Saturday, July 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Mystery/Thriller Opening Hook 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: Three 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 6.

This week’s question:

1. I have finished the story and on my third re-write, but the first page haunts me. Will the first page hook the reader?


Market/Genre: Mystery/Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The protagonist works for the government and wants, needs to escape from a life steeped with death—his doing. He knows if he leaves on his own, he’ll become the government’s prey, running forever. Nonetheless, he plans to travel across the country stopping in small towns to enjoy a life of serenity, achievement, and romance. His first stop is a small town in Ohio where he blends in with the community and meets a beautiful young woman, falling in love. But he witnesses the murder of a young college girl, three attempts are made on his life and two others, and he fights back with more than questions and answers. He’s right back in the hell from which he escaped.

Precariously walking the tightrope of death, that thin wire where either of two opposite bad situations would send me plummeting into the uncertainties of hell I had been vigilant fulfilling my resolve, and prepared to rid the dark human shadows that followed me should they catch up and be my death.

It was ten o’clock at night and I was thirty-five thousand feet in the air, firmly placed in the first row window seat on board United flight 856 bound for Paris, staring out the cabin window. My haunted face reflecting in the glass, burdened with anxiety and fear. Looking out beyond that saddled face was the darkened certainty of another’s death—my doing—my life!

The face in the glass stared back at me.

I turned from the window to collect my thoughts and work through the trajectory that would foretell the unexpected outcome of a certain person’s life, and the prolongation of mine.

The trajectory was simple; I knew what I had to do and how to do it; a mission of reason and conclusion––empowering my skills to fulfill the orders of the desirable for the permanent cessation of the undesirable.

But I didn’t care about the undesirable or the desirable for that matter––not anymore.

Yet I was stationed between them. On my right were the powerfully righteous to whom I answered their decree of purity, nobility, and trustworthiness. To my left were the immoral, unjust, and unscrupulous, fixated on human consumption to support their need. One could not have the other. And I could no longer bring to bear who should live, and who should die.

Walking that tightrope for more than twenty years, I was ready to step off; see a life beyond the endpoints of the tensioned wire, find balance in a life that would bring serenity, achievement, and romance . . . yes romance!

My Thoughts in Purple:

Precariously walking the tightrope of death, that thin wire where either of two opposite bad situations would send me plummeting into the uncertainties of hell I had been vigilant fulfilling my resolve, and prepared to rid the dark human shadows that followed me should they catch up and be my death. This is a rather cumbersome sentence, and it doesn’t tell me anything.

It was ten o’clock at night and I was thirty-five thousand feet in the air, firmly placed in the first row window seat on board United flight 856 bound for Paris, staring out the cabin window. My haunted face reflecting in the glass, burdened with anxiety and fear. Looking out beyond that saddled face was the darkened certainty of another’s death—my doing—my life! Feels a little melodramatic

The face in the glass stared back at me.

I turned from the window to collect my thoughts and work through the trajectory that would foretell the unexpected outcome of a certain person’s life, and the prolongation of mine.

The trajectory was simple; I knew what I had to do and how to do it; a mission of reason and conclusion––empowering my skills to fulfill the orders of the desirable for the permanent cessation of the undesirable.

But I didn’t care about the undesirable or the desirable for that matter––not anymore.

Yet I was stationed between them. On my right were the powerfully righteous to whom I answered their decree of purity, nobility, and trustworthiness. To my left were the immoral, unjust, and unscrupulous, fixated on human consumption to support their need. One could not have the other. And I could no longer bring to bear who should live, and who should die.

Walking that tightrope for more than twenty years, I was ready to step off; see a life beyond the endpoints of the tensioned wire, find balance in a life that would bring serenity, achievement, and romance . . . yes romance!

The question:

1. Will the first page hook the reader?


I don’t think so (readers chime in here). Voice is very subjective, but this feels overwritten to me, trying to hard to sound literary, which is fighting the tone and voice of a typical mystery or thriller. Thrillers are fast-paced and exciting, and this is slow-paced, reflective, a little melodramatic. It doesn’t say “assassin” to me.

(Here’s more on the problems with purple prose)

It’s also all backstory and explanation as to why the protagonist is making a change. He tells readers what he was and what he did and why he’s making a change. From a reader’s perspective, so what? So an assassin finally got a conscience. That’s good, but there’s no reason for readers to care about this character yet, and nothing to show why him deciding to walk away is a good thing. There’s also no reason why he’s choosing this moment to quit. What is it about this job that is the last straw for him?

