First-Page Critique: Setting and Character

By Mark Alpert

Autumn has finally come to New York City. The weather is nice and cool, and the trees are starting to change color. At this fateful turn of the season, I’m ready to review another first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors, an opening chapter that takes us to the other side of the country:

The Corrupting of Good Cops

Chapter One

The tall man leaned on the railing that ran along the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  He didn’t notice the rosy sunset. Instead, he watched the storm clouds gathering over the Taos Mountains to the northwest. A small black cloud had started the whole thing, then grew to an angry force barking thunder and whipping lightning across the sky.

A sun-bleached car rumbled across the narrow bridge. The man didn’t look up. He’d emptied his thoughts to listen to the earth. Many times before, the man had come to this bridge to think through his last case.

The storm clouds darkened as if to display their full menace. A bright bolt of lightning flashed across the heavens. Thunder answered in a low rumble. The man soaked up the force of both.

The tiniest sound of footfalls far down the bridge intruded. Without looking, he knew the person was graceful, maybe even trained as a model. She was confident in an easy way, and right now quite focused. Each footfall grew a tiny bit louder than the last. Then they stopped just short of being within arm’s reach.

“Are you going to look up?” a voice said.

“Why, am I missing something?”

“You should look.”

He turned his head slowly. The woman standing there was six feet tall and wore a black overcoat that fell open. Where he looked worn, she looked honed. Obviously, she had spent time in a gym.  She held up her badge.

“My name is—”

“Marilou Strickland, Santa Fe PD. I read the headlines when you solved the Quintana case. Good photo, by the way. What are you doing all the way up here?”

“Looking for you.”

“Why?”

“There’s been an explosion in Santa Fe. We need your help.”

“I’m not an expert on explosions. You have a very fine one named Cushmann in the Santa Fe Fire Department. Ask him.” The tall man looked back at the storm. “It’s going to rain, maybe snow soon.”

“I know,” she said, then went quiet.

He could feel her mood change. What she was about to say needed more than her usual confidence.

“There are eight people dead. They were all bound and gagged.”

“Sounds like you have your hands full.”

“I need you to take this seriously.”

He faced her again. “Okay. When did this happen?”

“About four hours ago.”

“Where?”

“In an abandoned barn on a dirt road near Aqua Fria.”

“Why do you need me?”

————–

Let’s talk about fictional settings, specifically the setting at the very start of a novel. I’ve been to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in New Mexico, and I can confirm that it’s a pretty spectacular place (see photo above). But I don’t think the author of this first chapter has taken full advantage of the setting. Please allow me to explain.

I visited New Mexico in the summer of 1987, a couple of weeks after I quit my job as a newspaper reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. I’d been unhappy at the newspaper for several months, ever since they hired a city editor I didn’t like. The job became so uncomfortable that every afternoon I would escape the newsroom and wander over to the one decent bookstore in downtown Montgomery to leaf through the bestsellers and magazines for an hour or so. I’d already interviewed for a reporting position at one of the magazines I was perusing — Fortune, the business magazine, alma mater of James Agee, my favorite writer at the time — and although the interview had gone well, they hadn’t offered me a job yet. The waiting became intolerable, so one day in July I gave the Advertiser two-weeks notice, even though I didn’t have another job lined up. I didn’t have a lot of money in my savings account either, but I was 26 and single. I could afford to be reckless.

After my last two weeks at the newspaper, I loaded up my car — an ’81 Trans Am, with the infamous screaming chicken on the hood — and headed west. That was a strategy I’d picked up from another of my favorite writers, Robert Penn Warren; when Jack Burden, the narrator of All The King’s Men, hits rock-bottom, he hops into his car and goes west. I’ll let Warren describe the impulse, since he’s a much better writer than I am:

For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

So that’s where I went. Actually, my precise heading was southwest, because my first stop was New Orleans, where I spent a very enjoyable week. But then I sobered up and drove to Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and then the long, dry trek to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Like Jack Burden, I was troubled. At rest-stop bathrooms along the interstate, I would stare at myself in the mirror and whisper, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was seeking an epiphany, a vision, something final and ghastly, like what Burden experienced at the end of his fictional westward journey:

