The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

9 thoughts on “The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

  1. I was immediately interested in the setting as I love the gym, but almost immediately became confused. The hand on the doorknob–usually used to symbolize tension of some sort, the police cars, the reminder of a seemingly bad memory. Then the person zipping past in tears.

    But then the writing seemed to switch to “another day at the gym” tone & I was confused.

    I don’t have to have a dead body or cop cars in the opening of a book, but if they are mentioned, it sets up a certain expectation in my mind. So when we switched from that to business as usual at the front desk, I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be taking away from the scene.

    However, I was engaged with the reading, & I hope Suzi will step in and keep Georgia from being deterred by Trixie (who thankfully doesn’t represent the folks who run my gym’s front desk). 😎

    • You raise a valid point, BK. If we include cop cars, the reader expects a crime of some sort. When we don’t follow through with that line of thinking, we confuse the reader.

      No Trixie at your gym? Thank goodness! LOL

  2. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. “The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.”

    Your character clearly has some kind of a core wound/fear. Michael Hauge gave a talk on YouTube about how to introduce a character’s core wound. Plunk “When Does A Screenwriter Reveal A Character’s Core Wound In A Screenplay? by Michael Hauge” into a search engine to find it. I know you’re not writing a screenplay, but many of the same principles used in screenwriting apply to novel writing.

    Rather than saying “something that had happened long ago,” you might want to provide some type of small hint here about what the wound is. Martha Alderson wrote about this in a blog post entitled “How to Reveal a Character’s Backstory Wound.”

    2. “Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.”

    Why didn’t anyone find out why the instructor was crying? I assume that the instructors know each other if they work together. I know that even if I didn’t know someone, I’d ask about why they were crying. Protagonist is looking like an uncaring person here (or at least very self-absorbed).

    3. “The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.”

    Rewrite this sentence using a strong verb instead of the word “was.” Try this:

    In the background, I heard a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

    4. “Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.”

    This clunky sentence slows the pacing.

    5. The “you teach here” line is an example of “reader feeder” dialogue. Plunk “reader feeder dialogue, Anne Allen” into a search engine if you need more info. on what that is.

    6. You spent a long paragraph describing Trixie’s looks. The reader knows more about Trixie than the protagonist. Then you spend another paragraph of first page real estate giving a blow-by-blow account of Trixie’s boredom level. Meanwhile, guess what emotion your reader is feeling?

    7. “I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.”

    Never use two sentences when one good sentence will do. Example:
    Georgia, one of my regulars, was getting the bad news.

    8. Then you stop the story to give a long description of Georgia’s hot looks.

    9. So, on the first page, we’ve met a huge cast of characters: Suzi, Trixie, Georgia, and gravelly voice guy. Read the article by Michael Hauge entitled “MISDEMEANOR: Introducing Characters All At Once.”

    This story started out with a frightened protagonist and cop cars and lapsed into long character descriptions, rating a character’s boredom level, and so on.
    This is not the way to create suspense, brave writer. Check out the book Fiction Writing Master Class: Emulating the Work of Great Novelists to Master the Fundamentals of Craft and read the chapter 21 (“Write Like Stephen King”). Sue also wrote a nice post on her site called “Create Tension and Suspense. Keep the reader flipping pages!”

    Keep reading and writing, brave writer. Fine writing is on the way!

      • Thanks. I had a great Easter—did the cooking, so it was a little tiring. (I recently got this Ninja kitchen gadget that turns zucchini and other vegetables into vegetable noodles. I’ve been having fun turning everything I can find into noodles. Vegetable spiralizers can be as addicting as reading/writing.) Hope you had a nice holiday, too.

        • Ooh, I’ve seen the Ninja gadgets advertised. Vegetable spirals sound fun, and almost too pretty to eat.

          The hubs and I went on strike this year. What a blast we had. I felt slightly guilty about not driving an hour (each way) to deliver the Easter baskets to the grand-kiddies, but I got over it in no time. LOL The oldest is four, so this was really the last year we could get away with stealing the day for ourselves. 🙂

  3. Brave writer, kudos for including multiple senses in your descriptions. The chlorine smell and the group clap and the thump-thump of the music vibrations through the door handle are all spot-on. And Georgia’s old-lady, kick-butt body intrigued me. (Will she be the capable suspect no one actually suspects because of her age?)

    As much as I liked the descriptions, I didn’t like the things amiss because they led to nothing. Like Sue said, hint at how these things connect. If you could do so, I’d like to turn the page and read on.

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