Friday, March 28, 2008

A Bloody Opening

Let's take a look at another opening. We still have a couple in the queue, but we're always willing to do this, so feel free to send yours in if you'd like one of us to break it down. I think they make a nice counterpoint to some of the other things we talk about here. Theory and technique are great topics and all that, but there's no substitute for analysis of actual writing.

"Is there supposed to be this much blood?"

The medical student struggled to hold the camera steady with a shaky hand. The image bounced on the monitor, and he had to bring up a second hand to keep the instrument pointed at the pulsing flow of red in the middle of the screen.

First Impressions

I have to tell you, this is a great first line, one of the best I've seen. When we talk about opening hooks, this is what we're talking about -- a line that is so compelling, we have no choice but to keep reading to learn more.

The next two sentences dilute the impact of the first line, though. We start with something visceral and immediate and almost troubling, and move into something viewpointless (is that a word?) and, by comparison, disengaged. The second two lines almost read like a distraction from the problem of all that blood.

I find myself wondering if this is a deliberate choice. Does the author intend to imply something about the story or create some special kind of impression by juxtaposing that high-impact first line with the disembodied second paragraph? I keep trying to decide how this series might, as a deliberate style choice, be used to advance a particular authorial goal, and I'm coming up blank. So I'm going to recommend reconsidering this choice because I don't think it works.

Breaking It Down

I'd leave the first sentence exactly as it is. Don't change a word. It's strong dialogue, conversational and realistic and concise and evocative.

But follow it with speaker attribution. (No surprise that we recommend that, right?) If the medical student is the speaker, this can be achieved by removing the carriage return at the end of the dialogue.

"Is there supposed to be this much blood?" The medical student struggled to hold the camera steady with a shaky hand.

You see? Now we know the medical student is the one questioning the amount of blood.

Am I the only one who thinks the poetics of that second sentence fall a bit flat? Usually, when we use paired alliteration like that -- student struggled -- it's a way of emphasizing the alliterated words. We use it on the high point of a sentence, the part we want to highlight. The echo in the paired words causes the words to resonate.

But here we have three repetitions -- student struggled to hold the camera steady -- and the general rule for tripled alliterations is to separate them so that the echoes are spread over the sentence: The medical student holding the camera struggled to keep it steady. Not a brilliant sentence, but it illustrates the point. Do you see how the alliteration creates a poetic rhythm by tying the separated parts of the sentence together? The st sounds become like stepping stones across the flow of the words. This rhythm feels more fluid and natural.

Also, I'm not convinced we need the shaky hand. If the student is struggling to hold the camera steady, doesn't that imply a shakiness in the hands? I think it does. We already know there's a shocking amount of blood, and that the medical student is questioning it. If we throw in the struggle to hold the camera steady, I think we can assume that this struggle is tied to the amount of the blood and not to some other factor, such as standing on top of a giant rubber ball or being jostled by a crowd of fellow students.

The image bounced on the monitor,

Why do we care about what's on the monitor? Why is our attention being drawn to the monitor and away from the amount of blood? Who is watching the monitor, anyway? Instinct says it's not the medical student, because the medical student ought to be preoccupied by all that blood and by the task of holding the camera steady. The medical student has quite enough to contend with already without watching the monitor, too. Also, because the medical student will not likely think of himself as "the medical student," we can assume that the actual pov character is someone else. And that someone else is watching the student (who, after all, just spoke and drew attention to himself) rather than the monitor. This detail, while it may be accurate, reads like a distraction.

and he had to bring up a second hand

Again, this is presented from the viewpoint of an interested third party watching the medical student, and not from the viewpoint of the medical student himself. The difference is created by the verb had to bring up, and is emphasized by a second hand. If we were experiencing this moment from inside the medical student, the verb would be more immediate -- needed -- because he wouldn't be watching the upward motion of his own hand. He'd be thinking about the problem he's trying to solve. Problem: shaky camera. Solution: need two hands.

And it's not his second hand. It's a second hand. The use of the article instead of the possessive pronoun disembodies the hand. There are times this is a neat trick. I don't think this is one of them.

to keep the instrument

Why instrument? This is another distancing word because it's sort of vague and clinical. Instrument can be anything, any tool or device. Lens, camera, viewfinder -- these are all specific and concrete, and they'd do a better job connecting the reader to the specific moment. But I'm starting to get the impression that all this distancing language is deliberate. We're watching the medical student from outside -- we don't know from where, because that's not identified -- and I suspect we're meant to pull back from him. Which would be fine, if we had somewhere else to go. Without a clear point of view to act as a filter for all these distancing details, though, I'm left floating untethered and wondering why we care more about the distanced filmmaker than the blood.

pointed at the pulsing flow

I like pulsing flow. Pulsing flow is active and descriptive and immediate.

of red

I'd using the noun blood here in place of the adjective red. It feels a bit coy to avoid the blood at this point. We started with the blood, which was a huge attention-getter, and have been backing off from it ever since. I want to get back to what caught my attention in the first place.

in the middle of the screen.

I'd kill this last pair of prepositional phrases. He's not pointing at something in the middle of the screen. He's pointing at the blood. The blood is not in the middle of the screen. The blood is in a body. And there's so much of it. Keep the focus on the interesting element, and pare down the rest.

