First Page Critique – “My Special Messenger”

An analysis by Larry Brooks

As usual with these First Page Critiques, here is the untouched submission, followed by a hands-on analysis. Also as usual, caveats apply.

First page critiques provide a valid quick first look at a writer’s narrative skills, and perhaps, how they launch a scene. And in a rarer instance, some visibility as to how that opening scene launches a story.  That said, first pages – and first scenes, for that matter – are unique among all the pages and scenes that appear in a finished novel. The criteria is different. The context and the mission is different. And because it doesn’t demand either a payoff within the confines of a “first page,” nor does it need to be completely clear (often the comments offered on a first page, perhaps because so little else is contextually available, seems to criticize a lack of a sense of what the story will end up being about), any input to it beyond the writing itself, at a story level, should come with an asterisk.

Heck, we don’t even know the genre yet, something virtually every reader of every published novel knows before they even pick it up from a bookshelf, or click the BUY NOW button on Amazon or elsewhere online.

Here is today’s first page, asterisks and caveats implied, as submitted:

*****

Charlotte clutched the armrest with a vice-like grip. The plane pitched. Black clouds loomed outside the window.

I’m going to die!

A chime sounded. The seatbelt sign lit up.

I knew this would happen.

She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

Think of something nice. Freshly shaved truffles–Domingo singing O Sole Mio–Rosy waiting for me at the airport.

Reaching up with a trembling hand, she twisted the air vent nozzle to full. A baby screamed in the row behind.

Shit! ­­­– Another frigging bump. I don’t like this. Get me off this plane!

The wine in her glass sloshed from side to side. She gulped it down.

I need another drink.  

Thoughts flashed through her brain so fast, everything blurred. She’d been impulsive, booking this trip. And she desperately needed a change. But this? Going half-way around the world? Perhaps she be running away from her problems. Perhaps she should have done something safe and boring, like she’d always done.

She jumped when she felt a gentle touch on her arm.

“About a million people travel safely by plane every day,” said an accented voice in her ear. “Statistically speaking, you’d have to fly every day for nearly two hundred years to experience a problem.”

Was it that obvious she was scared? Could the stranger hear her heart hammering?

She looked into the rheumy eyes of the man in the aisle seat. An elderly gentleman swathed in an immaculate pinstripe suit two sizes too big leaned toward her.

Ravi Shankar!—Is Ravi Shankar still alive?

Enormous eyebrows sat like whiskery caterpillars on the stranger’s broad forehead, tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. A spotless white handkerchief peeked from his lapel, and the Band Aid on his chin showed evidence of a tour of his facial terrain by an unsteady hand.

He patted Charlotte’s arm with a sinewy hand.

“I think of turbulence as bumps on a road. Does it bother you when you’re in a car and go over a few potholes?”

“No.”

“Then imagine the sky as a big road and the plane as a car. A couple of bumps won’t make a difference to a safe journey. Besides, there’s less traffic up here.”

He let out a high-pitched chuckle, covering his mouth as a cough caught in his throat. Pulling out the handkerchief, he dabbed beneath his eyes. A piece of paper floated from his lap beneath his seat.

“Oh! My landing form. I didn’t fill it out yet since my eyesight’s not too good these days. I’m a bit concerned I may do something wrong. Would you mind helping me please, young lady?”

Charlotte unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned down to retrieve the form from below his seat. The stranger handed her a sterling silver fountain pen with the initials “RCF” engraved into the cap.

“Use this. It’s my lucky pen. Perhaps it will make the flight smoother.”

******

A Few Comments

First impressions: I like this. It has a sense of being in the moment, and it is something to which we can relate. It also has a dash of wit, countering a hint of fear. And a final line that leaves a question mark – perhaps compelling, perhaps not – that may be addressed on the next line page… or not.

Short of a few comments on specific lines – the low hanging fruit of editing – I don’t have much beyond this positive overall take away. And yet, in many first page panels I’ve seen (at workshops) and read (here, and elsewhere), there seems to be an obligation to find something to criticize, all of it, of course, within the context of trying to find something to help.

