First Page Critique: The Mask

Greeting, TKZers!

Welcome to another installment of First Page Critiques. Today our brave submitter offers us the prologue to a monster story. I love monster stories, so let’s get to it.

This piece came in untitled, but had a chapter title of The Mask. We’ll use that.

THE MASK (Prologue)

A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

 Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

The door didn’t budge.

 The man backed away, his breathing frantic. They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. Now he’d never see her again. I told you so, she would have said angrily, even from her hospital bed. Now she truly was alone. After his father left–

 The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat. It wrapped around his neck, joined with its twin, and squeezed. The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks. The tears travelled more slowly than he thought they would. From the corners of his vision, he saw that the liquid streaming down his cheeks wasn’t clear. It was black. The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.

The man’s feet thrashed as he was lifted off the floor. The sounds of his kicking boots bounced off of the steel walls. The hands around his throat twitched like the severed fingers littered on the floor. The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch. The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera.

Let me summarize this opening as I understand it:

A man is locked in a steel-lined room with the remains of a dismembered corpse. He’s terrified, and reflects that he should never have taken the job that brought him there, and reveals that his mother thinks he’s lazy. Someone/something that is extremely strong strangles him, slowly and painfully, and he erupts in a burning black liquid and finally dies. Men operating cameras trained on the room see the murderer step into view.

This opening is described as a prologue, and I think it functions as a good illustration of how to set a mood. It’s dark and violent and spare. The scene is a fairly common science-fiction trope: a low-level employee/character is killed by (or sacrificed to) a monster. Tropes can be very useful, but can border on the cliché and should be used carefully.

I’m struggling with the voice. It feels…disembodied. (No pun intended.) It’s not that the voice is exactly passive, but it floats between omniscient (the opening and closing paragraphs) and a relatively close third (the victim). It lacks cohesion. Pick a POV. I would argue for using a close third so we see everything through the eyes of the victim during the prologue. Then jump to the POV of someone in the control room. Hopefully that will be a character critical to the telling of the story.

“A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

            Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

This first bit feels like screenplay talk. It’s all scene-setting. A hand twitches. Parts are strewn. A pool of (blood?) is disturbed by a frantic pair of feet(!). All I could think was that the feet of the dismembered corpse were still alive! That was a very weird moment. Then a disembodied voice shrieks, and hands pound on the door. Can you see where I’m going here? Because we started out with random body parts, when we read about other body parts it’s hard to think of them as being attached to a human.

We finally discover that the hands and feet belong to a man who is trapped inside the room with a corpse.

Let’s reimagine the scene as seen through the eyes of the man.

Bill “Red Shirt”* MacNeil stared at the pale hand lying on the blood-soaked steel floor. The corpse’s crushed torso and one twisted leg lay within sight, but it was the hand that struck him dumb. When its fingers arched and twitched, the spell was broken and he ran for the door. Panicked, he stumbled on the slickened floors as he ran, and each time he had to catch himself, his hands were smeared with more of the warm offal.

“Let me out! Open up!” he screamed. He pounded the door with his fists. Breathing heavily, he stepped back, waiting for the familiar sound of bolts thumping into place and the electronic hiss of the door’s seal.

Nothing.

“Dear God, please let me out of here. You can’t do this!”

But hadn’t he known he’d never get out again when he saw the blood everywhere? They couldn’t let him out. They weren’t going to put the entire facility at risk.

If we have some growing sense of the man, even if he is a red shirt, then the trip into his head is less of a surprise.

A couple notes on the murder bit. As you can imagine, I don’t mind seeing a character’s death close up.

Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder.”

This is a terrific image. But I’m still kind of stuck on the disembodied hand thing. And this hand has a twin! Suddenly I’m thinking that this room is full of body parts that act independently (or in pairs). It’s not until the end of this piece that we learn that the hands are attached to a whole murderer.

Please give us a sense much earlier that there’s an actual person or creature behind him.

Important: It’s physically impossible for humans to see what’s coming out of their eyes and running down their cheeks. He might be blinded by the stuff, but he couldn’t really see it unless he looks in a mirror.

You could easily do our red shirt’s death in his POV. It’s awkward that we’re suddenly outside of his head again. He could be struggling to continue kicking against the walls, then realize he can’t do it anymore. He could black out with his last thought being of his sled, Rosebud. You might even add just a single out-of-POV line about what his blank eyes can’t see. For example, the monster stepping over his body to stare into the eye of the camera.

