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Saturday, May 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Scene Feel Too Abrupt?

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 8.

This week’s question:

This is the opening scene of my novel. I've tired this scene several ways. One felt too leisurely, another felt overly descriptive. Do you think version is too abrupt for a domestic suspense?

Market/Genre: Domestic Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

She never meant to go through with her revenge. Planning it was just a way to help ease her anger and pain. Then she opened the Living Section of the newspaper, and a mini-headline halfway down page two ignited a whole new round of hate. The headline read "Marcus Baldwin Honored at Gala."

Jenny Holland laid the paper flat on her work table.

In the main picture, Marcus and several other Atlanta VIPs smiled big for the camera. Eva Thomas stood beside Marcus with her head tilted coyly toward his Jenny didn't know who she hated more.

She read the accompanying article. Line after line of praise. Marcus the great. Marcus the wonderful.

The last gush was too much:

"Without Mr. Baldwin, our charity wouldn't be able to help as many clients as we do. No one is as loving and giving as he."

The words went straight to her heart. She squeezed her hands so tightly her fingernails dug into her palms.

No! Don't!

She unclenched her hands. She focused on something harmless, like she was taught. From the window of her home office, she watched a squirrel dig under a tree. After many minutes, she checked her pulse. It still beat too fast.

She needed to calm down.

But she didn't want to calm down.

She wanted to do some damage.

"I dare you, Jenny," Marcus' smug smile said from the photo.

It was as though the words were whispered in her ear.

My Thoughts in Blue:

She never meant to go through with her revenge. [intriguing. Makes me wonder what she did] Planning it was just a way to help ease her anger and pain. Then she opened the Living Section of the newspaper, and a mini-headline halfway down page two ignited a whole new round of hate. The headline read [Could cut]"Marcus Baldwin Honored at Gala." I’m uncertain about the chronology of the scene after this opening paragraph. It starts retrospective, as if she has already taken revenge, yet the newspaper line suggests this is the “real time” of the novel, as does the rest of the text in this scene.

Jenny Holland laid the paper flat on her work table. [I wanted a reaction or thought from her here to help provide context]

In the main picture, Marcus and several other Atlanta VIPs smiled big for the camera. Eva Thomas stood beside Marcus with her head tilted coyly toward his. Jenny didn't know who she hated more. [This makes me suspect he had an affair with this woman, though there’s been nothing yet to clarify that she and Marcus were married or a couple]

She read the accompanying article. Line after line of praise. Marcus the great. Marcus the wonderful.

The last gush was too much:

"Without Mr. Baldwin, our charity wouldn't be able to help as many clients as we do. No one is as loving and giving as he."

The words went straight to her heart. [I want more hints as to why. Not all of it has to be revealed, but I don’t understand why she’s so angry] She squeezed her hands so tightly her fingernails dug into her palms.

No! Don't!

She unclenched her hands. She focused on something harmless, like she was taught. [curious who taught her. Is this an allude to therapy?] From the window of her home office, she watched a squirrel dig under a tree. After many minutes, she checked her pulse. It still beat too fast.

She needed to calm down.

But she didn't want to calm down.

She wanted to do some damage.

"I dare you, Jenny," Marcus' smug smile said from the photo.

It was as though the words were whispered in her ear.

The Question:

1. Do you think version is too abrupt for a domestic suspense?


I don’t think so. It starts when Jenny is triggered to seek the revenge she’d only been planning to ease her pain. That feels like a good place to start, as readers can see this man has done Jenny wrong and she’s not at all happy about it.

What I think it lacks (readers chime in here), is a little context and a few necessary details. I don’t have quite enough yet to understand the situation. I’m also not 100% sure if Jenny is the protagonist, or the crazy woman who’s going to go after Marcus and Eva. I’m pretty sure it’s Jenny, but with suspense, sometimes we see a snippet from the antagonist’s side before things get wild. If I knew Marcus and Eva were the bad guys right away, I’d know Jenny was the one to root for, even if she’s planning revenge.

I think adding a few more lines of internalization can help clarify the fuzzy parts, especially if they’re in the first few paragraphs. That would help set the scene and position Jenny as the protagonist and hero of this tale (unless she isn’t, then it’ll set the scene for her as the bad guy).

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

I don’t think it’s too leisurely, and there are some nice hints of larger issues here that keep things moving, such as:
  • Marcus possibly having an affair with Eva, or leaving Jenny for her
  • Jenny maybe being in therapy
  • Jenny being involved in why the charity is successful
  • Jenny being a little unstable emotionally
All of these things make me curious to know what’s going on with these people and what happened, as well as what Jenny did/will do.

