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Saturday, April 6

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 20.

This week’s question:

Does this romantic thriller opening work?

Market/Genre: Romantic thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

When Eli appeared at my hotel suite in Zurich, I didn't know whether to be relieved to see him or irritated that he'd come without warning. His wrinkled shirt hung out of his blue jeans and his blood-shot eyes looked like he'd just got off the red-eye. It was hard to be upset with someone who cared so much, came without asking, and knew I needed him.

He took me in his arms and kissed me so passionately, I wondered what he'd been up to. "Surprise, Maze."

I backed away and studied his sparkling eyes and devilish grin. "How did you know I was in Zurich?" I smirked. "Are you spying on me?"

"You have a wild imagination. Your cousin called and asked me to accompany you on your flight home." He patted my ass. "I was in Paris."

I shook my head and chuckled. "Sometimes I think you're too close to my cousins." I wheeled my suitcase to the door. "I'm capable of flying alone, so why are you really here?"

"You know damn well why I came. Stop pretending you're not afraid." His strong hands massaged my tense shoulders as his warm breath soothed my insides.

Eli was right. I was scared, and as we drove along the snowy mountains from Lake Lucerne to the Zurich airport, I tried to keep my nerves from running wild. After my grandfather Richard escaped a sting operation, I didn't know what would become of my life. He was the only person blocking the onslaught of interrogations into my secrets. I feared it was open season, and I would soon be hunted by my remaining family members.

My Thoughts in Blue:

When Eli appeared at my hotel suite in Zurich, I didn't know whether to be relieved to see him or irritated that he'd come without warning. [nice opening sentence & setup] His wrinkled shirt hung out of his blue jeans and his blood-shot eyes [I expected a stronger conclusion here] looked like he'd just got off the red-eye. [why is this important?] It was hard to be upset with someone who cared so much, came without asking, and knew I needed him. [lots of confusion and conflict here, and with what was set up in the first sentence]

He took me in his arms and kissed me so passionately, I wondered what he'd been up to. [why would she wonder?]

"Surprise, Maze."

I backed away and studied his sparkling eyes and devilish grin. [I can see ‘studying his eyes’ but not a grin – how about splitting these up?] "How did you know I was in Zurich?" I smirked. [is this meant as a dialogue tag -- or a snarky expression?] "Are you spying on me?"

"You have a wild imagination. Your cousin called and asked me to accompany you on your flight home." He patted my ass. "I was in Paris."

I shook my head and chuckled. "Sometimes I think you're too close to my cousins." I wheeled my suitcase to the door. [this is a little startling w/out any prep in the scene] "I'm capable of flying alone, so why are you really here?"

"You know damn well why I came. Stop pretending you're not afraid." His strong hands massaged my tense shoulders [is he doing this as she’s walking?] as his warm breath soothed my insides. [Where, or what, exactly is he breathing into? Let us count the orifices…]

Eli was right. I was scared, and as we drove along the snowy mountains [roads] from Lake Lucerne to the Zurich airport, I tried to keep my nerves [what did she do?] from running wild. After my grandfather Richard escaped a sting operation, I didn't know what would become of my life. He was the only person blocking the onslaught of interrogations into my secrets. I feared it was open season, and I would soon be hunted by my remaining family members. [this is pretty exciting, but still an info-dump. We’re still processing Eli and flights to some unknown location, what the deal is with the cousins, and who the heck Maze is…]

The Question:

1. Does this romantic thriller opening work?


Sort of…

[readers chime in – c’mon! Your ideas and thoughts can also help this author! :O) ]

Great opening sentence!

However, I need to know quite a bit more to pull this all together. I’m wishing there was some immediate action in the scene. Perhaps showing her closing suitcases/finishing packing when Eli shows up.

I’m very curious to know how Eli managed to show up at the exact moment she’s about to walk out the door to head for the airport. I’m making that assumption, of course, because I have only my own imagination to work with here.