It’s a good start. With some attention and cohesion, I think it could be a wonderful opening.

*”Red Shirt” is the name given to a stock character in a story who dies at the beginning. It comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the low level characters wore red shirts and were usually the first to die.

What say you, TKZers? Do you agree about the close third POV? Would you do it differently? What further advice do you have for our brave submitter?

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A little personal BSP: I have a new book out this week! SMALL TOWN TROUBLE is a cozy mystery. (I love any kind of mystery.) And it’s not just a cozy, it’s a cat detective book! Light and fun. Plus, there are four other books in the series, all written by different authors, with more to come. Read all about it.

 

 

 

 

4+
This entry was posted in First page critiques, Writing and tagged , , , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Mask

  1. Like you, Laura, I was a bit confused. Maybe it was the references to the steel and “black and red liquid” and “parts,” but I wondered if it was actually a robot in the scene.

    The POV is definitely an issue for me. Is the killer going to be the story’s main antagonist? If so, why not use their POV? Show their thrill as they stalk their prey. Let us in on their thoughts.

    I wonder if our protagonist is present when this scene occurs? Is he/she watching via the cameras? I’d be far more interested in their thoughts/reactions. Showing us the terror through the victim’s eyes is fine, but since Mr. Red Shirt (probably) doesn’t play much of a role in the story, you end up with a very short scene that doesn’t really go anywhere.

    That said, I’m very intrigued by this setting. Where are they? Who is this killer and why is he so strong and violent? Is this some sort of secret lab the government is using to build super-soldiers? Or are they researching serial killers to find out what makes them tick? Lots of different way to go.

    Overall, good start by the author. Get some polish on it, settle on your POV, and you’ll have a great beginning to your story.

    • It all does feel quite like industrial future tech, Tom. I wasn’t sure at first that the red liquid was even blood. Great list of questions to ask–our job is to create the questions in the minds of readers, then make sure we answer them!

    • Whoa, something wonky happened when I cut and pasted. The color changed and some sentences and words went missing. Maybe that severed hand grabbed them!
      It should have read: But excellent writing would pull me in if there had been more paragraphs like the following:
      “He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.”
      Also what appears as “is repeated twice” should have read “The word frantic is repeated twice.”
      Sorry about the garbled presentation.

    • Excellent advice, Debbie. I agree that the paragraph you highlight is a good one. It ties in with the stuff coming out of his eyes as well. I think rather than his magical eyeballs seeing the black stuff on his cheek, the writer could simply mention that his eyes burned and felt goopy, etc.Then he could feel/see/taste the goop coming out of his mouth. (Starting to gross myself out a little here, lol)

      Now I’m wondering about how the room is lit. I imagine it dim, but to get a good camera shot it would need to be bright.

  2. I kind of liked this piece up to the point where the murderer appeared out of nowhere. The writer had led me to believe (perhaps inadvertently) that the frightened man was alone in the room. The room was, after all, locked, and he was even hinting that he had been left to die in it. Then, boom! Another man appears out of the gloom. Fix that, brave writer, and you might have something.

    • I confess I liked the surprise, Don. It felt very like an Alien film! But I get what you’re saying about it being a locked room and his presumption of death. The suspense builds…

  3. I liked this. There are a few things that need a bit of work.

    Don’t break this up, it is the same person in the same instance.
    “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation. Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

    Let’s look at this section –

    They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility.

    This is a perfect example of how one missing word changes everything –

    They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they DIDN’T wanted to risk the entire facility. (caps for emphasis only).

    What you have written means they are going to keep him in the room to ensure the entire facility is at risk. Granted that could be what you meant – the experiment is to see how quickly this thing/man can kill everyone on that side of the glass – a cool concept to work with. LOL

    Also – They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they DIDN’T want to risk the entire facility – is one sentence. They wouldn’t let him out. – is fine, but Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. – is not a sentence on its own.

    But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. – can you change this to ‘thought he would die’ – unless of course this man actually planned how he was going to die (I hope he didn’t waste much time on it – since it ain’t working out his way).

    He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. – Favorite line – says so much about the man AND the facility.

