Saturday, June 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Suspense 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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Submissions currently in the queue: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 2.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work for a suspenseful women's novel?

Market/Genre: Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The two pink suitcases are dropped on my front porch with a louder thud than I thought necessary and Eli forces a smile through his perfect whites. I imagine he won’t mind if I kiss his cheek but given the circumstances, that’s too much to wish for. He flinches when I try - sending a bit of nausea to my stomach.

Breaking the cold hours of silence, I remind him, “You’re lucky to be rid of me really, I’d only ruin your career.” At a foot taller, he lowers his intense eyes to meet mine and I immediately - once again - regret breaking up with him on the flight home. Crushing grown men’s hearts should be done prior to (not after) drinking whiskey. And certainly not on a twelve-hour plane ride with no place for the victim to run.

Reddish golden hair falls to his forehead and he absently brushes it aside. He finds his voice, “As your Congressman, I’ll ask one last time if I can help resolve the issues surrounding your brief arrest in Zurich.” Sadly, he still wants to be my hero.

“It was a misunderstanding, really. Please, stop worrying.” I’m cursed with the burden of secrets and the lies that follow. I’ve got decades worth, all buried under melting glaciers – glaciers which have now turned into my own private lake of icy waters.

He cringes and takes a step back, “Oh, shit. You’re working for your family, aren’t you?” I should protest the insult but shrug instead. Explaining won’t change our situation, it would only cause him to worry more.

My cell phone disrupts the final glimpses of his retreating backside. The manager of my nightclub shouts over the music, “Get down here. Trouble just walked through the door.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The two pink suitcases are dropped] Since it’s first person, you might personalize this more, such as “Eli drops my two pink suitcases” to put it more in her POV on my front porch with a louder thud than I thought necessary and Eli forces a smile through his perfect whites. I imagine he won’t mind if I kiss his cheek but given the circumstances, that’s too much to wish for. He flinches when I try - [sending a bit of nausea to my stomach.] nausea comes from the stomach, so this hit me funny

Breaking the cold hours of silence, I remind him, [“You’re lucky to be rid of me really, I’d only ruin your career.”] I wanted some internalization here for context At a foot taller, he lowers his intense eyes to meet mine and I immediately - once again - regret breaking up with him on the flight home. Crushing grown men’s hearts should be done prior to (not after) drinking whiskey. And certainly not on a twelve-hour plane ride with no place for the victim to run. Is she sad about this? She seems a little blasé.

Reddish golden hair falls to his forehead and he absently brushes it aside. He finds his voice, “As your Congressman, I’ll ask one last time if I can help resolve the issues surrounding your brief arrest in Zurich.” Sadly, he still wants to be my hero.

“It was a misunderstanding, really. Please, stop worrying.” I’m cursed with the burden of secrets and the lies that follow. I’ve got decades worth, all buried under melting glaciers – glaciers which have now turned into my own private lake of icy waters. How does this relate to him and their relationship?

He cringes and takes a step back, “Oh, shit. You’re working for your family, aren’t you?” I should protest the insult but shrug instead. Explaining won’t change our situation, it would only cause him to worry more.

My cell phone disrupts the final glimpses of his retreating backside. The manager of my nightclub shouts over the music, “Get down here. Trouble just walked through the door.” If she just got off a plane and isn’t even home yet, how does he know to call her? Did he not know she was out of the country?

The question:

1. Does this opening work for a suspenseful women's novel?


Yes and no. I think this is another good example of the cover copy adding the necessary context to draw readers in (readers chime in here). The things I’m confused about would probably be made clear had I read the cover copy first.

There’s a lot going on and I feel like it’s a tad to much without knowing anything at all about the story. She’s breaking up with her guy, she was arrested for something, she’s part of a family that might be criminal or dangerous in nature, there’s trouble at her club. Yet she’s basically taking this all in stride, so I don’t know how she feels about it or what’s a problem to her. Since I don’t know what the story is about, I’m not sure what to focus on here.

(Here’s more on narrative focus)

I’d suggest adding more context to help readers keep up. A little internalization would help me understand what some of these things mean to her and how they all fit together. It wouldn’t need much, but it would slow things down just enough to absorb all that’s here and be able to prioritize what’s important and what’s just her life.

(Here’s more on internalization)

I do like that there are things going on, though, and that she has a lot of secrets and things to pique reader interest. There’s personal conflict with her guy and her desire to protect him from her and her family’s secrets (though I don’t know if she truly cares for him or this is just an easy excuse to dump him), conflict with her family, trouble at her place of business. This is all fantastic, though maybe take an extra page to get to this point and give readers a chance to catch up and absorb it all.

(Here’s more on creating strong openings)

Even though there’s a lot here, I don’t see an actual goal driving the scene yet, which is why it’s hard t know what’s driving the plot. The trouble at the club feels like the important bit to me and when things “happen” and the rest is just setup to show her life. I’d like to know what’s normal for her and what’s not.

