Saturday, November 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Narrative Flow and Voice in an Action Thriller Opening

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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 it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Nine (+ two resubmits)
 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 11 so there's a bit of a wait for submission feedback. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware.

This week’s questions:

Does the flow of sentences/paragraphs work? Is Angel’s voice coming through loud enough? Is the first line/paragraph agent-worthy? Would you turn the page?


Market/Genre: Action thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is an action thriller about a woman orphaned in Colombia, now grown up, and she wants out of the drug cartel. Escaping through the jungle hasn’t worked in the past, so she’s come up with another plan. There is also a mystery subplot woven into the story, which comes to light in Ch. 3. I’m trying to give Angel’s scenes in deep POV, a tense, noir-ish vibe, and an escalating urgency.

The key to her freedom sat at the bar with a beer in hand. From her spot beside the door, the man appeared to be keeping his own company, settled in with his eyes on his drink. A smart position in this place, and there wasn’t much to look at anyway. The small cantina was dark and quiet. Shuttered windows blocked the sunlight. Only a few early customers were spread along the bamboo counter. None of them worked at the compound.

A puff of relief escaped her lips. Lots of things in this plan were beyond her control, including the bar patrons. So far, it seemed to be going in her favor. But her feet were like lead weights with a sudden reluctance to sink or swim.

Angel hung back, one hand still on the door, until the faded posters and curls of cigarette smoke reminded her why she was here. Her good memories from long ago were slowly disappearing, and the past fourteen years had been burned away in this hellhole. Without her permission. This place wasn’t stealing another day from her. Not one more.

The man’s gaze shifted her way when she crossed the room. With her pulse kicking up, Angel slid onto a wooden stool, leaving an empty seat between them. Paddle fans spinning above lifted napkin corners and cooled her damp skin as the bartender stepped over.

Cerveza por favor.” It was strange to be in public, ordering a beer.

“Please, allow me.” The man laid down a five-dollar bill, nodding toward her.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The key to her freedom sat at the bar with a beer in hand.] Intriguing line, as it shows a goal right away and makes me wonder why and how he has her freedom [From her spot beside the door,] This felt a little awkward to me, though I like that it gets to the POV right away to ground the reader. Perhaps rephrase? Or make it more internal to show how she feels emotionally at this moment? the man appeared to be keeping his own company, settled in with his eyes on his drink. A smart position in this place, and there wasn’t much to look at anyway. The small cantina was dark and quiet. Shuttered windows blocked the sunlight. Only a few early customers were spread along the bamboo counter. None of them worked at the compound.

[A puff of relief escaped her lips.] Doesn't feel deep POV to me. Good spot for some internalization, though, especially if it connects to why no compound workers trigger the relief Lots of things in this plan were beyond her control, including the bar patrons. So far, it seemed to be going in her favor. But her feet were like lead weights with a sudden reluctance [to sink or swim.] Feels awkward, and I'm not sure what it means

Angel hung back, one hand [still on the door,] So she's been standing in the doorway all this time? Wouldn't that draw attention? [until the faded posters and curls of cigarette smoke reminded her why she was here. Her good memories from long ago were slowly disappearing, and the past fourteen years had been burned away in this hellhole.] Feels a little detached. Perhaps rephrase to be more internal? [Without her permission. This place wasn’t stealing another day from her. Not one more.] I like the determined voice here, and it helps show the stakes

The man’s gaze shifted her way when she crossed the room. With her pulse kicking up, Angel slid onto a wooden stool, leaving an empty seat between them. Paddle fans spinning above lifted napkin corners and cooled her damp skin as the bartender stepped over.

Cerveza por favor.” [It was strange to be in public, ordering a beer.] Intriguing. Makes me wonder why. Is she young? Sheltered? Kept locked up?

“Please, allow me.” The man laid down a five-dollar bill, nodding toward her.

The questions:

1. Does the flow of sentences/paragraphs work?

There were a couple of awkward phrases, but otherwise yes. The narrative moves smoothly and the action and goals are clear, even if I don't yet know the details. I know Angel is going to use this man in some way to get her freedom, and that helps draw me in. The drive is solid and the narrative focus all points me where the story wants to go.

(More on diagnosis narrative drive here)

2. Is Angel’s voice coming through loud enough?
I'd like a little more, but that could be due to all my YA reading, which is heavy on voice. (readers chime in here) The small bits of her voice I get I like, but I wanted more internalization in certain spots. I felt a little too outside looking down than the deep POV you mentioned going for. Though a little distance is normal in an action thriller so I think it fits the genre just fine.

I did want a hint or two about her emotional state. I know she's determined and taking a risk, but is she scared? Nervous? Concerned about what she has to do? I have a good sense of what is going on, but not quite enough yet about how she feels about it. Right now she feels cold and calculating, but I suspect she's not (or has very good reasons for being that way if she is).

(More on character voice here)

3. Is the first line/paragraph agent-worthy?
I liked the first line, and it did intrigue me. The next phrase made me stumble a bit, unsure how it related, and it felt awkward. It took me a moment to figure out what it meant. I suspect it's trying to establish Angel's location in the room, but instead of grounding me as a reader it confused me. I liked having something from Angel there, though, so perhaps look for something internal that can get her emotional state and voice across.

Maybe she's not standing in the doorway? Perhaps she's sitting off in a corner, or she comes in and quickly finds a shadowy corner to watch in. I get the sense that she doesn't want to draw attention and be seen, yet she stands in an open doorway for a long time, which would likely make people look at her.

The opening paragraph itself sets the scene and offers both a goal and some stakes--none of them worked at the compound--which makes me wonder what that is and why she's worried about it. A little hint on the danger she's facing here would certainly make me worry more.

(More on first lines here)

4. Would you turn the page?
I would. I'm intrigued by how she intends to win her freedom, and the hint that she might be younger (feeling weird ordering a beer in public) makes me worry about her. What will she have to do to get this man to help her? Even if she's older that's still a concern. How far will she go to get her freedom, and what is she running from? Her life is bad right now, though I don't know the details yet. I have enough context to follow, and enough left unanswered to keep me reading to get those answers.

(More on crafting good openings here)

Overall, it's a solid opening. A few tweaks to fix the awkward spots would smooth it out nicely, and those are all good spot to add some internalization. You could add more if you wanted to go deeper, but it isn't necessary. It's common for thrillers to be a little more distant, especially in the opening scenes.

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) and I encourage you 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 feedback.

4 comments:

  1. This one was really helpful to me. I think this is very well written, and it was great to see how just a couple of minor tweaks can really take something to the next level. Great job!

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  2. Very solid opening line, with a noir-feel. I read the old hard-boiled thrillers, like Dashiel Hammet and Rex Stout, and that line feels exactly like something they'd use.

    I'm with Janet, somebody standing in the doorway is more conspicuous than someone already in the room. Think about it; the doorway frames her, it's an open spot, and if anyone else walks in, he has to walk around her.

    Also, the line "without her permission" didn't click for me. Burning is a fairly negative verb, and she's fighting for her freedom, so...But overall, it's an interesting opening and I'd keep reading to find out if her key will agree to help her out.

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  3. Thanks a million for the opportunity to have fresh eyes and opinions on this opening. I appreciate all of your input. I like the suggestions and will get to work on them. Blessings to you!

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  4. The smart stuff has been said. I just think your writing is driving me along but too hard on the gas. Also, whats the guy at the bar doing drinking on the job? I know that sounds odd but if he were having a coffee or tea unlike everyone else that would make him jump out from the scene. I liked it good work :)

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