First Page Critique: DESCENDING DARKNESS

Photo courtesy Filip Gielda on unspash.com

Please join me in welcoming Anonymous du jour to the semi-regular revolving feature of The Kill Zone known as First Page Critique! Today we will be looking at the first page of Anon’s Descending Darkness, a work-in-progress tale of a lost love and the potential for revenge:

Descending Darkness  

The man stood on the outskirts of Vista Bay looking down at the town that took his wife. The woods would hide him for now. Anger roiled in his heart as the memories of what the town had done to him and his wife flooded through his mind. If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry. He pulled his coat closer to his chest and inhaled the cold air. Then, from the lake below, a white cloud billowed over the land. Snow, and lots of it.

He was miles from his abandoned car, thinking that he would end it all. Now the town gave him something to think about.

The snow blew harder against him. He had to get out of it. Sure, he wanted to die but he didn’t want to freeze to death—that would be a slow death not worthy his pain.

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

An hour later, his feet numb and his hands feeling like cold stone, he admitted he was lost. It wasn’t fair, the town owed him. He pushed his way through the trees.

Bent forward against the blowing snow, he climbed another hill only to be blinded again by the blowing whiteness as he reached the top. He shielded his eyes and surveyed the expanse of white and trees and prayed. He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made. He lifted his arm to shield his face from the frozen torrent then fell onto the cold snow.

The lowering sun mocked by producing no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him. He was going to die. He squinted into the distance and for the first time, he saw it. Hope. A cave lay ahead. He thanked whoever had answered his prayer and pressed onward.

Anon, you have a potentially interesting story here and do a good job of teasing your audience into it. That said, Descending Darkness needs a bit of work. Please note: what I have looks like a lot, but it really isn’t. It amounts to minor corrections here and there. Accordingly, please don’t be intimidated by the length and number of corrections.

— First, name your protagonist.  For our purposes we are going to call name “William.” We can identify a bit more with William if we call him by a proper name rather than “The man.” Let’s name his wife as well. How does “Mary” sound, just for this exercise?

— Next, I’m a little confused about the visual perspective which you present. You’ve got William looking down — your word — at a town (and let’s name that town, too. How about if we call it “Fairlawn” for our purposes?) as he stands on the outskirts of Vista Bay. Since water seeks it lowest level (ask those poor folks in New Orleans) let’s keep William just outside of the woods which are above the town but put Vista Bay (and any other body of water) next to or (preferably) below Fairlawn.

— Let’s follow up with your description of the weather. I don’t observe Elmore Leonard’s rule of writing that forbids talking about weather at the beginning of your story. You, however, go the other way just a bit too much. You use the word “snow” five times and the term “cold” three times in one page. Mention that it’s cold and that it’s snowing once and focus the attention of the reader on what is going through William’s mind. If you want to sustain the idea of how cold it is you can do that by mentioning that he’s leaving tracks or talk about his car skidding on ice and getting stuck or something (see below for more about that car). Your reader will get the picture. You also use the words “death” twice in one sentence and “die” four times in one page, not to mention in two consecutive sentences.  Try “passing on” or another phrase or euphemism for “die” or death instead. You’re not the only one who uses a word too frequently in too short a space. It’s one of my cardinal sins in my own writing and one I strive mightily to avoid.

— Speaking of cold: in the last paragraph you describe the sun as “producing no heat.”  The sun is always producing heat; it’s just not helping William at this particular time of year. Try this: “The setting sun mocked him. It provided no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him.”

— As far as that car is concerned, I’m wondering why William parked it and then walked for a while if he was going to commit suicide. There are all sorts of reasons for that but tell us one. Did he run out of road? Did he get stuck in the snow? Run out of gas? Get a flat tire? Tell us. I think that you probably want William out of that car and walking so that he can find something in that cave in the middle of that snowstorm, but tell us why he left his car behind so that we’re not wondering about it.

— The next comment may just relate to your style. You seem in a couple of places to separate two complete sentences with commas and set off incomplete sentences with periods, to wit:

If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

Instead of:  “If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike, or died trying.”

It wasn’t fair, the town owed him.

instead of: “ It wasn’t fair. The town owed him.”

What you’re doing isn’t grammatically correct, but it’s a style that a number of authors utilize. I don’t particularly like it but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. Reasonable minds may differ.

It doesn’t always work, however:

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry.

 

Let’s sharpen that up just a bit by making the second sentence a complete one:

“He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below blurred.”

Then we have:

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

There’s just a bit of a jump between wanting to die and revenge, from a narrative standpoint. How about building a small bridge between them? For instance:

“The snow cleared William’s mind. His desire to die evaporated and was replaced by revenge. He turned back toward his car.”

— I’ve got two more items for you, Anon. Be careful of the placement of the word “only.” To wit:

He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made.

What you are saying is that William only knew that he was asking for protection. I think what you meant was that William was asking only for protection, which would look like this:

“He did not know to whom he was praying but asked only for protection until full retribution was made.”

…and while we’re at it, that second clause is a little awkward. Retribution is achieved, not made. How ’bout we change that to

…until he had achieved retribution.

