Is It Good to Open with a Dead Guy?

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

After I saw the blog title to P J Parrish’s excellent post this week (Is it Good to Open with a Bad Guy), it sparked an idea for my post today. Can a story that begins with a dead guy be worthwhile if they’re only on the page for a short scene? How can an author make a scene like that count? Or should they? How much effort should you put into one scene and a dead guy?

An author can choose to make any death be about the dead body and the unlucky stiff who finds it, or the detectives who seek justice, or the families left behind. The body can be for shock value, or be a twist in the plot of a sagging middle, but when should a victim be more?

Bottom Line – For every scene you choose to write, make every character count.

In the stories I write, I like to give a face to the dead. If I choose to open with a victim not long for this world, I have to create a vivid glimpse into their life–a quick snapshot into who they are–enough for readers to care about them. Every word and every visual has to count.

I’m not talking about TELLING the reader who the victim is. I’m talking about SHOWING their life in vivid imagery & their voice and character traits. You only have one shot to make it memorable.

In THE LAST VICTIM, I open with the murder of Nate. My psychic FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, first “meets” Nate in a nightmare of haunting images he must decipher. As Ryker uncovers the puzzle, he must put himself into the boots of Nate to hunt his killer. Nate’s life as a young father, living on a remote island in Alaska, becomes a troubling mystery.

How could an isolated loner like Nate cross the path of a prolific serial killer known throughout the Pacific Northwest? Ryker treks into the mountains of a remote island in Alaska and as he sees more of Nate’s life, he begins to know him and grieve for his passing.

For a few reasons, I made a deliberate choice to begin THE LAST VICTIM as seen through the terrified eyes of Nate when he knows he will die. His last thoughts are of his son. I wanted the reader to care about finding this heartless killer by choosing to make the reader care about Nate.

Excerpts from THE LAST VICTIM

Beginning of the scene

The soothing murmur of an ocean ebbed through Nathan Applewhite’s mind until he felt the waves and made them real. Now as cool water lapped the sandy shore to make frothy lace at his bare feet, he looked up to a cloudless sky—the color of a robin’s egg—that stretched its reach to forever. Fragments of his senses came together. Every piece made him yearn for more. When warm skin touched his, he knew he wasn’t alone and he smiled. He held a tiny hand. His five-year old boy Tanner walked the strand of beach beside him.

The memory came to him often, but it never stayed long enough. The pain always yanked him back.

 

ENDING of Nate’s Life:

End of the Scene – as he’s dying

Nate blocked out the cruelty of the voice. Only one thing mattered now. As the familiar face above him blurred, it got replaced with another—the sweet smiling face of his little boy Tanner—and the rumble of a wave hitting the shore. Sunlight made Tanner squint when he looked up at him. His son let go of his hand and ran down the beach with a giggle trailing behind him.

Hey, little man. Wait up. Daddy’s coming.

With sand caked to his feet, Nathan took off running after his little boy. The two of them splashed in the waves and made shimmering diamonds with their feet. He never caught his son. Time had ticked down to its final precious seconds. He only had one way to say good-bye to Tanner. Nate watched him run and he listened to his little boy laugh until—

Pain let him go and set him free.

KEY “DEAD GUY” STEPS TO EXPLORE

1.) IMAGINE DEATH

If you choose to write through the eyes of someone who’s dying, what must that feel like? It’s hard to do. You must face your worst fears, yet try to put death into words that will be palatable to the reader (not overly graphic) with imagery that will haunt a reader. It takes thought to craft a scene that’s hard to forget for readers, but David Morrell, author of the Rambo series, did that for me when I first read  FIRST BLOOD.

The first time I read a story with a scene written in the POV of someone killed was written by Morrell. I don’t want to give anything away, but a key character dies by a shot gun blast to the head. Morrell wrote it from the POV of the dead guy and I never forgot it.

My first attempt to try Morrell’s scene came when I wrote my first suspense book (the 2nd book I sold to HarperCollins). In an opening scene I wrote in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, my assassin dies at the hands of a worse killer. His throat is cut. I researched the medical descriptions of what this must be like. After all, there is no expert in dying who is still speaking and can share their wisdom. It’s a one-way ticket.

