Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

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SEVEN AT ODDS: First Page Critique

GoDaddy stock phot

Greetings, fellow travelers! Today we venture into a fantasy land of Rwothtyll trees and First Blood Ceremonies. Doesn’t that pique your curiosity? (It did mine.)

Buckle up. Off we go to meet our Brave Author with our First Page Critiques!

SEVEN AT ODDS

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket.

A peal of laughter erupted from Jilly. “Oh, Alek, you are such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully beneath the harvested leaves. She threw Alek a teasing smirk. She tossed the basket back to him and looked up. “You going to be up there all day, Vo?”

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall.

——————————–

I like a good fantasy story, and I’m impressed by the author’s particularly close observation of the story’s idyllic setting and the detailed interactions of the characters. This is a vivid, lush world that offers up a number of compelling curiosities that I’d like to know more about. Plus, a Goddess!

Here at the Zone, we operate at a bit of a disadvantage when we do critiques. We have little information as to intended audience. But that’s part of the fun of it!

I’m going to say that SEVEN AT ODDS is a YA fantasy novel about Vo, Alek, Jilly, and–perhaps–four other characters who are at odds with some villain or god(dess) or invader? They feel a little like young superheroes who haven’t yet discovered they’re superheroes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I’ll get to edits in a moment, but I first want to say that–and maybe it’s just me–I wanted more tension, more action, a sense that something tense and important and dangerous is about to happen. As it stands, it simmers a bit too low, but can easily be pumped up. Thoughts:

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. 

Stakes! Tension! Flow!

We have weird, spooky sounds. An unpredictable goddess. And our friend Vo doesn’t seem particularly alarmed, but goes on to harvest his lemony leaves…My curiosity was initially piqued, but I kind of lose interest when Vo does.

(Forgive me if my rewriting bits don’t track or you find repetitions–I took each paragraph and messed with it and didn’t go for a full rewrite.)

It’s not a bad idea to start with a mysterious sound. But NEVER start with a character thinking. Or wondering. *yawns” I believe this was mentioned on another recent critique. Give our hero something interesting to do, or at least have him reacting physically or psychologically. I was also bugged because I had to assume he was up a tree and didn’t get it until Alek and Jilly were positioned below.

“Animal mating calls” is a bit too general. And let us know immediately why it’s the wrong time of year.

Simplify actions and reactions. Keep dialogue natural. No need to repeat names. Please..no erupting peals. Keep it simple.

Perhaps:

High above the forest floor, Vo stilled his harvest knife in the middle of sawing a cluster of Rwothyll leaves from their branch, and turned his head to listen. Faint ululations, like animal cries, arose in the distance. He guessed they might be the mating calls of some mountain creature. Except it was autumn—a brutally hot autumn—not mating season. It was hard to know for certain what they were. They might even be some trick or riddle of the Goddess, whose ways were often a mystery to Vo and his fellow villagers. Turning back to the tree’s silver-green leaves, he finished sawing through the branch, sending the cluster tumbling down to where Alek and Jilly waited below.

Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair out of his eyes, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. Jilly laughed and gave Alek a playful push. “You’re such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Alek has a basket, so how is he waving? Vo returning the gesture is awkward as well. It’s all a bit too happy, happy.

Vo smiled down at his friends. But his smile faltered as a cloud suddenly dimmed the sunlight. Despite the heat, he shivered. Something’s wrong. Something’s coming, he thought. Or had he just had too much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the previous night? He tried to shake off the tension by cutting another cluster-filled branch. Focusing on the work. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Give Jilly and Alek more interaction. They are oblivious to what is going on with Vo.

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully to catch the falling bundle. She gave a little curtsy, and, smirking, she tossed the full basket back to Alek. “No big deal,” she said. Alek shrugged, obviously pretending to be unimpressed, and called up to Vo. “Come on down. We’ve got enough.” Jilly stuck out her tongue behind his back.

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall. 

Oh, no, Vo! The head shaking and groaning is a bit much as a response to Jilly or Alek asking if he’s coming down soon. He has other more important stuff on his mind–establish earlier that he’s feeling like crap.

I love the description of the terraced hillside. But save it for a page or two because here it diminishes the occurrence of the new sounds. You’ve ramped up the tension, so keep it tense. You don’t have to deliver everything in the first page. Here’s what I would do with the last paragraph:

Vo sheathed the knife, and had just gripped the rope to shimmy down, when more haunting cries, louder now, floated down the hillside brooding over the village. This time they were accompanied by the blast of a [name a local type of horn here] horn, and what sounded like the thrumming of a thousand heartbeats. No. The cries definitely weren’t animal noises. He glanced down to see if Alek and Jilly had heard, too. They had. Their upturned faces were filled with fear.

