Saturday, June 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Mystery Opening Work

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 site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

I always heard start with the action and since this is a mystery, I think the genre probably dictates that a body be found. I'm not sure if I have the right balance of action and background. Does the scene draw the reader in? Or do I need to bring more of the setting (a large, southern college) which will almost become another character in the story?

Market/Genre: Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The August heat punished him. His freshly pressed shirt clung to his back. Walter climbed the steps to the back porch, careful to avoid the kudzu and poison ivy snaking its way up the railing. He knew the house. He knew a black man seen behind a house in this part of town would elicit a fast call to police from any neighbor who might be watching. But he didn’t know that this instant would change his life.

Walter crouched and looked behind him. He slid his hotel key card between the door and the jam until he heard the cheap lock slip. He opened the door, cool air mixed with stale cigarette smoke, poured out. He entered the seventies-era kitchen and called out, “Dr. Blake, Dr. Blake. Ed…Professor, Professor Blake.”

Silence.

Walter looked around. There was nothing unusual about the mismatched furniture and scattered papers in plain view. Yet, something wasn’t right. He sensed it outside and far more so now. He peered through a door leading into the garage, and froze. He stared, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. A riverbed of dried blood flowed from the professor’s head into the center drain. Walter gripped the doorknob and gave it a slight push. A putrid stench hit his nose. Almost as if on cue, he heard sirens. And they were getting louder.

Shit.

He turned to see the commotion at the back door. Two deputies charged, screaming ‘hands up’ before they slammed him to the floor, the top half of his body in the garage, his bottom half on the linoleum kitchen floor. The deputy’s knee crushed Walter’s back while his hands forced Walter’s face into the cement. A small object pitted his cheek. Walter’s body split. He looked down on the scene.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The August heat punished him. His freshly pressed shirt clung to his back.] These two sentences feel a little list-like. [Walter climbed the steps to the back porch, careful to avoid the kudzu and poison ivy snaking its way up the railing.] This feels like a better first line to me, as it establishes the protagonist and the setting right away He knew the house. [He knew a black man seen behind a house in this part of town would elicit a fast call to police from any neighbor who might be watching. But he didn’t know that this instant would change his life.] This feels a little explanatory, and is a good spot for some internalization so readers can get to know Walter a little better. He knows this, but how does this make him feel?

Walter crouched and looked behind him. He slid his hotel key card between the door and the jam until he heard the cheap lock slip. He opened the door, cool air mixed with stale cigarette smoke, poured out. He entered the seventies-era kitchen and called out, “Dr. Blake, Dr. Blake. Ed…Professor, Professor Blake.” Same here. I can see what he does, but I'm not getting a sense of him yet.

Silence.

Walter looked around. There was nothing unusual about the mismatched furniture and scattered papers in plain view. Yet, something wasn’t right. [He sensed it outside] If so, show it. Right now, there's nothing in the text to suggest it and far more so now. He peered through a door leading into the garage, and froze. He stared, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. A riverbed of dried blood flowed from the professor’s head into the center drain. Walter gripped the doorknob and gave it a slight push. A putrid stench hit his nose. Almost as if on cue, he heard sirens. And they were getting louder. How does he feel about seeing this?

[Shit] I get the sense here he's more concerned with getting caught than the body. Makes him seem a little callous, and suggests he wasn't there for honorable reasons

He turned to see the commotion at the back door. Two deputies charged, screaming ‘hands up’ before they slammed him to the floor, the top half of his body in the garage, his bottom half on the linoleum kitchen floor. The deputy’s knee crushed Walter’s back while his hands forced Walter’s face into the cement. A small object pitted his cheek. [Walter’s body split. He looked down on the scene.] Not sure I understand this. Is he having an out of body experience?

The questions:

1. I always heard start with the action and since this is a mystery, I think the genre probably dictates that a body be found. I'm not sure if I have the right balance of action and background.

"Start with the action" is an often frustrating piece of advice. What it really means, is to start with something happening that readers will want to know more about. Pique their curiosity in some way and pose a story question they want to know the answer to. Pure action (in the movie sense) is often a bad way to start, because readers don't know what's going on and they don't care yet. "So some random guy was murdered and another random guy is arrested for it. So what?" they ask. But give them a reason to care or be curious, and they'll read on.

(Here's more on setting up the story on the first page)

For a murder mystery, a body in the first chapter is quite common, but it doesn't have to be on the first page (mystery folks chime in here). You have time to set the scene and introduce the character. How much time varies, and it would depend on the type of mystery. Procedurals often get to the action right away with a crime and the detective/ME/CSI showing up to deal with it (readers read to see the puzzle solved through science). Thrillers often start with the crime in action, then shift to the protagonist (readers read to see the exciting problem solved). Cozies often start with the sleuth and then get to the crime (readers read to see a beloved sleuth solve a crime).

