Short Scene Critique: Late Night Alley Brawl

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Meant to be a sneak peek into a Carina editor’s brain, and critiqued by a different editor each time, these critiques are posted twice a month.

The idea here is to give you a quick insight into how we might look at a manuscript as it comes across our desks on submission. We’ll strive to be critical but not mean. Because it’s only about 600 words, 2 pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!

We asked authors to submit one of four types of scenes: an action scene, a sex scene, the black moment or the first meeting between protagonists. This opportunity was limited to 400-800 words, but it provides both authors and those following these critiques with an opportunity to see editorial feedback deeper into a book.

It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically for the purpose of critique on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions so no worries we’re going to pull your piece out of our submissions inbox and critique it.

The next opportunity to submit a piece for critique will be open soon, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelancer Editor Kate Marope.

 

The Short Scene

This was submitted by the author as an action scene.

Author A described this manuscript as “a romantic suspense in which a murder takes place in a locked room.”

The query letter promises an interesting read with a heroine with an art forgery past, and a romance with the lead detective in the investigation.

Rory turned onto the next street and hesitated. Sometime between the time she had passed earlier and now the street light had gone out. She stopped, debated over continuing on this path or going another street over back to her apartment, adding a few more blocks. If she hadn’t drunk that second glass of wine, maybe the fatigue wouldn’t be catching up with her. And maybe she wouldn’t have gone to see Colin after dark either.

Deciding to continue down the street, she quickened her pace, her soft-soled tennis shoes quiet as she padded down the sidewalk. Which meant the footsteps that echoed in the empty street belonged to someone else. Someone following her, not worried about announcing his presence. Someone hidden in the shadowy recesses of the buildings lining the street.

She broke into a run, her heart hammering in her chest, pounding in her ears. The footsteps came faster. Closer. Heavy steps, like a man’s. With a new surge of adrenalin, she sprinted toward the next block. One lone light shone on the opposite side of the street.

Hands clutched at her sweater from behind, grabbing her shoulder. In reflex she screamed and shimmied free. Took two steps. He lifted her off her feet. This time she screamed louder, kicking at him.

“Shut up!” he growled, tossing her over his shoulder and heading toward the alley. He was built like a refrigerator and held her legs so tight she couldn’t move. She stopped screaming when gravity worked against her. She beat on his broad back with both fists, then choked on stale cigarette smoke that puffed from his rough wool coat. Nothing fazed him.

“Stop! Police!” The voice sounded familiar.

Oh, no. Gallagher.

The man turned around, smacking her head against dark metal. He laughed. “Yeah. You look like a cop.”

“Set her down and put your hands above your head.” She couldn’t see Gallagher, but imagined—hoped–he pointed his gun at Fridge Man.

Fridge Man pushed her off his shoulder. Her startled scream filled the cool air. Her hip struck cold metal. Then the smell assaulted her. Rotten garbage. Overstuffed trash bags cushioned her fall as she landed in a Dumpster. She scrabbled over the slick lumpy surface. Something clattered and slid on the pavement outside.

“Shit.” Gallagher sounded surprised.

What was going on out there? The alley was darker than the street without streetlights, leaving her blind. The angle of the bags made her slide down into the pile of stench in the corner.

Finally at the top of the heap, she peered over the edge of the Dumpster. Gallagher swung at the bigger man, but looked like he was outmatched. Should she help him or take this opportunity to lose them both? Gallagher had saved her though. She felt around for something unmooshy to use as a weapon. Her fingers came in contact with a long stick. She held it up in a sliver of moonlight. Table leg? Clutching it in one hand, she hugged the top edge of the Dumpster and struggled out. The two men wrestled in the middle of the alley, grunting and punching each other.

She hit Fridge Man between the shoulder blades with the table leg. The wood splintered.

“My . . . gun,” Gallagher gasped.

Tossing the broken leg aside, she checked out the area. No gun-sized shadows. Swinging her foot in a semicircle close to the ground, she searched for the weapon. After numerous sweeps she managed to kick it, then scampered after it.

She’d never held a gun in her life and the weight surprised her. “I-I’ll shoot.”

Damn. Her voice trembled and her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Fridge Man pirouetted and shoved Gallagher at her. They collided and sprawled in a tangle of arms and legs, knocking the gun from her hand. Fridge Man ran off, his footsteps echoing in the distance. A dog barked. Her heartbeat clamored in her ears and her chest hurt. She fought to catch her breath.

Gallagher separated his arms and legs from hers and rolled over to lie panting on the asphalt next to her. He looked at her, his face full of dark blotches. “Okay?”

“Me? Yeah. Thanks.” Because of her he’d gotten hurt. Again. A twinge of guilt niggled at her. “You don’t look so good.”

He rose on one elbow and swiped a hand across his face. “I’d say the other guy looks worse, but he probably doesn’t.”

