Keys Ways to Begin A Story – First Page Critique: The Young Lieutenant’s Dog

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain]

One of my last First Page Critiques for 2019 and of course it is about a dog. Please enjoy this anonymous submission for your consideration – The Young Lieutenant’s Dog. My feedback will be on the flip side, after my thoughts on book introductions.

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The history of humanity is held in the fragile palm of our stories. When they are lost, a part of us leaves with them. Perhaps that is why, even as a young child, I treasured the stories my father told us. Although a born raconteur he was, however, oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII.

With an older brother and sister on the cusp of adolescence and I still engrossed in childhood, we were too young to understand the brutality of war. Thus intrigued and naive, we cajoled him mercilessly to tell us about his life in the army during those years, especially when the tales spoke of life-and-death adventures.

Unlike his other stories, which were invariably charismatic and often humorous, those from the war were meant to serve, like Aesop’s Fables, as a moral lesson for his children to learn. I didn’t grasp this until many years later when it was too late and my father was gone, felled by a heart attack. By then, the stories he’d told were either forgotten or punctured with holes, the remaining threads barely clinging to our fragile childhood memories. But one remains, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related just moments ago.

I always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it was much more than that.

In light of the horrendous events of WWII, many have forgotten that in the early years of the war, the United States stood staunchly isolationist. Our country was still struggling to recover from WWI and a cascading depression. On September 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Our President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his staff, watched with mounting concern the steady onslaught of Hitler’s armies and knew that it was not a question of “if” the United States would enter the war, but “when.”

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Keys Ways to Begin a Story

There are many techniques to begin a novel – from an intriguing first line that triggers questions in the reader’s mind, to the paragraphs that draw the reader into a mystery or suspenseful action or a compelling story.

A good hook gets to the point quickly to raise a question or shock the reader into reading on. If a story begins in the voice of a narrator, that voice must be intriguing from the start. Successful openings raise unanswered questions or they describe intriguing actions/events or they highlight odd or troubling scenarios of intrigue or suspense.

Here’s a few types of intriguing opening lines:

1.) Teaser Line:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex

2.) Autobiography

“Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

3.) Dialogue

“‘Where’s papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” E. B. White – Charlotte’s Web

4.) Announcer/Omniscient POV

“The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” Jules Verne – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

5.) Scene Setting

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

The Next Paragraphs – Following a solid first line or a quick and compelling intro, the next paragraphs must draw the reader deeper into the story with more questions. This is where storytelling comes in and patience. Make the reader ask, “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” Think about an interesting, seemingly unimportant detail of a character or setting that can become symbolic to your story’s larger themes. In the case of our story for submission, that detail is brilliantly the dog.

No matter how great the first line is, if the paragraphs that follow don’t draw the reader deeper into the story, that great opening is deflated and reads like a gimmick.

Below is an example of an intriguing opening line from Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train, followed by paragraphs that draw a reader into the story as questions are raised by the author.

Excerpt

She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really. I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance. She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains.

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One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl . . . Three for a girl. I’m stuck on three, I just can’t get any further. My head is thick with sounds, my mouth thick with blood. Three for a girl. I can hear the magpies—they’re laughing, mocking me, a raucous cackling. A tiding. Bad tidings. I can see them now, black against the sun. Not the birds, something else. Someone’s coming. Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Look what you made me do.

This introduction leads into a morning where the reader meets the narrator – Rachel. It’s a short intro written with patience that raises lots of questions and paints a mystery in the reader’s mind. There are ominous visuals like a secret grave, the disturbing rumble of passing trains, the muddled mind of the narrator, and the bad tidings of magpies. There’s no real action, but since the intro is short and very much to the point, without diversions into backstory, this opening works well.

FEEDBACK

My notion of critiquing is to provide feedback that’s in keeping with the essence of the story the author submitted. I don’t want to rewrite lines as much as I want to give a 30,000 ft view of the overall beginning and analyze it for impact.

I liked what the author submitted. It was well-written and unfolded a story I would be curious to read, but I wanted to provide an alternative way to take the essence of this story and reorganize it to tell a tighter narrative. I truly want to know about this man and his dog story. I also like the title. It hints at the mystery of the story. Who doesn’t love a dog in wartime story? There are so many ways to parallel the innocence of a dog with the horrors of war and the potential for the redemption of humanity through the eyes of man’s best friend.

