1st Page Critique: Across the Road

By SUE COLETTA

We have another brave writer who submitted a First Page for critique. My comments will follow.

ACROSS THE ROAD

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required. On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.

It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.

It was a stupid thing to do. The pain in his head only worsened. He looked at his watch to ensure it wasn’t already mid-day. Even at 7:45 in the morning, the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat. If he kept driving, he’d be in his office in fifteen minutes waiting on an aspirin from his secretary. He squinted in the direction of the helpless young woman, and marched towards her.

Every step he took increased the throbbing in his head. He’d stopped his car only a couple of metres away. Amidst her gasping and choking, Edward heard the woman say, “Let…go of me.” Her small hands slipped and slapped against the man’s vice-like grip.

“Give me my money or else…” The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four, threw up a big, veiny left hand, palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target on the side of her face.

Edward reached it in time. He caught the weapon in his left hand before it reached its target. His fingers barely closed around the thick wrist. “Easy, my friend,” he said.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand from his left hand to his right. With his left hand he grabbed the choking hazard and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off. Edward fixed his gaze. Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes.

* * *

The writer has given us a peek into Edward’s character and we’re thrown into an action scene. Yet the writer didn’t hook me enough to turn the page. Why? Because when we don’t resist the urge to explain every movement in detail, it ruins the suspense. Readers are smart. Trust us to fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a quick example.

He reached for the bloody rag. By two fingers he pulled it from the stranger’s grasp, then retracted his arm.

See how overly descriptive that is? Remember, every word counts.

He snatched the bloody rag.

Same action. Same visualization. Four words instead of 19. We know what it looks like to snatch a rag from someone’s hand. Too many body movements slow (or stop) the suspense rather than enhance it.

The Headache

Throughout the first page we learn about Edward’s headache. I’m guessing these episodes play a key role in the story. In which case, the writer has done a good job of showing us how migraines start as a dull ache and little by little build into mind-numbing pain.

A word of caution here. Headaches aren’t all that interesting, nor are migraines. They help gain empathy for the MC, but they’re not enough to carry an entire story. Unless— and this is key—these migraines are a symptom of something larger. Jason Borne had migraines after the CIA erased his identity. If Edward went through a similar procedure, then you need to drop a few clues. As it stands now, Edward’s an average Joe who makes his secretary bring him aspirin. Speaking of, unless the story takes place before the 1970’s, this tidbit makes Edward look like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to turn your female readers against Edward?

Word Choices

Throughout the first page the writer chose odd wording. For clarity, the brave writer’s questionable word choices are in red, my remarks in blue. Please add your own helpful suggestions in the comments.

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. “Brought” is generic. The edge of the road makes me think Edward stopped at the edge of a steep cliff. Breakdown lane or dirt shoulder may work better. 

It hit him like a falling object. What hit him? “It” tells us nothing.

The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four (don’t confuse the reader with odd wording. If he’s the size of a Patriot’s linebacker, say so), threw up a big, veiny left hand (first, gross; second, unless Edward is inches away he wouldn’t be able to see the dude’s veins), palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target (what target? Did a bullseye suddenly appear on her cheek?) on the side of her face.

Edward reached it (reached what?) in time. He caught the weapon (there’s a weapon now?) in his left hand before it reached its target (I still don’t see a target).

Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked (did he look a first time?) to make certain his intervention (intervention reminds me of an alcoholic who needs to get sober) was indeed required.

Also, the first line is nowhere near strong enough for an opener. Rather than rehash TKZ’s sound advice on first lines, I’ve linked a few posts that may help HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Always try to use strong action verbs. You can find an active verb pdf HERE.

On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. The first half of the sentence shows us that Accra isn’t a safe place. Bravo! After the comma, however, is called over-writing. Most people don’t like others prying into their business. Because it’s common sense and it doesn’t help to clarify, well, anything, we can (and should) delete.  

