I just finished teaching an online course entitled Hooks & Cliffhangers, Scene & Sequel. One of the exercises I asked the students to do was to break down the pacing elements of a model book in their genre. As a model I analyzed a novella I consider an excellent mentor text (a piece of literature that is well-suited to being studied and imitated by other writers), Ice Blonde by Elaine Viets. I found this exercise so productive that I'm posting my findings here and I plan to make this blog the first of a series of similar analyses.
Elaine Viets is a mystery writer based in South Florida. She's written a bestselling cozy series, but is now about to release the fourth installment of one of my favorite noir/hardboiled detectives, the Angela Richman Death investigator series.
Viets lives in South Florida. If you are local, you can meet her and hear her talk about writing at two upcoming events:
- March 1, she will be moderating the LitLive! Panel sponsored by Nova Southeastern University, featuring Shari Lepena, Lori Rader-Day, James O. Born, James Swain and Peter Hellmen.
- March 13th she will be teaching a workshop at Sleuthfest, the mystery writer's conference sponsored by the MWA Florida Chapter. She will also be on various panels during Sleuthfest. For more info see sleuthfest.com
Here is my analysis of the mentor-text, the mystery novella Ice Blonde, the third installment in the Angela Richman series, by Elaine Viets, starting with a chapter-by-chapter outline. Given the nature of this analysis, there are SPOILERS. If you really want to learn from this blog, read the novella first.
Ch. 1 Tuesday, Dec 27, 6:30 a.m
The opening hook goes right to the heart of the novel's theme, (a theme that runs through all the Angela Richman novels) which is class division and all of its negative aspects.
A rich couple who should be skiing in Telluride show up on Angela Richman's doorstep. Richman is the death investigator for this tony bedroom community outside of St. Louis. Angela is a have-not, though she's lived around the haves all her life, and now is the area's forensic investigator, an 'angel to the rich' as her name tells us. And right now these haves need her help.
In addition to starting directly with a theme, the hook presents the reader with a question: why is Mrs. Larouche's confident uppercrust bray muted to a tentative peep? And why does her husband fear she will run away?
The chapter ends on a plot cliffhanger: Their teenage daughter went to a party, not dressed for the freezing weather, and now has disappeared. Emotional cliffhanger added to the plot cliffhanger, as Angela thinks: The last thing I wanted to do was my job—to examine Juliet's frozen body.
Notice that by the end of the chapter the questions of the opening hook have been answered, but now we have bigger questions: where is Juliet? What happened to her after she left the party? Is she still alive?
Viets throws in a little extra suspense. She refers to a bit of backstory, about Angela Richman's loss of her own husband. This loss is Angela's wound, and it connects her to the events in this story. But Viets doesn't make the mistake of giving us a whole info-dump about the backstory. She just puts in enough for the reader to ask: what happened to Angela's husband? That question is not answered until Chapter 15.
Ch. 2 Tuesday, Dec 27, 7:30 am
Hook: The Larouches nearly slip on Angela's icy porch, a hook that foreshadows the solution to the mystery.
Introduce another have-not: Rick, the local hippy handyman, a have who has chosen to be a have-not. He saves the day and clears and salts her porch. Angela isn't feeling well (she suffered a series of strokes in the first book in the series, Brain Storm) but blames the cold weather; Rick worries she is hypothermic.
Rick also provides the first clue: his sister Daisy was at the party last night with Juliet, the missing girl. In this story Daisy functions as a plot key (a story element that unlocks the mystery), as Angela relies on her information more than once to figure out what happened to Juliet.
Rick sets up a meeting between Daisy and Angela.
The character cliffhanger is in the text he sends to Angela:
Rick sent this warning: Remember, Daisy's a little spoiled. She's not a bad kid, but you gotta be firm with her.
Ch. 3 Tuesday, Dec 27, 10:54 am
Hook: Angela watches teen searchers (properly dressed for the cold) searching for the "ice princess." Only Daisy seems to be unconcerned. Why?
Angela picks up Daisy and gets the surly, spoiled, rich girl to confess that Juliet was dating a young auto-mechanic who repaired her father's BMW (Which connects Juliet to the Shakespeare tale of Romeo and Juliet).