But in this piece… honestly, I think it works. Do I know what the story is yet? Not at all. Unless accompanied by a short synopsis that includes, at a minimum, the target genre, it’s impossible to tell. Are we reading the first plucked strings of a love story? A setup for a seduction, perhaps one with nefarious intentions? Will the plane crash land and strand these two on an island?

We don’t know. Should we criticize it because we don’t know? Absolutely not. Full disclosure is not the mission, or even the expectation, of a functional first page. Rather, highest mission is simple and clear, beyond delivering narrative that makes sense either in or out of context.

That mission is simply this: does the page make the reader want more?

My answer here is hell yes. Not so much because of the story – there’s not a lot of story here yet – but because of the writing. I think this writer has some chops, and this story may have legs. Chops and legs combine tend to become a sum that exceeds either part.

So, not to short-change this writer, here are a few little nits. There aren’t many.

When you say, “Perhaps she be running away from her problems,” I’m not sure if you’re trying to be colloquial or if it’s an outright omission of a word or two. Either way, it doesn’t seem to fit the tone. The italicized inner thoughts you offer don’t sound like someone quoting from Shakespeare or Eminem, which this particular line does.

Your narrator poses the rhetorical question: “Was it that obvious she was scared?” and does so in an odd way… because this isn’t an inner thought, which you show in italicized first person. And yet, by definition it is an inner thought, a musing, because an omniscient narrator wouldn’t pose the question, while she absolutely would. And yet, it’s clunky, because it’s pretty darn obvious – to the reader and to the guy sitting next to her – that she actually is scared out of her mind. He notices, which is why he reaches out to her. So posing the question makes her seem a little dim, a little less than self-aware.

The initial description of the Ravi Shankar-esque seat mate… wonderfully done. But you can do better than a “sinewy” hand. You’re being sarcastic in describing him, be sarcastic in describing his hand, too. Like, “his hand looked like it belonged to Keith Richards.”

For a moment, after that paper slips from his lap, we don’t know who is speaking the next line of dialogue. ‘ “Oh! My landing form,” he said’… might work better.

And a landing form – whatever that is… I’m not sure, do we need a slip to land? If you’re suggesting a customs slip to land in another country, say that instead. Otherwise, this sounds like the author has never been on an airplane before.

See, I’m having to work hard to find something to help here.

If there is one thing that might make it stronger, I’d say to give us some stronger hint of what’s coming in a dramatic/story arc sense. A bit more of a hook. A little nub of foreshadowing. Remember, in virtually any genre that isn’t “literary fiction,” it isn’t a story until something goes wrong. And while it doesn’t have to go wrong on the first page (in fact, it really shouldn’t), it helps if we get a sense of something that will be happening, even if it is barely discernable, which is a bit light here. Short of that paper drop, which doesn’t really qualify as a hook, and the assumption that the airplane isn’t about to crash, there’s not much of a sense of what that might be.

A nice start, me thinks. Says the guy who doesn’t recommend trying to sound Shakespearean, ever.

What are your thoughts on this first page submission?

This is my last Killzone post.

I’d like to thank the folks who run and contribute to this post for inviting me and tolerating me. These two years have been rewarding, and I’ve connected with a lot of writers who I wouldn’t have bumped into otherwise.

I’m in the midst of reinventing and relaunching my website, Storyfix.com, working in conjunction with writing guru and contributing writer Art Holcomb. I invite you to check it out (there are nearly 1000 posts archived on all forms of the craft of writing fiction), and if you like what you see, subscribe to the email feed.

I’ll remain active in this wonderful community of writers, though, chipping in when I feel I can contribute.

I wish massive success for you all. And I join you in welcoming my friend Sue Coletta, who slides into my every-other-Monday seat here armed with a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to share.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

30 thoughts on “First Page Critique – “My Special Messenger”

  1. I was interested enough to read on. The only thing that tripped me up was the “Perhaps she be…” sentence which I assumed was a typo.

