First Page Critique: SMACKDOWN!

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Today we’re critiquing a first page submission, UNTITLED. My comments follow.

***

Locked up. That’s how it felt, with Liam’s one arm wrapped around my body and the other around my neck. I flexed my arms. His grip tightened. His sweat was dripping onto me, creating a puddle between my shoulder blades. He was way bigger – no way I could use brute force against him.

“How’s that for revenge, huh?” He snickered into my ear.

I chuckled lightly. He grounded his teeth in annoyance. The class was staring at us, so was our coach, Mr. Randall. Cedric grinned at me from the back. I grinned. “Not good enough.” I wrapped a leg around his, pulling upwards at the same time. His arms flailed as he attempted to regain his balance, failed, and crashed to the floor, dragging me down with him.

I got to my feet immediately and took the Jod Muay stance again. Head bent, arms up, protecting my face, left foot forward. I motioned with my finger, taunting him.

Liam scrambled to his feet. There was an ugly looking bruise on the side of his head. “You little shit-“

“We all know who that is.”

Liam swore and lunged towards me with a punch. I sidestepped and grabbed hold of his wrist. I watched as his eyes widened with surprise. I grinned. Then delivered two punches straight to his kidneys. Liam crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.

“Ryan! Get off him!”

I turned to face my coach. “Mr. Randall-!”

“That’s enough Muay Thai for today! Your class is over!”

I swore. “Come on, sir! Just a few more minutes!” Hell, I was having fun. And we had barely started.

Before he could reply, Liam’s elbow slashed across the side of my head. Blinding white pain – then anger.

I tackled Liam to the floor, pummeling every inch of his body I could find. Once, twice, a third time. Liam was already half unconcious, barely fighting back.

I felt someone grab my arms and I was dragged away. I kicked backwards.

“That bloody-“

Cedric stepped in front of me, still holding down my arms. “Take it easy, buddy.”

I was still shaking. My face felt hot. “That – That bloody – hurt – “

Cedric put a hand on my shoulder. “Look, fight in the dorm, you know Mr. Randall doesn’t like you-“

“Yeah.” I cut him off, trying to focus on breathing calmly. Half the school teachers hated me. And it wasn’t my fault.

My comments:

This page does a nice job of conveying the tension of physical combat between the two characters in the scene. I sense an interesting main character and story here, but there are a few craft-related issues getting in the way. Some points to consider for revision:

Why do we care?

The first paragraphs in this scene convey the physical aspects of a boxing match, but little more. We get a hint of emotional tension at the end (the illegal punch, the reference to being disliked), but we could use some of that tension earlier. A boxing match without any context isn’t particularly compelling.

Keep the reader’s attention focused

The first paragraph combines a series of rapid-fire actions that shift the reader’s focus from the narrator to his opponent, then back again. That’s okay, but when dialogue is suddenly interjected, (“How’s that for revenge, huh?”), it’s unclear at first which character is speaking, and what he’s referring to. One way to fix that would be to start the second paragraph with an action establishing Liam, followed by his dialogue. For example, you could move the line about Liam tightening his grip around the narrator’s neck, and use it  as the intro to the second paragraph dialogue.

Avoid repeating similar elements

The word “snickered” is followed immediately by a similar synonym, “chuckled.” “Grinned” is also used three times on the same page. Overall, there’s too much grinning and chuckling going on–try to pare that back some.

Watch the word choice

It should be “He ground” his teeth in annoyance, not grounded.

Avoid action whiplash

The focus of the action shifts so rapidly in some places that the reader can become disoriented. For example, one paragraph contains all of the following: (“I chuckled…He ground(ed)…The class was staring…Cedric grinned…I wrapped…”). Too many shifts in focus happen too quickly here. In general, try to limit each paragraph to a single focus of action. It’s possible for a  paragraph to contain actions by multiple characters, but it’s hard to pull off.

Your thoughts?

TKZ’ers, can you add your thoughts and suggestions for our brave Writer today?

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19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: SMACKDOWN!

  1. I like the opening paragraph, giving us an immediate scene with great conflict–an actual fight. But then I became confused about how the fight looked. I think Liam is behind Ryan, but Ryan observes him grounding his teeth “in annoyance.” He could only make that observation if he saw it. But then Ryan says Liam “grinned at me from the back.” Another thing Ryan could not observe. Be strict about keeping your POV pure. Every time it strays we are taken a bit out of the scene’s impact.