There’s no suggestion of a plot yet, just setup for the novel. I’d be more interested to see him in Ohio beginning his life and wondering who he was and what he was doing. I assume the cover copy would say “ex-assassin,” so I’d have the general idea already. If not, then it’s even more critical not to give that away on page one. Seeing glimpses of this guy’s former life and the skills he has would be intriguing.

Even though it’s first person, it doesn’t feel close as a point of view due to the vocabulary chosen and the explanatory nature of it. For example:
I turned from the window to collect my thoughts and work through the trajectory that would foretell the unexpected outcome of a certain person’s life, and the prolongation of mine.

This is essentially someone asking: If I didn’t kill this person, what would happen?

That’s a fun question, but it’s so overwritten it’s hard to follow, because every word has to be parsed for meaning.

(Here’s more on overwriting and how to avoid it)

The concept of a killer deciding to abandon the life and look for a better life is a fun one, and I’ve seen multiple movies that explore this concept well. Putting the right likable protagonist with high skills in that situation is quite entertaining.

(Here’s more on hooking readers in three easy steps)

Take a step back and think about what this is—is it a story that explains how an assassin tries to fit in and have a normal life and has to run or be killed, or the story of an assassin on the run who becomes involved in a murder and is willing to risk his life and freedom to solve it?

One is backstory with little to no plot, the other is an interesting mystery.

The story isn’t what he was, but the problem he’s facing and how that’s complicated by his past. It’s a subtle shift, but I think if you focus on the mystery and the conflict of the book and not the backstory of the protagonist, you’ll serve the story better. I think this is why you’re having trouble getting off the first page. It’s not the right first page.

(Here’s more on knowing where to start your novel)

Overall, I think this is starting in the wrong place and trying to explain the setup instead of jumping into the story. You might looking a few chapters in and see if the chapter where he gets to Ohio would make a stronger opening.

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.

11 comments:

  1. First, I want to say I really like the idea you have here. I love assassin stories, and I like the idea of someone that has skills like theirs trying to live a normal life, but then being forced to use those skills not to kill necessarily, but to now survive.

    I agree with Janice that it is a lot of backstory, and, at this point, I don't care about this character's thoughts YET. I think, maybe if you started with the MC in their new life in Ohio then having something happen to hint at their past life, maybe a "do I do something or not" type scenario which would force the MC to use their old skills. I think that way would bring the reader closer to the MC and these thoughts may pop up naturally in the MC and cause the reader to ask questions about this character's past and want to read on. Personally, I found it a little hard to read and understand at this point, partly the actual words and partly because I don't know anything about the MC and their world, current or past, to understand what they are talking about.

    You definitely have skill with writing and I would love to see where this goes! Keep on writing! And, thank you for sharing :)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Kathleen. Janice hit the nail on the head (stupid cliché.) The chapter is horribly overwritten, and nothing more than a backstory that adds nothing to the plot. Chapter Two starts the action that defines the MC current life, why he wants (must) to move on to a better one and a little backstory. Chapter Three lands him in Ohio where he becomes involved in a murder and is willing to solve it. I will take your advice, and Janice’s of course, and revamp the beginning of the story. Chapter One needs to go in the round file.

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    2. You're welcome :) I know myself I have had to redo, scrap, and completely rewrite first chapters numerous times till I found where the real story began.

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  2. I agree with Janice - without knowing the character, I'm not sure it would work. A couple of powerful lines that could be included in first page.
    I'm curious where the action begins - the premise is good - and some of this back story could be included. The most powerful like for me was I knew what I had to do and how to do it.


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    1. Thank you Heather. The actions begins in Chapter Two (now, probably Chapter One,) and there is a small amount of backstory there––no need to have a whole chapter of it. As I indicated to Kathleen, I’m revamping the beginning chapters. I will take some of the not overwritten words and add them to those chapters. Thank you for your advice.

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  3. Bingo! Thank you Janice. Chapter one doesn’t need to be the start of the story. Chapter’s two and three (currently) begin the story of an assassin on the run, involved in a murder (Ohio) and willing to solve it––as you pointed out, “an interesting mystery.” Chapter one needs to go in the round file!

    And thank you for the overwriting information, Chapter one is horribly overwritten. I will work through the remaining chapters to see if I have made similar mistakes.

    You have made my writing day; you’re the best. When I finish playing 5, 6, 8, 10 pages of Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy . . . my piano teacher will say, “Okay, let’s go back to page one.” I cherish those words––I will be learning something new! Thank you.

