First Page Critique: She Said No

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their opening page for critique. Your help is encouraged and appreciated. Catch ya on the flipside with my comments/suggestions.

She Said No.

1996

She walked with a steady clip down Wilshire Boulevard as she did every morning, looking forward to nothing but the usual. The bank where she worked as a telephone operator was two blocks away, but she was early and not in a hurry. With the sun warming her skin, she reached the familiar theater where she spent many free nights.

Her gaze sought out the movie posters and her feet dragged. She veered right and followed the worn path as if programmed. Won’t take but a minute to see what’s playing. An alien hovered over New York in Independence Day. A girl with wide eyes and open mouth filled the poster for Scream. Richard Gere under a circle of light in Primal Fear. She enjoyed being alone in a dark theater. A few quick hours in the worlds of romance, adventure, and mystery replaced her dull existence of money troubles, loneliness, and an uncertain future.

At eighteen she was on her own for the first time. Kicked out of the house, living at the YMCA, she had no regrets. She got what she wanted. The freedom to live with nobody telling her who to befriend or how to pass the time. After her boring job paid for the room and a few necessities, she used what was left to see a flick once a week.

A movement inside the theater caught her attention. A young man opened the door and stepped outside. He used a rag to swipe the window next to the entrance then stopped to admire his handiwork. Or his own reflection. He must have seen her in the mirrored shine because he turned and flashed a smile. She couldn’t help but stare. He was Brad Pitt in her favorite movie, Thelma and Louise. His streaked blond hair swept casually across his forehead. His tight shirt showed off a muscular torso. He beckoned with a friendly wave. She started to wave back, but let her hand drop. Is he flirting?She stifled a giggle. Shouldn’t encourage him. She had to get to work.

She hadn’t met any young men since she moved to L.A. Even if she did meet someone, the YWCA didn’t allow male visitors in her room, and who wanted to sit with a date in the common area?

“Come here, don’t be shy,” he called out. “Want to show you something.”

***

Okay, time for a little tough love. Anon, please know what follows comes from a place of genuine concern. I want you to succeed, I really do.

By the title I assume this story will deal with date rape. Which promises a landscape rife with conflict, yet nothing interesting happens on this first page. Nothing. As written, the protagonist—by the way, please use her name right away so we know who’s head we’re in—has a boring job and boring life. Why would we want to spend time with her? We read to escape, to experience adventure, to live through heroes we relate to or yearn to be more like. Readers don’t necessarily need to like our MC as long as they “empathize” with them. I’m sorry, but you didn’t accomplish that in this opening.

The only thing that intrigues me is that title—a promise of an emotional journey.

Let me tell you where I’m comin’ from real quick. My Grafton County Series features a rape survivor as the MC, and she’s not an easy character to write. I’m so invested during the writing process, it emotionally drains me. Nightmares resume. I’ve even screamed in my sleep and woken my husband. By the time edits roll around, part of me dreads having to relive the hell I’ve put my MC through. My dark side revels in it. The point is, if we play it safe, readers will able to tell. As writers, we risk losing pieces of our soul, our blood spilled across the keyboard, raw emotions on display for all to judge.

I tell you this, Anon, to show you I understand how difficult it is to read a harsh critique. In fact, I delayed working on this first page for the same reason. Trust me when I tell you, there isn’t one professional writer who hasn’t read similar notes about their own work. Myself included.

Okay, so, now that we know what the problem is, how can we improve this first page?

START OVER

Choose a better place to start your story. Keep the important parts of this first page for a later scene. I’m guessing the dude at the theater is the rapist? If so, showing how they met may be crucial to the plot. Include the backstory by sprinkling it in after their encounter. An option is opening with this woman in the hospital undergoing the rape exam, which many victims say feels like being raped all over again. While nurses poke and prod her, she thinks back to the first time they met.

