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Saturday, November 14

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at First-Page Hooks in a Mystery

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through November 21.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the beginning scene hook the reader?

2. Am I telling instead of showing?

Market/Genre: Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This is a novella about an alcoholic attorney who denies he has a problem with alcohol, though his practice in non-existent. He takes on a murder case to save his practice and to prove to his critics he still can work as an attorney. His client is the wife of a judge. She is accused of murdering her assistant who threatened to reveal a damaging secret.

The sound of the pounding gavel and my name being screamed jarred me awake. I would have still been asleep, but I tend to snore.

"In my chambers, Mr. Stone!" Judge Anderson said.

On my way to receive my punishment, I thought I heard the defense snicker at me. Unprofessional, yes. Though I would have reacted the same way if the situation were reversed.

Walking into the judge’s chambers reminded me of being in the principal's office for the first time. Judge Anderson's imposing presence behind his desk scared me. His eyes were focused. The look of an animal stalking its prey. That was the same look Principal Stevens had when I came into his office. I was seventeen with the smell of liquor on my breath. I wasn't smart enough to hide that fact with some mouthwash or mints. Now I'm older and smarter. At least I think I’m smarter.

"Sit, Mr. Stone," Judge Anderson said.

"Your honor. I want to apologize. I was up all night going over the case notes— "

"And you didn't get enough sleep?"

"I slept well. Why do you think I didn't get enough sleep?"

Judge Anderson's eyes narrowed. I heard my heartbeat slamming in my chest.

"Let's be honest, Mr. Stone. You're a good liar, but not today. You were asleep as the defense was presenting its case. Why is that?"

"Judge Anderson— "

"It's because you're still drunk from the night before. The strong smell of liquor has saturated my courtroom."

"I can explain your honor."

My Thoughts in Blue:

The sound of the pounding gavel and my name being screamed [shouted or bellowed might be better here, screamed infers the speaker is highly emotional] jarred me awake. I would have still been asleep, but I tend to snore. [this is confusing as an explanation – apparently, he was snoring and disrupted a proceeding. The circumstances are unknown, so Mr. Stone could be an attorney, a court clerk, a spectator, a bailiff, etc. Perhaps note ‘I tend to snore…’ first, then an observation could be made by the character that shows his anticipation of trouble from the snoring. You can also show his body language, does he wince? Does he do the eyes-wide-open thing?]

"In my chambers, Mr. Stone!" Judge Anderson said.

On my way to receive my punishment, [this infers he’s been in trouble before in this way, I’d rather see his reaction – sighing? Shoulders sagging? Shuffling gait? Adjusts his clothing?] I thought I heard the defense snicker [If you start with this, sans ‘I thought’, the environment is brought into the scene] at me. Unprofessional, yes. Though I would have reacted the same way if the situation were reversed. [you could tack on something like: ‘which it never would be’ to show that the situation would never be reversed, as no one else would be asleep in court.]

Walking into the judge’s chambers reminded me of being in the principal's office for the first time. Judge Anderson's imposing presence behind his desk scared me. His eyes were focused. [all eyes are focused, what do his eyes look like that makes them appear foreboding?] The look of an animal [‘predator’ would strengthen this idea] stalking its prey. The at was the same look Principal Stevens had when I came into his office. I was seventeen with the smell of liquor on my breath. I wasn't smart enough to hide that fact with some mouthwash or mints. Now I'm older and smarter. At least I think I’m smarter.

"Sit, Mr. Stone," Judge Anderson said.

"Your honor. I want to apologize. I was up all night going over the case notes— "

"And you didn't get enough sleep?"

"I slept well. Why do you think I didn't get enough sleep?"

Judge Anderson's eyes narrowed. I heard my heartbeat [our heartbeat is heard as an internal sound of the blood rushing in our ears. Our heartbeat is felt as a throbbing it in our neck and head usually – to hear slamming would be tough] slamming in my chest.

"Let's be honest, Mr. Stone. You're a good liar, but not today. You were asleep as the defense was presenting its case. Why is that?"

"Judge Anderson— "

"It's because you're still drunk from the [last] night before. The strong smell of liquor has saturated my courtroom."

