Blog #49 The first part of my thriller piece.
Hello everybody, today we have a semi-nameless piece titled The First Part of My Thriller Piece by Leo Saint Thomas on Writing.com. I’m sure it will include a thrilling sermon.
My eyes fixated on the life-less figure in front of me, I carefully climbed up the porch steps. I needed to know if it was over. If that thing was finally dead. The horrendous stench of the rotten stairs crept into my nose. As I got closer to the… shadow ahead, I began to think that it was a good thing that my sense of smell was otherwise occupied. I was only two steps away from it now. The cool autumn breeze plummeted in temperature. A cluster of golden leaves rustled to my right, but I was not going to shift my glare away from this… thing. As another breeze rushed my way, I felt its cold sting on my bare arms, sticking out of the sleeveless denim jacket I was wearing. I took another step. With the built-up momentum, I thrust my other leg towards the amorphous matter. What now? A chill like I had never felt before, spread from my stomach. As it expanded through my body, my thoughts began to race. What do I do? What the hell do I do now? What is it?
This opening paragraph is pretty solid, it introduces the readers to the story with an immediately tense sequence and the paragraph itself has clear progression toward a destination. The progress isn’t rushed either, theoretically, allowing the readers to stew in it and naturally build pressure/interest in the culmination. Mostly what this paragraph needs is just polishing; there’s some unnecessary words bloating the sentence, a few passive sentences, and the progression doesn’t change or evolve or affect the story in anyway, turning the comments more into updates than a tightening screw of tension.
For the first sentence, we can swap ‘in front of’ to ‘before’ and ‘carefully climbed’ to ‘crept’. ‘Crept’ is a slow careful movement by definition, meaning it’s a stronger word here than the Frankenstein phrase of ‘carefully climbed’. We don’t need ‘climbed’ because we have ‘up’ (if the author chooses to retain ‘climbed’ then ‘up’ would be rendered irrelevant since ’climbed’ naturally indicates ascent.) There’re another two things I would like to contemplate: the first is inverting the sentence so it leads with the action, and then deleting ‘in front of/before me’ entirely. The reason for this is because that structure allows us to delete ‘in front of me’ entirely because we lead with our MC’s orientation. Since he’s climbing stairs he’s most likely facing forward, which means he has to be facing the body to be looking at it.
—I crept up the porch steps, eyes fixated on the lifeless figure.—
Now, after deleting all those words and phrases from this sentence it ends up feeling too short and probably a little empty to me. This can happen quite often as you work with increasing the efficiency and potency of sentences because fluff elongates them and somewhat disguises when they’re not saying a lot. There were several iterations I considered to fix this issue, the easiest being walking back my last delete and restoring ‘before me’ to the sentence. While unnecessary, its reads fine and requires only two words. I would maintain the current structure in that case for two reasons, it separates the double ‘I’ so they don’t echo, and I think the sentences read more active starting with the verb.
The next possibility I considered was simply combining it with the next sentence via something like — I crept up the porch steps, eyes fixated on the lifeless figure, needing to know it was done, needing to know it was finally dead.— This resolves the flow issues, but I’m discarding it because I like the individuality that keeping ‘I needed…’ separate provides. The individuality increases the impact of ‘I needed…’ and it’s an important sentence, with natural story and emotion. I don’t want to squander that.
The final option I considered was taking a bit of description from further on in the paragraph and migrating it up, specifically the stench aspect. — I crept up the porch steps, eyes fixated on the lifeless figure as the stench of rotting wood filled/invaded my nose.— (I removed ‘horrendous’ as unnecessary since ‘stench’ has an inherent ‘bad smell’ connotation. I switched from ‘stairs’ to ‘wood’ to avoid a concept echo with ‘steps/stairs’ on the same sentence. I reduced ‘crept into’ to avoid the double use of ‘crept’ and to reduce it from a phrase to a single word. ‘Filled’ is a weaker substitute, but doesn’t risk sounding like ‘too much’.) But the problem with this action is that the ‘stench’ theme has two sentences attributed to it and those sentences needed to be in sequence, which would have wrecked the rhythm of the entire sentence.
Thus, though my heart breaks at the concession, using ‘before me’ is the solution that subtracts the least from the paragraph. If I wanted to spend a few hours churning through ideas in search of inspiration I could definitely concoct a stronger solution, although it would probably require creative liberties. That being said, this sentence could benefit from some creative liberties, a few adjectives to color in the scene and build the atmosphere, maybe describe the state of the body (Is it injured? Bleeding? Shadowed? Indistinct? Etc.) and house. You would want a description of peril and tension so it adds to the story and the experience instead of just coloring in the lines and dotting I’s.
