From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, May 23

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Suspense Novel's Opening Page

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 20.

This week’s question:

Is this opening page working?

Market/Genre: Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This is book two of a trilogy

New Haven, Connecticut
Spring 1941


“Hello?” I inhaled and twisted the stiff telephone cord around my wrist.

“Rosie? I can’t believe it’s really you.”

My heart pounded as Alice’s happy voice came through the line. Her voice was so clear—she could’ve been standing right next to me. Oh, if only that were true. “I know. After Father and I spent Thanksgiving with you, I didn’t think we’d ever talk again.” A sigh of relief escaped my lips. “You sound the same.”

Alice laughed. “Did you think I’d sound different?”

I giggled. With my back pressed against the inside of the phone booth, I pictured the girl I’d met two years ago. This moment superseded the many memories and letters we’d exchanged.

A prankster in a white T-shirt with a cigarette pack rolled in his sleeve rapped on the glass.

I opened the door and glared at him. He was cool all right, with slick dark hair dipping across his forehead.

“Hey, kid. How long you gonna be? I gotta call my mother.” His cheeks puffed with air and he snorted. He strutted back to the soda fountain where his friends applauded him, howling with laughter.

I leaned out of the booth, thrust my tongue at them, and faced the telephone mounted on the wall. “Ugh.”

“Who was that?” Alice asked. “He sounded angry.”

“One of the village idiots thinks he’s keen, but he’s all wet. Since they opened this pharmacy kids from college, as well as the dropouts, hang out here. The pharmacy has an indoor telephone booth, and it’s always occupied. Guess I got lucky today.”

“I know. Same here. After our last failed attempt, I begged the soda jerk to save me a place in line.”

“The soda jerk, eh?”

Alice chuckled. “Oh, Rosie. He’s just a friend from school.”

“Do tell.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

New Haven, Connecticut
Spring 1941


“Hello?” I inhaled and twisted the stiff telephone cord around my wrist.

“Rosie? I can’t believe it’s really you.”

My heart pounded as Alice’s happy voice came through the line. Her voice was so clear—she could’ve been standing right next to me. Oh, if only that were true. “I know. After Father and I spent Thanksgiving with you, I didn’t think we’d ever talk again.” A sigh of relief escaped my lips. “You sound the same.”

Alice laughed. “Did you think I’d sound different?”

I giggled. With my back pressed against the [inside of the phone booth,] I thought she was home, so this is a surprise I pictured the girl I’d met two years ago. This moment superseded the many memories and letters we’d exchanged.

[A prankster in a white T-shirt with a cigarette pack rolled in his sleeve rapped on the glass.] Since she just mentioned memories, I thought this was one of those memories at first.

[I opened the door and glared at him.] Why open the door if she can glare through the glass? He was cool all right, with slick dark hair dipping across his forehead.

“Hey, kid. How long you gonna be? I gotta call my mother.” His cheeks puffed [with air] and [he snorted.] Not sure this combo is possible. One is an exhale and the other inhale [He strutted back to the soda fountain where his friends applauded him, howling with laughter.] This paragraph is a little confusing. He comes over, asks a question, but never waits for an answer before leaving. Where are his friends? There’s a lot of focus on it, so I feel like it matters somehow. 

I leaned out of the booth, thrust my tongue at them, and faced the telephone mounted on the wall. “Ugh.”

“Who was that?” Alice asked. “He sounded angry.”

“One of the village idiots thinks he’s keen, but he’s all wet. [Since they opened this pharmacy kids from college, as well as the dropouts, hang out here. The pharmacy has an indoor telephone booth, and it’s always occupied. Guess I got lucky today.”] This is the setting for the scene, so perhaps work this information in earlier. It’s been a white room up until now, and this grounds the scene and lets me know where I am. This also feels a tad infodumpy through dialogue as well.
“I know. Same here. After our last failed attempt, I begged the soda jerk to save me a place in line.”

[“The soda jerk, eh?”] I wanted a bit more sense of how she says this since it makes Alice chuckle. would also show some of her personality

Alice chuckled. “Oh, Rosie. He’s just a friend from school.”

“Do tell.”

The Question:

1. Is this opening page working?


Mostly, yes (readers chime in). There’s no immediate hook, but there’s a sense that the kid might cause trouble, or that Alice might have an interesting story about the soda jerk. Two friends trying to connect and not always being able to lays some potential groundwork for a suspense novel, and provides reason to act if Alice suddenly goes missing (guessing wildly here since all I know is this is suspense).

There’s nothing here that makes me not want to read on a few more pages to see how it unfolds, but there’s also nothing that does, either. It might be relying on book one to draw readers in. You might consider just a touch more tension or a sense of a goal beyond two girls catching up.