We are shown her reaction to his surprise arrival: relieved and irritated, which is followed by an observation of dishevelment and blood-shot eyes. This observation seems not to be driven by her concern for him, but rather to make a comparison to him having flown the ‘red-eye’. I immediately wanted to know if this was the case, and if there was a ‘red-eye’ flight from Paris to Zurich, and what – exactly – would define a ‘red-eye’ flight. Stuck on that for a moment, not knowing if it was important or not, I read on, expecting to learn which emotion she had chosen as primary: relief or irritation. But instead, I encountered more conundrums related to how she felt about Eli showing up.

So, we have this great opening sentence… but…the scene isn’t sustained from there.

I would rather see her slam the suitcase closed, letting irritation take the lead (anger is a bully and always wants to come out first), then have her demand to know why he’s there, how he knew where she was – to which he gives his devilish grin, sweeps in and passionately kisses her, then greets her. She can twist away with a smirk (which is now appropriate), grab her suitcase and yank up the handle, as he rattles off the bit about the cousins and keeping her company on the flight home.

Her actions now move the scene quickly forward, giving Eli no time to get the upper-hand or for her to lose control of what is happening.

The dialogue introducing the idea that Maze is afraid is strongly worded, and then there’s the shoulder massaging and breathing… But that strength and intimacy falls flat, because we have no reaction from her. The inference is that Eli knows her so-o-o well (like a lover?) that he’s there to protect her, not just keep her company. Yet she doesn’t greet him as a lover. She reacts to the passionate kiss with suspicion. Though she gives no clue as to what she might suspect him of doing – or perhaps that the passion is feigned, and so is suspect. Or why she would have any suspicions.

(Here's more on Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotion)

Some internal thought could stab into this opening, punctuating her suspicions or needs or fears. Your first sentence sets up the potential for a very quick-moving opening, using the emotion of irritation, with Eli’s presence as the trigger. And having to deal with him being the point of tension, which could either let up or explode when they are in the car.

At this point, whether she’s driving or not, she can recover a bit from Eli’s surprise arrival and can distance herself enough to admit to or reveal her fears, and maybe also question what having Eli involved will mean.

I believe you have everything you need in this scene and if you push the reactions, ride the opening emotion, and then pair dialogue with actions, you’ll have the pacing you need to excite the reader immediately.

(Here's more on Don’t Speak: The Power of What’s Left Unsaid When Crafting Dialogue)

Imagine how the scene plays out. Imagine how the timing of Eli’s arrival might contribute to her suspicion. Internal thought instead of asking Eli questions will intensify this feeling of paranoia. Plus, you can feed the reader tidbits of information about these two and their relationship.

For example, maybe they were lovers, but Eli is a ‘ghost’ person, here and then gone. Maybe he left her hanging the last time they were together. When were they last together? She can have a memory flit through, along with a judgement, and readers will gain some insights.

If Eli kisses her passionately, her reaction and internal thoughts can reveal how she feels about that action. Is she conflicted about it? To what degree? Does she smell alcohol or the heady scent of his body or his cologne? If she’s turned off by his kiss, does she wipe her lips? And then, does she do that with her fingertips or her sleeve or a tissue from the open box on the table? Each action could indicate a certain level of disgust or disdain for the kiss and Eli – or conversely, could show her internal struggle about her feelings for him. Perhaps she made a decision about him before this time, and it wasn’t to keep kissing him passionately.

The final paragraph contains a rushed pile of information (infodump) that could be presented in dialogue (like an argument as they drive) coupled with internal thoughts where Maze might question ‘what comes next’ or whether going home was the right thing to do.

(Here's more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

If you push the first half of this page, keeping the tension tight between these two, you can then use the confinement of the car and perhaps the winding road (or is it an Autobahn-type where speed is the distraction?) to create a combustive conversation. They’re stuck together, and perhaps by the time they reach the airport, decisions have been made or altered.

Whatever you choose to do, the first half of the opening can set the tone and conflict, then the last bit can force things into the open, and set up the potential actions for the next scene (presumably at the airport, unless someone tries to kill her before then).

I believe you also need to find a way to give Maze a stronger voice. This can be accomplished through her internal thoughts and her reactions to Eli.

