Be Clear About WHO and WHERE in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Greetings, first-page-critique fans. We have another one for you today, with my comments following. Pick up your favorite blue pencil, but don’t do anything with it, as it might damage your screen. Here we go:

The two camouflaged motorcycles approached the intersection from the east in a bowl of dust, and the soldier in front raised his hand to signal a stop before skidding to a halt. The second biker pulled up next to him, and they carefully observed their surroundings before they cut the engines. They sat motionless for a few moments, and listened for any sounds from the dense vegetation and trees around them. The first rider pointed to the intersection and identified the four spots where the disturbances in the road indicated the presence of landmines. He took his binoculars from the bag strapped to his chest, and scanned the area before he zoomed in on the identified spots. The mines were strategically planted in the middle of the intersection, and he noticed a wire connecting the four mines, lightly covered with gravel. He knew they were booby-trapped and if one were triggered, all four would explode in a split second.

They felt the vibration before they heard the sound of the vehicle approaching at a very high speed. Charlie looked up from the map he was balancing on the handlebars of his bike. Keith lowered the binoculars and turned to Charlie with a frown.

“What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet?” Keith said as he got off his bike and reached for his rifle strapped to his back. He turned his head sideways to identify the direction of the sound and approaching vehicle. They both looked up and saw the dust rising above the trees to the south of the intersection as the sound became louder. They realized the danger at the same time and as Charlie grabbed his rifle from his back, he shouted to Keith.

“Hit the deck! They are not going to stop!”

They scrambled in opposite directions to the side of the road, slid underneath foliage to take cover, and rolled over to face the intersection. The black Mercedes Benz entered the intersection at high speed and detonated the first landmine with the left front wheel. The explosion of the first mine hit the rear end of the car, and the chain of explosions propelled the car forward in pieces of junk and parts that flew in all directions. The second mine struck directly under the engine which became airborne and landed a few hundred yards away from the rest of the car. It all happened in super slow motion.

***

JSB: We’ve got the raw material for a good opening page here. I like a thriller that begins with a Mercedes blowing up. But like all raw material it has to be refined. The first problem is, not surprisingly, Point of View. (I say this, author, so you’ll know it’s quite common. Once you get a real handle on POV your fiction will be 80% better.)

You start us out in Omniscient POV. There’s nothing technically wrong with this if you later drop us into Third Person. This move used to be done all the time, where the opening chapter would take a wide-angle view of a setting before focusing on a character. The famous opening of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place is like that:

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases …

The town lay still in the Indian summer sun. On Elm Street, the main thoroughfare, nothing moved. The shopkeepers, who had rolled protective canvas awnings down over their front windows, took the lack of trade philosophically and retired to the back rooms of their stores where they alternately dozed, glanced at the Peyton Place Times and listened to the broadcast of a baseball game.

This goes on for several pages before Metalious gives us the protagonist, Allison McKenzie.

Today’s page, however, doesn’t use omniscience for a wide-angle view of the setting or the circumstances. Instead, the focus is on two riders, who are given names in the second paragraph. Thus, there is no reason for the omniscient beginning. It merely operates to keep us at a distance from the people involved.

Further muddying the waters is something that should never be done—simultaneous POV. Whenever you have a collective “they” feeling or thinking or hearing the same thing, we’re in more than one head and our attention is split. It also violates common sense about life. No two people ever feel or think or perceive in exactly the same way.

they carefully observed their surroundings

They felt the vibration

They both looked up and saw

They realized the danger at the same time

This dilutes the scene and robs it of emotional impact. So my main piece of advice is to re-write the whole thing from either Charlie’s or Keith’s POV. Have all the observations filtered through one of them. This is how readers relate to story. The first thing they want to know about a scene is WHO it belongs to.

Now, regarding the setting. I have no idea WHERE we are. There’s dense vegetation, but also an intersection. There’s camouflaged motorcycles and a black Mercedes. You use the terms soldier, rider, and biker interchangeably.

Where are we? What are the circumstances? War zone? Drug zone? South America? Africa? Soldiers? Mercs?

You can easily use dialogue and interior thoughts to give us essential information. When I advise act first, explain later I’m referring primarily to backstory. That can wait. What we need up front are a few drops of context, which can be woven in with the action.

Here is how David Morrell begins his international thriller, Extreme Denial:

Decker told the Italian immigration official that he had come on business.

“What type?”

“Corporate real estate.”

“The length of your visit?”

“Two weeks.”

The official stamped Decker’s passport.

Grazie,” Decker said.

He carried his suitcase from Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and although it would have been simple to make arrangements for someone to meet him, he preferred to travel the twenty-six kilometers into Rome by bus.

Go thou and do likewise.

Now a technical question: Can you see landmines? I thought the point of landmines is that they’re hidden and finding them requires some kind of metal detector or radar or robot. If I’m wrong I’m still raising a question many readers will have, so you should clarify it, once again with a bit of dialogue or interior thought. Because this book seems intended for military-thriller fans, every detail of an operation has to be accurate and precise or you will surely hear about it from readers and reviewers.