Before we continue, however, we have a final swap to consider, that being ‘corpse’ instead of ‘lifeless figure’. ‘Corpse’ is a stronger, more evocative word, but it might also be incorrect since ‘lifeless’ does not indicate ‘dead’. ‘Corpse’ also did not work rhythmically without the ‘before me’.
—I crept up the porch steps, eyes fixated on the corpse before me. I needed to know if it was over, if that thing was finally dead.—
You will all notice that I combined the next two sentences and attached them to my rewrite here. I combined them both because I think they read better together, because they rhythmically build off each other, and because the third sentence was grammatically incomplete as it lacked a verb. Another change I made was italicizing ‘thing’ (although in this case it would be de-italicizing) so it was emphasized in our MC’s thoughts/perception, thus infusing it with more emotion. I didn’t need to express that emotion because the context of the story does it for me, painting that ‘thing’ in connotations of hate or fear or horror and probably some degree of all of them. The last thing to note is that these sentences would read stronger/more forceful as certainties rather than questions.
—I crept up the porch steps, eyes fixated on the corpse before me. I needed to know it was done, that that thing was finally dead.—
This reads stronger (in my opinion) for two reasons, the first being that an assertive proclamation is just more forceful/impactful and thus infuses the sentence with more energy. The second is that it deletes an ‘if’ which is a somewhat weak word. The major flaw in this iteration is the repetition of ‘that’ in immediate sequence. This is just awkward to read on the page (though if read aloud it is actually fine because you can insert a longer pause between them). I switched to ‘done’ instead of ‘over’ because ‘done’ is more strictly finite, whereas ‘over’ is general and thus softer. (‘Over’ is also just a softer sounding word in general because ‘done’ has the hard D and N sounds.) However, there is a significant difference between ‘if it was’ and ‘it was’ and I can’t make that change without knowing how the narrative progressed from here.
Sentences 4&5 (The horrendous stench of the rotten stairs crept into my nose. As I got closer to the… shadow ahead, I began to think that it was a good thing that my sense of smell was otherwise occupied.) I’m addressing these two simultaneously because they share a theme.
You already know most of the changes I would make to the first sentence and the reasons behind them, but another point that wasn’t relevant before was that this first sentence feels slightly abrupt. The reason for this is that it’s fairly short, has only one point and doesn’t immediately follow from or lead into anything, which results in it feeling empty. So, I think it would be best to combine the sentences, especially since the second one does build on the first (just in a delayed fashion so it actually doesn’t benefit the rhythm of the first.) How we will combine them is up to debate, however. (Because I need to think on it.) Instead we’ll move into adjusting the next sentence.
The first easy substitution is ‘neared’ over ‘got closer’, and the double ‘that’ later in the sentence are unnecessary for comprehension and subtract from the strength of the sentence. The ‘ahead’ is also unnecessary. A more complicated issue is the ellipses before ‘shadow’, which are slightly contradictory. They indicate a pause, or potential fumble for name, but there was no such pause at the start of the paragraph when we were introduced to it as ‘lifeless figure’, meaning the pause here doesn’t make sense. ‘Shadow’ will also likely confuse some readers since it’s neither a synonym nor a close cousin to ‘figure’. ‘Silhouette’ might be a better word since it still indicates a physical body, while approximating ‘shadow’ and conveying the inability to glimpse firm details, but even so it’s a stretch. By introducing the body as a ‘lifeless figure’ the author made the body visible to our MC (and thus the reader) but the description of ‘shadow/silhouette’ are descriptions for something not visible. It’s not a strict contradiction, but it does make the connection between the two harder to instinctively grasp. There is also an element of repetition/wordiness. The phrase ‘that my sense of smell was otherwise occupied’ is repeating what the last sentence just told us, and even though there is a purpose behind this repetition the fact they’re so close to one another makes them echo. The phrase might also be unnecessarily wordy/just flat unnecessary. If structured appropriately, the entire phrase can be reduced to ‘began to think this was a good thing’. Thus, I might suggest something like…
—The stench of rotting wood filled my nose, but as I neared the figure I began to think that wasn’t a terrible thing.—
So, I obviously combined the two sentences and the reason for this was just to preclude any possibility of confusion from deleting ‘sense of smell was occupied’ and because the ‘The stench of rotting wood…’ on its own reads a little short to me. I used ‘but’ both because the second half of the sentence is a soft contradiction of this first half and because it connects the ‘stench’ at the beginning of the sentence and the ‘that wasn’t’ at the end more directly. These are pretty minor changes, however, and secondary to me going against something I would normally advise. Attentive readers will note that I used ‘was not terrible’ instead of ‘was good’ (needlessly adding a word). Normally, I would tell writers to tell the readers what is rather than to tell them what is not both because it’s clearer in more complicated sentences and requires fewer words. The reason I went against that here is I felt ‘wasn’t’ and ‘terrible’ read better than their alternatives, ‘wasn’t’ because it had a little more texture with the hard T and ‘terrible’ because it’s a more complex/specific word (and thus more interesting.) Next set of sentences.
