The Case of the Thin Man and the Soft Opening

Here is today’s first page:
The thin man bent down and scooped up a handful of burnt red sand from a beach that no longer existed. He let the coarse bits spill from his palm and into a small glass vial, a calm smile spreading across his wrinkled face.
The man crouched in silence as he capped the vial, looking out over the horizon of the Galapagos archipelago as the sun set across them, orange tendrils stretching out between the clouds.
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth,” he said, still looking out into the distance.
He spun around a moment later when no reply came, cocking his head to the side. “Don’t you think, Agent Ward?”
Agent Eli Ward turned his attention toward the man and nodded in agreement. “Certainly,” he replied, tugging at the neck of his stuffy crimson uniform. Though it was near sunset and the air smelled of oncoming rain, the weather was muggy.
“That it is…” the man pondered, inserting the vial into a round slot in the large metal box beside him. The box held several other vials, all filled with different sorts of minerals. “Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
Eli withheld his reply and glanced at the device on his wrist, tapping at its glowing display. It was slightly larger than a deck of cards, secured to him with an elastic band. “Dr. Vanderbilt, we’re on a tight schedule, I must insist…”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Vanderbilt replied in disappointment. He pushed himself to a stand, closing the lid on his collection of vials. He lugged the box up with a small grunt and came alongside Eli.
Eli tapped the display a couple times more. “Alright,” he said. “I think we’re ready. Let me see yours.”
Vanderbilt held his arm out to Eli, who took it. The device on Vanderbilt’s wrist was smaller than that of Eli’s, about the size of a digital watch. Since it received commands remotely from Eli’s device . . .
***
We start off without knowing who Vanderbilt is. He is called “The thin man” (a designation that should be reserved only for William Powell). But Vanderbilt’s identity is revealed a few paragraphs in. So why is it kept a mystery for six paragraphs? There’s no need for this.
Unless you want to create an ongoing mystery about who someone is, use their name up front. This is especially crucial for this piece, because we are not in a close POV. We are looking at this scene through objective and distant lenses. It would be much better if we were deep inside either Vanderbilt’s or Eli’s head throughout.
But I’m confused as to who the main character is supposed to be. The first four paragraphs make it seem this scene belongs to “the thin man.” But since he would not think of himself as “the thin man,” we’re either in an omniscient POV or with another character.
The only other character is Eli. But since he was not paying attention to the thin man, he can’t have observed what was going on in the first four paragraphs.
We are therefore in omniscient POV by default. Omniscient POV is not much in style anymore, save for epic length historical or speculative fiction. In what I am assuming is a thriller, it’s virtually non-existent. For good reason: Readers of a thriller get invested in it in direct proportion to their care for a character in trouble.
Every time a reader starts a novel, he’s asking (subconsciously) Who am I supposed to follow? And why?
We don’t get answers to those questions here.
This is also what I call a “Here we are in sunny Spain” opening. That is, it feels as if it’s mainly for set-up. Information is being given to us unnaturally. For example, this bit of dialogue:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
This doesn’t sound like what the characters would really say to each other. It’s the kind of thing each character already knows. Dialogue such as this is the author feeding information to the reader, and true characterization suffers.
So here are my suggestions:
1. Whoever is the main character in this scene, use close 3d Person POV throughout. Everything from inside that one character’s head.
2. Cut these two lines of dialogue and adjust accordingly:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
“Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
  
Other thoughts?
***
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13 thoughts on “The Case of the Thin Man and the Soft Opening

  1. Oh I like your observations very much, James. I fully agree. It’s not easy to find places on the web where sharp and smart critique is given. I’m subscribing. 🙂

  2. I agree that this is a distant opening, but I have to question this comment:

    “Readers of a thriller get invested in it in direct proportion to their care for a character in trouble.”

    Really? I don’t read many thrillers these days because too many of them intro the main character with exactly two character traits: how smart is the MC, and how athletic. Then the chase begins around the second or third page, and that continues for about fifty pages. I find that by page fifty, I’m out of breath, but I could care less whether the MC survives. No time for a ‘pet the dog.’ I hate it. Give me someone to invest in first, and then I’ll stick around for 300 pages. This opening suffers from the same problem. Who am I supposed to care about? Why?

