Emotion Must Be Earned: A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

Here we are again, presenting the work of a brave author willing to invite friendly fire.  This one arrived to me untitled, and is presented as such.  The italics are mine, just for the sake of clarity. I’ll see you on the other side.

Quinn Larson slipped into the gallery’s back row, settled on the hard edge of a plastic chair, and waited for the execution to begin. In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words. Instead, she found a handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats. A few stole curious glances at her with lifeless eyes. The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food. She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff as he helped her into a chair near the door. Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to. She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus. It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.

Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks. Phones and video cameras had been confiscated at security and Quinn took wicked pleasure that the prison forced them to write things down the old-fashioned way. She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.

Special Agent Dawson swaggered in next, the execution his final moment in the spotlight. He’d hunted down the monster, bringing an end to a gruesome fairy tale. He came up the aisle ahead of Quinn in the center of the row, scoping out the view. Then, he glanced at Quinn.

“Miss Larson.” He inclined his hat before removing it. They were two tiny words, just a few letters each, but they sent a live current through the assembled spectators. Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her, their expressions full of contempt, and her skin crawled. She was an infection to their grief, the painful itch of a murderer’s daughter in their midst. The humiliation of it rose up the back of her neck and blossomed across her cheeks. Even in the heavily air-conditioned room, her face flamed.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.  I think the premise here is very strong.  A daughter coming to witness her father’s execution is pretty stuff.  Clearly, Quinn and her soon-to-be dearly departed daddy are not what we’d call close.  I can only imagine the stress of feeling the heat of so many stares when people realize who sits among them.

Alas, I have not choice but to imagine those things because they are not here on the page.  The piece, as submitted, impresses me more as notes for the author than as an actual bit of drama.  It’s the emotional equivalent of bland spaghetti sauce.  It’s the right color, all the elements appear to be there, but it’s missing the spice that makes the offering come alive.

My first thought is that the author has chosen the wrong place to begin the story.  We make much here in TKZ of acting first and explaining later, and for good reason.  But this scene is more emotion than action, and emotion needs to be earned.  That’s a problem here.  I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be in Quinn’s corner, or if I’m supposed to be as appalled by her presence as her fellow spectators are.  Maybe the author should start a few minutes earlier, perhaps with an interaction with the guard at the security station, where a few lines of dialogue would give us a clue as to her status on the observer tree.

I think if there were a quick interaction with Agent Dawson, in which she asks to remain anonymous, his greeting to her in from of the others would pay off as an act of betrayal–if that’s where you’re trying to go.  Have her encounter a reporter and tell him to go to hell.  Lead us into her world.

Bottom line: the author hasn’t triggered empathy from this reader.

At a more granular level, some of the writing gets in its own way.  Take, for example:

“In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words.”  Remember that this is the reader’s first encounter with any of this story.  When you refer to torches, a time frame is set in my head, and even though you counter it in later passages, the contradiction is jarring.

“. . . handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats.”  I’m not sure this is possible.  One is either sitting or being held up, it can’t be both–unless there’s a robbery involved, in which case the meaning of “held up” changes altogether.

“The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.”  How does Quinn know whether the woman is sane?  She can appear stressed (“She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff” does a nice job of that), but stress and sanity are entirely different things.

“Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to.”  The first two or three times I read this, the image in my head was of her pulling her hood tighter, and I couldn’t figure out how that would tighten around her body.  Now, I realize that by “hoodie” you really meant “hooded jacket.”  Again, because we have no lead-in to this scene, the obligation to be precise in descriptions is critical.

“She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus.”  I don’t see the contradiction here.

“It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.”  This is an intrusive bit of backstory.  Not only does it interrupt the present action, it catapults the reader to a place he’s never seen and has no reason to care about.

“Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.”  Morbid fascination? Really?  Because we have not been brought into Quinn’s close third-person world–where we might understand that she’s pissed at the press for good reason–this feels like a POV violation.  How does she know what they’re writing?

“She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.”  Finally, this is a good bit of business, but, again, it’s not earned.  Put her face-to-face with Reporter Bob and let them interact.  Show, don’t tell.  Let us witness the angst through her eyes.  “Callous disregard” is a facile phrase that ultimately means nothing.

