with Kathryn Price, Co-director at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.
The Bloody Bodkins
John Bodkin braced himself as he walked through the door, but the smell of stale blood assailed his nostrils. Blood was everywhere in the hallway: spattered on the carpet, on the great clock and on the hanging mirror. He hardly recognised his family home.
A shiver ran up his spine as the estate agent pointed to two crumpled bodies at the end of the dimly lit hallway.
John stared at the slit throats of the bloodied bodies. It took a few moments before his brain registered what his eyes were seeing. Good Lord! It’s the butler and the housekeeper. A cold sweat washed over him and his gorge rose. He dashed out into the fresh air. Placing his hands against the wall of stone, he fought to retain the contents of his stomach.
When he had regained control over his stomach, John saw three servants leaning over the body of a dog in the farmyard.
“What happened?” John asked.
“Someone came in the night and slit his throat.” The estate agent shook his head. “The same happened to the other guard dog.”
“Robbers?” John asked.
“It doesn't look like anything was taken from the house.” Joyce’s voice quivered, “Too soon to know what was or was not stolen.”
John said, “Where is Uncle Oliver?” Surely, his uncle would know what had happened.
Joyce paled and said nothing. John trembled. He re-entered the house that he knew so well and followed Joyce upstairs. He stopped at the entrance to the bedroom of the Master of Liscarrow, Oliver Bodkin.
“You should not go in,” Joyce said.
John steadied himself. He turned the knob and slowly pushed the door open. My God! Uncle Oliver lay in the bed, high on the pillows, with his eyes and mouth opened wide. Dark blood had congealed on his throat. His heavily pregnant wife, Margery, lay beside him, her throat slit too.
“I do not believe this!” John cried. It cannot be true. I must be dreaming. How could such an outrage have occurred in the quiet village of Belclare in the county of Galway? He felt the strong arm of Joyce around his shoulder.
“A terrible day, Mr John,” Joyce said.
Critique by Kathryn Price
This is a potentially gruesome and gripping opening scene. The blood-spattered farmhouse; the characters’ horrified reactions; the chilling mystery of what has happened – all these things ought to combine to make this a truly page-turning start.
However, at present, the scene doesn’t carry as much impact as it could. Partly this is an issue of pace, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. It’s also to do with the style and tone; there’s more that could be done here to make the language work harder, to do justice to the content with carefully chosen dialogue, internal thought, and descriptive detail.
Let’s look at the language in the first few paragraphs. Straight away there are a few clichés or familiar phrases creeping in: braced himself … a shiver ran up his spine … a cold sweat. The effect of cliché, particularly when it comes to emotions and reactions, is as a kind of short-hand. They’re handy stock-phrases to efficiently pencil in an emotion, but because they’re so familiar, they don’t really evoke sensation in the reader; our eye tends to gloss over them.
In this instance this is combined with some over-writing: the smell of stale blood assailed his nostrils … he fought to retain the contents of his stomach … when he had regained control over his stomach (note the repetition here, too). Overwriting is almost the opposite of cliché – it can take many forms (including over-wordiness, choosing complex instead of direct vocabulary, using melodramatic language) but its net effect is very similar to cliché. It tends to deaden our emotional reaction, because our attention is drawn to the way the emotion is expressed rather than the emotion itself. When it comes to violently emotive subject matter, simplicity of expression is often best.
To conclude the exploration of style, it would be worth taking another look at the way the POV character’s thoughts are woven in. There are a few choices when it comes to third person, but the most naturalistic tends to be the free indirect form, where thoughts are incorporated into the narrative voice, in third person past tense.
So, instead of:
“I do not believe this!” John cried. It cannot be true. I must be dreaming.
This would read:
“I do not believe this!” John cried. It couldn’t be true. He had to be dreaming.
This tends to feel smoother because it doesn’t involve the intrusion of first person present tense into an otherwise third person past tense narrative.
Look, too, at the content of John’s thoughts (and reactions). Whilst disbelief is quite natural in the circumstances, How could such an outrage have occurred in the quiet village of Belclare in the county of Galway? seems overly specific – would he really think in such terms, or might he instead think of the murders in a more personal way: How could this have happened here, in the village where he’d spent his whole life? How could it have happened to them … to him?
This sort of word-by-word, line-by-line tightening and polishing can make a huge difference to the power of a scene and it’s worth applying throughout the manuscript to ensure every word is as strong as it can be. However, this opening would also benefit from some additional material to slow down the pace a little and ratchet up the tension.
At the moment, everything happens very quickly. Within the first sentence John has smelt the blood; by the second paragraph he’s spotted the bodies. In the third paragraph, It took a few moments before his brain registered what his eyes were seeing. Good Lord! It’s the butler and the housekeeper. Then, further down:
“You should not go in,” Joyce said.
John steadied himself. He turned the knob and slowly pushed the door open. My God!
Let’s look at these sections in turn, considering what makes good pacing. There’s a common misconception that if something is tense and exciting, it should also be fast-paced. However, often greater tension is built by slowing the pace, allowing the reader time to immerse themselves in the scene on a sensory level, feel what the protagonists are feeling and wait – as the protagonist must – for whatever is going to happen to play out.
One way to restructure this opening to maximise tension would be to look at the sequencing. A few paragraphs in, John spots the slaughtered dogs, but if he’s just gone into the house (and back out again) wouldn’t he have seen the dogs already? Why not move the scene back a bit; show him arriving at the house and seeing the dogs first – thus foreshadowing the horror of what he’s about to find inside?
In addition to this, slow things right down. We need lots of sensory input as well as thoughts/reactions from John. What does he see/smell/hear? What colour is the blood (rust/wine/river-dark)? John’s choice of adjectives will tell us a lot about him, too. Give the reader time to build expectations before you reveal the truth.
The same applies to the later examples: if it ‘takes a few moments’ for John’s brain to take in what he’s seeing, then show us those moments rather than telling us about them. What does John’s confused brain initially make of the scene? Which details register first?
And, if the housekeeper tells him not to go in, then show us John’s response to this rather than just telling us that ‘he steadied himself’. What does he think he’s going to find? Does he dare to hope that one or both of them might still be alive? Might they be terribly injured and about to die before his eyes? Show us his thought-processes in real, naturalistic language, and let us absorb the moment of tension and fear before moving on.
The key thing to bear in mind with this opening – and indeed, with any piece of writing that relies on horror and tension – is that readers like to be teased and tantalised. The horror you’re about to reveal is your trump card, the reader’s pay-off – hold it back for as long as possible and it will carry that much more weight.