Yes, I have had lots of opinions about this piece. But I definitely feel it was worth an edit. Good job, Brave Author. Hope this is useful.

TKZers! Thoughts?

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25 Ways To Avoid Writer’s Butt*

 

Credit: Go Daddy Stock Photo

A handy list for your writing day:

  1. Don’t write.
  2. If you choose to write, don’t eat while you’re writing.
  3. Chain yourself to your desk to keep from going to the kitchen.
  4. If your desk is in the kitchen, you need to move your desk.
  5. Don’t write about food unless you’ve just eaten. It will make you hungry.
  6. A candy treat is a fine reward for a potty-training toddler, not grown-up writers who’ve squeaked out 100 words in three hours.
  7. A single glass (not bottle!) of wine, spirits or beer is a fine reward for finishing your work for the day.
  8. Take your dog or cat for a walk. Bonus points if you’re not staring at your phone.
  9. Exercise before you write. Let writing be your reward. (Hey! Stop laughing!)
  10. When you get stuck while writing and find yourself headed for the kitchen, scream DON’T DO IT at the top of your lungs and do 10 push-ups. Knee push-ups count.
  11. If you’re on the phone kvetching with another writer about the sad state of publishing, your life, your advance, or your Writer’s Butt, wear a headset and walk around and around your office, living room, front yard. Bonus points for each 1K steps you take.
  12. Keep your fridge and cabinets stocked with food you hate, or food that takes preparation.
  13. Get a standing desk and a good mat on which to stand.
  14. Nap, at your desk, or napping place of your choice.
  15. Take your dog or cat for another walk.
  16. When you temporarily forget how to write, listen to an audiobook by a writer who inspires you as you walk, jog, etc.
  17. Don’t write when you’re exhausted. Exhausted writers are hungry writers.
  18. When you’re not writing, make your diet as carb-loaded and awful as possible. Then you’ll have acid-reflux the whole time and won’t be tempted to eat.
  19. Take a dance break.
  20. Write stomach-churning prose.
  21. Wear pants that are already uncomfortably tight instead of yoga pants.
  22. Use the Pomodoro method. This one is online, but you can get yourself an actual timer for your desk.
  23. Write at the library and leave your money in the car so you can’t use the vending machines. Bonus points for parking far away.
  24. When you’re reading, walk around the house. You know you did it as a kid. Watch out for the dog.
  25. During your writing time, turn off the Internet, have a tall glass of water on hand, and write like a demon. You’ll feel so good and accomplished when you look at those pages that you’ll either not care if you have Writer’s Butt (always an option!), or you’ll feel so virtuous that you’ll make yourself a healthy dinner, have a glass of wine (or not), take the dog for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, and do it again tomorrow.

*Disclaimer: I have used all 25 methods at various times, and my Writer’s Butt comes and goes. As to number 3, I have gotten so tangled up in the huge number of power cords around my desk that I may as well have been chained because it was a real pain to try to get away from my chair and go to the kitchen.

Okay TKZ-ers! Please share your Avoiding-Writer’s-Butt strategies. We’re listening…

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The Procrastination Habit

Procrastination is so rife among my writer friends and other creatives I know that we don’t even joke about it. We are clichés. While I would never lie about procrastinating when I’m supposed to be working, I rarely volunteer the fact. If another writer confesses to me that she’s procrastinating on getting pages done, I feel a huge sense of relief. There’s no misery like procrastination misery to build solidarity between writer friends.

Even some of the most productive bestselling writers I know sometimes procrastinate. Personally, when I’m in my deepest procrastination moments, I forget that. It feels lonesome, and I become my own harshest judge. (That whole comparing oneself to other writers is deadly too, but we can consider that another time.) Being judgy while procrastinating is doubly unhelpful.

Procrastination offers an escape from tension. If I have a project (or chapter or paragraph or phone call or chore) that makes me feel anxious, I sometimes literally walk away from it. It might be for five minutes. It might be for an hour. It might be for weeks. Eventually I’ll return to it–or, if it’s some kind of chore or event–my lack of action will mean it expires and goes away.

Avoidance. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m sometimes guilty of it. Ouch.

I’ve read many, many books to try to improve my productivity, shape my behavior, and, yes, fix my procrastination habit. Because it is a habit, not a disease or fatal flaw.

Here’s the latest book I’ve read on the subject:

I listened to it on audio via Overdrive and liked it well enough that I bought the ebook. (I often do that, anecdotal proof that library reads influence consumer book purchases.)

Notice that appealing subtitle. “A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” How sexy is that? I couldn’t resist checking it out when I was browsing available audiobooks. The subtitle worked on me exactly the way I’m sure it was intended: put the focus on the positive, not the procrastination.

