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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The Challenges of Writing a Crossover & Book Birthday!

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Not many things are more satisfying than finishing a book, seeing the final touches of cover copy and cover, and letting your baby go “into the wild.” Today is the release day for REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – part of the new Susan Stoker –  Special Forces series with Amazon Kindle Worlds.

Ryker Townsend FBI profiler series - novella (31,000 words) $1.99 ebook, July 21, 2016 release

$1.99 ebook – July 21, 2016 release

The challenges of this 31,000 word novella centered on crossing my Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series into Susan’s Navy SEAL world, using one of her novels (Protecting Summer) and a key character, Sam “Mozart” Reed, from that book.

Challenges:
1.) Blending two worlds – My dark crime fiction world had to blend seamlessly into Susan’s romance action/adventure world of the military. That meant I had to bump up my romance and also deal with two very different kind of men. Ryker Townsend is an isolated loner by necessity, an intellectual with a mind like a computer, and hardly described as an alpha male. Navy SEAL Mozart Reed is definitely alpha male with a disciplined military demeanor and a fascinating puzzle. I wanted to create a situation to force these two different men into an investigation.

2.) Paying homage to Mozart & Susan’s World – I did my research on Susan’s writing and read the book that dealt the most with Mozart’s past, the way I would force these two worlds together. In Mozart’s childhood, when he was only 15, his younger sister was abducted and brutally murdered by a serial killer. Well, that’s right up my alley and that backstory worked well with my FBI profiler series.

3.) Portraying Someone Else’s Character While Doing Justice to Your Own – SEAL Mozart Reed is a strong character, fully capable of being a hero of his own book. But I had to be sure my character, Ryker Townsend, held his own with an ebb and flow to their dynamics. Each man became key and could easily dominate the story, but the blending of these two dynamic forces became a joy. I wrote them like Butch and Sundance.

4.) Getting the Facts Right – Sometimes a preceding book is a little vague on the facts, by design. An author may choose to write vague details about a character’s backstory or leave out scenes for the sake of plot. I was lucky to have Susan’s brain to pick. I’d send her a message and she’d write me back right away. I swear she lives online. I’d ask questions about where the body was finally buried or embellished on an unwritten scene, but I didn’t want rewrite her previous novel without paying respect to her original work. She was very gracious and we both poured through pages to make sure I could add details not contemplated in her originating novel. She also had books that came after and we compared timelines to be sure I didn’t leave out a baby, for example. When my project was done, she read REDEMPTION FOR AVERY and we tweaked a couple of nuances to make it the best collaboration we could. Susan Stoker is a very generous author.

Here is the synopsis of REDEMPTION FOR AVERY:

When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity’s Great White Shark—the serial killer.

While he’s investigating the shocking slaughter of a seventeen-year-old girl at Big Bear Lake, the tormented soul of another dead child appears to him in broad daylight. Twelve-year-old Avery Reed reaches out to Ryker—a disheveled and haunted girl, unable to speak—held earthbound out of love for her grief-stricken brother, Sam. Avery’s presence draws Ryker into a sinister conspiracy and she has a desperate message for her brother, if she can make Ryker understand.

Navy SEAL Sam ‘Mozart’ Reed has been haunted by the brutal death of his little sister Avery when he was only fifteen-years old. He vowed to seek and destroy the killer who splintered his family, wiping out everything he’d ever known. Nineteen years later, his darkest wish came true when he found Hurst, her alleged killer, and stopped him from murdering one last time. But when Mozart learns the FBI has reopened Avery’s case, he fears the worst. His SEAL team may have ended the carnage of a serial killer years ago, but for the first time, Mozart has doubts that Hurst had been the man who took Avery’s life. A heartless predator is still butchering young girls. Mozart’s worst nightmare is back with a cruel vengeance.

INVITATION:
To celebrate the launch of Susan Stoker’s Special Forces series with Amazon Kindle Worlds, we are having a Facebook Party on July 23 at this link:

https://www.facebook.com/events/604059626438678/

I’ll be online 3:30-4pm EST. There will be lots of giveaways all day with other authors joining the party.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) Have you ever crossed over one of your worlds with another? Did this crossover involve another author’s work?

2.) How do you celebrate YOUR book birthdays?

