The Weatherman, by Laurie Axinn Gienapp (10:14)

IOD score cardToday we see that even if you’re trying to create a bit of mystery, some details need to be clearly established up front.

ImmerseOrDie is pleased to welcome a new pair of guest feet to the treadmill. Author Bryce Anderson is a man among sheep and the primary instigator of such IOD jewels as The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl, and The Vampire of Northanger. Please bid him welcome and shower him with no fewer spitballs than you would me. Take it away, Bryce.

What I gleaned about the story: Oliver is baffled by the conclusions of his own research, has a longstanding friendship with Eileen over in Legal, and finds it unremarkable that she’s taking surveillance countermeasures.

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WTF #1: The meatless hook

Analysis: I read through the first chapter with a vague but persistent sense that something was amiss. When I hit the end of the chapter, it seemed like a good time to go back and figure out why. On re-reading, I was struck by the two opening sentences: Oliver shook his head. His conclusions just weren’t making sense.

I’d found a source of my unease.  The author is firing off a flare, signaling that there’s something here to hold the reader’s interest, a.k.a. the “opening hook.”  These odd results motivate Oliver to clear his head by going to talk to a colleague, Eileen.  So far, so good: the hook is driving the action.  But when he enters Eileen’s office, the subject is dropped.

Which is a shame, because the hook hasn’t dug into me yet.  It’s lacking in the sharp details that would give it bite.  Something wrong in Oliver’s studies, but what field is he even researching? What are the consequences if he can’t tease out a solution?

The rest of the chapter is spent with Oliver finding Eileen working busily, sitting down to wait for her to take a break, musing about their friendship, taking a nap, and waking up by falling off the chair.  There’s something offbeat and charming about Eileen and Oliver, and the author is keen to explore their relationship.  But Oliver’s thoughts stay focused on Eileen for the remainder of the chapter; his curious results don’t preoccupy him at all.  I don’t see any meat on the opening hook, and worse, I’m beginning to suspect that Oliver doesn’t either.

Solution: sharpen the hook with a bit more detail, and tug on it a few times throughout the chapter to remind the reader that it’s there.

WTF #2: Unrealistic character behavior

Analysis: Oliver and Eileen are behaving oddly as they go to the cafeteria to chat. Neither has said anything to suggest their conversation requires secrecy, so why do they choose “by mutual agreement” a table that’s particularly hard to listen in on? When Eileen starts some music playing on her phone, how does Oliver instantly recognize it as an attempt to thwart eavesdropping?

Oliver doesn’t seem surprised that his friend is resorting to amateur spycraft. Beyond recognizing that she wants to talk about something important, his reaction is strangely flat. What would be running through my mind in that situation? Is my friend getting paranoid? Does she have some really juicy office gossip?

In the end, what she has to say does warrant some secrecy. Eileen is getting curious results of her own: something mysterious is going on with the weather models she’s studying. But on the way to one of the most interesting conversations two people could have about the weather, I bumped my shin hard.  While I’m beginning to suspect that Oliver and Eileen are trapped in a conspiracy-thriller novel, the main characters seem to share my suspicion.  I had to charge a WTF for it.

WTF #3: Crucial detail introduced too late

Analysis: Their conversation is finally finding its stride, when I bumped into this line:

Oliver shrugged, noncommittally. “I don’t see what this has to do with the legal department.”

:: record scratch ::

Right there with you, Oliver. I also don’t see what this has to do with the legal department.

They’ve been talking about Eileen’s weird meteorology findings, with no jurisprudence in sight. Part of the problem: there’s been a dearth of specifics about the main characters’ occupations. In chapter one we learn that Oliver works in an office, and that he’s been getting ‘results’ that don’t make sense. From this I inferred his work was of a scientific nature. Maybe he’s a researcher at a university? The chapter also shows Oliver and Eileen working down the hall from each other, from which I gathered that the two did similar work.

Early in chapter two, there’s a hint that they work for a meteorological organization. So when Eileen started talking about how she was finding intriguing oddities in the weather models she was studying, the narrative seemed to be corroborating my earlier assumptions.

Then the left hook landed: Eileen is actually a legal researcher. This left me scrambling to rearrange the mental furniture.

Used deliberately, this can be a powerful storytelling technique, perfect for mysteries and thrillers. The stalwart sidekick has been feeding information to the enemy? Stunner! The apparent love interest in the story is more interested in the main character’s best friend? Then why did she…? Ohhhh.  You can even use it within a story. Feed one crucial piece of information to Alice that forces her to reconsider everything she knows about Bob, then sit back and watch the fireworks.

But as the reader re-evaluates, they pause. If the pause comes without any emotional payoff, immersion may break entirely.

These accidental misdirections can be prevented with just a sprinkle of extra information: put a pile of law books on Eileen’s desk, or have her express frustration at the preliminary hearing that’s scheduled tomorrow. Beta readers are especially useful for flagging where something’s not quite making sense.

One of the things that came up in my re-evaluation: why was a lawyer doing scientific research? There may be a good in-story reason for it, and if Eileen has talent in law and meteorology, that suggests a keen intellect. But it violates the default assumption that scientists do science, while lawyers do lawyer-y stuff; if the author hasn’t offered some explanation, the reader may assume it’s just a mistake.

Feeling a little disoriented, I left Eileen and Oliver to unravel the mystery of the misbehaving models in privacy. But I like them both enough that I’m rooting for them to figure it out.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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