Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part II

And we’re back with Part II of Tiny Creatures deconstruction. In Part I, we looked at characterization, plotting, pacing, and the importance of raising story questions. In this segment, let’s narrow in on story structure, scene development, character arc, word choices, and story rhythm.

First, a quick review of Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part I to allow you to see the full character arc. Within a four-part story structure, each Part of the character arc equals 25%.

Part I: The Setup

  • introduce the protagonist
  • hook the reader
  • setup 1st Plot Point through foreshadowing and establishing stakes
  • establish empathy for the hero

In the first quartile, Tiny Creatures introduced the viewer to our tiny hero in an empathetic way and we bonded with her right away. We also learned about Raven, who we believed was the villain. And the writer setup the 1st Plot Point — a life or death chase which defined the stakes.

Part II: The Response

  • protagonist reacts to new goals/stakes/obstacles revealed by the 1st Plot Point
  • hero doesn’t need to act heroic yet
  • she retreats, regroups, experiences doomed attempts
  • remind the reader/viewer of the antagonistic forces at play

Tiny Creatures excelled in this area as well. Remember when Raven chased our tiny hero around the cabin? That scene established the life or death stakes, and Miss Rat reacted by fleeing. She also feared the human. Which is exactly how she should act in the second quartile of the character arc.

Part III: The Attack

  • Midpoint information/awareness causes the protagonist(s) to change course
  • hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed
  • not merely reacting anymore
  • hero also ramps up battle with inner demons

A perfect example of this occurred in Tiny Creatures when our tiny hero summoned the courage to face her fears and freed the raven from the fisherman’s trap.

Now, let’s return to the deconstruction. Keep in mind, we’re still in Part III of the character arc.

Tiny Creatures, Episode 6 Deconstruction Part II

Once released from the trap, Raven cocks his head at the rat. Their gazes lock, linger. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky.

The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn Miss Rat to get out of sight (Remember all those intriguing characteristics of the raven we learned in The Setup? Now they take on new meaning. Raven’s intellect actually compliments Miss Rat’s strengths, and together they morph into a winning team). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.

As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + story questions. Will our heroes face this beast?)

Camera pans out to a body of water in the Everglades, cleverly disguised, and we’re not sure why. (We’ll keep watching to find out. Which expertly demonstrates why it’s important to withhold information.) “But some animals aren’t always welcome. An exotic species introduced by humans, the Burmese python doesn’t naturally belong in the Everglades. Despite this fact, it has everything it requires to multiply and dominate these delicate waterways.” (Notice the harsh “dominate” paired with “delicate.” Perfect word choices send subtle clues of emanate danger.)

The slow and agonizing action of the Burmese python sliding into our tiny hero’s drainpipe would tremble even the steeliest heart. (That image alone proves my point about the Tiny Creatures Netflix series — the writer has mastered the art of suspense. Showing a murder or attack is far less suspenseful than the moments leading up to it. Examples: A lone pinecone crunches under the weight of a stranger’s boot behind you on the hiking trail. The flick of a butane lighter amidst the darkened forest around your property while you sip an evening cocktail at the picnic table. You get the picture. 😉)

Sampling the air, the python flicks its tongue. “An intense odor is coming through the pipes.” <dramatic pause> “It can smell a rat.” (Raising the stakes even higher — our heroes don’t stand a chance against this formidable villain.) The python slithers through the drainpipe. “Although the Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, they’re surprisingly agile climbers. To shift their heavy, elongated frame, specialized muscles under their belly propel them forward.” (This smattering of backstory shows how skillful and deadly this predator is AND drives the plot. Lesson: Any and all backstory should be employed with purpose. If it doesn’t benefit the plot, don’t include it.)

<cue dangerous music as the python flows through the dark pipe>

“Continuously flicking its forked tongue, it analyzes its surroundings.” The python emerges from the toilet in the shack (paying off an earlier scene that showed our tiny hero traversing the same route). “The snake can taste (“taste” is another perfect word choice) chemical trails in the air left behind by passing prey.” (Gulp. He referred to our tiny hero as prey! This scene conjures images of the snake swallowing our tiny hero, and our fear mounts with anticipation.)

<cue music that evokes urgency> Camera focuses on the sweet rat munching on a crumb, unaware of the dangerous intruder.

“Instead of adopting an ambush attack, it likes to stalk its unsuspecting prey slowly and silently. Able to open its mouth five times wider than its own head, the rat is an easy meal for the python.” (Can you feel the stakes raising more and more?)

The camera flashes between the snake and our sweet little hero.

“Using heat-sensitive pits lined along its upper lip, the python possesses infrared vision. This allows it to detect warm things.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)

The python slithers across the floor as Miss Rat climbs up to a workbench. The close-up of a fly adds to the chilling scene. (We’re glued to that screen as a gazillion questions race through our mind — the epitome of nail-biting suspense.)

Camera gives us a quick peek of outside the shack. “The fisherman has grown up on the Everglades, and he still honors the good ol’ days.” Near the window of the shack, a transparent plastic bag holds water and five coins. “Sunlight passing through the bag acts like a prism, scattering light in all directions. The idea is that it dazzles and confuses flies, keeping them away.” (We think this is just an interesting tidbit of backstory . . . until the camera zooms in on our tiny hero near the bag.) The camera narrows on the python. “But it might not be just the flies that get confused (python’s character flaw).” The snake approaches the bench. “The python has the advantage of not only seeing the rat but also feeling it.” (The writer could’ve used “senses” instead of “feeling,” but the later invokes more terror.)

The python slithers up the wooden leg of an upholstered chair—painfully slow—and we chew our cuticles raw. “Detecting the heat signature as far as three feet away, the rodent appears illuminated.” (Another perfect word choice. “Rodent” ratchets up the tension. Mean ol’ snake doesn’t know our tiny hero like we do!)

Unaware of the danger, Miss Rat munches on another tasty morsel.

“The python slithers ever closer. Its target lies dead ahead.” (2nd Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 62.5%)

Raven lands on the outside windowsill above the bench, but the window is closed. “The raven notices the snake (MRU motivation) and calls out to warn the rat (MRU reaction). But it’s no use. Our tiny hero’s loud munching overpowers the raven’s call (MRU motivation). Time for more drastic action (Scene Goal = Get inside the shack).”

Raven bangs on the glass pane with his strong beak (MRU reaction) to no avail (Scene Conflict = Glass won’t shatter).

“The snake’s hearing is sensitive only to low frequency sounds (villain’s character flaw). And so, it remains unperturbed the raven’s tapping.” With the Burmese python on the cushion of the chair near the workbench, the writer delivers the final blow. “Fixating on its victim, it retracts its body to strike position.” (Tension reaches a boiling point — we cannot look away! + MRU motivation)

Still frantically trying to get inside, Raven slides his beak around the edges of the windowpanes, hammers at the glass, and screeches at high decibels (MRU reaction).

Nothing works. (Suffocating suspense; we’re paralyzed by fear.)

Camera zooms in on the bag suspended next to our tiny hero. “The hanging water bag has gradually heated in the sun (MRU motivation). Now the snake senses two warm targets (MRU reaction + Scene Disaster). Any small movement from either will trigger the snake’s predatory instinct to strike.”

With his bill Raven hammers the crevice between the doors of a shudder-style window (Sequel Reaction).

Helpless, our hero’s furry back faces the python (Sequel Dilemma). Murder is afoot! But right when things look their bleakest (All-is-Lost Moment perfectly placed between 2nd Pinch Point & 2nd Plot Point), the raven busts through the window.

“The raven’s sudden appearance has foiled the python’s ambush.” The snake slithers down the chair leg (MRU motivation). From the safety of the workbench Raven scolds the python as it flees across the floor (MRU reaction + this scene pays off the earlier scene where we learned about the snake’s stomach muscles + Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal: keep his little buddy safe).

With our tiny hero safe from the python (MRU motivation), Raven hops back on the windowsill (MRU reaction) just as the fisherman enters the shack. The Burmese python in his shack (MRU motivation) causes him to snatch a grabber tool off the wall (MRU reaction).