KillZone is not the place for book reviews, but is about the writing life. So I’ll be brief.

THE NOW HABIT

  1. Helps you identify when and why you might be procrastinating.
  2. Doesn’t judge you for procrastinating–and even explains how it becomes an active coping tool.
  3. Doesn’t prioritize work over pleasure (a real revelation for me).
  4. Offers some compelling client stories.
  5. Has focus exercises and talks about the process and importance of flow.
  6. Helps you create your own “unschedule.”
  7. Has a good section about dealing with the procrastinators in your life.
  8. Explores goal setting.

The “unschedule” is my favorite piece of the process because it turns one’s schedule upside down. After blocking out the time you require for life’s necessities like eating, cleaning, sleeping, and tending dependent creatures, you mark out time for things that give you pleasure and put you in a state of play or creative play. Working out, practicing hobbies, spending time with friends. It might happen daily, weekly, or bi-weekly. Whatever you choose. It becomes a priority. A reward to work toward.

Work (or writing or publishing business for most of us here) can become more energizing. More efficient. I confess that on the days I’ve managed to put this into serious practice, I’ve found myself happily working overtime, sometimes working well into my scheduled pleasure time–but not feeling a bit deprived because I know I’ll get to play again soon. Also, I’m getting a huge amount of pleasure from my work hours.

I know many people who have always operated their lives this way. They tend not to be procrastinators, and are what Fiore calls “producers.” If you are one of those people, you either stopped reading this a long time ago, or are shaking your head, wondering what’s wrong with the rest of us. Congratulations! You are in a really good place.

I’ll give you a peek at a part of my “unschedule” from last week. Up to last month, my two primary jobs were writer and homeschool mom. Now I’m a writer with a rising college freshman in the house, so my time is primarily mine to schedule. Everyone’s life circumstances are different, so your mileage will vary.

 

I make my schedule in pencil because it never works out exactly as I plan and I like to go back and put in what I actually do. It’s quite revelatory for me.

Dealing with procrastination can be a real battle. Particularly for writers. Not all, of course. I’d love to hear from both sides of the aisle. What do you do to fight procrastination, if you fight it at all? If you don’t, what keeps you focused on your goals?

(I won’t tell you how many times I got up from my chair and wandered out into another part of the house as I wrote this. But here’s what happens if I’m gone for even a minute!)

 

 

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Thank You. Thank You Very Much.

 

Book photo by Svetlana Lukienko/Canva

The other day I conducted an informal Facebook poll asking if people read acknowledgement pages in books. Because folks who respond to online polls are self-selecting, I wouldn’t make bank on the results. Still, they rather surprised me.

After a brief intro, my direct question was, “Do you read acknowledgement pages?” (Pretty tricky, huh?) All forty-some commenters said that they do. Some said so quite emphatically. Confidentially, I need to hire a better pollster because it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I find writing out the acknowledgements for a book terrifying. There are writers who do it elegantly, and writers who don’t do it at all. Mine are never elegant, and I know I always forget someone important. (And anyone who helps even slightly with a book is important.) I was half-hoping I would learn that no one reads acknowledgements and they think they’re a waste paper. That way I could go on with other projects. It took me five days of dithering and starting and stopping before I finally got them finished. I write fiction for a reason. Acknowledgements are reality in a very pure form.

I like thanking people. I really do! I’m a regular thank-you note writer, and have been since the days when my mother stood over me to make sure I did them. For me, saying thank you for something is often easier than asking for help in the first place. But not in the case of writing acknowledgments. There’s something so absolutely final about writing acknowledgements. They’re there on paper forever–well, until it rots or the pixels die or we have a digital apocalypse, anyway. If I do it wrong, everyone will know!

I don’t have a system for writing acknowledgements. There’s a list in every novel’s notebook where I write down the names of people I mean to thank. But before I start writing what will go in the book, I always peruse my bookshelves to see what others have done. There are no existing rules that I know of.

Here are some random examples from my shelf:

Judy Blume, IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT: 3+ pages

Johnny Shaw, FLOODGATE: 1 page

Con LeHane, MURDER IN THE MANUSCRIPT ROOM: 1+ page

Elmore Leonard, BE COOL: A brief paragraph with song attributions and a line to Aerosmith and Steve Davis. Also a line in the dedication. All at the front of the book

Margaret Atwood, THE BLIND ASSASSIN: A paragraph with the names, only, of 50 + people, then copyright content notes

Rhys Bowen, CROWNED AND DANGEROUS: 8 lines thanking several people on the dedication page

IAN RANKIN, SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE: None

That’s a small spectrum of acknowledgements, but they’re all pretty much different. Is one better than another? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of style. Do I think that a writer who only thanks three people rather than fifty is an ungrateful person? Absolutely not. I doubt readers think so.