She stood and dusted pebbles off her sore butt. How had he lost possession of his gun? Instead she asked the more pressing question. “Why were you following me?”

“Give me a minute.” Grunting, he rose in slow increments. Once upright, he faced her. “What were you thinking, going out alone this time of night?”

* * *

The Critique

I appreciate how the author tried to set up the scene, with the ominous dark street, heavy footsteps, and somewhat weary heroine. Unfortunately, the scene left me confused because there was a distinct lack of context. Of course, taking the scene out of the greater context of the full manuscript contributes to that, but there was also confusion in not knowing what the stakes are and the general motives of each character in the situation.

The reader doesn’t know what Rory achieved by going to see Colin (and if it was worth the risk of the late-night walk), who Colin is (lover, family, or friend), and what Fridge Man intended to do with Rory (was this a kidnapping gone bad?).

If Rory went to go meet with Colin (who may be her brother, based on the query letter) with the goal to discover if he was the one to put the forged painting that led to the locked room murder up for sale, then it would benefit the scene to tell if that goal was achieved, or what further questions were a consequence of Rory’s meeting with him (e.g. if Colin and her father said they didn’t put the painting up for sale, who did? Did Colin point to someone else having an inordinate amount of interest in the painting or him?).

Then we need to take a look at Fridge Man. He was quiet throughout the entire scene (other than to tell her to shut up and to mock Gallagher), so that gave no insight into his motivations for fireman carrying Rory into the alley. No threats, no demands, and no commands (no answer for why he put her in the dumpster). Without a hint of what his intentions toward her were (or at least who sent him), I didn’t get fully invested in rooting for her to get away from him. Him throwing Rory into the garbage brought humor rather than fear or sense of danger to the scene. At some point I was sure that a surprise reveal was coming (maybe Rory knew Fridge Man and this was a prank gone wrong and not a kidnapping).

Fridge Man himself seemed like a bit of a throwaway character. He didn’t have a name, not much of a voice, and not real investment in the situation. Given how easily he disabled both Rory and Gallagher, if his motives were to kidnap Rory, why did he run away when he was winning?

As for Gallagher, he seemed oddly concerned for Rory, even though this scene takes place early on in the manuscript while Rory is still the only suspect for the murder. So, I wasn’t sure if he was following her because he wanted to keep her safe or if he was following her to make sure that she was staying out of trouble (or potentially leading him to the real killer). The fact that Rory paused to wonder if Gallagher and Fridge Man taking each other out wouldn’t solve all her problems, makes it clear their relationship wasn’t a cordial one. Yet, it seems like Gallagher is routinely rescuing Rory from dangerous situations.

I love how Gallagher was clearly out sized and outclassed, but because the POV character was inside the dumpster and searching for the gun in the dark for most of the actual fighting, the reader doesn’t get a good sense of what’s going on. What little blocking we did see was also vague. It’s clear the author wrote this scene knowing the who, what and why of each character, but none of that quite made it into the scene to ramp up the tension and progress the plot. Adding more dialogue (especially from Fridge Man), and perhaps writing the scene from Gallagher’s POV would provide more backstory and actual investment in the fight since he is the one confronting and following the other characters.

Would I keep reading?

Yes, because the author’s query letter was quite strong and painted an interesting broad strokes picture of the book. Rory’s forger past catching up with her after she becomes an assistant curator and conservator at a private museum is quite intriguing, and I would like to know why Gallagher seems oddly sweet on her right from the start.

Do you have questions about my feedback or the Critique program? Your turn to add constructive feedback for the author in the comments section! Or email generalinquiries@carinapress.com.]

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are open, so please utilize them to ask questions or to offer your own critique, but please remember to offer useful criticism. Comments will be moderated and deleted if not deemed to be useful or appropriate.

2 thoughts on “Short Scene Critique: Late Night Alley Brawl”

  1. Chrissie says:

    I agree there is a lot of promise in these paragraphs. It’s enough to hook my interest but it is also a bit confusing not knowing who is who and why. Reading the entire scene would probably clarify everything. I do wonder why if Fridge Man tosses her in the dumpster, at that moment when he is a clear target, why doesn’t the cop/hero shoot? Even to disable the man since he is so large and obviously kidnapping the victim? I feel the idea is a strong one and would interest me as a reader but it would need to be clearer and the hero tougher. Good entry tho. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Being a reader of many police procedural novels, I wondered about Gallagher’s actions. Did he attempt to Taser him at any point before pulling a gun? I suppose the Fridge could have surprised him but usually don’t the police try to hold the perp at bay without physical engagement? Maybe some more remarks Rory could overhear could clarify the scene and make it more realistic. I could imagine the Fridge making some remark about “I’ve got orders to get you to the boss man so knock it off” and maybe tossing her in the dumpster with “Stay put till I finish this runt” to explain a few things.

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