…and though the mad poet William Blake wrote a poem to tell the Adversary who is Prince of This World that He could not ever change Kate into Nan, the mad poet was quite wrong, for anybody can change Kate into Nan, or if indeed the Prince couldn’t change Kate into Nan it was only because Kate and Nan were exactly alike to begin with and were, in fact, the same with only the illusory difference of name, which meant nothing, for names meant nothing and all the words we speak meant nothing, and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog’s leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through. So when I lay there on the bed in Long Beach, and shut my eyes, I saw in the inward darkness as in mire the vast heave and contortion of numberless bodies, and limbs detached from bodies, sweating and perhaps bleeding from inexhaustible wounds. But finally this spectacle, which I could summon up by the mere act of closing my eyes, seemed merely funny to me. So I laughed out loud.

I never experienced any epiphanies like Jack Burden’s, but New Mexico – “Land of Enchantment,” as it says on the state’s license plate — was stunning enough to throw me off my usual mindset. For me, at least, the enchantment had a sinister edge. I drove into White Sands National Monument, where signs warned hikers of the lethal danger of dehydration, and found myself alone in a vast white sea of gypsum dunes. I visited the Trinity test site, where the first atom bomb had been detonated 42 years before. And like all the other tourists, I stopped in the parking lot at the western end of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and strolled along the bridge’s walkway to the center of the span so I could stare at the slender river 600 feet below. It’s a striking sight because the Rio Grande cuts through a high desert plain flanked by mountains (the Taos Mountains are actually northeast of the bridge, not northwest). As you drive across the dull expanse of desert scrub, you suddenly come upon this incredibly deep gouge in the earth, this mammoth crack that appears out of nowhere, and as you gaze into the abyss you can’t help but wonder at all the immensities hidden beneath the flat, unsuspecting ground.

Okay, I’m finally getting to the point. (Thank God!) If the author of this first chapter intends to set the scene in such a photogenic location, it seems a shame not to include at least a sentence or two describing its unusual beauty. Otherwise, why pick this bridge for the opening scene? The descriptions of the storm clouds don’t do it justice, because a storm could happen anywhere. Worse, it’s a cliché, one of the hoariest. “A dark and stormy night, etc.” There are better, more original ways to convey a sense of doom.

But in the opening scene of a novel, the most important function of setting isn’t to provide a colorful backdrop to the action or to establish the mood for the book. No, at the very beginning we’re most interested in learning about the point-of-view character (who is identified here only as “the tall man,” which puzzled me — is there a good reason not to reveal his name at this point?) and so the primary function of the setting should be to illuminate him. The author starts to do this by noting that the man often came to the bridge to “listen to the earth” and think about his “last case” (which led me to believe that he’s either a cop, a private detective or a lawyer), but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a hint of what the man was pondering as he stood on the bridge. Is he really thinking about a case now, or is he debating whether to jump? As it turns out, the Rio Grande Gorge is a popular place for suicides.

I grew even more concerned about the POV character’s mental balance when Officer Strickland says she came to the bridge because she was looking for him. How did she find out that he was likely to be there? Did she question his buddies at the local police station or courthouse? I can just imagine their response: “The tall guy? Yeah, he’s probably at the bridge. He’s been spending a lot of time there lately.” Really? Does that make any sense? Wouldn’t it be more logical for Strickland to reach out to him by phone beforehand to arrange this meeting?

My favorite line in the opening was Strickland’s statement “I need you to take this seriously.” It’s a nice clue to the POV character’s predicament, because the sentence is really a command — Strickland is able to order him around, and that made me wonder why. Is the tall man obligated to the authorities? Does he have a record, is he on probation? Did he disgrace himself somehow? Readers usually sympathize with characters who are in trouble, and the more trouble, the better.