I confess that it’s gotten more difficult for me over time. If I had a quarter of as many books as Margaret Atwood, I would probably just starting listing folks as well. One can only extoll the amazing virtues of one’s agent so many ways. At this point I have to go back and make sure I’m not repeating myself.

The FB poll opened my eyes to how important acknowledgements can be to readers, as well as reviewers and bloggers. Acknowledgements give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the writer’s process and the publishing scene. They also give us a glimpse into the personality style of the writer. Or maybe not. I’m not quite decided on that. I never met Elmore Leonard, and I haven’t met Judy Blume or Margaret Atwood, but their acknowledgements styles reflect what I imagine them to be (or to have been) like. And while I don’t know the rest of the writers in my examples well, I know them enough to find their styles compatible with their personalities. And they’re all lovely people.

There are two instances where I’ll go straight to the acknowledgements page. The first is if I know it’s a heavily researched novel. I love to hear about sources. The other is if I know the writer fairly well. There are few things more embarrassing than learning a year after the fact that someone put you in their book.

Writers–How do you approach acknowledgements? I’m dying to know what your process is!

Readers–Do you read acknowledgements? Do you judge the writer by what you read? What do you look for? Please tell us!

 

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First Page Critique: No Such Thing as Enough

Go Daddy Stock photo

Greetings and Salutations, happy readers!

It’s my pleasure to bring you a new First Page Critique. The chapter is the first from a novel called, No Such Thing as Enough.

Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die. The first bullet entered his chest and blew out his back, leaving blood spatter on the brick wall of the alley. A crooked blood trail marked the cement where he staggered between the Chinese take-out place and the hardware store. Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head. The skinny seventeen-year-old had put up a good fight, but he lost.

Jamie’s mother, Alice, rousted me out of bed with a phone call at about 3:00 AM. “Pastor Rathbone, my boy is dead.” Her voice came through flat, expressionless. “Please come down to North Main Street. Maybe you could tell me where God was when my boy was dying? Or maybe you could tell me why God didn’t care that my boy was murdered in the street?” She cried as she hung up, leaving me sitting in my underwear, staring at the receiver.

I tried to place her face, but nothing registered. She had to be a member of the congregation, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her. In a church the size of the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle, that was easy. How had my predecessor, Pastor Richmond, been able to keep track of so many people?

I wondered what Alice expected me to do or say. Where was God when we needed him? I had no idea. I had struggled with that question most of my life, and still I had no answers. Nevertheless, it was my job to bring comfort—not that anything I could say would really comfort her—so I threw on some clothes and headed out to downtown Dayton Crossing.

***************

While I do enjoy working with writers who have that new baby writer smell (Mmmmmm, those potent combinations: Fearlessness/fearfulness. Inventiveness. Enthusiasm/despair. Overconfidence/zero confidence.), it’s always a pleasure to work with a writer who has read a lot of fiction and can construct not just a pleasing sentence, but a well-thought-out paragraph. Hear, hear, brave author! You’re off the ground, but let’s work on your aim.

I was going to start off with a most obvious comment about presenting a logical sequence of events, which is something a lot of us struggle with. What comes first, second, third, etc.?

But I’m going to short circuit that comment with an observation that came to me on my fourth or fifth reading of this opening: It reads exactly like a novelized screenplay. While I’ve only written one produced screenplay, and a handful of live theater pieces, I have—if there were such a thing—an unofficial  doctorate in crime television viewing.

[Opening]

Setting: dark, urban alley

Seventeen-year-old boy walking downtown at night is ambushed, shot in the chest with a high-caliber bullet by a shadowy assailant who could be either a man or woman. He staggers, badly wounded, through an alley leaving a trail of blood. He’s thinking of home (perhaps he’s just been on his phone, calling Mum to say when he’ll be home), and is desperate to get back there, but we can tell by the music he won’t be saved. He collapses on North Main Street, and the assailant shoots him in the head.

[Main titles]

Scene

Slightly tatty, darkened bedroom

Rathbone, a middle-aged man, ruggedly handsome buy not cocky, fumbles for the ringing phone. A woman speaking in a rather monotone, expressionless voice is on the line. She launches into the tale of her son being murdered, while Rathbone frantically feels around for the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle membership directory. Who is this woman, and what is she saying? He sits up, wearing only his underwear. She hangs up, now weeping, and he’s left still puzzled as to who exactly she is. He stares at the receiver, still wondering if he’s supposed to remember who she is.

Rathbone puts on clothes, obviously pensive. He’s not sure what she expects from him, but he knows it has something to do with comforting her. He leaves the house in a God-existential crisis to meet her.

