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

Saturday, June 6

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Romantic Suspense Opening

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 27.

This week’s questions:

1. What writing aspects are most needed to add/delete from this scene? (i.e. More showing, more intriguing issue/problem to start, action, pacing, clearer storyline? etc.)

2. What does/doesn’t work with this scene?

3. Should the stakes be higher for these first 217 words?

Market/Genre: Christian Romantic Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: Moana is hoping a new interior design position will work out for her. Set in Maui.

Moana’s embarked on her long-awaited chance today. It must work out for her. Under an ominous sky, she rushed across the Wailea hotel parking lot, entered the building and stepped into the office on the right side of the hall as instructed.

Muscles taut, she smoothed her pale, blue skirt and faced the receptionist. “I’m Moana Hudson, here for a meeting with Carter Stone.”

The young, dark-haired receptionist stood. “Please follow me.”

First impressions meant a lot, especially since she had a thirty-day probationary period to prove herself for the position. Moana drew in a deep breath as the receptionist led her into architect Carter Stone’s office.

“Mr. Stone, this is Miss Hudson.” The receptionist left the room.

He stood. The tall, handsome man captivated her for a second. Was it his dark blond hair combed perfectly in place, or the cobalt blue eyes which might’ve sensed her unease?

Carter extended a hand. “Welcome. Please have a seat, Miss Hudson.”

His kind demeanor eased the tension in her neck as she sat in the leather chair in front of his desk.

“Thank you. I’m glad to be here.” Too desperate?

With no past job experience, if she didn’t do well in this position it could affect her future career, to say nothing of her dwindling financial situation.

(other text not shown—submitter also wants to know if this next paragraph should come sooner. She is on the phone with a friend, waiting in the office for her meeting here.)

“Moana, do you think you could volunteer some clerical work with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs? There were some unfair actions against Hawaiian lands and some of the board have decided to check it out, making the office short of staff here. Guess there were some unknown threats against the OHA peaceful protests on site.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

[[Moana’s] This name brings to mind the Disney character. Is that an association you want? Also, you don’t need the ’s embarked on her long-awaited chance today. It must work out for her.] This opening bit feels like an explanation that sets up the scene, not the scene [Under an ominous sky, [she] Moana rushed across the Wailea hotel parking lot, entered the building and stepped into the office on the right side of the hall as instructed.] I’d suggest starting here and fleshing out a few details to establish the scene

Muscles taut, she smoothed her pale, blue skirt and faced the receptionist. “I’m Moana Hudson, here for a meeting with Carter Stone.”

The young, dark-haired receptionist stood. “Please follow me.”

[First impressions meant a lot, especially since she had a thirty-day probationary period to prove herself for the position.] There’s nothing to trigger this thought, so perhaps move it to right after she smooths her skirt, suggesting that’s why she does it Moana drew in a deep breath as the receptionist led her into architect Carter Stone’s office.

“Mr. Stone, [this is Miss Hudson.”] perhaps “Miss Hudson is here” or the like? Just saying who she is and nothing more felt off to me. Also, if you cut Mr. Stone here, you can use his name next paragraph and pair his name and his description more tightly for readers The receptionist left the room.

He stood. The tall, handsome man captivated her for a second. Was it his dark blond hair combed perfectly in place, or the cobalt blue eyes which might’ve sensed her unease?

Carter extended a hand. “Welcome. Please have a seat, [Miss Hudson.”] Perhaps cut since her name has been used multiple times already

His [kind demeanor] What is this specifically? He’s been polite, but how is he exhibiting kindness? eased the tension in her neck as she sat in the leather chair in front of his desk.

“Thank you. I’m glad to be here.” [Too desperate?] I like this thought, as it suggests she is desperate, but her words don’t sound desperate to me. Perhaps give them a touch more “desperation” so her worry is justified

With no past job experience, if she didn’t do well in this [position] I’m confused. This feels like a job interview to me, but this suggests it’s her first day at a new job. If so, make that more clear it could affect her future career, to say nothing of [her dwindling financial situation.] This lets me know her problem. However, her finances are dwindling, not her financial situation. 

