Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

This photo makes me want to go on vacation. Let’s take a ride with Crawford, our character in Palm Beach Nasty, a 1st Page Anonymous Submission. Read and enjoy. My feedback follows:

ONE

It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.

At age thirty-six, with a bad case of acid reflux, chronic cynicism, and acute burnout, Charlie Crawford had packed up his Upper West Side apartment and headed down to the Sunshine State. He decided on the Keys, the plan being to take up surfing, give the Jimmy Buffett thing a shot. But after three long months of listening to stoned-out beach bums in lame Hawaiian shirts oohing and aahing pretty average sunsets and duding each other to death, Crawford was ready to move on.

So he’d reached out to a handful of Florida law enforcement agencies, and when the Palm Beach Police Department made him an offer, he grabbed it. But almost a year into the job, no one had come close to getting knifed, shot, garroted, or even banged up a little. Christ, what he’d give for a nice facedown stiff, a little rigor setting in. Crawford was drawing a bunch of nowhere cases, which could best be summed up by the one he was writing up now.

It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end. The north end of Palm Beach was really two places, depending on the exact location. Obscenely rich or doing just fine, thanks. Spectacular houses on the ocean and Intracoastal that started at ten million dollars and went up from there. Or fixer-uppers, on postage-stamp lots at around a million. Recently a Russian fertilizer billionaire had plunked down a shade under a hundred mill for Trump’s monumentally ugly, but colossally huge, ocean spec house.

But despite that, the real estate market had been hit hard when Wall Street collapsed three years before and was still wobbly. Somewhere between anemic and soft, desperately trying to claw its way back to pre crash levels. One of the top brokers in town was whining about having a lousy year—4.8 million in commissions as opposed to over 7 million in ’07. And real estate lawyers quietly grumbled about fewer closings, but even more about a troubling new phenomenon: clients hondling them on their fees. And pity the poor builders, who had traded down from tricked-up ninety-five-thousand-dollar Escalades to basic Ford 150s.

FEEDBACK
Overview – There is an ease to this writer’s voice that I liked. This intro is written in a deep POV that is close to first person. I almost wish it was full blown 1st, to give the character more room to breathe. This character has opinions about everything, which would work for the intimacy of 1st person if the author can tighten the narrative (without too much meandering). Because of the mental meanderings, the pace is significantly slower with a lack of focus for the action or world building.

A good thing to note is that this author can hear the character and is willing to channel him. That’s not an easy thing to get and execute. Kudos.

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a key character by SHOWING rather than TELLING about him.

HOUSEKEEPING:

Where to Start? – The author started with a back story dump, sharing where Crawford had lived in NYC with a subsequent stay in the Keys, then on to police work in Palm Beach. These are all things that can come out later with patience. At the start, it’s too much misdirection without a point. That puts us down to paragraph 4 to search for a place to start–at the body or crime scene and any interesting lead up to that moment–but we get a lesson in real estate and the Wall Street crash. Bottom line, we need a better place to start that can showcase Crawford and his personality, through his actions and his cynical dialogue or banter with his colleagues.

Passive Voice – There were too many uses of ‘was’ and ‘had’ to indicate a past time period, or hint of backstory. ‘Was’ is used 8 times and ‘had’ is used 9 times in 400 words of this introduction. These are words I try to minimize and correct in an edit. It indicates this story should start with the present action and minimize the backstory.

Missing words typos – These are hard to catch. As authors, we are too familiar with our own work and miss words that should be there if we don’t read more carefully or read aloud. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph – “…oohing and aahing AT pretty average sunsets…” (‘At’ is left out.)

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a character.

Key Ways to SHOW your Character rather than TELL On Him:

Try introducing your character like some films do, with big character stars like Capt Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp doesn’t merely walk onto the scene and speak his first line, he makes a big intro to SHOW who he is. In mere seconds, we know him and who he’ll be. It takes practice to do this for an author of fiction. I call this “The Defining Scene.”

So imagine who Crawford is when he’s first introduced to this story. Since I like the author’s instincts on voice, I wanted to ask open ended questions for a rewrite of this intro. I didn’t want to influence the author by rewriting it myself. Think of it as a homework assignment, a short exercise.

1.) He’s a transplanted New Yorker with a side trip to the Keys. I can see his NY accent coming through. Are there remnants to his Keys stay? What does he wear in Palm Beach as a former New Yorker?

2.) Crawford is cynical and opinionated. How does this affect his co-workers, the other cops. Is he liked? Does he like them? Is he a loner?

