Story Critique: Undertow Of Loyalty

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Today we are reviewing (anonymously) a first page of a manuscript written by another brave volunteer. I’ll add my thoughts at the end. Then, please share your reactions in the Comments.


Neil Henberlin rushed through the glass entrance doors of his company’s 20th floor corporate office, pushing them a little harder than necessary. The etched-glass door slapped his shoulder as it rebounded off the rubber door stop. The gong sound of the glass vibrations caused the receptionist’s head to pop up, lips pursed, eyes squinting. She looked at him as if she’d seen a ghost.

“Someone’s in my parking spot,” he said, as he leaned over the desk to look in his message slot. “No messages?”

The receptionist shook her head and said, “Ah… we weren’t expecting you.”

“Hmm. Why? I’m only late, not absent.”


“I know, it’s Stampede Week. My hat and boots are in my office. I’ll change later.”

Henberlin noticed the receptionist’s white Stetson cowboy hat, denim skirt with a white fringe, and the red bull-rider boots. He nodded in approval, then turned in a hurry for the stairway and took off almost running. Taking the steps two at a time, he topped the stairs and walked past the corner office occupied by the Vice President of Sales. He hoped to get past without noticed. The VP’s secretary, wearing a straw cowboy hat, Western-cut blouse, jeans, and cowboy boots, happened to be exiting the office. She closed the door and turned to see Henberlin. Stopping dead in her tracks she said, “Neil?”

“Yeah, hi Geneva. I’m late for the sales training class. Don’t worry, I’ll be Western before noon.”

“Okay. Umm…”

But, too late—Henberlin raced by. He continued at a quick pace until he turned the corner and carried on to his office. Rushing in, he placed his PC carrier on a chair and turned, intending to hurry away, except the top of his desk caught his eye. Someone had cleaned and tidied it. No papers, none of his personal items, only the computer cables and the phone. A cardboard box sat on the floor beside the desk. No time now to figure out who had messed with his stuff, he’d promised Emmitt he’d tell stories to the sales training class.

He kept on moving to get to the classroom, knowing he was already late. Once he entered the training lobby, he crossed the small area and knocked on the only door from which he heard voices.

The door opened and Emmitt LeClare’s smiling face emerged. Emmitt, wearing a red and white diamond-checked shirt with double breast pockets, each with white pearl snaps, and a bolo tie, lost his smile the second he realized who stood before him.


“Yeah. Sorry I’m late. Is it too late?

“No, no not at all.” Emmitt seemed at a loss for words. “It’s just, I wasn’t expecting you.”

My comments:

First paragraph

The gong sound of the glass vibrations caused the receptionist’s head to pop up, lips pursed, eyes squinting.

Breaking up a long sentence into shorter, punchier ones can add strength to a minor action sequence. For example, one could break up the preceding sentence as follows:

The reverberations of the glass caused the receptionist’s head to pop up. She squinted in my direction, her lips drawn into a straight line. “

Delete or revise the next sentence.

She looked at him as if she’d seen a ghost.

Cliches weaken prose. In this case, I don’t think you need to elaborate this minor character’s reaction.

Second paragraph

Neil’s dialogue here directly follows the receptionist’s reaction, possibly creating confusion over who is speaking. Instead of opening the paragraph with Neil’s dialogue, start with an action by him to “refocus” the scene on him, then add his dialogue.

I would also suggest punching up the language and breaking up the flow to add some tension.

“Some asshat’s taken my parking spot.” Neil leaned against  the desk to peer into his message slot. It was empty.

I started getting confused by the sequence flow at this point in the scene. Why does the fact that Neil had  no messages lead them into the revelation that the no one was expecting him? We need a hint of why he was so surprised by the empty messages box. (Question to consider: wouldn’t Neil’s name have been removed from his message box already?)

Edit and rearrange the sequence of some actions and dialogue to strengthen the flow of actions-reactions.

Belatedly, Neil noticed the receptionist’s white Stetson cowboy hat and denim shirt.


“I know, it’s Stampede Week,” he said, giving her cowgirl getup a nod of approval. “My hat and boots are in my office. I’ll change later.”

Use stronger, fresh language as much as possible.