(Here’s more on Hooking Your Reader in 3 Easy Steps)

What feels weak right now, is the setting. It starts off twirling a phone cord, which makes me think Rosie is sitting in her room or house. Then she mentions the phone booth, which makes me think glass and steel boxes on the street. Then she says she inside a pharmacy with people all around. What I imagined as the setting changed too often too fast, which pulled focus off the story and onto trying to figure out where I was and getting the image clear in my head.

Easily fixed though, if you just bring up a lot of the pharmacy paragraph to the opening and use it to ground the scene. Maybe Rosie’s first thoughts are being lucky to nab the booth before the others got there, or seeing the booth open and grabbing it as the other guy was walking toward it. Establish where she is first, and her eagerness to talk to Alice. Perhaps drop in a few more setting details so readers can get a better feel for the soda shop in a college town.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

As the second book of a trilogy, your readers are going to bring a lot of knowledge to this that first readers won’t have. They’ll know the characters and where the last book left off, and will already be on board as this story opens. But if it’s been a while since they read it (likely if the read book one and then waited for two to come out) you still want to leave enough hints and clues to remind them who these characters are.

Be wary of summarizing too much, though. I suspect the “memories” section refers to book one (guessing here), and if so, that’s a nice way to slip that info in without bogging down the story. It’s a quick reminder ow these two know each other and what may have happened last time, but it doesn't stop the story to rehash anything.

(Here’s more on Do E-Readers Put Unfair Pressure on First Chapters?)

Overall, this would hold my attention for a little longer, but it could be stronger with a few tweaks. If this wasn’t suspense, a slower opening might work fine, but suspense novels typically have a hook right away and higher tension early on.

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. 
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for this crit, Janice! Good to see what is/isn't working!! Your help is invaluable!! Many thanks! And Happy Memorial Day! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Most welcome. Glad you found it helpful :) Thanks. You, too!

      Delete
  2. Like Janice said, a better hook plus a clearer setting.

    There's a lot of divided opinion about how much of a hook a story needs, or if enough readers start a trilogy in the middle that a writer needs to fill people in at all. I think it's just good craft to begin *any* story with some energy and a firm sense of where it's going... and I just don't see much tension here yet. And this is a suspense story.

    If there's something important these girls need to talk about, I'd like to see that hinted at from the start. Is "I didn't think we'd ever talk again" supposed to mean there are real barriers or issues between them? It could be just a few words in Rosie's thoughts that hang over the rest, or something Alice says. Or if something's going to happen around Rosie (though I doubt it's that punk in line), drop immediate hints that that's possible. The scene can still use most of its space being sweet, but we want some kind of other shoe about to drop. That sense could be ominous, mysterious, or even eager and hopeful for now, as long as it's strong enough that a hint of it energizes the early page or two.

    And it should point to where the story's going -- if it *is* something eager and hopeful, in a suspense story that could only be there because it's about to be yanked away. If it's a threat or danger, be sure it's the right threat.

    For the setting, you want to think about what are the broadest strokes that could paint this picture. If you only said "phone booth" and some hint that there's noise outside it, the moment you mentioned those we'd understand enough to be mostly on board. (The sound is important: it captures what Rosie's aware of around her in spite of focusing on the call, and it makes the vital point that she's not alone.) Once those are established, you can trickle in more details at any rate you want.

    In some stories a character like this would take more time to glance around her, or notice the feel of the phone receiver or the smell of the phone booth. In this case it makes sense Rosie is concentrating on the call and skips those, and the kid outside makes her and us notice them. You might even have Rosie completely distracted by the phone, so that the whole outside world comes crashing into our awareness at once when it gets her attention back -- but that's probably more extreme than you want.

    All of this texture is appealing, yes. But what suspense readers want more than anything is an immediate promise that you'll use your material well. And even after reading Book 1, they want an instant reminder of how good you are. Whatever else happens here, what can you do to make that promise?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Ken, for your comments. I'm on vacation now, but am excited to get into your suggestions! Many thanks!! :)

      Delete
  3. Both Alice and the POV character are at phone booths? The POV character in a pharmacy, Alice at a soda fountain. Apparently we're to believe that they got lucky and were able to get both phones at the same exact time? How did one know when and where to call the other? One of them needs to be at their home...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for pointing that out, Brian! I'm gonna have to work on that one... Many thanks for your time and suggestion!! :)

      Delete
  4. Is this opening page working?
    I would be willing to read a few more pages to try and figure out what’s going on.

    Please note, things I raise in my comments below may all be resolved by the answer “that’s answered in the first book.” But I think it’s also helpful to keep in mind there may be a long time lag between the time a reader reads book 1 and book 2—it’s something like 18 months to publish a book? Plus typically, each book in a series is intended to be a stand-alone story, so a bit of explanation in subsequent books may still be needed for clarity.

