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Saturday, April 30

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Paranormal Romance Opening Grab You?

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: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 28.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening grab your attention?

2. Is the small flashback confusing? I've always heard that you shouldn't start with a flashback, but does that apply to something as short as this? I could summarize his memory, but I'd rather show than tell. There are several of these snippets of memory in the first chapter that culminates with an emotional outburst from Trygg.

3. Is the voice engaging?

Market/Genre: Paranormal Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the first book in a paranormal romance series that explores the twists and turns of wyrd (fate). The below opening scene is from the hero's point of view--Trygg MacKenzie. He's a berserker (immortal supernatural warrior for the Norse god Odin) with a highly developed sense of smell hiding behind the mundane job of the CEO of an investment company. The scent of apples holds a particularly strong memory for him in which a young girl he was guarding was kidnapped. That young girl is our heroine, nineteen years later, and is about to force him to have a meeting with her.

The scent of apples swept through his office, drawing Trygg’s attention from the documents he was reviewing on his laptop. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The millions of receptors in his nose gathered the molecules and shot the data to his olfactory nerve with arrow-like precision. The scent exploded in his limbic system, making him shudder.

Of all the enhanced senses for an immortal berserker to be gifted with, his just had to be smell. His best day could be ruined by a whiff of apples. He would ban them from his building, but how could he admit to his employees that some innocent fruit reminded him of the biggest failure of his life?

Invoked by his augmented olfactory system, a little girl with the blondest hair and the bluest eyes stepped into the frame of his mind’s eye. His heart lurched and a bittersweet smile tugged at his lips. God, she was so precious. His fingers twitched, reaching out towards the phantom memory.

“I don’t want to go shopping with you, Mummy. Can’t I stay here with Trygg?”

Her little bow mouth pulled into that pout that made him fall over himself to give her whatever she asked for. Piggyback ride? He’d carry her for days. Cookie? He’d bake her ten dozen. Another bedtime story? He would read War and Peace to her if she asked it of him.

“She’ll be fine with me, ma’am. I won’t let her out of my sight.”

Her mother crouched down in front of the girl and cupped her chin. “Fine, Brynja. On one condition, you obey Trygg without question because--”

“He knows best how to keep me safe.” She grinned impishly up at Trygg. “But you still can’t beat me at chess. Maybe if you pretended your king was me, you might win.”

He ruffled her hair. “But then who would be my queen?”


Trygg opened his eyes. A part of him liked the pain her memory carried. It kept him focused. On task. Plodding forward because he could never go back.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The scent of apples swept through his office, drawing Trygg’s attention from the documents he was reviewing on his laptop. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. [The millions of receptors in his nose gathered the molecules and shot the data to his olfactory nerve with arrow-like precision. The scent exploded in his limbic system, making him shudder.] This feels clinical, which doesn’t fit the overall tone of the rest of the snippet

Of all the enhanced senses for an immortal berserker to be gifted with, his just had to be smell. His best day could be ruined by a whiff of apples. He would ban them from his building, but how could he admit to his employees that some innocent fruit reminded him of the biggest failure of his life?

Invoked by his [augmented olfactory system] pulls me out of the narrative, a little girl with the blondest hair and the bluest eyes stepped into the frame of his mind’s eye. His heart lurched and a bittersweet smile tugged at his lips. [God, she was so precious. His fingers twitched, reaching out towards the phantom memory.] A got a little bit of a creepy vibe from this.

“I don’t want to go shopping with you, Mummy. Can’t I stay here with Trygg?”

Her little bow mouth pulled into that pout that made him fall over himself to give her whatever she asked for. Piggyback ride? He’d carry her for days. Cookie? He’d bake her ten dozen. Another bedtime story? He would read War and Peace to her if she asked it of him.

She’ll be fine with me, ma’am. I won’t let her out of my sight.”

Her mother crouched down in front of the girl and cupped her chin. “Fine, Brynja. On one condition, you obey Trygg without question because--”

“He knows best how to keep me safe.” She grinned impishly up at Trygg. “But you still can’t beat me at chess. Maybe if you pretended your king was me, you might win.”

He ruffled her hair. “But then who would be my queen?” I like the memory, but how does it relate to the apples?


Trygg opened his eyes. A part of him liked the pain her memory carried. It kept him focused. On task. Plodding forward because he could never go back.

The questions:

1. Does this opening grab your attention?


Almost (readers chime in here). The clinical terms for his ability didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the snippet, so it jarred me out of the story. It’s actually stronger for me without the first paragraph and feels more personal starting with the second. Perhaps start there and add a paragraph that further connects the past and present smell trigger? I wanted a little more about Trygg to ground me before the flashback.

(Here’s more on describing and introducing your story world)

I’m not sure what a berserker is (based on the text here), but I get the sense that it’s some kind of guard, and I really like that the little girl and her guard have a close relationship. I see he’s upset about something that happened to her and it still pains him, which is a nice inner conflict issue for him to have. While nothing is happening yet, where the conflict is likely to come from is clear, and I’m curious how he failed this little girl he obviously cares so much about. That does work as a hook.

And just because I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it…I got a weird vibe from the lines, “God, she was so precious. His fingers twitched, reaching out towards the phantom memory.” Could totally just be me, as I read a novel with a predator in it the night before I reviewed this, but that bit struck me as more “desire” than “cute affection” (readers definitely chime in here). The affection comes through strong in the flashback, though.

(Here’s more on the how words affecting reader impressions)

2. Is the small flashback confusing? I've always heard that you shouldn't start with a flashback, but does that apply to something as short as this? I could summarize his memory, but I'd rather show than tell. There are several of these snippets of memory in the first chapter that culminates with an emotional outburst from Trygg.

It was actually my favorite part. I liked the cuteness in the guard/girl pairing, and how he clearly cares for his charge and she for him. Aside from getting to it a little fast, I think it works. I’m a fan of the memory snippet and feel they keep the story moving nicely, and this was well done.

(Here’s more on flashbacks)

3. Is the voice engaging?

In the flashback and second paragraph, yes. In the rest, those clinical words threw me off. The flashback voice is so strong that it really makes those terms stand out. The memory feels warm and inviting, the present day feels more distant and standoffish.

I don’t know if it’s possible to de-clinicalize the terms used to describe his ability, but making them more personal and how Trygg would refer to them would fix the issue I had.

(Here's more on crafting your voice)

Overall, it’s well done and a few minor tweaks would make this an engaging opening. It’s more of a tone issue than anything story or plot related.

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.