First Page Critique: BIRTHRIGHT

1JupiterAscendingToday we are pleased to present another first-page submission. This story is called BIRTHRIGHT. First, the page. Then my notes.


She knew if she walked through the door, things would never be the same. It would be an admission of humanity. A bow to the ordinary.

She had been sent to inform and invigorate the people of Liberty so they could stand up to the coming onslaught. Even as she arrived the enemy grew as it traveled, dragging able-bodied men from villages as they passed and forcing them into servitude. To bring an entire village together and equip its people to do battle was a monumental task, one no mere mortal could hope to accomplish. That’s why the Council saw fit to send her to this place. It wasn’t a question of her ability, nor of her knowledge. It was a question of birthright. Her father was Leader of the Council. It was an incontrovertible fact that his heirs would step into his role when he relinquished it. It had always been that way. It would always be. Such was the way of her kind.

She stepped into the heart of Liberty, the center of the village, and slowly turned. The courthouse sat vacant—the laws of the land, as well as much of the building, long ago turned to dust. A tattered flag sagged on a pole in front of a tall brick garage. Then she saw it. The old gray-stoned library, heavily pasted with vines rooted to the mortar, bundling the building itself into a green-wrapped package. She stared up at the roof, at least thirty tridents high. The crane of her neck made her wobble. She had never looked up before; only down. She hurried to the doorway, slashed at the vines until the way was clear. What was inside stole her breath. She had never seen a book before. Now she was in an entire building of them. So many, she thought they might count as high as the stars. She breathed deeply. The scent of books was new to her and she paused to relish it. This was where it would all begin. After all, this was where it once ended.

KL’s Notes:

On the plus side, I should say that I like the opening line.

“She knew if she walked through the door, things would never be the same.”

It’s hard to write a first line that immediately grabs a reader. Well done!

I also enjoy the way the writer describes the moment the narrator first sees the library.

“Then she saw it. The old gray-stoned library, heavily pasted with vines rooted to the mortar, bundling the building itself into a green-wrapped package.”

That’s a good visual image.

But in other ways, this narrative runs into some craft-related headwinds. Here are some areas that could be improved.

A Case of Backstory Blues

The writer grabs my attention at Line One. But from there, things go awry. The story falls into a notorious swamp known as Backstory. The entire second paragraph gives nothing but character background. That information should be woven in later, after we are immersed in the main character’s situation. We preach this lesson all the time here at TKZ: Stay in the moment with your character and scene! Let us see her in action in the moment, and then tell us how she arrived at that juncture.

Character Challenge

As I read this page I was reminded of a film I saw last weekend, “Jupiter Ascending.” (A completely dreadful film, btw, but that’s for another review).  In that story, there’s a claque of one-percenter aliens known as The Entitled. The Entitled get to hog all the good stuff in The Universe because, well, they were born to rule.

As the title of this first page, BIRTHRIGHT, makes clear, the main character has arrived in Liberty village simply because she was born into the right family. I’m assuming the story will present at least two challenges: 1) Can she save the Lost World? 2) Does she have anything going for her other than her birthright?

Action Needed

Theodore Roosevelt famously coined the phrase, “Get Action!” I think this page could use some action. Or should I say, interaction. On my first reading, I assumed that the village of Liberty was totally abandoned. Then I realized that the character’s challenge is to mobilize the demoralized inhabitants. Shouldn’t we get some sense of someone else in this scene, or at least a reminder of that they exist? A secondary character would be an excellent way to introduce some of the backstory information that is dumped at the reader in the second paragraph. (For example: an enslaved villager suddenly sees the Council’s Heir materialize in town. How does he react?)

Wording Notes

There were a few awkward or confusing phrases here and there. (Redundant use of “heart of” followed by “village center”; “The crane of her neck made her wobble.”)

Final Notes

Overall, I think eliminating the early introduction of backstory, plus using action to show the character’s situation, would improve things immensely. Thank you to this intrepid writer for the submission!

TKZers, your thoughts about this page?


19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: BIRTHRIGHT

  1. Lots of good potential to this story. Agree with you, Kathryn, on all your points, especially the first line. Good grabber. Also like the tidbits of information such as how she never looked up, always down. It emphasizes her servitude, subtly winning the reader’s sympathy.