What isn’t clear to me yet, is when the revenge actually took/takes place. It starts retrospective, and suggests she'd actually had gone through with the revenge, yet I suspect what the first two lines are saying is that she hadn’t intended to do it, yet this thing in the paper makes her decide to actually do it right then. You might consider adding a few words to make it clear she has been planning revenge as a coping mechanism, but now she’s going to put than plan into action. I think right after she lays the paper flat on the table is a good spot to have her make that decision. For example:
She never meant to go through with her revenge. Planning it was just a way to help ease her anger and pain. Until she opened the Living Section of the newspaper, and a mini-headline halfway down page two ignited a whole new round of hate—"Marcus Baldwin Honored at Gala."
Jenny Holland laid the paper flat on her work table. Oh, it was absolutely time to stop planning and start doing.
A transitional line like this can show she’s making the choice to seek revenge right now.

(Here’s more on Wait...What? Putting Things in the Proper Context)

Overall, it piqued my interest, and I'm curious to see what Jenny does and what the history is between these three. I think a little more fleshing out will get it where you want it. Just a sprinkling of details--you don't need to add a ton. It's dropping some good hints, but I feel the reason she's so mad ought to be more clear so readers understand how Jenny fits into the picture and why she's justified in planning revenge (or not, if she is indeed the bad guy).

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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5 comments:

  1. I liked this a lot. Not too abrupt and with plenty of hints of what is to come. A way to clarify the first sentence may be to add an after thought - She never planned to go ahead with her revenge, but today's news might change that. (just an idea).

    I'm assuming there is something beyond the photos that is triggering this response - perhaps something to do with the charity and his intentions. I would hope to see more than just a happy photo of her ex stirring these emotions.

    While you don't want to throw too much backstory here, a hint as to what the issue is might help - it's there with the other girl maybe one word here - home wrecker...?

    Writing is clean, crisp. Good voice. I look forward to seeing more.

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  2. What Janice said.

    This isn't too slow at all, it's a dagger of threat pointing straight toward where the story can go. With the first sentence centered on "revenge" and Jenny's back and forth about whether to go through with it, this has all the energy it needs.

    (I agree, you do want to tweak the first sentence or the words after it so they don't sound so much like she's already taken that revenge-- or is clearer that she has.)

    Context would add to this. Right now Jenny could be sixteen or sixty, and she could be Baldwin's neighbor or on the other side of the world (if the gala got a mention in an international paper). That kind of limited view is okay for a page or so, and you say this is the whole scene, but even with it this short we'd probably be happier having a bit more sense of who she is. If it were a more standard scene length, it would need to show us more about her, and then even an intense first page like this would be more natural if some of that context seeped into it.

    The big question of course is what Baldwin actually did, and if it's that horrible or if Jenny is an unhinged stalker. A mini-scene like this could leave it a complete mystery, or just a fraction more detail about his "crime" to get us hooked more. (That works especially well if the protagonist won't be Jenny or Baldwin, but Eva Thomas or someone else in a position to watch them both spill their secrets and decide who's worse.) Or, the longer this scene were to run and the more Jenny's the hero, the more natural it is to tell us what happened and build suspense with that. Or if you want more hints that Jenny's dangerous, give a glimpse of her living in a run-down place or driving away the people in her life as proof that her mind is collapsing-- or more unnerving yet, that she's living an elegant life with a well-hidden psychotic streak underneath it that's about to tear loose.

    You bypass one problem with opening with such a unique glimpse of a character, how readers might have thought you were keeping them away from the protagonist at first (a common problem with prologues). Here it's fine because Jenny's rage is so exciting and it's over so soon, the reader can accept it's just a teaser before settling in with another character, if that's what you do. (Or if the back cover made it clear Jenny's the protagonist, this is simply a strong start.)

    I don't think it's too abrupt at all, and I think it probably works better at this length than many ways of building the scene out longer. It would still work better with more hints of who Jenny is, but maybe not many. And the real question is how it flows into the scenes and the book to come-- but it does its job on making sure we'll read those.

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  3. Anonymous10:01 PM EDT

    Is Domestic Suspense a genre? Never heard it before. Someone...please explain.

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  4. It's definitely not too slow - I think the pace is good, and it asks a lot of questions, which is a great way to start. I'd definitely want to keep reading.

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  5. I think this is a excellent way to start your story. Janice is right. You need to expand it more. Still, this scene has captured all of my interest.

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