First-Page Critique: How To Get Your Story Moving

By Mark Alpert

While the so-called “Bomb Cyclone” pounds the East Coast with frigid winds and snow, let’s take a cold, hard-eyed look at a first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:

Adrift

Checking his phone for the tenth time, Asad al-Mamun (“the Leader” as Asad preferred to be called) paced in his small office, beads of perspiration feeling cold against the light morning breeze.

The call was already nineteen hours late, and Asad festered as he waited. Unable to get any information, he tossed his phone on the table and stared out the open window. With a sigh of resignation, he sat down on his mat, folded his legs, closed his eyes, and tried to review his plan. Unable to concentrate, he made a quick phone call. A welcome “distraction” soon arrived at the door, her frightened expression stirring excitement in Asad’s lustful eyes as he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her inside.

Five hours later, Asad’s phone chirped, startling him out of his almost trance-like state as he pushed the spent woman aside and picked the phone off the floor. The message was simple: “Departed.” Caller ID made it appear the text came from the United States, but Asad knew it had come from a much different place. Replying to that number would be useless, and, even if he could trace it, Asad was sure the phone had already been destroyed.

Asad slipped a robe over his tall, slender frame, staring at his phone while he lit up. The pleasant taste from the cloves and the low crackle as they burned awakened his senses. He reviewed the next stages of the plan in his mind. Timing was tight, with many loose ends threatening to unravel, but Asad had no choice but to act now. Dissatisfaction with Indonesian President Joko Darmadi was at an all-time high, with frequent protests, clashes with police, and calls for his resignation. Striking before things could change would cement Asad’s position of power, even if the majority of Indonesians had never heard of him. Yet.

A low moan came from the woman on the bed—a gift from a client who couldn’t pay his bills. She had been useful for a few hours; Asad’s frustration and tension showed in the bruises forming on her body. She cowered when she saw him staring at her.

“Get out,” Asad ordered.

 ———–

The title of this submission also serves as a useful one-word critique. As I read the piece, I felt adrift in its opening paragraphs, pushed this way and that by the author’s fleeting and conflicting impulses. I yearned for a stable foothold or handhold, something I could cling to in my confusion.

Think about it: a reader starting a novel is a lot like a swimmer thrown into the middle of the ocean. Unless the author provides a literary lighthouse or lifebuoy, the reader has no idea where she is or which island she should start swimming for. The reader needs specifics right away to get her bearings: Where and when is the story taking place? Who is the character we’re following? What is he thinking? What does he want? Where is he likely to take us?

The best way to learn how to do this is to study the opening paragraphs written by masters of the craft. Fortunately, I have a couple of handy examples. The first is from Smile, Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, which I finished reading earlier this week. Doyle is probably most famous for The Commitments, the 1987 novel about a bunch of scruffy, young Dubliners who start a soul band, but over the past three decades he’s continued to write fantastic books about Ireland, past and present, good and bad. Here’s the first paragraph of Smile: 

I stayed up at the bar a few times but I didn’t want the barman thinking that I needed someone to talk to. I sat in a corner near a window but the barman kept coming over, casually walking past, looking for empty glasses, and asking me if I was alright for a drink or what I thought of Brazil getting hammered by the Germans or of Garth Brooks not coming to Croke Park. I tried to picture myself from where he’d been looking at me. I can’t have looked that bad – that lonely, or sad. Or neglected. It never occurred to me that he might be gay. I was fifty-four. I was too old to be gay back.

You can picture the scene, right? A depressed, lonely middle-aged guy sitting in the corner of a bar. You can guess the geographic location too — the use of the word “barman” instead of “bartender” indicates that it’s somewhere in the British Isles, and the mention of Croke Park puts it squarely inside Dublin. More important, you immediately get a good sense of the narrator. The man is so insecure, he’s worried about what the barman thinks of him. It’s funny and sad at the same time. And there’s also a hint of sexual insecurity, which definitely plays a big role in this book. By the end of the paragraph, the reader isn’t exactly sure where the novel is going, but it’s already getting interesting. And the pure, simple confidence of the writing reassures the reader that the journey will be worth it. With Doyle in charge, we’re in good hands.

Now here’s an example from the thriller genre: Joe Hill’s 2016 novel The Fireman, which I started reading as soon as I finished Smile. (I’m still a long way from finishing Hill’s book – it’s 750 pages long!)

Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.

Schools were closed in Boston and some other parts of Massachusetts, but here in New Hampshire they were still open. There had been cases in New Hampshire, but only a few. Harper had heard that half a dozen patients were being held in a secure wing of Concord Hospital, looked after by a medical team outfitted in full-body protective gear, every nurse armed with a fire extinguisher.

