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The Murder of Mr Ackroyd

by sredni 

Posted: 17 January 2010
Word Count: 833
Summary: These are the opening chapters of a book that I'm working on. I'm very inexperienced at this. Please let me know what you think.

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The body was lying half on the grass and half on the concrete path. Even though it was face down Archie could tell immediately that it was Mr Ackroyd from his messy mop of grey hair and his green tweed suit. And although he could not see them, he knew that underneath he would be wearing a yellow waistcoat and a brightly coloured bow-tie, because that was what he always wore.
He also knew that he was dead.
The body was unnaturally still, and twisted uncomfortably, as if it had been reaching out for something. Archie stood transfixed, not knowing what to do. Part of him wanted to rush forward to help, even though he knew that there was nothing he could do; and part of him was so repulsed and sick that he wanted to turn away, to run away even. In the end he just stood there, open-mouthed and stupid.
The rest of the school were still in chapel. Normally Archie would have been with them, but this morning he was on his way to an exam, an important exam, so he had been excused. As he stood there, staring dumbly at Ackroyd’s body, he heard the sound of footsteps coming round the corner. Then he heard the footsteps stop suddenly, and then after a pause, they hurried to where he was.
“What the¬¬-”. It was Mr Underwood. “What…” he spluttered, not knowing what to say and seeming to be gripped by panic and indecision. Then something seemed to click into place in his brain. “Stay here Hodgson,” he barked, and then he ran off towards the chapel to get help and to stop the rest of the school coming out.
And then it was just Archie and Mr Ackroyd again.
A gentle breeze wafted through the quad, giving this horrific scene a strange sense of calm for a moment. Weirdly, Archie’s thoughts turned to his exam. He had thought of little else for the last month. But if Ackers was dead, he thought, it would probably be cancelled. For a brief moment, there was the slightest flicker of a smile on his face.

Mr Underwood reached the chapel on the far side of the quad in a matter of seconds. Whilst the Headmaster would be sitting right at the front, in full view and therefore inaccessible, he knew that he would be able to speak to Mr Goode, the Deputy Head, without causing a scene. The short morning service had started, and the Head had just announced the first hymn. Underwood was acutely aware of the need to remain calm for the time being, but was also desperate to get to the Mr Goode as soon as possible. He’d just left a dead body lying in the quad outside, and it would be quite an understatement to say that this was preying on his mind.
As he pushed open the heavy wooden door of the chapel, Underwood was met by an overwhelming wall of noise: the organ was blaring out the opening bars of the hymn. The chapel was full, with the school in the main pews and the choir boys in their stalls at the front. The staff were sitting right at the back, by the door that Underwood had used. Underwood stood just inside the door for a moment, not sure how to break up this holy occasion.
As soon as he had seen Underwood come in, Mr Goode had started moving towards him, sensing that something might be wrong, but with no idea of just how wrong. Underwood leaned right up to Mr Goode’s ear to pass on what he had to say. He enunciated every syllable as clearly as he could, desperate not to be misunderstood and to have to repeat himself, and also anxious in case the organ paused for a moment between verses and exposed his news to a wider audience.
“You need to come out. Mr Ackroyd is lying in the quad. I think he’s…” The word stuck in his throat. A look of concerned confusion came over Mr Goode’s face, and Underwood realised that he would have to say it. But now the congregation had started to sing, and the noise had grown so loud that he had to speak uncomfortably loudly. He looked right at Goode and spoke as clearly he could: “He’s dead.”
He knew from the look on the Deputy’s face that he’d been understood and the normally unflappable man went pale for a moment. His mouth closed tightly as he resisted the temptation to blurt out what he wanted to say. This was St William’s School for Boys. They didn’t make a scene. Not even for this. He closed his eyes for the briefest moment, and then it was as if he had regained his composure in an instant.
“Show me,” he said, heading for the door, and Underwood hurried to keep step as the two men left behind the oppressive noise of the morning service.

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Comments by other Members

NMott at 10:28 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
I really liked chapter 1, it got the reader right into the action; I thought you'd caught the 'voice' of Archie really well; and the characters reactions to finding the body were authentic. I especially liked the flicker of a smile at the end.

The problem with chapter 2 is you've switched to another character, so the reader won't be sure who is meant to be the main character - the main character is usually the pov (point of view) character, ie, the one through who's eyes the reader follows the story. When writing for children this is normally a child character rather than an adult.

As far as structuring is concerned, I would forget about dividing it up into chapters for the time being. Most chapters are made up of a handful of scenes, separated by a gap - which makes chapters 1 & 2, above, 2 scenes rather than 2 chapters.

Keep writing,

- NaomiM

Freebird at 10:36 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
What a good start! What age group are you aiming this at? Dead bodies and the like tend to be more Young Adult material, but I guess it would be fine for older children.

The first section flowed very well - starts with a shock (though I'm not sure that you need to say the body was 'unnaturally still' - if it's a corpse, it goes without saying that it would be) and there is that very human, childlike response of being hopeful that the exam will be cancelled!

The second chapter: You've conjured up the setting very well, and given us a flavour of the teaching characters. As Naomi said, you have jumped into the heads of two characters, both of them different than the on in the first section.

A good rule of thumb is to use the point of view of the person who is most affected by the scene about which you're writing. If the main character is going to be Archie, I would stick with him. But obviously there may be scenes you need to describe where Archie isn't there, in which case you need to choose another significant point of view, but for children's stories I wouldn't go beyond two points of view (and there must be a good reason to have two).