But the man still held the young woman by her throat (still? This is the 1st time you’ve shown us), and she squirmed in vain (meh. You can do better) to break free. 

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car. 

Unless men have a habit of strangling women on the side of the roads in Accra, the terror should be palpable. He’s killing her! Yet Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car? No, no, no.

Edward slammed the shifter into park and leaped out the driver’s door. “Let go of her, you bastard!”

Force us into that fight! Let us feel Edward’s face flush with rage as he witnesses a man beat on a woman half his size.

Let’s jump ahead.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. His head exploded? What a mess! I understand what the writer is trying to convey here, but I can’t help but giggle every time I read that line. Migraines are no joke, though. Please choose words that best describe how painful they are.

Example:

A volcanic blast exploded within Edward’s head. Vision blurred. Words jumbled. With a flat hand, he latched on to the hood to steady his gait. The goon dragged the woman by the hair, but Edward couldn’t react. The migraine held him hostage.

Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. How does one turn their eyes? I’m able to “shift” my eyes, but alas, I cannot turn them. I’m also a stickler for “eyes” that shoot across a room. “Gazes” can shoot to and fro. They can also roam, wander, and dance.  Eyeballs, to my knowledge, remain in their sockets at all times. Unless, or until, someone pries them out.

Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. Simple, clear, paints an image in the reader’s mind. Well done!

 In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand (Seized? Money and property can be seized, hands cannot) from his left hand to his right. With his left hand (avoid repetition. In less than two sentences the word “hand” is used three times. Too many details confuse the reader. Which hand did what now?) he grabbed the choking hazard (I must admit, I’ve reread this first page umpteenth times and am still unsuccessful in finding “the choking hazard.” To me, a choking hazard is a small toy or toy part that we keep away from babies and toddlers) and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men (we’re not in Edward’s head anymore) glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off (cliché). Edward fixed his gaze (this works better than the preceding sentence; good job here!). Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes (delete this line. Not only is it irrelevant, but it makes no sense in this context).

To review

  • Resist the urge to explain every single body movement.
  • Choose words carefully.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Trust the reader to fill in the blanks, but give us enough information to do so.
  • Know your audience.

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give this brave writer?

8+

23 thoughts on “1st Page Critique: Across the Road

  1. Sue, I agree with your excellent analysis. For me, the wordiness slows the pace of a scene that has a clock running (the woman is about to be hurt). In some situations, this could increase tension. Here, it doesn’t really add to the tension because the reader isn’t invested in the what is happening. It might have been better to have the man rushing to work to outrun the sun then see the fight to give the main character a paradox, help himself or help the woman. I also had other questions.
    Why couldn’t the main character carry his own aspirn?
    Why does the main character feel the need to interfere with a roadside conflict? Is he a policeman, a politician, or just a self-styled hero? Does he have history with a similar situation?
    Does the intensity of the sun only effect him or does it cause general violence?
    All and all, it is a good setup but needs more reasons for the action. When I endup with a low intensity scene, I ask myself what can I do to take this over the top, then go there. How would all this change if the big man had a gun in his hand?

    • All great questions, Brian. Without the answers, Edward has no real goal, other than getting to work on time. Which in and of itself isn’t a strong enough goal, especially for a first page. With regards to the sun, I think the writer is trying to show how bright light can intensify a migraine, because many of them cause light-sensitivity. The fact that you asked this question, however, shows why the writer needs to clarify or at least drop a few clues to keep us interested. Thanks for your input. All valid points.

  2. Great critique, Sue. I also felt many words could be cut out and sentences reworked for better effect. In addition, I couldn’t figure out why Edward would stop to break up a quarrel on the streets of a dangerous African city, especially if one of the quarrelers is a very large man. Edward’s only asking for big, big trouble.

    • Thanks, Don. I’d hoped for an explanation for why he stopped, too. What if the guy had a gun? A blast to the head wouldn’t help Edward’s headache any. 🙂

      Bravo for recognizing the city. I had no idea Accra was in Africa.

