Inside the Mind of Evil

Today’s first page critique raises the tricky area of starting a novel from the antagonist’s perspective or getting ‘inside the mind of evil’. As this page reveals it can be a very effective technique – but (and this is a big but) you have to be careful. It can very easily fall into cliche. As this first page reveals, however, it can also be a great way to suck your reader in quickly to the story – raising the stakes as well as the tension.

So here is the first page of the submission entitled SINS OF THE FATHER.
My comments follow at the end.

Sunday, August 12

Erin looks like his first. The resemblance was clear from the moment he saw her: the red hair; the delicate nose and freckled skin; the way one corner of her mouth quirks up with dry humor in response to a comment from her companion. Now, watching her unobserved from the safety of fifty yards’ distance and a thicket of brush as concealment, he can see the resemblance to her namesake even more clearly. It’s as though he’s traveled back in time… As though forty years have vanished in an instant and he is a boy once more, flushed with the promise of that first kill.

Fear radiates from both she and her companion. Through night-vision goggles special ordered for just such an occasion, the Hunter can almost see Erin’s dilated pupils, the way her chest heaves as she half-drags her friend to some imagined safe port in the storm. Her friend – blonde, blue-eyed, with a close-trimmed beard and a penchant for watching her when she is unaware – is bleeding. Badly. Between his blood and the haphazard way they forge through the underbrush, tracking them is a simple matter.

The clouds are thick in the night sky, and there are thunderstorms in the forecast. The highway is at least a mile from here. Since he began tracking them, Erin has made some surprisingly foolhardy decisions – frankly, he’d expected more of her, but she’s been running in exactly the wrong direction for the past six hours. She and her friend both have cell phones, he is certain, but there’s no reception in this area – they’d have better luck using tin cans tied together with string out here. It’s only a matter of time.

He prefers hunting in the spring or fall – while the ground is still soft enough to ensure easy burial after the kill, but before the summer’s rampant overgrowth makes progress through the woods slow going. Erin forced his hand this time, but he’s not bitter about that. On the contrary, he’s looking forward to the game. He’s always loved a challenge.

My comments:

I think this first page is very effective in drawing the reader in – it establishes the scene well, raises the stakes and leaves the reader eager to learn more. There are a few minor points however that I think might make this first page even more compelling:

1. The descriptions in the first two paragraphs make it sound like we are in daylight and so when the night vision goggles are mentioned I was taken out of the story as I wondered how does he know the girl’s hair is red or the man’s eyes are blue if it’s at night? By the third paragraph it’s clear the hunter has been stalking them for hours but, still, the issue took me out of the story. 

2. The use of the name ‘the Hunter’  took me out of the scene as well. Although this first page is written in third person, the thoughts are those of the antagonist and I wondered whether he called himself ‘the Hunter’ or whether it sounded too distant – pulling us away from the very close perspective we have. I would also delete ‘almost’ from this sentence – he can either see her dilated pupils or he can’t – there is no almost – unless he is imagining it.  If he feels like a hunter I would also like the author to be more specific – what kind of hunter does he see himself as (what kind of predator?) The greater the specificity there is the less likely it is to feel cliched.

3. Though this first page didn’t feel too cliched to me, I do think the author needs to tread carefully, especially as the image of the perpetrator as a hunter who views his prey as sport has been done before – you need to keep it as fresh as possible.

4. I thought the last paragraph was very effective. It provided a good segway into the next paragraph/viewpoint. As a reader I wanted to know more about how Erin and her companion got into this situation and what they could possibly do to avoid being the next ‘kill’. The author balanced the need for information with the need for action really well, and I for one would read on.

So what did you all think? What is your views on successfully portraying the inner mind of the antagonist? Does this first page succeed? Would you keep reading?

17 thoughts on “Inside the Mind of Evil

  1. I eat this type of book for breakfast and can’t add a thing to the observations. I agree that “the Hunter” feels like a POV shift. You do have to tread lightly because it is well-worn ground. But it can be awesome as well, disturbing, violent and uncomfortable.