I will now attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet (though still present) as I open up the floor to our TKZers. Anon, thank you for contributing and braving the First Page Critique. I look forward to at some point discovering what the town (whatever you should name it) did to deserve the man’s (whatever you should name him) enmity, and what occurs.

 

 

 

 

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique: DESCENDING DARKNESS

  1. I agree with everything that was said.

    It’s much easier to root for a character with a name.

    Our guy is doing a lot of thinking, but nothing is actually happening.

    Why doesn’t he just follow the road back to his car? How far would he realistically have walked in that degree of cold?

    He can see the town. He’s afraid of freezing to death. Why not go there?

    I like the title – very creepy.

  2. This has so many powerful elements. The biggest thing is what Joe wrote: William is making a transition from suicide to revenge. Such a scary scene. I wanted to stay in it longer. You could narrow William’s focus by having him look down methodically, noting how many feet he’d drop (maybe he measured it to be sure), then sharing details of what he sees (the lake where Mary loved to kayak in summer where she’d once ….fill in the blank) and the town (name some people he’s angry with, maybe he thinks about which of those creeps will find him and how it will freak them out which is what they deserve). Then his resentments are crystal clear for the transition (An idea came to him as he watched the snow….he wouldn’t jump…..Not today…he could do that another day). Which is a truly creepy big moment, as Joe said. Good luck – it is such a rich concept.

  3. I like to think of weather as background (like a set in a play) and not the main character. Your descriptions are strong, but could be pared down to make your character become more alive.

    The foreboding is great and I want to know more about what happened to make this character be where is is now. Character and plot are the big winners for me.

    I am anxious to read more of this story, so keep writing.

  4. This is starting out an interesting tale. Good luck with the rest of the story!

    To me, William is inherently intriguing because he changes his mind. He’s got a new plan – a nefarious one, I’m hoping. Sounds like fun. I also find him appealing because, in his grief and consuming despair, he’s forgotten where he put the damn car. These feel like very human responses. Quickly and efficiently, you’ve painted William as an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances – a stable and well-loved trope. I’ll settle in happily for a good read.

    I found myself confused about how easily William became lost. The town was in sight, after all. I’m not saying the setting is impossible or even unlikely, just that the scene needs a little more fleshing out – is William on a rocky cliff? The fact that he might die of exposure within sight of town actually makes the situation more interesting.

    The second sentence, “The woods would hide him for now,” suggested to me at first that he was laid up sniper-style, ready to take out the guilty townsfolk who were responsible for his wife’s death. The impression was reinforced by the following sentence, which revealed William’s “roiling” anger. On rereading, I don’t think that was your intention, but I can’t say what it actually was. Why was it important to him that he remain hidden for the present?

    You may also want to consider making William suffer a bit more before he stumbles on the cave that we expect will be his salvation. From what he’s gone through so far, I’m not sure he’s earned his escape yet. So far, he’s searched for his car and stumbled fruitlessly through the forest. Consider something else going wrong. Your readers are going to wonder what’s the deal with his cell phone and whether he has any wilderness training at all. Of course, since he was planning to kill himself, he might easily have left his phone in the car; ditto a survival pack.

    All in all, a moody, atmospheric (sorry) beginning. Good luck with the project!

    • Thank you for your comments. These suggestions give me some ideas to work with.
      Concerning the phone, I have noticed in older movies and books that things would be a lot simpler and sometimes would even be solved if the characters just had a phone. So, I made the story take place about 20 years ago before phones were everywhere. It’s hard to get this across, so maybe I need to make mention of a payphone or something to get the time in mind.

  5. I studied fiction writing as a special student at the University of Oklahoma under Professor Foster-Harris, one of the preeminent pulp fiction writers of the 30s and 40s. (Special meaning, of course, that I was not pursuing a degree, not that I was–well–special.)

    Professor Harris espoused a theory of writing that was unique, and it’s a theory I still pursue. Writing, he would say to us, several times in the course of the course, is a highly-stylized form of drawing. Thus, the principles of drawing applied to writing: light, form, shading, movement, color tones and shadings, and so forth.

    He was especially adamant about the use of movement. For example, he would say, what was the Mona Lisa doing the moment before and/or after she was caught at the presumably apex moment of her mysterious smile? She obviously didn’t plop down on the chair on which she sat at the exact moment that Davinci caught the perfect moment to reveal her in the stop frame of her sublime mystique.

    Hence, he would say–well, I doubt that he ever said hence in his entire life–we have to imagine the movements that got her to where she was going. She stumbled, tripped, skipped, or glided into the room. She sat in light, subtle moments on the stool that models for other famous paintings had sat. And so forth.

    Movies use the principle constantly. Gary Cooper–Coop–didn’t sit up in the loft and wait in his stop frame moment for Frank Miller’s boys to come after him. So we see Coop’s face in close up, his eyes and head in busy action as he searches the barn to be certain he isn’t caught off guard. His hands and fingers move, flick, or tighten on his six-shooter, and so we understand the tension and fears that conflict and inflict him. Similarly, Grace Kelly didn’t twitch and flaunt her way across the screen. She moved with charm and, well, grace. Grace Kelly also glided, she smiled in stages, that wondrous face her hears moving TO the smile. She, in fact, displayed all of the synonyms of fluid: clear, limpid, crystal clear, crystalline, pellucid, unclouded, bright–“her liquid eyes.”