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First Page Critique of SANCTUARY

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Calico

We have another intrepid author who has submitted their first 400 words for critique. Enjoy the read. My feedback will be on the flip side. Join in the discussion with your constructive comments.

 

“Dr. Germano! I need you!”

Ray bolted to his feet, throwing the blood work report he was reading onto his desk. As he came out of his office, he nearly collided with one of his staff hurrying down the hall, carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

“Bring it into the common room, Mary Jo. Matt! You here?”

“On my way, Boss!” The answer came from the reception area.

Ray could hear the creature’s raspy breathing as he followed the woman to an exam table and winced when he saw the contents of the lid. A malnourished calico cat lay on its side, struggling for breath, eyes wide. A feathered shaft stuck out of its chest.

“My God, is that an arrow? Smart of you to carry it flat,” Ray said, with a nod to the tearful woman. “If that thing shifts, it could do some damage. Is it one of your neighbor’s cats?”

“I don’t think so, Doctor. I’ve haven’t seen this one around before and I know most of the outdoor cats around my apartment. I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out this morning.”

He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options. The practice policy was clear on drop offs and found animals. No heroic efforts unless the animal was a pet, with a collar or microchip. He could almost hear Phil. We’re running a business, damn it, Ray, not a charity! He had heard that speech many times over the years.

This cat was obviously a stray, as scruffy and skinny as it was. It couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one was going to step forward and claim it. Still, it seemed young and strong. It was still breathing with an arrow in its chest after all. He hated not to give it a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. Well, Phil was retired now and he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.

He reached out and stroked her head gently. To his surprise, she tried to butt his hand and even mustered a faint purr. Then his eyes widened and he barely resisted the urge to jerk his hand back.

FEEDBACK:

Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure want to know why the good doctor wanted to jerk his hand back. Shades of Pet Sematary. (I hope Catfriend weighs in on this. Expurrrrrt) The intro starts with a “call to attention” dialogue line. For the most part, the writer sticks with the action, except where the intro “strays” (pun intended) into the former practice policy.

FIRST PARAGRAPH – Since the first paragraph establishes the scene, I would suggest stronger wording to set the stage and focus on the action. I’d also suggest clarification on where the action takes place.

SuggestionRay bolted to his feet and threw a blood work report onto his desk. He rushed from his office and nearly collided into Mary Jo, one of his staff. She raced by him carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

It’s not clear to me what this business is. Dr. Germano has a desk and there is a practice policy. I’m assuming it’s a veterinary hospital or practice, but that’s never stated. This can be fixed by using a tag line at the beginning, before the first dialogue line, or it can be inserted into the first paragraph – He rushed from his office at Pavlov’s Veterinary Hospital…

STICK WITH THE ACTION – In the paragraph starting with the sentence, “He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options.” Unless this is important, I would shorten to minimize it or delete this paragraph.

Tightening SuggestionHe hesitated and weighed his options. Drop off animals, with no owners, would cost the practice. Unless the animal had a collar or a microchip, the practice policy stated no heroic efforts were to be made.

Then focusing on the cat and what he sees (perhaps foreshadowing a hint of peculiar behavior) would ramp up the creep factor.

Tightening Suggestion – Scruffy and skinny, the stray couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one would claim it, but it still breathed with an arrow in its chest. He hated not to give such a young and strong animal a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. 

PASSIVE VOICE – There are several uses of passive voice in this short intro. Easy to clean up in 400 words, but the author should learn how to catch it as the words are streaming. Here are a few:

Before – Ray could hear the creature’s raspy…

After – Ray heard the creature’s raspy…

 

Before – I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out…

After – I found it in the alley when I took the trash out…

 

Before – No one was going to step forward and claim it.

After – No one would step forward and claim it.

 

Before – It was still breathing…

After – It still breathed…

NITPICKERS – There are always nit picky stuff that one person might notice, while other’s don’t. A good copy editor night catch these or reading your story aloud can help a great deal.

Boss – I would use lower case.

Around – used twice in same sentence, starting with line, “I don’t think so, Doctor.”

Who – The word “who” refers to people, not cats. See line, “…he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.”