I had to imagine his assassin’s death and make choices. Death by exsanguination (loss of blood) might be similar enough to drowning. I researched drowning symptoms to pepper them into the action. Due to the violence in the scene, I also pictured a terrified rabbit in the jaws of a wolf, bleeding out. Would a rabbit mercifully lapse into shock and not feel what would happen? I wrote that kind of “rabbit shock” for my bad guy as he died in the arms of the man who butchered him.

At the start of the scene, the assassin wants to retire and he pictures the beach of his dreams. After he makes one last score, it turns out to be one too many. He’s hunted in the dark, in a maze of others like him. When he finally confronts his killer and his throat is cut, he drowns in his blood. As he pictures “his” beach–in shock–he sinks to the bottom of the ocean fighting for breath. It made the killing easier for readers to take, but I needed to establish how cruel the villain of the book would be, so readers would fear more for my woman cop.

I’ve found these scenes can be a challenge, but one worth taking. Below is the end of the scene in Mickey’s POV.

Excerpt – NO ONE LEFT TO TELL

“You’re mine now.” The intimate whisper brushed by his ear. It shocked him. The familiarity sounded like it came from the lips of a lover. “Don’t fight me.”

For an instant, Mickey relaxed long enough to hope—maybe all this had been a mistake. Then he felt a sudden jerk.

Pain…searing pain!

Icy steel plunged into his throat, severing cartilage in its wake. A metallic taste filled his mouth. Its warmth sucked into his lungs, drowning him. Powerless, Mickey resisted the blackness with the only redemption possible. He imagined high tide with him adrift. He struggled for air, bobbing beneath the ocean surface. The sun and blue sky warped with a swirling eddy. Mercifully, sounds of surf rolling to shore clouded the fear when his body convulsed. Dizziness and a numbing chill finally seized him. The pounding of his heart drained his ability to move at all.

A muffled gurgle dominated his senses—until there was nothing.

2.) GIVE YOUR VICTIM A FACE

Even if your victim is on the page as a soon-to-be dead guy, you have a choice to show the reader who they are. Make them real or keep them as a cardboard stiff and a prop. If you paint a vivid enough picture of their life, you can show how they will be missed by their family or even how they touched the life of the cop who must investigate their death. It’s an opportunity to show violence in a different way and to thread the victim’s humanity throughout your story. It can also show the heroic qualities of your detective or your main character(s). Done right, you can make the reader feel their loss in different ways. Your story becomes more emotional.

3.) PLANT RED HERRINGS

Use the victim’s POV to plant mystery elements & red herrings for the reader to decipher. A victim’s death can serve to showcase clues on the identity of the killer (did he or she know their killer) OR the victim can be an unreliable narrator for the author to plant misdirection clues for the reader to stumble over. Milk that death scene for all its worth.

4.) DON’T WANT TO KILL IN A VICTIM’S POV?

If you’re squeamish about killing a victim and showing the reader what that feels like, you can opt out. You don’t have to stay in their POV. You can write up until the moment they die, in a dramatic adrenaline rush. Or if you switch from inside their head at the last second, you can change POVs to someone who is with them, forced to watch them die. That can milk the emotions of a scene as well.

5.) PEPPER YOUR SCENE WITH HUMANITY

A victim is leaving many people and memories behind. If you choose to make that unimportant–where they are only a corpse for the coroner to autopsy–you’ve missed out on an opportunity for emotion. All people who die leave something or someone behind – a wake where their life had been. If you make it important for your story, it will open your reader’s eyes to you as an author and it will showcase your character’s humanity.

In Mickey’s case in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, I wanted to show his cocky attitude when he believed as a killer that he was invincible, but there is always someone worse. Mickey’s death paved the way for my villain to hit the stage.

In Nate’s case in THE LAST VICTIM, his son mattered most to him. Even in death, his boy is the only thought he had. It gave him peace. I wanted the reader–and my character, Ryker–to miss him.

Below is an excerpt that shows how I kept writing Nate into the story, long after he died. In this scene, my FBI profiler is hiking to a remote cabin in the mountains of an isolated island in Alaska where Nate lived. He’s there to understand Nate’s life to know how he crossed paths with a prolific serial killer.

