Creating Tension Between the Lines

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Another first page for us to analyze today. Note: Davina is not the title of the book, but the name of a first-person narrator. The author intends to switch POVs with other characters, and put the name at the start of each chapter.

Davina

      Someone once said nothing good happens after two am

      I try the familiar number at 3:10.

     Where was she? My sister’s an insomniac like me. She promised to call, the big move slated for yesterday. Pick up, damn it. Six rings, seven. I click off and pace, picking up and replacing my hairbrush, the phone, a bottle of baby aspirin, an inch-high silver tree with roots spreading out so it will stand. That one I keep hold of, cradling it in my palm, where the lines resemble roots.

   At 3:30, I try again.

   She answers on the sixth ring. “I didn’t,” she says. “I don’t think I did. I wanted to, but I wouldn’t. Would I?”

   Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

   Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer. The little tree’s still in my palm, I can’t seem to put it down. The last present my father gave me, before he died and left Marissa and me alone with Mother. All these years and no sign of tarnish.

   At 7:30 I call Nate. He lives in the cabin next to ours. “Marissa hung up on me. She sounded weird. You have any idea what’s up?”

  “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

  I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. Marissa, what have you done? My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

   Where’s my tree? Must have fallen on the floor.

    “Trudy went on the deck. The rail gave way where the porcupines gnawed the post. Last night, early morning, I guess.” Nate’s voice swells, an announcer who’s come to the juicy part. “I heard the sheriff talking to the ME. He thinks Marissa made the porcupine’s damage worse, or maybe just pushed her.”

     “Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.” I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

 “Not what the sheriff thinks,” Nate says. “You should come.”

***

JSB: The author has begun with a disturbance, which automatically puts this page into the “highly promising” category. Over the course of time here at TKZ we’ve seen two common errors popping up on these first pages: openings with characters alone, thinking or feeling; and loads of exposition and/or backstory.

But this page starts with the narrator, Davina, trying to get hold of her sister late at night. When she does, the sister sounds “weird.” Then she finds out the very bad news. Bad news is a good choice for an opening!

Now let’s render it in the most effective manner.

The first line seems superfluous to me. The second line is action, and I’d start there. Tweak it a bit. It’s 3:10 a.m. when I try the number again. 

I like the details of the next paragraph. It helps us feel what the narrator feels. The pacing, the anxiety. Specificity of small details is something many new writer’s overlook. Not so this author.

Next, the sister answers and gives her odd response. To this point, I’m right with the author.

Then:

Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

Here is where a little craft will pay off with large dividends. Cut this line: What has she done or not done? We don’t need it. It’s explanatory. Never explain when what’s actually happening on the page. We know this is what the narrator is thinking; we don’t have to be told.

Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer.

This is a good use of narrative summary. It moves us along quickly to the next point in the scene. There are times when you should “tell” in just this way. Usually it’s to transition between scenes, but sometimes, as here, you do it jump ahead in time to get to the meat of a scene.

I like the one line of backstory: The last present my father gave me, before he died and left Marissa and me alone with Mother. My rule of thumb for new writers is three lines of backstory in the first ten pages, used together or spread out. This is one such line.

Then we come to the phone call to Nate. I have some concerns about the dialogue.

When the narrator asks what’s up, Nate immediately says, “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

Is that the way a neighbor would give such horrible news? And he uses the name Trudy instead of Your mother. Maybe there’s something odd about him (no social skills?) but that doesn’t come through here. I think it would be more impactful if he prepared her a bit, and didn’t use Trudy to break it to her.

Let’s look at this passage:

I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. Marissa, what have you done? My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

Where’s my tree? Must have fallen on the floor.

Again, there are two lines in here that are explanatory. Can you spot them?

Look how much crisper it reads when those lines are removed:

I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

Where’s my tree?

Then we get some exposition “slipped in” for the reader:

“Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.”

Always be aware of dialogue where one character tells another something they both already know. Chances are you’ve done that primarily to give the reader expository info you think they need to understand the scene.

Resist that urge. You can wait until a more natural time for this info, such as the narrator being questioned by the police or some such.