    Undecided about the main character always referred to as ‘she’. Makes her mysterious, but at the same time, faceless. Until someone else enters the picture, it’s difficult to introduce her, but it can be done.

    No question I would keep reading.

    • It’s interesting that you read her looking down as a sign of servitude, Amanda! My impression was that she was always looking down at the world from high above, as appropriate to her “High Council” birthright. Probably reveals something about me that I read it that way, lol.

  2. Good critique, Kathryn. I agree with all points. Ditch the second paragraph and hand out that backstory stuff in small doses later. There’s a lot of telling going on here–little showing. I would also consider deleting the first line. Although it does have a grab, it is foreshadowing. Let’s discover how her life will change as it changes. Like you suggested, I would get into some form of interaction right away. Also, the author needs to review the use of commas. Thanks to this brave writer for submitting to TKZ first page critique. Good luck.

    • Good that you mentioned that about the foreshadowing. I like foreshadowing first lines, but I know I may be in the minority on that. (I dislike dialogue openers, and again, I seem to be in the minority!)

    • Joe is right…Play with the first line … look at famous books… at your fav bestselling authors… go to the library and look how the pros begin… it’s the easiest way to get the feel for the “Show a lot an tell a little, or not at all.. in the hook… that will create a Story Question… suspense.

      She knew … no. Of course I’m suggesting and trying to show you something I struggle with myself….

      Chanted the in a voice of confidence howbeit soft. The veins of her neck strained, blue,

      “I believe in the cause of Liberty. I will speak of the power of liberty. My words are the sword, my convection is my shield. I am Liberty. They will receive me as God is my help in these times of trouble and I will pierce their hearts with Liberty.”

      Eyes stare of steel and a figure of the grace of a stead she knelt before the door before and her maker.

      A parting bow to the ordinary. Nothing will be unchanged.

  3. Yes indeed, this is another example of a common problem. The character-alone opening with lots of exposition. The writer wants to communicate to the reader the setting and situation and summarize what’s going on…but the readers don’t like that mode of communication. My simple advice is this: track to the first place in your story where there is dialogue. Then start there. Dribble in backstory and exposition in small doses within an action scene.

    Here is how Dwight Swain (author of the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer) began his SF novel, The Transposed Man:

    “Robert Travis.”
    “Mining engineer.”
    “Place of residence?”
    “Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
    “Reason for visiting Luna?”
    “I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
    “I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”

    • Sitting at my computer last night I read Sucker Punched, Great story told well…

      Not appealing to the young female perhaps.

      But since reading your advice I convinced my musician son to hook a listener , create curiosity, used a line of dialogue . He wrote a song playing in a nationally distributed movie.
      ” You talk and talk but don’t say much…” I told him it would be a good one because it captures a universal sentiment.

      I’m trying to write and have bought enough of your books to have bought you an adult beverage, so … Cheers from Chicago.

  4. It’s okay, I fell into the same exposition trap. Overall has a nice dystopian YA feel to it.

    Kathryn nailed it. Add a second character. They can be a throwaway just to give her someone to talk to. I kid you not, I added a dog in my first book so it wouldn’t all be internal dialogue (think Wilson the soccer ball in Castaway.) If you don’t want to do that, at least add internal dialogue.

    Would someone of her station be traveling alone if the enemy was ravaging the countryside? Give her a bodyguard or a servant. Maybe someone who was born in Liberty.

    I’m also finding it a bit hard to believe, with no other underpinnings, that the library survived when the courthouse had “gone to dust.” Books don’t keep unless they are protected.

    Also some sensory reaction to the library (a good place for internal dialogue.) If the building is wrapped in vines, there is unlikely much light (one thing that would help protect the books.) So, some sensory reactions. The dried leather bindings felt like a neglected saddle or the air was redolent with wood and vinegar (the smell of wood pulp books as they are deteriorating) that reminded her of her gran’s pickle barrel.

    Just something more to bring the scene alive. I love this stuff. Keep it up.

    • Terri sez: Add a second character. They can be a throwaway just to give her someone to talk to. I kid you not, I added a dog in my first book so it wouldn’t all be internal dialogue (think Wilson the soccer ball in Castaway.) If you don’t want to do that, at least add internal dialogue.

