First-page critique: THE LATERAL LINE

By Joe Moore

As we continue with our annual springtime first-page critiques, here’s an anonymous submission called THE LATERAL LINE. My comments follow.

Gabriel knew this day would come. It had taken fourteen years and more warnings than he thought necessary but fate had caught up to them. The danger he saw years ago had come to meet them head on. The alarms sounded shrilly over head and the sprinkler system made it rain indoors. An eerie red glow from the emergency generators made navigating tricky, but Gabriel knew where he was going. All he had to do was follow the trail of bodies.

His feet slapped the puddles on the floor as he ran, his breath come in gulps. He had one chance to finish this, to do what should have been done years ago. Fear made his hands shake but he knew he couldn’t fail this time. A side hallway brought him out ahead of the boys he followed and as he rounded the corner he saw he judged correctly. Gabriel stood at one end of the long hallway and watched as his sons walked toward him.

They were silhouetted against the flashing emergency lights and dripped with water, but they walked confidently forward obviously not concerned that their father waited. Half-way up the hallway, they stopped. It was close enough for Gabriel to see the cocky grin on Cross’s face. That only served to convince Gabriel this needed to be done. He brought the gun up and leveled it with Cross’s head. His brother stepped forward, concern etched into his features.

“Just let us walk out of here, Dad. No one else has to get hurt,” Kale said. Cross just glared and kept quiet. Gabriel never took his eyes off the boy.

“I can’t let that happen, Kale. You know that.” Gabriel’s head buzzed with the intrusion he felt from Kale. The psychic push he understood his son was capable of. Gabriel knew if he wavered now, he would end up like the men and women he passed in the hallway. He was the only thing that stood between a terrible mistake and a messy death.

“This ends now,” Gabriel said and pulled the trigger.

I think this is a terrific first draft. It has all the right stuff: conflict, tension, suspense, action, mystery, and more. There’s no doubt that something really bad happened here as Gabriel navigates a “trail of bodies”. And the fact that a father is faced with possibly having to kill his sons is about as tragic as it gets. I assume the two boys are responsible for the multiple deaths, and judging from Gabriel’s determination to stop them, this is not the first time they have killed.

I get the feeling from the statement “The psychic push he understood his son was capable of”, that we’re dealing with the supernatural or horror genre. Just need to get rid of the dangling preposition.

Thankfully, there’s no backstory or flashbacks to slow us down. The author tosses us right into the “middle of things”. Within a few paragraphs, he/she has cut to the chase and we’re whisked along for the ride. There’s a strong sense of place and a threat of immediate danger.

I think the only thing needed is a surgical pass through this sample with a sharp editor’s knife. Despite a need to tighten and clean up, this submission shows great promise and I would definitely read on.

How about you? Would you keep turning the pages to find out what happened?

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8 thoughts on “First-page critique: THE LATERAL LINE

  1. I agree, Joe. This is a great start. I would consider beginning at the real first hint of action, the eerie red light sentence. The first few lines could be inserted later into appropriate spots, if necessary. And I would introduce Gabriel’s last name in that first sentence too, but yeah, um definitely intrigued and would want to read on. This entry begins an amazing tale and the set up says so much in a short time. Wow.

  2. There are some sloppy edges that make this appear not to have been proof-read. Generators don’t glow or put off any light. Bulbs put off light. Yes, I’d keep reading.

  3. This piece demonstrates the power of the right concept. What’s gripping here is the idea — a father having to stop his own sons from mass killings. Wow.

    The “surgical pass” Joe mentions can only strengthen this. I would concentrate on the opening paragraph. The first three lines call to mind the rule (apologies to Gilstrap) RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. They are narrative telling. The second and third lines are redundant in that regard.

    Instead of telling us how ominous the situation is, show us. Personally, I’d begin this way:

    All he had to do was follow the trail of bodies.

    Then I’d drop right into Gabriel’s head and give us some interior thoughts as he moves forward, grounding us in his POV. As we’ve mentioned this week, it’s the emotional aspect of character, wedded to the action, that draws us in.

    I’d conceive of this opening as a tightening coil, and draw it out even further. More description of the bodies themselves, Gabriel’s increasing fear and tension, etc. I’d even delay the big reveal further so when it does happen, it’s a bombshell.

    With some minor tweaks like that, this can easily be one of the best openings we’ve had here.

  4. I like this piece, but on my first reading I was put off by the first sentence, “Gabriel knew this day would come.” The tense structure doesn’t fit the situation. But with Jim’s rewrite, removing that sentence, the problem is fixed for me. That said, when it comes to the horror genre I’m a fan of the Stephen King style, starting slow and building to big horror. If you start with a bang (literally), as in this piece, you must build the horror higher from there. I’m assuming the author will, and I would definitely keep reading.

  5. Ditto what others have said before me. We’re able to empathize with the main character from the very beginning. First because of the sense of danger, and then for the choice to shoot his sons.

    This feels like a prologue to me, and if it is, the next page of the story could illustrate one of the problems with prologues: After gut-hooking the reader in the first few paragraphs, it would be disappointing for the next scene to literally or figuratively be labeled with the heading “Fourteen Years Ago . . .” and then see the action slow. It can work, but it’s not easy to pull off.

    John Gilstrap
    http://www.johngilstrap.com

  6. Jordan, all valid suggestions. It’s still a good beginning, though.

    Miller, you’re so right that one small incorrect detail can throw the reader right out of the story. Of course, if this is a supernatural theme, the generator might have been possessed. 🙂

    Jim, like Jordan, you’ve zeroed in on some excellent suggestions.

    Kathryn, you’re correct in that playing your best hand right off the bat could quickly turn anticlimactic. But in defense of this writer, we don’t know where this is going. This could be the calm before the storm. Might need a sedative to get through the next part. Or the next part could be a sedative.

    John, I had the same feeling that we were one page away from jumping back in time. This is a dramatic opening to say the least. Not too many directions to go from here. But it does catch our attention.

  7. Dovetailing off Jim’s comments, I’d suggest more of the father’s reaction, making it appear he’s concerned for his sons’ safety after that trail of bodies until he raises that gun. Don’t rush that shocking moment.

    And in doing that, the first few lines telegraph what’s coming and should be deleted in my opinion. Start with the action and stick with it.

    Alfred Hitchcock believed suspense had little to do with fear, but it came from the anticipation of something bad about to happen.

  8. I thought this was a terrific start and agree with the advice just to hone the piece in editing to strengthen what is already there.

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