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Saturday, March 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Romantic Thriller Opening Work?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Four

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

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Romantic Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I stood at the edge of the forest pond and nudged a floating maple leaf with the tip of my well-worn riding boot. The red foliage teetered on top of the water but remained afloat. Our worlds were similar—both one rainfall away from sinking to the bottom.

A rumble of thunder in the distance broke my trance. Dark clouds hovered over the Pacific, a signal to finish my afternoon loop and head home.

I clicked my tongue a few times. “We have to head back, Vienna. There’s a storm brewing."

I hopped onto her saddle and we edged out of the redwood forest bordering my property. Once I dismounted, my white mare kicked up her graceful gait and trotted to our apple tree in search of her afternoon treat. I'd let her eat one apple at her own pace.

The ranch had a peaceful stillness before a new weather front set in. Plopping on top of an old tree stump, I removed my hat and shook my hair free. I crossed my legs, resting my hands on muddy jeans. Pride swelled within me as I surveyed my land. Healthy fruit orchards and lush gardens filled every space. After five years, I’d achieved my dream.

I reached into my jacket pocket and retrieved yesterday’s mail I'd picked up earlier. Leafing through the small stack, I passed the usual monthly bills and a request for a donation.

Touching the final letter, my heart sank. A sterile white envelope addressed to Vanessa Barrett, Pilot. Bolinas, California.

My jaw tightened and I fought back the tears which would only pile on more emotion to this written taunt. Bowing my head, I released the tension in my neck, wishing for an end to this yearly reminder of my youthful disaster.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I stood at the edge of the forest pond [I like the feel of these opening words and would like to see an immediate tie to the kind of forest it is – this could lend an even stronger feeling of fantasy to the scene] and nudged a floating maple leaf with the tip of my well-worn riding boot. [this ties me to a deciduous forest and, of course, a woman who rides regularly enough to have riding boots.] The red foliage teetered on top of the water but remained afloat. Our worlds were similar—both one rainfall away from sinking to the bottom. [this is a nice line – I’d like to see this as internal thought – a hint of hidden dilemmas, a teetering situation]

A rumble of thunder in the distance broke my trance. [I had no feeling that she was ‘entranced’- perhaps ‘reverie’? – the internal though would help] Dark clouds hovered over the Pacific, [I imagine she can either see the ocean or is very, very close to it] a signal to finish my afternoon loop and head home.

I clicked my tongue a few times. “We have to head back, Vienna. [no clue who this is] There’s a storm brewing."

I hopped onto her saddle [I can see ‘hopping’ onto her bare back, but not a saddle] and we edged out of the redwood forest bordering my property. Once I dismounted, [no clue how far they went or where they are now] my white mare kicked up her graceful gait [what do you mean here?] and trotted [trot is a gait – this brings more confusion] to our apple tree [I’m more curious now about where they are] in search of her afternoon treat. I'd let her eat one apple at her own pace.

The ranch had a peaceful stillness before a new weather [this feels generic, rather an intimacy with this particular afternoon and coming storm] front set in. Plopping onto top of an old tree stump, I removed my hat and shook my hair free. I crossed my legs, resting my hands on muddy jeans. [cannot see where her hands actually are] Pride swelled within me as I surveyed my land. [is she on a hill or rise looking down?] Healthy fruit orchards and lush gardens filled every space. After five years, I’d achieved my dream. [this would be nice as internal thought – so the reader is ‘sharing’ this feeling of achievement with her]

I reached into my jacket pocket and retrieved yesterday’s mail [is this important? Yesterday’s mail not retrieved until early this day?] I'd picked up earlier. Leafing through the small stack, I passed the usual monthly bills and a request for a donation.

Touching the final letter, [I’d prefer the smoother read with this sentence and the next combined, then with ‘my heart sank opening or concluding the sentence] my heart sank. A sterile white envelope addressed to Vanessa Barrett, Pilot. [well done – name introduced and an unusual profession] Bolinas, California.

