Setting the Stage for Suspense – First Page Critique: Staying Alive

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

 

A brave anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of their WIP – STAYING ALIVE. Read and enjoy. Catch you on the flip side for my feedback & your constructive criticism in comments.

***

The Dobbs Hotel wasn’t much to look at, a cheap dump really, but if you were going to kill someone, it was the perfect spot.

Nestled down a dark side street in one of Miami’s rougher areas, about a half-block off Northwest Seventh Street, it was little more than a flop — not even good enough for whores and their johns — surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. Just what Jimmy Quintana needed for this job.

He and Raúl pulled up in front. No other cars in sight. A dim streetlamp down on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel were the only sources of light, and they weren’t much. The moon was blacked out by low clouds moving in from the Keys, assuring a late-night rain. They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby.

Wilfredo was in room ten, according to the snitch. The men tiptoed up the sagging stairs to the second story, where room ten greeted them right away. Jimmy took up position by the wall nearest the doorknob and motioned Raúl to the opposite side of the door. They drew their guns. Jimmy turned the knob slowly and soundlessly.

Locked.

He knocked on the door, a couple of light, unthreatening taps. No answer. More taps, more silence. He wiped sweat from his eyelids.

He nodded to Raúl, who pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt. Inserting them into the lock, Raúl skillfully twisted them and jiggled them until he heard a soft click. He withdrew the picks and shoved the door open.

Feedback:

The strength of this submission is the way the author sets the stage for suspense and sticks with the action, without unnecessary back story dump to slow the pace. There is a lot to like about this, but here are my comments:

1.) FIRST LINE – The first line needs to grab the reader more. It has the word “you” in it, which reads like omniscient POV. To eliminate the “you” and keep the voice in Jimmy’s head, I would suggest the line be changed to:

The Dobbs Hotel looked like an unmade bed with lice, but Jimmy Quintanilla knew it was the perfect place to kill someone.

I’m sure you can tweak this into something better, but you get the idea. Place this thought into Jimmy’s head and make it more direct with a bit of his attitude. It will make the reader curious from the start. Plus the words “cheap dump” are cliche.

2.) PICK POV PER SCENE & STAY WITH IT – In the following sentences, the author jumps back into omniscient by using the word “they” to describe both Jimmy & Raul. I tend to like picking one POV per scene, usually the person with the most to lose, or the character telling the story.

BEFORE – is the sentence ‘as is.’ AFTER – is Jimmy’s POV with more focus on his state of mind and what he has to lose, with added tension and mystery as to what is about to take place.

I also added more details like the type of vehicle he drove and his weapon, and I changed word choices like “affixing” which doesn’t sound like a word Jimmy would have in his head and “semi-automatic pistols” which sounds stilted. I also tried to imagine what would be in Jimmy’s head as he stared at Raul. “Cementing the bond” and “validating the act” seemed like a stretch for something Jimmy would assume is in Raul’s head. I thought Jimmy would wonder if he could truly trust Raul and hoped he could.

One POV per scene is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s good to try something and understand it, before you disregard it entirely. You might discover something important if you stay open to new things.

BEFORE – They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

AFTER – Sitting behind the wheel of his parked SUV, Jimmy racked the slide of his Glock 19 and chambered a round. As he attached his suppressor, he cleared his mind and let go of his last shred of conscience. His fingers worked from muscle memory as he watched the street. When he looked over at Raul, the man stared back with a grave look in his eyes. Jimmy would cross a line with Raul that few men did and forge a bond of secrecy. Raul would hold his life in his hands. Jimmy hoped he could trust him. Without a word, he opened the vehicle door and embraced the muggy heat of Miami.

3.) USE THE SENSES TO SHAPE SETTING – I like adding the senses to any scene to trigger memories in the reader and make the scene real. I would like to see and hear more about the streets of Miami once Jimmy gets out of his car, or he could have his windows rolled down to let the atmosphere in as he rolls onto the street. That could enhance the paragraph starting with – ‘Nestled down a dark side street…’ if Jimmy can see and hear and smell what is happening through his life’s experience and his POV.