    Then the fight proceeds I wrapped a leg around his, pulling upwards at the same time. His arms flailed as he attempted to regain his balance. I’m not sure what “pulling upwards” refers to. With his leg? But then Liam’s arms flail. How’d that happen? There is a specific move being described here, but not with sufficient detail so it’s clear to the reader. Since this is a martial arts class, go ahead and get very specific with the moves.

    Also take Kathryn’s advice and give us something to make us care. A line or two about the emotions in Ryan. He comes off as an arrogant bad boy, which is a perfectly fine choice for the character, but what bonds us with him? If there was a flash of vulnerability, that would help. Just a suggestion.

    So I like the possibilities of this scene. But one language issue dilutes the immediacy, and that’s the adverbs. Get rid of them.

    I chuckled lightly (a chuckle is by definition light, so you don’t need it)

    I got to my feet immediately (ironically, the word immediately harms the immediacy). Just say, I got to my feet and took the Jod Muay stance…(I think you could cut the word “again” too)

    I cut him off, trying to focus on breathing calmly. (cut “calmly.” It’s implied)

    I liked the last two lines of the scene, creating a mystery. Why do the teachers hate him? Why wasn’t it his fault? Suggestion: Don’t tell us yet! Move on with the scene, and leave us wanting to find out!

    Good luck. Keep writing.

    • Good comments, thanks, Jim! I was going to add that the writer should avoid the word “snickered” under any circumstances–it’s one of those words that rubs me the wrong way for some reason, as does “guffawed,” “chortled,” and that ilk. But then I went off looking for research about overwrought synonyms, and found an “expert” article urging writers to use them as more specific ways of saying “laugh.” Sigh. So that comment goes under the “this is just me, ” category. As a reader and writer, I see the overuse of adverbs and synonyms as a sign of lazy writing. It’s better to find other ways to convey a mood or action.

  2. Agree with your comments. The action is good, the context is difficult. It’s at a school of some kind, and there’s a teacher there, so it pretty much has to be in a gym or martial arts class. If so, falling to the “mat” instead of the floor would make that a lot clearer. But if there’s a dorm, it’s not a dojo, I would think. If this is set in something other than a standard boarding school – something either futuristic or fantasy or something, just a little more context would help a lot.
    But the action is well done. (Although “grabbed hold of his wrist” is two words too long – “grabbed his wrist” would be better.) All the grinning and chuckling etc. are supposed to show their inner feelings, I suppose, but there’s an awful lot of that for such a brief scene.

    • Good points, John. I had to look up Jod Muay to figure out what type of fight photo to select for this story–had no idea, other than that phrase, whether we were watching judo, karate, boxing, or some other kind of martial art. The scene should clearly convey an exact sense of the sport.

      • I think this is a case where the writer knows a lot about Jod Muay and assumes everyone else knows something about it too. I for one have never, never heard of it, so he (I’m assuming a “he” here) has to either make it much, much more accessible, or else forget about having me as a reader. And I’ll be there’s a lot more who don’t know about it than do. A lot more.

  3. This is one of my pet peeves…a lack of clarity in physical action. We all write action scenes of some kind, be it a gun fight in an alley or a wrestling match. But if the reader can’t understand what is going on, they get confused then they get POed then they don’t care.

    I got from the opening graph that I was seeing a wrestling match and I was interested. (But apparently it’s not wrestling because this sport allows punching and since I don’t know anything about any of this combat sports, I got confused.). But then the action gets really muddled. Liam is BEHIND him using a chokehold, yet Ryan is able to wrap a leg around his opponent and lift him up? Then later, Ryan delivers a kidney punch, Liam goes down and the coach yells “Get off him?” Isn’t Ryan standing over him? And who the heck is Cedric grinning from beyond? (Later, I figured out this is his friend who tries to intervene but would Ryan, in mid-fight, even NOTICE someone grinning from the periphery? )

    I don’t understand this line: “..pummeling every inch of his body I could find. Once, twice, a third time.” Every inch he could find? The body is right there beneath him and he can see it clearly. If he is pummeling him, that implies a non-ceasing action, so what does “once, twice, third time” mean?

    Then Liam’s elbow “slashed” across his forehead. “Slash” is a nice juicy verb but it connotes a knife-like motion. An elbow to the forehead is a hard jab, no? I know this sounds like I’m nitpicking, but every word counts in action scenes.