3.) What hobbies does Crawford have? Are these apparent? Does he let other people know about them? What does he dream about? Is he saving for a beach house or a boat? Maybe he works more than one job to save up for something he doesn’t want to share with anyone else. Why did he choose the beach again? Does he miss NYC?

4.) He seems to thrive on crime scenes, being in his element. How does that manifest? Is he overly detailed in his approach or almost too relaxed? Does he communicate on the scene or keep to himself? Does he have a partner? If so, is his partner the same or opposite? Do they get along or not? How does that work for them?

To make Crawford memorable, the author gets a ‘first shot’ at a reader’s first impression. How would the author set the stage?

Below are some things to keep in mind.

  • Devise this crime scene for Crawford to shine or standout. Is it particularly morbid? Has he seen cases like this before? Does he bring NYC bagels and coffee? How does he react versus how others do? Set the stage for Crawford.
  • Give him something to do that will show the reader who he is. When others are turning away, he’s unusually attentive to details of the corpse. Does he have any idiosyncrasies at the scene, like how he treats the victim? Does he notice a stray cat in an alley with a possible clue when no one else does?
  • Make this scene about Crawford and focus on him. Let the reader know how he ticks, his values, his likes and dislikes. Carry these things through the book to take the reader on a journey.
  • Focus on Crawford’s character, more than plot, to give the reader a sense of him in this intro. If the author can devise a way to jump-start the plot (as in the murder scene), then you’ll get two birds with one stone.
  • Build on the energy from the Defining Scene. The reader will make an investment into Crawford going forward.

DISCUSSION:

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?

Mr. January Available NOW! $2.99 Ebook

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its master.

3+

20 thoughts on “Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

  1. In general I agree with your points, especially about Crawford’s voice. But I thought the first two paragraphs are grabbing. So I would maybe have par. three start with him staring at a body or involved in some action and then work in the details of how he got from the Keys to the Palm Beach PD. We definitely don’t need the real estate and finance lesson at this point. That paragraph particularly got my attention because I can see myself going off into esoterica like that.

    A minor point: I think it’s possible to ooh and aah sunsets without “at.”

  2. The perfect example is the opening scene in Mr. January. Brave Reader could learn a lot from reading the look inside feature. Then, of course, s/he won’t want to stop there. 🙂

  3. The two things I like most about this first page is the voice and details. First, the character voice is lazy and calm, so I don’t feel a need to decide if I like the character or not. It doesn’t seem the author is trying too hard to be convincing, so naturally I feel at ease. I just know I like the feel and tone so far, and that’s good, because I’ll keep reading.

    Second, the details keep me intrigued. I like the backstory, even the 3 months in the Keys. It shows his character perfectly to me. He realizes that the “Jimmy Buffet” thing is ridiculously boring and we know why he seeks to get back to work.

    The only problem I had with this piece was getting past the first paragraph:

    “It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.”

    I read it at first that he “missed” the murder and mayhem, as in it happened and he wasn’t there to witness it. Rather than probably intended, as in it happened all the time and he’d been used to it and now he’s no longer involved, so “missed” it quite a bit.

    Maybe mention he’d gone south first, then mention he missed the stuff in New York?

    Either way, I’d keep reading. Very interesting and engaging read for me.

  4. I can really relate to this submission because early in my crime career, I wrote a amateur sleuth book with a female protag that I thought was really good. Until I started getting rejection letters (even from the publisher of my series!). They all said the same thing: They liked the voice of the heroine but the beginning was way too slow because I had used up so much space with her backstory.

    I was so entranced with how she got from Iowa housewife to Las Vegas security guard, that I didn’t inject her into a “disturbing moment.” Well, I did, but it was at the very end of the chapter — when she hears a scream, looks out her window and sees the crumbled body of a showgirl lying in the alley (who had jumped off the Stratosphere Casino’s roof.)

    See the issue? Ten pages of my protag sitting in her office THINKING about her past and nothing was happening.

    So yeah, I agree with everyone that this submission has a great voice going for it and I would read on. But by the time I got to the last graph and the bit about real estate prices, I was getting impatient. As Jordan suggests, find a way to get the story moving. Get him to the scene and have something “be disturbed.” You can always find ways to inject more of his backstory as it emerges from the action at hand not just from his navel gazing. Ditto with any commentary you want to make about real estate, Palm Beach, politics or whatever. John D. MacDonald was famous for his digressions, leaving his plot to have Travis McGee lecture about the environment or the peccadilloes of the rich. But McD wove these asides into the always-moving river-current of his plot.