(I’m guessing that he shows up on the scene and finds himself more drawn to solving the crime than comforting the expressionless Alice? It’s a solid start to a story.)

***************

Most of the opening chapter is in Rathbone’s first person POV. But the very first paragraph—the establishing shot, if you will, is rather omniscient, with a bit of authorial editorializing thrown in for good measure. “The skinny seventeen-year old had put up a good fight, but he lost.” Something/someone with a personality is making this comment.

Who is saying this? I’m intrigued. The description of Jamie’s path is extremely specific. Are the mentioned places important?

First line: “Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die.” I like this sentence. It sets up the paragraph well, and I suppose it connects to the specificity of his path. But in the end I find it awkward. Maybe more detail to improve the rhythm.

“Jamie Frampton took a 147-grain, .9mm bullet to the chest, but it took him two minutes and seventy-five frantic, painful steps to die.” If you’re going for drama, go big!

Consider doing one of two things with this paragraph. You can make it a prologue or the first chapter by itself. Back off on the editorializing unless that voice is going to reappear many more times throughout the book. The other thing you could do is give us—or give Rathbone—this information when he’s hanging around the crime scene. Perhaps the guy is a garrulous detective or M.E. who sees Rathbone as non-threatening because of his profession.

It just doesn’t work where it now is.

Rathbone seems a pretty sensible guy. Very philosophical and a bit troubled. Let him have his way with his story, and don’t be afraid to take chances with him.

It’s a terrific start! Just remember that what works in a screenplay won’t translate directly into a novel.

 

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First Page Critique: The Mask

Greeting, TKZers!

Welcome to another installment of First Page Critiques. Today our brave submitter offers us the prologue to a monster story. I love monster stories, so let’s get to it.

This piece came in untitled, but had a chapter title of The Mask. We’ll use that.

THE MASK (Prologue)

A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

 Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

The door didn’t budge.

 The man backed away, his breathing frantic. They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. Now he’d never see her again. I told you so, she would have said angrily, even from her hospital bed. Now she truly was alone. After his father left–

 The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat. It wrapped around his neck, joined with its twin, and squeezed. The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks. The tears travelled more slowly than he thought they would. From the corners of his vision, he saw that the liquid streaming down his cheeks wasn’t clear. It was black. The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.

The man’s feet thrashed as he was lifted off the floor. The sounds of his kicking boots bounced off of the steel walls. The hands around his throat twitched like the severed fingers littered on the floor. The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch. The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera.

Let me summarize this opening as I understand it:

A man is locked in a steel-lined room with the remains of a dismembered corpse. He’s terrified, and reflects that he should never have taken the job that brought him there, and reveals that his mother thinks he’s lazy. Someone/something that is extremely strong strangles him, slowly and painfully, and he erupts in a burning black liquid and finally dies. Men operating cameras trained on the room see the murderer step into view.

This opening is described as a prologue, and I think it functions as a good illustration of how to set a mood. It’s dark and violent and spare. The scene is a fairly common science-fiction trope: a low-level employee/character is killed by (or sacrificed to) a monster. Tropes can be very useful, but can border on the cliché and should be used carefully.

I’m struggling with the voice. It feels…disembodied. (No pun intended.) It’s not that the voice is exactly passive, but it floats between omniscient (the opening and closing paragraphs) and a relatively close third (the victim). It lacks cohesion. Pick a POV. I would argue for using a close third so we see everything through the eyes of the victim during the prologue. Then jump to the POV of someone in the control room. Hopefully that will be a character critical to the telling of the story.

“A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

            Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

This first bit feels like screenplay talk. It’s all scene-setting. A hand twitches. Parts are strewn. A pool of (blood?) is disturbed by a frantic pair of feet(!). All I could think was that the feet of the dismembered corpse were still alive! That was a very weird moment. Then a disembodied voice shrieks, and hands pound on the door. Can you see where I’m going here? Because we started out with random body parts, when we read about other body parts it’s hard to think of them as being attached to a human.

We finally discover that the hands and feet belong to a man who is trapped inside the room with a corpse.

Let’s reimagine the scene as seen through the eyes of the man.

Bill “Red Shirt”* MacNeil stared at the pale hand lying on the blood-soaked steel floor. The corpse’s crushed torso and one twisted leg lay within sight, but it was the hand that struck him dumb. When its fingers arched and twitched, the spell was broken and he ran for the door. Panicked, he stumbled on the slickened floors as he ran, and each time he had to catch himself, his hands were smeared with more of the warm offal.

“Let me out! Open up!” he screamed. He pounded the door with his fists. Breathing heavily, he stepped back, waiting for the familiar sound of bolts thumping into place and the electronic hiss of the door’s seal.

Nothing.