    I have no problem starting with the bad guy as long as something bad happens in the opening sequence. Make sense? It he is thwarted at the last second by some miracle save of the prey, then I can lose interest fast. Nothing annoys me more than a book that starts with a killer and circumstances prevent him from killing until the last scene where the hero prevails.

    But, you got my attention. Terri


  2. Clare, I was also tossed from the story with the “blue eyes” comment and the night vision goggles. Even though this is somewhat clarified later, it was a first impression of inaccurate facts. I also had to pause a couple of times to determine who was who. First rule: don’t confuse the reader.

    But the bigger issue I have here is that I’ve seen this same scene play out on at least a dozen episodes of CRIMINAL MINDS on CBS not to mention countless other TV dramas and movies. Agents and editors are looking for original approaches to story telling, and if I were an agent or editor, there would be little chance I would read on.

  3. Good point, Joe – this sort of opening from the antagonist’s POV is getting rather tired as a device so I think the author probably does need to inject something new and fresh into the mix to grab an agent’s attention. That being said though, the next few pages might well do this – the trick is to make this first page really stand out. Agents and editors have pretty much seen it all so for them they need a truly original hook to get them to keep reading.

  4. TWO semi-colons in the same sentence! In a thriller! Ahh! (Not to beat a dead horse, you understand, but it just makes me feel like I’m reading something academic).

    The writing, however, is fine, and shows me the author knows what he/she is doing and can pull this off. But as Joe suggests it does have the feel of being seen many times before. Before recommending changes, I’d need to know the strategy of the writer, e.g., whether “The Hunter” is to be unknown to other characters for most of the book, or if his POV will be recurring, etc. If the latter, then freshening that POV from standard stalker-think to complex and unanticipated patterns would be encouraged. One-note villains are not interesting.

    Minor notes: “Blonde” with an “e” always refers to a woman.

    And I’m no grammar maven, but shouldn’t Fear radiates from both she and her companion be Fear radiates from HER and her companion? IOW, we wouldn’t say “Fear radiates from she.”

  5. I agree with your comments, Clare. There’s also too much exposition that takes away from the action, like the weather forecast, how he likes hunting in the spring & fall, the back story of his first victim. There’s no sense of any real danger when the reader is so removed from the action.

    And Joe, CRIMINAL MINDS had some shocking TV shows on this that gave me nightmares. The bowhunter show & the pig farmer guy (eek) was especially scary. Thanks for the reminder. Sheesh.

    I tend to pick POV by which character has the most to lose & would raise the emotional stakes. In this scene, that would be the victims. Even though the hunter seems cliche, the first 350 words of a girl being hunted in the dark, without a clue of who is doing it, could still draw readers in. Having a sustainable plot after that is another challenge.

    I recently wrote a scene in the POV of the killer that was in first person so I could hide the gender of the killer. It made for a chilling scene because of the intimacy of first person.

  6. Third time’s the charm.

    Aside from the points already made–that serial killers have been done to death and that the exposition lacks urgency–some of the problems with this passage can be rectified with very small changes. For example: “The resemblance was clear from the original moment he saw her, the red hair, the delicate nose and freckled skin, the way one corner of her mouth quirks up with dry humor in response to a comment from her companion.” A small alteration like that allows The Hunter to know Erin’s eye and hair color despite currently using NVG’s. However, the next section “Now, watching her unobserved from the safety of fifty yards’ distance and a thicket of brush as concealment, he can see the resemblance to her namesake even more clearly.” needs to be edited to something like “Now, watching her unobserved from the safety of fifty yards’ distance and a thicket of brush, the resemblance to her namesake takes him back in time. Forty years. He’s a boy once more, flushed with the promise of that first kill.”

    Also, only use the value 40 once. If The Hunter’s transported back 40 years ago, the distance between him and Erin should be different. Change it to something lower, because at 40 yards, 120 feet, it would be impossible to see pupil dilation. That’s ten yards shy of half a football field, in the dark, amidst shrubbery, the target is moving, and, as far as is told, the moonlight level is low because it’s overcast. Very expensive high-powered NVG’s might be able to give that sort of detail, but that’s iffy, especially if Erin is dragging someone, which means, in all likelihood, either her head is down or she’s squinting as she struggles to drag her boyfriend.