  3. Very interesting, and how brave to put oneself through this in public. Agree with making every word count. Most people leap ahead mentally when reading and fill in the blanks, so over use of description, going in to the minutiae in every detail is boring and makes me (as a reader) skip through it all. I just want some description but I like my imagination to fill in the blanks. It is all about pace too. Over-use of words slow down the pace. My humble opinion at any rate.

    • Hi, Jane! Nice to “see” you on the Kill Zone. You’re right. A public critique isn’t an easy thing to do. We do our best to be as gentle and kind as possible, but I’m afraid we wouldn’t be helping the writer if we sugar-coated everything. We can only hope the anonymity helps make the critique easier to swallow.

      I remember an especially brutal critique of my writing (before Larry mellowed with age) and how devastated I felt when I read his comments. Later, I realized he did me a huge favor by telling me straight. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if he told me what I wanted to hear. Anyway, that’s my hope for this brave writer. In time, be it an hour, week, or month, he’ll look back on this day as a turning point in his journey.

      Thanks for your input, Jane. Great point about pacing.

  4. I like the premise, but I agree with Sue’s review. There are too many odd word choices and confusing elements here to make me turn the page. The migraine problem needs a rethink in my view.
    “Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.
    It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.”

    When I first read those lines, it didn’t seem like there was much of a rush to save the woman, and then I wondered what hit him? The character himself seems surprised(is this his first migraine?) and the action of looking up at the sun appears to be an extraordinary next step if the light hurt that much.

    • I agree, Scott. All great points. I never considered this could be Edward’s first migraine. If it is, we need an even bigger reaction from him. Nice catch!

  5. Overwriting is something I suspect we’ve all dealt with. Learning what to highlight and what not to highlight is enough to make one’s head explode! (Yeah, I went there)

    A good place to start is deciding what kind of story it’s going to be. Is this a typical day for Edward? There’s a lot of crime where he is–what exactly makes him stop this time? Is it something about the girl? Is this a crime story? A love story? I was kind of hoping that Edward’s headache was going to be a kind of Incredible Hulk thing, where the migraine meant he was going to morph into a terrifying hero, and the girl would fall in love with him and it would be a kind of beauty and the beast thing. But I digress.

    I was oddly taken with the story, and think that once it’s tidied up and the writer chooses their priorities, it could be a good read.

    That said, what an excellent critique, Sue. All points dead on!

    • Thanks, Laura! We all over-write from time to time, I suspect. I know I’ve been guilty of it, and my editor was quick to point it out. 🙂

      Love your suggestions. A Beauty and the Beast angle is a cool idea. I agree. When the writer tidies this up s/he could have an intriguing story here.

  6. Thanks, brave writer, for sharing your work with us. One thing I always appreciate is a proactive protagonist, and you got that part right. Unfortunately, the opening has some problems that don’t allow your proactive protagonist to shine as well as he could. Here are a few things to think about:

    1. Overwriting. The writing is wordy and awkward in many places. Here are some examples:

    “Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road.”

    Wordiness makes the first sentence less urgent. Try something like:
    “Edward slammed on the brakes.”
    You don’t have to tell the reader that stepping on the brakes brought the car to a halt. Everyone knows how brakes function.

    “Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required.”

    This is too wordy. Phrases like “again looked” and “indeed required” are awkward. Also, think twice about sentences that begin with an -ing verb. Try something simple like:

    Another glance confirmed a young woman needed help.

    Try to eliminate the word padding, and it will greatly improve your pacing for this scene.

    “On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome.”

    Again, too wordy. There is no need to tell the readers that people are fighting. Readers will assume fighting is done by people, rather than animals. Tighten up the sentence. Try something like:

    One the streets of Accra, fighting was common, and no one paid attention.

    :”But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.”