This author does a great job with painting a scene. Here are some examples I liked:

A.) …surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. (This gives a face to the neighborhood that is memorable.)

B.) Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby. (I’ve been to this hotel. I can see the worn furnishings and smell the embedded smoke. Well done.)

SUMMARY:

I would definitely read on. This is an enticing crime fiction read, right up my alley. The author’s voice paints a great picture in word choice. A few things could be tightened or strengthened to punch up the voice, but there is a lot to like about this submission.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What suggestions do you have?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

17 thoughts on “Setting the Stage for Suspense – First Page Critique: Staying Alive

  1. Excellent first page. I’d definitely read on. It’s also my kind of book. With Jordan’s suggestion this will go from strong to stronger. Nicely done!

  2. I like the potential of this scene. But instead of diving into details–Jordan has already made some excellent suggestions–I’d like to look at the overall, because there’s something that bothers me about it.

    There’s a little test we should use in every scene. I call it the Would he really? test. You have to look at every action from every character and ask, Would he really do that? Because it’s easy to have characters do something they wouldn’t really do IN ORDER TO GET TO the meat of the scene.

    To me, it feels like that here. We have two hit men. They move easily past the desk (I’ll get to that in a moment) and position themselves outside the room. Jimmy tries the doorknob, carefully. This implies stealth. But then Jimmy knocks on the door, revealing their presence. And they are standing out there with guns drawn. Doesn’t this door have a peep hole?

    Then Raul starts messing with the lock, which makes noise.

    And in my mind, the guy, Wilfredo, could be standing inside with a loaded shotgun at the ready.

    IOW, a pro hit man would choose stealth and deception, or shock and awe. What they’re doing, it seems to me, is advertising themselves, which takes away their menace. I have a feeling that’s because what they’re going to find inside the room is the real reason the writer is opening this way.

    It’s all too easy.

    As is the dark hotel with no cars around. As is the snoozing night clerk. That’s so convenient, again making it feels like this is merely set-up to get into the room.

    What I’d love to see is these two guys meeting real obstacles and really overcoming them in a detailed way. Start with some cars outside, some other people. Then the night clerk, put him behind glass, make these guys figure out a way to get him out or themselves in, etc.

    Getting inside the room is another problem that requires more thought than I’m capable of this early. But that’s a good thing. Overcoming the “Would he really?” test should take effort, but it’s so worth it and makes for a much stronger scene.

    So get inside Jimmy’s head and take us step-by-step. Stretch the tension. You might have a look at any of a number of Elmore Leonard novels to see how the master does this type of scene.

    The good thing is that I really do want to know what’s inside that room. So good luck and keep writing!

    • Excellent points about the “would he really” question. Perhaps if this is some place Jimmy has experience with, he could slip the night clerk money to leave the premises. They have suppressors, which might make them a little stealthy, but they still are taking a chance to walk in without hoods. If they had hoods on, they could kick the door in, do the damage and leave.

      This is still a public place. Real hit men would probably pick a better spot. In Lawrence Block’s book Hit Man, his assassin Keller finds very inventive ways to kill people. Keller is having a mid-life crisis and Block’s stories have dark humor. But Jimmy and Raul seem more thuggish than clever, hence kicking the door down and using hoods.