    And you cannot end a sentence with an ellipsis (…) then have no punctuation following it. If the writer doesn’t want to put punctuate, then the next word following the ellipsis must be lower-case. There is no spacing before or after an ellipsis in this style of writing either.

    Also, em dashes versus commas versus semi-colons is a personal choice. However, 350 words into the piece the writer has em-dashed five times. That works out to be once every 70 words, a sign of over-exposition, as the other comments have already noted. Limit the punctuation more, blend sentences together, so as to give more of a first person POV feel, and some of that may go away. People ramble when they talk about something they enjoy.

  7. Re: Jim Bell’s comment about the sentence “Fear radiates from both she and her companion.”

    “…from her…” is correct, with “her” being the object of the preposition “from”. Example: you would never say, “Take it from I.”

  8. I would like to see some dialogue on the first page, or some movement. I agree with Jordan in that there is a whole lot of detail revealed with no movement at all.

  9. This is from my current WIP, the second novel in my Erin Solomon mystery series (the first in the series, All the Blue-Eyed Angels, is out now). Thanks so much to everyone for such stellar feedback — excellent points all the way around. I tend to get em-dash happy, and I’m wild for the semi-colons, both impulses I promise to curb in the future.

    Part of the hook in this, which may or may not work in my favor, is that the duo being stalked in this prologue are the featured players in the series. I’ll definitely work on adding some depth to “the hunter” and will reevaluate the opening to try and add something a bit more original to keep readers engaged.

    Thank you once again for doing these first-page critiques, they really are invaluable. From the grammar side all the way to larger content issues, I definitely feel as though I have a good sense of how to move forward to improve this. Thanks, everyone!

  10. I’m still sticking with liking this one. When I tune in Criminal Minds, I know there will be a certain formula. Innocent victim, Body(ies), Killer (often in plain sight) vs. Cop/Profiler/Private Eye. The clever comes in the use of the formula.

    Other than the editing nits, I’d give this one a few chapters (if something really bad happens to kick it off) to see how it progresses in its use of the forumla.


  11. Hey Jen, forget the 40 thing. Somehow I caught up on that. I know you wrote 50 yards. Sorry.

    Anyway, assuming The Hunter is using 5x power NVG’s, at 50 yards, he’d see Erin and her boyfriend as though they were 30 feet away. So if you bring it down to say, 20 or 30 yards, the pupil thing is much more plausible. Hope that helps.

  12. Terri, So glad to hear you’d stick with it! Bad things do happen soon, I promise. And Fletch, excellent info on the NVG specs — that will definitely come in handy!


  13. I’m glad someone’s up on the tech stuff! And of course thanks to the grammar mavens out there:) Jen, I am glad the feedback has helped!

  14. Looks like an interesting story to me as well. One other technical bit though, night vision goggles typically do not see in color. Color versions do exist, but would not likely be able to see the color of a person’s eyes, especially from distance. And the color NVG’s run about $30,000 a set, so unless your killer happened to whack a drug dealer with a wad of cash on his last hunt he’s not likely to have them.

    There is a company (Tenebraex Corp.) that supposedly makes Color Night Vision Optics at about $6000 a set, but sells them only to the Pentagon. And I was unable to find any mention of this company’s product more recent than 2008. And their product, a helmet mounted monocle system is kinda bulky too.

    Otherwise, if you preface the description somehow or show this is a future event then you can add fictional technology. Of course, then again, being fiction we can kinda do whatever we want and just call it a “secret government project”.

    Nice work.

  15. I would keep reading. I agree with you, Michele, on the stumbling points you raised. I.e., one way to show he know his victims’ eye colors is to say something like, “…watching the laughter in those blue eyes and her companion tussle her red hair before sunset brought her features alive in night goggles.” Well, you get my drift.

    Also, if I understand night goggles correctly, you can’t wear them for 6 hours without damaging your vision–but that’s nit-picking. This was an intriguing–and a bit terrifying first page. I really would love to read on and find out what’s going on in the preys’ minds, as well!

Comments are closed.