First-Page Critique: The Art of Stage Setting


Today we’ll be critiquing the first page of a story called THE GHOST AT BEAVERHEAD ROCK. I’ll add my comments at the end. Please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments.


Darkness still hid the night’s work when Daniel Stark and Timothy McDowell stepped out of the restaurant. It would not be hidden for long, Dan said to himself. A faint glow separated the outline of the easterly mountain ranges from the star-filled sky. The boy must not see it. They must be gone before anyone saw it.

The coach from Bannack to Virginia City stood in front of the Overland stage office. Restless, wanting to move and get warm, the horses stamped their feet, rocked the coach forward, then back. Their breath steamed in the lamplight spilling from the windows.

“It’s ready to leave. Hurry.” Dan slung his rifle across his back.

“Sun ain’t up yet.” Timothy yawned. “Sure is a nice morning. Crisp.”

The boy’s deep voice still could startle Dan, who thought of him as the boy he had left in the spring. “Let’s get our bags.” He set a fast pace toward the rooming house.

Boy-like, Timothy scuffed his toe at clods of frozen horse manure. “We’ll be in that dratted box all day. I want to enjoy the air.”

“You can enjoy the air in Virginia City.”

“Not if the smoke settles there. Gets so bad sometimes you can hardly breathe.” He took a deep breath, let it out. ”Nothing like mountain air.”

Dan looked over his shoulder. Timothy grinned at him, teasing, but took longer steps. Dan cuffed the boy’s shoulder, not much below his own. “That’s better.”

As he spoke, the stars lost brilliance, and the mountains around Bannack stood out from the sky.

The stage driver came out of the office, holding a coiled blacksnake whip in one hand. He arched his back, circled his arms, rolled his shoulders. Two passengers, a man and a stout woman walked out of the stage office.

Timothy lagged behind again. Dan called over his shoulder, “Hurry. They’re loading.”

“What in hell—?” Breaking into a run, Timothy veered off the boardwalk, broke into a run uphill.

Damn! He had seen it. Pivoting, Dan sprinted after him. He leaped the sluice ditch, dashed between the one-man cabins on Bachelor’s Row. His boots crushed frozen bunch grass. His breath rasped in his throat. The rifle bounced against his back.

He caught Timothy amid the sagebrush several yards from the gallows and tackled him around the waist. They tumbled together onto the ground. “No, Tim, don’t look – ” What he meant to say was lost as the corpse turned on its rope; its frozen eyeballs stared into his soul.

My comments: I think this first page shows that the writer has a nice ear for dialogue. The conversation between the man and boy flowed easily. There are some other craft-related issues that need to addressed, in order to make this scene stronger.

Get important information across early

I sense that this writer has a strong vision of the story’s characters and setting, but the first paragraph needs to provide more information to convey that vision to the reader. In the absence of clues, readers start making their own assumptions. It’s easy for them to wander off track. For example, I didn’t realize until the second paragraph that the story is set in the western past. By then, I had already formed a vision of a much more modern setting. It’s jarring to the reader to have to backtrack after making a wrong assumption.

Don’t over-withhold information in an effort to build suspense

The first paragraph in this story makes a reference to “the night’s work,” followed up by several more deliberately vague references to “it”. We don’t learn what “it” is until the very end of the page, however. Too much information is withheld for too long, potentially frustrating the reader or causing him to lose interest. The first paragraph might be stronger if it contained a hint or reference to the gallows. For example, instead of repeating the use of a vague pronoun in the following sentence:

It would not be hidden for long…”

It might be more dramatic if Dan spotted the silhouette of the dark, swinging mass (the corpse) emerging against the night sky. Just a hint, enough to give the reader some sense of the terrible sight that he’s trying to keep the boy from seeing.

Avoid confusing transitions between dialogue and action

By the time I encountered the following paragraph:

“What in hell—?” Breaking into a run, Timothy veered off the boardwalk, broke into a run uphill.