Excerpt – THE LAST VICTIM

I listened to the hypnotic sounds of the forest and let the subtle noises close in. A light breeze jostled the treetops and birds flitted in the branches over my head. My boots made soft thuds on the decomposing sod under my feet. Nature had a palpable and soothing rhythm.

Nathan Applewhite had been where I stood now and I knew why he would’ve chosen to make his home on the island. There was a soul quenching refuge I sensed in my bones. I knew Applewhite must’ve felt the same. Perhaps like Henry David Thoreau, Nathan had sought the nurturing solitude of the woods because he ‘wished to live deliberately’ and get the most of his life.

Nate had chosen a quiet, simple life. The fact he was dead now—after being tortured and murdered—struck a harsh blow in me. It was an odd feeling to miss someone I’d never met, but the more I saw of Nate’s life, the greater I sensed the wake of his absence. Violent death was never fair. The haunting words of David Richard Berkowitz, Son of Sam, seeped from my brain.

I didn’t want to hurt them. I only wanted to kill them.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you written a scene in the POV of a dying person? What challenges did you have?

2.) What authors have written scenes you will never forget and why did they stick with you? Your examples don’t have to be death scenes. (With my books in boxes from my last move, I am without examples for my posts and am forced to use MY books. Sorry about that.) 

The Last Victim

When a young hunting guide from a remote island in Alaska is found brutally murdered, his naked body is discovered in the Cascade Mountains outside Seattle—the shocking pinnacle to a grisly Totem of body parts. Nathan Applewhite is the fourteenth victim of a cunning serial killer who targets and stalks young men.

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and his team investigate and find no reason for Nate to have mysteriously vanished from his isolated home. But Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone—not even his own team—that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath, alone.

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Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

My younger daughter Annalisa during her third year of life started talking about “Z Street.” We had no idea what she was talking about, but it was nonetheless interesting. There were apparently all sorts of things and many different stores on Z Street. Most of her sentences began with “On Z Street, there is…” or “On Z Street, they have…”. I asked her late on one afternoon if she knew where Z Steet was. She answered, “Sure!” I said, “Okay. Show me.” We jumped in the car and a couple of minutes later we were on the road while Annalisa eerily prefigured a talking GPS unit, telling me, with steadily decreasing confidence, to turn right at the next light, then left at the next corner and so on and so forth. We ultimately arrived behind a shopping center where we found ourselves parked by a couple of dumpsters and several stacks of palettes behind a Kroger. “So this is it?” I asked. Annalisa told me yes, with some hesitation. It was all good. Z Street had a Jersey Mike’s nearby, and the Hartlaub family had a fine meal to top off the journey. Annalisa, for her part, never mentioned Z Street again, opting instead to talk about her “owl friend.” 

More on the owl friend in a bit. Annalisa’s directions to Z Street were a terrific example of the writing process known as “pantsing.” She had a concept in her head which told her what Z Street was but really no idea of how to get there.  She comes by this honestly. I am horrible at outlining, which in part is why in my longer work I more often than not found myself…well, sitting at the rump end of someplace and looking at the mental equivalence of pallets and dumpsters. This isn’t the case with every author, of course. James Lee Burke reportedly has no idea about what his next book is going to be about until he starts writing, yet he arguably writes better than anyone. I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy outlines either. Jeffery Deaver, however, outlines obsessively, spending as much time outlining as he does writing the novel, year in and year out. It certainly has held him in wonderful stead.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago about all of this when I suddenly realized how to get over a roadblock in a novel I’ve been working on for a bit now. Part of the epiphany included the unfortunate realization that the roadblock didn’t just suddenly appear in the story. I had, at some earlier point in the narrative, snuck ahead and built it without realizing it and without building a reasonable detour around it. I could have solved all of that by outlining, but let’s not forget…(cue up the chorus)… “I am horrible at outlining.”

