Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Below is an anonymous submission of the first 400 words of a brave author’s work in progress. Read and enjoy. My feedback is on the flip side. Please comment with your constructive criticism. Thank you.

***

On the floor. Broken and alone.

The image had haunted Kit Paterson’s mind for days. No one should die alone.

Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head was harsh enough. Seeing it for real would have been unbearable. Rachel, neighbor and friend, had been thirty-two, eighteen years younger than Kit.

A dog’s sudden barking sent Kit to the windows of her dinette. It wasn’t MuMu’s usual bark. This howl sounded angry.

Kit knew MuMu’s owners weren’t home. She peeked through the blinds to the backyard beside hers. While searching for the Bogarts’ shepherd-lab in the near-darkness, she noticed the next house over, Rachel’s house. A glow came from the living room in back. Kit was certain she’d turned off all lights after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day. Apparently she hadn’t. She grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter.

Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind. She smiled. Smoke from someone’s chimney made autumn official. She wrapped her cardigan close.

MuMu’s frenzied yowls continued.

Feral cats must be prowling the woods, Kit thought. Or maybe coyotes again. She increased her speed.

As she approached Rachel’s one-story home, brightness from the windows on each side of the battered front door caught her attention. The radiance wasn’t steady like a lamp’s. This light danced.

Fire!

Kit snatched her phone from a sweater pocket. She punched 911. The operator asked, “What is your emergency?” Kit shouted the situation.

A drought had dogged Atlanta since spring. What if the fire jumped to the Bogart’s property? To the woods? To the neighborhood behind? The fire station was only a mile away, but she couldn’t wait. MuMu agreed.

Kit tore across Rachel’s lawn, past the garage, toward the rear of the house, where she collided with two people dressed in black. The taller one shoved Kit away. He and the shorter figure dashed to the road.

Kit stood stunned, until the stench of smoke slapped her awake. She ran to the patio off the living room.

A coiled garden hose laid below a faucet, unattached. Kit’s fingers trembled as she placed its end to the spigot. After several attempts, she connected the fittings and spun the faucet wheel to the left. The smell of burning wood and fabric began to overwhelm. Kit covered her nose and mouth with a hand while MuMu crashed against the chain-link fence, raising holy-hell.

FEEDBACK:

I had to reread this one a few times before I got the picture of the action. The brief memory and back story introduction of Rachel’s death had me following a path in the action until I realized there had been a detour back to a barking dog and something happening next door. One of the best tips I ever received from another author—and I’ve certainly read about this tip here at TKZ—is to “Stick with the action.”

The brief flashback to the body of Rachel is too important to gloss over and it’s a distraction from what’s happening in the present. It reads like the dead body is immediately on the page until the reader finds out this is a flashback and back story at the same time. I almost want this story to start with the body and how Kit discovers her dead neighbor. That would sure raise the hair on my neck if the author can put the reader in the moment. Very creepy.

This submission doesn’t do that. It quickly jumps into a dog barking and a fire starting next door, another good place to start. Either could be pulled off effectively, but the combination of both of them gives me the feeling that this intro is rushed and neither approach has enough meat on the bone, so let’s flesh this out.

DEAD BODY START – If the author moved the start of this story back to when Kit first discovers her neighbor Rachel’s dead body, there would need to be a setting established to put the reader into it. Why had Kit gone next door? When did it start to get creepy and why? Picture a harmless reason to call on a neighbor until Kit sees a door cracked open. Stick with the action and draw the reader into every aspect of that frightening experience. Did she scare off the killer? How much did she see of the body?

From there, where would the author go? Kit questioned by detectives, reporters, and the intrusion into Kit’s life. What does it feel like to find a body of someone you knew well and considered a friend? Kit’s reaction might cause her to overreact when a dog barks the next night and she runs to find the house on fire.

The bottom line is that this story seems to have a beginning off the page and only hinted at in the first few lines. That raised questions with me as a crime novel reader. I wanted to know what Kit saw? The dog barking and the fire can be exciting, but what happened to Rachel?

DOG BARKING/FIRE START – If the author decides to start the story at the first sound of a dog barking, that can work, especially if when Kit goes to check on the fire, she finds Rachel’s dead body and the shadow of someone running from the house. Then it would be OFF TO THE RACES.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING – Whether the author chooses to go with the dog barking or the dead body to start this novel, setting can help to titillate the reader’s senses and give meat to the bones of this introduction. This intro is a little sparse for me. Try answering these questions by writing a solution into the introduction and see how much better it will read. It’s important to tease the reader with all their senses to put them into the scene.