I still didn’t know what it was that Timothy had seen and was reacting to. By the time I got to the payoff at the very end of the scene–the sight of the gallows and hanging corpse–I was feeling confused and somewhat frustrated as a reader. This confusion can be avoided by providing the reader with enough information earlier in the scene, to keep him oriented and engaged in the story.

Your thoughts?

Please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments. And thanks to our brave writer for submitting this first page!

17 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: The Art of Stage Setting

  1. I concur with your comment re:set-up… I had to go back a time or two and then jump ahead to find out “coach” was a vehicle, and not an athletic leader…

    While the dialogue does move pretty well, I felt the two characters spoke too “similarly” – phrase followed by a single word- made it a bit difficult to keep up with the transition between speakers – even if they are influenced by each other.

    Otherwise~ saddle up~!

    • I’m grateful to you for mentioning your first coach interpretation, G! I also read it the first time as an athletic coach, but was shy about admitting the error! My general rule of thumb: Whenever two or more people in a critique group are thrown by the same issue in the writing, the writer needs to take note, and address the problem. In this case, it would be easy to replace ‘coach’ with a word that more clearly conveys the intended meaning.

  2. I liked this submission, however, IMHO, Tim seems the more emotionally invested character, dragging behind, wanting the mountain air, sprinting toward “it”. So why not show the scene from his perspective? What if it was Timothy who spotted the swinging black mass backlit by the dawn? Other than clipped dialogue, what would his initial reaction be? What drives him to run up that hill? Does he experience a gut-clenching fear for someone he knows? Or was he a city boy who’d never seen a hanging before and found it fascinating?
    Perhaps I’m off the mark here, but I found myself more interested in Timothy’s character than Dan who felt -to me- more of an observer.

  3. I had no problem knowing I was in a western in the 1800s within the first couple of paragraphs, so I had no problem with “coach”. Right off we were given clues – lamplight, star-filled sky, and “The coach from Bannack to Virginia City stood in front of the Overland stage office. ” which clued me in immediately that it was a western stagecoach and gave me a time marker. It never even occurred to me that it might be the sports or trainer type. So, I submit that some of the critiques boil down to “audience”. I’m from the west, originally, and was brought up on westerns. In my reading I am also a lover of Louis L’Amour (man does that guy know his stuff – especially character!).

    I agree that waiting for the gallows reveal – was not preferred. I am sure it was to build suspense, but there are other types of suspense. I think it would have been better given right off at the beginning. Then the suspense would be that we too were waiting for the boy’s reaction and why it meant so much to the lead. The idea of coming from the boy’s point of view was interesting, but would be problematic if the lead was the main POV character for the story.

    Everything being said- I felt there were enough questions to get me thinking and keep me interested. I love westerns and felt the writer pulled us into that world and feel right off. I felt situated and involved quickly. I would definitely flip the page.

    • I know the writer will be happy to hear that, Penny–thanks for joining the discussion today!

  4. Feedback:

    I was not confused as to time period. Between the title of the piece and “Bannack to Virginia City” in the second paragraph, it immediately clued me in (with visions of Adam Cartwright dancing in my head. LOL!) to the historical location (Great place to visit if you’ve never been there). If you wanted to place time period in the first paragraph, you could add that when they stepped out of the restaurant, they stepped onto the boardwalk. Of course I suppose some folks might think they’re at the beach then.

    I thought “outline of the easterly mountain ranges” could be more concise by stating what mountains they are.

    I thought “Their breath steamed in the lamplight spilling from the windows.” was an awesome visual.

    My first thought was that they were in a hurry to leave because the night’s work they didn’t want discovered was their robbery of the bank or the freight office. In that context, I was confused why the one character was lolly-gagging.

    The “boy” reference was used a little too often close together—I found it to be a “speed bump” as JSB would say.