My jaw tightened and I fought back the tears, which would only pile on more emotion to this written taunt. [confusing here – isn’t it more likely the tight jaw and tears are from anticipating something bad?] Bowing my head, I released the tension in my neck, and wished ing for an end to this yearly reminder of my youthful disaster. [this is a decent hook]

The question:

1. Does this opening work?


Let me say that there is a hook at the end, and the reader will want to find out more – so, it ‘works’ from that perspective. However, there is a struggle before we arrive at this hook.

From the beginning, we have the assumed protagonist in the forest, taking a stroll, hike or ? This is something she does regularly, because she can gauge when to return home when disruptive weather threatens.

We are given a backwards introduction to her horse. I’m unsure of the purpose of having this be a mystery.

She’s riding in the redwood forest bordering her ranch of 5 years on her white mare, Vienna. A storm is rolling in and they need to head home. They do so, but then stop to allow Vienna to have one apple, while the protagonist reads the mail, from yesterday, stuffed in her jacket pocket. A starkly described letter causes her to feel anxiety and shed tears, because she recognizes the letter as one that arrives every year and will contain taunts about some disaster from her youth.

My ‘reader’ response to the opening is that I want to know more about the final hook: the letter… what it says, why it arrives every year, what the ‘youthful disaster’ is. There is obviously much to discover in her background, why she had a 5-year plan for the ranch, and what her plans are from here.

Apparently, at the beginning, she is being thoughtful, ‘entranced’, deep in thought. However, we don’t know what those thoughts are, so are left in the dark. I had difficulty putting a redwood forest and a deciduous forest together. She’s in the redwood forest, but she’s playing with a Maple leaf. A small thing, but it loosens the scene for me.

(Here's more on how to avoid overwriting a scene)

Horses can usually feel and smell a storm long before humans, or that’s been my experience, so I was impressed that the protagonist doesn’t see behavior from her mare that signals changing weather. I was also intrigued that her horse is geared up (saddle and bridle) but is apparently wandering around. This seeming very trusting relationship between horse and woman could be used to give out much more intimate information about both.

I’m missing a feeling of intimacy throughout. The lack of comfy transitions, which make for a rocky read, is also keeping the reader at a distance.

I want to know why the protagonist is sad, and want to know more about her life, but that desire is solely due to the evil white letter. The material previous makes me mildly curious, but if my reading was interrupted before I reached the evil letter, I wouldn’t hesitate to put the book aside.

You have a few options where internal thought can bring me inside her head, which would enrich the material. Showing interactions between Vienna and Vanessa that illustrate the trusting relationship they have would also help. These interactions could be a reveal that Vienna had balked at wearing a saddle (for whatever reason) and that Vanessa had given in, even though the white mare was blowing her winter coat, and that meant jeans covered in white horsehair. This tiny interaction shows the time of year, the communication rider and horse share, that Vanessa is riding bareback, which means jumping on and sliding off. If Vienna takes off to grab an apple, something needs to be done with her reins, saddle or not.

(Here's more on mixing actions and internal thoughts)

By showing small familiarities and showcasing special relationships between the protagonist and her world, the reader can gain a stronger feeling and relationship with the character.

I love the environment of the story. I like having an apparently strong woman as a protagonist. I would enjoy learning more about her and what makes her tick. I would like to see her presented more intensely (after all, she hit her 5-year goal!). I would like more internal thought to give an idea of her personality and worldview. I want to know why her jeans are muddy (you mention it, so it must mean something). I want to know how she makes her living, what the fruit orchards and gardens produce. A ranch often means animal raising. A farm usually means crops. So, I’m curious about what she does with her land, and how much land?

So, I do have some questions and I do want some answers, but I feel I have a few more questions than I should. This is a wounded protagonist – readers will want to like her first, then root for her. 