  3. The writing here shows potential–the writer knows how to move the story along and avoid many common pitfalls. That’s worth noting. I agree with the previous comments, just a few minor notes to add. I didn’t know what time of day it was until the third paragraph, and by then I’d already visualized a daytime setting. Readers form assumptions early, so it’s important to get critical scene elements established as quickly as possible. There are places where general words or phrases could be made stronger by replacing them with something specific. Instead of “one of Miami’s Rougher areas”–name the area (Liberty City?), every city has one. “Assuring a late night rain” slowed me down in order to wonder whether it was already raining or not. If not, I’d say “promising” instead.
    Instead of “SUV”, give us the make of the car and a hint of what its appearance reveals. I actually didn’t like the line about closed eyes and silent tongues, because it conjured an image of people who aren’t in the scene. It would have made more sense to me to have something like “surrounded by a neighborhood of closed windows and behind them, silent tongues.”
    I agree on the need to get rid of the sleeping clerk and make the approach more challenging. This next one may be “just me,” but the term “whore” seems archaic, unless this is a 30’s setting. (The scene does seem like 30’s noir to me, except then the SUV wouldn’t fit. )
    But all of those notes are minor and easily fixed. Keep going, writer, and thanks for submitting this scene!

    • You have made an excellent point: “There are places where general words or phrases could be made stronger by replacing them with something specific. Instead of [‘]one of Miami’s Rougher areas[‘]–name the area (Liberty City?), every city has one.

      This is what USED to drive me nuts when I wrote confession stories. (I miss the confession market.) I once wrote about a situation that occurred in a little Kansas town where a bad girl could drive to from another little town in Oklahoma. The editor changed the whole specific-place concept to, “where I could hitch hike to from the next state over.” I realize that the confession concept was these were confessions–that they were really supposed to have happened, and you were supposed to protect the protagonist from someone looking her up. But, c’mon . . .

      But this kind of writing is also present in episodic TV stories.

      I much prefer to have a picture of the location in my head as I read or watch.

      • You should see the amount of research I’m doing today on autopsies, just for one scene. I like detail and am researching the relatively new state of the art forensics institute where the Medical Examiner works in Dallas. I google the address, get on ground level to walk around the facility with little “yellow man” and I’m trying to locate where the autopsy bays are in the building. Most readers wouldn’t call me on this level of detail, but it’s more for me. I’ve had FBI agents say they love my books, so I take pride in that.

        Thanks, Jim & Kathryn. Detail is important.

  4. Yeah.

    This page grabbed me. I wonder if some of Jordan’s suggested details might slow it down too much?

    I like Jim’s ‘would he really?’ test, especially regarding the mixed tactics of the gunmen. I’m less worried about the deserted street and dozing clerk. Maybe it’s supposed to be too easy for Jimmy and Raul. We’re not sure, yet, who is “staying alive” (book’s title). If it’s going to be Wilfredo, would it be a mistake to be so much in Jimmy’s head? Maybe the shotgun is there and Jimmy and Raul are about to get blown away. This is their first job. Maybe it’s their last.

  5. I think this piece has real possibilities. Writer, when you have these folks Dane, Scott, et.al. giving critiques at this level, you have a great start.
    I have a couple of nit piks. Jacking a round into the chamber is last thing you do. You don’t want to accidentally discharge the gun while you are screwing on the silencer. It would make a real mess. The other is the having the door “greet” them. I think a more appropriate verb would be less noticeable. Keep working.

    • Thanks, Brian. I wondered about the order to putting on the suppressor and chambering a round, Brian. I agree. When I looked up the Glock 19, I wanted to make sure it has a suppressor and noticed they didn’t call it a silencer. I have a gun guy who finds my errors. Even after I think I’ve researched everything, he can still find something.

      • I have a guy as well. He is an ex-cop who works at a gun shop in town. You’re right, the term suppressor is correct, unless you are using a homemade device.

  6. Overall I liked it, but it could definitely use some tweaking. I would condense the first two paragraphs into one or two lines, and fill them with sensory detail. JD’s first line suggestion is a good one. Add something along the lines of ‘even in the dark you could see/ the grime/peeling dayglo paint/some other sensory detail’. That, combined with the ‘Cigarette smoke of sixty years’ lets the reader know it’s a flop, without telling us it’s a flop. “Wilfredo was in room ten, according to the snitch.” I would reverse this. You don’t need the comma. You don’t need it in the following sentence, either. Consider breaking it into two. Your ‘action’ is starting here, and shorter sentences speed things up. I like JD’s suggestion for rewriting from a specific POV. That whole cement bonds/validate sentence seems out of place. That would disappear in POV rewrite. I suggest carefully considering JSB’s advice as well.

