First Page Critique: “A Stranger”


Critiqued by Elaine Viets

The writers at TKZ regularly volunteer to critique the first page of a novel. We have a big backlog. Congratulations to the brave writer who submitted this first page critique. My comments follow the work.


This is a story about Timothy Frame, a man who saw the world in decimals and dollar signs. A man who, unable to prescribe himself with any wondrous adventures of his own, was often fond of basking in the adventures he could find inside of his television set, or his relatively new cellphone, which shined just as much now as it did when he first bought it.
This is a story of a man who wore his tie in a single-Windsor knot and could tie it with his eyes closed. A man who could never bring himself to care enough to fork over the seventy-five cents for a local newspaper, but was often bored enough to gaze upon their front pages during his time spent in the queue at his local Starbucks.
This is a story of a man who was proud of the urban-themed wall hangings and area rugs that he had decided, after a long and arduous debate within himself, would define his personality far better than any of the other eclectic, mass-produced items found in that particular section of the Pier One store, located down the street from his one-bedroom apartment.
This is the story of Timothy Frame, who had planned his entire existence, down to the last retirement dollar, and even down to the very slab of stone that would inevitably bear his name and a couple of dates, separated by a single hyphen. Timothy Frame, who had proportioned his life evenly and would measure those proportions accordingly on a day-to-day basis. Timothy Frame, whose teeth had always bled when flossed.
He threw the bloody clump of thread into the wastebasket and carefully placed the box of floss into the wooden drawer beneath his enamel-coated sink. Spitting one final time into the pricey-looking bowl, he thought to himself.
“$99. Money well spent.”
It wasn’t marble, though that didn’t bother him. It looked enough like it to satisfy him. If anyone else were to ever come over, they might fall for the lie at a quick glance.
“This guy owns a marble sink,” they would think. “He’s going places.”

ELAINE’S COMMENTS: You have an interesting essay here. You’ve given us a character sketch. I like your observations, and the careful details. It’s an entertaining exercise, but it’s not the beginning of a novel. I’m assume that’s what you’re writing.
Help us out, please. Your readers haven’t a clue what kind of novel you’re writing: Is it a crime novel? If so, what kind: a thriller? A cozy? A novel of psychological suspense? A hard-boiled mystery? Give us a hint.
Who is Timothy Frame? Is he a victim? A killer? A detective? How old is he?
Nothing happens, except Timothy flosses his teeth. A novel needs action, but there’s nothing to propel this description forward and let the story unfold.
Please let your readers know that something will happen. You can build on that last line:
” ‘This guy owns a marble sink,’ they would think. ‘He’s going places.’ Too bad the only place Timothy was going was prison. For murder.”
Or, “There was one thing Timothy could not plan: that his carefully measured life would be destroyed by . . . .”
Your readers are lost in time and space: Where are we? In a city? A small town? What is the time of day? What time of year?
We’re not even sure enough about Timothy to know his social status. We get hints he’s working his way up. That’s why he’ s so proud of his faux-marble sink. It looks real. But we need to believe he’s real, too.
There is fine writing here, but we writers often fall in love with our own descriptions. Take a hard look at this description and figure out where you want to go. I’d love to see these questions answered and have you turn this into a real novel.


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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique: “A Stranger”

  1. The author is definitely still searching for his story, which is fine. I hope s/he takes Elaine’s advice and answers these questions, but please, leave out the part about flossing unless it’s part of the plot. For example, he uses floss to strangle his victims, then flosses his teeth with the same piece as a “screw you” to the (wo)man he murdered. Then, every time he flosses the readers can shudder. However, you’ll need to make it clear from the beginning. In the opening scene you could show him flossing as his gaze lowers to his feet where a corpse still has a portion of floss around his/her neck. Best of luck to you!

  2. I like the direction you’ve suggested, Sue. I understand the “ick” factor with the bloody floss, and it could be a turn off for readers unless it’s there for a good reason.

  3. 1) The bloody floss indicates gum disease. Timothy won’t have his teeth too much longer unless he sees a periodontist.

    2) Please, indent the paragraphs! The page doesn’t look right at all.

    3) Despite the opening sentence (“This is a story about …”), there’s no story here, not even a hint of one, therefore no reason to continue reading.

  4. What is there left to say? I know that Timothy Frame is shallow and has gum disease. I don’t know what they story is, or even its genre. The writing is stylish, but needs direction. I’m good with the first paragraph as description. After that, this reader needs a story. TF needs to do something, and preferably something more exciting than flossing his teeth. Additional description referencing his superficiality can be slipped in here and there later. You might even choose to be more specific with snooty brands to enhance this. Starting the first four paragraphs with essentially the same line is bad. Do not do this. Also, you might want to check out sink prices at Home Depot and Lowe’s. Maybe he got that Kohler Artist Carrara marble sink for a song. Or maybe he just stole it.

    • The parallelism/repetition in the opening paragraphs could work, as it did in Grisham’s THE PARTNER (note: overall, I didn’t like that book because the ending wasn’t foreshadowed), but only if the repetition serves to introduce an actual story, and I couldn’t agree more that there’s no story here yet.

      E. Annie Proulx opens THE SHIPPING NEWS with “This is the story…” but thereafter the word choices (especially “a shuffle of upstate towns”) set it apart from the norm.

  5. Here are my notes:

    1. “This is the story of…”
    When a sentence begins this way, it’s an example of “telling” rather than “showing.”

    It’s good that you’ve identified your protagonist, but you want to “show” us what he’s like by his actions rather than provide a long description.

    2. Your first line could be something like this:

    Timothy Frame saw the world in dollars and decimal signs.

