Sample Analysis
THE WRITER'S LIFELINE
[Excerpt from]
EDITORIAL NOTES ON
DEATH THE HARD WAY, by David Crewkump
General Comments

Action The protagonist is this story's weakest element on several counts. First, his personality is so severely underdeveloped that the readers have no opportunity to know him, identify with him, or root for him as he tries to resolve the crisis. The reader knows the protagonist is a doctor, a pilot, and skier, etc., but knows nothing about his personality, his personal life, or his background. The protagonist should be well-developed enough that readers will see him as a realistic, three-dimensional person--his personality traits, his habitual mannerisms, his physique, his various strengths and weaknesses, all need to be developed in detail and then woven throughout the story. In addition to being realistic, the protagonist also needs to be a likeable, compelling character that readers will want to project themselves onto--readers want to imagine themselves in the protagonist's situation, being just as clever, brave, attractive, etc., as he is.

One way to flesh out the protagonist's personality and help readers feel as if they know him intimately is to make the protagonist very observant and introspective--he should reflect upon, analyze, and form opinions about his crisis, other characters, himself, new developments, etc. Developing the protagonist along these lines will also lend some much needed depth to the story.

Second, the protagonist's participation in the story is weak. He is absent from much of the story during the first 85 pages, the most crucial period in his developing relationship with the reader. Readers need to feel strongly attached to the protagonist well before p.85; he is their anchor to the story. If readers are denied the opportunity to become attached to the protagonist early on, denied the opportunity to care about him and his plight, then they won't keep reading--they'll have nothing to tie them to the story, no emotional investment.

The protagonist does command more of the story's focus after those initial pages, but his involvement in the story continues to be weak, primarily because he doesn't act much like a hero. For more than a 100 pages, he does nothing but feel sorry for himself for being in this situation. He doesn't actively seek to resolve the crisis until p.108, when he decides to go see Sonja in the hospital. Even when he does finally take action, he rarely remains in command of the situation. (Sonja often takes control, and the villains easily outmaneuver him and get the upper hand.) His resolution of the crisis is largely due to overly convenient developments and external circumstances rather than his own cunning, physical prowess, or unique abilities (e.g., he walks right past several different cops who conveniently don't recognize him, the boat explosion conveniently doesn't kill him, and the boat sinks slowly enough to let him escape, the villain conveniently wears distinctive and conspicuous ski gear so that he's an easy target for the protagonist, unlikely witnesses show up at the last minute to provide alibis for the protagonist).

Also inappropriate for our hero: he always seems to be a few steps behind; everything has to be explained to him at length. And when he does manage to be a step ahead of everyone else, it's not believable (e.g., when he connects his problems with Meagles' murder, even though he has no reason to suspect a connection; when he unreasonably insists that he can do a better job of saving Sonja from the villains than the cops can, despite the fact that he's already failed her once).

This manuscript's third protagonist-related weakness is that the protagonist has no personal story or inner conflict to add spice and complexity to the main situation. The author should weave a subplot into the story, even if nothing more than a standard romantic subplot, to keep the reader interested in the story on more than one level.

The premise and plot make up this manuscript's next weakest element, in that they are both rather tired. There's not much that's original here--neither the mob/drug scenario or the action line. Nor are there enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing and to make for a really clever and fulfilling story. The story plays out very straightforwardly and predictably.

In addition, the story doesn't come together well at the end. Lucci's motivation for framing and killing the protagonist is disappointing and unconvincing; not only is it a feeble and unlikely justification for Lucci's elaborate plans to frame the protagonist, it's also wholly uninteresting (just more of the same drug scenario we've seen for the past 250 pages), and it's inconsistent with Lucci's fervor about the protagonist (Lucci rages about getting revenge on him).

Agent White's explanation of the manhunt for the protagonist is also disappointing. If he's telling the truth--that the FBI had to chase the protagonist in order to flush out the real killers--then the explanation is completely unrealistic and unconvincing. And if he's lying to cover up the fact that he knowingly pursued an innocent man and withheld information pertinent to the case, then a more satisfying ending would show him being kicked out of law enforcement.

Also problematic is the fact that the author permits the reader to get too far ahead of the protagonist. The reader needs to identify with the protagonist, follow him through the story, and unravel the pieces of the puzzle at the same time as the protagonist. Allowing the reader to know so much more than the protagonist makes the reader identify with him less, and makes him less intelligent and heroic in the reader's eyes. Allowing readers so much knowledge early on also denies them the intellectual challenge and satisfaction of piecing the mystery together as the story develops. What will compel readers to continue reading when they know so much of the story so early?

Lastly, character interactions need to be much more significant and dramatic. The protagonist spends too much time in mindless, juvenile sparring matches with his various opponents. And he spends too little time engaged in meaningful interactions with his friends and girlfriend. His interactions with his girlfriend are so superficial that the reader knows nothing about Pepper or the nature of their relationship. During the revision process the author must keep in mind that every development in the story, every interaction, and every line of dialogue should either move the story forward or provide character definition--preferably both.

Characters: Almost all of the characters are significantly underdeveloped. Like the protagonist, the other characters need to be fleshed out into three-dimensional, realistic individuals who reveal personality traits, inner character, thoughts, feelings, etc.

