Saturday, June 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Opening Thrill of a Thriller

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

This week’s question:
Please find below my opening scene for my thriller work-in-progress. Does this opening work?

Also, I have intentionally not disclosed the identity of the villain at this point in the story. I want to introduce him as a "normal" person in Chapter 2 and then reveal that he isn't as normal as the reader was led to believe later in the first act.
This submission is a little on the long side (I prefer to keep these around 250 words), but it has a lot of dialog and there are some things I’d like to discuss overall, so I’ll go ahead and do the whole thing.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:
He entered the trailer without knocking. His eyes scanned the room quickly tallying those present. J.T., Skip and some girl. J.T. was sitting at a dinette table facing the others. Just sitting. Skip and the girl were on an ugly tweed sofa at the front of the trailer, making out. Eight beer cans littered a coffee table in front of the sofa and eight were on the table where J.T. sat. A knife rested on the counter in the kitchen. No other weapons were visible.

"Hey, man. What's up? Can I get you a beer?" said J.T.

"J.T. there's a problem we need to discuss," he said.

"Man, we need to talk about it tomorrow. We've got something good going on right now."

"No, not tomorrow, now. The cargo came up short. Did you think no one was counting?"

"It wasn't me. You know I'd never try to rip them off. Someone must have ripped those three bricks off before it got to us."

"Funny, how you know how much is missing. Being as how you had nothing to do with it."

"That was just a lucky guess. I didn't even know anything was missing."

"Not so lucky. You shouldn't have taken it J.T."

"I didn't steal any drugs," J.T. said. "Look man. You know I don't do coke or those hard drugs."

"Yes, J.T., I think you stole. Not for your own personal use but to sell. And now you are going to have to pay for them."

"I've got some cash. Not a lot but some. How much is it going to take?"

"I don't think they're interested in your money." He moved toward J.T.

"No, wait. We can work this out." J.T. rose from his chair, turned and started to run toward the kitchen and the knife.

But, J.T. wasn't fast enough his feet got tangled getting out of the chair. He caught J.T. by the ponytail and jerked him back into his arms. He wedged his forearm across the top of J.T.'s shoulders and put a hand under the chin. He wrenched once and broke J.T.'s neck.

"What the hell. What did you do to J.T." shouted Skip as he dumped the girl he had been holding and jumped up from the sofa. Reached into his pocket and pulled the rigging knife he always carried.

Skip hurried toward him with his knife held out in front like a knight's jousting lance.

He sidestepped Skip's lunge and grasped the knife arm with both hands twisting his body to pull Skip off balance and past him. When Skip was even with him, he kicked Skip's left knee from the side breaking the knee.

Skip dropped the knife and went down screaming in pain. The girl began screaming also.

He picked up the knife Skip dropped and grasped it in his gloved hand. Then he pressed the knife against Skip's chest between the ribs covering his heart. He pressed hard and Skip's heart stopped.

The girl was still sitting on the sofa screaming hysterically.

He walked to her. Grabbed he by the hair and pulled her to a standing position. His fist struck her in the throat with enough force to break her voice box.

She looked at him through eyes wide with terror. Her scream was now only a small squeak.

That's much better. I hate screaming.

He pulled her toward him, held her tightly as if a romantic embrace, then he smiled, spun her body around until her back was toward him, He grasped her neck and shoulders and broke her neck. He dropped her body back on the sofa.

He walked back to the truck and picked up a 2 liter Pepsi bottle that he had tossed into the bed of the truck. He poured gasoline from a two and a half red plastic jug into the bottle. Then he stuffed a shop rag down into the neck of the Pepsi bottle. He carried the bottle and the gas jug back to the trailer. He doused the furniture and the floor of the trailer with the remaining gas. Tossing the jug aside, he stepped out of the trailer. He lit the shop rag and tossed the bottle back into the trailer. The trailer exploded in flames.

Plus seventy-five equals five hundred fifty.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[He entered the trailer without knocking.] This first line intrigued me since I know this is a thriller. Entering without knocking has a sinister undertone in that context and it makes me wonder why and what he’s up to His eyes scanned the room quickly tallying those present. J.T., Skip and some girl. J.T. was sitting at a dinette table facing the others. Just sitting. Skip and the girl were on an ugly tweed sofa at the front of the trailer, making out. Eight beer cans littered a coffee table in front of the sofa and eight were on the table where J.T. sat. A knife rested on the counter in the kitchen. No other weapons were visible. The opening para feels a little heavy on description to me. That’s giving it a list-like rhythm and bogging down the flow and the pacing (which is critical to a thriller). You might consider moving some of these details to the heavy dialog section to break it up. Perhaps end this after “Skip and some girl.”