    JSB, very much enjoyed your day at Story Masters. I’ve signed up for Austin.

    Kathy

  3. In the first paragraph, this writer says something twice, a no-no in agent/editor land.

    “The thin man bent down and scooped up a handful of burnt red sand from a beach that no longer existed. He let the coarse bits spill from his palm and into a small glass vial…”

    He scoops up a handful of sand then lets the bits spill from his palm.

    The fix would be to keep the first sentence as is, then: He let the coarse bits spill into a small glass vial…”

    Easy fix when you recognize the problem.

  4. KS, I agree with you! And so does my comment. Notice the key word in that sentence: care. It is a huge error to mistake pure action, no matter what the trouble is, for genuine investment in a character.

    I’m with you all the way on this. That’s why a thriller by someone like Robert Crais works. We care about the Lead. See Demolition Angel or Hostage for how it’s done.

  5. I very much liked your critique of this piece. You made some excellent observances. There’s a fine line between confusion (bad) and mystery (good) and it’s tricky to get it right sometimes. I think with a few tweaks, this opening could be very mysterious.

    You say you think it’s a thriller, but my first thought when reading it was that it’s speculative fiction. Perhaps it’s because I just started reading The Name of the Wind last night and it starts off with an omniscient prologue, referring to one of the main characters as simply “the man.” Loving it, btw!

  6. Laurie, funny you should say that, because when i read the first line…

    The thin man bent down and scooped up a handful of burnt red sand from a beach that no longer existed.

    …it sounded like Douglas Adams. I mean, how can you take something from a thing that no longer exists? It has an odd, funny sound to it. But then it goes on and becomes something else.

  7. The sentence structure is too repetitive: a full sentence finished with a clause led by a gerund (-ing word.). It’s monotonous, regardless of the POV.

  8. Is this dystopian? It hints at perhaps an apoc event and introduces odd bits of technology.

    I like the mood and the setting. It has the dark taste I’ve come to appreciate and connect to the land of dystopia.

    The following is a nit, but something I often see.

    Using common everyday objects from this time to describe things from that time. Do they still have card decks and digital watches? Do they still secure items with “elastic bands.” If not, you’ve just yanked me out of the time machine and slapped me back in my living room.

    One of the cardinal rules of Star Trek was to never show zippers on uniforms. They were considered too mundane for the future.

    The entire passage starting with “Eli withheld his reply . . . ” sounds like you are trying to convince me these devices exist and are important.

    Cut to it. “Eli tapped the comm unit (or whatever fantastical name you want to give it) on his wrist and said, “Dr. Vanderbilt, we’re on a tight schedule.”

    The fact that it is wrist-mounted lets me infer its size. As to how it is attached, it could be screwed into his wrist bone for all I truly care at this point.

    Chekov’s Rule, unless the guard is going to strangle someone with that elastic band later in the story, I don’t need to see it now.

    Now, get back to showing me why the beach no longer exists because inquiring minds want to know!

  9. Good critique, Jim. Your points, if applied, should help the writer tighten this up and make it a stronger beginning. Despite its flaws, I kind of liked it and would read on. I got the impression we were looking at science fiction. It would be interesting to see if I’m right.

  10. This is a small thing, but “nodded in agreement” is a pet peeve of mine. It’s redundant. Nodding generally means agreement. People also nod in acknowledgment, or to gesture toward something, but that should be clear from the context. If someone nods in response to a question or statement, it signifies agreement.

  11. My first reaction? These were robots from the future collecting samples of past humanity. Why? I got no emotional tug from the characters–besides not knowing who they were. Also, the “thin man” gave Eli his arm. Really? Did he take it off and hand it to him? That cinched it for me. Robots.

    James gives excellent advice here on how to flesh out this scene to capture reader attention.

    That said, I’d like to compliment the author for presenting an intriguing scene. I want to know what happened to get these two men on this shore and why they are there. Once this is polished up, I’d definitely read more.

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