    I was torn about the vague reference in the first paragraph “Darkness still hid the night’s work”. On the one hand it’s vague, on the other, it raises interest because you are wondering, “Okay, did they rob the stage? Get thrown out of the saloon? Fired from the mines? What?” And the guessing is good because at the end, you have no idea he was trying to protect the kid from seeing the hanging person and that comes as a surprise—I would not have guessed that.

    I am definitely interested enough to read more—my radar automatically goes up when I find myself reading something historical set in the west, and I want to know why he left the boy in the spring.

  5. Whose work was it? The sheriff? The vigilantes? Was the man involved? Why is he so worried about the boy seeing it? Is it somebody he knows?

    Lynchings used to be social events. The family would bring a picnic.

    Maybe a touch of internal dialogue would help.

    ‘I don’t want him finding out this way. Not until I can explain it to him.’

    The boy? Is he 13, 15? Would a boy of that era use the word “crisp?”

    And “dratted” seemed kind of precious to me. A teen boy would say “damn,” especially around an adult man. Especially since he uses “hell” later. My brother used to keep me in stitches with stories about him practicing swearing like the men at the feed store.

    I’m a big western fan as well, but more in the realm of western realism. But will admit that I am much more “Young Guns” than “Gunsmoke.”

    Right now it’s not working for me. The title sounds almost middle-grade. If Tim isn’t the lead character, it’s not a YA. Is it full-on mystery? I’d be wanting a little less weather and a little more grit.


  6. First, I must admit that I don’t read or watch westerns. This might be why it took me so long to realise that is what this was. Another reason could be because I’m Australian and a bus that runs betweens cities is called a coach. I agree that a simple change to stagecoach would fix this.

    Another way to get us quickly into the western genre would be to change restaurant to something uniquely western as I had imagined a modern restaurant. It doesn’t seem integral to the story where they had stepped out of, so why not use it to establish a clearer setting.

    Also, I had a different take on ‘the night’s work.’ The last two lines of the first paragraph (The boy must not see it. They must be gone before anyone saw it.} and the reveal of the gallows at the end led me to believe Dan had murdered the man and was trying to escape before anybody, including Timothy, found the body. If my assumption is right, I think it would be clearer if the first sentence just mentioned Daniel and his night’s work and leave Timothy until the second sentence.

  7. No problem for me orienting to the time and place b/c I’m from Montana.

    Kathryn referred to wrong assumptions. My wrong assumption: I thought two men, named Dan and Timothy, had done something together they needed to get away from before “the boy” saw it. Jolted me when I realized “the boy” was Timothy. Might be solved if you have Dan think, Gotta get out of here before Tim sees it. He’s only a boy. He wouldn’t understand.

    Also, change to “Timothy’s deep voice still could startle Dan, who thought of him as the boy he had left in the spring.” I really like the voice changing as a way of showing age and passage of time since they last saw each other. Like BK, I too am intrigued why Dan left in spring and came back now.

    Loved toeing frozen horse manure! What a vivid picture and how typical of a young boy.

    I wasn’t so much put off as other commenters by not knowing what “it” was. The frozen eyeballs were worth the wait!

    I would definitely turn the page. Lots of great potential in this first page.

  8. I’m going focus on the opening paragraph because it stopped me from wanting to read more.

    Opening Paragraph

    1. I agree that the reference to ‘it’ doesn’t do what the writer likely thought it did, i.e., raises a question that readers will want answered, and so they’ll read more. When to disclose is always a difficult choice, but here the ‘it’ is simply distracting. What about describing it via shadows and shapes that hint at what it is?

    2. I was also confused by ‘night’s work.’ The two characters leave together, and the introduction of both of their names seems to indicate that they’re both involved in the night’s work, and then I find out that one of them is a boy and that Dan doesn’t want him to see what? The night’s work? Very confusing to me, and since clarity is so important, I think the opening para fails on that basis.

    3. My biggest issue is the distance I felt from both of these characters, and I think this relates to Point of View.

    The opening line gives both characters their full names. Aside from the line lacking flow and rhythm (AWK), it feels like author intrusion. Instead, if it read “…Daniel Stark and the boy…” we’d know almost immediately that this is Third Person and that we’re probably going to be inside Dan’s head. This would eliminate the need for the awkward explanation, “Dan said to himself,” and I think the reader would be more likely be concerned about Dan and the boy.