There's no set rule on when the body has to be found, though there are common tropes per subgenre. You might take a peek at the various subgenres to see where yours fits (or you could the MWA website for more information).

I've noticed the more personal the story, the longer you have to get to the crime. For example, a cozy/amateur sleuth usually focuses on the life of the protagonist and then she happens across a crime. The story is about the protagonist first. A thriller is often about the big picture and the protagonist isn't "important" until the crime happens, so it often shows the crime first, and then shows you who's going to deal with it.

If this is a story about Walter trying to prove his innocence, you have some time to let readers get to know and like Walter before you dump him into trouble. It's actually important that readers do like him to hook them in the story, otherwise they won't care about this random guy.

(Here's more on making readers care about a character)

2. Does the scene draw the reader in?

Not yet, because I don't know Walter enough to care about him. He's a guy who just broke into someone's house. I've no idea if he's there to check up on a friend he's worried about, or if he plans to rob the place. It looks like he's been set up, but I don't have enough details yet to care or wonder what's really going on here.

I'd suggest slowing down a little and showing who Walter is, what he wants, and why he's there before he finds the body. You mention he sensed something was wrong before he went inside, but readers never see that--he just walks right up and breaks in. Is he there to see a friend/colleague who doesn't answer the door? Does he smell something off? See something that doesn't sit right with him?

Look at the scene and ask: What is Walter's goal here? What is it you want readers to be curious about when they start this novel? Then what goes wrong (finding the body I assume). Why should readers care about this character and what he's doing? You don' t have to give it away if you don't want to, but leave some context for readers to work with. He's there to ask for a favor, or he's trying to find someone, etc. A general sense of what's going on that will allow readers to ask questions and be curious about his goal can be enough if you want to hold back on details.

(Here's more on hooking readers)

3. Do I need to bring in more of the setting (a large, southern college) which will almost become another character in the story?

If your plan is to make the setting a character, then probably. Right now, the details feel fairly general "southern summer" to me, but there's no sense of personality from it. You'd probably look for details that showed a little judgment or gave a sense of "the town" as if it were a person. (Readers chime in here--any good example of setting a character you could recommend?)

If the setting is just the setting, then I got summer, south, and potential college town from what's here. There were enough details to set the scene for me and get a sense of where I was.

(Here's more on developing a setting)

Overall, I think taking a little more time to show who Walter is and what he's after would draw readers in. He's in a rough spot, it's clear that he's in a lot of trouble here, and that he's innocent. All that is a strong hook if readers care about him by the time he gets to the body. Add a little more internalization and personality from Walter, and you'll make them care.

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.

2 comments:

  1. Janice, yes, those first two sentences don't belong, although I can see what the writer was doing. Short sentences make for excitement. The part about being caught I thought isn't necessary and may even put a damper on the surprise of the cops barging in. I'm not sure I agree with you about the thought, shit, though. It's a common word used by men when something isn't going the way they thought it should. This definitely fits that.

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  2. Agree about moving the first two sentences. You could even just move up the third sentence to be first and then it would read fine.

    The "Shit" is fine in general, but it implies that Walter doesn't have an emotional connection to the Professor if his first thought is "someone is going to think I did this" rather than "I'm sad that my friend/mentor is dead." But if Walter doesn't actually have a close relationship with the Professor then it's fine.

    Regarding Janice's comments on building Walter's character a bit, I definitely agree, but I think there are two ways you can take this. Three, actually.

    One: Start the book earlier and show Walter in his normal life (maybe he's the only black student at the college and faces hatred/discrimination and the Professor is the one person who stands up for him, or secretly supports him). Then you place the "Professor's Murder" scene a few chapters into the book, maybe 10% of the way in.

    Two: Keep this as a short chapter one, then go back in time and show the sorts of scenes I mentioned above that lead up to the Professor's death, and then when the two timelines meet, you continue the story in the "present" of being arrested.

    Three: You have two concurrent timelines that alternate by chapter and converge only near the end. So in the "past" you have Walter facing the conflicts of his student life and building the relationship with the Professor, and only near the end of that storyline is it indicated exactly why Walter would be in the house at that time and potentially framed for murder. Meanwhile, in the "present" you have Walter dealing with murder charges, police investigations, potentially a trial, or whatever else you have planned. (If you're interested in this plot structure, definitely watch The Imitation Game for a great example, although it actually alternates between three timelines--childhood, WWII, and post-war.)

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