Saturday, January 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Romantic Thriller 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.

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

Submissions currently in the queue: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 13.

This week’s question:

1. Do you think this opening scene works? 


Market/Genre: Romantic thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I, Emma Grant, hate black boxes. They inspire darkness, finality, hopelessness, perhaps even death.

I have one staring at me now. It was waiting for me when I arrived at my control booth this morning; disguised with a pretty teal bow, (my favorite color) its velveteen resting on the console of my cold soundboard. A mysterious surprise to reveal one’s eternal true love. Or not.

The five musicians are jamming, but I feel something’s not quite right. Closing my eyes, I picture him sitting near me, strumming his guitar and serenading me with the softness of his long fingers caressing the steel strings. The serenity and peaceful lull he transfers from his soul to the listener’s.

The remedy strikes and I’m ready to consult the songwriter but turn to view his empty chair. Again.

Slipping the box of finality under a pile of composition notebooks while attempting to control a group of restless musicians, I press on with my job. “Hold up, please. Let’s record it again, but this time, I’d like to hear the acoustic guitar begin a few measures before the drums.”

Mumbling arises between band members and the short, chubby drummer Stuart blurts into the microphone leading to the control booth, “Hey, we thought the last take did the song total justice. What’s the issue now, dude?”

Leaning back in my chair and tapping my pencil on the notebooks, I say, “Cameron likes his intros a bit softer; just try it and see how it feels.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

I, Emma Grant, hate black boxes. They inspire darkness, finality, hopelessness, perhaps even death.

I have one staring at me now. It was waiting for me when I arrived at my control booth this morning; disguised with a pretty teal bow, (my favorite color) its velveteen resting on the console of my cold soundboard. A mysterious surprise to reveal [one’s eternal true love. Or not.] This doesn’t feel like it fits the tone of her opening line description of black boxes

[The five musicians are jamming,] perhaps add a setting detail to ground their location here? but I feel something’s not quite right. [ Closing my eyes, I picture him sitting near me, strumming his guitar and serenading me with the softness of his long fingers caressing the steel strings. The serenity and peaceful lull he transfers from his soul to the listener’s.] Who is the “him?” she refers to? Should readers know? This doesn’t feel like it matches her sense of unease

[The remedy strikes and I’m ready to consult the songwriter but turn to view his empty chair. Again.] A little confusing. Is the songwriter the one she was picturing, or the actual one in the band and he’s not there?

[Slipping the box of finality under a pile of composition notebooks while attempting to control a group of restless musicians, I press on with my job.] There’s a lot going on at once here. Perhaps break this into two sentences or rework “Hold up, please. Let’s record it again, but this time, I’d like to hear [the acoustic guitar begin a few measures before the drums.”] Is this due to her picturing the guitar serenade? Is that part of her process? Now I'm confused about what wasn't right.

Mumbling arises between band members and the short, chubby drummer Stuart blurts into the microphone leading to the control booth, “Hey, we thought the last take did the song total justice. What’s the issue now, dude?”

[Leaning back in my chair and tapping my pencil on the notebooks, I say, ] Perhaps rework to eliminate the I say tag? “Cameron likes his intros a bit softer; just try it and see how it feels.”

The question:

1. Do you think this opening scene works?


For me, not quite yet, because I’m feeling a bit ungrounded and struggling to figure out where I am and what’s going on, so it’s keeping me from being pulled into the story (readers chime in). I’m also not seeing a solid problem yet, so I wonder where the conflict is coming from. I suspect it’s the box, but it’s not clear yet. She senses “something’s not quite right” but doesn’t seem to react to that feeling or give any clues about what’s wrong.

I like that she’s been sent a box that makes her uncomfortable, and she seems to be missing someone she cares about. These work as interesting puzzles to make me curious. Her opinion on black boxes is also intriguing, and I suspect there’s a story there, and I’m curious about that. These are fun hooks for a romantic thriller.

Where it’s losing me, is in the setting, some of the contradicting tones between the dark, mysterious box and the happier moments, and a general uncertainty about what things in the scene mean.