Try ending the page this way:

I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

“Not what the sheriff thinks,” Nate says. “You better come.”

(I changed should to better.)

In sum: this is a scene that has the natural tension of an opening disturbance. Cutting the lines of needless explanation will allow the tension to be felt more directly by the reader. And some simple cuts in the dialogue will render a more natural sound.

Well done, writer.

Okay, I’m in travel mode today, so I leave our author in the hands of the TKZ community for further comment!

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11 thoughts on “Creating Tension Between the Lines

  1. I liked it & think the given suggestions will make it even better. It’s probably just me with tired brain but I stumbled over this bit near the beginning & had to re-read it a few times “picking up…an inch-high silver tree with roots spreading out so it will stand.”

    I think I stumbled because POV character had been rattling off a list of practical, easy to envision things (hairbrush, phone, etc.) so that when I read ‘inch-high silver tree’ my brain went “Huh?” & I had to re-read it a couple times to get on the same page. 😎 Not that that’s a bad thing. It just caused me to linger in the paragraph for longer than normal.

  2. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. JSB already provided some wise advice. Here are a few more comments to throw into the mix:

    Opening Line

    The first thing that leaps out at me on the first page is the first line, which has no punctuation mark at the end. I’d stop reading there if I weren’t reading for critique purposes. I’m guessing the author didn’t know how to do punctuation for time and decided it was better not to use any punctuation at all.
    Here’s what I would do for your first line:

    Someone once said nothing good happens after two a.m.

    (When you have an abbreviation at the end of a sentence, the period does double duty. You don’t need two periods.)

    Now, let’s look at the sentence itself. The “someone once said” phrase sounds like author intrusion. I’d write the line like this:

    Nothing good happens after midnight.

    (Notice I changed the the clunky two a.m. to midnight.) This makes the phrase sound more immediate, like it could be a character thought, rather than preaching. Word choice definitely affects pacing. So think about what you’re trying to accomplish with the first line. (And see where I think your lead really is below.)

    Second Line

    You write:

    “I try the familiar number at 3:10.”

    There is no reason to keep the reader in the dark here. Tell the reader who Davinia is trying to call. For example:

    I try Marissa’s number at 3:10.

    Tense

    You write:

    “Where was she?

    If you’re going to write in the present tense, stay in the present tense. Say:

    Where is she?

    Significance of Tree

    Because our brave writer focuses on the tree on the first page, the reader will expect that tree to have story significance.

    Backstory

    “My sister’s an insomniac like me. She promised to call, the big move slated for yesterday.”

    There lines are brief and give the reader insight into why Davinia is so worried. However, if I were writing this story, I’d do it differently. These lines sound almost like an aside to the reader and pull the reader out of the story.

    Pacing

    I like the way you use short sentences to speed up the pace. I’d keep going with that idea here, where you write:

    “Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.”

    I’d rewrite it like this:

    Click. Connection broken. I redial.

    The subscriber is unavailable.

    Why tell when it’s quicker to show?

    Where to Start the Story

    I don’t like scenes that span four hours on the first page, as we see here:

    “Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer.”

    This is a hint that you are starting your story in the wrong place. Imagine if you were filming this scene. You’d have to put up a little sign that said “Four Hours Later” or something. How often do you see that when you watch a movie? So start with the juiciest part.

    Here is your lead:

    “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

    BAM. Consider rewriting your opening and beginning here. Readers are astute and don’t need a lot of hemming and hauling and warm-up. It’s a stylistic choice, of course, but I’d start with a bang and fill in the other details later. However, you certainly start with a disturbance. It’s your story, of course, but I would just dive a little deeper into the story for the most impact.

    Reader Feeder Dialogue

    This is an example of reader feeder (or “as-you-know-Bob”) dialogue:

    “Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.” I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

    Learn more here:

    http://annerallen.com/2018/02/indirect-dialogue/

    Overall Impression

    Very nice first draft, brave writer. Best of luck, and carry on!

    • Let me clarify a bit more. I find it a little too “convenient” that the sister would make such a bizarre, incriminating kind of statement and then hang up.