That’s all I’ve got before turning things over to the Killzone denizens.  By way of full disclosure, when this critique posts, I will inaccessible to all things Internet, so y’all behave.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

25 thoughts on “Emotion Must Be Earned: A First Page Critique

  1. I agree with Bro. Gilstrap that this has potential, but needs work. On the positive side, I like the first line. It works. Good use of sensory and specific detail — hard edge of a plastic chair.

    The hard work is, as John notes, creating empathetic connection with the character. You can do that. The scene is set up for it. Try culling that long first paragraph and remember the value of white space for the reader.

    On the backstory issue, I advocate a middle ground between “no backstory in first x pages” and too much exposition. A drop of backstory can help with the empathy factor and give us a sense of what’s going on. I’d keep the line about the father, but tweak it for more impact:  It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison to see her father.

    There is one major POV shift that hurts you here. You’re trying to establish sympathy for Quinn, yet you give us Dawson’s POV and belief (He’d hunted down the monster) and boom, now we’re completely out of Quinn’s head, and thinking about this “monster.” Our minds form possibilities about the crime(s), etc. This works directly against what you’re trying to do with Quinn.

    So re-write this scene and keep us locked into Quinn’s POV. Describe matters only as she would see them.

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

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    In your opening, Quinn Larson is too passive.There are loads of internal thoughts. Quinn thinks about all of the people as they wander in and such, but the reader doesn’t really know her enough yet to care about what she’s thinking. Read “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle. If you put “Making An Entrance”, Barbara Kyle, PDF into a search engine, you should find the article. Also, check out an article on my blog called “I Want a Hero.” When I finish reading your first page, I want to know more about Quinn. What is Quinn’s defining character trait? Why should readers want to find out what happens to Quinn? It’s up to you as a writer to manipulate the readers.

    Here’s a tip Paula Munier gives that may be helpful to you. Take a blue marker and identify all sections of backstory and mark them in blue. Backstory is where you talk about anything that happened before your opening scene begins.

    Take a pink marker and highlight all sections of description/setting in pink.

    Take a yellow marker and highlight all sections of inner monologue. This means all of your characters thoughts and feelings.

    Now you know where to edit. For more information, see https://www.janefriedman.com/your-first-scene/

    The first scene should be heavy on action and dialogue and lighter on the other stuff.

    Limit Character Introductions on First Page

    One the first page, too many people are mentioned: Quinn, flaky skin lady, warden, father, members of the press, Special Agent Dawson, spectators

    Readers need to get to know the protagonist. Like John said, you’re starting your novel in the wrong place. Start your novel with a scene where your protagonist is doing something (action, dialogue) with one or maybe two other characters. The focus should be on Quinn and what she is doing, not what she is thinking. Show us Quinn’s defining character trait in action.

    POV

    If you’re going to write the story from Quinn’s POV, you can only tell the reader about things that Quinn can see, touch, taste, hear, smell, and know. That would make comments like these POV violations:

    “escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.”

    How does Quinn know about this woman’s sanity? Is anyone who has flaky skin insane?

    “Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.”

    How does she know what they are scribbling? She can only make assumptions.

    “they sent a live current through the assembled spectators.”

    How does Quinn know this?

    “Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her”

    How can she know the motivations of others for turning in their chairs?

    Overwriting

    The first page seems a little overwritten to me. For example:

    “She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.”

    “She was an infection to their grief, the painful itch of a murderer’s daughter in their midst. The humiliation of it rose up the back of her neck and blossomed across her cheeks. Even in the heavily air-conditioned room, her face flamed.”

    For more information on overwriting, check out “Overwriting: How to Recognize and Correct it” on my blog. Don’t try too hard to sound literary. Allow your natural voice to emerge.

    Adverbs

    probably, certainly, fully, heavily
    Do you really need all of these adverbs on the first page?

    That’s enough for now, brave writer. Thank-you for avoiding the comma splices and punctuation problems that I see so often with first pages presented here.