    All this said, there is great potential here in the character and setting for a NYC cop who relocates to Palm Beach. (I set a Louis Kincaid book there so I know what a Lotus Land it can be!)

    • My first manuscript had very indulgent internal monologue too, Kris. It’s under my proverbial bed. Although I saw the baby steps to my author voice, it had huge areas I would have to seriously slash or rewrite to tighten them and give the story better flow & cohesion. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Invaluable.

  5. This piece, while written in a most engaging voice, seems to be all backstory, with rare threads of the “real” story woven in (e.g., It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end.). This is exactly the opposite of how a book “should” be written.

    I put “should” in quotes because every so-called rule is breakable, no matter how well-entrenched. And the no-info-dump-up-front rule is one of the most entrenched of them all.

    However, the late Tom Piccirilli turned that rule on its head when he wrote his searing novella, EVERY SHALLOW CUT. That book was virtually all backstory with little squibs of an ongoing story woven in here and there. A 100% reversal of the so-called rule. The result was one of the most powerful books I have ever read.

    Piccirilli was treading on dangerous ground when he wrote that book, and he probably knew it. But being the great writer that he was, he was confident he could evade the quicksand that surely awaited him as he plunged ahead with his tale. The brave writer of today’s first page may want to rethink his all-backstory opening, unless he is ready to take it all the way through to the end.

    • Good example of rule breaking, Don. I’m a believer in knowing the craft rules & understanding them so you can break them when it makes sense. Thanks for your input.

  6. I read, no, inhale detective stories. The burned out cop is a cliche that stretches from Marlowe to Jesse Stone. To make it work, like Jesse Stone, he must, must I say, need something that drives him (her) on. Something the detective believes can only be had by solving the crime at hand.
    Again look at Jesse Stone. He can’t let go of the relationship with his exwife yet can’t quit form a new one even with Reggie (the dog). The way Robert Parker did that is a perfect show not tell. We understand and sympathize with Stone and the folks who care about him.
    One could learn a lot about detective characters by studying Jesse Stone books. By the way, Tom Sellick is perfect in the television version.

    • Crime fiction & police procedurals are my comfort read. I’m with you, Brian. Jesse Stone books & movies are my guilty pleasures. Addictive. The setting of Paradise becomes a character too. Good stuff.

      What you’re saying is to give your character baggage to overcome, offer them redemption to see if they take it. I love a heady case of emotional trauma or baggage.

  7. Me again. Please excuse the double post. I’ve been ruminating on Jordan’s point about opening with a scene in which the character makes a big show of who and what he is. It explains to me why, in three tries, I’ve not been able to get past page 38 in Grafton’s _X_, despite having read all the previous volumes in the series. And maybe why I’ve found the going increasingly tough as the series progressed.

    As of page 38 in _X_, nothing has happened. We’ve read pages and pages of some woman explaining why she has to steal a painting from her ex and how she came to think it was an authentic Turner. We’ve had more pages of Henry’s projects with gray water, which presumably have nothing to do with the plot. A page or so about Henry’s cat and how he came to get it (all of which simply repeats stuff from_W is for Wasted_). And pages of the usual account’s of Rosie’s food. And several pages of description of a potential client’s house, the details of which seem unlikely to play a role in the plot or characterization.

    I’m guessing true fans of Henry and Kinsey are content to wade through the latest news from Santa Teresa, but I wonder if new readers have patience for that. It’s certainly not as interesting as the news from Lake Wobegon.

    I don’t think the first page of a mystery novel necessarily has to have violence, crime or danger. But it doesn’t seem good to take thirty-eight pages to get into the story.

    • I try not to have a short attention span as a reader, to allow authors my indulgence for different styles, but 38 pgs of nothing is tedious. As a reader, I forget what’s supposed to be happening or forget why I should care or I might forget character names. Elements of mystery surrounding a character can be just as intriguing as a dead body or action if it’s done right. Thanks, Eric.

  8. The point about opening with some sort of action falls hard on my eyes, because it’s exactly the point that Mr. Bell made when I was first making my way through my first work. His advice opened up a whole new thing to me.

    I went back and did what he advised. It was one of the first things my editor noted.

  9. Thanks for your feedback, Eric. It’s important for our author to see different reader viewpoints. I think we agree something needs to happen within the 400 word intro, otherwise we might have several more pages of mental rambling.

  10. It seems like we need to refer back to the old rule, start the story as close to the action as possible. In this, the voice is great, but the action is barely hinted at after 400 words.

Comments are closed.