"I can explain your honor."

The Questions:

1. Am I telling instead of showing? Does the beginning scene hook the reader?

I’m not hooked yet… (Readers chime in please!) This is mainly because I have no one to bond to in the scene. I have no reason to be sympathetic to, or much interested in, the snoring attorney.

Internal thought would help in this opening. A stronger description, from this character’s POV, of the judge yelling his name might help, as you could show his state of mind and/or physical status. A voice intruding on his just-captured state of slumber that roars through his eardrums and sounds like it came from the bowels of hell will give me a solid clue as to how he sees his world and how the voice affected him. 

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

You can give clues about this character and how the scene is happening to him by showing his movements and reactions. Part of this is accomplished by word choice. Bold words that force a sharp image can gain reader interest in a simple scene like this (as far as action goes).

Since we have little action happening, we need to take advantage of each character’s pacing within the scene.

Take the judge, who is angry (yelling and pounding gavel). You can have him move briskly to his chambers. You can emphasize this by showing elements that underline the drama of his movements. Perhaps he throws the gavel down, stomps down from his high seat, gown billowing. Perhaps he wears glasses and removes them with a flourish while ordering the attorney to chambers.

(Here's more on How to Subtly Boost Your Dialogue’s Power With Body Language)

On the other hand, the attorney, who has just been awakened and now faces a dressing down by the judge, might move more slowly – for several reasons (hung over, feeling ill, poor balance, in no hurry to be yelled at by the judge, fog brain) – and it’s up to you to illustrate those reasons and his emotional state by showing how he moves, his body language and expressions.

These two opposite rates of movement support opposing paces and can create tension. The slow attorney being waited on by the fuming judge. Perhaps the judge enters his chambers and paces behind his desk, the attorney can refer to this, as he’s been in trouble before and knows the judge paces until his ‘victim’ is in chambers, when he sits heavily in his big chair behind his enormous desk. Having this reflection as the attorney navigates his way to chambers could accomplish a number of things: showing that this trip is old hat to the attorney, that there is history between the two men, etc.

(Here’s more on And the Pace is On: Understanding and Controlling Your Pacing)

I’ll also mention that while a courtroom is an easy visual, I cannot ‘see’ the snoring attorney. Is he sitting with his head propped on his hand(s)? Is he sitting way back in his chair, chin tucked to chest? What happens when he wakes? Does he nearly fall from his chair? Does his head jerk up from his hand(s)?

Showing his reaction to the pounding gavel and his name being shouted helps to establish his current state of mind, as well as his personality. 

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

In the midst of all this, I wondered where his client was and what their reaction might be. Do they know their attorney is a drunk? Is he the only attorney they could afford? This could establish the fragile nature of the attorney’s professional life and shown with expressions or gestures.

I suggested putting the derisive laugh up front to open up the environment a bit, including other characters. This would also be where I would suggest incorporating any reference to his client and their reaction. The laugh reveals disrespect and also feeds the context that this has happened before, that other professionals regard him as a joke. This is something that allows me to have some feelings for this character.

I like the comparison between being called into chambers and to the principal’s office. It seems incomplete though, or perhaps the intent behind it is muddled a bit. Mostly, it appears this is just a reminder in context not emotion, so it’s tough to care much about it, except as a related memory of being a drunk as a teen – a life-not-changed thing. His conclusion is that he was stupid at seventeen and he hopes he’s smarter now, but doubts he is. 

(Here’s more on Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake)  

In the end, I have stronger feelings about the judge than the protagonist. I am speculating more about why the judge is as harsh as he is and is so angry. Is this just one of several times when this attorney has shown up still drunk from the night before? Has the judge given him several breaks before or does their relationship extend beyond the courtroom, so he feels he can be more direct? Only the fact that the snoring attorney is being treated harshly by the judge tugs any emotional response in me for the attorney. Without back-cover copy, which will give me some additional information about this character, I would be more interested in the judge than the attorney. And that’s not the angle you want! (grin)

This is easily changed though if you push internal thoughts, show attitude through body language, expressions, and gestures.