(other text not shown—submitter also wants to know if this next paragraph should come sooner. She is on the phone with a friend, waiting in the office for her meeting here.)

“Moana, do you think you could volunteer some clerical work with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs? There were some unfair actions against Hawaiian lands and some of the board have decided to check it out, making the office short of staff here. Guess there were some unknown threats against the OHA peaceful protests on site.”

The Questions:

1. What writing aspects are most needed to add/delete from this scene? (i.e. More showing, more intriguing issue/problem to start, action, pacing, clearer storyline? etc.)

It feels a bit sparse to me overall. I wanted more relevant information from Moana to help me understand her and the problem she’s facing. For example, I know generally what shade hair the receptionist has, the color of Moana’s skirt, what Carter Stone and his office chair looks like, but not how Moana is feeling. I don’t even know this is her first day versus a job interview. The details are general, so they don’t give me a good sense of what the characters and setting look like. This is Maui, so the setting is amazing, yet there’s no sense of that at all yet.

(Here’s more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page) 

I liked the bits of nervous internalization, since they let me know she was nervous, and I’d love to see more of that. That helped me connect with Moana and get a sense of what her problem was—money trouble, new job, and an attraction to her boss. This all works to establish the goals, conflict, and stakes of the situation. I assume the problems of the novel with come from these elements.

The characters felt a bit stiff, since they offered small talk and nothing personal. Anyone could have said those lines, not these characters in this story. Perhaps look for ways to add a little personality to them. For example, if this is Moana’s first day, maybe the receptionist is friendlier, or welcomes her to the company, or offers a helpful tidbit or something. Maybe she even remarks on Moana’s name.

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

The name Moana is going to bring up comparisons to the Disney character in some readers (especially those with kids). Any time you a name of a well-known character, that’s what people are going to picture first. Unless you’re goal is the Disney comparison, perhaps consider less-known name.

I’d also suggest clarifying the situation. For example, from the way she was acting and thinking, I thought this was a job interview, not her first day at a new job. I’m still not 100% sure what’s going on since she mentions first impressions, and she’d have met these people already if she was starting a new job. Also, nowhere in this does it say she’s there for an interior design position, nor does she notice setting details that show she has a designer’s eye. This character can legitimately comment on decor and have it feels natural, so take advantage of that (grin).

(Here’s more on 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene) 

2. What does/doesn’t work with this scene?

A young woman with financial troubles starting work/interviewing at a new job where she’ll run into trouble is a solid setup. However, I don’t know what her job at an architectural firm has to do with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. If that’s where the threat comes from (I assume Moana discovers something there), why does this story start with her new job?

I imagine that’s where the romance part of this comes in, as she’s clearly attracted to Carter Stone. The “meet cute” is an essential part of every romance. However, this is a general meeting, so if this is the meet cute, it’s not working as is yet. Writer Unboxed wrote a good article about the science behind the meet cute if you wanted to looking into this more.

(Here’s more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene) 

3. Should the stakes be higher for these first 217 words?

No, since I know she has money troubles, so I can see where the problem will likely come from. But the trouble here isn’t that the stakes aren’t in the first 217 words, but that I see no stakes at all. If this were an interview, her not getting the job she needs is the consequence for failure. But if she has the job, so there’s nothing immediately at risk.

There’s also no conflict, and nothing driving the plot forward. It’s a woman at a a new job. She needs money, which is good to show some potential problems, but the only issue I see her worrying about is making a good first impression. Except if she already has the job, this isn’t a first impression. She must have interviewed with them already, and they’ve met her. And if she doesn't...so what? She has the job. If she doesn't, then maybe that can hurt her.

There’s potential for strong conflict and stakes here, but it’s not coming across yet.

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running) 

4. Should the last paragraph be added sooner?

Hard to say without reading more of the story. You said this conversation could happen before she goes to this meeting. But if this conversation and issue with OHA is where the threat is, then why is the first page about her starting her new job? An opening scene’s job is to set the stage and establish the story. In this case, it’s about introducing Moana to readers and showing them her problem, her goals, and a hint of how that might go wrong. What’s her problem, her goal, and how might it go wrong (in her eyes, not the reality)?