Setting Questions:

  • What time of day is it? The first hint of time is in the 5th paragraph where the author references it’s “near-darkness.” We have control over every aspect of this scene. Why not pick total darkness? Anyone setting fire to a house would want to do it under cover of darkness.
  • What is the weather? In the paragraph starting with “Beneath a streetlight,” there’s mention of a brisk October wind. Instead of making this fact add to the mood of the scene and foreshadow what’s coming, the author made the choice for Kit to smell wood burning in a fireplace and it made her feel good. So picture a cold wind making Kit think twice about going outside. It makes her uncomfortable and forces her to bundle up. She’s already at odds with the weather, but her curiosity outweighs the biting chill.
  • What does Rachel’s house look like? Does it foreshadow what Kit might find? If Kit found a body there, going back would make her relive the shock. How would that make her feel? A house where good memories used to be might be cast into a sinister feel if Kit found Rachel dead inside.
  • How does the barking dog react when Kit approaches? If Kit’s going because she’s worried about the strangeness of the dog’s bark, how does the dog react as she approaches? A frenzied dog yapping would put me on edge and cause my adrenaline to hit the red zone, especially if I thought someone lurked inside.
  • How can the setting layer in the feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen? Make the reader feel the ramped up tension by layering the dread of something about to happen. Hitchcock was a master at building the anticipation of something bad. He knew how to build and layer. Once the reader (or moviegoer) saw what was behind the door, the tension was gone.

TENSION-FILLED DIALOGUE – Kit is alone for this intro, except for when she calls 911. Instead of focusing on Kit’s side of the call, while she’s frightened and unsure what to say, the author only writes what the calm dispatcher says, “What is your emergency?”

The author also uses a “telling” way to express Kit’s emotion by saying ‘Kit shouted the situation.’ Showing is a more effective way to get the reader engaged and have a visceral reaction to the action in the scene.

Imagine what Kit is feeling and how she might report the fire or a dead body. Her heart would be racing, her adrenaline would be off the charts, and she’d be panting as she tried to find her thoughts. She might speak in short spurts and stumble over words or ramble. What the author envisions for this scene, focus on the most emotional aspect of it—that’s Kit.

PLAUSIBLE ACTION – Toward the end of this intro, Kit encounters two people dressed in black. One of them shoves her. Instead of Kit being fearful of these two people, she races for a garden hose. That didn’t seem rational to me. If I ran into two people who obviously were up to no good, I would be afraid for my life. I wouldn’t be worried about a garden hose. Let the firemen do their job with their big hoses. (Everyone knows they have big hoses.) How gutsy does the author want Kit to be? Does she fight these people? Chase them? There are options for her behavior, but grabbing the garden might be last on Kit’s list if she is a gutsy, smart character.

For Discussion:

  • What constructive feedback would you give to this author, TKZ?

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20 thoughts on “Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

  1. I didn’t read the dog barking as a backstory. I read it as a continuation of odd things happening at Rachel’s home because Kit had been boxing Rachel’s possessions, which I assumed meant Rachel’s body had been discovered days/weeks earlier.

    I agree with Jordan on the reaction of Kit to the two people dressed in black. And I’m surprised Kit didn’t fall after encountering them since she ran forward into the lawn, physically collided with them, and one shoved her back. Depending on the neighborhood, some lawns are notorious for their uneven ground.

    • And I forgot to add, I was caught up in this story. And whichever way you decide to start, either the body or the dog barking, keep writing. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Lisa, and your encouragement for this author.

    I didn’t say the dog barking was back story. After the first few lines where Rachel’s body is mentioned, the dog turns out to be in present time. The body reference is the back story or a flashback to Kit imagining something she hadn’t witnesssed.

    No matter how you read this, there’s a definite jumping around that is disorienting at the start until the action begins with Kit as she investigates why the dog is barking.

    Thanks, Lisa.

  3. I agree with Jordan. The emotional impact of finding someone you know dead can be a powerful opener. If it were me, that’s where I start.

    A few picky things to make the writing stronger … At some points the POV feels like deep 3rd, and at other times it’s more distant. By removing words like “she thought” “heard” “smelled” and the like, you’re POV will be more intimate and, therefore, force the reader to experience the scene with the protagonist.
    Example:
    Distant 3rd: Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind.
    Deep (or close) 3rd: Beneath the streetlight, smoke tangled with the brisk October wind, waltzing into the smoldering glow as ashes rained like confetti. Feral cats mewled in the distance. Or was it a coyote?

    • Thanks, Sue. Good point on POV.

      After I reread this again, Kit was only imagining Rachel’s body, which makes the starting imagery of her body read like a cheat. It’s quckly rectified once we get into Kit’s action, but it’s a jolt that forced me to reread. Not a good thing for a reader to do, especially on an intro.