“Dear God, please let me out of here. You can’t do this!”

But hadn’t he known he’d never get out again when he saw the blood everywhere? They couldn’t let him out. They weren’t going to put the entire facility at risk.

If we have some growing sense of the man, even if he is a red shirt, then the trip into his head is less of a surprise.

A couple notes on the murder bit. As you can imagine, I don’t mind seeing a character’s death close up.

Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder.”

This is a terrific image. But I’m still kind of stuck on the disembodied hand thing. And this hand has a twin! Suddenly I’m thinking that this room is full of body parts that act independently (or in pairs). It’s not until the end of this piece that we learn that the hands are attached to a whole murderer.

Please give us a sense much earlier that there’s an actual person or creature behind him.

Important: It’s physically impossible for humans to see what’s coming out of their eyes and running down their cheeks. He might be blinded by the stuff, but he couldn’t really see it unless he looks in a mirror.

You could easily do our red shirt’s death in his POV. It’s awkward that we’re suddenly outside of his head again. He could be struggling to continue kicking against the walls, then realize he can’t do it anymore. He could black out with his last thought being of his sled, Rosebud. You might even add just a single out-of-POV line about what his blank eyes can’t see. For example, the monster stepping over his body to stare into the eye of the camera.

It’s a good start. With some attention and cohesion, I think it could be a wonderful opening.

*”Red Shirt” is the name given to a stock character in a story who dies at the beginning. It comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the low level characters wore red shirts and were usually the first to die.

What say you, TKZers? Do you agree about the close third POV? Would you do it differently? What further advice do you have for our brave submitter?

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A little personal BSP: I have a new book out this week! SMALL TOWN TROUBLE is a cozy mystery. (I love any kind of mystery.) And it’s not just a cozy, it’s a cat detective book! Light and fun. Plus, there are four other books in the series, all written by different authors, with more to come. Read all about it.

 

 

 

 

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First Page Critique: “Kimberley Creed”

 

Happy Wednesday!

It’s time to present another First Page critique of a Brave Writer’s work. (Updated to reflect title)

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Kimberley Creed

“Are you listening to me?” his dad asked him. He nodded, but he hadn’t been. He had been watching in wonder at the group of chanting demonstrators marching down the main street and the half a dozen or so cops standing by. He’d never seen such a commotion.

His father glared at him, his fearsome black eyes striking terror into David. He knew his father could tell when he lied and cringed as the expected hand struck him hard. Whack! on the cheek, his head jolting, ear ringing as the side of his face throbbed. His eyes opened wide in pain as his throat tightened, stopping him from breathing.

“Don’t miss,” Tracker said. “If you do, you owe me fifty bucks. You got it?”

David nodded, still facing the ground. Finally his throat loosened and he was able to suck in a breath, keeping his mouth open to avoid whimpering.

“Focus! I’ll meet you back in the park soon,” Tracker said, and walked away.

David composed himself, wiped his face and looked up. His father lurked at the back of the crowd, looking for a suitable victim. But most of the people around him were locals, David could tell by the way they were dressed. Locals were too much trouble. Tracker wanted a tourist and wandered off the path onto the long stretch of lawn that separated the street from the beach. Dozens of people lingered there, watching the demonstration. Many wore fashionable beachwear, definitely tourists, and David looked over them, trying to guess which unlucky mug Tracker was going to choose.

An attractive couple was canoodling on a bench, oblivious to their surroundings. Easy, but too young. Not cashed up. Then there was the group of young surfers. Too fit; probably fast runners. There was a young father and two young kids seated around a table having lunch. Perfect, the father won’t leave his kids. But he doesn’t look like the kind of fella to have a thick wallet. Then there was the grey-haired couple enjoying a glass of wine and packed lunch at a portable picnic table. Probably retired. Grey nomads. They’ll be loaded for sure.

David looked at Tracker, who was looking back at him and had been waiting for eye contact. Tracker gave a furtive look to the grey nomads, having already picked them out. David nodded and headed towards them.

Tracker walked behind the couple, reached down to the grass and appeared to pick up a fifty-dollar bill.

“Excuse me,” he said. The couple turned and saw him holding up the note. “I think you dropped this,” Tracker said.

“Oh, goodness,” the woman said. The man pulled his wallet from his pocket.

David took a deep breath.

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” the man said and took the fifty. That was David’s cue, and he bolted. The old guy stuffed the fifty inside his wallet, and before he could slide it back into his pocket, it was gone – snatched out of his hand, as David shot through.

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Brave Author, you’ve got an interesting story here, and a very strong facility for clear, declarative prose. Let’s talk a few housekeeping details:

Don’t make your reader work too hard, especially at the beginning of your story. It’s okay and necessary to identify your characters by name.

