Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

3+
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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

14 thoughts on “Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

  1. How old is Kaitlyn really? In the beginning she sounded like an adult living alone. Then all of a sudden she sounds like she’s a little kid. We need to know.

    The first two paragraphs could easily be deleted without missing anything.

    Rear Window is one of my favorites. Author could do a lot with this. Less weather, more suspense.

  2. Thank you, gutsy author, for submitting your first page for critique.

    I like that we have dead bodies, an eerie setting at night (though Jordan’s suggested rewrite made it even more eerie), the location, the season, and the (presumably) main character’s full name all in the opening. Impressive.

    I urge you to trust your readers more. You don’t have to tell us specifically about the sheets. We already made the connection that the bodies were her parents when they weren’t in their bedroom.

    Likewise, you don’t have to tell us it’s the neighbor banging on the door. We are scared that it IS the neighbor since he just looked at Kaitlyn from his back yard. (And it’s good that you’ve made us scared.)

    Jordan had several great suggestions as to how to make your opening more believable, but I especially like number five. It’d be harder for us to care about a rebellious kid, but it’d also make the story more interesting if you can pull it off.

    Speaking of the kid, like Cynthia said, I wondered how old Kaitlyn was. (An easy fix as Jordan demonstrated.)

    I like this opening, gutsy author, and if you tweak it with a few of Jordan’s suggestions, I would turn to the page to see what happens next.

    Good luck on your continued writing journey.

    • Thanks for the specifics mentioned in your feedback, Priscilla. Whether this promising author takes any of our suggestions is always his/her perogative, but you never know what comment might make the difference. Thanks for taking the time & caring to weigh in.

  3. Good opening. The analysis from Jorden and the other comments will help sharpen the tension. One way to show and not tell is a sidekick. This gives the protagonist someone to talk to. The proper sidekick in this context is a pain in the butt younger brother. In Hiitchkock’s Rear Window, the protagonist had two sidekicks.

    • That’s a good tip, Brian. Very out of the box. Thank you.

      A sidekick or a pet is a good way to pull out dialogue or internal thoughts. I can see a frightened kid talking aloud to ease the pounding of her heart.

  4. As others have said, you need to find a graceful way to let us know the girl’s age. I assumed an adult since she apparently is sleeping in the nude? (She puts on a nightgown before leaving her room). And if she is naked, I doubt a young girl would go to a window to be seen so clearly. (The neighbor stares up at her…indeed!)

    I like the tension created by the scraping sound. That was nicely done, as was some of the sensory description. But I wish the writer had strung out the suspense longer. (Jordan’s rewrite is a great example). I think the writer tips her hand way too quickly. (Oh my god! he’s burying bodies. Oh my god, it’s my parents. Oh my god, he’s coming after me now). As Jordan said, this feels really rushed and truncated. We often talk here about not having a lot of throat-clearing in the opening. But sometimes, you can underwrite a scene and not get that wonderful Hitchcockian build-up (Audience knows there is a bomb under the chair…the suspense comes from not knowing when it will go off).

    There are some things that defy logic here: If she can see all this clearly from her window, are we in a suburban neighborhood? Kennebunkport is a close-packed tourist town. Is she maybe out in the woods, apart from the main area? Would any killer be reckless enough to bury his victims in his own yard in the glare of a battery lamp? Maybe if they were in the country, but it doesn’t really make sense as presented. The neighbor knows her name yet she doesn’t recognize him? He is just identified as “the neighbor.” Another thing that doesn’t quite jive: She can’t sleep. Yet she heard no noise, no commotion, when her parents were apparently taken from their beds?

    Events and reactions have to work logically. Or the story doesn’t.

    • Great input, Kris. Love all the details with your feedback. Totally agree that if the neighbor is burying bodies, why do it with a lamp shining on the nasty deed?

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Jordan for her excellent critique/rewrite ideas. I apologize in advance for any typos in my comments that follow. My time is limited, and I want to offer as much feedback as possible.

    Style

    Phrasing

    You write: “The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty”

    That is awkward. Just say her parents’ double bed.

    Would you say something like “the sweater of Jake” in a story? No. Just say Jake’s sweater.