  4. Brave author, thanks for submitting Harm To Come. Great title that promises danger.
    “No one should die alone” jumped out at me as a potential first line.
    To me, the real hook comes when Kit sees the light inside Rachel’s house, a light Kit *knew* she’d turned off after boxing up Rachel’s belongings.
    Like Jordan, I got confused between present and flashback.
    Part of the reason might be too much focus on inconsequential details. Does the reader really need to know Rachel’s and KIt’s ages at this point? Plus doing the subtraction stopped me cold. Is it really important to know MuMu is a shepherd lab cross? Or that Kit turned the faucet wheel to the left?
    Suggest you give much more attention to the men in black and Kit being shoved. That’s sinister and pulls the reader into the story.
    One of the hardest tasks for me as a writer is to choose which critical details MUST be on the first page as opposed to information that’s needed yet can be introduced later. Try taking a highlighter to mark the critical details and rewrite to amplify them. Then move the less crucial to later in the chapter.
    Good luck with an intriguing story.

  5. Hi Debbie. Thanks for your comments.

    The preponderance of inconsequential details diminishes the sense of danger. These are a distraction from the action and pulls the reader from being “in the moment.” The author must stick with the action as if “living it” through Kit’s eyes.

  6. I’m assuming two things. The first is that this is the beginning of the story. The second is that the writer is attempting to show the main character in turmoil and maybe disoriented.
    A confused or disoriented character is an interesting problem to present. Here the confusion is in the action when it should be portrayed as in the character’s head. Try establishing the time and situation then showing the character’s confusion. Then we readers will know what’s going on.
    By the way, opening with two clauses masquerading as sentences doesn’t work. Neither does the next sentence.
    This may be one of those situations where a little more telling and a little less showing might be better. A good example might be the opening to Elmore Leonard’s Pronto. You can read it in the Amazon preview to the book.

  7. I didn’t get confused with what was backstory and what wasn’t.

    Personally, I wouldn’t tell the reader anything about Rachel being dead in this chapter, its backstory and I would leave it until the next chapter.

    I would have Kit hear the unusual bark of Mumu – look out to investigate it – see the lights on in Rachel’s house and think how she is certain she turned them off after her day of packing up Rachel’s stuff. Let the reader wonder why she is packing her neighbor’s stuff.
    – chapter filing –
    Then she investigates and gets knocked out by the two people. End of the chapter. If you end the chapter there you don’t have to debate whether she should be more concerned about the people or the fire.

    The police and fire will come. Have her wake surrounded by them. Then somehow the police can ask/ or she can ask if the fire had anything to do with Rachel’s being found dead, by Kit, before. That way you can give all the backstory in a more action packed way – surrounded by fire and police personnel, the fire itself, the gathered neighbors, maybe she is on a gurney pulling the oxygen mask from her face in order to speak. Give as little or as much backstory as you want at this time.

  8. Not to be nit-picky (but probably succeeding nonetheless), a few sentence construction things:

    • “Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head…” gave me that “throw Mama from the train a kiss”/moment ~ perhaps just “Recalling Rachel’s crumpled body, …”?

    • In the same vein, “…after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day..” made me think of getting ready for a brief trip~ so perhaps “…after spending the day boxing Rachel’s possessions…”?

    And lastly (if not already too muchly)

    • “Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke…” had me wondering “Only beneath the streetlight?” Perhaps, “Pausing beneath a streetlight, Kit…” (and is “aroma” the right, or even a needed, word? Does the streetlight need to be included?)

    Living up to Orwell’s maxim:
    No passion in the world is equal to the urge to alter someone else’s draft …

    🙂

  9. My interest was definitely peaked, but, like Jordan and others, the opening was disorienting in a jarring way. It felt like a big stutter, followed by some little ones. I think Jordan nailed it – you need to decide where the story begins best (easy to say, hard to do – I know). I love every one of the pointers Jordan listed on there – a gold mine. Jordan is one of the best I’ve read at layering a scene until she’s wrung out every bit of nuanced info (that you don’t usually consciously realize you’re sucking in). She is also great at keeping you on the edge of suspense and disoriented in good ways. So, you’re in good hands. Like the others – don’t be discouraged, be enlightened, and keep on going. It’s hard to have a 100% perfect and nailed opening until you’re done most of the time, there will always be things you’ll want to go back and tweak. But if you can decide whether to start at Rachael’s body or the fire now…. you’ll be much more confident moving forward.

  10. I liked the first two sentences very much. But then I learned it was backstory and I was let down. I fully agree with Jordan that this book should start with the current story (whatever it is) and go from there. The author could make her discovery of Rachel’s body “current”, and let us know how she happened upon it, her reactions when she saw it, and what she did about it.

    • Hi Don. The effectiveness of those teaser lines resulted in the let down I felt after realizing the story would take an immediate stumble. It’s like a great starting sentence that’s s false start where the author immediately backpedals in another direction. A savvy reader will not be fooled.

      It’s best to make a solid start where elements of mystery lure the reader into the story, then let the reader sink deeper into your character’s world with more teasing or foreshadowing without explanation or back story. Stick with the action.

      Thanks, Don.

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