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Saturday, February 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Romantic Thriller Opening Working?

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 we 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: One

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 16.

This week’s question:

Is this opening working?

Market/Genre: Romantic Thriller

Note: We have a newbie today, who was brave enough to send their first attempt at an opening scene. Please bear that in mind when offering feedback.

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Background: This scene takes place in the late 1950s

It snowed the night Esmeralda died. That same fateful night, Julie met Ryan.

Smoothing her wavy, blond, shoulder-length hair in the full-length mirror, Julie stepped back to admire the demure, baby-blue party dress with its fully-flounced, crinoline-stiff skirt and round collar of delicate, white eyelet. The soft, eggshell hue kicked up the blue in her eyes. Arriving three days ago at the single women’s residence, with only a few clothes in a battered, cardboard suitcase, Penny, her assigned roommate, offered any dress from her closet. Julie was surprised by her thoughtful generosity.

Driving six miles to Eastover Air Force Base, jostling uncomfortably in her old jalopy, Penny set the scene and explained what to expect. “We either dance to records played by a local DJ or their 15-piece Air-Force orchestra. Believe it or not, there are no wallflowers. Not a single girl is left alone on the sidelines; not even the unsophisticated, country pumpkins from surrounding mill towns or those considered plain, awkward and unattractive.”

“Why is that?” Julie asked.

“The unbalanced ratio of twenty to one between sexes. The twenty being Flyboys, of course.”

“Why are they called Flyboys?” Julie asked. Her pulse beating overtime with excitement, this is her first attendance at a USO dance.

“Because they fly, silly.” Penny said. Her cute giggle reminded Julie of the tinkle bell that hung on her cat’s neck. Three days and she’s already missing Buttons, her Maine Coon, whom she left back home in the loving care of Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[It snowed the night Esmeralda died.] This piques my interest, since I know the book is a thriller, so I assume this is central to the plot [That same fateful night, Julie met Ryan.] I assume these are my main characters and love interests

Smoothing [her] I assume this is Julie, but since I have no clear POV character yet, I don’t know for sure wavy, blond, shoulder-length hair in the full-length mirror, Julie stepped back to admire the demure, baby-blue party dress with its fully-flounced, crinoline-stiff skirt and round collar of delicate, white eyelet. The soft, eggshell hue kicked up the blue in her eyes. Arriving three days ago at the single women’s residence, with only a few clothes in a battered, cardboard suitcase, Penny, her assigned roommate, offered any dress from her closet. [Julie was surprised by her thoughtful generosity.] This makes me think people aren’t usually generous or thoughtful to her, which is interesting.

[Driving six miles to Eastover Air Force Base, jostling uncomfortably in her old jalopy, Penny set the scene and explained what to expect.] This feels a little told, so perhaps have Julie ask what she should expect tonight? “We either dance to records played by a local DJ or their 15-piece Air-Force orchestra. Believe it or not, there are no wallflowers. Not a single girl is left alone on the sidelines; not even the unsophisticated, country pumpkins from surrounding mill towns or those considered plain, awkward and unattractive.”

“Why is that?” Julie asked. I’m not getting a sense of Julie as a character yet. You might consider adding some internal thoughts here to show how she feels about this

“The unbalanced ratio of twenty to one between sexes. The twenty being Flyboys, of course.”

“Why are they called Flyboys?” [Julie asked.] She feels a little like her only role here is to ask questions so you can explain the scene to readers [Her pulse beating overtime with excitement, this is her first attendance at a USO dance.] Switches to present tense here

“Because they fly, silly.” Penny said. Her cute giggle reminded Julie of the tinkle bell that hung on her cat’s neck. Three days and [she’s] she was already missing Buttons, her Maine Coon, whom she left back home in the [loving care] this was a bit of a surprise since she seems like a girl who left a bad home or situation--she wasn't used to kindness of Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed.

The question:

1. Is this opening working?


I think you’re off to a good start here, though there are things to consider on your next draft. Let’s look at what’s working first.

I like that a death is mentioned right away, as that suggests the thriller part of this story. Something has happened, a girl has died and it might be connected to Julie and Ryan. There were a few hints that Julie might have a troubled past or is running from something (though this might not be true), which makes me curious. She’s a young woman in the 50s who left home and is now on her own. I don’t know if she’s a dance hall girl or with the USO, but there’s something different about her situation. The writing is fairly clean and Penny has a nice voice and sense about her. I already like her.

(Here’s more on writing a strong opening scene)

The aspects that feel weak right now:

I don’t know who Esmeralda is or what her connection to Julie and Ryan is, aside from being “fateful.” I don’t necessarily need to know that on page one, but since it was the first line in the book, I expected more about it. It feels disconnected from the rest of the story as is.

The first paragraph sets up the death, and a hint that the meeting could be bad, but then it spends a long paragraph describing clothes and mundane tasks, which slows the scene down and doesn’t offer readers anything to make them want to read on. The rest of the page is explanation about where they’re going, even though I don’t actually know what’s going on. A dance at an Air Force base, but in what capacity? I feel as though I’m supposed to know what all these things mean, but I don’t.

I’d suggest starting this story a little later when they’re already on the drive over. Penny helping Julie to understand what to do is a nice way to explain without explaining, especially if Julie is having trouble with what she needs to do (is there anything?). That would allow you to cut the slow description and get to something happening right away.

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

There’s no strong point of view yet. Since it opens with a distant narrator, I assume this is an omniscient third person POV. That’s reinforced with the detached way the story explains Julie’s situation. I’m not feeling solid in anyone’s head, which makes it harder to connect to the story.