So it could open: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father asked him.

Or: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father clamped a rough hand on his shoulder, jerking him away from the window.

(I had the sense David was looking out a window, but then I wasn’t sure when the father simply walked away. If they were in public, surely his father wouldn’t have whacked him on the head. Perhaps they were in an alley? Or in a copse in the park? Do establish the scene in a quick line or two.)

Though many writers discourage opening a story with dialogue, it’s a rule I break all the time, particularly at the beginning of a chapter. But you might consider another, non-dialogue opening for the beginning of a novel or story.

The sudden mention of the name, Tracker, jarred me out of the moment, and I had to read the beginning again to make sure there weren’t three people in the scene. You can correct that in the second paragraph with something like:

“His father–who was given the nickname Tracker by the uncle who’d started him in the pickpocketing game–glared at him, his black eyes filling David with terror.”

Since you’re telling this story from David’s close 3rd POV, “Tracker” should probably read as “his father” throughout the piece because he wouldn’t think about his father’s first name. It’s the safer approach. Others may disagree. But if you stick with Tracker, establish it quickly.

While “he said” and “she said” can disappear into the background, their overuse can be grating. The same with starting a long series of sentences with “He…” As you read (and you should be reading lots!) pay careful attention to the way writers use bits of action or description of the characters who are speaking to indicate that they are connected to the dialogue. (As above, with David’s father putting a hand on his shoulder, which connects the character and dialogue and also clues us in to his unpleasantness.)

I don’t understand how David could hear what his father and the old couple were saying. Surely he wasn’t standing just a few feet away. You can have him imagining the conversation or reading their lips or simply have him guess at it since he’s seen it happen before.

What are David’s feelings about what he’s seeing? Does it bother him that he’s ripping off old people?

Paragraphs 6 and 7 are outstanding. They beautifully illustrate the process the con men go through to choose their marks. Well done! The cool objectivity of the paragraphs does make David seem cynical and very involved in the game–and that’s not the impression I get from both the opening of the piece, and Tracker’s worry that David might screw up. David seems more sensitive and sheltered, i.e. he’s never seen a demonstration before and doesn’t think murderous thoughts about his father.

Keep at it Brave Writer. You are doing great!

TKZers, what’s your advice for our Brave Writer?

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The Wrong Story: A Cautionary Tale

 

(GoDaddy stock photo)

 

I’m in the final stretch of an edit for my next suspense novel, One Last Secret. It has to be  in my editor’s hands by close of business today. Fortunately, I’m past the “dropping potato chip crumbs all over the keyboard as I type in a blind panic” phase. Today is the “last read to make sure I didn’t leave in embarrassing formatting and continuity mistakes” portion of the program.

So I’ll be brief.

When I first started sending out short stories, I concentrated on contests and fellowships. Things with specific deadlines and guidelines. It’s a method I highly recommend to newbies.

I was newly married, living in West Virginia when I decided to submit a story to be considered for a West Virginia Arts Fellowship because it was a literature year. (I don’t know that they still have the same program in place. Perhaps something different.)

I submitted a very nice story about–okay, I honestly don’t know which story I thought I submitted, but I do remember that it was very PG-rated. I was new in the area and I didn’t want to shock the nice West Virginia committee.

Lo and behold, I won a fellowship. It was a couple thousand dollars, I think. A real boost to my ego and burgeoning career. There were festivities and news articles, etc. But when I read the title of the winning story, I thought, “How odd. I don’t think that’s the story I sent in.” And then I turned bright red and got woozy. The story that won was not a PG story at all. It was a dark, shocking tale about a woman who hooks up with a rather pathetic married businessman in a hotel bar. I was mortified. Pleased, but mortified. Because I was a young writer, you see, but I was also a new mother, and someone whose husband’s family was well known in the state and in their small town. Just call me Jezebel.

I assumed no one would actually read the story. West Virginia is a relatively small state, and people always say they’ve read things when they really haven’t, to be polite. But unfortunately, one of the women on the executive board lived in our town, and I ran into her at a cocktail party. She was forty years my senior, and very proper.

“Congratulations on your award,” said she.”It was a very interesting story. Was it autobiographical?”

And then I died.

Please tell me you have your own horrifying submission or publishing stories. Misery loves company.

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First Page Critique: STEEL

Welcome to the Tempering Zone, where we’ll examine and hone the first page of STEEL.

(You know I had to go there.)

Today I’ve asked our Brave Writer lots of questions. As writers, we want to keep our readers asking the right questions—questions that occur to them because they’re excited to imagine how a story might move forward. What we don’t want is for readers to furrow their brows because they don’t quite understand what’s going on.

