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Saturday, March 27, 2021

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

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through April 3.

This week’s questions:

1. Is there enough conflict to wonder what happens next?

2. Is there enough at stake and is it personal to make the reader care? If not, any suggestions?

3. Is the opening all showing or is telling detected?

4. Is the scene grounded enough in description?

5. Is there enough about Malia to make the reader care or sympathize with her?

Market/Genre: Romantic Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This is a prologue requested by an editor to introduce Malia, her efforts and lay the ground for the suspense.

A vehicle roared. Pressure from behind pushed Malia Hudson face down into the open field of Maui red dirt. It jammed into her mouth and stuck to her eyes and face. Tires squealed. It happened so fast.

Why would someone veer off the road toward them before their Hawaiian land rights presentation? Did the person mean to discourage them, scare them? Or kill them? She shuddered

Malia spat dirt out of her mouth. Planks from the Office of Maui Relations booths her brother, Kimo had put together minutes ago, surrounded her like broken kindling.

Kimo. Where was he? She raised her head. “Kimo Are you okay?”

A groan from behind her filled the air.

Her chest tightened. Was he unconscious? Badly injured? She’d maneuver over to him. He had to be all right. She wouldn’t think otherwise. He had so much life to live yet.

Blood trickled down her arm and her leg seared with pain as she forced her way from beneath a few wooden planks. Gasping for breath, she crawled to him and pressed her fingers under his wrist. His pulse thumped hard beneath his hot, sweaty wrist. Thank heavens.

He stirred. “Why would someone do this and take off? I was working under the booth one minute and now this disaster.”

“I asked myself the same question.”

“Where’s Asher?”

“I don’t know.” Malia turned her head toward the scattered wood planks, but didn’t see him.

Another vehicle pulled off the road and parked.

My Thoughts in Blue:

A vehicle roared. Pressure from behind pushed Malia Hudson face down into the open field of Maui red dirt. It jammed into her mouth and stuck to her eyes and face. Tires squealed. It happened so fast. Without context, it’s hard to fully understand what’s going on in this paragraph. Did the car hit her? Did someone push her out of the way? Where is she? "open field" isn't enough for me to imagine the scene

Why would someone veer off the road toward them before their Hawaiian land rights presentation? Did the person mean to discourage them, scare them? Or kill them? She shuddered These all seem like thoughts she’d have after she recovered from the shock of nearly being run down. But first, she’d react to it

[Malia spat dirt out of her mouth.] Seems like she’d do this sooner Planks from the Office of Maui Relations booths her brother, Kimo had put together minutes ago, surrounded her like broken kindling. Not enough context to visualize this

Kimo. Where was he? She raised her head. “Kimo Are you okay?” This seems like something she’d have asked and worried about first

A groan from behind her [filled the air.] Not sure a groan can fill the air

Her chest tightened. Was he unconscious? Badly injured? [She’d] Is this “she would” to tell her intent to act? maneuver over to him. He had to be all right. She wouldn’t think otherwise. He had so much life to live yet. This paragraph feels a bit melodramatic

Blood trickled down her arm and [her leg seared with pain] If she’s hurt this badly, she’d probably have felt it sooner as she forced her way [from beneath a few wooden planks.] I never got the sense they were under them, just surrounded by them [Gasping for breath], Malia seems really hurt in this paragraph, but she showed no signs of it earlier, and was too clearheaded for someone in this much pain she crawled to him and pressed her fingers under his wrist. His pulse thumped hard beneath his hot, sweaty wrist. Thank heavens.

He stirred. [“Why would someone do this and take off? I was working under the booth one minute and now this disaster.”] This is too coherent for someone who was just unconscious or dazed

[“I asked myself the same question.”] Wouldn’t she ask him if he was hurt first?

[“Where’s Asher?”] Who is this? Some context would help clarify the scene

“I don’t know.” Malia turned her head toward the [scattered wood planks] this is essentially the only description, but I still don't know what it means, but didn’t see him.

[Another vehicle pulled off the road and parked.] From where?

The Questions:

1. Is there enough conflict to wonder what happens next?


Yes, but it’s not being conveyed well yet. Right now, it’s an unknown someone trying to kill protagonists readers don’t yet know, for unknown reasons, and there’s no context for who, what, or where they are. I know it’s Maui, and outside, and a booth for a land rights presentation, but those details don’t tell me enough to imagine the scene. So instead of getting caught up in what’s going on, I’m struggling to make sense of it.

I think the pieces are good, and Malia and Kimo being nearly run down by someone probably trying to stop their presentation sets up problems with what they’re trying to do. But I don’t yet understand enough to follow the story.

This is a good example of why action out of nowhere rarely works as a hook.

(Here’s more with Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

I’d suggest moving the attack to the end of the page. Give readers a page of Malia and Kimo setting up, and being all excited about whatever it is they’re about to do. Set the scene so readers know where they are and what they’re doing. Then have the car barrel toward them and them having to dive out of the way. Let readers see the car coming at them and build the thrill. This will allow you to establish the setting and situation, and get readers to know and like Malia and Kimo before the attack.