    Again, this sentence is more wordy than it needs to be. Try:

    A man held the lady by her throat, and she struggled to break free.

    You get the idea. Go through the whole first page, and try to tighten it up like I’ve done with the beginning sentences. Be economical with words.

    2. Adverbs. Go through your first page, and get rid of unnecessary adverbs.

    3. Awkward wording. Some examples:

    “The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded.

    Try reading the first page aloud to catch odd sentences like this. Readers may visualize this sentence in a way that you did not intend.

    “the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat.”

    Churned is not the right word here. Try not to confuse the reader with strange wording.

    4. Redundant phrases.

    “For a brief moment”

    A moment is, by definition, brief. “For a moment” is sufficient.

    5. Word Repetition.

    Certain words tend to stand out if you use them more than once. The word “looked” is one such word. I’m not suggesting replacing the word with anything kooky or crazy, However, there are other fine alternatives so that you don’t have to use the word “looked” three times on one page.

    6. POV issues.

    “Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion.”

    In this sentence, the word his refers back to the last pronoun used in the previous sentence, which is Edward. Edward is unable to see his own forehead to describe it. (Even if he could, the sentence is awkward.) If you meant to refer to the assailant’s confusion, then you have a faulty pronoun reference.

    7. At some point, you’ll want to spend more time coming up with a better title and first line, but this writing isn’t (imho) ready for prime time yet.

    Best of luck. Keep reading and writing!

  7. Thank you so much Sue and everyone for this invaluable critique. You have no idea what it means to me. I found this site about a year ago and I’ve been using the treasures here to clean up and tighten my writing. The opening for this WIP has been problematic, to say the least. There’s so much that needs to be explained and yet I know not to dump backstory info into the opening scene. For example, Edward’s need to interfere in a roadside fight seems illogical, but it isn’t. It is influenced by a haunting event in his past that has shaped who he is. The young woman he helps turns out to be doppelganger of someone from his past. I’m thinking of pushing this forward and using this recognition as a reason for his stopping. I’ve reworked the opening several times before this critique. In that I’ve eliminated the “choking” and made the fight more of an intensive argument on the verge of getting violent. The young woman is a major character, and she is dressed like a hooker. Also, Accra (which is the capital of Ghana) is one of the most peaceful cities in Africa. The “fighting” (poor word choice, I admit) refers to quarrels and arguments that are all too common to attract attention. Edward’s need to intervene is an early insight into his character.
    Sue pointed out the chauvinism in Edward’s secretary bringing him an aspirin. It sounded ridiculous the moment I wrote. But his relationship with his secretary transcends beyond the professional and delves into the familial. She even forces him to lunch when he’s buried in work. I guess you can say that he depends on her. Kinda like how Harvey depends on Donna in Suits. I’m so grateful that you guys take the time to help novices like me. One day when I get published, I’ll be sure to send Sue a signed copy.

    • Aww, very sweet. I’m so glad we could help, Nana. And thanks for the clarification. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our characters and not think big picture. Try writing a tag line that encompasses the plot in one sentence. Ask yourself what this story is about. Do past events turn Edward into a vigilante? Is there a killer loose and Edward, an Average Joe, finds he has a special knack for investigation? When we boil the plot down to one (or two) sentence it keeps us laser-focused. Ask yourself what actionable event drives this story.

      Wishing you the best of luck!!!

    • Just a thought, folks, but there can be male secretaries, too, right? I do love the Donna character in Suits. Wouldn’t the world be great if we all had a Donna in our lives? She is a character that viewers remember. It’s great when writers create memorable characters like her!

      It sounds like you are thinking about lots of things with your opening, Nana, and that’s great. The stuff you just mentioned sounds interesting, and I know that sometimes it can be difficult to decide the best way to dramatize it all. Openings are often difficult to write, and I know people who have been known to rewrite openings dozens of times. *raises hand* Keep at it, and I’m sure your efforts will be worthwhile.

Comments are closed.