Finally, the dialogue in the chambers is a bit confusing due to the statement that the attorney slept well but was up late. The judge essentially calls Mr. Stone a liar, now and always apparently, and gives his opinion of what caused the attorney to fall asleep. I want to know what the attorney’s explanation is, so that micro hook would make me turn the page to find out. However, in the current iteration, his explanation better be pretty entertaining.

Beef up the text and language, stick us in the attorney’s head with internal dialogue, show each character’s movement with some drama, and push the pace whenever you can.

I like your premise. Perhaps you’re holding back a little? Don’t be afraid to be bold or try something that seems excessive – it just might be perfect and release the character’s personality.

Good luck! And thanks for sharing with us all.

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

4 comments:

  1. It's an old question: how do you make an unlikable protagonist work?

    When Stone is first introduced as sleeping off a hangover on the job (with a client's case on the line), and he's caught at it by the judge, you've defined our first impression around how he just doesn't do his job. So the question is, do we see him as someone we want to redeem himself, or not?

    That depends on what other buttons you push besides the "failing" one. Stone compares the judge to a high school principal to say that Stone has always been hiding drinking -- in fact, his main thought is that that he ought to be better at hiding it. That starts to make him look like a more habitual loser who can't learn a lesson.

    The upside of this is that you do say Stone is afraid, now that he's caught. That's a hook we can care about, that he wants to stay out of trouble (even if he barely tried so far).

    So I'd suggest focusing this scene on his fear, his trying to stave off trouble, and how it isn't working. Maria gave a LOT of advice about capturing the sensations and pacings that might be going on here, and those could be pure gold for bringing that to life. She's got other ideas about making the judge unfairly harsh or the rest of the court laughing at him -- all ways to make Stone seem more like a victim who's suffering more than his fault deserves.

    And you want another side of this besides Stone being a victim. Can you hint right near the start that there's also a good attorney in there somewhere? Or at least a smart or witty man who's fun to be around, or better yet someone with one sympathetic goal that's deeper than just saving his practice? We want confirmation that Stone has something worthwhile mixed in with all his troubles, even if the story won't head toward him turning his whole life around.

    Also: some of your phrases don't go quite where you want them to. The second line leaves me wondering how snoring might have woken him up -- and confusion right at the top of the story is never good. Stone telling the judge that he actually did get sleep feels awkward (unless you mean he's so woozy he can't see the trap he's walking into). It's always good to read your story aloud and run it by people you trust (if you don't trust any one person's opinion too far), to watch for lines that aren't working.

    You work hard to show Stone is in trouble here. But I don't think you can go this long before you convince us why we want him to get out of it.

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  2. Before I root for Stone, I need to like him. Right now there is nothing to like. He's drunk now and he was drunk at 17 - not much to root for.

    I need to see Stone redeem himself in someway before I am going to care that he is in trouble - i.e. walking into the courtroom and he saves a dog from being hit by a car even though he knows it is going to make him late. In this example, I have a feel for who he is - willing to put himself out to help someone/thing else despite knowing it will get him in trouble.

    While he may have a drinking problem, I am wondering if it is this severe if it wouldn't be a problem with his license or being allowed to trial (something to look up). I'm not sure the drinking issue should be the center of the court scene. He could be fumbling because he is disorganized, there could be comments, etc., but this scene is quite severe to fall asleep and for a judge to reprimand him in this way (including calling him a lier).

    I think this opening is trying to bring sympathy to the character, and to my first point, we are going to care for someone not because they are in trouble, but because they are doing something that makes us admire them. Even a bum on the street who takes some of his money and gives it to someone else is going to earn our affection.

    I am also wondering if first person is the right POV for this piece, or if it is, maybe playing around with writing it in third as an excise to see what other emotions might come out of it.

    I think it is good to understand what this scene is doing. Is it setting up a problem, setting up the character, or setting up the conflict?

    With some of these things answered, the author could have a good set up. Think of Columbo - how this fumbling detective earned a place in everyone's heart.



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  3. Hi there! My comments in [brackets].