    4. Stimulus and Response might be out of whack, too, i.e., the coming dawn triggers Dan’s thought that the night’s work won’t be hidden for long, so that sentence (A faint glow…) should come before the fear of disclosure, in my view.

    5. Adding more urgency to the opening by the use of body language? Something that Dan does physically to point the boy in a different direction? Or, this could go in the very next paragraph? I’d like to feel a little more emotion in the opening.

    Name Repetition – My first reaction

    The writer repeats the characters’ names a lot, which can distance the reader, although I re-read it quickly, and perhaps the repeated names are necessary in each case. Something to look at, however.


    I’d work harder on Dan’s voice, especially if the story is told via his voice. This might kill two birds with one stone, i.e., help the reader to identify with him, and subtly clarify or strengthen the western setting.

    Reason for the gallows

    If this is a story about a racist lynching (it may not be), I’d like to see a hint of that very soon in the story, i.e., somewhere in the first 400 words.

    Hope these comments help.

  9. This is where the story should start…

    “The coach from Bannack to Virginia City stood in front of the Overland stage office. Restless, wanting to move and get warm, the horses stamped their feet, rocked the coach forward, then back. Their breath steamed in the lamplight spilling from the windows.”

    This is a really great paragraph and it’s vivid and crisp. I can see exactly what’s going on and I want to stay in this story.

    As it is though, the first paragraph is a complete tease which does nothing for me but indicate the author is trying to get me interested in what’s going on. All it does is frustrate me. To win me over, just simply state what’s happening on the page. I don’t need the foreshadowing of what’s ahead (maybe those things can happen after we get started and decide to stay).

    • I disagree that this should be the first paragraph. I agree that it definitely sets the scene, but I prefer an opening that raises a story question AND draws me into a character. I think there’s a way to do all three.

  10. This first page has a lot of intrigue. With a few tweaks it could be a grabber.

    I also like the coach and Virginia City paragraph at the opening. Mentioning Virginia City tells you right away it’s a western. It starts the reader off with a clear picture of the place and the atmosphere.

    Starting with Dan and the night’s work confuses me because I wonder how does Dan know and Timothy doesn’t if they’ve both been in a restaurant together. I agree with whoever suggested interior monologue. What did Dan know and when did he know it?

    Clarification of Timothy’s age would strengthen the opening impact. “Boy-like” sounds like twelve, but how many twelve-year-olds harp about clean air? And if he is into smelling clean air, why is he kicking horse poop? I’m guessing that Timothy is sixteen but acts young for his age, but to be sure, his words need to show it. At what age do kids in the old west start seeing death? i.e. at what age is death no longer shocking. Younger than today, I suspect. Unless it’s someone Timothy knows. If so, Dan should be super worried and his interior voice would show that.

    Would love to see this page after a second pass!

  11. There was a lot to like here, but there are a few little tweaks that would help. The first problem I noticed was the word “restaurant.” In that time period, they would most likely refer to an eating establishment as either a cafe or a diner. I would say that they exited the cafe onto the cobblestone path. For atmosphere, I would add some tumbleweeds, (I’m from NV and grew up with tales of the old west). The tumbleweeds would be a great foreshadowing for the sight he was attempting to keep from the boy. I would also give more of an indication of Tim’s age to give more grounding into his character. I got the feeling at first that Dan was Tim’s father, but what if he wasn’t? Maybe, the hanging man was his father and he was entrusted with Tim’s care. I understand the desire for suspense. I attempt this as well. But if we don’t have some idea before the payoff at the end, we may not read that far. I like the idea of internal dialogue with Dan. Give the reader a reason to connect with him. Up until this point, he is not a sympathetic character. I hope my observations help. I would love to read the complete story! 🙂

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