I guess you need to consider whether you actually need the scene in the assembly hall where the teachers are finding out about the death. Does it move the story along, or is just 'filler'? If Archie is the main character and the one the reader is hopefully going to care about, do we really need to see this scene or just go on with what happens next to Archie and the body?

V. interested to see what happens next! And you've raised lots of questions about how Mr. Ackroyd died, and why, and what impact this is going to have on Archie's life.


NMott at 11:28 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Freebird makes a good point, but, on balance, I think you could keep 'The body was unnaturally still, and twisted uncomfortably...' because it gives him and the reader the clue that the man is dead, and explains why he's saying 'He also knew that he was dead.'.

sredni at 13:56 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Thanks for these comments.

The thing that I'm really not quite sure about, is pov. I could have written it in the first person, but I need to have events in the story when Archie isn't present. And then what about scenes when none of the main characters are there? How can I do this without it becoming confusing for the readers, as you suggest it might?

I'm not sure if this makes sense. Any help would be appreciated...


NMott at 14:04 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Pov is basically standing in the character's shoes and writing the stroy from their view point - what they think, feel, see. I doesn't have to be in the first person - your chapter 1 works fine in 3rd person, and is written from Archie's pov.

As for scenes where your main character isn't there, the simplest thing at this stage in your writing is to simply remove them when you get to the end of the first draft. Odds are, they are for your information to help you write the novel, but are of little or no interest to the reader because they give too much away, eg, it is all too tempting to write from the baddie's pov, if you have several povs in the story. The reader wants to know what happens to the main character, so stick with their pov in each chapter. Half the time the reader is happy to work out what's going on, without needing another pov character to pop up and tell them.

- NaomiM


Just to add, a large part of what an author writes doesn't make it into the final novel, so feel free to put everything into the first draft, including the kitchen sink, but then be prepared to be ruthless in the editing - Terry Pratchett says he cuts out over 60% from his manuscripts, and JK Rowling wrote huge biographies and back histories of all her characters, only a very few lines of which made it into the 7 volumes of the Harry Potter novels.

Issy at 19:11 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
This is excellent. Thoroughly involved in Archie and his dilemma, to help or run, so he stands still, and then that little smile at the end.

And then you keep us waiting! Which is good.

I am in two minds about the second chapter. It is well written and gives lots of background info about the school etc along the way, but I can relate to what is being said about the change of viewpoint.

On the other hand it is good that we are kept in limbo regarding Archie, and going to a different viewpoint does exactly that.

Is Mr Underwood a key person in the story? He sounds a bit old to be a main character and the reader might possibly not be too interested in his emotions and actions unless there is something special about him. Is it possible to substitute him for another child, a late arriver who has some sort of connection?

I know I am leaving you with a dilemma. But this is an excellent and engrossing start, am intrigued.

sredni at 19:29 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Thanks a lot Issy, this is really useful advice.

Underwood is not particularly key, and it might be that he doesn't need to become the focus at this point, or indeed at any point. I did deliberately want to take the focus away from Archie. He is a natural main character, and it would make sense to stick with his pov.

I'm very aware that the second chapter is weaker than the first. I know where I want the story to go, but can't quite seem to get the right narrative voice. I will keep plugging away.

Issy at 19:45 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Yes it works so well to take the focus away from Archie. More like ripped us away. I can see your problem so clearly. The dead body situation needs to develop in some way, but we - the readers - need to be kept dangling for a while...

Not helping I know. Where do you go to in chapter 3?

sredni at 20:07 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Chapter 3 brings in the other major character in the book, another boy at the school. He is inside the chapel and sees Underwood come in at the back.

I probably need to take Naomi's advice, cut out the Underwood little bit completely, and then simply cut to this other boy seeing him come in. In fact, I like this so much that I'm going to get on with it this evening.

I'm going to sign up as full member soon, so will be able to keep posting.

All of this advice has been amazing. 24 hours on writewords has reinvigorated me. Thank you so much.

Issy at 20:10 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Oh, I do thing that would work brilliantly. The reader could be there with the other characters confusion, knowing things he doesn't. It would be great to see the teachers' exchange like this and it may be possible to get quite a bit of that background info in as well.

Looking forward to chapter 3 already

NMott at 20:23 on 18 January 2010  Report this post
Looking forward to reading more, Sredni.

Skippoo at 15:13 on 23 January 2010  Report this post
Hi sredni,

I’m posting this a bit late as I see you’ve already got your next instalment up!

You don’t seem inexperienced at all! I thought you had a really good, clean writing style, which drew me in straight away.

Just a few points:

He also knew that he was dead.
I wondered how Archie could be so sure without checking breathing/pulse, etc?

A gentle breeze wafted through the quad, giving this horrific scene a strange sense of calm for a moment.
I don't think you need the word 'horrific' – we already know finding a body is horrific!

He’d just left a dead body lying in the quad outside, and it would be quite an understatement to say that this was preying on his mind.
Same as above – I don’t think you need this.

the organ was blaring out the opening bars of the hymn.
I thought it might be good to name the hymn? Just gives us a bit more detail to bring the scene alive a little more.

Again, at the end when Underwood tells Mr Goode Mr Acroyd is dead, I wondered how can they be so sure? Perhaps someone needs to check his pulse or something?

Just checking other people’s comments …. I agree with Freebird about showing you interesting complexities like Archie being relieved his exam is cancelled. I’ve also just seen some differences between what NaomiM and I have said about people being able to tell Mr Ackroyd is dead. I still think they need to properly check as an unconscious person could be ‘still and twisted uncomfortably’.

Hope some of that’s useful and looking forward to reading more.


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