    Choreography in physical action — be it a knife fight in a thriller or lovemaking in a romance — must be clear and precise. This is not. If you are going to open with intense physical action as this (not a bad thing!) then every move your characters make must be crystal clear.

    Also, for me, the fight goes on a beat too long. I started skim reading, waiting for something to happen besides two guys wrestling in what I have to assume is a gym. I have to care about Ryan and I don’t. As Kathryn said, there is a hint of tension in the last sentence but I don’t think it’s enough to make me read on.

  4. Many reactions here. My first is about the messiness of the action. In a comment I made recently on one of Jim’s posts, I talked about the idea of “glide” — particularly as it pertains to action scenes — and offered an example from the oeuvre of Peter Abrahams.

    I would expand on that to say that Abrahams’s genius is in conveying action impressionistically but sparingly so that the reader is never unclear about what happened. Because that’s how action happens in real life — it’s not dispassionate narration of the mechanics of physical movement. I’m sad to say I went through a proving-my-manhood fistfight phase in my twenties, and in each case I lived and recalled what happened as a series of blurry or snapshot impressions: Somebody moved — maybe me — and then somebody else moved. The was a shout and a fat smacking sound — maybe two, maybe eight — and the next thing I knew my head was on the floor next to an overturned barstool and I was staring at two teeth in my hand, probably mine, and my breath was like a lawnmower engine that wouldn’t catch.

    Nobody but Jack Reacher, who isn’t even close to real, retains full awareness of the mechanics of his movement while he’s IN movement.

    Here’s another example from Abrahams’s A PERFECT CRIME:

    “The door burst open. This beefy guy coming in with a baseball bat. The panic inside Whitey was a screaming gusher from deep in his chest, boiling up and spraying red in his brain. It took away visual continuity, leaving Whitey with a few strobe-lit impressions: the beefy guy going down, the bat now in his own hands, blood here and there. And then he was out the door and in the street.”

    That sort of impressionism may not be to your taste, but it is neat and clean and dispenses with the idea of action as an IKEA instruction tablet. We don’t always need to know how a character got from Point A to Point F by way of points B through E.

    The added benefit of this approach is that the reader is given everything he needs to fill in the action in his mind. I see Whitey taking advantage of the beefy guy’s surprise in Whitey’s failure to take a defensive stance — and that mistake is all Whitey needs to grab the bat and do some unpleasant things with it before gliding away.

    With that in mind, I’d suggest the author try something like this:

    “He had my body, but he didn’t have my legs. I moved one back, around his, and pulled forward. He went down. So did I, but unlike him I was expecting it, and I was back up first, grinning, nodding at the bruise on the side of his head. He came at me, and after that, it was all emotion for him, and all training for me. The next thing I knew, he was on his belly, breathing hard, and the instructor was screaming at me to stop before I killed him.”

    Something in the area code of that.

      • I agree with your points, Jim. In my first drafts, I have a tendency to overuse elements to establish, or “locate”, the reader within scenes. I worry a lot about confusing or losing readers. Whenever I start getting comments in my critique group along the lines of, “You don’t need to tell us that, we get it,” I know I’ve overdone it. Then I go back and edit those parts out. I think because writers have a strong sense of the particular scene, setting, or action they are describing, they forget to make sure that the reader sees it clearly as well. Or they don’t know HOW to make the reader see the scene in the same way. That, of course, is why writing is so difficult!

  5. Also, why do I care about Ryan more than Liam? Ryan seems kind of immature and whiny. He may be the POV character, but I’m not yet committing to the idea of having a pleasurable reading experience through his eyes.

    • Making the reader feel connected is so important, you’re right, Jim. Film creators use a series of very specific techniques to create empathy for the main character. I remember attending a workshop by a top screenwriter, who talked about ways to invoke that empathy. He mentioned that he once created a character who was completely cold and calculating, too much so. They inserted a scene in which he’s seen handing his pet cat to his landlady for safekeeping. That scene was specifically added to make the audience feel some connection to him as a human being. That whole topic of creating empathy is a good subject for a future discussion.