    He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. – is lazy really the right word here. I mean he has a job which he goes to (maybe he should have called in sick that day), it really isn’t lazy to work at a job where they pay you more for the same work others are paying. I don’t think lazy portrays him correctly. I don’t know how I would rewrite this, but I would go for something that lets the reader know even his mother thought this was too good to be true and if he wasn’t so blinded by the paycheck he wouldn’t have taken it.

    Nevermind – that’s a lot of thought put into a man who is already dead by page two.

    After his father left– cut this part. It may add a bit of suspense to the story, but is the reader ever going to know why his father left? Is he more than the last victim still alive in the scene? As this is the prologue, I will answer that question my self – NO.

    The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat.

    His thoughts stopped when … thought stopped as well … – if he isn’t thinking he can’t stop thinking again.

    The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. – nice, creepy, but nice.

    The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch.

    The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, LIKE a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera. –

    Here you have a serious breach of POV, BUT, I think this is the POV you should have been in all along. Yes, it’s nice to write how the man felt and what he thought as he was being killed – we all know that can be fun for us warped mystery writers, but we need to look at the scene and the point of the scene. Okay, we all know that ‘something’ went wrong and in the next chapter we are going to skip ahead to another point in time (why – because that is the point of a prologue) so no one is ever going to know what the man was thinking or how he felt or how … He isn’t going to be the one telling people or remembering what happened here. So why be in his POV? The right POV (I think) is that of the person on the other side of the camera – and not a camera – the person on the other side of the thick glass window. He’s the one who ran down the hall to the window when he heard the screaming, he’s the one who can look and see the black and red liquid mixed together on the floor. He is the one who can describe the carnage – not the man facing the door. He is the one who has to ignore the pounding on the door no matter how much he wants to help his co-worker. He’s the one who watches as the man is lifted off the floor by his throat and sees him crumpled like a rag doll on the floor. The reader will get to absorb so much more of the scene viewing it through the window. And then – we skip ahead into the future.

    Tom said – you end up with a very short scene that doesn’t really go anywhere. This is a prologue and that’s what they are, a scene that takes place before the story begins.

    Don said – that the frightened man was alone in the room. At first I thought since the body parts were still moving that ‘the hand’ was also a body part, but then it says – The hands around his throat – since one hand is on the floor that can’t be right. Okay, so there is someone else in the room. I don’t think you need to tell us that beforehand, but you do need to tell us ‘better’ than he steps into the camera. However, if you change POV you can ease the reader into the fact that the man is not alone. Maybe the body drops to the floor and the ‘monster’ turns to the watcher letting him know that he is next.

    I liked it and I sense a coverup.

  4. This piece reminded me of the beginning of the first “Saw”. The opening scenes were first curious then terrifying. The movie scared the living bejesus out of me. Not so much here. A quote from Steven King helps explain my point:

    I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. Stephen King

    And another by Alfred Hitchcock
    There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. Alfred Hitchcock

    The changing points of view steals our attention from the anticipation of the bang, no terror. In Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the scene where the killer (played by Raymond Burr) crosses the courtyard to get at our hero (Jimmy Stewart) is gut wrenching. In Fritz Lang’s 1931 movie “M” the scene of the child’s ball bouncing into an alley where we know a pedophile is waiting is real terror as we image what is going to happen to that poor little boy.(This was Peter Lorre’s first movie. He played the pedophile).
    Our hero in the submitted piece should realize and anticipate the same fate as the pieces of bodies in the room. Torture the reader with the thought as he begins to realize what his fate is. At the very moment he knows he is going to die, then just open the door. This also gives meaning to the slaughtered people on the floor.

    This is true in all genres even in romance where anticipation isn’t terror or horror we hope (although there might be in good scene in that thought), but the moment before the kiss or sex is more emotional than the final act.

  5. Everyone here nailed it. This is spooky and fun and creepy. Good work.

    The best piece of pro advice I’ve ever gotten:

    Search out all the felt, saw, tasted, smelled, heard, etc.

    I have to be in someone’s POV (a problem in this tale.) Show me how he experienced it, not that he experienced it.

    “He felt the hand . . . ” ——–> The rough nails of the hand caught on the nubby fabric of his coat as it slithered up his arm. (or some such . . .)

    “The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks.”

    If they are spilling down his cheeks, it can be inferred that he feels them.

    “His eyes flashed hot and the tears that had been threatening spilled down his cheeks.”

    It’s subtle and technical and it really improves the flow of your writing.

    Keep it up! Terri

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