Emma says black boxes inspire darkness, finality, hopelessness, perhaps even death. Then describes it as velveteen, and a surprise to reveal one’s eternal true love. Or not. Velveteen is nice, rich and soft, which seems at odds with darkness and hopelessness. Eternal true love doesn’t match finality and death. The or not makes me think she’s been hurt in the past, but it doesn’t feel like it was bad enough to warrant the death association. All of this makes me unsure what she’s actually trying to say or feel, especially since she never reflects on the box past that opening section really. She basically says “I hate black boxes” and shoves it away. It doesn’t seem to have any affect on the scene itself. If there was no box, what would change?

I’d suggest clarifying her emotions and thoughts here. Perhaps pick a few descriptive words that align with her views about black boxes that show how this is making her feel. I suspect I’m supposed to be concerned or have a sense of foreboding, but she immediately calms herself and the moment is gone. Is this box from an admirer or a stalker? Is it good or bad?

(Here’s more on creating suspense)

I’m unsure about her pause to picture a guitar player. Is this just something to calm her, is it part of her process to fix the music (is that what “wasn’t right?”), or is this a memory of the person she misses? It’s all a little ambiguous as is, and a few more details here would help clear up any confusion.

I’d also suggest a few more details on the setting to help ground readers in the scene. I’m not sure what “control room” means at first, as it could be anywhere. The “five musicians are jamming” takes a minute to figure out she works for a recording studio (I’m guessing). I don’t think it needs much, just a word here and there to identify and place everyone in the room as they relate to Emma.

(Here’s more on picking the right details to describe your setting)

Last, there were one or two sentences I stumbled over, so you might consider reworking those so there isn’t so much going on at once. Just splitting them into two is the easiest fix, and I think that would smooth it over nicely.

(Here’s more on writing stage directions)

Overall, it’s close, and with a little clarification and smoothing I think this could work. The mystery of the black box that unnerves her is probably enough to launch the story, as I suspect that leads into the plot in some way. If there was a larger sense of something abut to happen, it would tighten right up and likely draw readers in.

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.

9 comments:

  1. I'm not being flippant, but does anyone else immediately think of airplanes when the hear 'black box'?

    I wonder if (for idiots like myself) it could be 'black paper boxes' or some reference to its construction material that makes my subjective view less redirected. :)

    P.S. If it is a play on words, it doesn't work. IMO

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  2. I'm assuming the black box is one of those little jewelry boxes that holds engagement rings. (I'm getting that from the description of the box as velvet, and the comment about revealing true love- or not.) I seem to be the only one who is getting `engagement ring' from the black box, so you probably need to clarify.

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  3. I did actually think of an airplane when I saw black box, but the further description made me think of a jewelry box. Could it be that it was an engagement ring inside and she fears the finality of a proposal?

    Besides the trouble I had grounding myself here, I too had trouble picturing where this was until pretty late in the scene, I really liked this. I would certainly read on to figure out what all the anxiety is about and who the song writer is. I assume he was the one who left the box for her to find.

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  4. I did immediately think airplane black box, which then did confuse me for a minute. I would put the velveteen black box at the beginning, because it helps me know it is the jewelry type black box.

    I really struggled to follow what was going on. First, because I thought it had something to due with airlines. I wasn't feeling grounded in the setting either. When she said control booth, I pictured a little shack handing out tickets or something. If I knew the character was at a recording studio, it would have helped. I sense the of possibility of this piece and it is intriguing, but the lack of grounding left me super confused. I am not sure about the reference to the guitar player either. If she is remembering and missing someone, make this clear for the reader.

    I think you have a lot of good elements started. Just help ground the reader and you will be there.

    Good luck!

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  5. I would continue reading. I get a vibe from this that is similar to William Gibson's style. I agree with Janice in general that there are a lot of disparate elements.

    Good openings make you care about something immediately. This makes me curious, but doesn't grab my emotion. If the black box put Emma in immediate danger (or she believed it did) and the rest was portrayed as distractions, that might be interesting.

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  6. Thanks to all for the comments, much appreciated!

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  7. I actually thought of a black box theatre. I like the voice. I also liked the last sentence, as it felt more clarifying to what was making her uneasy about the music. However, some of the mechanics in the middle were confusing.

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