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  2. I also liked this page; I read through it all without trying to analyze it. The only thing that bothered me a bit was the inner thoughts. I’m a fan of incorporating a character’s thoughts right in to the text and only putting the most important thoughts in italics. I would suggest only keeping the most dramatic/hysterical thought in italics and putting the rest in the prose. But, this is just my preference. It works well as it is.

    Oh, another thing just popped into my head. Could you perhaps mention where the plane is headed? In the paragraph where she is reflecting that this was a bad idea?

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  3. I like this and read it all the way through without having to pause and ask “what’s going on here?” Like you, Larry, I don’t feel the need to know the genre or have a major injection of tension. I just want a reason to care, and this supplies it. There is no confusion (my usual major beef) and as you point out, the universal appeal of a bumpy plane ride is a good device. I THINK the landing form is probably that customs thing they make you fill out when returning to the U.S. (The character says she went “half way around the world” to avoid something, so she’s apparently flying international. ) Easy fix.

    I would read on, definitely. Good opening. Nice description.

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  4. Aww, thank you, my dear friend. I’m so excited about the new direction of Storyfix, but you will be missed here on TKZ.

    As for the first page, I really enjoyed it. I’d definitely turn the page. Well done, Brave Writer! Larry, even when you’re not “teaching” I always learn something new from you. You made so many valid points that really resonated with me.

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  5. I read the “perhaps she be” as “perhaps she shouldn’t be,” and that’s a good thing. I didn’t see the Shakespeare or the typo. That means I was already involved in the story and not standing apart from it, looking for stuff to criticize. I’d read more for sure!

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  6. Larry, congratulations on your new venture! You’ll be missed here.

    Sue, glad you’re on board! Your insightful comments made you seem like you’re already a regular contributor. Looking forward to hearing more.

    About the first page…the first line put me off for two reasons: first, it should read “vise” not “vice”; second, “vise-like grip” is a cliché and so is the plane- about-to-crash opening.

    “Squeezed her eyes tightly shut” – squeezed implies tightly, so you can get rid of the adverb.

    “Thoughts flashed through her brain…blurred” also is an unnecessary cliché that you can delete b/c you immediately tell the reader what those thoughts are.

    Good job of raising questions the reader wants answers to, like why is she flying halfway around the world? What drove her to that extreme step?

    The line between universal experience and cliché is a thin one. Suggest you find fresher ways to describe her fear.

    The Ravi Shankar character is intriguing and that’s where my interest really picked up. Love his opening lines with the statistics of flying safety. Charlotte’s humor in the face of fear works well and makes me bond with her.

    Brave writer, you’re off to a good start with just a little tightening.

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  7. Larry, I will miss reading you here every other week and will find you at Storyfix. Like Sue said, even when you aren’t teaching, I learn something. As for the first page, I agree with what everyone else has said and would definitely keep reading. And I missed the Shakespeare (or typo) too. Looking forward to Sue’s columns.

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  8. Larry,
    Your comments will be missed. See you on Storyfix.
    I don’t have much to add. I liked this piece as well and would keep reading.
    But a thought.
    P.D. James makes a point of getting to know the victim before evil befalls them. This lets the reader get to know he/her/them and it increases the tension because we, the reader, are losing someone we have an investment in.
    This piece might even be stronger is we knew why Charlotte was on the plane and why it is critical she get where she is going, then the turbulence.
    This piece is an example of external horror even though we see her reaction. Internal horror is usually stronger. Think of the Marion Crane character in ‘Psycho’. We know a lot about her before the shower scene and that is part of its strength.
    Lecture over.

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  9. Thank you, Larry. I’ve learned a lot from your perspective and experience.

    The writer successfully put me on the plane with well-chosen details like the crying baby and Charlotte’s trembling hand reaching for the air nozzle. I’m intrigued by the character, and she’s nicely sketched in a few, witty words. I loved the old gentleman referring to Charlotte as “young,” though very few people under the age of 40 would know Ravi Shankar’s face, let alone the name.