Perhaps add a little information to show why she broke up with Eli (if that matters, of course). Maybe show how she’s trying to protect him, or wants to protect him now that this thing in Zurich has happened (if that’s connected), and how family is pulling her back in even though that isn’t what she wants (if applicable). Obviously I’m making wild guesses here, but if these elements are all shown on the first page, it makes sense that they’re connected, and it feels that way from the few details provided. If not, that could indicate you don’t need to mention them yet and move them to a little farther into the story once readers are grounded.

I haven’t seen enough of the protagonist to know if I like her yet or not, but she seems like she has a very interesting life and I’m curious about her. A little more from her personally would help me connect to her better and draw me in more.

Overall, it has good pieces and some interesting things going on. I think slowing down just a little and fleshing out some of these pieces would help bring readers on board and put everything into context. But I’d read on a little more to see where this goes.

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.

13 comments:

  1. Chicklit suspense? Don't think it works. Your analysis was right on. Main thing for me was I didn't find the character interesting or likable. Or believable.

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    1. Thanks so much for your honest opinion. It helps!

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  2. Agree with Ms. Hardy's comments.

    I was uncomfortable with the first person present - but that's mostly a personal preference.

    I liked the part about the glaciers "I'm cursed....my lake of icy waters." Wondering if that might be a good opening paragraph and build the rest around that. Maybe they were still "melting into ...." rather than already "turned into".

    Also liked the last two sentences in second paragraph: "crushing grown men's hearts....", but agree she seemed a little blasé, and didn't like her much for it. Maybe he's a louse and deserved it, but the way you described his hair falling on his forehead and brushing it aside made me like him (vulnerable?)

    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. JC, your "melting into" suggestion is perfect, and yes, I need to clarify each person's emotions a bit clearer. Thanks so much! Lori

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  3. I enjoyed this opening, actually, though I do agree with most of Janice's suggestions. I don't mind an "unlikable" female character, and I get the vibe that she's always had to keep herself outwardly cold and aloof because of her family and situations exactly like this.

    I would say, this opening gives us plenty of clues that this isn't the last we'll see of Eli and perhaps he's even the main love interest. She mentions his intense eyes, his height, his hair... He throws out how he's her Congressman in his dialogue (a detail that isn't important if we never see him again and which came off as only there to benefit the reader since our narrator already knows he a congressman and they've been dating).

    If he is a love interest (main or part of a triangle) I would caution you not to have her dismiss him this breezily. To his face, she can be cold, but she should probably be less flippant about it inwardly. The reader will have a hard time taking him seriously as a love interest if she's already dated him at one point and wasn't too put out when she had to kick him to the curb. On the other hand, if he isn't a love interest, maybe dial back on the little intimate details she notices about him in this scene. If she's trying to distance herself from him, it seems weird that she would linger over the color of his hair and how it falls over his face.

    Like JC mentioned, he comes off as vulnerable while she's blase. Again, I don't mind an unlikable character, but do be aware of how your characters come off and make sure it's what you intended.

    I really like how the hint is dropped about her family and how they might tie into her troubles in Zurich as well as the breakup. I think the arrest itself could stand to be brought up more organically.

    “As your Congressman, I’ll ask one last time if I can help resolve the issues surrounding your brief arrest in Zurich.” — This whole quote comes off to me as if it's written to fill the reader in as fast as possible rather than something the character would actually say.

    — "What happened in Zurich—"

    "Was a misunderstanding, really. Please, stop worrying."

    "I'm in a position to help you. If you'd just let me."

    "And lose your seat in Congress over something so silly? I have… others who can help." People who didn't have their careers and morals at stake.

    "Shit." He cringes and takes a step back. "You're working for your family, aren't you?" —

    The more you draw it out, the more insight we get into her character and how maybe she's actually being self-sacrificing by letting him go.

    For such a small excerpt, I enjoyed the writing and am intrigued by a character who has pink suitcases, breaks up with someone during a twelve hour flight, owns her own nightclub, and willingly gets caught up in her family's crime shenanigans. I'd personally love a women's fic from the point of view of a ballsy, powerful woman with depth if pulled off well, and the writer here has the chops to pull it off I think. Just maybe need to slow down a bit and draw situations out to add layers and give the reader time to catch up.

    Thank you to the writer for sharing their work for us to enjoy and learn from!

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    1. Leila; You've helped this scene immensely and your suggestions are golden. You nailed my gal quite well, I just have to show it. I also try to stay within Janice's kind 250 word guideline, hehe. I appreciate your efforts so much! Thanks, Lori

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    2. You're very welcome! I'm glad it was helpful. Good luck moving forward with the project. It sounds like it'd be a fun read. :)

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  4. This is great, agree with most of comments and suggestions. Feels like there's a lot of opportunity for humour as well as intrigue :) would love to see a revised version of this opening. Xx

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    1. I'll post one in a few days, would love your input!

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  5. It felt rushed to me... didn't connect to character at all.
    I think the bones are there, now add some meat to bring it to life.

    Alot of good comments here, so I'll leave it there.

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