(I was only two steps away from it now. The cool autumn breeze plummeted in temperature. A cluster of golden leaves rustled to my right, but I was not going to shift my glare away from this… thing.)
For these sentences I would consider deleting the first one entirely. It does provide some specific information but it’s an inactive sentence (both from a passive sentence view and the fact that nothing happens in it) and we just had a sentence both progressing our MC forward and indicating his nearness to the figure (‘…as I neared…’). Continuing from thee ‘cool’ is an unnecessary adjective since we have the temperature plummeting in the same sentence. Then we have the passive phrase ‘was not going to’ which can easily be swapped to ‘refused’ or ‘dared not’ if you want something more helpless. ‘Away’ and ‘from’ are not both necessary since ‘from’ can stand solo, then we have the ellipses before ‘thing’ which still conflictswith its initial introduction. I also believe ‘this’ is incorrect since that indicates the character is presently looking at it, but the story and sentence thus far have been past tense. All together we have…
— The autumn breeze plummeted in temperature. A cluster of golden leaves rustled to my right, but I dared not shift my glare from that thing.—
But this is still slightly stilted, the two sentences don’t flow into/from one another and don’t correlate in idea or theme either. ‘Thing’ is an awkward conclusion without the ellipses to indicate our MC searching for a name. So I think we want to connect these sentences with an ‘and’ and maybe take a few liberties with the first sentence.
—The autumn breeze scraped at my bare skin like icy fingers and a cluster of golden leaves rustled to my right, but I dared not shift my glare from the body.—
The first part received the most creative liberties and I had two thoughts in the writing process. First, the ‘bare skin’ increases the perception of vulnerability for our MC in this sequence, both for himself and for us as the readers. Second, the ‘icy fingers’ gives the breeze both more physicality, since it’s creating a physical sensation that our MC can describe, but also renders it more threatening because of ‘scraped’ being a painful action and because it conjures the image of fingers and hands crawling and grabbing all over our MC’s body, which is an unsettling image/prospect. I switched from ‘thing’ to body because ‘thing’ was awkward and to maintain the theme. In our current iteration we’ve used ‘corpse, figure and body’ to describe it and all of these are close synonyms or cousins of one another, allowing us to use a variety of words to avoid potential echoes/word fatigue, keep the references interesting and not confuse the reader. I ultimately chose ‘dared’ over ‘refused’ because its vulnerability and powerlessness suits the story better than the defiance of ‘refused’. Onward.
(As another breeze rushed my way, I felt its cold sting on my bare arms, sticking out of the sleeveless denim jacket I was wearing.)
This is where my previous edits run into an issue, the second breeze here stinging his bare arms echoes with the ‘bare skin like icy fingers’ above both in concept and with the ‘bare’. The easiest solution is just to delete this sentence because my changes above cover a significant amount of the material conveyed here (this is another reason I phrased it that way above) but that would sacrifice the information that our MC is wearing a sleeveless denim jacket. We’ll see if we can easily migrate it down to the next sentence.
(I took another step. With the built-up momentum, I thrust my other leg towards the amorphous matter.)
— I took another step forward, goosebumps rising on my arms where they extended from the sleeveless denim jacket I wore, and kicked at the amorphous matter.—
I added the ‘forward’ for purely rhythm reasons (though it is unnecessary) and then I added the comment about ‘goosebumps’ to introduce the denim jacket in a meaningful way while also giving the story more physicality. I reduced ‘I was wearing’ to ‘I wore’ for easy word removal and conversion to active from passive. I used ‘extended’ in lieu of ‘sticking out’ because it’s one word and reads better/smoother in my opinion, and reduced ‘out of’ to ‘from’. A more significant alteration I made was deleting ‘with the built-up momentum’ because it’s naturally present when the sentences are combined. If you ignore the ‘goosebumps’ (which we can do because it’s an adjective phrase) the sentence reads —I took another step forward and kicked at the amorphous matter—. The two actions are linked and treated as one, meaning the momentum of stepping forward is inherent to the kick.
As I read through my edits again though, I think I prefer…
— I took another step forward, goosebumps rising on my arms where they extended from my sleeveless denim jacket, and kicked at the amorphous matter.—
Basically I chose to use ‘my denim jacket’ instead of ‘the denim jacket I wore’. The reason for this is that the fewer words shave a significant amount of time off the phrase and help it flow smoother (because of softer sounds, fewer pauses etc.) and this is an instance where we want the interruption to be short because we want the core actions (stepping forward and kicking) to be able to feed one another. The offset for this is a small ‘my’ echo, but I can live with that. Next sentence.