Furthermore, the kids have a system for hanging out in the mansion of whichever family was away for the winter. Although the whole town is searching for Juliet's body, Daisy is unconcerned because she is certain Juliet is hanging out with her greaser boyfriend. Mention of the DV Ball, the utmost fairy tale expression of the rank and power of the haves, where Juliet's parents met, and Juliet's mother expects her to meet a suitable husband.
Cliffhanger: Angela finds out the kids sneak past the cameras by spritzing them with water, so the lenses freeze. It's so cold and the cameras freeze so often that the security company doesn't rush out. Angela forces Daisy to let her into the empty mansion where she thinks Juliet is hiding. This is a plot cliffhanger. What will they find in the mansion?
Ch. 4 Tuesday, Dec 27, 11:25 am
Hook: is a description of the Mintern house. The owner tore down his family Victorian and built a modern monstrosity that is very effective in keeping the heat in in the winter and out in the summer, which connects to the book's theme of old ways needing to be changed.
Angela finds nothing in the Mintern house. Go to Bella's house, where the party was the night before, talk to Bella, who is faking a cold. Bella says Dex and Juliet had a fight. Bella and her mom also said hurtful things to Juliet. Then Juliet left with Dex.
Plot and Character Cliffhanger: Angela gets called to do her work as a death investigator at an accident. Is it Juliet? Daisy's face goes white: she realizes death can come to even one of her enchanted friends.
Ch. 5 Tuesday Dec 27, 3:44 pm
Hook: Angela goes to the accident, wondering if the accident victim is Juliet. As she gets there she witnesses another accident, a metaphor for the way Juliet's disappearance has upset the orderly way of live in this wealthy enclave.
The fatal accident was a man driving a black Lexus who apparently crashed into a tree on purpose. They ID the man and prepare to go tell his wife.
This is all a subplot that underlines what happens to a member of the haves when they are ousted. It also foreshadows what will happen to Bella's family.
Emotional cliffhanger: Angela remembers the day officers came to tell her that her husband was dead.
Ch. 6 Tuesday Dec 27, 5:37 pm
Hook: Delano Corbet’s three-story mansion looked impressive – from a distance. The Tiffany stained-glass windows glowed in the setting sun. Up close, I saw the drive wasn’t plowed, the hedges needed pruning, and the trim could use a coat of paint.
This plot hooks leads us to ask the following questions: in addition to the main question of why did Delano Corbet commit suicide, there is, why isn't the drive plowed, the hedges pruned, the trim painted? What happened to Delano?
Angela finds out the man in the car committed suicide because he's been out of work for months, and once he lost his job his community abandoned him.
She fears Juliet might have committed suicide too. She convinces the new cop in town to ask Juliet's mom if any of her prescription meds are missing.
Cliffhanger: Jace, the cop comments that whether she's out in the cold or took an overdose of pills, Juliet's time is running out (plot cliffhanger, a reminder of ticking clock).
Ch. 7 Tuesday Dec 27, 7:37 pm
Hook: Angela turns on the news, hoping Juliet has been found, and instead sees that a reward is now being offered for information leading to Juliet by her parents.
Angela talks to a kid who was with Dex, the boyfriend, after Juliet got out of the boyfriend's car. The boyfriend's dad beat him and told him to flee, as he is sure neither he nor his son will be treated justly by the haves. Angela wonders, why didn't the parents tell the police that Juliet had a boyfriend?
Cliffhanger: (emotional and plot) Angela leaves and watches the searchers search fruitlessly.
Ch 8 Tuesday Dec 27 8:12 pm
Hook: My home was freezing. The former guest house was impossible to insulate. The white stone walls held in the cold and the winter wind whistled through the windows.
This is an emotional hook as well as a thematic one, because the reader knows it is foreshadowing. The more time passes, the more likely it is that Juliet has frozen to death.
In addition to the search for Juliet, there is now a search on for Dex, who isn't at his grandparent's as he is supposed to be. Did Dex and Juliet run away? The press now assumes he killed her in a lover's quarrel. His car is found at a mall with Juliet's phone inside. Angela goes to the mall to buy chocolate before going to visit her friend Katie.