      Harlan Ellison did this really well in his dystopian book “A Boy and His Dog.” (Actually I think the book had a different name?) I read it a loooong time ago but the memory of the interplay between the character and his dog remains with me.

  5. There’s much to like here: Great opening line. (Although I might lose the second and third lines since they are almost confusing). The set up is intriguing: She is (I think) some sort of Titan-esque being sent down from on high (either literally or status-wise) to save the beleagued society. What’s not to root for? And the opening line sets up a hint of conflict to come.

    And the THIRD paragraph has some good stuff imbedded: a destroyed village and a vine-encased old library where books are relics (shades of the Eloi’s world in The Time Machine!)

    But the second paragraph is, as others said, a giant screech of the brakes. This info-dump needs to be seeded in after the opening gets some momentum. And there is a logic problem: First paragraph she is thinking that if she steps thru the door, bad stuff will happen. But she is not yet AT a door, unless it is metaphoric which I don’t quite buy, since paragraph three puts her LITERALLY at the door of the library. (where it once all ended and where it will begin again, the writer tells us). So we have this middle part where she wanders into the village and sees some destruction (garage?) before she comes upon the library.

    Given the great opening line about being on a threshold, I think you must then put it literally at the door for this to make sense. But then you lose the context of the village itself. How to insert it? Here is a quick idea:

    She knew if she walked through the door, things would never be the same.

    The old gray-stoned library, heavily pasted with vines rooted to the mortar, loomed before her. She looked up to the roof, but it was at least thirty tridents high, and craning her neck back was painful because she had never looked up before, only down. She looked down and turned in a slow circle, her eyes traveling out over the WHATEVER THE VILLAGE LOOKS LIKE. GIVE US A GOOD IDEA OF WHAT SHE SEES. ONE GARAGE ISNT ENOUGH. ARE THERE PEOPLE HERE?

    She turned back to the door of the library. (WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?) and she wondered why this building had survived when everything else had been turned to dust. (YOU HINT THAT THE LIBRARY IS SPECIAL LATER ON. BUILD ON THIS).

    Then maybe a quick paragraph of internal dialogue? Or even thoughts about her father and this awful legacy she has inherited? It could even be a couple of actual lines of remembered dialogue between father and daughter (see Jame’s comment) but don’t linger. Just enough to intrigue us about her backstory.

    Then have her open the door. And as others have said use all her senses NOT JUST SIGHT. Nothing is more evocative than the smell of old books, no?

    Also, be careful about starting too many paragraphs with “She…” This is one of my own tics and you have to work to find graceful ways around it.

    But all in all, I would read on. Good submission!

  6. Agree with the comments above, especially that the story has promise.

    My big thought? The extensive use of passive voice weakened the character and author voices considerably and held us as readers at a distance.

  7. Loved the first line but did find the use of hyperbole distracting. Sometimes the more ‘subtle’ the description of the dystopian universe seems at first, the more chilling it becomes. I think paring this down and focusing on some immediate action will really help – backstory can then be sprinkled through the next few pages/chapters…but I was grabbed and intrigued so I think there’s definitely a great story in here!

    • Wouldn’t it be great if someone could invent an algorithm that would throw up a flag about front-loading backstory, excessive use of adverbs, etc?

      • I would buy that algorithm! No matter how I cut, I’m still getting dinged for telling and excessive use of adverbs.

  8. This submission has great promise. I agree with all the comments, especially about the backstory dump, which is one of my own issues. The main character didn’t stand out for me. I would to have had more of a sense or at least a hint of who she is. Is she in this situation because she truly has heroic skills or is her birthright the only dictate and she has doubts about her ability to live up to the expectations of her father?
    I was taught that each scene should include an establishing shot of the environment (sights, sounds, smells), what the lead character is thinking or feeling so that we may connect with them, and a change of focus like a movie camera pulling back for a wide-angle view and reaching in for the close shot.
    As the reader I would feel more connected to the main character if she expressed some emotion whether elation at being chosen for the task or fear of being able to handle the challenge.
    I found the opening, nevertheless intriguing and I would read on. Thank you for submitting!

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