Style note: When using a dialogue attribution, it goes after the first complete sentence or clause.

NO: “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet,” Keith said.

YES: “What are they doing on the road?” Keith said. “We have not cleared it yet.”

Or the attribution can be placed before the dialogue:

Keith said, “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet.”

You can also use an action beat before the dialogue:

Keith lowered the binoculars. “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet.”

One last note on dialogue (because it’s the fastest way to improve any manuscript). Make sure it’s true to the characters. Would Keith really speak without contractions? Probably not. Thus:

“What’re they doing on the road? We haven’t cleared it yet.”

Finally, as we’ve noted many times here at TKZ, white space is a reader’s friend. Your paragraphs are too “blocky.” Don’t be afraid to break them up into two or three.

So, author, I do want to know who was in that Mercedes, who Charlie and Keith are, and where they are operating. I also want to know whose scene this is. Clarify those things, and I will likely turn the page!

The floor is now open for further critique.

7+

12 thoughts on “Be Clear About WHO and WHERE in the Opening

  1. One important thought. Motorcycles in war were mostly used in WWI and WWII. They were used to deliver messages from the command staff to the leaders in the field by the Allies and the Germans. A few had machine guns mounted on the handlebars and were used to fight. They were sometimes used for scouting. The Americans rode Harley Davidson and Indian for the most part, the Brits preferred Royal Enfield, and the Germans rode BMW.
    I don’t think motorcycles have been widely used in more recent wars. Some were used by Green Berets in Desert Storm.
    You have the bones of a good opening. But make sure you check the history to see if your story is accurate. Take Jim’s writing advice and also check the wartime use motorcycles. I can guarantee that somewhere out there is someone who has the complete history of war motorcycling in their head and will be more than willing to correct you on one blog or another. I can tell you from experience, its not pretty. Best of luck, keep writing.
    As usual, if your story is science fiction set on another world, forget my comments.

  2. Thank you for submitting your opening, brave author. I liked it, but I stumbled a bit.

    The first place I stumbled was before I even started. It’s unusual (at least in the genre novels I typically read) to have such a long first paragraph.

    The second place I faltered was the “dense vegetation” line. I already had in my mind from the first sentence “bowl of dust” (dust bowl, Oklahoma, 1930s). The camouflage and soldiers told me I was wrong about OK and 1930s, so I figured we were in a desert somewhere, Iraq perhaps. But then that was wrong because of the “dense vegetation.” I think JSB’s advice to give us more setting details upfront is wise and would have helped me out.

    I like how the opening is a scene. Something is happening. I want to turn the page to see how it turns out. Will Keith be wounded? Will the two soldiers have to hike out because their bikes were caught in the explosion? Are the folks who set the trap coming after the survivors?

    Good luck, brave author, in your continued writing journey.

  3. This is my kind of story. Exciting from the get go. I just have one small suggestion. I notice that almost every sentence has an “and.” To make your sentence structure match the tension, I would try using shorter, grittier sentences without so many ands.

  4. I did not at all mind the POV. I figured after this page you’d settle on one or the other and it would be fine.

    Two other things did confuse me:
    1. Right or wrong, the moment a writer uses the word “intersection” I’m thinking city street, or at least a well populated area. Then I was confused by the reference to the woods. Then by the use of a Mercedes. And by then I was totally confused about where we physically were and what time period. Was this apocalyptic? Set some time in the future when Mercedes were still around? I just couldn’t make sense of all the conflicting images in my head. Then,
    2. As JSB also mentioned, I was totally bumfuzzled about the land mines. I do NOT know details about military things. My exposure to landmines comes from shows like MASH where they were secreted in fields to blow away unsuspecting soldiers and citizens. So I found it odd that a) they were buried on a city/town street and b) that they were buried so shallowly and obvious, as if a child had done it.

    However, I would read on beyond first page to see if you cleared up those mysteries so that I could continue reading. 😎

  5. Considering we have a black Mercedes I assume, like others, the setting is today. Landmines do not need to be connected (boobytrapped) with a wire to insure simultaneous explosion (the explosion of the first will guarantee that when all are in proximity of one another) and binoculars to “scan the area” when they had pulled up to it? Another great resource for dialogue is anything by the great James M. Cain. No one handles dialogue like JMC.

  6. All the “he did this” then “he did that” makes for boring reading. Going for more internal rather than omniscient point of view can clear this up. At the first mention of the two charcters you may want to go for a more formal intro by giving their military titles and full names. That is a fast way to say these guys are military, and it’s also a traditional way of starting a book. When I write reviews, I sometimes have to skim through chapters before I learn what the frinking main character’s full name is. Very, very frustrating.