(Here’s more with How to Write Kick-Ass Action Scenes (Part 1))

2. Is there enough at stake and is it personal to make the reader care? If not, any suggestions?

Not yet, because I don’t know these people, what they’re doing, or why it matters. This is why opening with them setting up and joking around first is important. It will give you a chance to show them as likable people who care about each other before you put them in danger. You’ll also be able to show why they’re in that field and why it’s important.

You might also be able to hint at conflict of they’re already concerned about trouble. Malia immediately thinks someone is trying to discourage or kill them—even before she worries about her brother—so if she’s aware of a potential threat, they might mention it as they set up.

I also don’t know who Asher is, and it seems like either he’s been hurt or he disappeared, suggesting he might be in on it. Knowing he was in the scene before the attack would allow readers to also worry about him.

(Here’s more with So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

3. Is the opening all showing or is telling detected?

It’s mostly showing, but in an “explain the action” kind of way. Malia and Kimo’s dialogue and internalization sounds like instructions on what readers are supposed to wonder about, not what people who were just nearly run down would say or think. Kimo is unconscious, but the first thing he says upon waking is “Why would someone do this and take off? I was working under the booth one minute and now this disaster.” That’s a lot of very coherent words to string together after being run down and knocked unconscious. But it’s two lines designed to make readers wonder that, and explain where Kimo was during the attack.

Unless Malia has reasons to suspect this attack was intentional, she’s probably not going to think it was on purpose. At the very least, she’s going to react like a normal person would—freak out, wonder where her brother is, wonder what happened, wonder if anyone was hurt, etc. For all she knows, someone lost control and this is all an accident. A hit and run, sure, but a scared kid who shouldn’t be driving mom’s car is a possibility.

If she does have reasons to think this was intentional, then show those fears prior to the attack. Maybe have her and Kimo jumpy about being alone, or talking about safety precautions they’re taking or something. They might have gotten a threat warning them from the presentation. Establish there’s danger in the air first to raise tensions.

(Here’s more with It's Exposition, Yeah, Baby! Handling Your Exposition.)

4. Is the scene grounded enough in description?

No. There’s not enough for me to visualize the scene, and the main detail (wooden planks) is repeated three times. And each time gives me a different picture, which makes me re-think what’s going on. At first, planks are surrounding them like kindling, so I imagine broken boards on the ground, but not touching them. Next, she forces her way out from under the planks, so I revise my mental picture to a much bigger pile of wood they were caught under. Then Malia sees scattered planks, which suggests wooden boards spread out haphazardly.

Since I don’t know how big the booth they’re building was, I have no concept for how many planks there are. I don’t know if there are other booths and people around. Did they just build a booth in a field somewhere, or is this at an event with other participants? If tires squealed, there must be pavement (tires can’t squeal on dirt), so where is the road? Is this field off a street? And where did the squeal come from? Tires squeal for particular "physics reasons," and running over a booth is more swerving into it (especially if the booth is on dirt, so how close to the road was it?). Did the squeal come from a sharp swerve? “Tires squeal” feels more like shorthand for “car attacks” than what Malia would have actually heard, so it’s giving me all the wrong impressions.

The only thing I can picture is a blank generic field with a single road through it, and a lone broken booth like a kid’s lemonade stand right next to the road. And I’m sure that’s not the scene you imagined at all.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

5. Is there enough about Malia to make the reader care or sympathize with her?

No, because I don’t know anything about her except she has a brother. And since her internal thoughts are more explanation than natural thoughts, I don’t get a sense of her personality.

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

Overall, I think all these issues can easily be fixed by just starting sooner and letting readers see Malia and Kimo setting up the booth and joking around like brother and sister. Establish the scene and the characters first, then put them in danger. They clearly have a goal, I just don’t know what it is beyond "presentation." But if they’re building something for a presentation, you can show them talking about it, worrying about it, like people getting ready for a big, important presentation do.

Once you show what they’re doing, why it matters, and them being likable people, then you can run them down. Readers will care because what they’ve been working hard trying to build is now gone, and losing that booth matters to them. And you have the added threat of this being an actual attack and not just a random accident.

You don’t need pages and pages to do that. Instead of describing the attack on page one, describe the booth set up, and end with the car racing toward them. That gets the attack on page one, but still allows you to establish your characters, setting, and situation first.

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 paranormal thriller series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
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4 comments:

  1. I completely agree, starting "in" the midst of the action is something that doesn't seem to be working for this.

    You say this is meant to introduce Malia as well as the suspense. But, much as moviemakers love explosions and squealing tires, the problem in a book is that any character who's introduced diving for cover makes almost the same first impression, no matter who they are. It takes an experienced action writer to hit the ground running and make the character herself distinctive in the middle of all that. This doesn't read like you're really comfortable with this kind of opening, so it just isn't working as a starting point.

    Janice's articles here really are some of the best around -- I hope you take a careful look at them. What you want is to find a moment of Malia and her friends at their work, that gives the essence of what they're doing and why we should care about it.