That’s a brilliant opening. My favorite part is that brief parenthetical statement — “everyone had” — in the first sentence. The reader knows right from the beginning that something apocalyptic has started to happen, and it’s about to get much worse. Again, you can’t help but sense the confidence of the author. He’s like a lifeguard jumping into the water right next to the reader and saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t let you drown. I’m going to guide you to the most amazing places.”

Now that we’ve studied these examples, we can clearly see what today’s first-page submission is missing. Asad, the point-of-view character in this scene, is obviously villainous, but what exactly is he feeling at this moment? At first he’s nervous, sweating, “festering.” Then he sighs in resignation and tries to concentrate. Then he gives up on concentrating and enjoys some brutal sex. The rapid changes in his mood left me feeling whiplashed and unable to learn anything about this man, much less become interested in his predicament.

Then the action jumps ahead five hours – a long time for brutal sex, by the way – and we get the first hint of drama: a one-word text message. But that word, “Departed,” isn’t mysterious enough to pique my interest. The next paragraph provides a bit of explanation: we’re in Indonesia, and Asad reveals that he’s engaged in some kind of political scheme. But I don’t really care. The author hasn’t given me enough in the way of character or plot or writing style to make me want to keep reading.

But all is not lost. The author has the opportunity to rethink the opening scene. My recommendation is to choose a more dramatic moment to begin the novel. Instead of starting the story with a text message, how about a riot? I’d love to see a scene of furious Indonesians rampaging through the streets of Jakarta (see photo above), all of them guided by the devious Asad, who is secretly choreographing the downfall of the Indonesian president. Then the reader would get a chance to see Asad in action, doing his dirty work in the back alleys of the chaotic capital. He could still be just as much of a villain, but at least we’d admire his stone-cold competence and maybe yearn to see more of his cruel maneuvering, especially if he does outrageously evil things like plotting the slaughter of schoolteachers or police officers.

Now it’s time for me to get back to The Fireman.

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) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

9 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: How To Get Your Story Moving

  1. Starting with some action would be stronger, but only if the descriptions of place, time, and characters could pull me into it. I have no idea whether the the small office is at his home or a warehouse. What smells and noises come through that open window? What does he see when he stares outside? What is his business that he doesn’t have any employees to supervise or work to do all day? And I hope the writer has knowledge or has researched the location to make the details authentic.

  2. Yes, that opening is vital. It’s your only chance to lure and hook the reader. I spend hours on my openings, constantly grilling myself about all the basics: Is it interesting? Is it clear? Does the protag’s character shine through? It’s a challenge, but, man, when you get it right, it feels great.

  3. I agree with Mark. Too much is happening on this first page. Also, the opening line doesn’t work for several reasons. “Checking his phone for the tenth time (< - don't make us guess who "he" is right off the bat), Asad al-Mamun (“the Leader” as Asad preferred to be called)(< - this is author intrusion) paced in his small (< - change to something more visceral i.e. cramped) office, beads (< - if we're in his head, he can't see his forehead. How can he know they're beads?) of perspiration feeling (< - feeling is a telling word) cold against the light morning breeze (< - huh? Sweat could be cold against skin, but not the morning breeze).”

    You’re trying too hard, Brave Writer. Don’t rush it. Introduce the reader to the character. Simple. Concise. Also, your first line should intrigue the reader. Make us beg to know why something is happening. As Mark mentioned, we also need to ground the reader in the scene. “Nineteen hours and still no call. Asad al-Mamun paced across his cramped office, empty beer cans scattered across the floor, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, take-out menus piled on the desk. Stale booze poured from his breath, and he gagged. Asad checked his phone for the umpteenth time. How much longer would the guy string him along?”

    Obviously, this is my version of your character, but I’m hoping it’ll give you ideas.
    The bit about what he likes to be called should be weaved in later through dialogue. Perhaps someone calls him by his first name and Asad corrects them. Best of luck to you!

    • Great thoughts. However, there are times when I like to rush the opening, to add bits of confusion here and there, to add breathlessness and that bit of a day when everything has gone wrong, and it’s going to continue to go wrong.

      I do like to drift into a story. Sometimes, I like a fat dude with an AK47 blocking my way, and I like that he’s going to make me figure out how to get around him and bulky posterior, to say nothing of his ammunition.

      In my favorite novel of all time, Harrison High, the very first paragraphs are of 1950s students arriving at Harrison High in their chopped-tops, their jalopies, their Mom’s cars. You can see the DAs, the long skirts, the saddle Oxfords, letter jackets, and the scurry of the first day of school, senior year.

