First Page Critique: The Unanswered Questions

By PJ Parrish

Good morning all.  We’re on a roll with First Pagers this week and now I’ve got another teed up and ready to go. Catch you on the back swing. (Sorry…husband is watching golf sudden death playoff in background as I write).

Days of Mean

Revenge was like scotch. The longer it matured, the more satisfying the taste. Bradley Thomson’s stepfather taught him that.

Bradley walked through the opened French doors of his Key Biscayne home, coffee cup in hand, and stepped onto the lanai that overlooked the Bay. No matter how many times he viewed the Bay, he loved seeing the estuary in the morning. Its beauty pleased the poet in him. His younger self would have laughed at such sentiment. That was the benefit of middle-age. One appreciated the little things in life.

Bradley set his coffee on a bistro table, next to a throwaway cell phone. He picked up the burner and half-smiled. Out of respect for his late wife, he’d waited twelve years to make this call.

While most people craved instant gratification, Bradley savored anticipation more. He’d been known to admire the beauty of a 30-year-old Highland Park single malt for weeks, even months, before breaking the seal and relishing the first sip. The longer the delay, the better the satisfaction. That’s how he regarded the situation with Juliette. He doubted she’d recognize his voice after all this time, but to ensure she didn’t, for several weeks he’d practiced a Midwestern accent to camouflage his natural Bostonian.

Bradley took a moment to mentally recite his script. The words had changed over the years but their gist remained the same—one extortion to avenge another.

Two months ago, immediately after his wife died, Bradley thought about approaching Juliette in person. Although seeing her wither before his eyes would gratify the vindictive part of his nature, he decided a blind threat would be more menacing. If he remained anonymous, she’d never know which of her victims held her by the throat. He liked that.

Bradley tapped eleven numbers onto the prepaid phone. A few seconds later she said, “Hello.”

When he heard her voice, fond memories of their nights together didn’t suddenly flood his mind. Her deceitfulness had murdered any chance of that.

Juliette…. ”

“Yes. Who’s calling?”

Bradley smiled. “You can call me Mr. Boogey.”

____________________________

I was thinking that maybe I’ve been doing too many critiques lately (recently judged a contest for MWA and read about forty entries of the first 50 pages and am also prepping for a workshop where I’ve asked attendees to send in their first 400 words.) So maybe I am going manuscript-blind-and-deaf.  But this entry, well, I think it’s pretty darn good. That sounds like a back-handed compliment to our submitter, so let me try to be nicer and more articulate.

First off, the writing is tight and fluid with only one hiccup (more on that later). Dialogue (what there is) is handled cleanly. No dumb typos, grammar lapses etc. But that’s the basics, the first bar to clear. What about the bigger issues?

We always talk here about picking the prime dramatic moment to enter a story. It need not be violent or action-packed. But it must do essential things — introduce a prime character (usually the hero but sometimes the black hat) and it must seduce us on some level.  A good opening is a promise to the reader — here’s a hint of what is to come so stick around and see if I, the storyteller, will deliver. I think the writer here accomplishes that.

I really like that first graph. We get a prime character’s name, a dollop of backstory —  he loves nice scotch, has a significant step-father in his past and is out for revenge of some kind. It has tone and voice…it has a certain “bite,” sort of like a good scotch. (I don’t drink scotch but during research, I once read an article about 50-year-old Glenlivet described as tasting like “tingle and burn.”)

The next graph is descriptive but also tells us where we are, about how old Bradley is, and a bit more about his personality. This submission is a good example of how to dribble in backstory. Then we find he’s using a burner cell phone, which SHOWS us rather than the writer TELLING us that he has secrets to hide and is up to no good.

Then he makes the call to Juliette, who we are told, with the sparest of details (good!) has a past with Bradley, apparently did him wrong, and now he’s out for vengeance.

But what I like about this submission the most, I think, are the Unanswered Questions. Sometimes, it is not so much what the writer tell us, but rather what s/he withholds that helps create a tension in the early going of a story. Look what questions this writer laid out:

What did Juliette do that was so awful that Bradley is now out to get her?

Why does Bradley refer to himself as one of her “victims?”

Why is he using an untraceable phone and disguising his voice? (and, backstory, we find out he’s Bostonian by birth.)

What happened to his wife?

And why has he waited 12 years to get his revenge?

One of the most effective ways to create tension early in a story is to lay down a bread-crumb trail of questions like this to lure us in and then you can spend the rest of the book slowly answering them. All these questions are a tease. They make me want to read on.

So good stuff! But I think we have a hiccup with the dead wife. Everything was going down so smoothly here until I got to: “out of respect for his late wife, he had waited 12 years to make this call.”  And: “Two months ago, immediately after his wife died, Bradley thought about approaching Juliette in person.”  I think by inserting the wife into the scenario with the named Juliette, the writer creates unnecessary confusion.  Might the opening not flow better if we left the wife out of things for now? She can always be brought up a little later, maybe after the phone call? It might create even MORE tension to withhold this bit of Bradley’s backstory until he has finished his call and then perhaps thinks about the “why” he had waited…something to do with a dead wife.

