by Kasey Tross
I could feel them before I could actually see them. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and as my pulse quickened I forced my breath to slow. I had learned to pay attention to this feeling. I listened.
“So then, he was like, ‘This is my friend Joey,’ and I’m all, ‘I didn’t come over here to meet your friend Joey’- well, you know, I didn’t actually say that out loud- and he’s like-“ Jana paused in her narrative. “Zo, what are you doing?”
I put a hand up in front of my cousin’s face to silence her and stopped, listening. In the distance I heard a car rushing down the dark, rain-soaked street. Somewhere else in the city a siren wailed. A dog barked.
“Zoe?” Jana whispered.
“Just start walking. Quickly,” I urged her. I clutched my purse tighter under my arm and we continued walking straight ahead, quickening our pace. I knew that our car was only another block away.
The hairs on the back of my neck, however, had been telling the truth. The distinct sound of heavy footsteps rapidly approached us from behind just as a dark figure stepped out of a doorway ahead. Crap, I thought.
I had been mugged once before, but it was when I was 10, and I had been with my parents. There were two men, and I remembered the way my mother had slapped the gun out of the tall one’s hand, twisting him into a headlock, while my father had sucker-punched the other one in the face, grabbed his gun, and thrown him to the ground. I had been the one to call 9-1-1, and I remembered my parents chatting casually with me as they held the muggers at gunpoint, waiting for the police to arrive. I sighed, thinking how I wished they were here now.
Thanks for asking me, Julie! I'm flattered. I've included a few links to more information about some of the topics I mention, when a full discussion of that particular technique doesn't really fit here.
What I like off the bat!
My two favorite lines are:
- I had learned to pay attention to this feeling.
- The hairs on the back of my neck, however, had been telling the truth.
Things to work on
There's a good idea behind the beginning, but it's a little too vague to be effective. The first sentence leaves us wondering who "them" is, but the second sentence beings with a plural noun which almost seems to define "them." Then the reader is left trying to figure out whether "them" is "the hairs on the back of my neck." I'm assuming "them" refers to the men, but perhaps it would be a little clearer if we used something a little more concrete instead of "them," such as "the men" or "the threat."
It's clear that we're starting at a moment of change, and that's fantastic. Starting with action can be a challenge, though, because readers need to be persuaded to care about characters before they're plunged into danger, or the reader has a hard time caring about the danger. I think we can definitely get to know these characters a little bit more in this short space. (Read more on creating character sympathy.)
Be careful, too, about letting the scene we're setting seem too cliche. It's a dark and stormy night and a shadowy figure cuts them off. I would hope to see something really unexpected happen somewhere in this somewhat stock scene.
Opportunities to dig deeper
Some opportunities I see: It's very hard to judge in only 300 words, but I think we could see more of Zoe's voice, too. Her attitude, her thoughts, her perceptions, and her unique take on things can be such a great draw for readers (and publishers!). As a writer, that was my favorite part of writing my most recent manuscript in first person, and I think the voice is what drew me to my two favorite sentences.
On that note, we can also convey more about the characters, their attitudes and priorities and even physical appearance. We see that Jana and Zoe are cousins, but it would be easy to convey a little more about their relationship with simple vocabulary choices. Instead of "Jana paused in her narrative," what kind of difference does "Jana paused in her prattling" or "in her gossip" or "in retelling her misadventures" make? Those simple word choices help convey their relationship, Zoe's attitude, even her priorities (which obviously aren't Jana and her story right now), as well as lending a little more voice.
The setting could be another way to dig into her voice. We need a little more grounding a little sooner. We open with Zoe detecting a threat, and the first thing she does is try to calm herself (right?), and listen. If she looked at the same time, we'd get the setting anchors that help enhance the feeling of danger. Are they on a street or in an alley? Is there anyone else around? We get this information later, but it could have more of an impact above.
Jana's first line of dialogue fills its purpose, but I think it might be a missed opportunity. They don't have to be talking about orphans or something like that, but those lines could characterize Jana & Zoe more, help us care about them more.
Technical stuff: simultaneity and 'as'
This lesson comes from Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer. Swain points out that reading is a linear activity. Our eyes scan across a line, and our brains process the words in order. This makes clauses that are simultaneous a subtle processing speedbump.
Three sentences use an "as" construction here. Just to use the first as an example: "The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and as my pulse quickened I forced my breath to slow."
This sentence has three responses/actions happening at the same time, but really, I think the first one or two actions are a response to the feeling she's just had, which become a stimulus for the third action (breathing). Breaking them up can also pick up the pace here: "The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My pulse quickened. But I forced my breath to slow."
Of course, your mileage may vary on that particular example, but any device can become distracting if it's used too often.
Technical stuff: filter words
I noticed a few instances of "filter" words or "scaffolding" throughout the passage. When the narrator says, "I knew that our car was only another block away," "and I remembered the way my mother had slapped the gun . . .", "Crap, I thought," or that she's "thinking how I wished they were here now," the narrator is telling what the character thinks, sees, feels or hears.
Too many of these phrases can draw attention to that scaffolding—the words that encase the character’s thoughts—rather than the important thing, the thoughts' contents. It can actually pull sensitive readers out of the story, reminding them too much that they're watching the narrator instead of allowing the readers to live the story through the narrator.
If you establish the POV at the beginning of the scene, and continue to show your character’s thoughts throughout the scene, simple declarations and observations of the world around him don’t require you, the author, to tell us that the POV character is the one seeing/feeling/tasting, etc. Cutting back the unnecessary scaffolding lets the elegant architecture of the sights and senses of your story shine through. (You can read more about scaffolding words.)
How do you do that here? Unless the words really add a shade of meaning or show the character's thought process, the delete key is the solution for a lot of these. In the examples I cited:
- "I knew that our car was only another block away," becomes "Our car was only another block away."
- "I remembered the way my mother had slapped the gun . . ." could become "My mother slapped the gun out of the tall mugger's hand" (And we might even be able to get away with cutting the static "There were two of them"). This can also help with the perennial awkwardness of past perfect throughout the miniflashback: Zoe establishes right away that this was years ago, so there's no confusion, the biggest reason you need past perfect.
- For "thinking how I wished they were here now," the change is a little bigger. The full sentence is "I sighed, thinking how I wished they were here now." Personally, I'd break this into two sentences, the first being "I sighed." (Well, I've developed a nervous tic every time I type "sigh," so I might go for a more telling gesture there.) And the second sentence would depend heavily on the voice and the story: anything from "I wish they were here now" to "Why couldn't they be here now?"
- "Crap, I thought." The italics are already an indicator that this is a direct thought, so we don't need the "I thought." However, I'm not sure we need the italics, either. In a first-person narrative, we know everything we're seeing and hearing comes through this character's eyes. All the commentary comes directly from her mind as well, so why italicize direct thoughts? It pulls us out of her head.
I like a lot of the questions this opening raises. It's done the #1 job of making me want to know more. With just a little bit more polish, it could be a seamless read that sucks even sensitive readers in and refuses to let go.