      In the middle of all that, Ricki Summers, breath-taking in her powder blue sleeveless dress with the peter pan collar and the white tie [never-stated], crawls with other students out of Buck May’s convertible. “Thanks, Long Ton,” she says, patting his hard upper arm, flashing him a smile.

      The race to the perfect ending and Ricki Summer’s capture of Jim Trent, begins.

  4. I stumbled on the very first sentence because I wondered how Asad could be in a small office and at the same time feel a morning breeze. Then in the next paragraph we learn there’s an open window. I also wanted to know if the name Asad meant he was a foreigner in Montana, a citizen of a middle eastern country, but we didn’t learn he was in Indonesia until near the end of the first page. I cringed a little at the fictional president’s name, an awful lot like the current president’s name if I’m not mistaken.

    I like that we know Asad’s goal, his opposition, his location, and the modern day setting. I just wish we could know all that sooner, or rather more smoothly. And I really like that we learned how Asad’s cigarette SOUNDED. The sound of a cigarette, never read that before!

  5. The writer could start with Asad watching​ the results of his evil doing and joyful at his success toWhen the antagonist is frustrated, that’s a good thing and reduces tension. At the beginning show him succeeding, thus our need for a hero.

  6. I really liked it.

    It is a good thing there are so many readers out there with varying taste. As I said I really liked it and I thought the two examples given by Mark lacked anything that would pique my interest.

    If the writer had given us the information Joyce suggested – I have no idea whether the the small office is at his home or a warehouse. What smells and noises come through that open window? What does he see when he stares outside? What is his business that he doesn’t have any employees to supervise or work to do all day? And I hope the writer has knowledge or has researched the location to make the details authentic. – it would have taken up most of the submission and our discussion would be about how there were too many details and not enough story.

    This short beginning told me what was important – this is a dangerous, brutal man who plans on being the leader of Indonesia one way or another whether the people want him or not. Isn’t that information more important about his character or the story than where his employees or family have been during the five or so hours in which this takes place or if he hears children playing or the sounds of idling cars’ horns blowing in traffic?

    As for the woman – we know he has been having brutal sex and she arrived five hours ago. At no time does the author tells us they had brutal sex for the whole five hours. Although it is not relevant, I can’t see why he couldn’t have brutal sex for the whole five hours.

    Writer – stay on track and tell your story your way. Like Jim, I prefer to drift into a story.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. Here are a few things to think about when doing your revisions:

    1. Showing vs telling:

    “With a sigh of resignation” – this interprets the sigh for the reader. Show the sigh, and let the reader draw his own conclusions.
    “Asad slipped a robe over his tall, slender frame” – Show the reader that Asad is tall and slender. Telling is awkward..
    “Unable to concentrate, he made a quick phone call.” – Don’t tell the reader he is unable to concentrate. Show it.

    2. Sequence of event issues:
    “Checking his phone for the tenth time, Asad al-Mamun (“the Leader” as Asad preferred to be called) paced in his small office, beads of perspiration feeling cold against the light morning breeze.”

    This sentence makes no sense until later when the reader learns the window is open. Why begin the novel with a confusing sentence that might cause a reader to put down the book immediately?

    3. Weak opening sentence:

    “Checking his phone for the tenth time” – This phrase weakens the opening sentence. Without that phrase, the sentence sounds more assertive.

    4. Scene structure

    Start with action that you want the reader to see. The “five hours later” part on the first page doesn’t work. Start with something happening in a scene and follow through with it. In every scene, we need to see:

    a character with a goal
    motivation
    conflict

    Imagine writing a scene about a prince battling a dragon. Instead of showing the battle between the prince and the dragon, imagine the writing begins with someone knocking on the door. Then the prince says, “Oh, by the way, I just battled a dragon.”

    If the essence of Asad’s character is that he is cold and brutal, you need to show this from the start. What if the opening scene of your book were in a movie? Would the director show Asad pacing around an office and then put up a little sign that said “five hours later” after he does nasty things to the woman? Probably not. If you are going to use his treatment of this woman to show his brutality on the first page, then (as awful as it sounds) you need to show what happens as if it were happening on film.

    5. If you are going to have such an amoral protagonist, you need to give the reader some reason to want to continue to read and find out what happens to him. Asad, has nothing particularly intriguing about him. What about this character will compel a reader to read more?

    That’s all the time I have this morning, but I hope these comments are helpful.

    Good luck, and keep writing.

    • “Asad, has nothing particularly” should read “Asad has nothing particularly” – not sure how the stray comma got in there.

      I was typing too fast this morning.

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