    Btw, if you want to watch a really great scene that shows how to introduce a protagonist, check out the opening scene from the movie Erin Brokovich. Watch how Julia Roberts creates empathy for her character. That’s the same kind of empathy you want the reader to have for Quinn at the end of your first scene.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • =>I’m not convinced that any of these are necessarily POV violations
      Since the author mentions this woman explicitly, we’ll probably learn about her insanity. This line just raises the question for us and tells us that Quinn knows or believes she’s insane.

      Perfectly reasonable thing for her to assume, in her frame of mind.

      By observing their reaction. No problem here.

      Come on. We almost always know when someone is trying to get a look at us. Especially when we’ve just been publicly identified in a uncomfortable situation.

      • Aargh. What happened to the rest of my comment?

        I’m not convinced that any of these are necessarily POV violations.

        “escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.”

        How does Quinn know about this woman’s sanity? Is anyone who has flaky skin insane?

        =>Assuming author mentions this woman explicitly, we’ll probably learn about her insanity. This line tells us Quinn knows or believe she’s insane.

        “Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.”

        How does she know what they are scribbling? She can only make assumptions.

        =>Perfectly reasonable thing for her, in her frame of mind, to assume about the reporters

        “they sent a live current through the assembled spectators.”

        How does Quinn know this?

        =>By observing their reaction. No problem here.

        “Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her”

        How can she know the motivations of others for turning in their chairs?

        =>Come on. We almost always know when someone is trying to get a look at us.

        • I re-read it, Eric, and perhaps you are right. I think that the character’s voice (for me, anyway) is getting muddled a bit by overwriting in places. In any event, I think there’s too much going on in Quinn’s head. Like Debbie noted, a little backstory is fine. However, the character seems to be “in her head” most of the scene. For me, that was the main problem. I think her “attitude” would come through more if the character used more natural language.

  3. I liked it. I did feel empathy for the character, though I think it could be made deeper with some of the comments here. Talk about an emotionally charged scene! It immediately made me start asking myself questions and wondering at possibilities.

    Maybe a few bits of back story don’t need to go into this opening scene, & I agree with a previous suggestion to make more use of white space, especially in opening paragraph, and to find ways to show us more, rather than tell.

    But I definitely liked it and would read on.

  4. I liked the idea behind the submission. But I agree with most of John’s and JSB’s comments, such as beginning with Quinn asking Agent Dawson to hide her identity from the other viewers. I enjoy dialogue in an opening, even if it’s only a titch.
    Re the woman who was starved as much for sanity as for food — I thought Quinn knew the woman, at least her background. I thought she was possibly a still-grieving loved one of someone who was murdered by Quinn’s father.
    And the “stoic men and women holding each other up” I thought meant emotionally not physically.
    I see potential in the piece. I think Anon has talent that simply needs to be honed.

  5. I respectfully disagree with some comments, esp. about POV. This character has had her bones picked in the public eye for a long time. This isn’t her first rodeo.

    Quinn’s assumptions about the attitudes of others have been developed from personal encounters and years of examples of the media’s “morbid fascination.” She’s already familiar with the pompous strutting of Dawson. Although the reader doesn’t yet know the identity of the frail woman, Quinn obviously does and has reason to draw the conclusion that she’s starved for sanity. She recognizes condemnation of her by family members of victims b/c she’s faced them before.

    Being condemned for the sins of the father is a powerful Biblical theme that immediately resonates for me. Quinn’s restraint and numbness are how she holds it together in the face of unjust contempt toward her. To me, the situation is already so fraught with emotion that I didn’t need extra from Quinn at this point. What’s unsaid or inferred is strong enough for me to be drawn into the story.

    I admired the light interweaving of backstory (ten years of unopened letters on the back of her dresser) b/c that explained their relationship but IMHO didn’t stop the action.

    There is some overwriting and parts that could be smoothed out but I would absolutely keep reading.

    • I agree with Debbie’s assessment. I find this opening filled with emotion. Quinn’s thoughts about what others are thinking and feeling are an indication of how Quinn views the world, not a POV shift. Naive people attribute trustworthiness to people they don’t know and shouldn’t trust. Frightened people see others as threatening even when they aren’t. Those kinds of judgment calls speak to who this character is.