I’m going to take a step back and ask what this story is about. This opening creates a situation where readers are going to expect the “suspense” conflict of the book to come from her new job and her financial troubles. But the conversation about the OHA suggests the conflict comes from there.

If the new job leads her to the OHA threat, and that gets her into some kind of conflict that puts her life in danger (the key aspect of a suspense), and Moana and Carter will work together to resolve it while falling in love, then no, you don’t need to move that threat conversation up. That sounds like the inciting event or the catalyst that gets Moana to the inciting event, and that can come anywhere in the first thirty pages. But based solely on what was submitted, it doesn’t look like the job has anything to do with the threat.

If so, and the new job has nothing to do with the OHA threat, then this feels like the wrong opening. It’s not about her new job and handsome boss, but the OHA problem. She might be working at a new job, and maybe having lunch with her friend and they have this conversation, but the focus in the opening scene probably won’t be on “Moana needs to make a good first impression because she needs this job and the paycheck.”

Since this is romantic suspense, I suspect she and Carter will develop a relationship, and then deal with this OHA threat together. If so, then perhaps the opening is about establishing Moana and Carter dancing around that boss/employee line. Maybe it’s their meet cute, and if so, perhaps an actual interview is a stronger opening. She needs the job, but she’s attracted to her boss and that might not be a good thing. She talks to her friend about it, and her friend asks her to do the OHA thing, and Moana is drawn into the problem there.

I’d suggest examining the story and looking carefully at how the two sides come together, and if one builds on the other. Does her job affect the OHA issue, or is it just where she meets the love interest? If it’s just for the love interest, then perhaps she’s working at the job and Carter is new. That allows for a meeting and an opportunity for that romantic spark.

Overall, my instincts say something is out of whack, but I don’t know enough about the story to say what. It’s possible the two sides line up perfectly and that just isn’t clear from these samples (that’s the downside of asking for advice based on a small snippet of the text). It’s also possible the two problems (the romance and the suspense) are separate stories and don’t have a strong enough connection yet. I can’t say which is which without knowing a lot more about the story.

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. Sasha Anderson6/06/2020 1:00 PM

    My first impression was that it reminded me pretty strongly of Fifty Shades - scared new girl walks into office of attractive powerful man. But I don't read much romance, so perhaps this is a common opening and wouldn't have that specific association for your readers?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Like Janice said, you want to be sure what the story's focus is. If it's "romantic suspense," that might mean some combination of Moana's feelings for Carter and some exterior problem like the OHA's. Or it might be something else, though these look like the main candidates.

    --And if they are, they do sound like a good mix for a story like this. Nicely chosen.

    Once you have that in mind, you really do need to make it clear from the first line what Moana has at stake here. That's by far the best way to make the reader care in a hurry, and that gives you time to get the rest of the story in place. It might begin with a specific reason she needs the job. (Hopefully something that gives us an immediate sense of it; don't just say maybe "to support her little sister" when you can show Moana taking a last look at her sister's cute drawing and vow she'll get the job to pay for her art lessons.) Then you can build the rest of the scene around everything helping or hurting Moana with the job, including her attraction to Carter and dealing with the OHA. The job or whatever is probably just a starter goal that expands into the other goals, or it'll be conflicted with them ("The OHA really needs my help, but it could cost me the job I mustn't lose!"), but it needs to feel like the one goal really could be connected to the others.

    One thing to think about is how you prefer to use detail. It's harder to make a story work when you put something like her needing the job as just a summary in the first line, but some writers use a quick line there and fill in detail in other places. Or, her reaction to Carter says she's "captivated" and then examines the things that are impressive about him -- I like putting it in that order, but I wonder if something more personal like "she couldn't look away" would be stronger than summing it up with "captivated." Or, when she smoothes her skirt and you describe it: that's a good use of a moment when she's paying attention to the skirt (clumsier writers would mention it out of the blue as she walks), but you might add a few words about why the moment of smoothing it means something to her, maybe because it's the last tweak she does to be sure she's perfectly set up, or how it's her lucky outfit.