Here are a few more comments and suggestions:

  • “The Corrupting of Good Cops” is a terrible title. Please come up with a new one.
  • I like the fact that the POV character immediately recognized Strickland from a newspaper photo, and that he knew the best explosives expert in Santa Fe. He has a great memory and solid connections. In other words, he’s competent, and competent characters are always more likable than incompetent ones.
  • I was skeptical, though, that the POV character could deduce so much about Strickland just from the sound of her footsteps. Come on, no one is that good. And later on, when he notes that he could “feel her mood change” — exactly what made him feel that way? Simply her silence? It would be better if he noticed something specific, maybe a twitch, or a change in her breathing.
  • The author describes Strickland’s overcoat falling open, but that begs the question, “What is she wearing underneath it?” Is she carrying a gun, and if so, where? And how can he tell that she’s honed? The reader wants specifics. They make the story come alive.

P.S.: A week after leaving New Mexico, I called Fortune Magazine from a pay phone at a roadside casino in Jean, Nevada. The editor came on the line and said, “Oh yes, I remember you, when can you start?” So I turned back east and headed for New York. And I’ve been here ever since.

5+
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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

12 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: Setting and Character

  1. Overall, I liked this piece. From the dialogue I know what jobe he has/had and we get an immediate sense of danger when she said she came looking for him. Only a few things tripped me up.

    Like Mark, I wanted his name. When I read “the tall man” I think of a white man in a top hat towering over everyone else.

    I too wanted more of his thoughts–maybe not his thoughts but a sense of his mood. Thinking about it, I’d assume he’s unsettled by his last case, but I would have not have picked up on it if Mark hadn’t pointed it out.

    The phrase “listening to the earth.” I immediately thought, oh no, hippie story, I don’t think I want to read further.

    When you had the man making assumptions of the woman by her footsteps. I immediately thought of Pink Panther where Kluzo hears the Russian soccer trainer walk down the hall and describe him as a beautiful woman in high heels. After that I couldn’t take either character seriously.

  2. First let me say, I am dying of curiosity. Is the reason Cushmann can’t investigate because he is one of the eight dead people? Not saying you should reveal that now, I wouldn’t, just made me curious which is good.

    I was skeptical too about getting so much from her footsteps, unless he had been warned she was looking for him. Then he could recognize the footsteps as someone who trained as a model. This also applies to the sun-bleached car. Can he tell it’s sun-bleached by the way it ‘rumbled’ – you say he didn’t look up.

    I don’t mind your not telling us his name right off. Not every story has to start off with the person’s name. Here you can introduce him to the reader as you did, through another person. But on that note, then doen’t tell us he’s a tall man, just say ‘He stood…’

    I agree with the comment about describing the place, the clouds/storm could be anywhere and therefore give no feel to the location. On the other hand, if you don’t want to or can’t get more into the ‘feel’ of the place leave it out completely. Just tell us he is standing on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and move on.

    He’d emptied his thoughts to listen to the earth. – Here you lost me, with your descriptions, everything he has listened to is human made – her footsteps, the sound of the car, rumbling on the bridge. What about the sounds of the earth? I know he can hear the storm, but what else does he hear – the river, birds …? IMO – If he comes to listen there needs to be something to listen too. Or he could just come to the spot to be one with the earth – then we don’t have to listen to anything.

    Back to the footfalls for a second, you said –

    ‘ A bright bolt of lightning flashed across the heavens. Thunder answered in a low rumble. The man soaked up the force of both.
    The tiniest sound of footfalls far down the bridge intruded.’

    Really, with the thunder and the lightning and the soaking up the force of both he can hear the TINIEST sound of footfalls?

    What got me was first we have the description and then straight dialogue, how about blending them together? He is standing there, minding his own business and she arrives – while she is talking to him, he is thinking about the storm, about how he came here to get away with his own thoughts, etc. Then when she says I need you to take this seriously we, the reader, know that even she sees he is not paying attention to her. Otherwise, her comment “I need you to take this seriously.” makes no sense. What hasn’t he taken seriously? So far all he said was the comment about rain or snow and “Sounds like you have your hands full.” You either need to ‘show’ him not taking it seriously – climbs up on the rails and opens his arms like he can fly or ‘say’ something not serious “Sorry, I only leave town for ten bodies or more.” He is an expert in his field (a detective or an arsonist – could go either way) which is why she is there, so his not reacting in shock or horror over the bodies would be nature – not enough to think he is not taking it seriously.