“Usually the cryptic nature of these snakes makes them hard to detect in the grass. But in the shack, there’s nowhere to hide.”

With the mechanical grabber, the fisherman grips the snake by its head and bundles it up in a long pillowcase. “Expertly catching the snake, the fisherman plans to take it far away.” He loads the python-filled-sack on the boat (MRU motivation). “The rat retreats to the safety and protection of her home (MRU reaction).”

<cue peaceful music as we roam the Everglades> The narrator adds a few lines about the rich landscape (weaving in backstory and allowing the viewer a well-needed break = expert pacing) as the fisherman returns home. “The waters and banks of the Everglades provide humans with endless opportunities.” Inside the shack, the fisherman turns on a gas burner and sets the tea kettle on top. (A close-up of the flame forewarns a potential hazard.)

“After an exhaustingly long day on the water, the fisherman’s work isn’t done yet. He sets about preparing and maintaining his much-loved equipment, working late into the early hours of the morning.” (2nd Plot Point, perfectly placed at 75%)

Our tiny hero curls up in her boot and falls asleep.

The fisherman makes and repairs lures at the workbench. “Such delicate work requires a lot of focus.” He scrubs a hand across his weary eyes. “But, as the saying goes, you shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends.” (forewarns danger + further sets up Climax.)

Our tiny hero peeks out from the boot at the fisherman, who leans back in his chair. Light snoring fills the room (MRU motivation). “A rat never passes on an opportunity to fuel up, and she quickly collects crumbs dropped by the fisherman.” (MRU reaction)

Wicked cute close-up of our tiny hero munching away on a snack (just sayin’). “The noise of the whistling kettle draws the attention of the rat, who anxiously watches as a gust of wind through the opened window ignites a disaster.”

The tail end of a paper towel roll catches fire — <cue dramatic music> — and a flaming sheet falls to the floor. (Climax begins)

Character Arc Part IV: The Resolution

  • hero summons courage and growth to come up with a solution
  • overcomes inner obstacles
  • conquers the antagonistic force
  • all new information must be referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by this point to avoid deus ex machina.

“Unaware of the catastrophe spreading around him, the fisherman slips into a deeper sleep.” Music from his ear buds lulls him into tranquility.  

Smaller fires break out everywhere (MRU motivation).

“The rat realizes she must act fast if she is to save her home (Scene Goal).” She scans the room. But she’s so tiny (Scene conflict). She scampers up to a wooden rack of pots and pans suspended from the ceiling, and chews through the rope (using the same behavior she learned at the Midpoint when she freed the raven from the trap; thus, this scene also pays off that earlier scene + MRU reaction). Pots and pans crash on the floor.

“The rat’s actions fall on deaf ears.” (Scene Disaster)

Like a black beacon of hope, Raven emerges through the smoke-fueled haze (Sequel Reaction). He lands on the fisherman’s crossed leg, but he doesn’t wake. <cue dramatic music> He screeches and squawks. The fisherman is out cold (Sequel Dilemma).

“The raven calls loudly. It appears to be trying to help the fisherman (nice role reversal, right? Which also illuminates Raven’s true character—3rd Dimension of Character). The raven is not giving up. This situation calls for more drastic measures.” (Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal = save his little buddy and the fishing shack)

Fire dances dangerously close to the fisherman’s leg as our two heroes communicate, as if forming a plan. But Miss Rat has done all she can. It’s up to Raven now.

While the rat looks on in horror, Raven’s gaze follows the wire from the ear buds to the human’s chest. Flames grow higher around the fisherman (MRU motivation + Scene Conflict).

<cue louder dramatic music> “Time to get physical.” Grabbing the wire in his beak, he tugs and pulls, but it’s no use. Those ear buds won’t budge (Scene Disaster). Nonetheless, he preserves. With all his might Raven muscles one last jerk (Sequel Reaction) and the ear buds pop loose.

“The fisherman’s woken to an alarming spectacle (Sequel Dilemma).” Raven escapes to the windowsill (Sequel Decision = survival) as the fisherman jolts to his feet. Our tiny hero ducks out of sight. “Fires are common in the Everglades. And luckily, he is well-prepared for such an emergency.” The human extinguishes the blaze.

“The heroic efforts of both the rat and the raven meant the fire didn’t get the chance to cause too much damage. The human has cheated death. And he has the rat and the raven to thank.” (Nice twist, right?)

The camera narrows in on both these amazing animals. Raven takes to the sky as our sweet rat climbs down to the floor (Scene Goal = to rest after a job well done).

“But the rat is left without a home.” Camera zooms in on her charred boot (Scene Conflict + setup of the ending). “She must find a new place to rest her weary head.” Our tiny hero climbs into a duffle bag, and her tail slips beneath the partially opened zipper.

Come morning, the sun rises to a new day.

“Troubled by the fire, the fisherman seeks solace on the water.” He collects his equipment, including the duffle bag (Scene Disaster), and sets off on his boat to clear his mind.

Our tiny hero’s nose twitches out a small opening in the bag. As the raven’s gaze follows his buddy being swept away by the human, his lower bill slacks. “Concerned by where the fisherman is taking the rat, the raven follows closely behind from the air.” (Sequel Reaction)

Camera pans out to show the vastness of the Everglades (indicates danger + story questions. Where will our tiny hero end up?). The boat putts through an open channel.

“The fisherman has an unexpected stowaway. But luckily for the rat, she comes from a long line of seafaring ancestors.” (This fact comforts the viewer and begins the setup of the denouement.)

Camera narrows on our tiny hero’s innocent face, shadowed by the duffle bag (Sequel Dilemma).

“As the boat engine stops, he sets up his fishing equipment.” The fisherman unzips the duffle bag but doesn’t spot the rat. “The rat owes a lot to the fisherman. The shack has provided a shelter to her and any future offspring.” (Perhaps the human isn’t all bad after all.)

Our tiny hero crawls out of the bag and into unfamiliar surroundings. Still, she remains quite perky (3rd dimension of character — her true character. And we love her even more.)

He casts. Casts again and again.

“All over the Everglades animals do what they must to survive.”

Camera flashes to the alligator, the python, the iguana, the fly, and then a wide pan from above showing the raven soaring toward the boat with his majestic outstretched wings. (Fantastic cinematography! Which novelists can also create by etching a vivid mental picture in the reader’s mind.)

“In a delicate ecosystem such as this, a balance between predator and prey is critical.”

Raven lands on the boat (Sequel Decision = ensure his little buddy’s safety).

“Through their trials and tribulations, the rat and the raven have developed a mutual respect and understanding for one another. These two lonely souls have formed an unlikely bond, proving that no matter where you’re from or who you are, it’s your actions that truly define you.” Silhouettes of our two heroes perched on the side of the boat.

“The once great rivalry that existed between them has transformed into an even greater friendship.”

Raven and Miss Rat turn to face each other as the sun sets in the background, brilliant orange and blue hues splashed across the horizon.

“Now with the support of one another, anything is possible.” (What a great last line! We leave the story with our hearts overflowing with love for these two incredible animals.) And the denouement is complete.

Highlights of the Writer’s Skill

 

The writer locked us in a stranglehold from the very beginning by raising the Central Dramatic Story Question (shown in Part I). Which became the jumping off point for more and more story questions. Each scene written with a purpose, to either setup a future scene or pay off an earlier one. The proper stringing of scenes ensures the viewer’s attention would never waver.

Also notice how the writer never loosened the death-grip around our throats for more than a brief moment (perfectly placed respites). And through characterization (shown in Part I), the writer periodically forced the viewer to change our perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we encountered. Most importantly, perfect plotting kept us engaged from the first sentence to the last.

What’s not to love about Tiny Creatures?

 

8+

Deconstruction of Netflix’s Tiny Creatures – Part I

By SUE COLETTA

Tiny Creatures is a new docuseries on Netflix that’s adorable, suspenseful, and masterfully plotted and paced. To check it out I skipped ahead to Episode 6, which features a raven and a rat. And the storytelling craft blew me away. This episode, along with all the others in the series, provide a detailed roadmap driven by obstacles, misdirection, and conflict. Let’s pull back the curtain and peek behind the scenes.

