You Control the Action – Make It Flow Without Distractions – First Page Critique – In Vitro

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Another intrepid author has submitted their 400-word introduction to their work-in-progress for feedback. Please read and enjoy. Provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you, my TKZ family.

***

The simple action of opening a door made Axel Chadwick an accomplice to murder.

The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. As usual, his eyes burned from reading a paper on his tablet titled The Further Evidence of Botanic Life Benefits on Astro-based Laboratories nearly too fast to comprehend. Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

Empty, he could sway without worry and delve further into his text. The soft patter of rain against the windows were interrupted by frantic bangs on the door a few feet away. A boy stood outside it. “Oi, let me in! I’m locked out!”

Axel glanced past him to see nothing but dark clouds over the beach through the window before returning back to his text. “Use the fingerprint scanner like you’re supposed to.”

“The rain—it’s short circuited it,” he cried, muffled through the glass. “I’m going to be late to my exam!”

He should have asked his name, what class he was in, which exam he had to take, and who his department head was so he could verify it, because even though no intruder had gotten onto the island before, it was the rules not to let anyone in.

A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

The windowed-hallway was far behind him when Autumn caught up, pulling the pegs from her glasses out of her knotted hair. “Ready?”

Axel read the last sentence and then powered down his tablet, pulling its handle out of its top, and carrying it to his side. “Of course. You?”

“As much as I can be.”

***

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This reads as if the story could be ripped from the headlines if the author intends this to be about a school shooting and an unauthorized entry on campus. To pull that off effectively, I would recommend the author stick to the action of the story and avoid diverging into back story or slowing the pace with actions not related to this intrusion. More details below.

FIRST TWO SENTENCES – The first sentence foreshadows what is coming, but it’s a head fake. I believe the author intended to force a compelling first line, but since it’s written in hindsight and quickly shifts into tedious details that slow the pace, it detracts rather than helps the pace and add to the intrigue. That first line might be more compelling if the author had stuck to the action and added that line to a scene ending, when Axel realizes what he’s done.

Any momentum from that first line is quickly diffused by a redirection into the POV of a student reading something on a laptop who reminiscences about the day as if he’s seeing it in hindsight with THIS line – The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. This line serves no purpose and is confusing. It should be deleted.

POV – I’m not sure why Axel is chosen as the POV, except that the author has probably given him a starring role as the main protag. I wonder how this intro might read if the POV came from the shooter gaining illegal access to the school, but let’s focus on Axel. If the action started with Axel racing through the school, against a clock, the author could set the stage better by focusing on Axel careening through the corridors, bumping into students and nearly dropping his laptop before he sees the kid pounding at the door in the rain. He knows he shouldn’t open the door (minimize his awareness of rules until later), but he tries to be a good guy and makes the mistake.

Give the shooter distinctive clothes that Axel realizes later is the guy he let into the building. Does the shooting start right away? Does the shooter do anything to let Axel realize he might’ve made a mistake? Does Axel see his face? There needs to be more tension in this gesture of opening a door, rather than Axel “telling” the reader that what he’d done was wrong. Following the action of Axel opening the door, he immediately gets back into his exam as he runs into Autumn. This diverts attention and adds to the slow pace.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – If the intruder to campus is a big deal, the author should focus on it as it happens and as the guy enters the premises. Instead we have Axel and Autumn talking about their test and if they studied enough.

AXEL’s AGE/STUDENT STATUS – I’m assuming that Axel is a student and not a teacher, although that is never really shown. Since Axel shows poor judgment in letting the student in and his mind sounds like the workings of a distracted teenager, but it’s not truly spelled out until he talks to Autumn. That point could be clearer, earlier.

DESCRIPTION OF ACTION – To give the illusion of pace, the author should give a better description of Axel’s scattered race through the halls. The original line below is too long. He’s also “striding” which is calm, but he is only thinking about “bumping into someone while trying to avoid someone else,” an awkward and distant way of describing the action. He comes across as too methodical in his run for his exam room.

BEFORE – Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

AFTER – Axel dodged bodies as he ran through the hectic atrium of Invitron. He careened through the horde of students with sweat running down his temple, Axel had one eye on the obstacles and the other on his open laptop. After he stumbled over a freshman, he nearly dropped his laptop.

“Eyes open, fish.” With his chest heaving, he darted by the bumbling kid without looking back.

Axel kept his eyes glued to the screen, studying with every second he had before his exam started.