"Hey, man. What's up? Can I get you a beer?" said J.T. This could be a good spot to add the sitting on the sofa line, and maybe the beer lines since you mention beer.

"[J.T.] there's a problem we need to discuss," he said. Since you just used J.T.’s name, you don’t need to tag it here as well. There’s a lot of naming him in the whole scene as well you can trim out.

"Man, we need to talk about it tomorrow. We've got something good going on right now." This could be a good spot for the making out line, since it looks like the “something good” is J.T. watching them.

"No, not tomorrow, now. The cargo came up short. Did you think no one was counting?"

"It wasn't me. You know I'd never try to rip them off. [Someone must have ripped those three bricks off before it got to us."

"Funny, how you know how much is missing. Being as how you had nothing to do with it."

"That was just a lucky guess. I didn't even know anything was missing."

"Not so lucky.]
You shouldn't have taken it J.T." The scene feels a little long, and this bold section could be trimmed out to tighten it up. Does it matter how the narrator knows they stole the drugs? That’s not something the reader is supposed to wonder about is it?

"I didn't steal any drugs," J.T. said. "Look man. You know I don't do coke or those hard drugs."

"Yes, J.T., I think you stole. Not for your own personal use but to sell. And now you are going to have to pay for them." This could be a good spot to mention the knife on the counter and no other weapons.

"I've got some cash. Not a lot but some. How much is it going to take?"

"I don't think they're interested in your money." He moved toward J.T. Some internalization here would be nice and give readers an idea of his plans. He’s going to hurt or kill the guy, but how does he feel about that? Is it just a job, doe he enjoy it? Does he anticipate J.T. going for the knife?

"No, wait. We can work this out." J.T. rose from his chair, turned and started to run toward the kitchen and the knife.

[But, J.T. wasn't fast enough his feet got tangled getting out of the chair.] Telling here. Also, in the previous line you implied he was out of the chair and running. But here he hasn’t gotten out of the chair. [He caught J.T. by the ponytail and jerked him back into his arms. He wedged his forearm across the top of J.T.'s shoulders and put a hand under the chin. He wrenched once and broke J.T.'s neck.] Careful of the three “He – He - He” sentences in a row. It gives the text a list-like feel that hurts the flow. Do you need such detail to say he broke J.T.s neck? Perhaps combine this to one or two sentences to fix the flow and tighten.

"What the hell. What did you do to J.T." shouted Skip [as he dumped the girl he had been holding and jumped up from the sofa.] Careful how many things one person does at once. He yells, dumps the girl and jumps up. While it’s possible to do all that at the same time, describing each part slows down the pace for what is a very quick action, [Reached into his pocket and pulled the rigging knife he always carried.] Possible POV shift. The POV is a distant third, but it’s still being told from his perspective. He probably won’t know this. If he does, then perhaps show some indication that he has prior knowledge and familiarity with these people earlier though internalization. Like when he’s scanning the room for weapons. If he knows Skip always carries a knife, he’d likely think about that then.

Skip hurried toward him with his knife held out in front [like a knight's jousting lance.] This image doesn’t fit the tone or the personality of the POV. Everything has been stated very succinctly.

He sidestepped Skip's lunge and grasped the knife arm with both hands twisting his body [to pull] Telling here. This is what he intends to do. What does he actually do? Skip off balance and past him. When Skip was even with him, he kicked Skip's left knee from the side breaking the knee.

Skip dropped the knife and went down screaming in pain. The girl began screaming also. Is this really when she starts screaming? Not earlier when J.T. is killed?

He picked up the knife Skip dropped and grasped it in his gloved hand. Then he pressed the knife against Skip's chest between the ribs covering his heart. He pressed hard and Skip's heart stopped. This is a mechanical description of what happens, but there’s no sense of a person behind it.

The girl was still sitting on the sofa screaming hysterically. Skip dumped her a few lines ago. The word dumped made me think it was onto the floor as he jumped up, so her being “still” on the couch threw me

He walked to her. Grabbed he by the hair and pulled her [to a standing position.] Is this how your POV would describe this? Or would he just “pull her up”? [His fist struck her in the throat with enough force to break her voice box. ] Telling a bit here.

She looked at him through eyes wide with terror. Her scream was now only a small squeak.

That's much better. I hate screaming.

