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Saturday, July 31, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Hooking Readers with Action on the Opening Page

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: Eight

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through September 25.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening scene hook the reader? Does it work?

Market/Genre: Romantic Suspense

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

A loud snap shattered the air. Startled, Paige dropped her phone onto the bathroom tile, and then fell to the floor to grab it. Was that gunfire? Two more snaps and the unmistakable sound of a body thumping against a hard surface. Something very bad was happening in Judge Ferguson’s office. Time slowed. Fear flooded into her veins and her heart beat loud and fast. Her shelter-in-place teacher training kicked in and she dove into the only hiding place–a supply closet half empty and just large enough for her to yoga-pretzel her five-foot frame behind a box.

Her heartbeat thudded in her ears, her senses alert, prickly, like charged with static electricity. The door opened, the squeaky hinges screaming out to stay small, stay hidden, the gunman was here.

She held her breath, wishing she could turn invisible. A wish she’d made dozens of times as a child hiding from her brother, Evan.

But wishes didn’t stop the footsteps approaching.

The door flew open, bright light poured in, and the outline of a monster of a man towered over her. He raised his hand. His gun, matte black with a suppressor, pointed at her. His dark blue button-down shirt had the US Federal Marshal’s logo embroidered above his heart.

“Please, don’t.” Her whispered words didn’t affect him.

He growled and bent, grabbed her ankle and yanked her out. He gripped her arms, hauling her to stand.

Her back smacked against the jamb and she yelped. Make noise, get attention.

My Thoughts in Blue:

A loud snap [I’m thinking broken branch here] shattered the air. Startled, Paige dropped her phone onto the bathroom tile, and then fell to the floor [I see this as her being prone – perhaps consider ‘quickly squatted’ or ‘dropped’?] to grab it.

Was that gunfire? [moved this for emphasis]

Two more snaps and the unmistakable sound of a body thumping [this makes me think Paige has had this experience since the sound is unmistakable] against a hard surface. Something very bad was happening in Judge Ferguson’s office. [another clue] Time slowed. Fear flooded into her veins and her heart beat loud and fast. [an anchor on the pacing – can do without it] Her shelter-in-place teacher training [confusing – is she the teacher or a teacher trained her in shelter-in-place and what does s-n-p have to do with a possible shooting?] kicked in and she dove into the only hiding place–a supply closet half empty [flipping this qualifier would be stronger] and just large enough for her to yoga-pretzel [nice] her five-foot frame behind a box.

Her heartbeat thudded in her ears, her senses alert, prickly, like charged with static electricity. The door opened, [the door to the closet?] the squeaky hinges screaming out to stay small, stay hidden, the gunman was here.

She held her breath, wishing she could turn invisible. A wish she’d made dozens of times as a child hiding from her brother, Evan. [this piques my curiosity]

But wishes didn’t stop the footsteps approaching. [flip these two]

The door flew open, bright light poured in, and the outline of a monster of a man towered over her. He raised his hand. His gun, matte black with a suppressor, pointed at her. His dark blue button-down shirt had the US Federal Marshal’s logo embroidered above his heart. [great intro to the shooter!]

“Please, don’t.”

Her whispered words didn’t affect him. He growled and bent, grabbing her ankle and yanking her out. He gripped her arms, hauling her to stand. [a bit awkward – perhaps consider ‘to her feet’?] Her back smacked against [if her back scraped or caught on the door jamb I could imagine it and the yelp – smacked evokes slamming against something] the jamb and she yelped.

Make noise, get attention. [this struck me as maybe a phrase from her ‘training’ – yes? I segregated this as well for more impact]

The Question:

1. Does this opening hook the reader?


Yes, I believe so. (readers chime in!) There are enough questions and curiosities to turn the page. Opening with a serious action scene can be tough to pull off but can also pretty much ensure that readers will keep reading, at least until they sort some things out. That’s part of the danger of an action opening scene. You have them hooked, but then must push that energy forward in a realistic way – the wave must crash at some point, and you must handle the ‘debris’ from the scene without a huge let-down.