“Hey Geneva, I know I’m late for the sales training class. But you watch. I’ll  be the Rhinestone Cowboy before noon.”

Trim down laundry list descriptions

The descriptions of the characters’ cowboy outfits seemed too lengthy. One or two words is enough to get across an impression. Overlong descriptive lists slows the pace and risks losing the reader’s attention.

Too many similar characters dilute the focus.

Neil has two encounters with similar-sounding receptionists. I suggest cutting the interaction with the second receptionist. Go directly to the encounter with Emmitt LeClare.

Maintain a consistent POV

The point of view gets fuzzy in the following paragraph. We should be seeing things from Neil’s point of view throughout the paragraph.

 Emmitt, wearing a red and white diamond-checked shirt with double breast pockets, each with white pearl snaps, and a bolo tie, lost his smile the second he realized who stood before him.


Character note

Neil seems a tad clueless in this scene. Anyone working in today’s corporate environment knows the axe could fall at any moment. I would think he’d react with alarm at the sight of his cleaned-out office?

General note

The writing here is solid and shows promise, but I think we need to get more of a hint about the type of conflict that will take place in this story. I think a stronger title would help–Undertow of Loyalty didn’t convey a sense of  what type of suspense readers can expect from this story.

I want to thank today’s writer for submitting this first page!

Your turn:

What are your thoughts and suggestions for the writer of today’s page? Please share your feedback in the Comments.

7 thoughts on “Story Critique: Undertow Of Loyalty

  1. From a 10,000 foot level, the purpose of the scene seems to be achieved immediately and doesn’t really change in the sample. The tension doesn’t grow. Scenes should contain the change in the character’s situation.
    I’m suggesting that having he main character sashay into the office and then discover the problem. Clues could be the outfits that he didn’t know about, the look on the receptionist’s fact, etc. His panic would make a pretty interesting scene.

  2. The description of the clothes seems to be the writer’s attempt to show that the story is a western. I don’t know anything about westerns, but I think there is a subtler way to do it.

    I like how it begins; the only thing I would add would be a reason for him to ignore his secretary. Perhaps she frequently gets her days mixed up, so he thought nothing of it. My only concern is that when he ignored his cleared office, I began to wonder if he was dead. If this was his ghost running through his regular routine, until I remembered that the door banged off his shoulder.

    • I initially assumed everyone thought he was dead rather than he had been laid off…which is why I would have wanted to have a stronger ending on the first page (with maybe the newspaper obituary or something). But if you walk into your office and everything is packed away, you’d have to be pretty dumb not to realize something was up:) Actually, I quite like the idea that everyone thinks he’s dead…but maybe that just reflects a warped mind:)

  3. Like you, Kathryn, I had problems with the guy being so dumb. If you walk into your office and see your junk packed up, well, I think that’s a pretty big sign that you’re in trouble. I realize the guy was in a hurry but no reaction? He has to at the very least have a thought or so, like what the heck is going on here? And if this firing figures into the plot, then all the more reason to not gloss over it. I hope this DOES figure into the plot, BTW, because it is the only source of tension and interest in this opening. And not sure that’s enough to make me keep reading.

    Also, as you noted, the stage is too crowded with “spear carriers” (ie inconsequential characters) for this early in the story. Lose one receptionist at least.

  4. I’m late to the party, and I have a feeling this is one of those times I should keep my trap shut (so to speak, since I’m typing), but… Picking up messages from a receptionist: is this the 1980s? What office today is missing voice mail? Stampede Week: are we in Calgary? I don’t know what this story is about. I do like the idea that everybody thinks he’s dead, or maybe he is dead.

    The writing itself is ok, but I’m missing what is going on with the character or what this is building to. He’s late, and no one thinks he works there anymore. I get that, but I don’t get what the big idea is or where he’s going. It’s too long a build up.

    OTOH I can see it as the opening scene in a movie with the titles.

  5. It may just because I’m used to working in high security environments, but how did Neil even get near the building? Once you get fired (at least here) your badge access is turned off, security is on alert and sometimes you get trespassed.

    But then if all the employees know he’s fired, security it probably not a thing there.

    I was expecting him to show up for his class and finding his evil twin teaching it.

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