Quick example …

On the first day she met [insert name] he reminded her of Brad Pitt. Aqua cleaner trickled down the windows of the theater as he scrubbed the glass, muscle upon muscle testing the seams of his T-shirt. A blazing sun burned through morning clouds, warming her face, chest, and arms, tricking her to believe this was an ordinary day. Why didn’t she keep walking?

Then get back to the action in the room. You’re doling out information little by little but leaving out tidbits to intrigue the reader. Thereby setting up a future scene.

If you plan to show the actual rape rather than the aftermath that stems from such brutality, Chapter Two could start x-amount of days earlier. The readers are already invested in her story, because they know something terrible is about to happen. Showing how humdrum her life was before the rape will take on new meaning. Here’s the thing, though. Even with this technique, we still need some sort of conflict in each scene. Skip the parts where nothing happens and get right to the good parts. The more visceral the experience, the better.

STRUCTURE THE SCENE

By structuring our scenes, the story keeps moving forward. Proper structure makes it nearly impossible to leave the MC musing about nothing.

Scene structure looks like this …

GOAL: What does your POV character want?

CONFLICT: Obstacles she encounters that prevents her from reaching that goal.

DISASTER: Things get even worse for her. Pile on the conflicts to prevent her from reaching that goal.

REACTION:  How does she feel about it? Try triggering all five senses for a more emotional read.

DILEMMA: If she does this, then that will happen. A situation where there’s no right answer. If she does X, then Y will happen. She has an impossible choice to make with no good options.

DECISION: What will your MC do? This decision is often the GOAL of the next scene.

MOTIVATION-REACTION UNITS

Motivation = external

Reaction = internal

Humans are emotional creatures. Outside stimuli causes us to react. Sometimes it’s on a micro-level, other times it manifests physically. It’s our job to match the reaction to the motivation. To see MRU’s in action check out this post.

Once we learn how to use MRU’s in our writing it becomes automatic.

 

Anon, you’ve got a firm grasp of POV which puts you ahead of the game. Let us feel your character’s emotions, let us experience her terror, joy, fear, and sadness. Force us to care and we’ll stick around to see what happens. Best of luck to you, Anon. You can do this!

Over to you, TKZ family. Please weigh in with your suggestions and/or comments. I’m in final edits for SCATHED (deadline Friday), so please excuse my delay in responding to comments.

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About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling crime writer of psychological thrillers. She also writes true crime: PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND is anticipated to hit stores in Fall 2020, published by Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield). In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net (Murder Blog sits at #5). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

37 thoughts on “First Page Critique: She Said No

  1. Is it just me (I?) who’s tired of stories that start out with a naked pronoun? Not to pick on today’s author. It seems to be “the thing to do,” but it’s starting to feel like an artsy device that’s infected the writing world.

    Should it receive the same kind of (provisional) ban that adverbs and semi-colons receive (if you use it, you’d better be darn sure you’re using it to good effect)?

    • I agree, Eric. Unless it’s used for an antagonist to protect the mystery of his identity, not naming the protagonist irks me, too. It’s a bit more difficult to include the name in 1st POV, but we need to find a way to sneak it in.

      Gee, I hope picking on the author isn’t the thing to do on TKZ. Our mission is to help, not to crush someone’s writing dreams. It kills me to deliver to a harsh critique. I’d much rather praise the writer for a job well done. But if, say, I just edited this first page, I’d be doing Anon a disservice.

    • First Page alum here. Can’t resist jumping in; hope that’s OK.

      I see nothing wrong with “naked pronoun” beginnings. As long as the protag’s name is brought in at some point (quickly, hopefully). *If* the protag is in the first scene. Adds mystery, which is sometimes desirable.

      “He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way…” — The Great Gatsby

      “His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him…” — Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel

      “The two hunters could see it would not go well. They sat on the high bank…” — from me, remember?

      So for this Anon, I don’t need to know her name at the start. But soon.