    The sound of the pounding gavel...but I tend to snore. [This feels tellish, because it’s first person and he’s talking about things that happened when he was asleep]

    "In my chambers, Mr. Stone!" Judge Anderson said. [I assume a court from the few details I have, but I’m feeling ungrounded as a reader]

    Walking into the judge’s chambers...His eyes were focused. [on what?] The look of an animal stalking its prey. [perhaps mix with the focused line and use a specific animal to show what the judge looks like] That was the same look Principal Stevens had when I came into his office. [this sentence is clunky, so perhaps smooth or trim] [I think this is your opening paragraph. It grounds readers, shows the protagonist, and sets up a mystery as to what happened]

    "Sit, Mr. Stone," Judge Anderson said. [perhaps a hint of his tone]

    [perhaps a reaction, such as a wince or a sign he knows he messed up] "I slept well. Why do you think I didn't get enough sleep?" [Why does he lie?]

    Judge Anderson's eyes narrowed. I heard [felt?] my heartbeat slamming in my chest. [Telling. Perhaps “my heartbeat slammed in my chest]

    [Perhaps internal thought to show how Stone feels about getting caught] "Judge Anderson— "

    "It's because you're still drunk ...has saturated my courtroom." [These lines are clunky and that lessens the impact. Perhaps condense into one punchy line. Also, if the judge knows this, why didn’t he start here?]

    1. Are you telling? A little. You’re filtering things through Stone’s eyes so he’s explaining more than feeling. You’d fix that by rewriting to eliminate the filter words. Most of this is dialogue, so it feels shown. But there’s not enough to get a solid scene of the setting or characters yet.

    Here’s more on filter words: https://tinyurl.com/y5uz8yl5

    2. Does this hook readers? Not yet, because there’s nothing personal from Stone to help me understand him. He drinks, it messes up his life. Is he ashamed? Annoyed that he’s being called out about it? Scared for his job?

    A lawyer with a drinking problem who’s in trouble with the judge presiding over his case has potential to be a good hook, if readers care about Stone and worry about him. Since he’s doing something many disapprove of, getting them to like him will be a challenge. As is, he seems like he couldn’t care less that he’s drunk in court, and that’s a tough character to root for. If readers see him struggling to do the right thing, or try, or exhibit some redeeming qualities despite his problem, they’d likely root for him.

    I’d suggest thinking about Stone’s redeeming qualities. What about him will make readers care? If there’s nothing to make them care, then what would intrigue them enough to want to see this situation play out?

    I’d suggest adding more internal though and body language to show that Stone isn’t happy about what’s happening and knows he did wrong.

    Since this is first person, perhaps think about how Stone would see and react to what’s going on in this opening. How does he feel? What are his unconscious actions? His body language? His thoughts? Don’t say he “feels” “hears” “thought” something, show the specifics of those things. Put readers inside Stone’s head and let them experience this uncomfortable situation with him.

    Hope this helps!

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  4. Yes the first page hooked me enough to turn the page. Very quickly now, however, I'm going to need a reason to continue to root for Stone. You grabbed my attention because college is super expensive (assuming he had to pay for his education) not to mention people are entrusting an attorney to help them, so to fall asleep on a case is appalling—something we’d be mortified to be caught doing ourselves, so it makes you sit up & want to know what in the world is going on. But now the burden is on the author to quickly show us that Stone isn’t just a class A jerk and a fool.

    I liked the balance of telling/showing. The opening page is written in a way that grabs my attention, and the details that are missing, my mind easily fills in as I read. You have a little backstory, but don't bog it down with too much.

    The biggest obstacle was the first paragraph. The first line sets things up well, but the second sentence was confusing. Would it be better if you changed it up:

    "In my chambers, Mr. Stone!" Judge Anderson said.

    The sound of the pounding gavel and my name being screamed jarred me awake.

    (although I do agree a word different than "screamed" would be more appropriate there).

    I did wonder if the defense attorney was someone who was a one-time mention in the story or if they are someone Stone regularly comes up against. If someone that is regularly in Stone's professional life and thus the story, then it might be worth plumbing that on the first page rather than just a general, brief mention of "I heard the defense snicker at me." Make it more personal.

    Best wishes on your continued journey with this story!

    ReplyDelete