Opening with action: Today’s critique

Today we have the first page of a story called CRYSTAL WHITE. My comments follow in the bullets.


Warehouse District

Ontario, California

Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge Nick Lafferty swore at his vibrating cell phone, trapped in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, trapped under his DEA-issued body armor. He ripped open the top Velcro strap. The noise reverberated through the warehouse. Then he contorted to fish his hand under the vest trying to reach the damn thing before it rang again.
A passing police sergeant, in gray urban fatigues, body armor and carrying an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, let him know, “Sharp shooters are in position, Agent Lafferty. Ready when you are.”

He nodded thanks. With the cell phone firmly in hand, he flipped it open. “Lafferty here.”

“Lafferty here too,” his wife, Renee, said, mimicking his stern, gruff voice, then laughing. “Except for us here is on the boat. We’re missing you. Any chance you’ll be able to join us?”

It was Sunday morning. He’d promised to take Renee and Vicki, their seven-year-old daughter, out for the day on their 32-foot Chris Craft Catalina, the YOU CAN RUN. They kept it docked at the marina off Harbor Drive in San Diego Bay. By now the sun would be full up, warm, baking the dry, gray wharf and the teak aft decking of the boat. Gulls would be circling and cawing, begging for handouts from the boaters and fishermen hanging off the piers.

A light breeze gently snapping the harbor flags, carrying with it an intoxicating aroma of salt water, wet rope and diesel fuel. He could practically hear the lapping of waves, the thump of fiberglass hulls against rubber bumpers, the creak of straining ropes.

He glanced around at the warehouse his team had commandeered for the morning’s impromptu operation. It was a far cry from the sunny marina where he wanted to be, on the water, with his family.

Instead he was here, with his Mobile Enforcement Team. They wore black fatigues and heavy bullet resistant vests under blue DEA windbreakers. With them was a Special Operations Team from the Ontario PD and the County Sheriff’s Tactical Services Team. Decked out in urban camouflage and full tactical gear and body armor, waiting, they stood around talking and checking their equipment, loading weapons and laughing at old war stories or politically incorrect jokes. Rifles and semi-automatic pistols clicked loudly as slides snapped closed. Metal clips clanged against plastic stocks, the musty air sharp with the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 gun oil.

“I don’t know, honey,” Lafferty said into the phone. “I need to see how this thing plays out.”

My comments:

  • This first page seems to be a promising story–I like the sense we’re getting of the main character. I would keep reading, but I did get frustrated by the fact that the opening scene lacks action and suspense. We open on an armed officer, and he’s at a stakeout. This setup should be suspenseful. But then: 1) his cell phone rings; 2) his colleagues are seen standing around joking; 3) he has a conversation with his wife; 4) we get a description of his boat, which is docked someplace else, gulls circling, etc. All of these things drain the drama from the opening scene.
  • I think it would be more effective to open later into the action–open big, provide some drama and suspense, and then you can add the personal background, the wife, etc.
  • I’m not a big fan of prologues, in general. But if you do use a prologue, it should draw the reader in faster than this one does.
  • I don’t think you need to have “Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge” in the first sentence. We’ll  get an idea that this character is an agent through the dialogue and action.
  • I would like to see more about the goal of the “impromptu operation,” and less about the things that distract from the suspense. So I would suggest that the writer tighten the scene.
  • There’s a lot of description of what everyone is wearing (vest, camouflage, body armor), but nothing that conveys what they’re trying to accomplish. 
  • Is there supposed to be any tension in this scene? The fact that the men are joking and telling war stories conveys an air of relaxation, not suspense.

What do you guys think?

8 thoughts on “Opening with action: Today’s critique

  1. This is another example of too much description. The biggest problem I had with this submission is that nothing happened. I hope that there’s a better place to start the story somewhere further in.

  2. In addition to what Kathryn and Joe have said, here’s my simple “rule” — act first, explain later. It’s a common error to think a reader needs a lot of explanatory information to “get” the opening scene. We don’t. We will wait a long time if we are caught up in what’s happening to a character involved in a disturbing situation.