    Actually, that’s not a bad opening. It’s simple. It works. However, you need to bridge toward the action more quickly. Your scene looks like it begins with Timothy flossing his teeth. That’s not much of a “grand entrance.”

    When authors are told to show their characters in an ordinary world, it doesn’t mean that they should be doing something boring like a morning bathroom ritual. You need to think of a more interesting way to let your character take the stage.

    Pretend that Timothy Frame is going to be played by an A-list actor. Think about your story being made into a film. What would attract an A-list actor to the role of Timothy? Probably not an opening scene of flossing. So you’re going to have to think of something much more clever. Put him in a scene with another character and show us his boring personality, rather than telling us about it. Give us some reason to care or be interested in what happens to this boring guy. Give him one redeeming quality. What’s is his day job? Maybe show him in some sort of interaction with a coworker. He shouldn’t be alone flossing his teeth.

    3. Since all we have here is a bunch of long character description, we don’t know what the story is going to be about or even what genre this story this is going to be. If I had to describe this guy’s life, I would call it “boring.” Unfortunately, that’s the tone of this whole section. There’s not much reason for me to care about what happens to this dullard. He’s certainly not that kind of guy that I’m going to want to spend hours reading about. I’m sure there is “something” in your mind that is interesting about this guy that you want to write an entire story about, but the problem is that right now I haven’t figured out what that is. You’ve got about ten seconds to convince me to read your book once I start. You’ve chosen to start with everything that’s boring about this guy. That’s not the way to begin. Jake Vander Ark says, “Put the cat in the oven before you describe the kitchen.” I love that example. I agree.

    Show us something juicy, and then work the guy’s boring existence into the story. The description of this guy is a snoozer. What have you given me to like/admire about this guy? Why would your description of him make me want to read on? These are the kinds of questions that you need to ask yourself about your opening.

    Give me a character who wants something that isn’t easy to get. Give me obstacles. Give me stakes. Give me a hint at what the story is about. I don’t want to watch him floss his teeth.

    I suggest that you start with a simple opening line like:

    Timothy Frame saw the world in dollars and decimal signs.

    Then bridge to some interesting action. Save the boring details for later. Start with your main character interacting with someone in some way.

    Good luck, and keep writing. I hope these words have inspired you. That’s what I mean to do, because I’m sure you have a story to tell. I want you to be successful.

  6. I noticed a couple of typos after I posted this, and there’s no way to edit once something is posted. Sorry, I was typing fast.

    For example: “What’s is his day job?” should read “What’s his day job?”

    Anyway, please forgive the few typos in there. I think you get the idea.

  7. When I read this, I can’t help thinking of the opening of the TV series, Dexter. It’s brilliant. He shaves, flosses and brushes his teeth, and cooks eggs for breakfast. It’s about the creepiest thing I’ve seen due to the blood motif that repeats through the sequence. I mention this as an example of using mundane actions in a way that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

    I’d like this piece better if it were less direct telling. The author is speaking about the character to the reader. If there was a sense of the disturbance to come (see J S Bell’s book on structure and how to open), then I would go along for the ride based on the voice. I have to admit that I’m probably rooting for the main character to be a murder victim, and the suspects are legion. Who wouldn’t want this guy to bite the dust?


  8. I have no idea why, with this opening page, but I see this dullard as an antihero. Something is going to happen to place him where he doesn’t want to be. The thing is, we have no idea what that might be. Give us some sense of genre and some action! Telling rather than showing is always boring. The last thing you want to do is to be boring anywhere, but especially on the first page where it is much easier for the reader to abandon ship.

  9. This is an interesting read for me. It sounds somewhat like a Rod Serling opening to a Twilight Zone episode. I can actually hear Serling reading this. I understand this creepy form of introduction for your protagonist and I like it for what it is, but it’s too long and there are too many “this is the story of” instances. Vary it up some instead with “…a story of a small town/uptown/midtown journalist/artist/hippy, etc.”

    I like the contrast of this character and his pensiveness over grandiosity. Great character development and he sticks with me. However, I think with shortening this introduction of Timothy Frame and adding in some story as mentioned by others, this would be a great start and I would continue reading.

    • I don’t want to sound too tough, because I know this writer has a story waiting to get out, but…

      The fact that we can hear someone reading this (like a voice over) is not a good thing. In fact, it’s a bad thing. From agent Kristin Nelson’s article about story openings to avoid:

      “If your movie-direction of your novel’s first pages requires a narrative voice-over, then you might be in trouble.”

      As written, this opening is in trouble. It needs revision (imho).

  10. It was kinda blah for me too. “This is a story about” repetition was interesting, but four is too many. I also would’ve liked more information about the character relevant to the story. Like if he were a serial killer “this is a story about a man who could tie a Windsor knot with his eyes closed. A man who knew which type of cleaner to use on silk to remove wine stains and which to remove blood”. Something that makes me want to read more.

    The opening splatted for me at the flossing. It’s boring, gross, and dude should really get a waterpik. If this were a kindle sample, that’s where I’d nope on out.

    • “This is a story about…” is a good example of five wasted words. Sentences that begin this way can be made stronger by tightening them.

      For example:
      “This is a story about Timothy Frame, a man who saw the world in decimals and dollar signs.” (18 words)
      Timothy Frame saw the world in decimals and dollar signs. (10 words)

      An agent reading this will be thinking if there are that many wasted words in one sentence leading off the novel, there will probably be a lot more wasted words elsewhere. The first page is a place to demonstrate how concise you can be, rather than how wordy you can be (imho).

      This may sound harsh, but it isn’t intended to be. You get one chance with each agent per book. Best to keep things tight. Even really good writers miss things sometimes. That’s why they use editors. Save the word count for the good stuff, and get to the good stuff quickly!

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