Even with the “Spoiler Alerts” I still recommend watching the episode. I’ve only concentrated on a few areas of craft, and I don’t point out every instance of where it occurs. The full post still landed at 4564 words. Hence why I’ve broken the post into two parts. See what can happen when you’re high on craft? 😉

Before we get to the deconstruction, check out the trailer.

Deconstruction Part I

“Florida, home to the Everglades. A wild expanse of almost two million acres of wetlands.” (We know where we are, but there’s also a hint of mystery and intrigue. What creatures lurk in the Everglades? And that, is the Central Dramatic Story Question—the cornerstone question at the heart of every story that directly relates to the hero’s conflict. Boom! The writer raised the most important question in the first two lines of the script. Notice s/he never outright poses the question. Rather, s/he implants it in the viewer’s mind.) “Isolated among the Everglades stands a fishing shack, the backdrop of two very different animals whose stories are destined to cross.” (There’s the hook. We need to continue to find out where this leads.)

In flies an impressive raven. (Is he our villain or hero? We’ll keep watching to find out.)

“A raven, a sleek bird with glossy black feathers. Behind this polished appearance, the raven possesses intellect as well as beauty.” The camera zooms in on his size and power (hints that he must be the bad guy). “Lately, the raven’s been keeping an eye on this fishing shack, tracking the movements of the human owner, their habits and routine. He knows when the coast will be clear.”

The raven struts into the fishing shack.

“Ravens are quirky characters and this one is keen to explore. (quirky = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character) His eyesight, however, isn’t as sharp as his mind (character flaw). He can’t see well in the dark. (obstacle) But this bird is a problem-solver and he has the perfect solution.”

The raven tugs on the wooden knob of the shade, and the shade rolls up. Cascading sunlight bathes the fishing shack in brightness.

“As smart as a chimpanzee, ravens frequently use their brains to exploit the riches of others. Especially humans. (Notice the word choices; the harsh “exploit” and staccato “especially humans” indicates he’s the villain) And this person has many treasures hidden away, safely out of reach.”

The raven flies over to a tackle box.

“But for the raven this is a test of his wits.” (Tension builds) Raven struggles to break into the tackle box (conflict). “And he does what ravens do best—he improvises.” (problem-solver = psychological trait stemming from past experience, upbringing, emotional scars, memories, etc. = 2nd Dimension of Character. We’re beginning to better understand the raven.)

Using a hook-shaped tool, the raven breaks into the tackle box to get at some sort of bait scattered across the bottom of the middle drawer. Clearly, the raven is burglarizing this shack to suit he needs. (Burglar = antagonist. Or could he be an anti-hero? We’re still not sure, which forces us to keep watching.)

Camera pans out to the Everglades and the narrator offers more details about the area. “The water is also home to an assortment of wildlife. Unlike the raven, some animals strive for a simple existence.” (A sprinkle of backstory. More importantly, this is the setup to introduce our tiny hero).

Enter stage left: an adorable rat doggy paddles across the water. (cuteness = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character)

(Side note: If you’re not a lover of rats, I get it. I wasn’t either. But by the end of this story, you will fall in love with this little rat. And that, ladies and gents, is what characterization is all about.)

“After a busy night exploring, this drowned rat is traveling home to rest (relatable + we empathize with our tiny hero). Each night she swims from bank to bank to see what she can forage. Just like humans, not all rats are natural swimmers (our hero has a superpower). Those rats who have mastered the art can swim over a mile in one go. With her small frame and streamlined body, she’s a natural, moving effortlessly through the water.” (What other superpowers might she possess? Curiosity and empathy keeps us watching.)

Our tiny hero reaches a drainpipe and climbs inside.

“This is a familiar and safe route. Not many predators can follow her through these narrow tunnels. It was her swimming agility which brought her to this hidden route to her home.” (backstory dribbled in to drive the plot) Our tiny hero crawls farther through the drainpipe. “A light at the end of the tunnel signifies her final hurdle.” <cue dramatic music> She plunges into a U-shaped drain (tension builds). “One that relies on her ability to hold her breath and stay submerged for up to three minutes.” (determination = psychological trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) “A rather unconventional way of entering her home in the fishing shack.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)

Up pops our tiny hero from the toilet.

“Now soaked to the bone, she carries an extra 5% of her body weight in water. If her fur stays wet for too long, she’s at risk for hyperthermia. (more conflict + character flaw) Using the equivalent of nature’s hairdryer to dry off, she adopts an alternative approach.”

<cue dramatic music and slow-motion camera> Our tiny hero twists and shakes her body 18 times per second, loose water spraying in all directions.

“It’s an efficient if not slightly messy approach. Within just four seconds, she’s removed 70% of the water droplets.” She climbs down off the toilet seat and into the main room of the fishing shack. “Unbeknown to the rat, however, there’s a trespasser inside her home.” (First hint of trouble.) <cue dangerous music as the camera narrows on the raven> “And the normal serenity of the shack is swiftly broken.” (Inciting Incident)

Wings outstretched, the raven squawks.

“The presence of the rat irritates the raven. He could easily kill this rodent. But he has other ideas.” (Because we’ve bonded with our hero — the under-rat, if you will — we fear for her safety. There’s no way we’ll stop watching.) Loud screeches from the raven combined with a penetrating glare startle our tiny hero. “Ravens are one of the few bird species that like to play. And the rat is the unfortunate victim of its game . . . and her tale is a tempting target.”

Raven swan-dives off a nearby table—straight at our hero. The chase is on! (1st Plot Point lands at 20-25% — perfect)

<dramatic music enhances the terror> “Fleeing this terrifying predator, the rat seeks sanctuary where she can.” Each time the raven misses our hero by mere millimeters. Camera closes in on the raven’s opened beak, massive black wings, and powerful physique. “This game is a little one-sided.” (And now, we’re certain Raven is the formidable villain.)

Our tiny hero scampers into a hole in the side of a cardboard box. “The raven uses its sharp beak to poke and probe.” (Notice the hard-sounding word choices “poke” & “probe” which only solidifies our theory about the raven) Raven leaps on top of the box, tears at the old packing tape. (Stakes are raised. If our hero doesn’t escape, she could die!)

“But the rat’s size and agility gives her the edge into some unusual terrain. She ceases her opportunity and makes a dash for it. She squeezes through a one-inch gap, leaving the raven still pecking.”

When our tiny hero races across the floor, Raven is right on her heels. But in the mad dash he knocks over a bottle. Liquid leaks out its spout (foreshadows danger + setup of climax).

“Distracted by the chase, the raven loses track of time.”

Outside the shack, a boat docks at the pier. “The fisherman arrives back at the shack, seeking shelter from the midday sun. But for some, the heat of the sun’s rays are welcome to warm, cold blood.” A menacing-looking iguana sunbathes atop a large rock on the porch, and we learn more about him, including his voracious appetite. (This spattering of backstory raises the stakes even higher while conjuring more story questions: Will our hero need to fight the iguana, too?)

Camera cuts back to the raven whose sharp talons pin down a burlap sack. Underneath, our tiny hero struggles to break free.

“The fisherman returns from a long but successful day on the water.” He unloads his gear and clomps toward the front door. “He is unaware of the raven’s game that is still taking place in the shack.”

Cameras cuts back to inside, where our hero whimpers as she tries to flee from the massive raven. (Conflict, tension, action, and rising stakes, combined with rotating motivation/reaction units, along with solid characterization and story questions—questions that must be answered—and the viewer’s breathless with anticipation. We cannot look away.)

“The noise of the fisherman alerts the raven. Realizing the human has returned, the game with the rat is no longer of interest to him”—he soars toward the window— “as the raven spots a more appealing opportunity outside.”

Camera zooms in on bait in a three-gallon bucket.

“Luckily, the pause in the chase allows the rat to escape to her bed.” Our tiny hero careens into an old boot (allowing viewers a moment to catch their breath = smart pacing).

“For the raven, it seems there are bigger fish to fry.”

Camera captures the raven lickin’ his chops as he stares out the window at the bucket (menacing appearance = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character). Raven climbs out the window and stalks the ledge to the front corner of the fishing shack. When the fisherman enters the shack, he seizes the opportunity to raid the bait.