      • There are many types of pronouns:

        Personal pronouns (e.g., he, they)
        Demonstrative pronouns (e.g., this, these)
        Interrogative pronouns (e.g., which, who)
        Indefinite pronouns (e.g., none, several)
        Possessive pronouns (e.g., his, your)
        Reciprocal pronouns (e.g., each other, one another)
        Relative pronouns (e.g., which, where)
        Reflexive pronouns (e.g., itself, himself)
        Intensive pronouns (e.g., itself, himself)

        See Grammar Monster site for examples of each.

        She is a personal pronoun. If a story begins with “she,” it is unclear who “she” refers to in the opening sentence. Why create confusion? If the character’s name is Mary Smith, just say “Mary Smith” instead of she.

        Pronouns should have a clear, unmistakable antecedent.
        (https://webapps.towson.edu/ows/proref.htm)

        Many authors choose to break rules, but in this case, the author should begin with the character’s name.

        • You both make great points, but I need to side with Joanne on this topic. We must first learn the rules in order to break them. Unless, as Eric mentioned, we have a rock-solid reason for going against the norm, a reason that will quickly become clear to the reader.

          Herald, you are always welcome to add your two-cents. We love First Page Alums!

      • I see nothing wrong with “naked pronoun” beginnings.

        I agree. Knowing the character’s name doesn’t make me bond with them any sooner. Since a first page full of details drives me nuts, I would rather learn something interesting about them.

  2. I like starting the scene in the hospital. As an alternate, the woman could be walking to the theater expecting to see the window washer again. Maybe she’s seen him there a few times before but she was too shy to talk. Today’s the day she’ll get her courage up, and then some terrible happens. Or maybe she’s always curious about where the window washer goes and decides to follow him one day – bad move on her part.

    The nice thing about the hospital scene is that it’s already setup for a lot of action – ambulances blaring their sirens, gurneys rushing about, people yelling “stat” (do they really do that?) Then you can contrast that with completely opposite emotions (balloons with “It’s a Girl!,” laughter, etc.)

    • All excellent suggestions, Mike. Love the juxtaposition with “It’s a Girl” balloons, too.

      Yes, they do yell “stat.” I checked with a nurse friend last year; I’d wondered the same thing. LOL

      • Actually virtually no one yells stat. Never heard in 25 yrs as emergency doc in level one trauma centers and I queried a nurse FB group with 25k members to see if my experience was unusual. Likewise virtually zero (it’s generally considered lame).
        A number of tests may have ‘stat’ in order entry. All ER tests are lab designated stat but yelling it, etc is rare and eye-roll material

        • Good to know, Tom. Thank you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s an ER nurse in Florida that I need to track down. 😉 Hahaha.

  3. Author, don’t feel bad, for this is a common move I’ve seen in countless manuscripts by newer writers—a first page larded with exposition/backstory because the author thinks the reader has to know this to understand the scene before the action of the scene begins. But readers don’t need to know and, indeed (subconsciously) they DON”T want to know. They want action and mystery. WHY is this happening? WHY do the character talk this way? Etc.

    As I always say: Act first, explain later.

    One strategy is to go where the dialogue starts. Why? Because that’s automatically a scene, not narrative. It forces you to concentrate on the action and conflict.

    So start with your last line, your dialogue! Then try to write two or three pages with absolutely no backstory. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

    One positive note: your writing style is clean. The crisp sentences are right for this genre.

  4. I like Sue’s advice to start the story at a different place. It would be easier to pick a point in time that just screams conflict. I’ve also read on this blog the advice to write the rest of the novel then go back and write the opening. That might help, too.

    Putting the manuscript out of sight for awhile and then coming back to read it fresh might help catch those little oops like the YMCA-YWCA mix up.

    Thanks for submitting your first page, brave writer, and good luck in your continued writing journey.

