Act First, Explain Later

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today we have another of our first-page critiques, this one with the title Darkness and Blood. Let’s have a look and discuss it on the other side.

A few minutes past midnight in the south of France.
     Pablo de Silva, ex-CIA agent, awoke from the half sleep of a man on the run always fearing capture. Had he heard a noise somewhere outside his farmhouse? he wondered. Intelligence operatives had found his hideaway to snatch him back to his former boss? Terrorists, avenging the killing of one of their own, had tracked him down? Or a jealous husband set on murdering his wife who had fled his beatings and who now, de Silva worried with a glance at her, lay just as uneasily beside him.
   “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” What is it, Pablo? she asked in a whisper. “Something wrong?”
   He whispered back, “Je ne sais pas,” and put a finger to her lips. “Quiet.” He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something, he patted her warm naked thigh; stay here, his intimate gesture implied. He leapt from their bed and, tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold. A quick dash across the darkened living room, and he was at one of the two windows that overlooked the dirt drive. He knelt, feeling the cold wooden floor on his knees, and, parting the curtain, peered out. For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night. He only heard the same sound that kept him tense, a mechanical rattle. It came from a car, he saw at last, its headlights out, its menacing silhouette looming closer to the end of his farmhouse’s drive, and he realized they didn’t have time to flee.
     “It’s him, I know it. He’ll kill us both, Pablo.”
     De Silva glanced over his shoulder. “Stay in the bedroom.”
     “He’s that kind of husband. He’s crazy with jealousy.”
     “Do as I say and lock the door.” De Silva peeked out through the curtain again, ending further discussion. Only one car, not several. Parked about ten feet from the stone steps leading to his front door. Three men in silhouette in the car; a fourth in darkened outline, above average in height, stepping out. Four men in one vehicle, not a convoy bringing a snatch….

###

We have here the makings of a great opening scene. Ex-CIA on the run, bad guys want him, not to mention a jealous husband. What I think we need is some slicing and dicing to move things along more briskly. My suggestions are for that purpose, but I don’t want them to distract from the overall point that this is a nice set up.

The axiom act first, explain later applies here. Readers who are caught up in a tense scene will wait a long time for fuller information to come out. In fact, they prefer it. One of the pleasures of reading a thriller is to guess at what’s going on before all is made clear.

Thus, I’d cut the first line. It’s going to become evident this is night soon enough. And the France bit is implied by the dialogue. The exact location can be dropped in at another point.

So let’s look at that all-important first paragraph:

Pablo de Silva, ex-CIA agent, awoke from the half sleep of a man on the run always fearing capture. A man on the run always fears capture. The opening line works better without the redundancy. Had he heard a noise somewhere outside his farmhouse? he wondered. We are in his POV, so the he wondered is not necessary. (Regarding POV and exposition, even ex-CIA agent could be cut and saved for later.)

The rest of the paragraph is packed with exposition, three possibilities going through Pablo’s mind. It’s a bit much for a reader to process. It slows the action. Why not keep us guessing? Consider cutting this part. By the end of the page we’ll still know there’s a jealous husband out there, and that the ones outside are a group.

Next we have:

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” What is it, Pablo? she asked in a whisper. “Something wrong?”

First of all, for foreign phrases, the norm is:

  1. The phrase, italicized.
  2. The attribution.
  3. The translation.

Like this:

Dónde está mi ropa interior?” he said. Where is my underwear?

Thus:

Qu’est-ce que c’est?” the woman whispered. What is it? (You added Pablo to the translation when it wasn’t in the foreign. It must be an exact match. Also, the phrase “Something wrong” stands out. Is it in English? Then why did she speak French? It’s also redundant. What is it? already implies something is wrong).

Then:

He whispered back, “Je ne sais pas,” and put a finger to her lips.

To be consistent, you ought to make it:

Je ne sais pas,” he whispered back. I don’t know. He put a finger to her lips. I’d cut “Quiet” because that’s implied with the finger to the lips.