CONTROL THE SETTING – Setting can add tension to any scene. In this intro, the author chose a soft patter of rain, against a frantic bang on the door. The sense of urgency is deflated if the rain isn’t a deluge. Since an author controls the setting, make it rain harder, where Axel feels badly for the drenched kid outside. Or have the intruder hold up his computer, saying it will be damaged, so Axel can relate to helping him.

CONTRADICTIONS – In this paragraph below, Axel is asking himself questions on why the kid is out in the “pouring rain” (that was previously described as a soft patter), but then Axel shows no regard as he lets the guy into the building without even looking at him. It’s not consistent if he has all these questions but his actions show indifference. Pick a perspective and do it for the betterment of the story.

EXAMPLE – A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

This introduction needs work in order to make it consistent, descriptive with action, and focus on a foreshadowing of things to come. If the author’s intent is to focus on Axel and his studious world, that can be accomplished by endearing  him more to the reader, so when a fake student gets him to open a security door, the reader is rooting for him. But the author would need to get deeply into Axel overachieving head and give him some traits we can identify with. Opening a door to a drenched student might be understandable if the proper groundwork is set up. Don’t foreshadow that Axel knew all the rules and still ignored them. Have him be well-meaning and let the action unfold as he is duped. That would be another way to go.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think TKZers? Would you read more? What helpful feedback would you give this author?

 

3+

31 thoughts on “You Control the Action – Make It Flow Without Distractions – First Page Critique – In Vitro

  1. Simple issues with confusion and bad choreography drew me out of this scene. Is this a lab or a school or a university? Is Axel a teacher or what? Is he walking down a hallway or has he stopped somewhere? I think he first walked down a hall, dodging kids (?) and then went into an empty exam room but after not letting the wet kid in, he decided to leave the room? Why did he go into the room in the first place? Why did he then leave it?

    And as you point out, Jordan, stories that start with variations on “Little did he know he was going to die today…” are offputting.

    • Exactly. The flow is muddled, it lacks setting & context, and a sharper focus on action would benefit this intro. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. As always, great suggestions, Jordan.

    The title “In Vitro” and the name “Invitron” gave me the initial impression of a laboratory/scientific facility rather than a school. I assumed it was a lab dealing with embryos, possibly a fertility program, or research along that line. Starting with that assumption, which might be very wrong, I wondered if Axel was a distracted doctor/scientist on his way to perform an “examination” on a patient, rather than a student taking a test. Also the mention of being on an “island” makes the facility sound isolated and maybe semi-secret.

    Then the fourteen-year-old student he steps on really threw me. What’s the setting? High school? University? Laboratory?

    When Axel describes another “student” pounding on the door, I couldn’t visualize that. I had to reread several times to realize that, instead of striding through the atrium, the “different route” Axel was taking now placed him beside a glass entrance.

    Thumbprint scanner again suggested a scientific facility instead of a school (schools don’t normally have the budget for that).

    By the end of page one, I still don’t have a clear idea where the story is taking place. Instead of wondering about the serious problem at hand (a shooter), I’m stumbling around like Axel, trying to find my way into the story.

    This is where first page critiques really help. The story/setting/characters are often crystal clear in the author’s head but that picture doesn’t make it onto the page. Fresh readers point out those missing elements.

    The idea sounds promising, the writing is generally good and clean. Brave author, if you can better ground the reader inside your story world, you should be off to a fine start. Best of luck.

    • Your take is interesting, Debbie. It just shows how much clarification is needed to make this work.

      Students and security entrances immediately took me into a potential school shooting. A sad sign of our times. If this is about someone sneaking into the facility or school to sabotage or steal, that could be set up better if the facility is described. Thanks, Debbie.

  3. I’m confused about the word -‘island’. He debated letting someone in, but said no intruder had ever made it on the island before, but if you’re buzzing a door, aren’t you already on the island? Perhaps island is a teenage word to describe school?

    • I think your reference is a case of the author sneaking in back story and foreshadowing the intruder idea associated with an island, even though a student wouldn’t immediately make that leap in logic. Good catch to point this out, Alec. There’s a lot of “telling” in this set up to pack forced details into the first 400 words. This is a case where the author should seriously rethink this opener.