While we watch the raven feast, the narrator offers us a few more fascinating details. “With no teeth, the raven pecks at the food, swallowing whole the more manageable pieces.” (These tidbits allow us to better understand the raven, and to envision what he might do to our sweet hero.)

Little Miss Rat emerges from the boot. The camera flashes outside to the iguana, increasing the tension of the scene. Our tiny hero could be up against two villains! (raises the stakes even higher)

“Capable of smelling food from a mile away, the scent of fish entices the rat to leave her hiding place. Similar to ravens, rats are not choosy to what they eat (similar character flaws). There’s more than enough food here for both of them.”

Our innocent hero totters up to the bait bucket. Glowering, Raven towers the rat, his talons latched onto the rim.

“Though still leery of the raven, she hopes this distraction will allow her to break cover and grab a quick bite, unnoticed. But the beady-eyed raven hasn’t learned the art of sharing.”

Raven squawks (motivation), which wakes the sleeping iguana (reaction). Our tiny hero runs and hides, leaving the two bad guys to square off. (tension mounts)

“Woken by the commotion from the raven, this sensitive lizard doesn’t hesitate. Its instinctive reaction is to run.” But when the iguana charges (motivation), the raven leaps off the bucket (reaction) and the bait splatters across the porch. The iguana escapes into the surrounding landscape. “In a flash, it’s gone.”

But the fisherman hears the crash from inside and peers out the window. Raven makes a mad dash to gobble up as much bait as he can swallow.

The narrator hits us with this as a clever misdirect: “Ravens can learn to either like or dislike a person, depending on how they’re treated. And they never forget a face.”

Da, nah, nah. <cue dangerous music>

The fisherman storms outside with a broom. (Now it looks like the human might be the real antagonist of the story. Is the raven an anti-hero? But if that’s true, then why does he keep tormenting an innocent rat? Raising story questions forces us to keep watching.)

Broom in hand, the fisherman chases the raven across the porch, screaming and yelling, and we watch this play out in silhouette through the window (1st Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 37.5%).

With the raven gone, our tiny hero can finally rest. <cue sweet music>

“Both the rat and the raven are blissfully unaware of the danger being constructed outside (This line subtly signals that they are, in fact, dual protagonists). Humans also hold grudges. And the raven’s actions have consequences.” (The fisherman sure looks like the real villain now, doesn’t he? Just when one answer is revealed, the writer raises another story question. How will the human punish the raven?)

On the porch sits a wired trap baited with fish. Our tiny hero is sleeping soundly in her boot when she’s awakened by the raven screeching outside.

“Trapped and outsmarted by the fisherman, the raven calls for help.” Poor Raven is caught in the trap (gaining empathy for our anti-hero).

The camera pans over to our sweet rat emerging from the safety of her bed.

“A social animal, the rat can sense the raven’s distress. Unnerved by the calls for help, her instinct draws her to the raven. (instinct = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) Arriving to see the trapped bird, a sense of empathy washes over the rat. (compassion = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) She approaches cautiously. She has not forgotten the raven’s torment yesterday.”

The raven and the rat gaze into each other’s eyes (this Mirror Moment bonds the two heroes).

Camera closes in on our tiny hero’s sweet face. “Her sense of compassion overrides her concern.” In a bold move, she climbs up on the door of the trap and gnaws on the rope securing the top of the door to the metal bars (the act of facing her fears = 3rd Dimension of character, her true character). “Equipped with super strong teeth, rats are capable of chewing through concrete, glass, and even metal. Although not quite as a clever as the raven, rats are super smart. (yes, the repetition is a writing tic, but it’s invisible to the viewer due to the high tension & action. See what good plotting and three-dimensional characters can mask?) Unsure of when the fisherman will return, the rat works as quickly as she can to gnaw through the rope.”

The rope falls to the deck boards and our tiny hero drags open the door, freeing the raven. <cue dramatic music> (Midpoint Shift, perfectly placed at 50%.)

Raven cocks his head and stares at the rat. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky. (story question: will they meet again?)

The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn the rat to get out of sight (his actions/behavior = 3rd Dimension of Character, his true character). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.

As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + more story questions. Will our heroes soon face this beast?)

Of special note for Part I: Through characterization, did you notice how the writer periodically forced the viewer (reader) to change their perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we’ve encountered so far? Storytelling at its finest, folks.

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday, Aug. 24.

Have you watched Tiny Creatures on Netflix?

9+

Writing Hacks: Keyboard Shortcuts

Picture this. You’re in the zone rockin’ the WIP, the words flowing from your fingertips faster than you can type. And then . . . splat. You’ve hit a brick wall. That special character or symbol isn’t on your keyboard.

Sound familiar?

So now, you need to stop, go to Insert, then to Advanced Symbols and scroll through the list to find that pain-in-the-butt character. You could leave yourself a note in the manuscript to deal with it later and continue on, but wouldn’t a keyboard shortcut make life easier?

With that in mind, I offer the following . . .

SYMBOLS & SPECIAL CHARACTERS 

Please note: these shortcuts can be used on the web or in Word by using the numbers on the top row of your keyboard. If you use your numbers keypad, you may get different results.

ALT + 1 = ¡

ALT + 2 = ™

ALT + 3 = £

ALT + 4 = ¢

ALT + 5 = ∞

ALT + 6 = §

ALT + 7 = ¶

ALT + 8 = •

ALT + 9 = ª

ALT + q = œ

ALT + SHFT + Q = Œ

ALT + w = ∑

ALT + SHFT + W = „

ALT + e = ´

ALT + r = ®

ALT + SHFT + R = ‰

ALT + t = †

ALT + SHFT + T = ˇ

ALT + y = ¥

ALT + SHFT + Y = Á

ALT + u = ¨

ALT + i = ˆ

ALT + o = ø

ALT + SHFT + O = Ø

ALT + p = π

ALT + SHFT + P = ∏

ALT + a = å

ALT + SHFT + A = Å

ALT + s = ß

ALT + SHFT + S = Í

ALT + d = ∂

ALT + SHFT + D = Î

ALT + f = ƒ

ALT + SHFT + F = Ï

ALT + g = ©

ALT + SHFT + G = ˝

ALT + h = ˙

ALT + SHFT + H = Ó

ALT + j = ∆

ALT + SHFT + J = Ô

ALT + k = ˚ (degree)

ALT + SHFT + K = Ó

ALT + l = ¬

ALT + SHFT + L = Ò

ALT + ; = … (to create ellipsis you can also press CTRL + ALT + .)

ALT + SHFT + : = Ú

ALT + “ = Æ

ALT + ‘ = æ

ALT + z = Ω

ALT + SHFT + Z = ¸

ALT + x = ≈

ALT + SHFT + X = ˛

ALT + c = ç

ALT + SHFT + C = Ç

ALT + v = √ (square root)

ALT + SHFT + V = ◊

ALT + b = ∫

ALT + SHFT + B = ı

ALT + n = ˜

ALT + m = µ

ALT + SHFT + M = Â

ALT + , = ≤

ALT + SHFT + < = ¯

ALT + . = ≥

ALT + SHFT + > = ˘

ALT + / = ÷

ALT + SHFT + ? = ¿

COMMON SHORTCUTS

On my keyboard “Command” equals the “WIN” key—I use a Windows keyboard on a Mac—but yours might be CTRL or COMMAND (Mac users) depending on the keyboard type.

<Command> + C = Copy

<Command> + X = Cut

<Command> + V = Paste

<Command> + Q = Quit

<Command> + W = Close File or Window

<Command> + N = Open New file

<Command> + O = Open Existing file

<Command> + S = Save

<Command> + P = Print

<Command> + F = Find a word or phrase­­­ on web pages or in Word. If the word or phrase appears more than once, press ENTER to move to the next instance.

