Thursday, May 9, 2013
First Page Critique: Heart Failure
James Scott Bell
Here is today's first page critique. My notes follow the text:
By the time Dr. Carrie Markham heard the shots, she was already huddled on the floor well of the car, shielded by Adam’s body.
One, two, three sharp reports. It took Carrie a moment to recognize them as gunshots. She flinched against an expected shower of glass, but none came. Instead, she heard muffled thumps as bullets hit the car’s seats, seats she and Adam occupied just seconds ago.
“Stay down,” he said. The pressure on her back lessened. She turned her head and watched Adam peep over the dashboard. Carrie’s heart continued its salsa dance while her mind wrestled with what was happening. After what seemed like an eternity, Adam bent down and whispered, “Okay, they’re gone. You can sit up.”
Carrie eased into a sitting position and looked around her. The parking lot of the Multiplex Cinema was as peaceful as it had been when she and Adam Davidson walked out after the late movie, just minutes ago. The few cars still there probably belonged to the people who were inside the theatre hurrying to close up and go home. If there were witnesses to the shooting, they were out of sight.
A few minutes earlier, she and Adam were talking about closing out this Saturday night date by going for ice cream. That option was off the table now. Instead, Carrie struggled to keep from spewing her dinner onto the floor of the car, and the thought of a hot fudge sundae almost pushed her over the brink.
She swept back a stray lock of hair, took a deep breath, and tried to control her breathing. When she was sure she could speak again, she said, “Adam, what was that all about?”
I like the beginning situation. I advocate an opening disturbance on first pages, and this certainly qualifies. While the disturbance doesn't have to be "big," here it is. The opening line, however, may be trying to do too much at once. Breaking it down gives it a crisper, punchier feel:
When Dr. Carrie Markham heard the shots, she was huddled on the floor of the car. Adam shielded her with his body.
[Note: I changed shielded by Adam's body because that suggests Adam is dead. It threw me when it turned out he wasn't.]
But there are problems (for me at least) with the setting and physical dynamics of the scene. Do we speak of "the well" of a car anymore? A floor's a floor, yes? And if they're in the front seats (because Adam peered over the dash), I just don't think this can be accomplished physically. Front seats are divided these days, and even so, there's not really enough room for two people to huddle down there, out of the seats, unless they are jockeys or Munchkins.
Tip: When you do an action scene like this, it's a good idea to sketch it out for yourself, even construct a little scene on a table so you can "see" it (chess pieces work nicely for this). The readers are trying to make things fit in their minds, so you have to make sure they fit in yours first.
Next, the unfolding physics of the scene are hard for me to picture. You have no shattering glass, but bullets hitting the seats. That means bullets traveling through all kinds of metal and engine works (it's presumed the shots are coming from the front, as Andy peers over the dash), but I just don't think that can happen. What's wrong with shattering glass, anyway?
I also have to wonder about two or more assassins firing into a car in a nearly deserted parking lot and then taking off without checking on their handiwork. Maybe this is to be a warning of some sort. Maybe Andy is about to explain. But right now I am thinking that subconscious reader question all writers must deal with: Would they really do that?
This also applies to emotional responses. Carrie's question: “Adam, what was that all about?" seems almost comically casual. Wouldn't she be a bit more freaked out? Especially if she's about to spew?
Tip: Put yourself, like a method actor, into the emotional moments of a scene. How would YOU react? Find some kind of unexpected reaction. What if Carrie slapped Adam across the face?
Carrie’s heart continued its salsa dance
While it's good to search from metaphors and fresh ways of "showing" emotion, it has to fit the tone and context. This metaphor connotes joy and happiness, the opposite of what's going on in the scene.
That option was off the table now.
RUE: Resist the urge to explain. We don’t have to be told that the option for ice cream is "off the table." It's obvious. Cut this line.
Bottom line: I do like the initial situation. Couple comes out of a movie, gets in the car, and shots fired. And the shooters disappear. It makes for a great opening, where the reader will want to know what's going on. Your task is to make it believable, both physically and emotionally. Re-envision this, re-work it . . . and then stick a novel after it.