Now we have a long paragraph, and I’m going to make a very simple, yet effective suggestion: White space! It’s no secret that these days many busy readers are intimidated by long blocks of text. So make it easy for them by adding breaks, like so:

     He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something, he patted her warm naked thigh; stay here, his intimate gesture implied.
     He leapt from their bed and, tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold. A quick dash across the darkened living room, and he was at one of the two windows that overlooked the dirt drive. He knelt, feeling the cold wooden floor on his knees, and, parting the curtain, peered out.
     For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night. He only heard the same sound that kept him tense, a mechanical rattle. It came from a car, he saw at last, its headlights out, its menacing silhouette looming closer to the end of his farmhouse’s drive, and he realized they didn’t have time to flee.

In the above section, I’d cut After a moment longer, sure now he had heard something… It is part of a really long sentence and isn’t needed. We can guess all this from the action. Also, and this is one of my personal bugaboos (so feel free to ignore it, although you ignore it at your peril!) I hate semi-colons in fiction. And I’m not alone! If you care to, you can read my reasons here.

I’m okay with Pablo patting her warm naked thigh. But then you don’t need stay here, his intimate gesture implied. That’s a POV violation, since it’s not Pablo who would pick up the implication, but the woman. And anyway, the pat itself is enough.

With all that said, this part could read:

     He listened a moment longer in the absolute stillness of the country night, trying to place the sound. He patted the woman’s warm naked thigh and leapt from their bed.
     Tiptoeing in a crouch, he was at the bedroom’s threshold.

Next:

For a moment, squinting past the partly opened shutters, he saw nothing except the thick blackness of night.

I’d make it, simply:

He saw nothing except the thick blackness of night.

The reason is that of course it’s a moment. Everything in the scene is a moment, and unless you are conveying something like a moment later it’s not needed. The squinting part is already implied by the peering out.

And I bring this up for another reason. The –ing construction is repeated throughout. I’m not a grammar guru, but I believe this is called a present participle phrase:

trying to place the sound
tiptoeing in a crouch
feeling the cold wooden floor
parting the curtain
squinting past the partly opened shutters
ending further discussion
stepping out

There is nothing grammatically wrong with a present participle, and on occasion it can add variety to the style. But overuse can get taxing. So just be aware of it. There’s never anything wrong with converting one long sentence into two shorter ones … and ditching the –ings.

Okay, that’s a lot of notes. The remainder of the page works for me (okay, one more note: I’d cut the line ending further discussion as that’s evident from the action).

As I said at the top, this is a compelling opening scene. Edit it a bit and I would definitely turn the page to see what happens next!

Your turn, TKZers. Help our brave author out with your own notes. I’m on the road today but will try to check in.

4+

13 thoughts on “Act First, Explain Later

  1. I agree about the pacing. I was thinking “By the time he gets through thinking all of this everyone in the house would be captured or dead.”

    People in dangerous professions (even after they retire) tend to wake up like BOOM – instantly alert and ready for action. They may sift through possibilities but they do it fast. That’s how they survived.

    More action, less internalizing (at least until the action is over) and I would definitely read this.

    • That was my sense, too, for pacing but the internalizing (in part) could still go on as in:

      “DeSilva awoke and came to full operational readiness in a single slow heartbeat, but not a muscle twitched, not even his eyelids. A faint sound, just at the threshold of awareness. That part of his brain that kept him alive against terrorists and foreign agents sought to isolate the sound, identify it and, if necessary, determine how to kill it.”

      I’d save the jealous husband part for a revelation at the end of the page. Also, I’d suggest giving the woman a name, something to make this more personal.

  2. If I may rudely interrupt these proceedings and go semi-off-topic for a moment…please join me in CONGRATULATING JAMES SCOTT BELL FOR WINNING THE ITW 2017 THRILLER AWARD FOR BEST E-BOOK ORIGINAL NOVEL: ROMEO’S WAY!!!

    Anon du jour: you’re getting advice from a winner.

  3. I am new to this list, and enjoying it so much. Especially this morning. Thank you, James Scott Bell. And you are so great to post this while traveling back from your big win at the ITW awards in NYC. Congratulations and thank you! Back to my work, keeping your notes in mind.

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