Many writers have a distinct visual image of their book, as if they were a camera filming the story. That can lead to problems, usually to do with bedding down the story in a particular character’s PoV, and a lack of focus. Both of these problems are particularly relevant in an opening.
Language: US English
Synopsis: Posted to cover the chaos of 1970s Belfast, an American journalist must wrestle with danger, corruption, sexism and her own growing feelings for a charismatic rebel in this tale of intrigue and romance set against the backdrop of an ancient conflict.
“I’ll murder it, so I will.”
Liam, small for ten with skinned knees, let loose with a solid kick that sent the ball the length of the block. His teammates roared approval and gave chase, running past identical brick council houses and dodging potholes under a sky the color of lint. A disco tune blared from an open window; the smell of suppers frying filled the air in the gathering dusk.
“Too right!” James, scrappy in a worn sweatshirt, pumped a small fist in the air. “Goal.”
As the teammates slapped his back, Liam ran a self-conscious hand over his too-short haircut and hurried to retrieve his ball. He gave it a quick once over with the tail of his shirt, rubbing off a dirty spot. His mate Patrick watched from across the block.
“Feck sake, Liam, it won’t stay shiny forever.” Patrick snorted a laugh.
“He loves his new footy toy,” said James.
Raucous laughter ran through the team. From the house across the road, a window sash was thrown up and a woman’s voice bellowed.
“Your tea’s going cold, Liam.”
As the boys began to disperse, Patrick snatched the ball and landed one last kick, a solid left that sent it the length of the street. Liam bolted down the block after it. At the end of the road a six-wheeled Army Saracen jeep rounded the corner of the housing estate’s entrance, past the gable wall painted with Nationalist graffiti: “Brits Out” “Up the RA.” The armored carrier transported four soldiers in riot gear. A private barked a command over the loudspeaker.
“Curfew in effect, zero six hundred.”
A litany of curses rained down from open windows. “Limey bastards!” “Feck away off!”
As Liam closed in on his football, the tank’s driver spotted him, watched, and then picked up speed. With a grisly smile, he steered the vehicle sharply left, rolling the massive tires over the ball, which exploded with a loud bang.
Stunned, Liam stood frozen, staring in disbelief at his flattened football. Fighting back tears, he raised his eyes to see the soldier grinning broadly. He ran to the side of the tank and pounded his small fist on the door.
“That was from me Da!” His face red with exertion, he banged on the tank’s door as the soldiers laughed.
His mother, Maureen, apron flapping over her housedress, came flying down the block. She grabbed Liam firmly by the arm, hissed into his ear.
“Enough! We can’t have you lifted, too.” Her fingers dug into his arm. Steering him by the shoulders, she met the soldier’s eyes. “Ye must be proud of yourselves, ruining a child’s new toy.”
The soldier in the passenger seat looked embarrassed, while the driver continued to smirk.
As Liam bent to retrieve his smashed ball, a deafening explosion shook the ground, followed closely by a second. Flames shot into the evening sky, sending up a jet of thick black smoke.
“Jesus, Mary and St. Joseph! That one’s close.”
Residents began pouring from their houses, heading toward the billowing smoke. Maureen grabbed Liam’s hand and joined the crowd. The Saracen sped off, siren blaring and loudspeaker barking commands to clear the street.
But the crowd continued to swell, moving toward the smoke, the atmosphere close to festive. Shouts filled the air: “The lads got a tank!” “Up the RA!” Amped on adrenaline, skinny longhaired teens skipped down the block, carrying bricks and bottles.
* * *
On the other side of the housing estate, the second explosion hit outside the heavily fortified Royal Ulster Constabulary station, consuming an Army vehicle in a fiery ball. Police officers and soldiers sought to disperse the growing crowds via loudspeaker as fire trucks turned their hoses on the angry blaze. An ambulance attendant loaded an injured man on a gurney, his face bloodied.
A light rain fell as the crowd grew more animated. “Feckin Brits Out!” “Limey bastards!” Bricks and bottles flew, and a cordon of shielded police answered with a round of rubber bullets. Dozens of protestors were cuffed and shoved into the back of large transport vans. A thick stifling smoke filled the air as nearby, the peal of church bells chimed the Angelus.
* * *
Three hours later, the holding facility at Castlereagh Detention, a fortress-like barracks, was nearly full. A steady stream of men and women were led to the cells, cold cement blocks crumbling with age and use. Sgt. McGurk, thickset and dead-eyed, roughly pushed a young female detainee ahead of him down the tiled hallway. The woman was terrified, her eyes wide with fright.
McGurk and his prisoner stopped before a large cell holding eight women. Unlocking the cell door, he shoved the detainee roughly, slamming her against the wall. The heavy door clanged shut, the finality of the sound rippling through the corridor.
Narrowing his eyes, he hissed at her through the bars. “Take your time and think, luv. Think hard, and know this: Sooner or later, you’ll tell us the lot.” His breath was coppery, metallic with whiskey. He turned to exit, his laugh bouncing hard off the tiled walls.
The young woman sank to a crouch, cradling her head. Around her, cellmates watched intently, exchanging murmurs in a hushed sibilance. A tall woman, Fiona, clad in jeans and a heavy sweater, produced a handkerchief and dabbed gently at the cut on the woman’s forehead. “You’ll have a bruise, so you will.”