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

The first paragraph is the establishment of the scene, and we are given the inciting incident, the name, gender and location of the protagonist and her reaction.

The use of ‘snap’ isn’t direct enough for me, as it made me connect with a branch snapping – since this is incorrect, I had to re-orient quickly to correct my association. No biggie, but it does mean an instant of stumble as readers grasp for any clues as to what is happening. A bit like ravening wolves, readers gobble up hints using the most common associations in their mental tool box. Single word changes might seem silly, but ease of comprehension and grounding often hangs on a single word – the right word.

(Here’s more with The Power of Word Choice in Fiction)

The use of ‘fell to the floor’ prompted the visual of Paige literally falling to the floor, either from being shot or to avoid being shot. She fell to the floor to grab her phone, but we aren’t shown that she actually does grab it. So, I have her face down on the tile floor of the bathroom now, with her phone. If you consider having her squatting/kneeling/etc. and then grabbing the phone, we easily ‘see’ her in that posture, which is one she can easily move or run or crawl from. In other words, she’s in a position that allows her to react with action, and not from being prone on the floor.

I moved the internal question to a separate line for more dramatic effect and pacing.

(Here’s more with 7 Words That Often Tell, Not Show)

The next paragraph shoulders a big load of grounding but doesn’t fold under the load. Speaking of the ‘unmistakable sound of a body thumping against a hard surface’ led me to believe that Paige has heard the sound before. This led me to believe that she might be law enforcement of some kind (or other experiences, maybe she’s an assassin?). Enough information is given (the Judge, shelter-in-place training, teacher (?) and the supply closet) that I could fairly easily speculate that she was in a bathroom in a courthouse, and she was familiar with the place, as she knew the location of the Judge’s office.

(Here’s more with 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World)

The tough part for me was the tongue-twisting training reference. I spent a good minute parsing this out before I could accept my translation and read on. First, it was the confusion over whether she was a teacher of the training or had received the training as a teacher. Then, it was the confusion as to what ‘shelter-in-place’ training had to do with a shooting. The latter had me shoving around ideas about school shootings and trying to stretch the training name to that threat. This avenue of speculation wasn’t working well because I didn’t feel she was in a school. So, the training was being accessed in a threatening situation outside the school.

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

As you can see, this needs to be smoothed out – internal thought when she’s in the closet might work to add some detail of the referenced training – or re-structuring the initial use of the training reference to clearly show her relation to it. In the end, I wanted her to be reacting fairly naturally, due to this training that she either teaches or has received. The great yoga reference gave me an instantaneous visual for this character and also allowed me to believe that she could practice yoga, which then might tie in with the mystery training. *grin*

The next paragraph is fun and works well – and is the appropriate place to reference her physical reactions to the situation.

The mention of Evan was easily tucked into the back file of the mind to check on later, which means I will keep reading to find out more about Evan and Paige.

Your intro to the presumed shooter is great. Really well paced and I gobbled it up because you made it easy to race through it. I moved the line of dialogue, again for dramatic effect and to slow the reader for a moment.

Next, we move into the ‘capture’. My thoughts here were that it just isn’t precise enough. We ‘see’ Paige crammed behind some box in the closet but don’t know what part of her is accessible to grab. You have the assumed shooter grabbing her ankle, then yanking her out of the closet.

I balked at this because the man with the gun has a gun. He doesn’t need to take the chance of Paige getting near the gun by grabbing her. More likely he would either shoot her in the closet, then close the door and leave the scene – or – he would signal with the gun or tell her to get up and out of the closet. Once she’s part way out, he would have more control and be able to grab her by the arm, stick the gun in her side or by her face/head, and move her to, wherever.