I’d suggest a more solid POV. You can still keep it omniscient if you’d like (common for the thriller genre), but focus a little more on what Julie is thinking and feeling so readers can get a sense of who she is and why she’s there. More time is spent on her physical description and her dress than on who she is as a person and why she’s there.

(Here’s more on writing an omniscient narrator)

Julie doesn’t do anything, even though I think she’s the protagonist. I’m not in her head much, I don’t know what she wants or why she’s there, and she seems to be there only to ask questions so Penny can explain the scene. Penny is a much richer character and quite likable within a few words.

I’d suggesting writing Julie with the same care you’ve written Penny. Clearly you can create a likable and fun character with few words. Use a different personality and voice of course, but let who she is and what she wants shine through. Show us what’s going on in her head so we understand why she left home and is going to this dance.

(Here’s more on internalization)

Overall, it’s a solid start for an opening scene, and it does make me a little curious about the dance and how Julie and Ryan are connected to Esmeralda. It could use some fleshing out to answer some questions and ground the story and the scene better, but it wouldn’t take much to do that. You have a strong mechanic to get that information across as Julie asks Penny how to behave and what to expect. Julie simply needs to “be in the scene” and drive it instead of sitting there.

(Here's more on narrative drive)

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.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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3 comments:

  1. This is a pleasant, appealing opening, with several hints of things to come-- especially that first line. Still, I wonder if it's when you want this to start, or if you're quite sure what that can do for you.

    Maybe the hardest single decision in a story is where to begin it. What's the best balance of showing us people's regular rhythms and how those build up, compared to jumping onto the essence of the conflict, the character, the theme?

    This could be exactly the right choice. Julie and Penny driving in could be just the right lead-in to what's going to happen at the dance, if it gives her time to talk and think about what you want to use to set the stage. That means being certain what to reveal about Julie's life now, and her goals that are about to collide with the plot.

    Especially, show us what you most want us to know about her nature-- because the whole rest of the story will be playing off that. If she's sweet but shy, we should feel for her right off, and see her struggling with the pressures she'll be under; if she's a fighter, we should be wondering what trouble she'll get into. Janice said the sense of Julie as a character isn't that strong yet, even though Penny comes through nicely. That may be because you've been using this scene to look *around* Julie and glance at her past, but you haven't positioned the moment so it gives us an essential statement about her.

    For instance, the "pre-scene" moment with the mirror. You probably want to get rid of that and just start in the car (or somewhere else, but make it one setting). But you can cover what the mirror does *in* the car, either getting its points out of the way or as a major element of your setup. If you just want to establish what Julie looks like and make us aware of her dance outfit, she just needs a moment in the car to wonder if her borrowed clothes really look right, and that can include how they go with her hair. Or it could play off of the whole scene and what's ahead: does she want to dazzle the dance or just not embarrass herself, and how eager is Penny to weigh in on this and how comfortable is Julie with Penny's advice? And it can all lead toward the real question, why is she going to the dance under these circumstances and what does she hope or fear will happen there?

    (Side note: so many writers have wanted to show their characters' looks that many readers are tired of mirror scenes. You've got a better reason for one than most, but that also means all your other scenes have all the reason they need to describe Julie without it. Even the "anyone might think about their clothes, but they'd need a mirror to notice their all-important hair and eye color" argument doesn't apply: these are *borrowed* clothes, so she and Penny can mention what outfit goes best with her own coloring.)

    You're in complete control of your scenes. If starting in the car is the best ramp-up to the dance (and it could well be), think carefully about what essentials you want to get in in those first few pages.

    Then bring them to life.

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  2. Thank you, Julie and Ken. I now know what to work on. By the way, in the next scene...the reader learns Esmeralda is Penny's jalopy who conks out after the dance during a sudden snowstorm and they need to find someone to drive them home.

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    Replies
    1. Esmeralda is Penny's jalopy? Crack me up!! :O) Love that!

      I enjoyed this scene overall. Cardboard suitcases were common for many rural folks, but families often also had just one big suitcase and one small one, both leather, meant to last for 100 years. Cardboard cases were cheap, could usually be purchased new, or were considered to be used for short-term trips.

      I liked the opening because it was a tease, and then ignored. We wanted more, but you make the reader wait, which can be okay.

      Like Janice, I assumed 'she' was Julie, since that's the only 'gal' presented. I didn't really need to know the head-to-toe description, since it doesn't do anything for the rest of the scene really. She can admire herself, but this listing slows the read and seems to be a demand that the reader take all this down - again, with the impression that this is important to know -- right now! :O) We can actually learn more about this assumed protagonist (again, I concur with Janice's observation) by showing her reaction to the dress. Her excitement can be shown in her actions instead of telling us she's excited later, in the jalopy.

      Readers respond well to learning bits and pieces about a character, and you can do most with reactions, gestures, dialogue, and actions that define that character.

      For example, you've already shown that Penny is generous, non-judgmental, and enjoys the big-sister or mother-hen role with Julie. She's a protector and naturally friendly, so she can probably be pushy like a mom (in romance) and stern when needed.

      Julie is shown as younger than Penny (my take), not accustomed to strangers being kind or accessible, yet took the offered dress without apparent reluctance. She's capable of getting 'done up' for a dance and enjoys the idea of going to a dance. She's unfamiliar with USO dances and military terms. The latter is pretty unusual, because in the 50s teens and women in their 20s had been born when WWII was still active, and then been old enough to know about military folks by the assumed time of this scene. So perhaps Julie comes from a family situation where the war wasn't discussed, or no children went to war or were lost in war. This alone made me accept that she asked questions, seemed a bit 'out of it' and was happy to let Penny take over.

      You see, these are my impressions, so if they're inaccurate, you now know some options to tweak. :o)

      I like your voice. Love that you made Esmeralda a sneaky thing. And love the Penny character. Good start!

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