      I did have some confusion when the warden escorted the woman in. I assumed that the woman was the convict about to be executed. When the gender of the person to be executed switched to male, I thought it was some kind of mistake. Perhaps clarify that the woman is another spectator as Quinn takes note of her?

      I, too, would read on. What an interesting opening!

  6. This scene is compelling, and I agree the emotion has to be earned. I was confused when the people in that room turned to look at her with ‘contempt.’ It left me wondering why. It’s been 10 years, and unless she was an accomplice (I’m guessing she wasn’t) that comment just detracts from the more true and powerful emotion of shame she feels at being recognized as his daughter. That to me was very powerful and makes me want to read the rest of her story. I already like her – – I thought it was very witty of her to take pleasure that the reporters had to write down notes longhand. This girl is going to survive. She’s funny and human and I’m rooting for her.

  7. Wow, is this a tough crowd or what?

    I liked this piece a lot — clearly a minority viewpoint — a few needed tweaks notwithstanding. It put me squarely in that room about to witness an execution (of her estranged father, no less) and I felt as a reader I was getting the right amount of information, along with a tiny bit of backstory for clarification. I think the piece starts in the right place at the right time, and it contains the necessary tension to make me turn to page two.

    Furthermore, I feel fully invested in her emotions as she squirms in her chair. Through the writing, I learned a lot of what was NOT said, what had transpired before this taut scene, and how that translated into her emotions in that room. We already know she’s paranoid — or at the very least, extremely uncomfortable — about merely being there. For instance, the scorn she felt from other onlookers was really aimed at her father, but since she was “the daughter”, they tarred her with the same brush and aimed it at her. She is fully aware of this. That to me is a totally believable moment.

    But like I say, I’m over here in the corner jes’ whistlin’ in the dark.

    • Don, I think most of the folks here seemed to like it and were trying to give feedback about how to move forward with revisions. John’s line about ” the emotional equivalent of bland spaghetti sauce,” probably came off a little tougher than he intended. 😉 And I know that I certainly didn’t intend for my critique to come off as harsh even though I made quite a few comments. Bravo to our brave author for a great job on the first draft! Remember that you will never please everybody all of the time, no matter what you do. In the end, you have to please yourself.

  8. I commented earlier, but those unopened letters on the back of the dresser just won’t leave me alone. Are they the gun on the mantle in Act 1 that has to be used in Act 3? When her father is dead will she open them, only to discover a vital clue that makes her question her father’s guilt? If so, bravo to the writer for planting them here.

    • Interesting thought, K.

      Or maybe she doesn’t keep her place very tidy and leaves piles of junk everywhere. Imagine a dresser layered with the dust from ten years. Even so, it’s hard to believe anyone wouldn’t be curious enough to open the letters. I even open my junk mail before I throw it away.

  9. Terrific premise and emotionally evocative.
    Lots of light housekeeping tips shared but story potential is excellent.
    I’m intrigued and curious to learn more.
    Write on!

  10. Hello –

    I want to thank you so much for looking at the piece. I’m moving from the romance genre to thrillers (which I’d rather read), so that may account for a bit of overwriting. For James Scott Bell (whose entire writing library sits on my shelf) – it’s Quinn who believes her father to be a monster. Very soon she, and a dozen other children of serial killers, will be hunted for the sins of their fathers, as Debbie observed in her comment.

    Also – since this submission, I had decided to start in a different place – with the discovery of the first body.

    Again, thank you for all of the comments – I will take them back to my writing cave and start afresh.

    • Hi Trish,

      I know this is late, I can only hope you’ll see it.

      A serial killer was caught in the town I work in, his trial began just last week. It’s a small town, and it seems like everyone in it has been affected in some way. My co-worker’s niece was one of the victims and hearing him talk about the case is disconcerting, to say the least. I think you captured that creepy vibe that seems to consume a whole community and leave it teetering on edge.

      I don’t have any writing tips (that’s why I come here), I just wanted to tell you that your premise is captivating and very promising. The part about the children of serial killers being hunted down made my stomach turn.

      Can’t wait to read the finished product?

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