(Here's more on crafting natural sounding internal thoughts)

One last impression…

The flow feels blocky right now and needs transitions and complete scenes. The opening in the forest is sweet and peaceful, so perhaps you can provide the reason that Vanessa finds such peace there. She can give thanks for the space, the peace, the ability to get there with her pal, Vienna. The coming storm is the disruptor, but it doesn’t cause any stress, so the peace is still there when they stop for the apple. Take us inside this experience and what it means to Vanessa. This way, we are deep in reverie with her when the evil white letter is exposed.

(Here's more on writing paragraph and scene transitions)

Good luck with this – you have all you need, just don’t try too hard – relax – let us get to know Vanessa enough that we also feel distressed that the letter is marked with disaster.

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

3 comments:

  1. I like the first paragraph a lot - we have a intimate setting and an unknown problem.
    Not sure I like the storm coming next - very overused in openings - the dream, the storm, etc. "There's a storm brewing" feels very cliche.

    I don't think we need the storm to trigger trouble as we already heard that she's one rainfall away from sinking to the bottom. Perhaps a drop of rain later may bring these two together.

    I like the redwood forest, the horse eating the apple and the stillness. I think the stillness in itself makes the reader a bit uneasy knowing something is going on. A more subtle feeling of the calm before the storm, but not an actual storm.

    Great name intro. I don't think we need the tears (maybe too much) - perhaps looking out to the forest, fields, etc. recalling something of her youthful disaster. Maybe here a raindrop hits her hand - ?

    overall liked it a lot - good balance of description and internal dialogue and strong start to developing character. Great work!

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  2. This is a thoughtful, poetic opening, rich with feeling. I also think you've let the idea of its beauty pull you away from some other things an opening might have.

    You don't have to start with immediate conflict, but I also don't see a clear sense of what Vanessa's conflict could be, or what specific kind of person she is that would make me eager to see how she'd fare in a struggle. And I think genre matters in openings.

    In literary fiction, readers would accept a beautiful moment and a clever opening image of her and the leaf both being enduring but vulnerable-- or a big name author could do it in any author for the fun of it. And movies often start with an image because they'd have to strain to get into someone's head. But in a romantic thriller novel, an opening like this works best if it's got more going on as well.

    Maybe part of Vanessa's early thoughts are specific hints at what's haunting her. Say a quick "She almost felt she deserved that peace, even after letting Kevin die" that has the feel of a long-practiced regret or wish that she doesn't need to go into yet. A couple of clear, measured hints like that could make this scene promise specific conflict and character without stopping the reverie. Without those hints, it feels like you're refusing to give us anything except setting and mood for a while, and that's hard to sell in this genre.

    The words and images you've chosen are ambitious, and feel like you've sifted through them many times to make them evocative and clean. A downside of that is that sometimes your flow between specifics gets muddled: mentioning a "riding boot" doesn't make it completely smooth that she's there with a horse (it's four paragraphs before you clearly use a word like "mare"). And she muses about the leaf drowning in rain before she mentions that the clouds are up there-- that would flow better if she either had mentioned the clouds first, or simply said the leaf would sink at any "disturbance" so we make the connection to the thunder ourselves.

    (And, a particular note: is this level of near-literary poetry the way you want to write *all* your scenes? I don't mean the same emotion, but the same style under it. If you dipped into this moody vividness just to make a flashier opening, or you find it's too much work to continue the story like this, this scene will only look false. "Style" works because the writer can make it consistent.)

    And as Maria said, watch your horses. So many readers and writers love them, but that means those fans will pounce on a writer who doesn't run a horse scene past a horse expert. But when you know more details about riding, you can use those to turn the scene in the specific way you want and be completely authentic.

    This has a powerful feel for how vibrant the story might be, that many thrillers don't weave in. I hope you keep working on ways to make it clearer to us why these beautiful details fit, and earlier signs of what Vanessa and her story itself are going to be.

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  3. I enjoyed your opener, and think you've got a great start On horses, which are not my thing, this book might be helpful. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004EYUD46/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 The author writes a column for Tor on the subject.

    ReplyDelete