(What now? A chill like I had never felt before, spread from my stomach. As it expanded through my body, my thoughts began to race. What do I do? What the hell do I do now? What is it?)
There’s little I would change in this sequence of sentences (comparatively to its predecessors.) I would delete the first sentence for two reasons: it’s a little out of place at the start because there’s no pause in the actions for this thought to occur, and its repeated at the end of the sequence here (much more effectively) and finally it also interrupts the flow of actions. I think the ‘chill spreading’ is much stronger if it immediately follows his kick so the result is more instantaneous/violent and thus more dangerous. After that we have the slight repetition of ‘spread from my stomach’ and ‘as it expanded’. These are the same actions and thus one is unnecessary if we combine the sentences. Another two minor things to try and improve on is the inoffensiveness of ‘spread’ (a more threatening verb would increase the peril and tension of the situation) and the awkward/wordiness of ‘like I had never felt before’, which suffers from a mixture of unimpactful words and a lack of momentum/rhythm. Thus, I might suggest something like…
— A chill unlike anything I had ever experienced before spread from my stomach, launching my thoughts into a desperate spiral. What do I do? What the hell do I do now? What is it?—
This is the first of two iterations I have for you. I couldn’t find a synonym for ‘spread’ that I like, most (like ‘manifested/appeared’) didn’t fit the author’s prose and the necessary momentum. I considered something like ‘coiled’, which is more threatening, but that lacked the element of expansion. So ultimately I just left it. You’ll notice I significantly increased the number of words in the opening phrase (‘A chill unlike…’) and it might wax a little too long for me but it does flow better. My next iteration will feature more significant changes to this part because while this phrase flows fine it’s also somewhat bland because its lacks actual, concrete details. The final major change I committed was switching ‘my thoughts began to race’ out for ‘launching my thoughts into’. There are two reasons for this: the first is that I needed to connect these two sentences and that meant inserting a verb or an ‘and’ and I prefer the verb alternative. The second reason is that ’launching’ is active where ‘began to’ is passive, it pushes the sentence forward both from the perspective of reading and by inserting a forceful action, which makes the ‘thoughts racing’ all the more desperate because that phrase is launched with a forceful action instead of simply mentioned.
Now, if I take more creative liberties I might concoct something like…
— A biting, unnatural chill lanced from my stomach, coiling as it spread and launching my thoughts into a desperate spiral. What do I do? What the hell do I do now? What is it?—
This is by no means perfect, and I’m far from content with ‘coiling’ but you can probably see how the adjectives ‘biting’ and ‘unnatural’ give the cold a physicality and augments its threat value, but also the affect it has on our MC. I’m also not particularly happy with ‘lanced’ but it was the best verb I could devise after a few minutes; it’s a violent/destructive action (thus increasing the threat) and it’s forceful, giving the introduction of the chill more energy. I added the ‘coiling as it spread’ because I wanted to include the concept of it expanding but also because the rhythm of the sentence felt like it wanted another action there. I chose ‘coiling’ because it worked rhythmically and evoked the imagery of coiled snakes, a posture of threat , fear and power since its muscles prepared to strike. All of these additions and changes help to up the fear and danger factor of this sequence, which validates the use of ‘desperation’ and then justifies the frantic thoughts to follow, making them not only believable but understandable and relatable.
All of my edits.
—I crept up the porch steps, eyes fixated on the corpse before me. I needed to know it was done, that that thing was finally dead. The stench of rotting wood filled my nose, but as I neared the figure I began to think that wasn’t a terrible thing. The autumn breeze scraped at my bare skin like icy fingers and a cluster of golden leaves rustled to my right, but I dared not shift my glare from the body. I took another step forward, goosebumps rising on my arms where they extended from my sleeveless denim jacket, and kicked at the amorphous matter. A biting, unnatural chill lanced from my stomach, coiling as it spread and launching my thoughts into a desperate spiral. What do I do? What the hell do I do now? What is it?—
Despite my best efforts the first several sentences still don’t flow as well as I would like. They read stilted, and I can’t see an easy fix. We’ll be leaving it like this because this blog is already quite long and fixing the paragraph would probably require another thousand odd words. The one easy improvement I could make was deleting ‘forward’ from ‘another step forward’ as it is unnecessary for comprehension and, once the paragraph is read as a whole entity, the sentence flows better without it.
If you like what you’ve read, consider checking out some of the author’s other content or the rest of this story. https://www.writing.com/main/portfolio/view/leosaintthomas
If you like my work, consider subscribing. I welcome submissions up to 3k words, a small section of the review will be posted to the blog, the rest will be delivered privately to you.