One final issue about the protagonist not addressed above: he doesn't evolve during the story. He needs to have some inner conflict, neurosis, fear, weakness, etc., that he resolves as he confronts the main crisis. This personal issue that needs changing will probably be at the heart of the personal story that needs to be developed.

Sonja is the story's supporting main character and she needs to be as well-developed, and almost as likable and compelling, as the protagonist. When Sonja is first introduced, it should be clear to the reader that she's a major character. At present, she and Scott are presented as incidental characters, which makes the reader wonder why their backstory deserves so much attention. To effectively portray Sonja as an important character, she should be introduced in her own scene, to which the villain is later introduced so that her connection to the story is immediately obvious. At present, it's the villain who is the focal point of the scene, with Scott and Sonja appearing as random characters. The focus should be on the couple, and on Sonja in particular within that couple, to alert readers to Sonja's importance to the story.

Also, the couple should be portrayed as intelligent and likeable (not as juvenile simpletons) so that readers will feel genuinely disappointed and outraged when Scott is killed, will have greater sympathy for Sonja and her plight, and will have more of an interest in seeing her pursue Scott's killer.

Pepper needs to be much better developed. The reader knows nothing about her, can't develop even a rudimentary attachment to her, and hence doesn't have any interest in the protagonist's love/home life. Also, she needs to be introduced as the protagonist's girlfriend early on; she can easily be mistaken for his wife throughout the majority of the story.

In contrast, the minor characters tend to be overdeveloped--namely, Rizzo and White. In many ways, these two characters are better developed than the main characters. Readers at least know about their history and what motivates their actions. These minor characters don't deserve such in-depth development, detailed back stories, or complex, deep-rooted psychological motivations. (This is especially true of Rizzo, who only appears in the story a couple of times.)

The villains are also a little better developed than the protagonist and other main characters, though only because they are clichéd mafia stereotypes.

The manuscript contains several superfluous characters that should be eliminated in order to streamline the story. 1) The detective doesn't uncover enough information to justify his existence. Besides, the protagonist can become active earlier in the story by searching for answers himself instead of assigning someone else to do it. 2) Cindy, the broadcast journalist, doesn't move the story forward at all. 3) Connie, the protagonist's head nurse, is only mentioned a couple of times, involved in activity that any character could accomplish.

Writing: The dialogue in this story is particularly problematic. The characters tend to engage in juvenile and undramatic verbal sparring matches that neither move the story forward nor provide character definition. In fact, the dialogue often stalls the forward movement of the story as the characters rehash the same material time and time again.

The protagonist needs to have much more intelligent and meaningful dialogue that makes a strong impression on the reader. Even the first line of the manuscript reveals the protagonist's lack of authority and general wimpiness--"Do you smell something funny here, something real wrong?" Compare this to the stronger impression he would make by saying, "Something smells very wrong here." The protagonist's dialogue is also the way he portrays the fact that he's always a few steps behind. Nearly half of his dialogue could be replaced with "huh?" without losing his meaning.

The characters also need more stage direction to go with their dialogue. Sometimes a one-word description is enough (e.g., Alex said sarcastically), but often characters need more extensive stage direction (e.g., what the character is thinking, why he's using that tone, what he's reading in the other characters' dialogue, what his body language is saying, etc.).

The author has a tendency to show insignificant or logistical scenes rather than tell them (e.g., p.35, p.205-208).

There are point of view (POV) problems scattered throughout the manuscript. Nothing serious, generally just one or two lines that suddenly switch to a different character's POV, but they will have to be cleaned up.

The author's consistent avoidance of verbs (e.g., p.16, "he late for his shift") is very distracting. The author should also eliminate the one-word attempts at describing action (e.g., "Splash!"; "Free!"; "Bang!") as they come off as more comical than descriptive.

 

Page Specific Comments (in addition to extensive marginalia)


p.4-6 - Ted and Emily should be eliminated from the first scene. They don't contribute anything significant to the scene and are never seen again for the duration of the story. Also, their elimination should provide more of an opportunity for meaningful, character-defining interaction between the protagonist and Pepper.

P.7-8 - The author should eliminate the scene wherein Scott notices the killer having both skis and a snowboard bag. It's a scene that should be told rather than shown, since it plays no part in the overall story. And it's a false introduction of Scott and Sonja as seemingly incidental characters rather than major characters. The author should keep it simple and just briefly note that a few fellow passengers on the tram thought it odd that someone would carry both skis and a snowboard bag.

p.12-14 - Why is all the accusation focused on the protagonist and none on the girlfriend? She could easily have been a jealous lover killing her boyfriend's mistress.

P.12-14 - The author should weaken the focus on Lieutenant Cross, as he is never seen again.

p.124-6 - The author needs to tone down and make believable this Dukes of Hazard type action and dialogue.


p.216 - It's not believable that the protagonist wouldn't call on the cops to help save Sonja. He's already been characterized as a wimp, and he let Sonja down the last time he confronted the villains. What possibly makes him think he's better suited to saving Sonja than the multitude of law enforcement officers already in the area? The author needs to come up with a better reason for the protagonist to rescue Sonja by himself.

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