This sounds like it could be a fun thriller, especially with a contentious pair of lovers. Good luck!

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

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:05 AM EDT

    Spot on critique by Maria. All really good points to beef up the start of a good opening. There is definitely a strong hook going, and her suggestions will deepen it. One minor sticking point...the red-eye flight and red-eyes...I imagined he flew "across the pond" to be that disheveled and tired looking. I don't think a flight from Paris to Zurich would be very long...two hours or so? Perhaps check some airline schedules to see how long it takes. If he drove, I would believe the scenario more. This bothered me, and made me stop to think about it :)

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  2. A couple things bothered me to the point of distraction.

    First, it's a one hour flight from Paris to Zurich. Maze presumes Eli's bloodshot eyes might be from having taken a red-eye flight. As soon as she hears that he was in Paris she should realize that something else is behind his bloodshot eyes. Why doesn't she note this discrepancy between her presumption and the claim made by Eli?

    Second, she's very fearful that she will "soon be hunted by my remaining family members." Really? If this is the case then why in the world does one of her cousins know precisely where she is?


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  4. Eli's appearance is a strong opening alright. But like Maria says, it's not clear what he really means to Maze or to the story.

    My first reaction in reading this was surprise at that kiss, because romance (and romantic thrillers) are famous for never starting the heroine really with the man she ends up with. She usually needs the story to *find* love, whether it's falling for a "friend" or ex, or finding someone new and maybe leaving Mr. Not-Right for him. It's not required, but it's definitely common.

    But Eli gives her an all-out kiss and is right there in her life. I guess you're positioning him as an ex or an occasional fling, someone she's attracted to but won't let herself really fall for-- and then either half the story's about them working through their issues, or he's actually no good for her. Or their connection and their future could be something else, true.

    So what is it, and how can you plant the right hints from the start? How does Maze show hints of suspicion, or attraction, or resentment, that get the reader on board in the right way? Opening with a kiss like that is impressive, but on its own it mostly says neither of them has real buried feelings for the other-- or else that they're already a couple and you may not have a story.

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  5. Continuing:

    Then there's the mystery. You're starting this scene with Eli, but really he's appearing in the middle of a crisis, so everything about this ought to be in the context of Maze going to deal with her problem.

    As it is, you open with a number of paragraphs talking about Eli's charm and kiss and how her cousins can call him in, but these aren't playing off her actual problem. It's much better to take the important points of her situation and work them into the early paragraphs, so that each clue gives us a clear piece of the puzzle and sets us up for the next. If she's worried about her family attacking her she could take a nervous look around and ask Eli if he was followed. They could mention her grandfather's escape that set all this off: "So they almost got the old man this time. You know how bad it's going to get now, Maze." Figure out what fact would show enough of the situation for readers to understand on its own, and build the scene around feeding us each of those as well as everything else that's happening.

    Maria also mentioned the timing of him arriving just as Maze was leaving, and how we're startled to find she was wheeling a suitcase in the middle of this. You do want to decide just what she's doing that sets up his timing, and also how that action captures the worry she's feeling, and how it plays off her feelings for Eli too. Eli's introduction "at my hotel suite" is so sudden we have to picture him knocking on her door and that she wasn't doing much at the moment-- but once he's there you could quickly show she was packed and ready to leave and she was *stalling* before heading out. (She might even rush out faster because she can't trust herself near a bedroom with Eli.) Then the whole scene could physically be a "walk and talk" of Eli falling into step beside her and refusing to let her go alone. Or she could be outside waiting for a cab, but Eli pulls up with a car and there's a moment she decides whether to go with him. If she's just walking out at the moment he appears, it does feel a little like he'd been watching her for the right moment-- and her wondering about that could be interesting too. Picking something that's physically going on throughout a scene does plenty to make it more tangible, and to reflect something about what's at stake.

    Maze's situation sounds interesting, and Eli's full of possibilities the way you introduce him. Try thinking more about *which* possibilities Eli is, and how to get the basics of both that and Maze's crisis in as soon as possible, so you've created an organic feel of everything that's going on. Then you're all set to start tightening the screws.

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