    I don’t like the title either. It sounds like a non-fiction how-to book – Chapter One – Offering a Bribe, Chapter Two – The Finer Points of Blackmail, Chapter Three …

  3. Mark, I love how you described the setting. I own land in New Mexico and have never gone to see it. Long story. But after reading the impact this area had on you, I want to go even more now.

    I agree. The Brave Writer needs to make this opening more visceral, give us a peek at this magnificent place. I’m also curious about the suicides. Do they choose this area because of its peacefulness, or is there some other reason?

    Brave Writer, I have to admit I cringed at the title. With so many friends in law enforcement, the “cops gone bad” cliché raises my hackles. We need to consider our audience when writing. If this is a thriller, you could lose numerous readers by the title alone. Police officers read A TON of crime fiction. Overall, I enjoyed this first page. I also liked the writing style and tone. Keep up the good work. Wishing you an amazing weekend. 🙂

  4. As written, I probably wouldn’t read further. I can see the potential this author has to tell a good story but I wonder whether the author understands enough about character development yet to pull this one off. Here is why. Anon uses weather to convey mood rather than the character himself. The tall man (and I also wanted a name here) has no reactions at all. His read of the approaching footsteps feels contrived because the reader has no sense of why he might have unusual observational powers. I actually wondered if this man is a Native American with a similar taciturn yet deep sense of his surroundings as had Joe Leaphorn in the Tony Hillerman series. When Strickland tells him to take her seriously, he suddenly does. Huh? That’s all it took? No reaction, no inner thoughts, no sense of his motivation. I also wanted to know why he comes to this bridge? What is his relationship to weather, especially storms, and to this particular setting? I need to know more about what drives this character before I’d follow him through an entire book.

  5. I agree with the others – needs a different title.

    “Barking thunder” made me laugh.

    I also got the impression tall guy is a Native American. Definitely a Tony Hilkerman vibe. I don’t start caring about characters until they have a name, so I also want him to have one. If he’s a hunter/tracker, I can see him having special deductive abilities, especially since hearing is what he relies on.

    I liked Marilou. If Nameless Dude is tall, why does he have to look up to see her? Is he sitting? Where is the traffic? Is that a pedestrian only bridge? I figure she needs him because her expert is now one of the bodies.

    I live in the Lightning Capital of the U.S. The last place you want to be is on a bridge 600 feet up with no cover. If he’s attuned to nature, wouldn’t he know that?

    I would read this. Good luck with it.

  6. I, too, see no reason for not naming the man, especially since he appears to be the main character. You can bring the reader closer to the character, i.e., less distancing, if you name him.

    Which leads into the issue of POV… Author omniscient if you don’t name him, a POV that also may distance the reader from the characters and the story. Depends on how close you want the reader to identify with the characters.

    Not a fan of the title at all.

    Once the dialogue started, I stopped being able to visualize the scene. The suggestion to weave some of the setting into the dialogue might solve that, and perhaps add more of the characters’ body language.

    Despite my nitpicks, I would want to read more. I’m curious about the man’s occupation and why they need his help.

  7. Hi. I liked this. A case and some sort of mystery about the main character is introduced on page 1 and that would make me read on.

    A couple of things made me stumble: “the tall man” (as others have commented on above) – this could be improved by giving him some other trait that’s unusual rather than tall; and “she looked honed” for the same reason that Mark outlined.

    On the weather: there is a lot about the weather upfront and, in my opinion, the third paragraph would be better placed down further. Also, in the first paragraph the man is watching the storm clouds “gathering”, but in the next paragraph he “didn’t look up” so is he looking up or not? Then in the third paragraph the storm clouds “darkened”, so it is a very short space of time in which they’ve gone from “gathering” to “darkening”. I would like to have more of an idea of time here for it to make sense.

    As already stated, I liked this and wish the brave writer all the best.