He pulled her toward him, held her tightly [as if a romantic embrace,] This doesn’t fit the style of the scene so far. then he smiled, spun her body around until her back was toward him, He grasped her neck and shoulders and broke her neck. He dropped her body back on the sofa. If he can kill so quickly, why bother breaking her voice box first? Just snap her neck. You also have two neck snappings here and you describe both. We know he can do this so you probably don’t need to show the details again here.

[He walked back to the truck what truck? and picked up a 2 liter Pepsi bottle that he had tossed into the bed of the truck.] Awkward sentence He poured gasoline from a two and a half red plastic jug into the bottle. Then he stuffed a shop rag down into the neck of the Pepsi bottle. He carried the bottle and the gas jug back to the trailer. He doused the furniture and the floor of the trailer with the remaining gas. Tossing the jug aside, he stepped out of the trailer. He lit the shop rag and tossed the bottle back into the trailer. The trailer exploded in flames. Again, the description is in list format. Lists of actions like this offer nothing but flat details to the reader and don’t draw them in.

Plus seventy-five equals five hundred fifty. I like that he keeps score here, so consider letting him tally it up as he kills them? That would allow you to get more in his head during the scene and show some of his personality.

On to the question:
Does this opening work?

Thrillers are slightly different beasts than other genres, because it’s not uncommon to start a thriller with a scene from the antag’s POV, and the bad thing the thriller focuses on trying to stop. Straight up action is more acceptable in this genre, as is a distant narrator or even an omniscient narrator. Give a thrill, show something bad about to happen (or the start of a series of bad things) and get the reader anticipating – and worrying about -- what’s to come.

For me, this opening isn’t quite there yet because there’s nothing presented for me to care about. It’s mostly descriptions of an event happening. I don’t know anything about the POV so he isn’t intriguing me as a bad guy, and I don’t know why this scene matters to the larger story to show something bad lurking on the horizon. (Though had I read a cover blurb for this I’d know more about what it was about, and might feel differently here) A bunch of drug dealers were killed. From a story stand point, “so what?” What does this trigger that is going make readers care about what happens next? Why does it matter?

The author’s goal is to keep the identity of the POV here a secret, and I think that’s hurting this opening. With no person to connect to (even if it’s a bad guy) all you have is a list of things that happen. Lists are inherently boring. But there’s a wonderful thing right at the end that I think will help this opening.

The keeping score.

This is a personality trait of the POV, and it’s creepy. Perhaps flesh this out in the opening to show a guy who’s as cold and deadly as I suspect he is, but who also has this twisted sense of humor by keeping score with his kills. You can get more in his head (even if you keep things distant) and make him interesting, and still keep who he is secret.

In fact, showing who he “really” is here through internalization might make the revelation that he’s not normal later even more powerful. I’m guessing here, but is he a character the hero is going to know or interact with and readers will see the “fake” him through the hero’s eyes? If so, getting to know the real him in his POV and the fake him in the other POV could make a compelling combination.

If getting more into his head will hurt the later story, then maybe pull the narrator even father back and use a true omniscient so you can get some judgment and attitude in the text. Put a “character” into it if that makes sense. Some voice or soul that a reader can be intrigued by.

Or perhaps make why this scene matters to the story as a whole more clear. It’s not who does this that matters but who is killed and for what reason. Maybe some hints as to what this is going to do to the hero (I assume, since he’ll be the one to stop it) or what bigger problem is barreling down fast. The reason this scene is the most critical scene to your story. Because you’re starting the book with it, so this matters critically in some way, right? If this scene didn’t happen, the book couldn’t happen. Show that thing.

Another thing I'd like to point out is pacing. Because of the list-like descriptions, there's very little rise and fall to the story's pacing. It's all one flat tone. That doesn't allow for tension or any building suspense, which are vital in a thriller. By definition, thrillers need to thrill. A sense of dread, of worry, then the rush as the pacing picks up and the story drives toward stopping/escaping/encountering something dangerous. Things that play upon the senses.

With no emotional component you can't build up an emotional response. How you pace the story and the way you craft your sentences is like the soundtrack of a movie. The music enhances the mood of what's on the screen. The style of the text enhances the mood of what's on the page. The voice is the soundtrack. If you want readers breathless by the end of a scene, the pace needs to be breathtaking. If you want them scared, the mood needs to be scary. Think about how you want the reader to feel and then capture hat feeling in what words you choose to describe your scene and what happens in it.

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) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive comments.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't read many thrillers, but I have to say I think you're right that if the tallying was more prominent it could really kick up the suspense. And yikes! A guy who walks around snapping people's necks without even thinking about it. That is one seriously bad dude.

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  2. Chicory: He does seem dangerous doesn't he? The potential for super creepy is so there.

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