What I want to report — to share with you — is that I worked my way around it. I thought about Z Street, and how I travel. I drive everywhere, and don’t like getting lost, so I map out my journey. I check hotel prices and distances and gas stations and how far it is between Cracker Barrels and Sonics and how long it’s going to take me to get where I’m going. Oh, and speed traps. I check for speed traps. Some folks use AAA, but I do it myself. The realization hit me: what is outlining, if it isn’t a self-made Triptik, or map, for writers?

I’m outlining now. What I do more resembles a map than an outline like you might use, but it’s getting me there. And if I want to pull away from what I have outlined and take a scenic diversion, why, that’s okay too. It’s my trip. I hope to tell you about it sooner rather than later.

I have one more thing, in case some of you are wondering about “the owl friend.” It became a constant source of reference for Annalisa. Accordingly, while on a family vacation in New Orleans a few months later, we were in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and walked into the aviary. “Look, Annalisa,” I said, point up toward the top of a sloping rock wall, at a wise old bird sitting quietly on a ledge. “Is that your owl friend?” Annalisa immediately detached herself from me and started scampering up the wall on all fours. She almost got away from me on that one. The owl reacted by peering imperiously down at us, as if to say, “Whaddya want from me?” I of course had no answer, nor did Annalisa when I asked her, “So. What would you have done with him when you got him?”

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you outlining your story/Great American Novel? How are you doing it? In the traditional manner, like Jim Bell learned (and I didn’t) in Catholic school? With post it notes on a giant bulletin board (Yo! P.J. Parrish!) As if it is a map? Or some other way? Please share.

 

 

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Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased image – Croco Designs for Jordan Dane website

Hello, my fellow TKZ warriors. I’m busy cranking on the daily word count of my next release, but I have, for your consideration, an anonymous submission from a daring author and member of TKZ. The first 400 word intro to: Urban Patriot. Enjoy and join me on the flip side for my feedback and please provide your own thoughts in your comments.

Urban Patriot

Choosing a side is dangerous, especially when it comes to politics and you’re African American from a Jewish background, that is, everybody wants to either recruit you or kill you for something. When I was getting high – on life – shit was easier, the only people interested in you were those like you unless they had their own plans which everybody in tinsel town had. One minute you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap and the next someone throws a stack of $100 bills in at you and says there’s more where that came from, you’re gonna love it.

Instead of letting me deal with my fate on the streets of Chicago, at 15, mom got spooked and sent me off to California to join the father I’d never met and who turned out to be a bigger jerk than the Chicago idiots I was sent away from. Which wasn’t half bad until the thrill of finally meeting him caused me to want to live with him. Grandfather and Mimi took me in where we had a small swimming pool, my own bedroom, and took me on vacations with them. Hell, I even had an allowance. Quite a step-up from sharing a 3-bedroom apartment with five siblings, a single mom, and abusive step-father.

Dr. Anita Daniels, my uncles and aunts American Socialist Party affiliation’s caught my attention like a shiny new car and what they stood for was everything I’d felt being a Black Jew living in America. Working Socialist political campaigns and African American activist activities taught me a lot, to stand-up for myself and expected the worse from people. Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, I wanted nothing more than to personally smoke that bastard of New President and burn his administration to ground. But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

“We must leave now Mr. Anderson; your accommodations are waiting” The agent snapped. “This is bullshit” I snapped back, “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.” “We’ll explain everything to you later, but you’ll never know unless we get going.”

The agent was already holding the glass door open as I turned toward him, stepping into the hall he whispered: “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders – you know that.”

FEEDBACK

Overview – The strong edgy voice drew me into this introduction. It read like a diary and appeared to be set in an alternate reality or a future America. It intrigued me. But the submission starts with lots of backstory and ends with the action of what’s happening in this opening scene. Once I learned that a man’s wife had been shot and left for dead, I wanted to stick with the action. The question of why a federal agent is ushering him away and not telling him anything about his wife intrigued me far more than the backstory that could’ve come later to fill in the gaps as the story progressed.

Housekeeping – By now, you guys know how I feel about embedding dialogue within a paragraph, but this submission goes a step further and not in a good way. Dialogue is embedded and often lines from 2-3 different people.