The last line struck me as a phrase from her ‘training’, so she is preparing to scream, make a lot of noise. I’m assuming that the bathroom opens to a public hallway, so she may hear other people in that hallway.

(Here’s more with Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions)

All in all, you have created a scene where readers will ‘need’ to read on to discover what is what and the questions you have purposely created will/should coincide with most/many of your readers’ questions.

One last comment here: Having a current event remind a character of a past event, especially if the current and past events were traumatic in nature, then we’re dealing with a character who has some shades of PTSD affecting their life. This is a situation that should be taken seriously in your character development and accounted for, eventually. Not to paint/brand the character with this trauma connection, but also not to present it as commonplace.

I believe you have a strong start here. The next page or two is really going to tell the tale though and you’ll need to not let up. You’ve done a good job of feeding info bits and keeping the cats going in the same direction…

Good luck with this and come back to see us!

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

5 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your critique!

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  2. I really enjoyed this. I didn't find the comment about her teacher training confusing. I assumed that she was, or had been, a teacher in the past and the training was on how to handle a classroom in the case of a school shooting.

    One thing I did assume was that the person who found her was not the killer, since he had a US Marshal logo. I figured he was here to secure the building after the shooting occurred (and that this was probably the `meet cute' for the future romance). I assumed that she was just so freaked out at hearing a murder that she was misreading the situation.

    If I'm right, you may not want him to grab her. I'm not sure what normal police procedure is to finding someone hiding in a closet after a shooting, but if the closet-hider is unarmed, it seems more likely the officer would try to talk them down rather than grabbing them. (Might be something to research.)

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  3. I agree, this is solid use of excitement.

    Maria has excellent points about tweaking this. I completely agree about splitting off the first lines (large paragraphs are tricky, and as a start they absolutely bury your hook). The "unmistakable" sound of a body is too close to saying she's familiar with it; you probably want "a sound that had to be".

    About Evan: there's a rule that naming a character shines a big spotlight on them to remember them, and in the middle of this crisis using Evan's name is a distraction. Maria said she'd be reading on to hear more about him... but thinking that right now is interfering with the scene. It's better to say she has a brother and get around to naming him later.

    I have a different reaction to "shelter in place teacher training": I really wanted that to make Paige a teacher and this a school shooting, because that's much more specific and interesting than the mention of a judge's chambers that we have to orient us. High-tension openings have one weakness, that they leave us little time to notice who the character is and why that matters, so something like "a teacher" would give us clear first impressions about this. So if Paige is a paralegal or other bystander at a courthouse, what's the one thing you can tell us fast that shows who she is, or better yet shows her decision-making and how she'll deal with the rest of the book? Right now we know she's got a brother (a good touch for sympathy) and we mostly see her willing to hide and hope the problem goes away -- sensible, but not that specific. Even a single thought about her training like "Trust the system" would give us some extra depth there.

    There's a small problem with the gunman's arrival: if she's hiding behind a box, how does she see the door open? You could clarify that she's sneaking a look at it at the wrong moment, or she could be out of sight and only hear him walking in and around the box (which means he's thorough enough to come in and search the room).

    The gunman is definitely forboding, but a couple of things make me wonder. The Marshal's logo leaves me wondering if he's supposed to *be* a marshal or if he's just a guy who likes the logo, or a wannabe. Maybe that's okay, or you could clarify it by giving him either a badge or a "dirty shirt with". And, you could play up the fact that he points the gun at her a bit more: without that, it's not impossible that he's an actual rescuer and she's just too scared to look past his sternness.

    "Starting with action" is something so many writers try to do. There are things you could fill in here, but it really helps when the action is this good.

    ReplyDelete
  4. One thing glared out at me. Why was there a suppressor on the U.S. Marshall's gun? Is he legit or are we to infer he is posing as law enforcement? The latter might explain why he's so rough with Paige. This could lead to confusion in the mind of the reader. In any case, it makes me want to find out which kind of guy he is: good or bad.

    ReplyDelete