    Just how much description to use and how to do it is personal for a writer. You may want to look at different books that work for you and build your sense of how different authors cover things and make it work. Especially, you might try reading their work aloud, and then your own -- that's a powerful, easy way to see what flows, word by word.

    I agree about the name Moana. Even if it's a common Hawaiian name now (not sure if it is), it's just risky to match a Disney character, at least a recent one. (If you'd done a story about an "Ariel" it would be less iffy.) The problem with distractions like that name is that the more random and unfair they are, the more they hurt the story anyway.

    It looks like you have the basic elements of a promising story here. How do you want to bring it to life?

    ReplyDelete
  3. (Comment 1 of 2)

    Overall:

    Thanks, brave author, for submitting. As this website states, it not only helps the submitting author, but all of us too because we all learn by the experience of reviewing other work.

    Your questions:
    1. What writing aspects to add/delete (please see subsequent comments below)
    2. What does/doesn’t work (also please see below)
    3. Should the stakes be higher? Yes—or at least clearer. See below.

    Key Points:
    1. Confusing first scene
    2. Tension not yet established
    3. Interest in the character(s) not established yet
    4. Eliminate content that doesn’t move it forward

    CONFUSION:
    My main reaction to the scene was confusion. For several reasons. Please note, I have never been to Hawaii so some of the things that *seem* odd to me may be quite normal:

    1. An architect has offices inside a hotel? Whether you mean an independent architectural firm or one who works for a hotel chain, it just seems odd that an architectural firm would have offices inside a hotel (but maybe they do things differently on the islands, I don’t know.). Not that I travel much, but space is premium in a hotel and consumed with lobby, restaurants, perhaps a shop or two, etc. I’ve not personally seen other non-connected businesses housed in a hotel.

    2. If I’m reading correctly, this is not a job interview, but her first day of work. The way this first scene reads, it appears she has never laid eyes on Carter Stone before. But in an architectural firm, where I don’t picture there being a ton of employees, it doesn’t seem realistic that he had not interviewed her at some point in the pre-hire process so the first meet didn’t ring true. I suppose if interior designers work through temp agencies, it may be reasonable to expect she’s never met her employer.

    3. I have never experienced a 30 day probationary period on a job. Everywhere I have worked it has always been a 90 day probationary period. 30 days doesn’t seem realistic (but maybe it’s common) because a new employee is just barely having a chance to settle into a job in the first 30 days.

    4. I was really confused by the paragraph about OHA at the bottom of the submission. First, she’s coming to start her first day with Carter Stone as an interior designer, then this paragraph talks about her doing clerical work. I’m just baffled.

    LACK OF TENSION:
    Yes, to a basic degree, it is conveyed to the reader that Moana really needs this interior design job to work out. But I would argue that unless a person is financially independent, that would be a basic feeling of anyone starting a new job, so I’m not sure her needing the job to play out really gives the tension the firepower it needs. I’m unclear what the story problem is & of course you don’t want to give away too much on the first page, but see comment below on characterization that might at least raise the personal stakes for Moana.

    Speaking of tension:
    While the previous paragraphs lacked much tension, the nugget of the idea in the paragraph that was at the very bottom of the submission has GREAT potential for tension, even though as currently written, it is quite unclear. I don’t know what the author intended with the last paragraph, but my mind started jumping at possibilities---I was thinking, what if a scene started with this character doing clerical work in an office while there are protestors outside and perhaps conflicted or arguing board members inside? And all the while this goes on, she’s thinking about being in financial dire straits and that she needs to unload the volunteer clerical work and find a paying job. That starts with tension.

    (see comment 2 of 2 for the rest)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Comment 2 of 2

    CAN’T YET ROOT FOR THE CHARACTER:
    In general, the characters come a bit dryly right now. Moana, the receptionist, Stone. Right now it is all “how’s the weather” type conversation.

    Moana has not yet grabbed me. As discussed above, wanting her job to work out is no different than anybody else so it doesn’t really set her apart. However, what if you went deeper into her POV & included some dialogue or interior monologue to make her AND her anxiety more real to the reader?

