Create Mystery, Not Confusion, in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique raises an important craft issue: how much should you withhold from the reader when trying to inject mystery into the opening scene?

Mystery, one could argue, is the sine qua non of page-turning fiction. Why? Because you want the reader on the hook, desperate to know what happens next. You can’t have that without an element of mystery. And mystery involves holding back information.

Yet this requires a deft touch, especially in the opening pages. You are introducing the readers to the characters and story world. You want them to know enough to get into the scene, you want to dangle a bit of mystery, but you don’t want to overload the exposition. At the same time, you need to make sure the readers are not scratching their heads as they read along.

We’ll chat about all this on the other side of today’s anonymous first page:

***

January 1974
Egypt-Libya border

The blades of the search-and-rescue helicopter cut through salty air one thousand feet above the Mediterranean. The steep escarpment came into Temple’s view, sparse vegetation between ridges. His headset sputtered over the roar of the engines.

“Senator,” said the pilot, “I think that’s Lilah.”

Fingers clenched around the doorframe, Temple leaned into the wind and surveyed the scene below. Vehicles bound for Alexandria were stalled on the hilly pass by Gaddafi’s border patrol. The soldiers had separated the men from the women, holding them at gunpoint away from the caravan. Temple strained to spot the girl. “Where?” he shouted into the mouthpiece, blinking away gritty sand.

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

There. A figure running between boulders, her robes fluttering behind. Lilah was a couple of hundred feet from the group under inspection, concealing herself behind the limestone formations. She looked up at the chopper before plastering herself to the side of a rock. After weeks of reconnaissance, they’d located one of the abducted teenagers, the daughter of the late ambassador.

“She’s hiding from the border patrol,” Temple muttered. “What about the boy? There were two kids.”

“Probably with the caravan. Let me—” The pilot stopped to curse. “We have a problem, Senator.”

One of the soldiers had detached himself from his team to follow Lilah. If she got caught, there was little a single search-and-rescue chopper could do to help. Temple grabbed the AK-47. He did not have the skill to hit the target from this distance, but he could buy her some time.

“Hold position and inform the ground team,” Temple hollered.

Temple’s fingers trembled when he took aim. His stint in the army between world wars had not involved active combat. The helicopter shuddered. With a gasp, Temple tumbled back into the seat. Sweat trickled down his neck.

When he checked the terrain again, Lilah was not where she had been, but her yellow robes made her easy to spot even behind the rocks at the far border of an open space. The soldier in pursuit sprinted across the clearing, toward Lilah. Temple swore and took aim, once more.

Before he could press the trigger, there was a sudden blast on the ground. The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory. Temple’s mouth fell open, and sounds struggled to escape.

***

JSB: There is much to commend here, not the least of which, of course, is that it opens with action and disturbance. In keeping with the thriller genre, we’ve got a girl in immediate danger as a rescue chopper tries to save her.

The writing is crisp and sure. I like Plastering herself to the side of a rock. I also like how details are marbled in with the action, never slowing things down.

My notes, then, are fine tuning, but with one major issue to resolve.

Let’s do the fine tuning first.

Character Name

I’d give Temple’s first name up front. I thought Temple was the first name of a woman. The next line clears that up, but unless there’s a strong reason we only know this character as Temple throughout (and I can’t think of one), give us the full name.

Dialogue Attributions 

Always place an attribution after the first complete sentence or clause. Thus:

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

Should be:

“Not with the crowd, sir,” the pilot said. “Check the port side. Look for yellow clothes.”

1 + 1 = 1/2

This is a Sol Stein rule I have found quite helpful. Stein, a legendary fiction editor and a novelist himself, held that when you use two different words or terms to describe something, the overall effect is diluted rather than strengthened. The writer should choose the most evocative descriptor and ditch the other one. This sentence threw me:

The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory.

Something that disintegrates does not rip. The two images work against each other.

I suggest sticking with disintegrated here, and render what that would look like. I see red … but that’s as far as I am going to go before breakfast.

Also, territory implies a huge expanse of land. An exploding body would cover an area.

Cursing

I appreciate the author using The pilot stopped to curse and Temple swore. We’ve had several discussions here at TKZ on this issue. See, for example, here. My view is that the scene loses nothing, and no potential readers will be turned off when they sample the book.

And now for my main issue …

I’m not a writer of military thrillers, so perhaps others can chime in (Brother Gilstrap?). But here we have a United States Senator, probably in his mid-60s, in a military chopper, firing an AK-47 (would this be the correct weapon in this context?) We’re told the senator doesn’t have great skill and that he was never in combat. So how on earth is he in this position, as opposed to trained military? Perhaps the author is withholding this information to extend a mystery. Maybe the next page gives us the whole story. Ha!

But let’s deal with what we’ve got.