<Command> + Z = Undo Action (To redo the action, press <Command> + Y)

<Command> + A = Select All

<Command> + B = Bold (To stop bold, repeat command)

<Command> + I = Italics (To stop italics, repeat command)

<Command> + U = Underline (To stop underline, repeat command)

<Command> + T = Open New Browser

<Command> + D = Bookmark Page

<Command> + B = View Bookmarks

WORDPRESS SHORTCUTS

Most of the above commands also work on WordPress. Here’s a few extras exclusive to WordPress …

<Command> + 1 = Heading 1

<Command> + 2 = Heading 2

<Command> + 3 = Heading 3

<Command> + 4 = Heading 4

<Command> + 5 = Heading 5

<Command> + 6 = Heading 6

<Command> + 9 = Address

ALT + SHFT + n = Check Spelling

ALT + SHFT + j = Justify Text

ALT + SHFT + d = Strikethrough

ALT + SHFT + u = Bullet List

ALT + SHFT + o = Numbered List

ALT + SHFT + q = Quote

ALT + SHFT + w = Distraction Free Writing Mode

ALT + SHFT + p = Insert Page Break Tag

ALT + SHFT + l = Align Left

ALT + SHFT + c = Align Center

ALT + SHFT + r = Align Right

ALT + SHFT + a = Insert Link

ALT + SHFT + s = Remove Link

ALT + SHFT + m = Insert Image

ALT + SHFT + t = Insert More Tag

ALT + SHFT + h = Help

Most social media sites offer their own shortcuts in the help menu. YouTube, however, offers several cool hacks to save time.  

YOUTUBE SHORTCUTS

Press 1 = jump ahead 10% through the video.

Press 3 = jump ahead 30%

Press 4 = jump ahead 40%

Press 5 = jump ahead 50%

And so on.

Press 0 = restarts the video

Spacebar = pause/un-pause video

← Go back 5 seconds

→ Go forward 5 seconds

↑ Raise volume

↓ Decrease volume

F = Fullscreen

ESC = Exit Fullscreen

MISC.

CTRL+ALT+DEL = Quit Frozen Application. This command opens the Task Manager. Select the application that stopped working and press END TASK.

Do you have a favorite shortcut that you use regularly? Please share!

Want to have a little fun? Include a special character in your comment. ♠♣♥♦ If it’s not listed above, be sure to tell us how you created it. 

11+

First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

The Invisible 

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this. The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

“What about those?” Marge said, pointing to a large cluster.

Bette tsked. “I’m sure we can do better. Do you want the girls eating green tomatoes? What if it was—?” She stopped mid-sentence, glanced down, and wiped her boot on a rock. “Oh, my,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, if that’s the worse that happens today, I’m counting my blessings.” She continued her search. “What time did Paige get in last night?”

“Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

“I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. “I just worry she’s not getting enough sleep.”

“She’s a student. They aren’t supposed to sleep.”

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

They looked up to see their boarder, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand, cut across the dewy lawn. “We were just saying,” Marge said, “that you don’t get enough sleep, dear.”

She laughed. “Can’t argue with that. But my paper’s due Monday, and I’m nervous about it. By the way, was that apple pie I smelled, or am I still dreaming?”

“Oh, my pies! I almost forgot.” Marge squeezed Paige’s arm. “If you wait a few minutes, you can have a piece.”

“It’s tempting, but I really need to get to the library.” She waved to the sisters as she hurried to her car. “Save me a slice.”

“We will, honey. Now don’t work too hard. Remember, life is short.” They watched her head to campus, after which Marge rushed off to check on the pies, promising to be right back.

Bette continued down the rows, her persistence eventually paying off. As she removed an almost perfect Brandywine tomato from its vine, a high-pitched scream split the air. She snapped her head around in time to spot a red-tailed hawk, something squirming in its beak, swoop below the treetops. Her heart was still pounding when a calloused hand grabbed her ankle, causing her to drop the basket. She jerked free, only to discover the hand was an out of control cucumber vine.

Though the sisters seem sweet, not much happens on this first page … unless you’re a research junkie like me and have studied this particular murder weapon. Which is genius, by the way. Kudos to you, Brave Writer. For those who didn’t catch it, I’ll explain in a minute.

Let’s look at your first line, which I liked.

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.

Your first line makes a promise to the reader, a promise that must be kept and alluded to early on. Just the suggestion of green tomatoes is not enough.

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

I assume Brave Writer discovered that tomatoes contain a few different toxins. One of which is called tomatine. Tomatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and heart damage. Its highest concentration is in the leaves, stems, and unripened fruit. Red tomatoes only produce low doses of tomatine, but the levels aren’t high enough to kill.

Like other nightshade plants, tomatoes also produce atropine in extremely low doses. Though atropine is a nasty poison, tomatoes don’t produce enough of it to cause death. The most impressive toxin from green tomatoes is solanine. Which, as Brave Writer may have discovered, can be used as murder weapon. Solanine can be found in any part of the plant, including the leaves, tubers, and fruit, and acts as the plant’s natural defenses. People have died from solanine poisoning. It’s also found in potatoes and eggplant.

If Marge eats, say, potato pancakes along with green tomatoes during that brunch, it’ll increase the solanine and other glycoalkaloid levels coursing through her system. *evil cackle*

The nice part of solanine poisoning from a writer’s perspective is that it can take 8-10 hours before the victim is symptomatic, which gives Brave Writer plenty of time to let her stumble into more trouble to keep the reader guessing how or why she died.

If I were writing this story, I’d study the fatal solanine cases and put my own spin on it.

Hope I’m right about this. If not, my apologies. In any case, the weekly Girl’s Club (no hyphen and only capped if it’s the official title of the club) brunch seems important and so do the tomatoes. What I’d love to see on this first page is why. You don’t need to tell us, but you do need to hint at the reason to hold our interest.

What if Bette plucks the deadly fruit from the vine and notices how strange it looks? You’ll have to research to nail down the minute details of a toxic green tomato, if any differences are visible to the naked eye.

There’s one other problem with this first paragraph. Here it is again:

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

Who’s narrating this story? It isn’t Bette, as your first line indicates. And it isn’t Marge. An omniscient point-of-view is tricky to pull off. Newer writers should focus on one main character and show/tell the story through their eyes. If that character doesn’t hear, see, feel, taste, experience, smell, etc. something, then it must be excluded.

Yes, some writers (me included) use dueling protagonists, alternating scenes between the two, and even include an antagonist POV. But when we’re still honing our craft, especially when we’re learning the ins-and-outs of POV, it’s easiest to concentrate on one main character throughout the story. For more on mastering point-of-view, see this post or type in “point of view” in the search box. We’ve discussed this area of craft many times on TKZ.

As written, my advice is to keep the first line and either delete the rest and find a different starting point (sorry!) or better yet, saturate it in mystery regarding these tomatoes. That way, the reader will fear for your main character while the fruit lay on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter during the Girl’s Club meeting. If you choose this route, one of your goals is to make the reader squirm. “Don’t eat that tomato, Marge!”

What say you, TKZers? Please add your gentle and kind advice for this brave writer.

 

8+

The Writing Math: Craft… plus Art… equals Performance

By Larry Brooks

Allow me to share the story of a writer you may have heard of, and if you haven’t you either aren’t a mystery/thriller fan (you’re here on Kill Zone, I’ll assume you are) or you aren’t paying attention. His name is Robert Dugoni, the author of 18 novels across three series and one literary novel that just sold to Hollywood, as have several of those novels. He is a multiple New York Times bestseller, with enough other lists and awards and credits to fill up an entire Kill Zone post.

This month we celebrate that an author of mystery and thrillers (legal thrillers, murder mysteries and spy stories) is on the cover of Writers Digest Magazine. (Never mind that WD has labeled this their travel writing issue, the monthly interview here is all about writing novels.) He is one of us, and he has something to say to all of us who ply this craft.

There is an amazing bottom line to this author’s journey, which he describes with perfect focus and humility from a teaching perspective. We’re all on that path, seeking a summit, as he has over twenty years of searching for that intersection between craft and art.

He’ll tell you he’s still climbing and learning, too.

He started out with his skill (his “art”) as a writer—honed through a background in journalism and as a defense attorney—with the risky yet common belief that the story-craft side of things was a no brainer. He’d been a reader of quality novels since childhood, so of course he knew in his gut how a novel came together and what makes it tick.