  4. I’m usually I’m the reader with the most pointed reviews, but not today. I want to pass on some important thoughts about writing.
    Notice that what we do isn’t called ‘have written’, but is writing. Being a writer is the journey not a destination. You are now officially on the writer’s road. Ahead lies hours of training yourself, reading the work of others you admire, and writing. You’re writing starts out as crap and slowly gets better. I promise you will experience pain and joy. People who don’t write might think you’re weird, even dangerous or think you have magical abilities. Both are true.
    This isn’t a casual hobby, it is a difficult, soul-twisting examination of yourself and others. Then you put it on paper for others to read. Hemingway summed it up best, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter (now keyboard) and bleed.”
    When I’m done with the first draft, I reread and rewrite the piece at least twenty times before anyone else sees it. I’ve grown to be quite anal about this. I’ve learned the importance of rewriting. If you’re making a wooden table, you aren’t done when you cut it out and assemble it. You must sand and stain and seal the surface, then polish. The same is true of writing.
    I believe a writer needs three things, a sense of story, knowledge of how a story is structured, and understand grammar. The last one is the easiest because the rules are clear, learnable, and you can hire help. Thank God for editors and Strunk & White. The other two items in the list are also learnable but are totally up to you. Others have written on these subjects and must be read.
    Best of luck. I look forward to reading more of your work. The only failed book is the one you don’t write.

  5. Usually I stop reading the minute I see “x didn’t know blah-blah-blah was going to happen.”

    I thought this was going to be about an evil research facility on an island. Confused me when all these kids showed up.

    Planting seemed out of place (though planting a garden of 14-year-olds might make a good horror story).

    “Pegs” confused me (I think I figured it out) that’s where I would have given up and stopped reading.

    I hope it is about an evil research facility on an island. I love that type of story..

    • The evil research facility on an island sounds YA. It’s been done before, but I’m always hopeful when someone finds a new way of writing it. Very creepy.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Jordan already gave you some wise advice. Here are my notes:

    Introducing Your Protagonist

    Be careful not to let your protagonist come across as a stereotypical geek. Make him unique, and give us a reason to worry about him. Maybe he opens the door, but then he worries about his actions. Show the reader how his concern increases in intensity as the action unfolds. Give the readers a way to differentiate Axel from any other geek.

    Opening Line

    “The simple action of opening a door made Axel Chadwick an accomplice to murder.”

    It’s a little clunky. Honestly, I’d get right into the action. Try something like this:

    Axel Chadwick knew he shouldn’t open the door, but the frantic cries of the boy grew louder than the sound of the pounding rain.

    Backstory/Internal Monologue

    Backstory is all the stuff that happened before your opening scene. It’s best to restrict backstory as much as possible on your first page. For example, this is all stuff that happened beforehand (mixed with a bit of internal monologue):

    The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. As usual, his eyes burned from reading a paper on his tablet titled The Further Evidence of Botanic Life Benefits on Astro-based Laboratories nearly too fast to comprehend. Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

    Empty, he could sway without worry and delve further into his text.

    ***

    Start with what’s happening at the moment the story begins, and don’t have the character ruminate about what happened a few minutes before.

    You’re using way too much internal monologue (character thoughts) on your first page. For example:

    “A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything.”

    This is too much internal monologue, particularly after the previous paragraph of it. Never tell us what the character didn’t do. If he didn’t do it, don’t waste first page real estate telling the reader about it.

    In general, trim all unnecessary internal monologue and backstory from the opening. Focus on action and dialogue.

    Setting

    Most people give too much description of the setting, but I think you could give a few more setting details (not paragraphs of it but weave it into the action).

    POV

    “Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet…”

    Be careful. If Axel is the POV character, he would not notice that his own arms were lanky.

    Study How to Create Suspense

    See the presentation “Elements of Suspense in Literature” (available online) by Lori Jordan. Read “Write Like Stephen King” in Fiction Writing Master Class by William Crane.

    Punctuation/Grammar

    Subject/Verb Agreement

    “The soft patter of rain against the windows were interrupted by frantic bangs on the door a few feet away.”

    In this sentence “patter” is the noun. Patter is singular. So, keep the verb singular. However, I don’t like the use of “was” here, either. That’s easy to do by reorganizing your sentence like this:

    Frantic bangs on the nearby door interrupted the soft patter of rain against the windows.

    Pronoun References

    “He should have asked his name, what class he was in, which exam he had to take, and who his department head was so he could verify it, because even though no intruder had gotten onto the island before, it was the rules not to let anyone in.”

    Make sure your pronoun references (“he”) are clear. He can only refer to one person. (I don’t have time to edit your whole piece. Be sure to get an editor to find these kinds of errors for you.

    Also, this sentence:

    “The windowed-hallway was far behind him when Autumn caught up, pulling the pegs from her glasses out of her knotted hair”

    The word “him” here refers back to the word “student” in your previous sentence, and I’m not sure that’s what you intended.

