Thursday, September 18, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #56

Most Wonderful Author: Austin Graczyk @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Rebecca
Working Title: “Innocent Death (aka Brooks/Saunders)”

November 30, 2012

John Brooks wasn't listening to the preacher.

He had been, until the complete stranger started in on what a good man Hannon had been. That made him want to find something else to focus on.

It wasn't the preacher’s fault. He was only human. It was a small miracle he’d even agreed to say a funeral for a vampire.

A pink splotch across the glen caught Brooks’ eye.

It was a little girl in black, standing next to a tree with a bright pink umbrella over her head. She looked at him but then to the casket.

He looked back at it, too. It had been closed for the whole event, and with good reason: however much was left of Hannon wouldn’t be pretty. Fire, sunlight, beheading, and silver were the only ways to kill a vampire, and Hannon wasn't in an urn.

“And so, his partner would like to say a few words,” the preacher said with a look that caught Brooks’ attention.

He nodded and they changed places. He cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming today. I know Agent Hannon would appreciate it.” He straightened his tie. “Hannon and I were friends for a long time. We were transformed together, in England, in the 1700’s. Unlike me, he never lost his accent. We traveled together for a long time, until the integration with the humans, and we didn’t separate for long, even then.

Strong Points –
A fantastic opening line. Its construction is simple, nothing flashy, but what makes it work is that it starts with a situation that feels wrong. Preachers are people whose entire jobs center around dispensing moral wisdom, so when someone chooses not to listen to the preacher, we know to expect some conflict of morals or ideals between the character and the preacher (or the preacher is just really boring, but that’d be kind of a copout plot-wise).

And I do like the way that initial conflict is connected to conflicts in the world at large, that hint at the world’s rules without going into a history lesson. The thing that’s “wrong” with the preacher is that he doesn’t really know Hannon, but he’s doing this despite there being some tensions (I assume!) between religious folks and vampires—and woah, vampires! What a plot bomb!

Similarly, we get some nice hard rules about vampires, along with this funny line:

… however much was left of Hannon wouldn’t be pretty. Fire, sunlight, beheading, and silver were the only ways to kill a vampire, and Hannon wasn't in an urn.

There’s a lot of intrigue built up here, including how and why Hannon died, and who is the little girl with the pink umbrella?

Some Tips –
And we have a lot of intrigue going, right until Brooks gives Hannon’s eulogy. Everything Brooks says appears to be backstory, and by the lack of closing quotes for the scene, I'm guessing it's going to go on for even longer. But even if the eulogy content was tweaked and shortened, there is still the problem that eulogies by their nature boil down to being real-life backstories.

Consider how other fictional works have used eulogies and funerals in their plot. If a eulogy is actually given, it's probably used in an ending scene, when the audience knows and can grieve alongside the characters.

The first two examples of fictional funerals that I can think of are in the movies "Big Fish" and "Death at a Funeral", both of which feature sons trying to understand their dads as they're dying or after they're dead. In those instances, the eulogies work great for showing how far characters have come in understanding their estranged fathers. But if a funeral happens closer to the beginning, the audience won't have the patience to sit through the eulogy of someone they don't know.

Instead, often just enough of the death or funeral are shown before delving into a movie-long flashback that takes the place of the eulogy—for example, think of movies like "Grave of the Fireflies", "Citizen Kane", or "Remember the Titans".

Consider instead giving only enough detail to show the funeral is happening, but then move on. I would omit the details of the eulogy since this is occurring so early in our plot. I think the opening lines tell us all the backstory we need to know: Brooks and Hannon are vampire-cops in a world where human preachers and vampires don't always get along.

With that out of the way, let's focus on the purpose of this scene to the plot. I'm guessing by the cop/thriller vibe I get from this scene, Hannon died under mysterious circumstances related to an unsolved case he was last working on, and it's up to Brooks to find out the true cause of his death!

In which case this funeral scene should be our introduction to this conflict. So what is about to happen? Does Brooks use the eulogy pulpit to say something he shouldn't, leading his boss to suggest he should "take some time off?" Or does the local mummy mob want him silenced for his outburst—permanently? Or does some mysterious someone (the girl in the parasol perhaps) have a lead for Brooks that breathes warmth into a cold case? Stick close to the plot, and the backstory should catch up in time.

Instead, replace the backstory with more details of this funeral scene that might give the reader a glimpse into this world. Right now, things are a little empty. Up until the introduction of the girl, the entire scene is Brooks telling us how displeased he is with the preacher. I can't even picture the preacher, since we're never given any clues to draw our own conclusions from—his face, his clothes, the condition of the Bible he might or might not be holding. Meanwhile, Brooks straight up tells us:

 That made him want to find something else to focus on.

So he's looking at everything but the preacher, and still he doesn't describe anything in his immediate vicinity. This little line of telling is a missed opportunity to show some world- and character-building description. Delay the umbrella a little longer, and take some time to describe the setting of the funeral, the gravesite, the people who showed up and the ones who are conspicuously absent. Then Brooks can easily segue to looking at the girl.

Some stronger word choices in the descriptions and actions could also help build the scene. For instance, the word "splotch" I would normally associate with messes and stains, but here it's used to describe a dainty, pink parasol.

Still, I think it's one of the more vivid words in the whole scene, and that pink parasol stuck with me more than any other detail. Other lines don't fare quite as well:

She looked at him but then to the casket.
He looked back at it, too.
...the preacher said with a look that caught Brooks’ attention.

Aside from the repetition, "look" is a weak word choice on its own, but it's made worse by the fact that when people sit around having eye conversations, not a lot happens. Perhaps an award-winning actor can put a variety of emotions into eyes that would leave audiences riveted, but in the book world it drags down the action. I would try and find more specific ways to convey these same scenarios.

For instance, in the first line, I think the change in the girl's attention is important, so that's an unavoidable bit of eye conversation. But perhaps there's a little more flavor there... is it an "Oops, I was caught staring" kind of looking away? Or a cool acknowledgement of his presence that shows wisdom far beyond her tender years? Or maybe she's been sending eye lasers into his back this whole time to let him know "We need to talk!"

The second sentence I would cut, simply for the reason that we are already seeing this story from Brooks' perspective, and saying he looked at something is redundant when we can just jump straight to the coffin in question.

And the third "look", I would be more specific in exactly the kind of expression it is that catches Brooks' attention. Since Brooks was contemplating the coffin a second ago, maybe it's not a visual cue, but a change in the preacher's tone or a throat clearing that brings him back. The degree of the change can also show just how swept away Brooks got by the coffin.

Would I Keep Reading?
Not yet, but I never knew how badly I needed a story about vampire cops. Keep writing, keep editing. This intro could still use some polish, but I do want to know more of this story. If this is the action-packed mystery I suspect it is, I look forward to getting my hands on a hard copy someday!

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