spelled numbers. Again, not sure. –  Mussri Jun 21 '12 at 22:05
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@M.Na'el - actually I agree with this. Ruth may have said "a four three they said". And she probably said "nine-ish" as well, harder to use numbers for that. –  Schroedingers Cat Jun 22 '12 at 8:07
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No and no for me as well. Here is my feedback:

  • Too much emphasis on the surroundings, rather than on characters. I don't care that it was a spicy chicken leg, Marlboro Light cigarettes, on a neon sign advertising Heineken. Maybe you think such inferences help us "see" the surroundings, but they made me feel like I was trudging through a swamp of detail.

  • Why was she musing about a 6.0 earthquake, when the news said it was 4.3?

  • People who shrug their shoulders while declaring, "I think I missed it somehow" don't generally discard their hypotheses – maybe they dismiss their ideas, forget their thoughts, or shrug off their notions, but not discard their hypotheses. (I didn't think those words were a good fit).

  • You wrote: "One thing was sure to her..." Why not, more simply, "One thing was sure..."

  • "She didn't fell [sic] earthquake." This passage isn't ready for prime time.

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Thanks for the feedback. This was a first draft. I made some small corrections. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 17 '12 at 4:47
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To become a good writer, one needs to realize how much rework is required. Usually, it takes several revisions to turn a mediocre passage into forceful and effective prose. You have let three people give you brutally honest criticism, thanked them graciously, and improved your piece. To me, that shows you have great potential. Once you've learned how to recognize these shortcomings in your own writing, and make incremental improvements, you'll be hooking readers in no time. –  J.R. Jun 17 '12 at 19:44
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It was quite difficult to read actually. I am not sure you are not a native English speaker, there are many grammatical mistakes that I expect to see from non-native speakers. Examples (3 from several): "...and glancing at the people in the other tables from time to time" instead of "...at the other tables..." and "I decided to open my eyes, and for my surprise, the shaking had stopped." instead of "...and to my surprise..." and a style rather than grammar one "Heineken neon sign" is better as "neon Heineken sign" as it places the emphasis better (on Heineken).

There are also colons in place of semicolons. All in all it is overly wordy, and has some strange logic holes - do we notice shaking has stopped when we open our eyes - or because we can no longer feel the vibrations. "...my apartment room..." no need for "room" here as it is obvious if you are in an apartment you are in a room, "...my apartment's sitting room..." perhaps. "took a package of Marlboro Light from her purse, and lit a cigarette up" no need for "up" either really "took a package of Marlboro Light from her purse, and lit a cigarette".

This has the 'first hit' look and feel to it. You need to reread it several times - go take a break and then read it fresh. Then errors will scream at you and better way to say things will come to mind. I often rewrite whole sections several times on rereads - sometimes even wiping out whole scenes or characters - it has to fit and it has to flow.

Keep at it :D

Good luck.

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I like your advice to tighten it up, and your comment about how this usually takes several iterations: "took a package of Marlboro Light from her purse, and lit a cigarette up" becomes "took a package of Marlboro Light from her purse, and lit a cigarette" becomes "took a Marlboro Light from her purse, and lit it" and maybe even "grabbed a cigarette from her purse, and lit it." –  J.R. Jun 17 '12 at 1:58
    
@Wolf5370 Sorry, this was a first draft. I made some corrections (By the way, my native language is Spanish). –  Alexandro Chen Jun 17 '12 at 4:38
    
@Wolf5370 Thanks for the feedback. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 17 '12 at 4:48
    
@J.R.: Careful! "grabbed a Marlboro Light" says more about the character than "grabbed a cigarette". Being specific helps drawing the picture in the reader's head. –  John Smithers Jun 19 '12 at 9:04
    
@JohnSmithers: I completely agree; which is why I specified "maybe" on my last suggested revision. However, such branding can be overused, and sound forced. Care must be taken in both directions. We've got a whole novel to reveal what kind of cigarettes she smokes; it needn't all be packed on Page 1. –  J.R. Jun 19 '12 at 9:29
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Start straight away with the dialogue. "There was an earthquake last night?" grabs me right off my seat - I'm thinking "holy shit, an earthquake?" The way you have it know, your story starts with an extremely passive act. Staring is quite boring. Not much happens when someone "stares." I stare at people all the time. Earthquakes, however? That is unique, interesting, pulls me the devil off my seat into the story.

There are some grammar mistakes, as other people pointed out, but I think you could make the most impact simply by truncating that first sentence.

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Thanks for the feedback. "There are some grammar mistakes." Could you point out one? I actually don't see any. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 20 '12 at 1:49
    
"She didn't fell the earthquake..." I believe you mean 'feel' here. –  beachwood23 Jun 25 '12 at 1:13
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Ignore grammar errors for now, that is not the point. You want to make sure you have a story worth proof-reading first. Writing will help you improve your English, but focusing on grammar will detract from your story. The only value of grammar is to make the reading smoother for the reader.

The first line is good, I'm interested. For better pacing of the story, try breaking up the next big paragraph. This is just a suggestion, but maybe have Erin's thoughts about her memory be interspersed with Ruth's description of the earthquake.

This is just an example, and I made sure not to change much of it. I find that reworking a story is easier when I see someone else's interpretation of it. Feel free to use it or ignore it. :-)

Erin stared at Ruth, eyes narrowed. "There was an earthquake last night?"

Ruth nodded. "Around 9p.m. Didn't you feel it?"

Erin searched through her memory, but came up with nothing. What I was doing at that time? she wondered. One thing for sure: she wasn't asleep. She didn't go to bed that early.

"I don't remember feeling any shaking," Erin said with her eyes narrowed.

If for any reason she had fallen asleep, the intense shaking would have woken her up immediately. After all, she wasn't a heavy sleeper. It occurred to her that maybe she had indeed felt earthquake, it just that she didn't remember it. But she decided to discard that hypothesis.

"I don't see how you missed it", Ruth said. "The news says it was a 4.3 on the Richter scale."

She didn't consider herself particularly smart. But when it came to remembering things, specially events of that magnitude, her brain never failed her. Only one possibility was left; she didn't fell the earthquake. But how can that be? She asked herself. The idea couldn't fit into her mind. She shook her head no.

"That's strange," Ruth said, and grabbed a cigarette from her purse, and lit it.

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No on both count at least for me. I don't know what Ritcher scale is. Typo? Do people say Shit twice like that?

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OK, I guess one shit is enough. Sorry, I misspelled Richter. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 16 '12 at 12:21
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