With all this said, I would probably edit the three sentences down to two:

"Is there supposed to be this much blood?" The medical student needed both hands to keep the videocamera pointed at the pulsing red flow.

If you wanted to triple the alliteration, you could use palms instead of hands. But do you see how tightening this keeps the energy higher and keeps the focus on the blood? We get the same basic information, minus the presence of the monitors. If the monitors are important to the scene action, the third sentence could reference them, but in a way that gives us a viewpoint frame of reference. The third sentence could continue to highlight our attention-grabber, all that blood in that body:

Mitch looked away from the victim and at the nearest monitor.

Not a great sentence -- truly, it's not, and I know that, but I'm trying to demonstrate a way to use the monitor in a way that doesn't take the focus off the impact of the bloody body, but gives us a grounded point of view. By the way, one of the reasons I'm so intent on getting a viewpoint character established is that I know this is meant to be a suspense novel. Suspense novels deal with threats, and threats become meaningful when they are personal. Give me a person, and then I'll have a more compelling reason to worry. That said, I'm open to the idea of starting a suspense novel with a teaser scene in a very objective point of view. And it's possible that this is the author's goal, and all the distancing language is meant to enhance that. (But I still don't think it works.)

Overall, this is a good attempt, but the focus is off. It's easy enough to fix, though, and I suspect there's a strong story following this slightly muddled opening.



Anonymous said...

But follow it with speaker attribution. (No surprise that we recommend that, right?) If the medical student is the speaker, this can be achieved by removing the carriage return at the end of the dialogue.

This brings up a question I'd like to ask. Of course, the reader wants to know as soon as possible the name of the character in viewpoint. That's not always an easy task when writing in first person. We can hardly open with "My name is Such and So, and I'm going to tell you a story." Do you have any advice on ways to get the first person character's name in the story asap, without it sounding completely contrived? For the moment, I have another character using the main character's name in dialog, but it's several paragraphs in. Thank you.

green_knight said...

The first sentence gives a sense of urgency that doesn't get picked up upon. I really wanted to know who and where the viewpoint is, what's happening. If there *isn't* a medical crisis, I'd be somewhat disappointed. But from the tension of the first sentence, the mental camera moves out to an almost leisurely pace - the medical student shaking, centering. The focus on the opening goes from the blood to the camera to the monitor - instead of becoming more intimate, we're getting more estranged.

And I'm unhappy with 'the medical student'. Who is the protagonist? If it's the filming student, then he wouldn't refer to himself like that; if he's not the protagonist, why is he the focus of the opening? 'The medical student' to me sounds like something that should be used _after_ he is introduced as a character. I think I want a qualifier here, something that gives me a hint who the narrator is.

benwah said...

Theresa, you're spot on in your assessment: this is a bit of a teaser opening, told from an objective POV. The remainder of the MS is told from a close 3rd, mostly with the protag (who doesn't appear in the opening chapter).

The objective, somewhat clinical approach was a deliberate choice. It's a surgery that goes bad -- an event which drives the remainder of the story -- but the characters in the opening are somewhat obscured. They are masked, gowned, and known by their actions and dialogue, not their names and thoughts. That initial character ambiguity is intentional.

Not to foist more opening on you, but to clarify the setting, the next lines read "Half an hour earlier it had begun as a straightforward surgery." Green knight gets his medical crisis.

As for the camera/monitor issue: it's a laparoscopic case, one done through small incisions with long-handled instruments. The camera is inside the body, and the images are projected on screens around the table. To answer Theresa's question: We care about what's on the monitor because everyone is looking at them; that's how they see what they're doing. The student is 'driving the camera.' So...the blood is in the body, but only seen on the screen. Another distancing layer, I suppose. That's not a deliberate choice, that's just telling it like it is--until the crisis worsens to the point where they haul out the open belly kit and things really get messy.

I'd never really noticed the rhythm of alliteration in that 2nd sentence. You're right, it's not a good as it could be.

Thanks for taking the time to work through my opening.

Edittorrent said...

Benwah, you might want to consider letting someone answer the medical student's question much more quickly. I understand you're trying to establish the camera thing -- I didn't get that it was laproscopic surgery, but that's easy enough to fix. But let that information develop in the context of a conversation, especially because the question is such a great way to grab reader interest. You can do this kind of teaser opening, and keep it very objective, if you keep reader interest high. Good luck with it, and thanks for letting us dig into your prose.


jwhit said...

Here's an idea -- use first names to make the people real. I don't know if this is a set up that these people will have on-going meaning to your story or not, but the explanation that they are anonymous to each other doesn't ring true to me. I would assume that they at least know each other in some capacity as a surgical team.

I didn't get it that this was a lap surgery either. You could have the student holding the camera do something like continue the camera on it's way to the target site - whatever that is: uterus, gall bladder, heart..., while watching the blood on the monitor guiding his actions.

I love the opening. Just needs to focus the setting a bit more.

benwah said...

The first 3 lines can't obviously be all things to all people. The important part for me is knowing if there's enough interest to read another few lines to get the answer to some of the questions that have been asked. (ie, clarification that it's a lap case, meeting the characters, etc)

Edittorrent said...

The effect on the reader is what's important... so the question is always-- does the opening achieve what you want to achieve in terms of effect on the reader? Is the reader asking the right questions? Does the reader know what you want the reader to know? Does the reader have reason to read on?