  7. Your comment about Peyton Place and omniscient openings reminded me of the movie “Blue Velvet” and its incredible opening minutes. While the song “Blue Velvet” croons on, David Lynch sets up an idyllic view of suburban life — picket fences with roses, a firetruck (complete with dalmation!) rolling down the street, a man watering his lawn. But then things start to get…creepy. Indoors, a woman drinks a cup of coffee but she’s watching someone pointing a gun on TV. Outside, the man’s hose kinks and he tugs. Then he has a stroke and goes down, and his nasty Jack Russell jumps in and starts biting and snarling at the water still coming from the hose. Then Lynch takes the camera down into the lawn, the song fades away, and we get a skin-crawling close-up of slimy insects gnawing and crunching. The point is made — there’s something horrifying beneath this Rockwell painting. Then, Lynch brings the camera down to the street to focus on the protagonist, Jeffrey. And we find out, in dialogue, that the dead man was his father. And the story is off and running.

    Here’s the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwuzI8Y0uW0

    As Jim said, an omniscient opening can work, but it has to have power, a sense of place, and should hint at what is to come (tone). If the writer can find a way to do this, and limit the pov to one character, there’s a good opening here.

  8. I don’t need to know their names on the first page. The fact that they are soldiers is enough. Introduce them after the explosion.

    A bowl of dust. I assume they are on a dry dirt road. Perhaps ‘a cloud of dust’ or something similar would be less confusing.

    Intersection: BJ is right, intersection evokes an urban image. If it is in the country, cross roads might be more appropriate.

    Land-mines: No problem with this. They were stopped in the intersection and had a chance to notice the fresh digs. A fast moving vehicle would not. As for the wires, I assume the mines were modern and not like the ones I trained on 55 years ago.

    Dialogue: Their speech is too formal. “They’re not going to stop,” or “They ain’t gonna stop,” would be more natural. “What they doin’ on the road?” These guys are soldiers not English majors, their speech needs to reflect that.

    In summary, a good start to a story. Perhaps shorter sentences would give more punch to the action.

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. JSB already provided you with a thoughtful critique. Here are my comments:

    POV

    JSB told you to make the “who” clear. I concur. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to provide a few references that might help. (I assume you’re already familiar with the TKZ Library, but if not, check that out, too.)

    Suggested reading: “Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One” by Robert J. Sawyer (available online) for a primer on POV.

    I’m not a fan of using “they” as you did in your opening. Third-person plural can lead to confusing sentences. (Here’s an example I love: “They gave them their gloves because theirs had holes in them.” Read Grammar Girl’s post on this: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/first-second-and-third-person?page=2).

    Also, check out “Top 3 Risky Moves For Authors” by Paula Munier (available online). Read her rules for POV. In the end, the decision is yours, but if you’re going to write in third person, I’d use third-person limited. Avoid they. Stay in one character’s head per scene.

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    One of the things I look for in openings is a protagonist that I want to follow for the length of the book. I didn’t get that in your opening. I got no sense of who the main character was. I’ve recommended one article countless times, but I must do so again. Read “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle (available online). Stay in the main character’s POV for the first scene, and let the reader experience what the main character experiences.

    Setting

    As JSB noted, a few more setting details can by woven into the beginning. Some sentences should do double duty and accomplish more than one objective.

    Landmines

    As for the landmine discussion, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, The English Patient that has lots of information about landmines. (The book is good, too.) If you’re unfamiliar with the movie/book, check them out!

    Where to Begin

    For me, the first paragraph is long and unwieldy, as another reviewer noted. Here’s one possible lead:

    “They felt the vibration before they heard the sound of the vehicle approaching at a very high speed.”

    You could begin here and write from the main character’s POV. If it’s Charlie:

    Charlie felt the vibration before he heard the sound of the rapidly approaching vehicle.

    Then weave in the stuff in the first paragraph later in the story, as necessary.

    Repetition

    You use the word “intersection” at least six times. You use the word “before” at least four times. There are many overused words. If stuff like this doesn’t leap out at you, use software to find it. Also, vary the way you begin sentences. You begin at least seven sentences with “the” and at least five sentences with “they.”

    Overwriting

    Here’s one example:

    “The second mine struck directly under the engine which became airborne and landed a few hundred yards away from the rest of the car.”

    Try this:

    When a second mine struck beneath the engine, it blasted off and landed after several hundred yards.

    (Also, by varying sentence structure, you can avoid beginning each sentence with “the.”)

    Look for ways to tighten your sentences without losing meaning.

    Adverbs

    I don’t hate adverbs, but it’s wise not to overuse them(carefully, lightly, directly, strategically).

    Dialogue

    Short and snappy is best.

    Example:

    “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet?” Keith said as he got off his bike and reached for his rifle strapped to his back.

    First of all, the second question mark should go. However, I’d get rid of the second sentence. I’d write it like this:

    “What are they doing on the road?” Keith got off his back and reached for his rifle.

    (Let the reader assume certain things like where the rifle is strapped. In general, try not to let sentences get bloated. Allow readers to use their imaginations with some of the trivial details.)

    That’s all I have time to write now, brave writer. Best of luck with your story, and keep writing. Carry on!

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