  7. It’s not bad, but yes it could probably do with some minor tweaking. Writing is mainly about storytelling, and if the story is good, then a few imperfections here and there doesn’t really matter too much (IMO).

    I think with action scenes, it’s a good rule of thumb to ease back on description. Try to keep it at a bare minimum, as it tends to take away some of the suspense and slows everything down. You want the scene to fast paced, and you want to keep the reader sitting on the edge of his or her seat.

    Another good rule is to show, and not tell. You don’t have to explain every little detail. Let the protagonist show the reader what’s going through his mind.

    A good way to write a scene is to imagine that you were actually there. Then recount the events just like you would if you were telling it to a friend. You tend to leave out a lot of the unnecessary stuff if you use that approach.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion. And yes, I would definitely continue reading the story.

  8. Here are my notes:

    What’s good: The writer did a nice job of establishing tone/genre.

    What needs work:

    1. I agree with what Jordan said about the use of the word “you” in the first sentence. I’d get rid of it.

    2. The first two paragraphs could be tightened. Your first page is important real estate.

    “The Dobbs Hotel wasn’t much to look at, a cheap dump really…”

    A “cheap dump” tells me that the place wasn’t much to look at.

    “…it was little more than a flop — not even good enough for whores and their johns”

    Again, “little more than a flop”/”cheap dump” – it’s not necessary to tell the reader the same thing repeatedly. Pick the most descriptive way to describe the place and move on.

    3. Be economical with your word choices.

    “A dim streetlamp down on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel were the only sources of light”

    “…only sources of light”
    This is clunky phrasing, imho. Trying something like: “Lit only by a dim streetlamp on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel, …”

    You don’t need to say “down on the corner” – “on the corner” is sufficient.
    Does this bit of description have story significance? It seems like the exciting stuff happens once they are inside.

    5. I don’t care for all of the uses of the words “they” and their” – I think these words pull the reader out of the head of the protagonist. One problem with this snippet is that the voice needs a lot of work.

    6. When you introduce the protagonist, the reader needs a reason to care about him. Even if he isn’t likable, the reader needs to experience what the protagonist is feeling as if it were happening to himself. This won’t happen if the reader is too caught up in the mechanics of everything.

    7. I agree with what Mr. Bell said about logistics.

    8. “He nodded to Raúl, who pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt. Inserting them into the lock, Raúl skillfully twisted them and jiggled them until he heard a soft click. He withdrew the picks and shoved the door open.”

    Do you really need three sentences to tell the reader he picked the lock. Too much ado about nothing. For pacing reasons, I’d use shorter sentences to help show the “heat of the moment” – you don’t need to say he “pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt.” Sometimes it’s wise to let the reader assume certain details or the writing becomes tedious.

    9. Too many adverbs on one page:

    You use only (twice), really, briefly, skillfully, slowly, soundlessly

    10. Too many uses of “was” on the first page. Here’s a link that will help you eliminate them (http://www.brighthubeducation.com/high-school-english-lessons/14427-to-be-verb-alternatives/).

    For example:

    “The moon was blacked out by low clouds…”

    Try something like: “The moon, blacked out by low clouds, promised a late-night rain.”

    I hope you find these notes helpful as you revise your opening. In truth, I would not keep reading (just because there are so many choices out there). However, the fun of writing is in the rewriting, and you’ve gotten lots of terrific suggestions from Jordan and everyone. I’m hopeful about the revised version. Best of luck, and please keep writing.

  9. I liked it. I thought the pacing was great. Kept me reading. Maybe a few too many words to describe the hotel before jumping off on the crime. But still, the story clipped along. The only phrase that bumped me was “tip-toed.” I can picture thugs creeping along, but not on tippy toes. Good job. I feel like you’re getting close to the end.

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