    The writer has the cast in place for a good opening scene. My advice: re-write this using nothing but action, and cutting the phone call. Leave out all the backstory. Continue this way to the end of the scene. Only then go back and see if you absolutely need any of the cut info. If you do, drop it in a bit at a time, between action beats, and only start to do that in the middle of page 2.

    This will be a profitable exercise, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

  3. I think that more interesting stuff probably happens on the next page. But the attention of an editor, agent, and most readers wanders away quickly. One can open with a quiet scene, but then there’s an even greater burden on the writer to compel the reader to keep reading.

    That’s a good exercise you suggested, Jim. In general, this piece would benefit from a guideline you once gave me, which I still follow: RUE. Resist the Urge to Explain.

  4. Do agents in a sting have their ringers turned on? I don’t know what is happening in the scene but it was the first thing that jarred (its not really stealthy behaviour). Secondly he spends way to long describing a different place while we have no idea where he is or why he’s there.
    I can’t say whether I would read on because so far I don’t have any reason to…
    Best of luck.

  5. act first, explain later…I could do with following that advice too! I agree with eveyone’s comments so far and yes, agents and editors really do stop reading after about the first paragraph unless they’re hooked – just like all us readers do.

  6. Ditto the lack of action and suspense, though my funny bone has been aroused. (Has the author written comedy before?) I agree with all of the above. Here are some more points:

    Unless the lack of action is done on purpose as in a training scenario, it doesn’t feel right. And if it is something like a training scenario, then it probably shouldn’t be used as the beginning of your novel – unless its a comedy. All authors should spent A LOT of time on the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, etc. because that’s what hooks an audience.

    Do not use a Prologue because people skip them. Anything that is important enough for all readers to know should be in a properly numbered chapter. Anything not important enough should be left out, so no Prologues in either case. Instead, call it “Chapter One” and renumber accordingly.

    Keep the tense straight. “A light breeze WOULD BE gently…” to match “the sun would be full up”, “Gulls would be circling…”, and “He could practically hear”.

    I’d connect the “A light breeze gently snapping…” paragraph to the previous, but the description seems too long. Tighten it up although kudos for hitting four different senses. I can definitely envision the scene. And it makes me long for it. I identify with your character in this moment but you should really add in a comment by the agent to this effect to cement the connection with the reader. This should happen BEFORE having him glance at his watch and jolting the reader back to his reality.

    You’re being creative with punctuation, commas in particular, so beware of run-on sentences. “Decked out in urban camouflage WITH full tactical gear and body armor, waiting, they stood around talking and checking their equipment, loading weapons and laughing at old war stories or politically incorrect jokes.”

    Of course, some of these points are moot since you need to change your description into action. They could still help depending on what you keep or move elsewhere though.

  7. I don’t mind starting with action- but then show us action. Here, I’m in a warehouse, then suddenly on the harbor. The juxtaposition is jarring and detracts from the suspense that the author is trying to create. Would this guy really be answering a cell phone call at that particular moment from his wife, unless she was hog tied in a room somewhere and that was somehow part of why he was at the warehouse? Doubtful. (There’s a strong opening, though. I’m saving that one).
    I don’t mind prologues; as I said earlier, my first editor changed Chapter One of The Tunnels to a prologue. I don’t fully understand why people skip them. I avoid author’s notes at the beginning of a book because I’m afraid there will be spoilers, but once the narrative starts I read it no matter what the chapter heading is.
    I agree with Joe, wayyy too much description here. This needs more of a Lee Child touch, short choppy sentences light on the exposition.

  8. What everyone else said. Even if you were going to keep this opening, it can be ramped up. Instead of telling me his name, his phone is ringing, where the phone is, etc., start with action — Lafferty going after his phone and let the other officers tell me his name in dialog (which you actually do already). You get the idea.

    If I was restricted to what was on this page, I’d probably start with the ripping velcro or the dialog telling Lafferty the sharp shooters are in place. Best of luck!

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