    Use of Hyphens

    “The windowed-hallway was far behind…”

    Why did you use a hyphen here? Hyphens aren’t something to insert between words because it looks cool. You should have a reason for the hyphen. The GrammarBook website has lots of information about the rules for hyphens.

    Repeated Words

    You repeat many words. For example, the word “tablet” was used four times:

    “reading a paper on his tablet”
    “nearly dropping his tablet”
    “propped up his tablet”
    “powered down his tablet”

    Readers won’t care that much about all the details about this guy’s tablet unless it has major story significance. The first page is important real estate. I wouldn’t dwell so much on the tablet.

    If you don’t have editing software to help find repeated words and such for you, don’t worry. There’s a free tool online here that will help you: http://sporkforge.com/text/word_count.php

    Of course words like “the” and such will crop up many times. However, if you find other kinds of words cropping up again and again, that’s worth another look.

    Awkward Use of “Was”

    “it was the rules not to let anyone in.”

    I’d reword it to something like this:

    “the rules mandated fingerprint scans.”

    Titles of Articles

    Put titles of articles in quotes. For example:

    “The Further Evidence of Botanic Life Benefits on Astro-based Laboratories”

    Good job. Don’t be concerned with the number of comments. The first draft is always the toughest. Best of luck with your revisions. Carry on!

      • You’re too kind, Brian. I do my best as time allows for each critique. The writers at TKZ are all generous with their time. I’m sure our brave writer will pay it forward one day, too, as we all should as a way of thanking our own teachers/mentors.

  7. Two observations:

    One, I think writers should step back and try to envision their scenes as if they were being filmed for a movie. Does your scene as written call for a lot of zoom-ins and outs? Wipes and swipes and swish-pans and jump-cuts? If your “story-camera” can’t track a scene in a linear way, that may be a tell that your scene isn’t working as well as you think or hope.

    Two, first scenes often go sideways because of the pressures writers feel to deliver the perfect first-line hook. In this example, I can almost see the other 137 lines the writer tried out and discarded in their attempt to write the perfect agent-friendly hook. But I would submit that starting by stepping back and foreshadowing is almost always a wrong first step. Put us in a moment — and keep us there. If you’re crafted your disturbance to the POV character’s world correctly, the tension and high stakes signaled by foreshadowing will suggest itself, naturally. Remember that we’re writing novels here, not movie-poster taglines.

    • Right, Jim. And if a voiceover would be needed to film the scene, that’s usually a bad sign. (There are exceptions.)

    • Perfect, Jim. I love your movie analogy. I like to watch favorite movies and go over key scenes to imagine how I might’ve written it. It’s a good exercise. Then comes the turning points and plot movements that provide the framework for the book, but it’s vital that words trigger imagery in a reader’s mind like a movie happening. Well said.

      I agree with your comment on over-thinking the first line and foreshadowing. First scenes are so important to get right. They can mean the difference between an agent or an editor asking for more, or for a reader to keep reading. Thank you.

  8. Accept the critique. Recognize what’s critiqued. Appreciate honest critiquing. Study the “How To’ books. Read The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn–love his writing style. He said, “I try to write memorable sentences. I spend a lot of time trying to craft my prose.” I wanna do that too and that takes practice.
    Sign up for online classes. Listen to podcasts of authors. Write, write, write.
    A year or two later, return to the first story you wrote, and if you say, ‘Really? I wrote that? Ugh.’
    Imagine feeling the buzz prickling your skin, and your nerves jumping for joy. Yah gonna wanna write more.

  9. I agree with most of the comments that are written here. I think the story has an enormous amount of potential. And I love the opening sentence. I know that’s not a popular sentiment, but if the writer would have Axel open the door immediately after the opening sentence, great things could be accomplished.

    As it stands now, the information provided before Axel opens the door doesn’t seem important. Does the title of the article really matter? Does the fact that he is rushing play any significance? And, I know this takes place after he opens the door, but when his friend arrives, we’re thrown into what seems like a deserted hallway where Axel is ambling along. It contradicts him rushing and bumping into people.

    I suggest cutting all of that out. Have Axel open the door and interact with what I can only assume is the shooter. You’ve built tension with your opening statement capitalize on it. Have him look this stranger in the eye. Does the shooter look away? Is there something familiar about the shooter that Axel can’t put his finger on?

    I’m assuming the shooter doesn’t open fire right away and he doesn’t have to, but there needs to be a moment where the reader believes that’s what is going to happen. Maybe the shooter stares at him for a second too long. Maybe Axel’s friend interrupts Axel before he can question the shooter.

    The possibilities are endless here. Keep writing brave writer.

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