      Btw, JSB made a valid point about how a neighbor would deliver bad news, and you might consider the wording. However, I still think the best place to begin the story is in the place where the neighbor delivers the news. But get the wording of the bad news right. (Of course, some people are inconsiderate jerks. That could be a personality trait, too.)

      Hope that makes sense.

  3. Brave author, thanks for sharing your work with everyone.

    I agree with JSB in that the first line is unnecessary. The second sentence is a great place to start your opening.

    I stumbled at the third paragraph. I read and reread the first part. I think “was” in the first sentence should be “is.” The rest of the paragraph is engaging, loved it. I could feel Davina’s tension.

    It’s hard to make a phone sound like it’s hanging up. “Click, connection broken,” doesn’t quite read right (to me). Maybe some rewording:

    The phone is silent. “Hello?” Nothing. I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

    You’ve intrigued me, brave author. I would turn the page. Good luck with your continued writing journey!

  4. Great job, Anonymous Author! I like the tense, minimalist style and Jim’s suggestions give even more punch to a strong start.

    Like BK, I got a bit confused. I could envision “an inch-high silver tree with roots spreading out so it will stand.” Then you add “cradling it in my palm, where the lines resemble roots.” Do you mean there are lines in her hand that extend beyond the silver roots? Needs clarification. If you get it right, the image will be powerful but right now it’s a little muddy.

    One other question: where is Davina in relation to the cabin where Mother and Marissa are? Suggest you include brief explanation why she wouldn’t immediately rush over to the cabin when obviously something is wrong. Maybe Davina debates if it’s worth a four-hour drive from her home in another town to investigate why Marissa hung up on her.

    None of these small bumps would have stopped me from turning the page. You’ve set up a situation full of questions and lots for the reader to worry about. Well done!

  5. One more thing, brave writer. Check out chapter 3 of Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. The chapter is called “Welcome to the Twentieth Century.” Stein discusses narrative summary and immediate scene and how television and movies are filled with immediate scene. He writes:

    “Twentieth century audiences now insist on seeing what they are reading. If you examine twentieth-century fiction, you’ll find a dramatic increase in immediate scenes and a corresponding decrease in narrative summary.”

    I can’t quote the whole chapter here, but I’d love for you (and anyone interested) to read it, and perhaps we can discuss it. See Stein’s definitions of immediate scene, narrative summary, and description. The whole book is good stuff, really. Sol also wrote a book entitled How to Grow a Novel, and he discusses more about “immediate scene” in that book.

  6. My fellow responders have given you some excellent advice. Especially, the note to read Stein on Writing. Sol Stein is a top agent and has read thousands of openings.
    He knows what he is talking about.

    An additional problem for me. I don’t know or care about Davina yet. I have no reason to cheer for her. At first I couldn’t tell if you were deliberately clipping the dialogue for style or you were showing her as a crazy. Either way it was confusing. You might be trying too hard.
    I like the idea of Davina on the road to her sister’s house so we can see her behaving as a caring person. We can also see her dreading what she hasn’t find out (one paragraph) Then banging on her sister’s door and the conversation with her sister about her mothers death – we can see her leadership. Her sister is out of control with fear. Davina convinces her to go to their mother’s house to interact with the police. They go together.
    I assume you are writing genre fiction. Our readers don’t want clever or confusing openings. Use plan language.
    Here is the opening to GONE GIRL. We get a sense of Nick and so much more:

    When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of
    it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the
    head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of
    it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what
    the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine
    the skull quite easily.
    I’d know her head anywhere.

    Is this a loving description or a threat? I think it is both. It foreshadows the whole story – unusual and filled with misdirection. But we know something about Nick and Ms Flynn uses plain language.

    Keep writing. The only way to lose is to quit while you are still learning.

  7. I agree with what’s been said, especially about bad news making for a good opening. The reason I’m chiming in is that tree. It’s bugging me. For some reason I kept picturing a jewelry tree, the kind where women with lots of jewelry hang their earrings at night? I’m only bringing it up since the opening holds so much promise I hate to hit a speed bump over trying to figure out what sort of tree is in her palm and why. Love the name Davina btw!

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