I get a pleasing sense of the world the Brave Writer is building: antique and magical, with a strong protagonist who is emotionally complex. With a little examination and reworking, it can be an very good beginning to what I assume is a YA novel.

STEEL

Chapter 1
Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.

Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.

She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.

Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.

I need to do this, she reminded herself.  It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…

If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.

This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made.

Laura’s Mini-Synopsis:

A girl tries to use an invisibility spell to sneak out of her house and run away because she’s affected adversely by some event in her past. But she loses her confidence and the spell falls apart, so she’s no longer invisible. She leaves anyway, knocking stuff around noisily as she grabs her bow and quiver from beside the door.

Thoughts

“Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.”

Immediately I envision a wall with a wide, flat surface at its top, and it sounds like Helia is  creeping along there in a cat-like manner. Further reading shows that she is in fact walking, keeping her back close to a wall. Please be more clear.

We have stars shining into the courtyard, their light “drawn toward the low-burning fire pit.” Is there a fire in the fire pit? Or is the fire pit itself on fire? Wouldn’t a fire actually compete with starlight to the starlight’s disadvantage? It’s a pretty-sounding sentence, but feels like window dressing.

Cloak of invisibility: Let’s leave the revelation that it isn’t true invisibility for a slightly later reveal. We are dragged down by this detail. It’s a cloak of invisibility! Let us enjoy it for a moment before dashing excitement about it. Later, we can discover its limitations. IRL we purchase things that immediately seem fabulous, and later find they aren’t all we think they are. (I’m looking at you, As Seen on TV Bacon Boss!) And I don’t really understand what “that” describes in the last sentence.

The first paragraph of a novel works well when it’s focused on character and action, with  a small bit of scene-setting. Not trappings. We know she is being careful and alert. But that’s all we learn about her. Too much detail about the cloak and the light slows down the action in what is a very tense situation.

“Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.”

This paragraph is at odds with the first. She’s supposed to be creeping, yet she’s also trying to walk with royal self-possession. It makes her sound very childish. If this is the intention, okay. But it is still confusing. Use “as if she were” rather than “as if she was.” Use “were” if the situation is conditional or contrary to reality. Same goes with “As if the royal family were there…”

There’s a lot of information here: we learn that she’s someone who might be viewed by a crowd, or a royal family, or the gods. Either that, or she has a very active fantasy life. Again, it slows the action, and feels like it’s only there to foreshadow or telegraph what’s in her universe. Don’t try to give it to us all at once.

“She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.
Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.”

What is the cause and effect here? As it reads, everything falls apart, and then she looks into the living room, seeking out her brother. Or does she lose her confidence and guise because her eyes flickered to the right, hopeful that her brother is inside, waiting to stop her? (I assume she looks toward the living room.) As I read the second bit, I assume the latter is how you mean it.

Whichever way you mean it, try to make the sequence immediately clear to the reader. Don’t require the reader to step lively to follow the action. Linearity and cause and effect are things that even mature writers sometimes struggle with. I know I do. I’ve put characters on scene, then added a quick couple of lines about how they got there. Lots of writers get away with it all the time, but it’s not a good habit. Reveal with subtle details, not exposition.

Also, her breaking of the spell seems like it would be a bigger disappointment to her. We get no reaction.

I do very much like the way Urian fits into the story. In a few lines you’ve sketched out their relationship: they are very close, and he is the sensible one, and she’s the one prone to acting on impulse. Nice.

“I need to do this, she reminded herself. It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…
If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.
This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made”

The reader will assume she’s already had this discussion with herself. You only need a line or two about what a relief it will be to not see her mother’s disappointment, and have the villagers avoid her. Give us just enough to make us curious. The internal dialogue is awkward and you’ve already done a good job of showing her hesitation by talking about wanting Urian to talk her out of it.

Is the house tiny? Given that it has a courtyard, I imagine it to be bigger. And I wonder about the phrase “living room” too. It doesn’t feel like a contemporary story and the concept of a living room is modern.

I might end with something like this:
Fighting tears, but resolved, Helia flew for the doorway, pausing only long enough to snatch her bow and quiver from their stand. The loud clatter of the stand falling onto the tiles followed her as she disappeared into the night.

Title: The opening doesn’t seem to have any connection to steel at all. Is it perhaps a story about the invention of steel? Or is it that she needs to prove herself to be as strong as steel to the gods? I’m not sure.

In a way, this first chapter feels like a prologue to a story. We know that Helia’s young and feels compelled to leave a difficult, if ultimately safe situation. I would expect that Chapter 2 might see her well into the action—perhaps older, already having some adventures behind her. But if it is, indeed, the very beginning of her adventures, leave more of your juicy details for later revelations.

Thanks for sharing this with Kill Zone!

*photo credit: GoDaddy stock photo
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