Saturday, December 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Suspense Opening?

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: Six 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 4.

This week’s questions:

1. Do you feel a close POV? Is the internalization working?

2. Are you getting a sense of the conflict, goal and tone of the opening?

3. Would you read on?


Market/Genre: Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Her hands wrestled tomatoes from their vines. A knife slashed through the necks of crooked squash and a steel shovel buried rotted artichoke hearts. Gardening while angry went against all logic, but in her small garden, Freesia released her pent-up anger – if only against helpless vegetables.

She placed her bloodless bounty in her basket and watched as lightening blossomed through the distant Rocky Mountains. She lingered and melted into one of her favorite Colorado displays, dreaming of her past. A past that always questioned her present.

A sudden gust of wind blew through the property which was followed by the rattling of a decades-old Volkswagen bus huffing up her short driveway. Well, freaky house of horrors. First, an argument with her husband and now the return of two persistent circus clowns. As much as she wanted to bolt, Freesia preferred to stand tall. And lie.

One hand slipped inside her jacket pocket, seeking the comfort of her ever-present, small handgun. She made her way toward the uninvited moochers, controlled paces in opposition with her resurfaced anger. Maybe, one shot each - between the eyes.

The entire bus shook when the carni shut down the grumbling engine. He leaned out his window, exposing tobacco-stained teeth, “Mornin’ Freesia. Did you convince Olin to give us some moolah?”

Freesia’s finger itched to pull out her weapon but with her mother perched next to him, she decided against it. “Still divorced. Still haven’t seen Olin in five years.” Time to walk away.

Freesia’s cigarette-thin mother leaned over her husband, “Does your hubby know you’re a whore?” She cackled as she revealed Freesia’s secret, “We know you’ve been seeing Olin, Girly.”

Those words were the torch that ignited a pile of garden composted-soaked memories. Decades of buried hatred surfaced as Freesia’s trembling hand pointed her gun toward the despicable couple who abandoned two seven-year-old children. What she wouldn’t give at this moment to be just like them. To ruin their lives without a thought or concern. To have them slip away with the wind once again- this time forever.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Her hands wrestled tomatoes from their vines. A knife slashed through the necks of crooked squash and a steel shovel buried rotted artichoke hearts. [Gardening while angry went against all logic, but in her small garden, Freesia released her pent-up anger – if only against helpless vegetables.] Perhaps swap this and use this as the opening line? It sets the scene so the other lines make sense, and shows she’s upset about something. This is also a good spot for some internalization that hints as to why she’s angry.

She placed her bloodless bounty in her basket and watched as lightening blossomed through the distant Rocky Mountains. [She lingered and melted into one of her favorite Colorado displays, dreaming of her past.] This feels a little distant for a close POV [A past that always questioned her present.] This feels like the introduction to internalization about that past, but she doesn’t think anything

A sudden gust of wind blew through [the property] this distant reference to it makes me think it’s not hers [which was] tellish followed by the rattling of a decades-old Volkswagen bus huffing up her short driveway. [Well, freaky house of horrors.] I don’t understand this, though it is a great spot for her to think something to give context to the bus [First, an argument with her husband and now the return of two persistent circus clowns.] Perhaps show some hints of this earlier [As much as she wanted to bolt, Freesia preferred to stand tall. And lie.] Intriguing.

One hand slipped inside her jacket pocket, seeking the comfort of her [ever-present, small handgun] Intriguing. Makes me wonder why she feels the need to stay armed. She made her way toward the [uninvited moochers,] this feels personal and in her head [controlled paces in opposition with her resurfaced anger.] feels a little distant for a close POV [Maybe, one shot each - between the eyes.] I like her thoughts here, but it feels a little strong without any hint as to who or what they are. Moochers is hardly a murder-worthy trait. Knowing why she thinks this would also help establish the stakes

The entire bus shook when [the carni] this feels distant and like she doesn’t know them, but she does shut down the grumbling engine. He leaned out his window, exposing tobacco-stained teeth, “Mornin’ Freesia. Did you convince Olin to give us some moolah?”