  5. Anybody would be fortunate to get an expert review of a first page like Sue has kindly given.

    I’m not attempting to review the first page, just thought I’d give an impression or two. We do get a pretty clear sense of what this will be about, so because I know that, I’m looking to get a deeper sense of this young woman’s personality. She’s coming across to me as pretty meek (she doesn’t see a way to date a guy because she’s living at the YMCA–she’ll follow their rules about guys there…but what about other places they could go?), maybe someone who is kind of drifting a bit in life at this point and yet there’s some interesting things raised (that could be amped up a bit to draw out some unique stuff about her)—like along the lines of she was “kicked out of her house” and she’s living at the YMCA. We are told that she’s gotten what she wanted, the freedom to do as she wants but I’m not feeling much tension in any of this or passion either. She has no regrets. None??? So the sense to me is that what happened to get her to this point was all pretty low key. I’m not feeling much of her passion or attitude other than her love for movies and maybe a guy with muscles. I’d like to get a better sense of some tension/conflict in or about her (or some deep want or care) that is maybe just a hint of things to come.. I want to feel like there’s more to reveal about her other than the stage-front stuff, i.e., this looming attack.

    • Having to deliver bad news kept me up half the night. Your comment means a lot. Thank you, John.

      The lack of emotion — passion, regret, dreams for the future — didn’t ring true for me, either. Adding tension/conflict that hints at things to come is a great idea. Yes, a deep want or need is important. I agree.

  6. I’m afraid I have have more tough love for you, Anon. My first rule is never bore the reader. As horrible as rape (assuming that’s the subject) is, it is so common that it lacks tension, unless you give us more. And that would be the MC doing what every victim would like, extract revenge. So Shakespearian.
    By giving the background story immediately, you rob you work of tension. Cut out all backstory, who needs it. The answer is no one. By taking out the backstory, your message becomes more universal. So, here is my suggestion. Start at the end. Make that the beginning of the reader’s journey.
    Possibility:
    Kathy Williams nudged the body with the toe of her boot. Looking at that bastard’s smug face change when he saw her raise the pistol had been priceless. She held her arm straight out over the body and did a microphone dead drop with the pistol. Then turned and walked away. There were a lot more rapists in the world. Time to find another one.
    Just a thought.

  7. As Sue said, we all struggle with this — the decision of when and where is the optimal point to enter your story. I struggled with this for months on my WIP until last week I found the “door.” (I blogged about this two weeks ago). So know, dear writer, that you’re not alone.

    I think it was James who pointed out that we often begin a story with a description of “normal life” believing we have to show the “before” to make the “after” more awful. Not true. It’s better to jump right to the awful and then go back and artfully fill in the before — what the life was that was disrupted. It’s more powerful to mourn the loss after we’ve experienced the “death.” (Am blogging about just this subject tomorrow).

    Don’t despair, writer. And don’t be afraid to start over.

    • I struggle with the same thing, Kris. Hence why I rewrite my opening a gazillion times after I complete the first draft. No writing is ever wasted, IMO. If we cut and paste into a document entitled “unused scenes,” we may find the scene fits better in a future book.

    • So true. My last critique partners hated the beginning of my WIP. They pretty much reiterated everything the others here have said. I ended up removing the first three chapters and starting the story at chapter four.

  8. I’m still hung up on the first paragraph.

    You walk “at a steady clip” not with a steady clip. But the next sentence says she’s in no hurry. Those two things are at odds. Also, “steady clip” feels dated.

    Then her feet “drag.” Three paragraphs just to get her to the theater on her way to work.

    Also, I don’t know any 18-year-olds who refer to a guy their age as a “young man.”

    Overall, I’m not sold that I’m in the POV of an 18-year-old girl. So, I’m not engaged.

    Sue gave great examples and you’ll get more. TKZ readers are the best.

  9. Every time I start to read a story that doesn’t have a character name, I presume (unfairly, I admit, but it’s a character trait) that the person is either intoxicated, overdosed, impaired, or is a homeless drifter who can’t remember who he or she is.

    To me, a name contributes mightily to the character who tells us something important about him or her.