When you are laying down the questions, don’t double-dip them. The fact he has a dead wife and it probably has something to do with the nefarious Juliette is too juicy a fact to be buried amid the other backstory, I think. The dead wife deserves her own introduction. Just as an exercise, writer, take out all references to the wife and see how it reads. One woman at a time…

One last thing: Maybe it’s just me, but after all this good stuff about middle-aged Brahmin poets, great scotch, and Key Biscayne views, would Bradley pick a prosaic kiddie name like “Mr. Boogey?”  I almost laughed when I read it. Maybe there’s a good reason. Just asking…

Ready to hear some counter-views, TKZers.  Please weigh in. In the meantime, I have a habit of picking music for the movie versions of my books and those of others. Here’s some mood music for today’s submission. Hit it, Charles…

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

32 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Unanswered Questions

  1. I agree with your comments and I like how you spelled out the mystery questions. It helps to illustrate the subtlety of the writing.

    I also really liked this intro. I’d keep reading. Great mystery elements. Sharp writing.

    (You have me hooked on wanting to hear your music selection but the link doesn’t work.)

  2. I liked it, too, and agree with leaving the wife out of it right now.

    One picky thing that distracted me was the constant repetition of Bradley’s name–that kept throwing me out of the story. It distanced me.

    Now if the intention is to keep the reader from truly empathizing with Bradley, it works, but I suspect the writer wants us to empathize with him. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to take revenge on someone? Not that we do, but fantasizing about it can be fun–and may give rise to thousands of plot ideas.

    Overall, good job, author.

    • Good points about Bradley, Sheryl. It is impossible to tell from such a short sample who he is — good guy or bad — so we can’t really tell if we’re supposed to root for him and/or have empathy or sympathy. But he’s intriguing, no?

      As for repeating his name, I have the same bad tic in my own writing. I have to go back and keep ferreting out “Louis” — I overuse his name to open sentences.

  3. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. Good first paragraph.

    2. I have some issues with the second paragraph.

    “Bradley walked through the opened French doors of his Key Biscayne home…”

    I don’t think you need to say the door was open. This doesn’t appear to be a paranormal novel where the protagonist is a ghost. Get rid of the word “opened.”

    The second paragraph seems a little self-indulgent to me, and I’d tighten it and get to the third paragraph (where the good stuff starts) a little sooner.

    3. The fourth paragraph has wording that’s very similar to the second line:

    “The longer it matured, the more satisfying the taste.”
    “The longer the delay, the better the satisfaction.”

    For me, this stood out (and not in a good way). Satisfying and satisfaction are too similar. I’d change the wording.

    4. This sentence seems awkward to me:

    “When he heard her voice, fond memories of their nights together didn’t suddenly flood his mind.”

    I’d word it differently. Perhaps:

    When he heard her voice, there were no fond memories.

    5. “Although seeing her wither before his eyes would gratify the vindictive part of his nature, he decided a blind threat would be more menacing.”

    Get rid of the “he decided” here. It pulls the reader out of the story and (in my opinion) weakens the writing. Try it like this instead:

    Although watching her wither before his eyes would gratify the vindictive part of his nature, a blind threat would be more menacing.

    When you’re writing in third person, try to avoid using the word “he” to the extent possible. It helps keep the reader inside of the character’s head.

    Likewise, I’d change the next part:

    “If he remained anonymous, she’d never know which of her victims held her by the throat. He liked that.”

    I’d write it something like this.

    She’d never know which of her victims held her by the throat. Perfect. Better than old scotch.

    6. “Her deceitfulness had murdered any chance of that.”

    I’d use the word “ruined” instead of “murdered” here. “Murdered” seems like overkill. Pun intended.

    7. Mr. Boogey? I spewed hot tea all over my keyboard when I read that. That name creates a real change in tone. Unless you want readers to start laughing, try something else. Hmmm… Dr. Dangerous? Or just about anything other than Mr. Boogey. *mopping up the tea on keyboard*

    Another thing. Rather than saying “You can call me Mr. Boogey,” I’d just say, “Call me Mr. Boogey.” (Of course, do change that name!)

    8. Watch out for repeated words. A little variety would be better. A few examples:

    “beauty” is used twice

    Its beauty pleased the poet in him
    He’d been known to admire the beauty of a 30-year-old Highland Park single malt for weeks

    “remained” is used twice

    The words had changed over the years but their gist remained the same
    If he remained anonymous

    “seeing” is used twice

    he loved seeing the estuary in the morning
    Although seeing her wither before his eyes would gratify the vindictive part of his nature

    (I’d change the second one to “watching.”)

    “longer” is used twice

    The longer it matured
    The longer the delay

    You get the idea.

    I enjoyed your submission, even though my keyboard is as wet as my pants after reading the “Mr. Boogey” line. I hope these suggestions help. Do keep writing, brave writer. Good luck!

