Analysis of Five Midnights (ch 1)

Buy Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there–murderer, or monster?

This is a craft analysis of Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal. I will be analyzing this book over the next few weeks. I will always analyze the first chapter on its own, and then move on from there.

Vico woke up with a start, his body bathed in sweat, his heart beating faster than it did when he was high.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.

On a negative note, waking up, especially startled is a tropey way to begin a book. What makes this opening line intriguing is the drug use. Vico is distressed, the line invokes action and a little fear.

Opening lines need to draw readers in. As opening lines go, this solid. While I am put off that Vico is just waking up, as I’ve read many times before, I’m drawn in by his distress and drug use.

He pulled on a shirt and his shoes, grabbed the backpack from under his bed, and headed out into the night.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.

Here is a great example of less is more. I don’t need to know what color his shirt is, what make and model his shoes are, what’s in the backpack, or even why he’s headed out. That’s all information that I will get as the scene progresses.

What’s important is that Vico got dressed. Unless the description is vital to the story, you can go easy on it. And as Vico won’t be around for long, we don’t need to know much about him physically. What matters about Vico is where he is and what happens to him.

A chill moved through his body as he drove down the dark, narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, his SUV barely squeezing by the parked cars that lined either side. He looked over at the backpack in the passenger seat. To all appearances it was a worthless, but-up school pack. No one would guess the fortune of cocaína it held inside. He patted it as it were a dog. He had to clear his head. This deal was too important to blow. He drove up the Calle Norzagaray, the street that ran along the edges of El Rubi, the barrio where the deal would go down. His car buzzed by the restored Spanish villas on the left, where wealthy young families tucked their children into bed, their homes snuggled among the siteenth-century fortifications that surrounded the island’s tip. On the right-hand side, over the waist-high wall, and down a fifty-foot foot drop lay El Rubí, where children went to bed with hand-me-down clothes and short futures.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this selection. First, listen to the rhythm. Most of the sentences are long, which makes the shorter sentences feel like natural breathing places. They are also close to Vico’s inner narrative.

The lens of these short lines zooms the focus of the reader into Vico’s car and onto the school pack full of cocaine. Then the longer lines zoom back out for a smooth panning shot of the setting. The longer lines give us detailed descriptions of the setting.

Not every decription needs to be “only what the character can see.” Even in first person, this limits what can be done with the setting. Most people are more aware of their surroundings than writers give them credit for. Think about what you notice about your surroundings the next time you go out somewhere. Do you only know what’s happening at the table you’re sitting at? Do you only see the path you take to the table?

No, you take in the whole restaurant, and chances are you’ve been there before.

The description of Vico’s neighborhood is from someone who lives there.

Getting into the voice, Vico clearly has some disdain for his neighborhood. We learn about the nice outward appearance of the homes but that the occupants live thrifty lives with “hand-me-down clothes and short futures.” Which leaves the active reader to assume that other children are also selling drugs or partaking in risky behavior in order to make their money.

He’d worked hard to build up his reputation and his bank account.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.

Vico cares about himsef. He wants people to know him, he wants to be important, and he equates importance with money.

It is amazing what a single line can do for characterization. This one tells us he’s been in the business of dealing for a while. You don’t “work hard” in a single week. But we also got that impression with how deftly he snuck out and drove away.

He loved the way the decaying cement and wooden shacks were painted in bright colors. And the smell: salty ocean with notes of frying plantain, beer, garbage, and urine. Life. To him El Rubí was teeming with it, unlike his old neighborhood, where families stayed locked up in their gated homes, pretending everything was fine. Pretending fathers weren’t laid off, mothers didn’t die, and kids came right home to do their homework. In El Rubí everything was out in the open: fights, love, drugs… no worries about what the neighbors might think.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Here we have another passage that gives us setting an characterization. We touch on the senses in the description of El Rubí, noting the “decaying cement” and how it was simply painted bright colors to make it look nice, instead of being fixed. And the smell of ocean, fried plantains, and beer against the back drop of garbage and urine certainly paints a picture in the nostrils.

Vico calls it “Life.” And he notes that nothing is hidden in El Rubí, unlike his old neighbordhood. While we can’t confirm that the next line regarding lay offs, dead mothers, and irresponsible kids is about Vico, the bitterness in the voice certainly seems to hint that this is true of his homelife.

He squinted into the dark an saw the glow of two yellow eyes.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Here is chapter one’s turning point. Up until now, the scene has been contemporary, realistic even. But now there is a creature with bright yellow eyes. We’ve crossed realms into SFF (Science Fiction Fantasy).

This is also the first bit of tension introduced in the novel. Vico’s safety is in question, as is his sanity. As quickly as this creature appears, it is gone, creating only a light spike of dramatic tension as things calm down immediately after. We can believe he imagined the creature and the yellow eyes.

His lighter flared to life just before something big hit him like a linebacker from behind, knocking the air from his lungs.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Vico has been attacked, but is it the creature or the people he’s supposed to meet in the dead of the night. The uncertainty here adds to the tension and action of the scene. Neither Vico nor the reader was expecting him to be attacked.

When he pulled [his hand] away it felt sticky, wet. He looked down and, in the glow of the flame, he saw red on his palm and watched his shirt grow dark.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Here is another spot where the lens of the story is close on Vico, drawing our attention in and slowing down the scene. Although I did not include it in the quote, there are three sentences here to describe Vico’s realization that he’s been wounded. The time it takes to deliver these descriptions slows down the story to add emphasis to the action.

Imagine it as a film, shot by shot. He feels something. He reaches over. He touches his shoulder. He pulls back his hand. There’s blood. The wound is bleeding badly as it spreads over his shirt.

This is a great way to build tension in just the first chapter.

He was numb, his eyes wide, his mouth open in a silent scream as he realized his feet were leaving the ground, his sneakers dangling as he hung as if mounted on the claw. The lights of El Rubí faded as he was dragged backward. Ludovico tried to scream as he heard the sound of jaws snapping behind him. Then everything went dark.

Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Ending the chapter in the middle of the action isn’t always a good idea, but this is done very well. Throughout the scene, we don’t get a description of the creature. Just a few creepy details like the yellow eyes and this claw that is large enough to lift someone up off the ground. That’s creepy enough.

What makes this ending successful, is the lights fading as Vico is dragged away into darkness and killed.

If the opening had simply been Vico waking up and selling drugs, I probably would’ve put the book down. That would make for a boring opening and nothing would’ve drawn me into the story at large.

Instead, we go from a calm, unsuspecting evening to a monster attack and a slow fade out of impending doom, leading me to turn the page and continue reading the story.

Buy Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there–murderer, or monster?

Originally published on June 22, 2021 @ 12:00 pm


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Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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