    And so, I would like to see the lately-named William move, as movement is a great key to character. At first William stands and looks–no movement. Did William shiver in the cold? Pull his gloves off and wipe the drip from his news. (You KNOW it’s not . . . ar ar ar ar.) But it’s paragraph six, I think, before William pushes his way through the trees and bends into the wind. But in that whole time, we are told in existential evanescence, that he is cold. Obviously, his context shows it is cold. But could he wrap and re-wrap his coat closer around his throat? Could he cough and fight the blur described in his eyes. Why was his vision blurry. Was the cold wind causing the blur, or did he have a cold? Did he get out of bed suffering bronchitis or pneumonia to do what he’s doing? So is he weak? Does he have to grab the trees to support himself in his weakness? Could he wipe his eyes? And would he wipe his eyes in swift, angry slaps, or would he use a handkerchief in gentle wiping motions that could mean he’s crying?

    I’ve preached and, I hope, made my points.

    Professor Harris would have been blunt and intimidating. “What’s wrong with this guy? He’s not moving. ‘S he dead?”

    • Logging in to TKZ for the very first time to say I loved this piece of advice. I’m working on my first draft, and I promise I’m going to ask myself that question on a regular basis–especially when I’m stuck in a scene.

      “…’s he dead?”

      I can almost see my characters faces when I ask that, the mix of confusion and incredulous ire. “WTF? No, I’m not dead, you twit. I’m waiting for you!”

      Me? You’re the one just standing there with the phone in his hand.

      “Well, yes, because YOU haven’t told me what to do!”

      Ok. Phone’s dead. Do something.

      “Do something? Do som–”

      Kevin’s eye began to twitch as he stared at the silent receiver growing heavy in his hand. It’d been in that same spot since they’d plugged it in when they moved in in 1967, of course it was dead. He ripped the cord from the jack and smashed the black plastic box against the wall, the clanging bell echoed through the room. Dead, just like everything else in that house. He jammed the heel of his hand into his eye, but the spasms didn’t stop. Everything and everyone.

      Lol!

  6. I liked this piece and I liked the descriptions, although I agree that for a first page they should be minimised. The writing appeals to me and I think there is a good start to a story here.
    I did find that the line starting “An hour later” took me out of the story. Perhaps because we were with the character in such a significant moment – possible suicide to the thirst for revenge – and then we are told that we’ve missed an hour. I no longer felt like I was living the story with this character. Perhaps a few extra words to bridge this time gap would help, or does he even need to get lost at all? If a snowstorm’s blowing in and he’s miles from his car, perhaps he needs to find shelter quickly?
    Keep going with your writing!

  7. Everyone please feel free to continue reading and commenting, but I wanted to pop in and thank everyone who has visited and contributed today. Anon, thank you again. Your work has generated some great comments; hopefully you will be further encouraged in your writing endeavors.

    • Thank you for taking time to read this submission. I am in no way discouraged. I think that sometimes the best writing comes out of taking a piece apart and rebuilding it with stronger materials.
      I would be discouraged only if people didn’t take the time to read and comment about the work because they found it uninteresting.
      Thank you again.

  8. I like the ominous tone of this piece, but for an opening, it’s very slow-moving. That, to me, is a red flag hinting the rest of the book may follow suit. It wouldn’t take much to depict a little action, and that would help immeasurably in getting readers to turn the page.

  9. Good morning everyone. I am the Anon writer of this submission. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the kind and helpful comments. Because writing is such a lonely endeavor, letting it air out and having someone else read it is both frightening and refreshing. I knew I would get some good advice.
    In reading the comments I couldn’t believe some of the things that I missed. In my mind, the location is obvious because I have been there in my head so many times. Potential readers do not live in my head. I have to flesh that out and with these notes, I will.
    If I’m allowed, I will answer a few questions that were brought up with this piece. Don’t take this as me trying to defend myself. I really appreciate the suggestions.
    Anyway, I did not name my character because after this opening, he becomes the background to the horror that his revenge will bring to the town. I can see that this creates a distance with the reader. Based on your comments, my idea to leave the character unnamed is not accomplishing this.
    Second, the recently named William is at a scenic overlook above the town of Vista Bay (although I can see how that is confusing also), he left the car behind to give them impression of getting lost in the woods and falling to his death in the snowstorm. This is not clear from what you have read.
    Really, the whole point of this opening is to show that he wants revenge and then to get him to the cave because of who and what he meets inside.
    I know I need this portion because having him wake in the cave on the next page leaves too much need for explanation and flashback. I wanted to stay away from that too.
    Anyway, I’m open to more dialogue if any is desired. Thank you again. This is incredibly helpful as I push past this first draft and into my final draft. Maybe I need a critique partner again.

    • Anon, you are most welcome, and thank you for the thank you. We look forward to reading your finished work.

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