Gently – use of adverb. “LY’ words raise a flag for me. Try to minimize or eliminate for stronger writing. In the line, “He reached out and stroked her head gently,” it’s strong enough and describes tenderness, that the word “gently” is not needed and is redundant. I might also focus on this action more, between the doctor and the cat. For example:

Suggestion – He reached out and stroked her head with an affection stray cats shunned from mistrust, but to his surprise, the tiny calico returned the tenderness with a head butt and a faint purr.

SUMMARY – I would definitely keep reading. I’m a pet lover and have had cats before. What cat owner hasn’t looked over their shoulder thinking someone is creeping up on them because their cat is staring at SOMETHING BEHIND YOU. This author, with a little clean up, would have me hooked.

DISCUSSION:

Weight in, TKZers! Would you read on? What constructive comments would you make to help this author?

REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – A Ryker Townsend FBI profiler series – novella (31,000 words) $1.99 ebook, July 21, 2016 release with Susan Stoker’s Special Forces Amazon Kindle Worlds

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Key Layers to Writing a Solid Characterization

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Image purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Image purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Characterization is the way an author conveys the important (and hopefully memorable traits) of their main character. An author should have a vision for how their character looks, speaks, thinks, and interacts in their world. A writer can directly state what their character is all about by saying, “George is a rigid man, both in posture and judgmental temperament.” Or an author can convey key elements and paint a picture of their character by more subtle means, such as in their actions or manner of speech or even body language.

A first person narrative provides an intimate voice for a character, as if the reader has found a personal diary of private thoughts. A third person (Deep Point of View) can be compelling if the voice of the character gives insight into who they are and allows for a colorful and distinct dialogue and internal monologue.

Excerpt from The Last Victim (First Person POV):

My mind acted like a hard drive of stored random facts, especially at stress times. Sometimes they hit me hard and I blurted them aloud. That made dating a challenge. I’d always been drawn to intelligent women, but once I let them into my world, crossing that line usually ended any relationship. I simply had no interest in hiding who I was.

In this excerpt, I envisioned FBI profiler Ryker Townsend as socially awkward yet highly effective at his job. He’s a man with secrets, even from his own team. To be good at his job, he removes any filter he has over the way he speaks so he can access key elements stored in his brain. He trusts his instincts and his team to be himself, and in his personal life he is unapologetic for his peculiar mental leaps. His work is everything to him.

In The Last Victim, I portray Ryker’s life at home where he’s still living in boxes after a recent move, yet his work life is well-ordered. He’s charmingly clueless about his affect on women and very serious minded. He’s a case solver and a high achiever because of how his mind works, yet his mental gymnastics become a challenge in a social setting, where he’s out of his element most of the time. His highly focused approach to his work (and his secretive personal life) becomes the very weakness that could get him killed when he chooses to follow a lead alone. The clues force him to cross paths with the ruthless serial killer he’s hunting, a psychopath who knows how to hide in plain sight.

It’s important for an author to have a picture of the character in their mind’s eye. I often create a storyboard of images to reinforce my ideas. Or I imagine how the character will speak (perhaps by picturing an actor I see for the character). I also give the character baggage that will challenge them with conflict. Often their weakness can get them killed or become a major crutch. Above all, a main character needs to seem real and believable to the reader with a full life on paper.

Here are questions an author might ask about their main character(s) in order to flesh them out:

1.) Who are their friends?
2.) How do they dress? What do they look like?
3.) How do they live at home? Is their work life different?
4.) Do they have hobbies or interests outside of work? What do they care about? Their passions?
5.) How do they interact with others? How do others react to them?
6.) What makes them angry?
7.) What would they die for?
8.) What are their weaknesses?
9.) What do they fear?
10.) Which adjectives would the author use to describe the character’s personality?
11.) What does the character think inside their head? What do they share?
12.) How has their past shaped their life? Is there a traumatic incident that changed everything? How is this manifested in their present?

Once an author has a solid image and characterization in their mind, a writer can set up conflicts to give that character a starring role. Can they overcome their weaknesses? Give them a journey throughout the book that will exploit their deepest insecurities or force them to deal with their worst fears. A compelling characterization is like the foundation to a building. The more solid and well-thought out it is from the start, the stronger the story will be when you build onto it.

For discussion: Please share any tips you have to creating your characters. Do you storyboard images? What resources have helped you?

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The Last Victim now available in print and ebook. Sales links HERE: “When FBI profiler Ryker Townsend sleeps, the hunt begins.” 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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