  6. I agree with everything that has already been said, but would add a few extra comments. The opening paragraph is confusing. I thought the narrator was pinned to the ground on his stomach because how else do you end up with a puddle of sweat from your opponent between your shoulder blades. It would just run right off. It wasn’t until they crashed to the floor that I realised they were upright and must have been in a clinch with the narrator’s arms trapped between them.
    The dialogue about revenge lacked context. I know the writer was probably trying to create mystery, but I ended up rereading the first paragraph to see if I missed something that required revenge.
    There were a lot of filler words. The opponent lunged towards him with a punch. Where else would he be lunging but towards the narrator. Adding unnecessary words is something that I’m prone to do as well as a novice writer. To solve it, I go line by line and cut out the filler words and make the sentences as short and crisp as possible. This works especially well in action scenes.
    I liked the last paragraph. It felt like the right spot to add a bit of mystery and a chance for empathy from the reader.
    Lastly, I think if you cut it by about 20 percent and add a little more early on about what was going inside the narrator’s head, you’d have something really solid.

    • Good observations, Mara. We all seem to have been confused about the staging context and the flow of actions. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I found the craft issues distracting: lack of clarity, overuse of adverbs, imprecise word choices, my inability to visualize the scene, no real voice yet, etc.

    On a thread on LinkedIn, people are posting their first paragraphs, and so many of those paragraphs reveal that the writers haven’t yet got a good grasp of the writing craft. Many of the writers start their stories the way this writer has, i.e., with action BEFORE the reader gets a chance to care about the character at all.

    In one of Larry Brooks’ posts to his website/blog, he talks about how established authors can get away with much more than the debut author… the bar is higher, and moving higher as we speak.

    In this excerpt, there are hints of conflict and hints of characterization, but too late in the excerpt. Seems to me that the writer needs to study scene and story structure first. All the pretty words in the world won’t save a story with a weak structure.

    However, what I did see in the hints did intrigue me. I think there’s a good story here; the writer simply needs to learn how to tell it better.

    • Yes, it’s annoying when “big” writers get away with glaring craft violations. I think those writers know how to deliver an entertaining, compelling story, however imperfect. Good storytelling can make up for a host of craft-related sins.

  8. Here’s my rewrite of the opening. Too much weak writing, overwriting, extraneous words. And I agree. Something needs to be added early to make the reader like and care about Ryan and not think he’s just tough (or she?). Revealing the main character’s core need, mind-set, biggest problem, fear, dream–those things–on the first page really help. Rewrite:

    “How’s that for revenge, huh?” Liam snickered into my ear.
    With one arm pinning my body and the other choking my throat, I flexed my arms. His grip tightened. His sweat dripped onto me, down my shoulder blades. He was way bigger—no way I could use brute force against him.
    The class stared at us, Coach Randall frowned.
    I wrapped a leg around Liam, yanking upward. His arms flailed as he sought balance, then crashed to the floor, dragging me down with him.
    I leapt to my feet—head bent, arms up, protecting my face, left foot forward. I gesstured, taunting him.
    Liam scrambled to his feet. An ugly-looking bruise swelled on the side of his head. “You little shit—”
    Liam lunged. I sidestepped and grabbed of his wrist. His eyes widened with surprise. I delivered two punches to his kidneys. Liam crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.
    “Ryan! Get off him!”
    I turned to face my coach. [I’d get something in here to show he’s empathetic, vulnerable, honorable–something good]
    “That’s enough, Ryan! Class is over!”

    I probably would hack at this more and cut even further back, but the key for a first page is to grab a reader’s interest in the protagonist. I’d say most of the 200+ critiques I do a year fail to achieve this and hence lose their reader. This is a very good start that has potential!

  9. I quit after the first round of snickering, chuckling, and grinning. I hate those words like fire. Please consider killing every last one of them.

    For sweat to me making a puddle, first, there would have to be a lot of sweat, like a trickle rather than droplets. Ewwwww. And then for a puddle to collect, the narrator would have to be bent over to make a place for a puddle. Consider just having Liam’s sweat dripping onto him.

    I found the action to be good, just wordy. The writer needs to trust inference a bit more.

    “Liam swore and lunged towards me with a punch. I sidestepped and grabbed hold of his wrist. I watched as his eyes widened with surprise. I grinned. Then delivered two punches straight to his kidneys. Liam crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.”

    “Liam swore as he lunged toward me. I sidestepped and grabbed his wrist. His eyes widened in surprise and pain as I delivered two punches straight to his kidneys. As he crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath, I [what did the narrator feel?]”

    Action is hard. Really hard. In an old work I had a fight scene between a pair of werewolves. Reading it years later, it is a painful collection of “And then the white wolf” and “then the gray wolf . . . ”

    You know your stuff, just work on the flow, and stop with the grinning. Terri

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