I wanted a reaction thought here Freesia’s finger itched to pull out her weapon but with [her mother perched next to him] Her mother’s there? Perhaps have her think this before, she decided against it. “Still divorced. Still haven’t seen Olin in five years.” [Time to walk away.] If she’s going to walk away so fast, why meet them at all? Or was it just to say she’s still divorced? I don’t understand the issue here, though I can see there is one

Freesia’s cigarette-thin mother leaned over her husband, “Does your hubby know you’re a whore?” She cackled [as she revealed Freesia’s secret,] Perhaps cut, so readers can wonder if this is true or not. But is this really her secret? She’s a whore? Who cares in this day and age?  “We know you’ve been seeing Olin, Girly.” Perhaps a thought from her here about that. I don’t understand this conversation so I feel lost

[Those words were the torch that ignited a pile of garden composted-soaked memories.] Distant for the POV and it feels like it’s trying too hard Decades of buried hatred surfaced as Freesia’s trembling hand pointed her gun toward the despicable couple who abandoned [two seven-year-old children.] I’m guessing she means her and a sibling, but it sounds distant phrased like this What she wouldn’t give at this moment to be [just like them.] I know what you mean, but the phrasing feels a bit off since she just wants their coldness To ruin their lives without a thought or concern. To have them slip away with the wind once again- this time forever.

The questions:

1. Do you feel a close POV? Is the internalization working?

Not yet. The POV feels distant, because much of it describes the situation from outside Freesia looking down. The phrasing doesn’t sound like her thinking about her own life but someone else narrating it. Try thinking about how Freesia sees her world and how she’d refer to it. For example, she mentions “the property,” which is distant and implies it’s not hers. Yet she then says, “her driveway,” which is personal and implies it’s her farm. In a close POV, people use pronouns and words that reflect ownership and what’s known to a character.

(Here’s more on point of view)

There’s very little internalization, though there are several places where hearing her thoughts would help bring the POV closer. The two italic lines feel like her thoughts, and the last half of the final paragraph, but the rest feels like an outside narrator. There’s also not quite enough for me to get a sense of what’s going on yet. I feel like I ought to know, but I need a little more to follow the story.

(Here’s more on writing internalization for a close third person point of view)

2. Are you getting a sense of the conflict, goal and tone of the opening?

I can see there’s a problem, and that it involves a fight with her husband, but there’s not enough details yet for me to understand what’s going on. The mother comes out of nowhere and Freesia never thinks about the bus being her mother until it’s already suggested that they’re strangers. And the problem seems disconnected from her husband (though it’s possible the fight was about giving them money or dealing with them in some way). I feel lost instead of drawn in, so a few more details to lead me in the right direction would help.

(Here's more on setting tone and mood in your scenes)

I’d suggest spending a little more time on the fight with the husband if that’s where the conflict lies. Let readers get a better sense of what Freesia is angry about. You might also consider how much foreshadowing you want to do with the mother. It seems like she was expecting this visit, and if so, she’d likely be dreading it and thinking about it a little—especially if the fight was because of this.

(Here’s more on creating conflict)

Even though there’s nothing to suggest it, I’m getting a historical fiction vibe from this (readers chime in here). Something about the setting, carnies, and calling her a whore is bringing out images of dust bowl Depression-era, which I don’t think is the case at all. It could just be me, so if this is happening to anyone else, perhaps add a few clearly modern details to counteract it.

(Here’s more on backgrounding your world through point of view)

3. Would you read on?

Not yet (readers chime in here). I’m not drawn in yet, even though there are some intriguing lines. I’m curious why she needs to walk around armed, and why she’s lying, but I don’t feel connected enough to her yet to care about getting the answers to these questions. There’s too much I’m struggling to figure out and not enough context to make me understand the situation and care about the outcome.

There are good pieces here though, so I think with some clarification on the fuzzy parts and a little more internalization from Fressia, this could be an effective opening. Something is clearly going on, it’s not good, and Freesia is facing a problem on both external and internal levels. I suspect the problem lies more in what’s not getting on the page than an issue with the scene itself.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

Overall, I think it just needs a little more fleshing out to bring out the conflict and stakes that are already here. I suspect Freesia is protecting Olin, there are some bad choices coming back to bite her, and she’s in a difficult situation. These are all good pieces for an opening scene. As soon as you find the right words to show all that, this will probably be a solid 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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

12 comments:

  1. I'm seeing conflict and tone. I have some empathy for Freesia, but can see she's strong. I also suggest swapping the two beginning sentences. The last four paragraphs confused me and need clarification. I would read on as long as the situation became clear and I didn't have to re-read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your feedback, Pam. I appreciate it!