    Basically, I like the set up. Yet a couple of weaknesses kept me from loving it through and through.

    I was dubious that Charlotte would undo her belt to retrieve the gentleman’s landing form, given her fright and the explicit crew instructions to buckle up. A quick fix.

    The business involving the wine made me stop reading, because I first pictured Charlotte grabbing the armrest with both hands. Where is the glass, then? Probably on the tray table. Or maybe she’s been clutching it all this time? The opening is ambiguous – she could be exerting a “vice-like” grip with one hand on a single armrest. Again, the problem is easily fixed.

    Is the wine business necessary to the scene, though? Would it be worth the extra words – page one words, very expensive real estate – to clarify where the glass is situated? Perhaps. But consider whether the reader knows enough about Charlotte for the time being. She’s a member of AARP (probably). She’s a bit snobbish (truffles and opera). She’s got enough money and freedom to splurge on a bit of impulsive globe-trotting. She was on the run, but now she’s back. Okay! Move ahead to the gentleman and his slightly odd request for help with a landing form.

    Carry on, Writer! I think you’ve got a fun story brewing.

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    • Thanks for your feedback, Doug, and some good food for thought– specially about her unbuckling the seatbelt.

      Since it’s only page one, there is obviously much more to follow about Charlotte — she’s in her twenties,leaving a troubled family situation to visit a friend in Cambodia…then has a chance encounter on the flight that changes the path of her life.

      Much appreciate your thoughts and will certainly incorporate them into my revisions.

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  10. Bon voyage and best wishes on your new venture, Larry. You will be missed.

    You’ve left on a high note with this enjoyable read & your spot on comments. I would definitely keep reading.

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  11. Overall, I liked this piece. The fast-paced opening promises a good read throughout the book. Just a few nits to pick, nothing ultra-serious:

    I agree with Debbie about “vice-like grip”. The word is “vise” and as she says, it’s clichéd.

    “Halfway” is not hyphenated.

    The Ravi Shankar-type should not be wearing a suit “two sizes too big”. A suit that is two sizes too big is REALLY big on whoever is wearing it, and it immediately calls into question why they would wear a suit that big. The fact it was “immaculate” would indicate he purchased it rather than found it in a dumpster, so why would he not get it in his size?

    The spotless white handkerchief peeks from his breast pocket, not his lapel.

    “Band-Aid” is hyphenated.

    Why did he dab beneath his eyes after he coughed?

    “Landing form” should be “Customs form”.

    Being as agitated as she is, would she unbuckle her seat belt in the midst of heavy turbulence? I doubt it. If the turbulence is over, you should indicate that before she unbuckles.

    Like I say, these are very minor points in what is otherwise an excellent piece of writing.

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    • Thanks for those good catches, Don. The vice/vise is actually because I’m English (those pesky spellings from across the pond!) and you made some good points — specially about wearing a suit two sizes too big. Duh! The things that sound like such good ideas when we first write them…

      Much appreciate your taking the time to comment.

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    • Thanks to you and to all for your best wishes. I’ll see you here in the comment thread going forward, and on Storyfix.com if you’re ever in a wandering frame of mind. Thanks again! Larry

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  12. Good luck with Storyfix

    Thank you for reminding everyone that this is just the first page, so often the comments don’t reflect an understand there is more to come.

    I liked this. I tripped over the seatbelt bit too. If being unbuckled is important later, maybe she can do it after he says it’s his lucky pen.

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  13. Many thanks to everyone who took the time to read and comment — some excellent suggestions which I will incorporate into my revisions.
    Larry, your words warmed my heart. As you know, writers need a little ego-stroking from time to time and, since I’m in the middle of revisions now, your feedback encouraged me to keep going.
    Many thanks for providing this excellent service and all the best for the upcoming chapter in your life (yes, it’s a cliche, but sincerely meant).
    Gabi

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