Example of 3 different people talking in one short paragraph – “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

There’s also very poor punctuation which drives me crazy. Missing commas at end of dialogue lines (ie “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded), the use of double quotes where a single quote should be (ie “I don’t give a fuck” attitude), and missing punctuation like in the example above where there should be question marks (ie “where is she, is she alive” or the lack of a capital letter to start those questions.

Editors and agents would be turned off at seeing so many errors in the first 400 words. Don’t give them a reason to say NO.

Stick with the Action – The meatiest part of this intro was embedded inside a paragraph and almost treated too dismissively. The words ‘when my wife was shot’ should have been the focus.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East

This submission seemed flipped backwards to me, in that the action was toward the end after all the backstory. I would suggest focusing on the shock he must be feeling at seeing his wife hurt or dead, then don’t let him find answers as he’s dragged away by the agent. Below is my suggestion for a rewrite. I tried to stick with what the author had written, but just re-ordered it and added more of his shock at the start.

I had her blood on my face and my hands. I couldn’t get the image of my wife out of my head. They must’ve left her for dead at the airport terminal. That’s the only thing I could figure. One minute, we were on the tail end of a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, the next we were stateside. This should’ve been home. How could this happen…here? I wanted nothing more than to smoke that bastard of a new President and burn his administration to the ground.

“Follow me,” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded.

I had to know what happened. I leaned over the nearest counter and found a reservations clerk with enough sympathy to care.

“Where is she? Is my wife alive?”

The federal agent yanked my arm and forced me to keep in step as he hauled me through the gathering crowd.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have that information,” the airline clerk called after me.

 “We must leave now, Mr. Anderson. Your accommodations are waiting.” The agent picked up his pace and dragged me with him.

“This is bullshit. I’m not going anywhere until I know what happened to my wife.”

“We’ll explain everything to you later, but we have to go. Now.”

The agent held a glass door open and pushed me through it. When I stood my ground and faced him, he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

I clenched my fists and fought a blinding rage.

The way this story started, with the intimacy of a diary, makes me wonder if this intro could stand with the action of violence, but drift back to where it all began, like the way movies begin with something horrific and back into what led up to it. If that’s not this author’s intention, I would suggest peppering in the backstory later when appropriate. I really do like the edgy voice and the ‘tude.

Names Matter – A federal agent by the name of Kelly made me think this was a woman. It wasn’t until near the end that the author lets us know the agent is a man. This is a bit nit picky, but it jarred for me to realize I had a wrong image in my head. Also, if the name Kelly will be through the whole book, that is a lot of time for the reader to forget this is a man. I also fought with another famous name – Kelly Clarkson, the singer. Her name is too similar to Kelly Carlson, the agent in this intro. I would reconsider the name.

Read your work aloud – Even with the edgy voice, there is a flow and cadence issue and typos where it reads as if the author made changes but didn’t catch all the words. If you get in the habit of reading your work aloud, you will find areas where you stumble over the words. Those are lines you should consider revising to make them flow better. Here are two examples where reading aloud would’ve helped to catch the typos:

But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”

Use of tags in dialogue – I noticed these following a dialogue line – demanded, snapped, snapped back. A whole book of words to replace a simple ‘said’ can be distracting, but in Elaine’s recent post on “The Burning Question: He said, She said,” she makes a good case to minimize even neutral tags like the word ‘said.’

Setting – I wanted to know more about where this scene takes place. I can only assume it’s at an airport terminal but the writing is too sparse to get a good sense of where this happens, especially when it starts with a backstory that mentions Hollywood’s Tinsel town and Chicago. Setting can place the reader there and trigger images in their minds. It’s important to ground the reader into imagery that enhances the emotion or action of the scene. For example, if the federal agent has to whisk this guy away and dodge travelers hauling luggage or airport security rushing toward the place where the attack on his wife took place. This kind of setting or world description could add pace and emotion to what’s happening.

On Tuesday, P J Parrish had an excellent post on Your Story as Sculpture: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out. It detailed some solid information on sparse writing (similar to this submission) and how an author should think twice about what to delete and what to keep. Check it out.

DISCUSSION:

What was your reaction to this introduction, TKZers? Did it grab you? Would you turn the page?

Mr. January available in print now (210 pages). Ebook pre-order $2.99!

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its shadowy master.

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