      Delete
  2. I agree with all of the above. There's a lot that's intriguing here so there's the sense that the possibilities are many. Still, there's a bit of in-and-out on the close POV and (related) moments when the attempts to add mystery add confusion instead. There's much to work with here, though, and I sense fascinating characters. There is an odd time period disconnect that's difficult to explain. Past? Even future? They location feels desolate and isolated. Then again, that could be my imagination taking over and filling in. Regardless, this has one foot firmly in the Close POV door and I look forward to both feet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Christina; thanks for your input. Much appreciated!

      Delete
  3. There is good 'meat' here, but the conflict emphasis is confusing and we get details and focus where we need clarity. There is also substantial assumption of reader knowledge, which allows the author to go into reverie and distant, more abstract material -- which the reader cannot follow.

    I could not get involved with the dialogue or the supposed conflict, as it didn't make sense. This wasn't because the conflict itself wasn't plausible, but that the way it was presented was very difficult to pull together.

    I have no clue why she's 'killing' her veggies. Have no clue why she carries a gun with her (and what dif does it make that it's 'small'?)
    I wonder why she's will to think of murder at the sight of this vehicle, but get no answer.

    There is a lot going on her, but the reader needs to be 'let in' -- for now, there is substantial, intense emotions going on, but that's for naught if the reader can't 'use' that emotion to bond with the character.

    Right now, I am not being allowed to care about the MC.

    However! The voice and edgy approach is excellent and would, on its own merit, make me read on to see if you wrote yourself out of the questions. Keep at it -- give some info up, draw this scene out, let the reader in on what's happening and why.

    Good luck!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Maria; I felt your input on letting the reader in. A big problem when I start a story. Thanks for your time and view.

      Delete
  4. sorry for typos -- long day leads to stupid finger/brain connection...

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Freesia’s front porch swing was the perfect place to watch lightening blossom through the distant Rocky Mountains. She ignored the cars streaming through her neighborhood and melted into one of her favorite Colorado displays. She dreamt of her past. A past that always questioned her present. Her lesson learned: don’t make hasty decisions while in the depths of a heartbreak.

    A sudden cold wind grabbed her attention along with the rattling of a decades-old Volkswagen bus huffing up her short driveway. It was the return of two circus clowns – her mother and step-father. As much as she wanted to bolt, Freesia preferred to stand tall. And lie.

    One hand slipped inside her jacket pocket, seeking the comfort of her ever-present handgun. She made her way toward the uninvited moochers - the despicable couple that abandoned her and Olin when they were seven years old. Maybe, one shot each - between the eyes.

    The entire bus shook when the carni shut down the grumbling engine. He leaned out his window, exposing tobacco-stained teeth, “Mornin’ Freesia. Did you convince Olin to give us some moolah?”

    Freesia’s finger itched to pull out her weapon, but she hoped to drive them away with a quick brush-off, “Olin and I are still divorced. I haven’t seen him.”

    Freesia’s cigarette-thin mother leaned over her husband, “Does your hubby know you’re a whore?” She cackled as she revealed Freesia’s secret relationship, “We know you’ve been seeing Olin, Girly. We want to know where he is.” These strangers had no right to demand anything from her or Olin.

    Decades of buried hatred surfaced as Freesia’s trembling hand pointed her gun toward them. What she wouldn’t give at this moment to be as cold as they were. To ruin their lives without a thought or concern. To have them slip away with the wind once again- this time forever.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is a revision. Any comment? Thanks, Lori

    ReplyDelete
  8. Is Olin both her brother and husband? If both, why did she marry her brother? That could turn some readers off.

    Dreamt also seems like a nice word when she dreamt of her past. So is she not as angry in this version?

    I actually like the new version better. Good luck with your story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jackie, I appreciate your comments. Olin and Free are not related. I guess that should be made clear! Thanks, Lori

      Delete