    The main thing I struggled with:
    Why was it so hard for them to talk on the phone? This is 1941 so WWII is going on, but it’s also Connecticut. Perhaps it’s the conflicting imagery—you have a guy with a cigarette pack rolled up in his sleeve, which gives the reader images of the 1950’s and cruising the boulevard—but if you’re trying to express the difficulty of accessing a phone during a war-time environment, it may be wise to bring those bits of mental imagery into alignment so we can understand why it’s a big deal for these two to be shooting the breeze (for it does read as a very casual conversation—previous meetings and letters are mentioned—but I assume those are deeper than the casual conversation the reader sees here.) If a reader is picking up a suspense book, they read the opening page expecting to find some hint of trouble.

    Also, even though on 2nd read through I realized you identified both characters by name, indicating both were female, on first read, as paragraphs went on I was confused about POV character’s gender, mainly because I was confused about imagery and the nature of the dialogue (i.e. phone booth occupant sticking their tongue out at the gang of guys—which implies it is a fellow who is one of them. But then in another paragraph, POV character giggled, etc.

    Paragraph 1:
    Knowing this is 1941 and the limits of technology at that time (i.e. no caller ID), I was confused by the “inhaled and twisted the…..cord…” bit when she answers the home phone. This implies that the person answering the phone knows who is calling and anticipates trouble. If POV character doesn’t know who’s calling (and maybe she does due to stuff I haven’t read in the first story), why are stress signals like inhaling and twisting the phone cord used here? And the subsequent conversation doesn’t really imply stress.

    First I was confused thinking Rosie was answering a call at home. But if she was answering a call at a pharmacy phone booth, they had to pre-plan it (or Rosie has the greatest luck ever of strolling by at just the moment Alice calls). Making this clear would give the start of this conversation intentionality and help give a sense of definitive purpose for the conversation—and would probably help segue into a bit more tension.

    Paragraph 3:
    Author is trying to convey the wonderment of getting to speak to Alice, but as a reader I still lack a sense of the ‘why’ talking on the phone is such a momentous occasion. A few cliché phrases to watch for down the road in editing.

    Paragraph #8
    “cheeks puffed with air and he snorted” – struggled with that visualization. Paragraph was confusing because I thought POV character was a member of the gang at first, hence the ribbing. Otherwise, I’m not clear why that paragraph is there because I’m not seeing the point of the snarky comment to a woman/girl.

    Thanks for submitting and best wishes on your writing adventures!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. Thank you for your comments. I'm on vacation now, but am excited to delve into your suggestions! Many thanks!! :)

      Delete
  5. After a first read, I was unsure about gender, but I take that hit, because, since it's dialogue, I zipped through it. If I had read the 1st book, this would not have been any kind of issue, as I would be aware of both characters.

    I got the cord reference immediately, but I'm 'old'. However, I assumed she was outside in a booth. In the 40s, pharmacies had phone booths (think of The Sting). This is an easy fix by maybe showing her looking out the glass door/window at the greaser, who maybe was eyeing her or had nodded at her. Creepy guys are creepy guys. Is he 'sposed to be an actual creepy guy? This contact with the creepy guy allows you to place the phone booth in the pharmacy.

    Unless the greaser becomes important to the story, I don't see why he's included. I would also do some research to see how creepy guys dressed in '41. As another reader commented, I went to the 50s from his description. 10 years makes a difference when you're using culture references.

    Rosie is obviously anxious about talking to Alice, and it's now springtime, we assume maybe April or May. That's a lotta months to past since some fiasco at Thanksgiving. If I've read the 1st book, I know all about this, and have probably also made a decision/judgement about whatever it was. Currently, the 'make-up' seems like Rosie was worried about nothing. I would suggest inserting some internal thought in that opening dialogue that cements us in Rosie's feelings. Perhaps: "Whew! She doesn't hate me!" You know best how she might express her feelings. This is also a great spot to let new and returning readers engage and re-engage with these two friends.

    Returning to creepy guy - is he of active duty age? This was a very real limit on every able-bodied young man then, so...is he not able-bodied? If he is to become a threat or part of the mystery, this is also your chance to give the reader something to chew on by making him creepier -- just enough to make readers tuck him away for the moment -- once curiosity is pricked.

    Good start here -- also, if I hadn't read the first book, this opening should make me want to do so.

    Good luck and thanks for submitting! (p.s.-ignore typos pls - speeding through this comment)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you for your comments. I'm on vacation now, but am excited to get unpack your suggestions! Many thanks!! :)

    ReplyDelete