The cellmates resumed conversation, swapping their own tales of arrest: “I was hardly dressed, so I was, and your man says come with me”… “Feckin beasts twisted my arm back”…
“I’m Fiona, from the Short Strand.” Her eyes swept the cell. “This lot was rounded up in Unity Flats. They’re lifting everyone tonight — seems a lad slipped away. Haven’t seen you before. Where from?”
The woman pushed her hair from her face and met Fiona’s gaze. Finally, with a clear American accent, she spoke.
“Marty Williams. Los Angeles, California.”
Editorial comment: Let’s skip the issue that this opening section is called a prologue. I would normally advise against using a prologue for two reasons. Firstly, the principle of a prologue has been so badly abused by self-publishing writers that it’s become a bit of a turn-off for agents. Secondly, many readers just don’t read prologues. They think they’re the boring bit at the beginning (perhaps because, for so many self-published titles, they are exactly that), and skip straight to Chapter 1. I don’t see any reason why this opening couldn’t be called Chapter 1, but since I haven’t seen the whole MS, I don’t know if there’s a good reason for this to be set apart as a prologue. (For good reasons to have a prologue, see my blog post on the subject.)
Let’s instead focus on the opening scenes. There are three separate scenes within this first 1000 words, a scene with Belfast ten-year-old Liam playing soccer in the street, a general crowd scene narrated with no particular PoV (Point of View), and a third scene inside Castlereagh Detention Centre, seemingly focused on an entirely different character, an American adult female. There’s nothing wrong with a rapid succession of scenes within a story; usually it signifies a very fast-paced section of narrative—climactic, tense, entirely plot-driven. But this is an opening; these are the first four pages of the book. There’s no story yet for us to have gotten involved in. We start getting involved in Liam’s story, but just as we do, BAM! We’re snatched away and asked to focus on a crowd scene happening on the other side of the estate. This scene is not rooted in any particular character’s PoV, and is very short. It’s very passive (“dozens of protestors were cuffed”) and not really that informative. But we’re just getting the picture when BAM! We’re snatched away again, now to the Castlereagh Detention facility where we follow a woman’s internment, narrated again from an omniscient narrator’s perspective.
There’s a problem here, telegraphed by my cartoonish use of the word BAM! We’re not being allowed to settle in to the book as a whole. Just as we begin to have a measure of where we are and who we’re supposed to be feeling for, the scene changes and we have to start from scratch.
I think there’s a clue as to what might be wrong in the additional notes that I ask an author to add, which is just a brief background to the book and how they have come to work on it. The author let me know in her submission that this book was originally a screenplay—a very well-received one—which she’s now turning in to a novel. There’s no doubt that the writing is good (although there are some sections where it seems every noun has to have a modifying adjective, and every verb an adverb), but this issue of jumping around in scenes with no cohesive narrative could be a problem stemming from the screenplay approach to story. In a screenplay scenes can be quite discrete because the thematic continuity of the story can be carried by other means, by lighting, camera-work, music. In a novel the written word is paramount—in fact the only way to convey the narrative—and the writer writes scenes to illustrate the story. I suspect that all of these individual scenes are important to the story, but because the author hasn’t grounded us in a particular PoV, the scenes as they are presented here mean nothing to us. Is the book about Liam? Not from the synopsis. It’s a book about Marty, the American woman in scene 3. So why the scene with Liam? And why the intermediate scene, which doesn’t serve to illustrate any significant character or plot development?
It might be that this book settles down very much in the PoV of Marty, hereafter, but for this first 1000 words we are not dealing with Marty at all, and even in the last scene where she makes an appearance, the scene is not told from her perspective. It is actually being told, if you think about it, from the camera’s perspective. The “film” opens with a wide-angle shot of the holding facility, then zooms in on Sgt McGurk’s face (“thickset and dead-eyed”) before zooming out to include Marty (“her eyes wide with fright”) as they move down the hallway. The camera follows them down the corridor to the door of the cell, which opens, slams shut. Cut. Now the camera is inside the cell looking back out at Sgt McGurk staring in. The camera turns to focus on Marty, who crouches in the corner, then pans across the faces of the other women in the cell, finally pausing on Fiona, who bends to her and starts talking. Close-up of Fiona as she talks, then cut to close-up of Marty as she meets Fiona’s gaze.
With that in mind, if you now go back to the other scenes, they too are being described as a camera would observe the scene, not as a character. We’re never close in to Liam’s PoV, and in fact there are plot details that Liam can’t possibly know, like the fact that there are precisely four soldiers in riot gear inside the Saracen (presumably shown by an interior shot in the screenplay).
The problem here is that although the writing is good, this is very much still a screenplay and not a novel. They are very different animals. I’d suggest that this opening needs to be re-written specifically from the perspective of the characters with whom you want us to identify (and you’d be safer, in the opening few pages, limiting that to one specific character rather than have several characters all vying for the reader’s attention). If you want to write a thriller from an omniscient narrator perspective—and plenty are—I would at least cut down the number of scenes in this very first opening few pages. Allow the reader, or agent, to get engrossed in one particular scene before wrenching them away from it and asking them to concentrate on something completely different. With a lot of rapid-fire separate scenes in quick succession, you run the risk of the browsing reader, or agent, not being pulled in to the story in sufficient depth to make the purchase.
Thanks for posting.