    • You’d make a great line editor, Joanne. Thanks! Agree with all your points. I, too, tripped over the open french doors and some other things, but in trying to make my larger point, I decided not to quibble with the small stuff. But the writer should heed your suggestions — the small things add up.

      • It’s hard to know how much detail to provide on these opening pages since opening pages tend to change so much over time. I try to comment on whatever goes through my mind (such as it is) on the days when I have time… lol.

        Btw, I love your critiques and always find myself nodding in agreement. When you include music, it’s better than dessert!

  4. I think I may be in the minority here, but I find paragraphs 1, 2, and 4 to be throat-clearing. Not to say there aren’t shards of necessary information in them, but lumping them all together like that gets the piece off to a very slow start. The comparison of revenge with Scotch (spelled with a capital “S”) is a good one, but I truly think it’s not appropriate for an opening sentence. It could be much more effective down-page once we have an idea what Bradley is up to.

    Apart from that, I found the rest of the piece to be properly devious and alluring, so I’m hoping the brave writer will consider reworking the opening.

      • I like the first two graphs. But I get your point Donovan. The problem with our First Pagers is we can’t really tell what kind of book we’re dealing with. If this is a spy thriller, yes, I’d vote for a faster break out of the gate. Or a Jack Reacher novel where a guy is pushed out of a helicopter in the first page. If it is a domestic thriller a la “Gone Girl” I don’t think the first two graphs are a waste. The whole first page of GG is the husband Nick thinking about the exquisite shape of his wife’s head and then ruminating on what is inside her brain. Nothing really *happens” until the second page when he wakes up in bed and goes downstairs. So the writer has to keep this in mind — what *kind* of book am I writing? And everything has to work to that end, to achieve what Poe called the Unity of Effect.

        And part of this goes to taste…I tend to like a slow-build start. Others like a faster pace. Luckily there is room in the genre for all.

  5. Not my cup of tea. I found very little to like about Bradley, he seems pompous and a stereotype of the pompous rich. The backstory about scotch adds nothing for me, because scotch is a neutral thing and doesn’t carry any intrinsic meaning that might illuminate who Bradley is.. This opening feels like it belongs in a bodice-ripper romance with Fabio on the cover. If it is, it’s fine,.
    The story really begins with the phone call in the last four paragraphs because that’s where the tension begins.
    Finally, I have a stupid rule that might help. “If all else fails, toss in a werewolf.”

  6. For me, the fourth and fifth paragraphs are unnecessary. I like the first line, didn’t mind the second paragraph, but after the third I was anxious for the phone. As others said, the repetition of the wine reference dragged, and you’re basically repeating yourself. Other than that, I like this first page and want to hear the rest of the conversation.

  7. Excelent.

    Being picky – the only problem I had was with –
    When he heard her voice, fond memories of their nights together didn’t suddenly flood his mind. Her deceitfulness had murdered any chance of that.

    Seems to me the sentence is backwards – maybe –
    Fond memories of their nights together didn’t suddenly flood his mind when he heard her voice. Her deceitfulness had murdered any chance of that.

  8. Afternoon. Anon Writer here. I’d like to thank everyone who commented, both pro and con. And, Joanne, you would make a terrific line editor. Corrections have been made. It’s funny about the “opened” French doors. I had a writing teacher instruct me that doors must be stated as open unless character is a ghost and can actually walk through them.

    A little info on the WIP — the story is a domestic suspense. Bradley is the bad guy. And he isn’t a werewolf. Just a Grade-A bastard.

    I have learned so much reading these critiques and tried to apply as best I could. Thank you again.

    PS — Mr. Boogey stays. (My reasons are secret.)

      • Bradley’s full name is Bradley Boyce Thomson. His initials are BBT, as in Big Boss Troublemaker. I also enjoy and have learned from Kristen Lamb

    • Hey, Laurie. Thanks again for sharing your story with us. I guess if we want to find out your secret reason for Mr. Boogey’s name (I know I do), we’ll have to buy your book. Btw, you did a great job of planting story questions in your opening. I want to know what happens. Write fast… lol. Btw, I do love editing. Maybe I’m strange, but I find editing to be just as much fun as the writing.

      P.S. If, for whatever reason, you want to make it clear about the state of a door, I’d use “open” not “opened.” (Opened is the past tense of the word open.) I know. I have a sickness. I can’t help myself. So, if you must have the door open, write the sentence this way:

      Bradley walked through the open French doors of his Key Biscayne home…

      Ok, I’ll stop now. Sorry, Laurie.

  9. Thanks for a fun Tuesday, guys. See you next time. Off to ferret out typos in one of my backlist titles we’re readying for ebook. Gawd…

  10. Despite the few hiccups, I liked this beginning. Critique was spot on, and I would definitely continue reading. I chuckled with Mr. Boogey also. That can easily be fixed. Great job and kudos to this author.

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