Critique #8

October 28th, 2010

Setup: Fozzie and his covert ops team are en route to rescue a teammate (Grinch) in the company’s private jet. They’ve just been given their cover assignments, and are supposed to be posing as scientific researchers. Fozzie has taken one look at the material he’s supposed to be memorizing and fallen asleep. This scene takes place relatively late in the book, which is a romantic suspense.

[I want to make special note of this before I begin the critique–This is the first submitted scene I’ve had where the Hero’s Opponent is not another character, but an inanimate machine. It doesn’t make this less of an action scene, but it makes for a good example of how to utilize a different kind of Opponent beyond just another character. Although the plane in this scene doesn’t have its own goals (beyond that of anything in the air, which has the eventual goal of hitting the ground as soft or hard as necessary), it is certainly operating contrary to the Heroes’ goals, and therein the conflict is created.]

Fozzie snapped awake when he heard a loud boom, followed by equally loud, “Oh shit,” from the pilot over the PA. [I find it odd that the pilot turned on his PA to say “Oh shit,” unless he was flying with it constantly on, which would be equally odd.]

He had his seatbelt unfastened before he heard Hotshot call, “Fozzie, up front. Now.” [You’re using a good combination of action and dialogue here to convey urgency without actually telling us it’s urgent. Nice job!]

“On it.” Fozzie rushed forward. The right side of the sky glowed through the porthole. [A covert ops specialist would refer to it as the starboard side, not the right.] The plane tipped in that direction, and he grabbed the nearest seatback to keep his balance. He felt the plane losing airspeed. [Again, you’re utilizing your words to good effect, upping the stakes with the actions of the plane.]

“Bad Thing. Number two engine,” Cheese said. “Need some help.” [Nice, snappy dialogue.]

Fozzie slid into the second seat and slapped on a headset. The plane yawed more toward the right. The red master warning light came on. In too-rapid succession, the displays showed systems shutting down.

“We’re flying heavy,” Cheese said. “We need both engines or we’ll have to go down.”

Ditching was definitely not an option. Fozzie knew they carried extra fuel to cover the distance. Any delays might cost Grinch his life. But now, Fozzie was more focused on his own. [This introspection pulls back from the urgency a little. You might consider having Fozzie and Cheese talk this through in their terse, snappy dialogue. Then you might show them fussing and fighting with the controls as they discuss it. You’ve given them a problem and proceeded to escalate it. Now I want to see them trying to overcome it – wrestling with the stick and pedals, flipping switches to attempt a restart, banging on the console in futility, all while talking out what you have now as passive introspection.]

“Shut off the damn buzzers,” Cheese said. “Can you get a visual on the engine? See anything?”

Fozzie glanced out of the cockpit seeing individual blades where there should have been a blur of propellers. “No obvious damage.” [Just as an FYI, “jet” would refer to an airplane with jet engines instead of props, like a Learjet. I don’t know what era your book is set in, but if it’s modern times, I would guess that 95% of corporate airplanes would be jets. You could certainly make minor changes to the scene without hurting the integrity to correct that if you think it’s warranted.]

Cheese’s hand grabbed the lever beside the throttle. Fozzie watched the angle of the propeller blades shift as Cheese feathered them to reduce drag.

“Trying a restart,” Cheese said. [I realize that these are probably jaded, cynical special ops guys, and I might have to turn in my Man Card for saying this, but I’d kind of like to see the emotional stakes raised. Are these two men afraid for their lives? Sure, they’re not going to be screaming and panicking, but even a hardened bastard might find his hands shaking and voice quavering at the idea of plunging into the ground at approximately 600 mph. You can put the bravado in their dialogue, but their body actions might indicate inner turmoil nonetheless.]

“No worries,” Fozzie said, sweat filming his palms.

Cheese flipped the starter switch. Nothing.

Lots of worries.

“Okay, let’s go to plan B,” Cheese said. “Restart protocol. Book’s behind my seat.”

Fozzie snagged the notebook. Quickly flipped to the emergency section. Read each step aloud. Focused on Cheese’s “Rogers.” [This is good – you could have bogged the scene down with all these steps but by short-cutting it like this, you keep the urgency and pacing up.]

“Need more airspeed,” Cheese said. “Watch the N1 indicator and tell me as soon as it hits twelve.”

Fozzie glued his gaze to the small circular gauge. Instead of a healthy ninety-five, the needle hovered at the four percent mark.

“Hang tight,” Cheese announced. “We’re going to play roller coaster. The E-ticket kind.”

Fozzie tightened his harness as Cheese tilted the plane’s nose down. He concentrated on keeping his breathing steady as his stomach plunged. He watched the needle creep across the dial. Six. Eight. Ten. Eleven.

“Now,” he said as soon as it hit twelve.

Cheese pushed up on the fuel condition lever.

Fozzie heard the engine whine as it came back to life. Outside, the propellers shifted angle and picked up speed. He fought the increasing g-forces and his stomach did a reverse trip as Cheese pulled out of the dive and brought the plane to altitude.

After several reverent moments contemplating the familiar sounds and vibrations of normal flight, Fozzie turned to Cheese and slipped the notebook back into its pocket. “Good onya, mate.”

“Would rather not have to do it again,” Cheese said, rubbing his thigh. “Man, keeping her steady is a bitch on the quads.” Sweat trickled down his face. He ran his fingers over the instrument panel as if stroking a lover. “That’s my girl.”

[This is a good, non-combat action scene. You’ve kept up the pacing and urgency, raised the stakes appropriately, and brought it to a satisfactory conclusion. I think you could beef it up more with some more description of the men trying to get the plane under control and restarted, and add a bit of emotional intensity. If we as readers sense these men are legitimately afraid for their lives, it makes their success in overcoming the conflict sweeter, and we feel relief like the characters would. 

Thanks for your submission!]



  • Jordan says on: October 29, 2010 at 3:59 am


    Your point about emotional intensity reminded me of a great blog post by literary agent Donald Maass:

    He talks about how it's not the threat itself that adds tension to the scene, it's the emotional response of the character.

  • Ian says on: October 29, 2010 at 4:12 am


    Yes, exactly! If the characters aren't overly concerned by a threat or a conflict, it doesn't seem as exciting for the reader.

  • Terry Odell says on: October 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm


    And, it's important that the reader have an emotional connection to the characters as well. I read what should have been an exciting, terrifying action scene by a Big Name thiller author, and it left me cold because there was no emotional involvement with the characters.

    Terry's Place

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