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  4. There were some phrases I found original and liked quite a lot, but they did drown in the overflow. I'm hoping you will find a way to blend some in later, in small doses and appropriate for his voice - would be a shame to lose them altogether.

    It sounds like your story is in line with Kathleen's first paragraph and I'd love to read that.

    He's obviously a sophisticated man. I'm not sure I like him if it's his intention to seek romance - for short periods with small-town girls. Would think the likely drama (and guilt?) would be the last thing he wanted.

    Thanks for sharing, Ron! I'm trying to resist stealing some of the phrases I particularly liked. :)

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    Replies
    1. JC, thank you. I’m taking out chapter one and moving chapter two up, etc. However, I am taking some of the phrases and blending them into the new chapter one and two––without the overflow.

      Mr. “Sophisticated Man” romance is what I hope makes this mystery/thriller different from all the others. If you hate him now, you’ll surely . . . oops sorry you’ll have to read the book.

      Thank you for sharing your advice. You can steal all the phrases you want, but you’ll have to buy me an ice cream!

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  5. The second paragraph isn't a complete mess...it actually felt a bit like a start on an opening paragraph. If you put the MC in the hot seat right away, show him debating, agitated, taking a drink and being pissed that he had, as he never drinks -- then put his quarry on the plane. If this is his last contracted kill, and it must be done within some very specific time frame, in a very certain way, you can show his skills -- you can show how his mind works -- how he checks for unknowns, blips in his plan -- how he re-checks plan 'b' (as they say). Perhaps something happens that screws his plans up - perhaps someone/thing presents the potential of an innocent being harmed. You can show his conflict - which doesn't have to be good/evil, it can be any value or behaviour you wish, but especially one that you can use later in the story to reinforce either his inability to assimilate or how his values are a bit twisted and he continues to cram square pegs into round holes.

    Stop trying to be fancy with your words -- find ways to capture a feeling, a situation, a moment in time that we can relate to -- or we totally question just how weird is this guy?

    It takes a certain mindset to kill for money. It takes a certain set of values to define life and death as a transaction. There isn't a veneer of disassociation from the act, this is a man who didn't force himself to accept this life -- he chose it!

    For fun, do some quickie googling on sociopaths, and then obsessive behaviours. You may find some tidbits that push your character into an odd little niche all his own.

    Best of luck -- and remember: never confuse the reader and never assume they know something you haven't told them.

    Thanks for putting yourself and your book out there.

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  6. p.s.--- obviously your story interests me, as I feel compelled to make another suggestion, which can also serve as an example of tying bits together:
    The MC is on a plane from NY to the West Coast. He always buys the seat next to him--he sits in the window seat--so he doesn't have to 'mess' with interaction. A young boy is traveling with his grandfather, also on the plane. The kid takes an interest in the MC (for whatever reason you choose). The MC ignores the kid, who continues to stare at the MC. Eventually, the kid comes to stand at the empty seat, then squirms his way into the seat. The MC watches this action (you give him whatever reaction you wish), and then ignores the kid. The grandfather ultimately retrieves the kid, apologizing and explaining the kid wanted to take the train -- so they could watch the countryside, relax, and stop at, and explore, little towns along the way. The MC can then look out the window, observing that the plane is passing over the farmlands of the Midwest.

    You can have the MC make a connection with the kid or the grandfather, or both, or their relationship, or the fantasy of cruising through small towns -- detached and yet able to explore to heart's content.

    Just sayin' -- you can tie the MC's last kill, his breakdown, his trigger to the small town fantasy and romance, and can 'show' his stepping away from his current 'work' -- perhaps he dumps all his weapons and immediately goes to a train station...

    My rather ragged point here is that you can use one scene to show the moments that break his resolve, give him a new path, and that, possibly, more than his resolve was broken -- perhaps his mind as well.

    Then, you can throw him back to this one scene in future scenes, either to tie his actions and thoughts together, or to show the disparity in his current actions, or to show rationalization as his 'break' progresses.

    Sorry - it would bug me forever if I hadn't shared that with you. Creative bugs are impossible to shake, if you don't get them outa the head.

    Thanks and good luck!

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  7. Just a thought. What if you introduced the main character is an assassin on a job. Show the character at word and spice it up with what feels like inappropriate emotions. Then slowly reveal that he (she) is trying to change, to lead a normal life. That would make a great 1st Plot Point to end Act I. Or not.

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