He believed that’s how successful writers do it. Some of them actually claim it as their experience. They just take a chair and start typing, letting the story flow out of them. It would take him years to realize that such advice is toxic, if not an outright lie.

Those years commenced when he left the practice of law after 13 years to pursue his dream of writing fiction. Full time, cold turkey. What he didn’t know was that it would take six years to arrive at that magic moment when craft and art finally embrace, with a brief time-out to write a non-fiction book that become a 2004 Washington post Book of the year (The Cyanide Canary). After that he went back to his dream and his WIP, which was a legal thriller titled The Jury Master.

Here’s a little more math for you: over those six years, he submitted The Jury Master to 42 agents. A lot of us would have hung it up after such a string of rejections. Sometimes he would go back and tweak the story, but he received very little input that he could use to raise the bar. He was on his own, as most of us have felt at some point in our journey.

In the meantime life continued, and he found himself frequenting a neighborhood bookstore… where he happened upon a shelf he’d never paid much attention to before: the place where the writing craft books were displayed. Mind you, this was the early 2000s decade, and there wasn’t a James Scott Bell or a Donald Maass or a Larry Brooks writing craft books yet. No, in 2004-07 we’re talking Al Zuckerman, Christopher Vogler and Sol Stein, to name a few of that era.

That’s when an epiphany blew up his life. In a good way. He realized he really didn’t know what he was doing as a novelist. Even after all that reading, his “gut” wasn’t getting the job done.

So Dugoni took over a year off to absorb as many craft books as he could, searching out teachers of fiction craft, applying the principles he discovered to the now dog-eared manuscript of The Jury Master, assembling more than few binder full of notes. Finally this lead to what was, in sum, a total rewrite of the novel.

He thought he knew. But he realized—and was humble and hungry enough to admit it—that he didn’t. That he didn’t even know what he didn’t know.

The storybook outcome of this launch phase of Robert Dugoni’s career, the fruition of all that study, was that The Jury Master landed an agent forthwith, and the book became his first New York Times bestseller, and the first of a five-title series featuring hero David Sloan. Who was, of course, an ace attorney with a mysterious past.

Anyone who tells you writing cannot be taught is thus proven wrong.

Or at least, confused. Sure, Robert Dugoni was a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge isn’t accessible to anyone with the discipline to seek it out.

What is hard to teach is how to land on a worthy story idea/concept/premisethat requires a learning curve and a keen sense of dramatic and thematic potential, as well as commercial viability. I’m not saying the craft essential to actually writing an idea as a novel is easily or quickly taught—Brother Bell will second me on that one, I’m sure—just that the information and framing of what you need to understand is out there, relevant and more than ready to change your writing life.

Cut to 2020, and this July cover article/interview with Writers Digest Magazine.

By now Robert Dugoni has sold over six million copies of his 18 novels, including the bestsellers My Sister’s Grave (which launched the 7-title Tracy Crosswhite series), and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (his literary novel), as well as the new Charles Jenkins spy series, with the second title due out end of September.

The author of that July 2020 Writers Digest article/interview was, well, me.

I’ve known Bob for years after hanging out at writing conferences and discovering that, despite him being a pantser and me an outliner, we shared a strikingly similar outlook on the craft. Ultimately he would go on to blurb one of my novels (Deadly Faux) and my 2017 craft book (Story Fix). More recently, he wrote the Foreword to my new craft book (Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves), published last fall.

Having written for Writers Digest many times, I pitched the editors on the interview, and they didn’t hesitate. The transcript was over 7000 words, and if you’ve ever edited and assembled an interview toward a coherent through-line narrative, you know how long it takes to get it down to 2500 words. WD loved what he had to say, and asked for an additional 800 words. The interview not only covers the timeline of his career, it also delivers abundant take-aways and learning that will be well worth a hungry writer’s time.

In this interview Robert Dugoni has given us a master class on how to avoid the most common mistake and pitfall that explains the 96 percent failure rate of manuscripts submitted to agents for representation (this via The Huffington Post; rejection is almost always a combination of less-than-compelling or original story ideas—which is indeed hard to teach—alongside a flawed sense of structure, character, flow, or simply the writing itself… all of which reside at the very teachable heart and soul of craft).

Which brings me back to today’s title. It’s that word: performance.

Robert threw it in at the end of the interview, and it was something I’ve never heard a writer say before. It froze me with introspection. He says that when a writer has internalized and assimilated and worked with the core principles of storytelling craft—to the point that she or he can see it just below the surface in the books they read, and within their vision for the stories they want write—only then can they truly and effectively sit before the blank page and actually perform. And when that happens, when the writer truly knows how a story should work, it becomes a blissful experience.

This is true regardless of one’s writing process preference, pantser and planner alike. Craft empowers both, the lack of it compromises both.

We perform, in the same context that any professional puts themselves in front of an audience to present their art, relying instinctually on the compounded sum of their years of study and practice of their craft. Singers. Actors. Editors. Athletes. Doctors and nurses and their medical peers. Therapists. Shrinks. Mechanics. Pilots. Designers. They are all artists. But before their art can work at a professional level, a level where people pay money to experience their art, they needed to build a foundation of craft, of the knowledge of their chosen field of work.

Writers who struggle for many drafts over what is often many years are, in fact, searching for and struggling with their handling of those core craft principles. Some aren’t even aware of what they’re missing. All of us know that feeling, just as Dugoni did for those six early years and those 42 rejected drafts.

But he’s a testament as to what can happen when you truly submit to the truth that it is craft will set you free, and allow you to set sail in pursuit of your writing dream.

As a footnote, Robert Dugoni continues to teach at conferences and runs his own annual retreat. Not because he needs to—before the virus and with his prodigious output, he was traveling to book signings nearly every weekend—but because he truly wants to give back, so that we don’t burn six years or more of our life, as he did, chasing something that can outrun us if we aren’t sure what we’re chasing.

Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks is a former Kill Zone blogger who has maintained his own website, Storyfix.com, since 2010. He is the USA Today bestselling author of six thrillers and four books about writing fiction, including Story Engineering.

His latest, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves,” was published last November from Writers Digest books, a division of Penguin Random House.

 

15+

The Woman Without a Face

The sleepy town of Bad Kreuznach, Germany found itself at the center of one of the most bizarre, high-profile murder mysteries in the country’s history — the search for a serial killer the police called The Woman Without a Face.

The police found no fingerprints. No witnesses. No description. But they did have a trail of DNA that stretched back 15 years and across three countries. A case so bizarre that the mystery woman — aka The Phantom of Heilbronn — wasn’t only an elusive female serial killer but a cop-killer, as well.

On May 23, 1993 in the quite town of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, a neighbor knocked at the door of Lieselotte Schlenger. No one answered. She knocked again and again. Still no answer. Finally, she phoned the police. When they arrived, they found Lieselotte on the living room floor. Someone had strangled her to death using wire from the floral bouquet. Police interviewed dozens of potential witnesses, but no one heard or saw a thing. The only clue to the killer’s identity were trace amounts of DNA found on the lip of a teacup. Police couldn’t match the DNA to a suspect. They did, however, determine the sample came from a woman.

Fast forward eight years.

In March 2001, in Freiburg, a southwestern town in Germany miles away from Idar-Oberstein, a 61-year-old antique dealer, Jozef Walzenbach, was found strangled to death. Where they found his body isn’t clear. Residents feared The Woman Without a Face had struck again. Sure enough, authorities matched the DNA to the first crime scene. Germany, it seemed, had a budding serial killer in their midst.

Seven months later in October 2001, at a public playground in the quaint German town of Gerolstein, miles from the previous scene, a seven-year-old boy stepped on a discarded heroine needle. His frantic mother turned the syringe into police, which set off a chain of events that no one could foresee. Identical DNA from the first two murders was now found on the syringe.

A serial killer with a drug problem is even more unpredictable.

The BKA — German equivalent to the FBI — retested all the samples, which resulted in a bizarre turn of events. Not only was this mysterious woman a murderer, she was also a thief.