At the mall she sees Dex having a tussle with a kid who recognized him. The mall crowd becomes a mob and tries to beat Dex to death. Angela saves him. Dex promises to show her where Juliet got out of his car the night before.
Blackout Cliffhanger: Dex passes out before he can show her anything.
Ch. 9 Wed Dec 28 9:12 am
Ch. 9 opens with a sequel:
The helicopters’ whap! whap! whap! woke me up the next morning. I had a chocolate hangover, a grainy, headachy feeling after I’d pigged out last night at Katie’s. I dragged myself out of bed. Outside my window, the search for Juliet continued. I saw an awkward army of searchers, bundled in heavy clothes, moving slowly across the Du Pres property. A knot of people were looking in the stables and checking the hay shed. Horseback riders were everywhere. Melancholy cries of “Juliet! Julieeeeet!” echoed across the fields. Juliet had been missing for two days now, and the last person to see her alive had been beaten into a coma. Was Dex awake this morning?
The above is a Sequel, (as defined by Dwight V. Swain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scene_and_sequel) that is, a unit of transition that links two scenes. Dex is in a coma, the search is ongoing, people are giving up hope.
From the sequel we go to the next hooks: Angela wonders if Dex has come out of his coma yet, and Angela picks up Daisy, who confesses that Juliet's other hiding place was the nursing home where her grandmother lives.
The leads to the rest of the chapter, which is the visit to the nursing home, a visit that reminds them and the reader that old age, illness, and death level out all class differences.
But still no sign of Juliet.
Cliffhanger: An emotional one for Daisy, who is finally worried and weeping for her friend Juliet.
Ch. 10 Wed Dec 28 11:37 am
Daisy erupted into hiccoughing sobs in the Willingham hallway. I was sure someone would call security, but we made it to the car and out of the home’s grounds. I parked in the shopping mall lot next door and kept my voice gentle. “Daisy.” The girl continued her noisy tears, snot streaming down her face. Yuck. Daisy pulled another tissue from her purse and blew her nose. She’d been forced to face reality, and it was ugly. “Daisy!” My voice was sharper. The red-eyed girl looked up and stopped sniffling. “Is there any place else where you think Juliet could be?”
The sequel is a pause in which Angela comforts Daisy while also prodding her to get her mind back on the urgent search for Juliet.
The new hook: Angela gets Daisy to show her the secret path to Juliet's house
Angela tells Daisy about the myth of Ondine, (Juliet lived on Ondine street) a water nymph that gave up her immortality for a man who then betrayed her, so she cursed him to stop breathing when he slept.
Plot Cliffhanger: They find Juliet's clothes and then Juliet's naked body in the stream.
This is the midpoint of this twenty chapter novella. This scene is the emblematic scene, where all the symbolic and fairy tale images come into play. The ice princess is found, literally frozen, the Ondine myth, similar to the Snow Queen myth, is explained, and the observant reader won't miss the connection between the Ondine myth and Dex, the boyfriend who let Juliet wander around in the snow, who himself is now in a possibly fatal coma.
Ch. 11 Wed Dec 28, 11:55 am
Sequel: My heart froze when I saw Juliet in the icy creek. The girl looked like a snow sculpture. Her ice blonde hair blended into her snow drift pillow. Her slight body was pale perfection. Snow frosted her cheekbones and her pink-tipped breasts, and dusted her cold blue eyes. I could see the searchers’ tracks in the snow on the other side of the creek. They’d passed right by Juliet. As I watched the wind swirl, I realized the searchers couldn’t have seen her snow-covered body until the drifts shifted. I wanted to find her. But not like this. The frozen girl was less than five hundred feet from her home. I wondered if someone could see Juliet from the upper windows of her massive mansion. Daisy’s screams broke my concentration. She lunged for the slope down to her friend’s frozen body. I grabbed her arm and hung on.
Hook: Why is Daisy rushing to Juliet? Why does Angela hold her back?