My standard advice in the opening is to act first, explain later. But as with all axioms, it requires some expansion. There are times when we need a bit of exposition to clue us in, or a line of backstory to explain a situation (Note: In workshops I tell my students they can have three lines of backstory in their first ten pages, used all at once or together.)

It would not be hard to come up with an interior thought or a couple lines of dialogue to at least give us a hint of why this situation has occurred. We don’t need all of it … yet. But as is, I fear readers are likely to think the situation isn’t plausible.

Also, why aren’t the soldiers firing back at the low-flying chopper?

To sum up, this is fine thriller style and potentially a gripping opening scene. If the major issue I’ve mentioned can be cleared up—and if the weaponry and other military details are sound—we’re off to a great start.

I’m at a writers conference today and may not be able to comment as much as I’d like. So have at it, TKZers. Anything else you’d like to offer our anonymous author?

9+

16 thoughts on “Create Mystery, Not Confusion, in the Opening

  1. Great post. I’ve never heard that rule on attribution “Always place an attribution after the first complete sentence or clause.” Is that sourced from a particular style book you might recommend? I love to read books on style, grammar, and writing.

  2. I really thought this first page was well done. But believeability did get questioned. I know we avoid politics here at TKZ, but I must cross the line slightly to respond.

    The thought running through my mind was if this guy was a senator, no way was he going to risk his skin on any kind of mission. No way he’d risk his cushy life-time job. Maybe BEFORE taking office the first time (which doesn’t sound feasible because Temple seems older) or maybe after out of office, but not an active senator.

    I did also wonder why the chopper wasn’t being fired on.

    Still, I thought the page was well done and read at a brisk clip.

  3. I like the writing here quite a lot. The author owes us an explanation sooner than later as to how and why a free range senator is unaccompanied in a hot zone. I’m going for benefit-of-doubt here and assuming that this is not a sanctioned mission using US government assets. That would explain a lot. Even the AK could make sense.
    Nicely done.

  4. I agree about wanting a tiny bit of backstory, especially why, or perhaps when, the daughter was captured, and even, perhaps, what one of the ramifications might be.

    Also, where is this? I know that many readers will know from the other references, but some, like me, won’t, unless we google.

    A picky point, which I raise only because this writer has mastered most of the picky points of the writing craft: the use of there is/there are, etc. This is generally considered to be a weak sentence structure, and if you find the real subject, you can easily strengthen those sentences or clauses, e.g., “there was little a single…” could be changed to “a single… could do little.” You can ignore this construction in dialogue, of course.

    Overall, I felt that the writer isn’t a novice, and is very close to finding his/her true voice. Although I’ve read some military thrillers, they aren’t my favorite genre, but I might well pick this one up as a reader because the writing is above the average for the manuscripts that I’ve read when reviewing submissions wearing my editor’s cap.

  5. I have to confess that I went down the rabbit hole of why a US senator is carrying an AK-47. I made an assumption that it was a US SAR helicopter, so the choice of weapon threw me. There would have to be some explanation real fast.

    Still, agreed, this is right up my alley as far as the genre I reach for first, but the details have to be right. I’ll follow a writer into combat as far as stretching credibility if I can trust the details.

    I wasn’t thrilled with the dialogue tag “hollered,” but that’s just me.

    One thing I didn’t feel was the senator’s sense of unease or even fear. He’s leaning out the side of an SAR chopper at 1000 feet in enemy territory. The wind would be competing with his safety line, tugging him in both directions. Since he’s not highly skilled, the adrenaline would be pounding. There’s a good chance he’s half airsick because of the wild ride in to avoid radar. And he’s holding an AK that is at the extreme of its range that he’s not qualified to use. The headset is crackling in his ears as the pilot(s) survey the situation. He’s one of the 100 most powerful people in the world and all he can do is watch as I assume his granddaughter runs through the rocks. I’m not feeling that. I’m not feeling the imminent fear or the helplessness or the anger that led him to be in that chopper at that moment.

    Basically, I’m not in his head deep enough.

    In Clear and Present Danger, there is a wild hot zone helicopter extraction where Jack Ryan is tapped to be the door gunner. You are there, right in the middle of it – hot, stinking, dangerous – all action with no time for thought.

    This has real promise. Don’t be afraid to turn the dial up to 11.

    Terri

  6. I like this post a lot but I was confused about who was in the helicopter and who was speaking. It would have helped if the author had referred to the senator as Senator Temple the first time. Terri, I’m glad you mentioned leaning out of the helicopter. The only helicopter I’ve been in had so much glass that it wouldn’t have been necessary to lean out in order to see below. Plus, if I had to lean out of one I would probably faint from fear, so I thought Temple must be the pilot, leaning figuratively into the wind. When that clearly wasn’t so, I wondered if there were three people in the helicopter. “Hold position and inform the ground team,” didn’t sound to me like something a civilian would say. I understand that my confusion is the result of ignorance. Even so it would have kept me from reading on.