My thoughts, without knowing where this story is going, is to intrigue the reader’s mind with questions about the mystery. I also love stories that start in the present, but delve into the past for answers to a mystery. Hence, the ending that implies a grown child had been intrigued enough to dig into his father’s most memorable story to uncover the truth. That definitely would hook me. Why is the dog story the one this narrator couldn’t forget? How will the mystery unfold? Whose life will be changed by the reveal? What’s the journey of this book? The author has teased us with a wonderful mystery with lots of promise. Kudos.

Tighter Narrative for Mystery Setup

Although a born raconteur, my father was oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII. His tales of life-and-death adventures in the army became an enticing mystery for my brother, sister and I, as curious children. His stories from the war held even more significance after he died of a heart attack years later. After we realized his stories were meant to serve as moral life lessons for his children to learn–like Aesop’s fables–they became a message from the grave that kept him alive in our minds.

One treasured story remained, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related moments ago. I never forgot it and always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it became much more than that–after I uncovered the truth.

As rewritten, this rearranges the original submission to a first line I thought held a particular mystery to pique the attention of any reader. It focused on a story-telling father who played a particular role in WWII that he held back. Why? What role?

I then picked out a tighter narrative with a flow that is more direct and leads quickly to the point of the introduction – to set up the mystery of the dog. I added my own interpretation of the narrator uncovering a truth about the story so the reader gets hooked faster. I also chose to leave out the history lesson in the last paragraph. After the author has the reader focused on a mystery about a dog during wartime, the back story deflates the mystery and slows the pace. That morsel could be saved for later, along with the character development of the surviving children.

As written, this story may leap back into the war to tell the story of a young Lieutenant’s dog. That’s fine too, but if that’s true, why begin with a child’s memory and a son as a narrator? I made an assumption that this story will be woven between the past and the present. I don’t have enough to go on with the first 400 words, but my intention is to show an alternative intro that perhaps is more complicated by weaving in a mystery that straddles the line between past and present.

This story could be like Bridges of Madison County where surviving children uncover a mystery in the life of a deceased parent and the story unravels that truth. That’s my assumption.

The rewrite is similar to the Paula Hawkins excerpt for The Girl on the Train. It’s laser focused on the essence of the story and creates questions in the reader’s mind, before it starts telling the actual story through the eyes of the storyteller.

DISCUSSION:

Please provide your constructive criticism of this compelling submission, TKZers. How do you see this story unfolding?

 

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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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READER FRIDAY – Share Your Favorite Character Driven Novel

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

 

“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some of the recent character-driven novels I’ve read lately are:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Give an example of a book you’ve read with a memorable character-driven story – Author & Title – and tease us with why the character story was special.

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Girl on the Wrong Train?

BN-LH180_GIRLTR_J_20151116151400My husband alerted to me to this article in the Wall Street Journal ( ‘loved-the-novel-about-a-girl-on-a-train-you-may-have-read-the-wrong-book’) about the unexpected plot twist associated with the best selling book by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train, and readers confusing it with another thriller written by Alison Waines, Girl on a Train. Since my book group just did Hawkins’ book (and we all actually read the right book!) it made me chuckle – as it would seem that many book groups, book reviews and reader purchases have fallen prey to the confusion that comes from two, very similarly titled books.

I don’t believe I’ve ever actually bought the wrong book based on the title alone, but according to this article this is becoming a more common issue especially with the plethora of e-books now available. The article pointed to the novel ‘Joyland’ by Emily Schultz who saw her e-book sales jump after Stephen King’s ‘Joyland’ was released (I’m suspecting some readers would have been a little upset getting the former when they thought they were getting the latter – but Schultz said the confusion did open up a new audience for her!).

When I’m choosing the initial title for a work-in-progress I always search on Amazon to make sure that the proposed title I’m thinking of hasn’t already been taken. Likewise I usually do a quick Google search just to make sure the title isn’t  some well-known book/blog/other entity that I’m totally ignorant of…Now I know publishers often change book titles anyway so it’s not something I get too hung up over but still, I try not to knowingly call my latest book something really similar to one already available (especially when it’s the same genre). Likewise I avoid choosing titles that are likely to confuse readers or deliberately mimic a current bestselling series  (the WSJ pointed to a good example – ‘The Girl with the Cat Tatoo’). Still I’m sure it was a happy coincidence for Waines when her sales numbers took off because readers were buying her book, mistaking it for Hawkins’ bestseller!

So, have you ever bought the wrong book based on a confusing or similar sounding title? Have you perhaps benefitted as an author from a confusion like this? When choosing the title for your book how much research do you do to ensure yours will stand out (or do you simply not worry?)

Happy Thanksgiving this week to you all. May you, like Alison Waines, be the recipient of some happy coincidences in the holiday period ahead!

 

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