In 2004, The Phantom of Heilbronn traveled to Austria and broke into garden sheds along the main drag. She discarded the pants of a tracksuit, a hooded cardigan, and other items. The Woman Without a Face broke into a caravan, stole items, and took a bite out of a biscuit. Authorities found her DNA in saliva on the bite impression. Next, she stopped in France and committed burglaries there, too.

A real menace to society!

The mysterious DNA didn’t turn up again for four years.

On May 6, 2005, a member of the local gypsy community was shot and nearly killed. Shortly after, someone from the same community turned in his brother’s 7.65 caliber pistol. Guess whose DNA they found on the handle? Yep. The Woman Without a Face.

Police remained baffled. The Phantom was running ramped. Nowhere in Europe seemed safe.

Then, in April, 2007, German officer, Michele Kiesewetter, 22 years old, presumably approached the mystery woman in a car park. At close range The Phantom shot her in the face, killing her instantly. She also shot Officer Kiesewette’s male partner, who slipped into a coma from his injuries. When he woke he had no memory of the killer.

Didn’t matter. The Phantom left her DNA in the patrol car.

In 2008, German police arrested a former informant, suspected of killing three Georgian car dealers who’d visited Germany to buy used vehicles, their bodies dumped in the river. The informant denied knowing The Woman Without a Face. He also denied committing the crimes. Instead, he said an Islamic radical from Somalia killed the car dealers. Because the Islamic radical was already in police custody, they questioned him. He also denied any wrongdoing.

Left with few options, police stripped the informant’s car, analyzed the upholstery, carpet, and lint. And guess whose DNA showed up? Yep. The Phantom had struck again. This triggered police to concoct a new theory of the case, a theory that pointed the finger of the law at The Woman Without a Face. Tirelessly they worked to track down the previous owners of the motor vehicle in the hopes that the car once belonged to the murderess, even though the police had loaned this car to the informant in exchange for his cooperation in numerous cases.

Police Chief Erwin Hetger couldn’t be more thrilled, calling the vehicle a “down payment” to solve the case of the mysterious and elusive Phantom of Heilbronn.

“We’re closing in on her,” he told reporters.

But was he?

Over the course of 15 years The Woman Without a Face joined the Most Wanted list for her connection to 30 crimes, including six murders and dozens of burglaries and robberies

Quick crime writing tip: Robberies and burglaries are not the same. Robberies involve victims; burglaries occur in empty residents or businesses. Be sure to use the proper term in your WIP!

In a stunning new twist, German police released a photo-fit picture of a man who was either the suspect or an accomplice. Could The Phantom be transgender?

The Woman Without a Face

Police released this photo.

Eyewitnesses reported to have seen this “man” at the scene of an attempted break-in at a flat in Saarbruecken (another German city) in 2006. At the crime scene, police found traces of The Phantom’s DNA on a stone.

A police spokesperson, Rainer Koeller, said:

We can’t rule out that our suspect is a man now, or that she looks like a man. We just don’t know. This is a unique case. We have 30 crime scenes where we have found traces of her DNA, but we have no face. It’s a huge mystery and it’s incredible that the suspect has managed to hide herself for so long.

Can you guess the outcome?

The police and BKA relied heavily, if not solely, on trace DNA evidence. The startling truth is, a serial killer never stalked those streets. A woman who worked at the factory where they made cotton swabs for DNA testing (and medicinal uses) infected dozens of samples.

What does this story teach us?

Though forensics can be used as a strong backing for other circumstantial evidence, DNA evidence alone is not always a sure sign of guilt.

True stories like The Woman Without a Face make my writer brain sizzle. Just think of the countless ways to siphon elements from this story to send the detective and/or amateur sleuth(s) down the wrong path.

For discussion: Writers, do you pull details from real cases to suit your fictional needs? How did you use those details? Readers, have you ever noticed similarities to a real case in a novel? 

For my fellow birders who requested an update on the injured raven, I wrote a post about it for my blog since I didn’t include writing tips like I did in the original story. Enjoy!

10+

When Corvids Go Rogue

By SUE COLETTA

The following is a true story. While reading, take note of the bracketed MRUs [Motivation-Reaction Units in red] and scene/sequel structure in parenthesis (in blue), and my unrest can double as a TKZ lesson. 🙂 We’ve talked about these subjects before. Industry professionals write with the MRU (also called action/reaction) construction without conscious thought. For a new writer, learning this rhythm and flow can be a game changer.

For the last five days I’ve been in the middle of a crow verse raven war. I love both species, but I also understand why they’re fighting. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It all started last Wednesday when a vicious red-tailed hawk chased Shakespeare — the runt of my beloved crow family — past the dome window in my living room [Motivation].

Big mistake. No way could I not get involved (Scene Goal).

So, I bolted outside to help [Reaction]. Allan, Shakespeare’s older brother, was with her. Both seemed exhausted [Motivation] (Scene Conflict).

I called for Poe, their mother [Reaction]. She called back, but she wasn’t nearby [Motivation]. I called again and again, each time panic rising in my tone [Reaction].

Poe soared into the yard, landed on “her” tree branch, and gazed down at me [Motivation]. I pointed over to the left and screamed, “Hawk! The babies are in danger!” [Reaction] (Scene Disaster)

And Poe took off in that direction. Seconds later, a chorus of caws erupted in the treetops. It’s not smart to anger a mother crow — any crows, for that matter. Perched atop the tallest conifer, Poe called for the rest of her murder.

The hawk froze, like, “What the heck’s going on? Did that human call for backup?”

Within moments, the rest of Poe’s family soared in from all directions and attacked. [Motivation] I stood motionless, awestruck by the intelligence of my black beauties and the bond we’ve developed [Reaction] (Scene Reaction). For any hawk lovers out there, s/he’s alive. At least, I assume so. Angry caws trailed into the distance as the crows escorted the hawk out of their territory. If you’re wondering, Shakespeare and Allan flew away unscathed. 🙂

Later that same day, my husband and I had just finished lunch when a second commotion exploded outside [Motivation].

I had no idea my day would take such an ominous turn.

When we rushed into the yard [Reaction], I found a raven with an injured wing [Motivation]. My heartstrings snapped in two [Reaction]. On one hand, I refused to sit by and let that raven die. On the other, I couldn’t blame Poe and Edgar for protecting their chicks. Ravens tend to target a crow’s nest for an easy meal.

How could I be angry over the corvids acting on instinct? If an intruder was sniffing around my home, nothing could stop me from defending my family.

Even so, I couldn’t let the raven die. I’m just not built that way.

After four hours(!) of trekking through the woods after “Rave,” I came to the conclusion that I’d never catch her (Scene Dilemma). But I had to do something (Scene Decision).

I called New Hampshire Fish & Game (Scene Goal). A large part of their job is to help wounded animals, right? Well, not exactly. Much to my dismay, their “rules” don’t apply to corvids [Motivation].

The officer’s response infuriated me [Reaction].

“Since we’re talking about corvids,” he said, “it’s best to let nature take its course. We don’t respond to these types of calls because crows and ravens aren’t endangered. Besides, there’s plenty of them in the state.” (Scene Conflict) [Motivation]

“There’s plenty of people in the state, too, but I’d still try to save a human life.” [Reaction] #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter!

Needless to say, the phone call rolled downhill from there. I was on my own (Scene Disaster). My biggest problem? How to sneak food to Rave without upsetting Poe. Which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

I waited for Poe and the gang to make their daily rounds in search of intruders within their domain. In a country setting, a crow’s territory stretches for several acres.

Once caws trailed into the distance [Motivation], I bustled up the walkway—my gaze scanning the sky—headed toward the woods where the raven was hiding out [Reaction]. As soon as I’d hustled halfway across the dirt road, Poe rocketed out of a nearby tree [Motivation].

I tried this all damn day. And every single time she busted me. I flung up my hands and tried to reason with her (Scene Reaction) [Reaction for MRU, too]. “Listen, Poe. The raven’s no longer a threat. Can’t you please — please — leave her alone long enough for the wing to heal?”

That didn’t go over well (Scene Dilemma) [Motivation].