    It wouldn’t have been nearly the same great book if Melville had written, “Call me . . . well, never mind, because I want to be mysterious, anonymous, and I want to confuse you totally about me, right off the cricket bat. But wait’ll you get to the whale part.”

    More than enough said.

  10. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. First, let me say that I like that your protagonist is a movie buff, and I’m curious about her for that reason. Sue and some of the other regulars have given some great advice already. Here are my notes:

    Opening Line

    “She walked with a steady clip down Wilshire Boulevard as she did every morning, looking forward to nothing but the usual.”

    A good opening line should seduce the reader, as Michael Hauge likes to say. If you introduce your novel with some hint of a story question, you have a better chance of getting the reader to continue. Don’t use the word “she” without letting the reader know who “she” is first. Introduce the character with her name.

    Setting

    Good job on providing the when/where details of the scene.

    Tone

    The title of your story suggests that a rape will take place. If that’s true, you probably don’t want to dwell on the guy’s looks the way that you would in a romance novel. The beginning of the story should prepare the reader for the coming tone. (That line comes straight from one of my favorite English teachers.)

    Backstory

    “At eighteen she was on her own for the first time. Kicked out of the house, living at the YMCA, she had no regrets. She got what she wanted. The freedom to live with nobody telling her who to befriend or how to pass the time. After her boring job paid for the room and a few necessities, she used what was left to see a flick once a week.”

    This is backstory. I’d trim it to the essential bits.

    Inner Monologue

    “Won’t take but a minute to see what’s playing. An alien hovered over New York in Independence Day. A girl with wide eyes and open mouth filled the poster for Scream. Richard Gere under a circle of light in Primal Fear. She enjoyed being alone in a dark theater. A few quick hours in the worlds of romance, adventure, and mystery replaced her dull existence of money troubles, loneliness, and an uncertain future.”

    This is an example of inner monologue. The first page isn’t the place for the character to be doing a lot of thinking. Stick to mostly action and dialogue, and weave in the other stuff in small bits. Hook the reader before you share your character’s inner thoughts..

    POV

    As Sue noted, you make good use of third-person limited POV. Try not to use the word “she” too much, though. For example:

    “She hadn’t met any young men since she moved to L.A.”

    I’d write it like this:

    She hadn’t met any guys since moving to L.A.

    Where to Start Your Story

    Without knowing your premise, it’s hard to advise where to begin your story in terms of the plot. However, in this snippet, you need to get to the significant action quickly. Here’s an example (for demonstration purposes, not trying to rewrite your story for you) how to get to the action quicker:

    When Captain Handsome opened the door of the theater on Wilshire Boulevard, Rosie Smith stopped looking at the movie posters and fanned herself. Brad Pitt’s doppelganger wiped the window next to the entrance then stopped to admire his handiwork. Or his own reflection.

    “Come here,” he called out. “Want to show you something.”

    ***

    Overwriting

    “A few quick hours” – just say “a few hours”

    “A young man opened the door and stepped outside.”

    No need to give every tiny action. Readers will assume that he opened the door before he stepped outside. Go through your writing and look for places where you can consolidate. For the most part, your sentences flow fairly well, but I still see a number of things that can be tightened.

    That’s all for now. I could give more feedback if I knew your premise, genre, major plot points and such. Oh, and pay attention to Terri’s advice.

    So, you survived your critique here at TKZ. Go have a piece of chocolate, or whatever you like, and then back to work, brave writer. Best of luck and keep writing!

    • Fabulous as always, Joanne. Whether the Anons realize how much time and effort you put into these helpful comments on critique day, the writers who go back and reread your suggestions once the initial sting passes will be all that much further along in their writing journey. I think I can speak for all of us at TKZ when I say thank you, thank you, thank you!

      • We think alike on so many things, Sue. I appreciate all that you add to TKZ, as well. I love the team atmosphere here. I never want anyone to feel a “sting” after reading anything that I write, though. I’m sure you feel the same way. We’re all trying to help.

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