    For example, show her being more flustered as she hurries across the parking lot with her purse & briefcase. Maybe she’s thinking along the lines of, for example, ‘this job has to work out because my roommate is ready to throw me out as it is and I cannot afford rent on my own in Maui.” She could also be questioning herself with things like “I can’t remember—was their office on the right or on the left?” etc.

    ELIMINATE WHAT DOESN’T MOVE THINGS FORWARD:
    There is opportunity in this scene to eliminate some things and tighten other areas to give you the most bang for your buck. Some examples:

    Paragraph 1:
    Moana’s embarked on her long-awaited chance today. It must work out for her. Under an ominous sky, she rushed across the Wailea hotel parking lot, entered the building and stepped into the office on the right side of the hall as instructed.
    (Ominous skies are often used in fiction. Not sure it lends power to this paragraph. Likewise, the first sentence, since we don’t know Moana, doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the opening paragraph. Reader still feels they’re on the outside looking in---get in Moana’s head.

    Paragraph 2
    Muscles taut, (very vague. We have lots of muscles so it really doesn’t convey anything. Choose the best word choice for the tension of the moment rather than generalities. she smoothed her pale, blue skirt and faced the receptionist. “I’m Moana Hudson, here for a meeting with Carter Stone.” (okay, wait, on re-read, I’m more confused—is he her EMPLOYER or her first client?)

    Paragraph 5
    “Mr. Stone, this is Miss Hudson.” The receptionist left the room. (Abrupt. Since the receptionist seems to have no real role in this scene, do we even need to take up space with the dialogue?)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to help me.

      Delete
  5. You have excellent advice and pointers from Janice and perceptive comments by others. I'll chip in my two cents worth, as you have a good premise going...

    >I want to see the financial difficulties shown, as in she's sprinting from the bus stop across the street, knowing she has bare minutes to spare for her interview appointment. If only she still had a car, or could afford a cab or Uber even -- anything faster than the bus!
    Her need for a job is obvious, when she can only afford public transportation.
    >The receptionist can be described through her reaction to Moana's entrance. Is she huffing from running? Is it hot and her body is now a bit 'dewy'? Does the receptionist look at the clock, her watch - judgement oozing from her gaze? :O)
    >Love the smoothing of the skirt -- the gesture of cool/calm. What shoes is she wearing? Do we have a chance at a quirk here? Perhaps she always wears simple, white tennies?
    >Once arrived, she can be seated for a moment, perhaps the receptionist isn't a bad person, and so she leaves for a few minutes to let Moana cool off (literally). This also is a chance to show her nervousness, maybe some scolding or cheerleading self-talk, and then touch on the phone call she had gotten on the bus, the one from her friend at OHA. Keep this simple -- she considers the extra hours for a moment, but then has to wonder about her friends talk of threats made against OHA about the peaceful protests. At this point, you could have her fill in some info that clarifies that the protests have been going on without problems or her speculations about how serious the threats were, considering what she did or didn't know about the situation. In the midst of her thoughts, the receptionist returns and takes her to Carter Stone, hunkman.
    >I wanted to see internal thoughts about Carter, when she meets him. I also wanted some physical reaction from her, like maybe she's blushing or maybe she's still a little warm and worries that her flushed cheeks might be mistaken for blushing.
    > [sigh] Of course Carter is blonde and blue-eyed... I was a bit disappointed, hoping the setting of the Big Island would give the opportunity for more diverse characters. Moana is not described, so we only have her name to infer that she's a native Hawaiian. This isn't a criticism of character choice, just an observation. I can easily envision both these characters as native Hawaiians, who happen to have connections to OHA from different angles. Moana through her friend and the potential temp hours, and Carter through an architectural project(s) or, perhaps, a friend also.
    All this would require identifying the threads that weave the meet cute Janice speaks of...the tiny things that strengthen the goose bumps at the time, and when thought of later.

    Lots of fun things to play with here and some great guidance. Experiment and don't be afraid to be bold or unusual, this can give your characters more to play off of. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, in my haste, I forgot hard returns to give paragraphs breaks... my apologies! :O))

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the helpful advice, Maria.

      Delete
  6. Many thanks to Janice and the critiques! This has helped me so much.

    ReplyDelete