Rick, Daisy's brother, immediately assumes Dex raped Juliet and then murdered her. First responders show up and we get the Plot-Key Cliffhanger: Daisy finally admits there were drugs at the party.
Ch. 12 Wed Dec 28 12:37 am
Hook: Instead of answering the questions asked by the cliffhanger above, the story jumps to another setting: Angela does her death investigation. Angela's death investigations are completely realistic. These scenes are a hallmark of Viets' Angela Richman, Death Investigator series. (Viets did careful research, including taking the death investigator course twice). The death investigation comes with its own series of plot questions:
I’d been a death investigator for almost twenty years, and I had never encountered a death like Juliet’s. I didn’t know how to examine a frozen body. I couldn’t carry out my usual routine. How could I take a body core temperature and slit the skin to insert the thermometer, when the body was rock hard ice? How could I remove any hairs and fibers frozen to the girl’s skin? How much evidence would be lost when Juliet thawed?
Now that the main question driving the novella "where is Juliet," has been answered, a new driving question is needed. The new question is planted at the end of this chapter: Did Dex rape and kill Juliet?
They find a bag of white powder. The cop is sure Dex raped Juliet, no matter what Angela says.
Character and emotional cliffhanger: I wasn't sure what was colder, the wind or the anger in Jace's voice.
Ch. 13 Wed Dec 28 3:18 pm
Hook: New danger: that Dex will not be given due process. Even Jace, the new cop, is caving in to the rich people. But did Dex rape and kill her? These questions are not answered fully until chapter 19, the next to last chapter in the novella.
Character Cliffhanger: Angela is now determined to find out the truth, make sure Dex isn't accused unjustly.
Ch. 14 Thurs Dec 29 9:10 am
Hook: Rick and Angela enter the world of teenagers, walk the paths the kids use for their lives away from adult prying eyes. Angela connects with the still-comatose Dex on an emotional level, in that she wasn't one of the cool kids, as her parents worked for the rich, so she never knew about the paths.
Cliffhanger: Revelation: They find a springhouse where kids go to have sex. (Note how this finding connects with the midpoint myth and with the Romeo and Juliet connection: who the 'princesses' have sex with is where the class lines are drawn).
Ch. 15 Thurs Dec 29 10:29 am
Plot Hook: Angela gives Daisy and Bella a ride to Olive Garden and finds out that Bella's mom told Juliet she was fat and gave her a diet supplement – the bag of snow like powder (This powder will turn out to be a MacGuffin, (a distracting clue or desired object that the characters search for, but the search leads nowhere) . Lydia wanted Juliet to not qualify as Queen of the DV ball, thus opening up the way for Lydia's daughter Bella.
Plot Cliffhanger: the girls have to find out the source of the supplement.
Ch. 16 Thurs Dec 29 4:45 pm
Plot Hook: the girls text the name of the supplement to Angela: Rad Rip Pre-Workout Performance Supplement. But the question of what is in it remains.
Plan Cliffhanger: Angela promises Katie she will get Lydia's (Bella's mom) prints –legally. Katie doesn't ask too many questions.
Ch. 17 thurs Dec 29 7:30 pm and Friday morning, Dec 30
Plot and Character Hook: Did Lydia kill Juliet? Angela's plan is to buy something from Lydia and thereby get her fingerprints.
Angela buys a vase at the thrift shop where Bella's mother volunteers. She takes her time searching for something that will hold fingerprints well. Lydia suspects her of stealing. But Angela buys a vase and gets Lydia's fingerprints when Lydia wraps it.
Plot and Character Cliffhanger: "You can do so much with these vases." "I hope so."