    Word Choice

    You write: “Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane…”

    If you’re writing in past tense, the word “tonight” isn’t appropriate. “That night” would be better.

    Word Repetition

    “She threw a cotton nightgown”
    “She threw a thin cotton sheet”

    There are lots of interesting verbs. No need to use “threw” twice on one page.

    Spacing

    You write: They were the length of —

    Don’t put a space before the em dash.

    Use of Was/Were

    Eliminate the use of was/were when possible. For example: “Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.”

    Instead, try: Two oblong objects wrapped in a light-colored fabric sat beside a big hole.

    (Note: “Wrapped” is better than “encased” is the POV character is a child. Do what you can to keep the reader in the child’s frame of mind. There are other places in the story that you can make sound more like a child, as well.)

    Dialogue

    Dialogue/interior monologue should be more natural.
    A child probably wouldn’t use words like hell: “what the hell is that, anyway?”

    The following lines sound odd for many reasons: “Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

    A neighbor wouldn’t announce “it’s your neighbor.” The “Oh, Kaitlyn” part sounds cartoonish. Using the name Kaitlyn three times is overkill. However, here’s how you would punctuate the first part:

    “Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn,” a voice called.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    “Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.”

    Don’t tell us the emotion she is feeling (frustrated). Show the reader her actions, and let the reader draw his own conclusions. The action should be enough to convey the frustration.

    “Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.”

    Again, it would be more powerful to show the reader her fear here, rather than tell about it.

    Opening w/Weather

    Ordinarily, I would advise not to dwell too much on the weather in an opening. However, I am assuming that the electricity is out due to a power outage since power outages often happen in the sweltering heat. That’s probably why a battery-operated lamp was nearby. However, I’d provide this information quickly and from Kaityln’s personal POV. The first three paragraphs read more like a book report. Build up the fear slowly, and then take the reader on a journey.

    Logistics

    Why does the neighbor with the shovel who knows he’s been spotted bother to knock on the door? Presumably, he’s already been in the house and the door is unlocked.

    Use Child’s POV

    “Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.”

    This does not sound like how a child or even a teen would think. If you want to get the reader into the mindset of the child/teen, use appropriate language. Stay in the POV of the child/teen so that the reader can live vicariously through the child/teen.

    Hints on How to Terrify Readers

    1. The unknown is what readers fear the most. Use this knowledge when you write. Sometimes it’s better to withhold some information.

    2. What’s wrong with this picture? Sometimes you can hint at trouble by showing something that is a little off or out of place.

    3. Don’t use fancy language. Sometimes simple words that paint a vague impression are best.

    4. Offer a glimmer of hope and then have something terrible happen. Make the reader feel safe momentarily, and then spring something on him. Save the best creepy stuff for last. Prime the reader, and then scare the pants off of him.

    Book Recommendations:

    Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
    Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost

    Overall Impression

    Nice job. Now take a careful look at Jordan’s rewrite and the other TKZer comments and roll up your sleeves. I can’t wait to read your next draft. Come on. Raise the hair on the back of my neck!

    • Ditto, Jordan. Your feedback was great and will really help our brave writer. Today has been fun. Have been battling the twin evils of ice and snow, and apparently even more is on the way!

      Btw, one book that I recommended above, Writers Workshop of Horror, is not just for horror writers. There’s stuff in there that applies to everyone. For example, Chapter 7 (“We don’t get too many strangers around here….” Or: Using Dialogue to Tell Your Story) by four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, Thomas F. Monteleone, has some great tips on writing believable dialogue. I think our brave writer (and many TKZers) would really benefit from this book. Of course, the whole book is filled with great stuff for writers of all genres.

  6. How would the critique change if this was flash fiction limited to 500 words? Hard to avoid rushing or telling.
    Thanks.

    • Hi Lloyd.

      It’s understood & established at TKZ that anonymous submitters send the first 400 words of a project, for feedback. This isn’t a writing exercise. I think it’s stated on our blog where we list the guidelines.

      The idea is to polish the intro to our manuscripts since most editors & agents make their decision to read on or reject after reading 400 or so words.

      A short intro won’t spell out the whole plot, but it should be compelling enough to keep readers turning the pages.

      Thanks for your question.

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