  8. Hello, It sounds like storms really hit your area hard. So sorry about the leaky roof, but so glad the pine fell the other direction, and really glad your husband’s surgery went well

  9. Like you, Mark, I dislike the title. It’s not even a decent working title. Besides, it carries the hint of nonfiction.

    The “dark and stormy night” intro was a major turnoff for me as well. I would prefer to see something actually happen rather than some passive picture of a guy standing on a bridge contemplating a coming storm. Also, “listening to the earth” made me cringe, thinking I might be in for some New Age-y kind of book, which I don’t want to read.

    The abrupt POV change (“What she was about to say needed more than her usual confidence.”) was off-putting. The sentence is awkward, too. Not that it matters, because it shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but there were other similar sentences begging to be reworded. This writer should pay very close attention to the presentation of sentences in this critical portion of the book. Ask yourself (with each sentence), “Is this worded in the best possible way?”

    There was, however, a palpable, low-key suspense permeating this piece, which I liked. If the writer can overcome these first-page problems and keep the suspense humming, he/she might have something.

  10. First of all, thanks for sharing your work with us. Here are some things to think about:

    1. The title is weak. Instead of “The Corrupting of Good Cops,” I’d try something like “The Corruption of John Smith” (substituting an appropriate name for John Smith). Sometimes even a one-word title can have a powerful impact (i.e. Corruption).

    2. You devote a lot of first page real estate to weather description. Sometimes less is more. Paint the scene quickly and get to the action. Remember, if you’re going to spend so much time describing clouds, thunder, and weather, the reader will expect some sort of big weather event. Also, remember that a popular literary agent recently wrote an article in her blog warning about novels opening with a character alone somewhere thinking.

    3. Michael Hauge advises novelists to always introduce recurring characters by their full names. Afterward, the first name is sufficient. Minor characters may be introduced by a visual clue (i.e. girl in a red hat). For characters whose identities the author deliberately wishes to keep secret in order to create mystery, a name may be withheld. See “Q&A: Naming Your Characters” by Michael Hauge to ascertain what is most appropriate for your story.

    4. Avoid repetition. I wouldn’t use the words “tiny” and “tiniest” so close together in paragraph four, for example. Don’t begin too many sentences the same way (i.e. “The man …” or “The tall man…”).

    5. I like that you use dialogue early on, but be careful of “talking heads” on a page. Put some actions with the words to help ground the reader.

    6. Avoid flowery writing. For example:
    “Each footfall grew a tiny bit louder than the last.”

    Instead of “footfall,” use the word step. Get rid of the “weasel words” for a more powerful sentence. “Each step grew louder.” In general, be more economical with your words. You’re trying too hard.

    “A bright bolt of lightning flashed across the heavens.”

    Aren’t most bolts of lightning bright? Bright seems like a weasel word here. Also, “the heavens” sounds pretentious. Use the word “sky” instead. Try not to overwrite.

    7. “Without looking, he knew the person was graceful, maybe even trained as a model.”

    This sounds fanciful to me.

    8. Give careful consideration to the vantage point from which your story is told.

    Anyway, I’m very curious about what happens in your story. Keep going! You’ve gotten some wonderful feedback here.

  11. I won’t repeat what others have said, except kill that title.

    I didn’t have a problem with the new agey feel of some of the passages. I would find a shaman or psychic detective interesting. But if this is not the case, you may want to rethink how you are wording those sections. I would be disappointed if I continued reading and didn’t find some spiritual or paranormal aspect to the character.

    I also hate openings where the PoV character is not named. It makes me think the author is trying to be mysterious by withholding information from me. A good mystery or thriller should be able to do this without withholding information the reader would/should know. I would have stopped reading for that reason.

    I think what threw me most was the comparison to a model. Would this character know how a model sounds when they walk? Does he hang around models? Married to a model? It also threw me because I trained as a model (won’t say how many decades ago) and their walk is not soft, dainty or particularly graceful to hear. It is quite unnatural and somewhat clunky sounding which is why most runways are covered in carpet or felt. I wouldn’t expect most people to know this, but maybe comparing her walk to a dancer would be better.

    Good luck. The story sounds interesting, but I think you have more work to do.

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