I tried again (Scene Decision). “Tell ya what. If you let the raven heal, I’ll reward you with a juicy steak.” [Reaction]

Better, but a little more convincing was in order. [Motivation] (Scene Goal)

“Hey, how ’bout you two come to an understanding? You’ll leave her alone if she promises not to go after the chicks once she’s airborne.” [Reaction]

Poe cocked her head, as if to say, “You can’t be serious. That’s not how this game is played.” [Motivation] (Scene Conflict)

“Fine! Then you’re just gonna have to get comfortable with me feeding her. I refuse to abide by your stupid rules.” (Scene Decision) And I stormed off. [Reaction]

Not my finest moment. Whatever. The neighbors already call me “that crazy crow lady,” so if anyone saw me arguing with Poe it wouldn’t even faze ’em.

As darkness rolled in, I lost track of the raven. There wasn’t any more I could do but pray she survived the night.

First thing Thursday morning, guess who’s waiting for breakfast? [Motivation] I brought out the leftovers from a roasted chicken [Reaction] (Scene Goal). The raven grabbed the carcass by the spine and hopped toward the woods. A few feet away she must’ve thought better of it. Stealing the whole thing could paint an even bigger bullseye on her back. Rave tore the chicken down the middle, stuffed one half in her beak, and left the rest on Poe’s rock.

I didn’t see Rave the rest of the day. (Scene Conflict)

On Friday night a tornado-like storm hit our area, complete with 50 mph winds, downpours, and lightning strikes. [Motivation] (Scene Disaster) If the raven survived, it’d be a miracle.

Eagle-eyed on the woods the next morning, I waited for hours as sunbeams speared across the grass. My beloved crows arrived on time. But no raven. Did Rave perish in the storm? In front of the window I wore a path in the hardwood floors. (Scene Reaction) [Reaction for MRU, too]

Time slogged. [Motivation]

About 10 a.m. I peeked out the window one last time before hitting the keyboard [Reaction]. And there stood Rave, well-rested, hungry, and disappointed to find the rock empty [Motivation]. The millisecond I stepped on the deck with a fresh plate of raw bacon [Reaction], Poe and the gang emerged from surrounding trees [Motivation] (Scene Dilemma).

Uh-oh, now what? [Reaction]

While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions. They dared not attack her, though. I have a strict “no fighting” policy, and they know it.

Thick tension engulfed the yard. [Motivation]

To create a diversion, I tossed half the bacon in the woods and half on Poe’s rock [Reaction] (Scene Decision). Which seemed to satisfy everyone. The saga, however, continues…

10+

Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll catch ya on the flipside. Enjoy!

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has shared his/her first page for critique. Enjoy! My notes will follow.

Traders Market

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, Emelia Lopez watched through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno. She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Keep to the plan, Nick said.

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.

“It had to be a gas explosion…”

“Was it a house?”

Another boom, another explosion.

“Holy shit! What is it?”

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.

Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

The second explosion?

Couldn’t think about it now.

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned. She pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand. Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready. She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open, the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptying the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom, out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions. Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick.

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came.

Dear God. I’m a murderer.

This first page has so much promise. Anon did lose me a few times, though. So, let’s see if we can make things a bit clearer for the reader. Below is the first page with my notes.

Traders Market (I don’t have enough info. to comment on the title)

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed. (Awesome first line!)

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, (one clause too many) Emelia Lopez watched (use a stronger verb here: peered, stared, gaped?) through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno (Nice!). She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Any time you use words like thought, heard, saw, considered, etc., you’re telling the action rather than showing it. Rearrange the above sentence to avoid that.

Example: When the first siren squealed, a spike of adrenaline shot through Emelia and she shoved off the fencepost. Sprinting toward the bus station (added to show the reader a destination), Nick’s words echoed through her mind. Keep to the plan. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one out here in the dark (added to weave in some personality).

Keep to the plan, Nick said. 

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she [Emelia] moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar. Very good. Don’t believe the advice that all gerunds are bad. They can be effective tools. Here, you’ve created emotional rhythm, which works for this particular reader.

“It had to be a gas explosion…” Who’s speaking? If it’s a bar patron, then please briefly describe the character so we can visualize the scene. Even something simple like: a bleach-blonde cougar in a leopard-print blouse.

“Was it a house?” Here, too.

Another boom, another explosion. Meh. It’s a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. I’d rather see Emelia stop short when the earth shakes beneath her sensible shoes—in other words, show vs. tell.

“Holy shit! What is it?” I have no idea whose dialogue this is, either.

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.” Here, too. Show us who this is.

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round. Who are “they”? Show us! Also, since you’re not in their heads, you can’t know that they’re “untouched” by anything. You can show disinterest, but you cannot tell us they’re untouched. You also can’t know they’re going inside for another round. The protagonist can presume they are, but then you need to make that clear. For more on writing in deep POV, read this first page critique.

Emelia moved away (backed away? From what?), her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed (Here again, you’ve slipped out of Emelia’s POV. Emelia wouldn’t think of herself of having a lumpy figure, would she? Most women would never use that term to describe themselves. By choosing Emelia’s POV, you, the writer, have effectively slipped inside her skin. You are Emelia while writing this scene). one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

On my second read-through I discovered that you might be referring to padding inside her disguise. If that’s true, then show us how itchy the material is or the padding lumping together. But you need to clue in your reader to what’s going on. Most readers won’t take the time to go back and reread the first page. See what I’m saying? Nailing an effective POV is one of the more difficult craft elements to master, but it’s crucial that you do. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. 

The second explosion? Couldn’t think about it now. (Nice. I just moved her response up a line.)

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned (beckoned what? beckoned her closer?). She [Emelia] pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand (key? Where’d it come from?). Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion (don’t tell us; show us. Inside the station five fat guys guzzling Budweisers huddled around a black-and-white television with a tinfoil antenna. Monday night football—perfect timing). Too far away (Maybe the explosion was too far away? Not sure how they missed the sirens, though they weren’t uncommon around here). Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready (Head down, Emelia shuffled to a row of lockers, stacked two high).

Side note: show Emelia searching for the right locker number to drag out the suspense, show her excitement over finding the duffle bag (or her devastation when the locker’s empty), show her hand tremble as she drags the duffle bag off the metal shelf, careful not to make a sound. Or maybe the zipper scratches the metal and draws unwanted attention from a security guard. See all the ways to create conflict? The possibilities are endless. Don’t make things too easy for Emelia. Your protagonist needs to stumble, fall, get back up and move forward, stumble again…that’s how we humanize her into a flesh-and-blood character.

She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open (that’s convenient; maybe too convenient? Something to think about.), the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptied the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone (why is she certain she’s alone? Did she peek out a crack in the door? Did she press her ear to the door as footfalls trailed down the hall? Show us!), she came out, stuffed the refilled (refilled with what?) duffle into the trash can under the counter. [Emelia] slipped a carry-on bag (where did this come from?) over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Okay, so, I assume the duffel bag contained all these items. Show us the action as it happens. Don’t make us guess after the fact. Why risk confusing your reader? You did a terrific job of showing us Emelia’s transformation—bravo on that!—so I know you can do it. Yes, it takes more time to show an action, but the payoff is well worth the added work. Every time we draw the reader deeper into the scene they become more invested in the story.

[With her head held high,] Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom [and slipped right past the drunken footballers who failed to notice her departure. Go Pats! (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-)) At the door to an awaiting cab Emelia hip-checked some business-type dude out of the way and stole his ride. Sucker.]

“Corner of Howser and Jewel Street.” She flashed a fan of bills over the front seat. “There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there in ten minutes.” (Note: I added dialogue to show Emelia giving directions to the cabbie, rather than telling the reader about afterward.) out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions.Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick

[Glancing at her phone, Nick still hadn’t texted.]

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came. Dear God, I’m a murderer. (This makes me want to flip the page to find out what happens next. Nicely done!)

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. If I didn’t see so much promise in this first page, I might be reluctant to bathe your opener in red ink. I want you to succeed, and I know you can. With a little more knuckle grease, this opener could be amazing.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Be careful with run-on sentences. Same goes for staccato sentences. They’re most effective when used sparingly. If used too often, they become a writing tic. 🙂

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

3+