  7. Great critique, Jim.

    I, too, was tripped up by the attribution after the second sentence of dialogue, although I missed the “disintegration” thing. But apart from those minor differences, this is an excellent opening in every respect. It starts with high tension in a dangerous locale, it holds the eye, it creates a strong desire to turn the page, and as far as the issue of the Senator holding a weapon, I somehow feel that will be addressed in later pages.

    I like very much the use of Gaddafi’s name in the opening. I’ve always liked using real people, when possible, in novels. Had the writer used a fictitious Middle-Eastern dictator, the reader would then be forced to construct the world which the characters inhabit. But by inserting Gaddafi — someone who is/was well-known to virtually everyone — into the book early on, it makes for a more comfortable, more familiar ride. Gaddafi covered Libya like a blanket, and by using him in this opening, the writer has implied even greater danger for the characters.

    In addition, the writing not his page is so deft as to make me think a well-written thriller awaits in the remaining pages. This has been one of my favorite first pages in TKZ’s entire series.

  8. I was happy with this start. This is a story I would read. But first a few quibbles… I wouldn’t use the name Temple in a story set in a country where people go to see temples. Did you see that ancient temple, Temple? And yes, Temple is woman’s name, albeit an uncommon one. I would consider a different spelling for Lilah, too. Perhaps Lila, or Leila. That silent “h” is bothersome to me.

    Like others above, I was wondering why a sitting senator was on board a military helicopter during a foreign action, authorized or no. That didn’t pass the smell test. You need to give a reason for that, even if it’s just a few words. How high up is the helicopter? How much is it moving? I shot an AK-47 last year. I’m thinking accuracy by a novice shooter from a moving chopper would be nonexistent. What’s the point of this?

    Since this is an open chopper, what’s the temperature, and what kind of feeling/effect is it having? Is it summer, and the heat is shimmering off the ground? Are they having to fight the sweat? Throats parched? Or is it the dead of winter, and the desert is cold? Just a detail to think about.

    Overall I like it. I like that it starts with action, and I want to know more about what’s going on. I think this start has real potential.

  9. I enjoyed that first page rather much. Thank you.
    Terri Coop, I liked your comments about the rifle. It is hard for me to see an AK-47 on a US helicopter (assuming it’s a US bird – which I was).
    Anon, unless the rifle is indeed meant to be an old Kalashnikov rifle, please update to a modern rifle. The AK-74 replaced the 47 over 40 years ago (in 1974). If it’s a US rifle, probably an M-16, M-4 or the NATO Mk 17 would be more likely – all current service rifles by US forces around the globe.
    I do apologize for going on and on about this, but service rifles of the US, as well as the Kalashnikov counterparts, make for very poor long-range weapons. But if that’s all the senator had available, it’s perfectly understandable that he would try.

    Thanks again. I enjoyed your first page.

    • Carl, I’ve got to pop in here. The AK74 did not “replace” the AK47, except among most armies of the . In fact, AK47s are still being manufactured. The major difference between the two platforms is the round they fire. The AK47 fires 7.62x39mm while the AK74 fires the significantly lighter 5.45x39mm round. Neither one of them would be the first choice for firing out of a helicopter’s open door.

      • John – if you’re around, what would be a better choice of weapon for this 1974 scenario? I’m just not catching that tang of authenticity that has to drive this type of thriller.

        Terri

  10. Have to get back to my own work in just a moment, but here’s an issue that hasn’t been covered yet.

    <>

    The pronoun “they” (they’d) is used inappropriately. Read “Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement & Ambiguous Reference” for more information:

    http://wp.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/UWC_handouts_pronounantecedent.pdf

    I’m assuming that this is Temple’s story, but I need more reason to care about this mission. Why is this mission important to him? What is he doing there? I’d like details so that I can root for the hero. It’s great that you started with action, and the writing isn’t bad. However, I’m not hooked yet. Keep going, brave writer, because I think you’re on the right track. ♪♫♪♫♪♫

    • Here’s the sentence I’m referring to for the use of they (they’d):

      “She looked up at the chopper before plastering herself to the side of a rock. After weeks of reconnaissance, they’d located one of the abducted teenagers, the daughter of the late ambassador.”

      For some reason, it didn’t show up in my last post.

      Anyway, good luck!

  11. Temple, the pilot’s name, initially left me wondering what the pilot’s gender was. When his headset sputtered, I assumed the Senator was communicating via the headset. I also assumed the pilot shot the rifle and I wondered who was flying the copter?
    I liked the critique and I’m sure this story has potential for this talented writer.

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