Ch. 18 Fri Dec 30 10:43 am
Chapter starts with a Sequel: I left the Savant Shop with my prize: the glass vase plastered with the killer’s prints. After stashing it safely in my car trunk, I drove home. I was on call today at the ME’s office and prayed that nobody else would die. Two deaths were already too much tragedy. Katie was autopsying Juliet this morning. I paced my kitchen restlessly, poured another cup of coffee to amp up the caffeine jitters, and waited for word. Most autopsies took two to four hours, but there was nothing routine about Juliet’s death. How long would Katie take to post the girl? How quickly would she get back the tox tests? Those could take four to six weeks, but Juliet’s family had clout and cash. Maybe Katie would get the answers quicker. I glanced at the clock: 11:47. I climbed the stairs and made my bed, then cleaned the upstairs bathroom. And checked the clock. Again. It was 12:11. The clock’s hands crawled forward like they’d been stomped. My cell chimed and I pounced on it, wondering what grisly news was waiting for me. Did Katie know what killed Juliet? Or would I have to investigate another death? More holiday sorrow?
Hook: Angela finds out that Brock is getting shipped to Switzerland, which makes Brock into a suspect (and a red herring). Angela's friend Katie autopsies Juliet.
The cliffhanger is thematic, compares Juliet's stitched-up corpse to her friend's discussion of their clothes.
Ch. 19 Fri Dec 30 3:52 pm
Plot Hook: Katie calls Jace and Angela in for the autopsy and tox results. Juliet was not raped. She died because under the influence she took off her clothes in the freezing cold.
Cliffhanger: Big plot reveal: No one killed her, though Lydia throwing a party where alcohol was served to minors, baiting Juliet by calling her fat and giving her the amphetamine-laden-weight-loss product contributed to her demise.
Ch. 20 Fri Dec 30 6:15 pm
Plot Hook: Angela and Jace notify the parents.
Conclusion: the parent's snobbery, their insistence on maintaining the class divide, killed Juliet.
If they had let her date who she wanted, she would still be alive. She would be a beautiful DV Ball queen instead of a beautiful corpse.
New Year's day and beyond (the change in the nature of the time stamp tells us the ticking clock of this story has now stopped).
Bella and her family pay for their part in Juliet's death as they get socially isolated and end up working in Toonerville. Dex recovers and goes to college with the settlement money. Daisy and the other rich teens continue their lives pretty much as if nothing happened.
Angela believes the first person to cross her door on the New Year sets the tone for the year, so she is relieved when her good friend Katie arrives with drinks and chocolate. It will be a good year.
Murder blurs the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots; play on the current urban lingo term "Ice Queen" (A sweet and beautiful girl, who is rumored to be cold blooded and heartless), and the Snow Queen fairy tale. Hans Christian Anderson published the first Snow Queen fairy tale in 1844, but there are countless variations, at one of which is referenced in this novel directly (the Ondine myth) and one indirectly (the Snow Queen in the Narnia tales seducing people into following her without thinking with a sweet called Turkish Delight, which connects to the alcohol and the amphetamine-laced white powder given to Juliet by Bella's mother Lydia).
In Anderson's tale a kiss from the Snow Queen leads to a shard of devil-mirror getting buried in their hearts which makes them cruel and uncaring of other people. This happens to one boy, Kai, that Gerda loves. Gerda has to free herself from a sorceress to save him.
Juliet's romance with a teen mechanic also connects her to the story of Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare.
Date and time stamp.
We all know from TV that the first 24 to 48 hours are crucial in a disappearance. Given the freezing cold weather of this setting, there is even less time. So the most of the novel is driven by a ticking clock. We are reminded of the ticking clock by the date and time stamp that begins each chapter.
The Arc of the Story Question
When I used this novella as a mentor-text in my course, students asked me if it wasn't a mistake, to answer the story question at the mid-point instead of at the end.
The thing is, a story question is a growing, mutating creature. This one mutates as follows: first, need to find Juliet before she freezes to death; when she's found dead, a new, interconnected series of questions arises. Who killed her? Was it her boyfriend, Dex? When Dex is found he is nearly killed by a mob; will he survive? If he does survive, will he be shown to be the killer, or is it Brock (red herring) or another suspect (Lydia?). Or did Juliet commit suicide? The rest of the book works its way through those questions.
This completes my first analysis of a mentor-text. Leave comments and watch this space for more.
Since this is a mystery, it is no surprise that most of the hooks and cliffhangers are plot-related. What did surprise me is how much thematic and symbolic material there was, built into the hooks and cliffhangers, reflected on in the transitions (sequels), and used in the middle of scenes.