    And especially, you want to show off who Malia herself is: the most organized or most compassionate or most uncertain person in the group, or whatever she is. That basic sense of the protagonist is our guide to the whole rest of the book and how she'll grow, so that needs to stand out from the start.

    It might take a page to establish them at work here -- though some writers can distill something down so well they can give it in a couple of paragraphs. Or you might take longer, if you like how well you can hook us into the scene itself, and also drop hints that there'll be an interruption soon (that's too big a twist for the first pages not to be hinting at). But what matters is that the attack *is* an interruption, and with most writers that means we need a sense of what it's interrupting before it strikes.

    Or, this might not be the scene you want to start with after all. Any conflict in a story has a whole range of angles you can write it from; are you using this scene because you're sure Malia and friends being attacked is the best start, or because a racing car seemed like the easiest one? You want to be sure why you're starting here, or anywhere else, so you can do it justice.

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  2. Tension in a scene happens from what the reader fears is going to occur - the old adage of two people at a table with a ticking bomb in one of their suitcases. In that instance, we are glued to our seats wanting to know what is going to happen. The aftermath is not as gripping as the scene leading up to it.

    In that vein, I completely agree with Janice - we need to see the before here. Let us see the two of them together, building the hut, adding something in their dialogue that draws us into them and then let us see the car. Build the tension from why they might be scared of seeing a car. This is where the tension can really rise.

    I am not sure in a prologue you would even need the aftermath of the car hitting the booth - it might just end with the car blazing towards them, but if you choose to add the aftermath in there, I also agree with Janice the external and internal dialogue is not in sync with what just happened.

    Anyone nearly being hit by a car, thinking their friend might be dead, is going to be in a fight or flight mode. They are going to be frantic, scared, disoriented.

    Here's the prologue for the Terminator Movie: Los Angeles, 2029: The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…

    Draws us in, makes us want to know what's gong to happen, gives us a map of the world we are entering and then we begin with a much different story of Sarah-a young, naive girl about to be thrust into a world she never expected. What really works about this is that we, the viewer, know something she doesn't and therefore we are immediately drawn into rooting for her.

    Thinking about what we want the prologue to do, what knowledge you want to convey to the reader, might help tighten it. I think that we have all been conditioned to think that action scenes are necessary for tension and drawing readers in. I believe building the tension is what does that. Good luck!

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  3. You have a trio of supporters, Janice and two wonderful and expert commenters, urging you to consider what you want this prologue to accomplish. The need to plant the background seed, the thing that has become a permanent influence on Malia, that may drive her deeds in the story or hamper her abilities -- all now a hardened part of her, and a part you want us to understand and be sympathetic to -- is the target.

    If we assume this event was unexpected, then concentrate on that unexpectedness. Innocents run down. Trap both characters on the ground. Have Malia too injured to be able to do more than barely touch her brother's fingertips, not enough to know if he is alive or dead. Have her nearly hysterical from shock, full of fear for her brother, and not really knowing what has happened. Post-event silence rolls over her, then she hears a car stop and a car door opens but doesn't close. Shock overwhelms. Unconsciousness threatens. Staring at her unmoving brother, she hears footsteps approaching. Through the blur of her tears, she sees black boots stop several strides away. She squeezes her brother's fingers, torn between a brief glimmer of hope and fear. Pain triumphs, darkness falls. She whispers, "Kimo?"

    Now that's pretty awful - but it (lamely) is lending a bit of mystery by limiting the knowledge Malia has, plus setting up a circumstance that would be ripe for producing trauma-induced behavior later on.

    The set up to the situation is, as others have said, very important. And it should be simple. Just enough to ground the reader and have the action occur without confusion. Perhaps show them setting up their staging area for the protest (I assume that's what this is?), as well as chatting about the logistics of the situation and any other people who would be joining them. Lastly, establish why they are at that location.

    Malia and Kimo could joke about the location, comparing it to the last place they gathered. They could allude to items other people would be bringing, and mention some odd occurrence or person at the last event, perhaps with Kimo being the paranoid and Malia being the 'calm' one. She might tease her brother that he saw the worst in people, etc.

    This last bit would allow readers to wonder (later on) if the odd occurrence was tied to this attack.

    You need to create a background for a hardened (or even hidden to her "I don't know why I feel this way") belief or behavior that affects Malia's actions and personality. Perhaps this trauma has been buried and comes out in defensive behavior or over-protectiveness. Perhaps it has haunted her for years and her current situation suddenly brings her back to the scene of the crime -- and she must deal with the feelings that erupt.

    Kimo, her injured brother could have died, been mildly injured and is now more paranoid than ever, or was crippled by the attack and is now the negotiator, with Malia now being more radical. Lots to play with there.

    Whatever you choose to do, this prologue needs to establish an important point or position that is now part of who Malia is and why she thinks and behaves as she does. Then I can feel sympathy, want her to 'find that great guy', and accomplish her goals.

    Good luck! :O))

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  4. A huge thank you to Janice, Ken, Lynne and Maria! Invaluable advice, and you can be sure I'll study it and revise it accordingly.

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