First Page Critique: Opening
With A Big Bang…In Theory

By PJ Parrish

Get ready, because we’ve got a lot of action in today’s First Page submission. Explosions! Body parts! Fiery cars!  Whew…

I’ll be back in a…uh, a flash and we’ll talk about this.

Ice Hammer: Invincible

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades.

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons.

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection.

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks.

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

Youngmi.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell.

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers around the edge of the armored SUV and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung agape as she realized her own husband had killed her.

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloping her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings.

___________________________

Dontcha just hate slow starts?  I’m kidding, of course. We’re always harping here at TKZ about the need to get out of the gate fast.  Now, if you’re a regular here, you know not to take that literally.  Getting off to a fast start in a thriller is a good idea, and I suspect we’re in thriller territory here. But that doesn’t mean you literally have to start with a car chase or flying body parts. (See Jame’s Sunday post about omniscient point of view openings for one reference). You can create tension with a slower approach.

That, as you can see, is not the case here. Things literally start with a bang. Our writer has dropped us smack into the middle of a crisis — an explosion that propelled the protag (I think) across the room and then he staggers to the window to see all hell breaking loose down on the street. What’s not to like?

Nothing, in my humble opinion. I think this is a good door by which to enter the story.  James’s axiom of “act first, explain later” is in full bore here.  And the part about the wife — supposedly dead but now appearing in the burning car — is intriguing, to say the least.

So, good set-up, writer!  But there are some problems in the execution here. We have some issues with lack of clarity: Where are we? What exactly is going on here? We have some overwriting going on. Here’s a good guideline to keep in mind: The more intense the action, the less “writerly” your writing should be. And at times, the word choices are jarringly tone-deaf, out of tune with the tone of the scene itself. More on that small but important detail in a second. Let me go through this with a fine-tooth pencil:

A blinding white light exploded across his senses. Not a bad opening line. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture, burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs. Not sure I get this image. Maybe burning the inside of the lids? A wall of sound struck a second later, with the force of a hammer blow from a giant blacksmith’s forge. I’d end after hammer. It knocked Brad Stone and the other men I’d lose them for now. Focus on your main guy; the spear-carriers clutter things up esp in the first graph! .in the room off their feet. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades. Way too many metaphors in this opening graph. Turn this into action: The window shattered and the shards razored into his face.  

He struggled back to the window, carefully raised his head to look outside and stared down at the mess his men had created on the street below. This was a big hiccup for me. HIS MEN detonated a lethal bomb in a street? Is Brad a terrorist? Because we have no context — is this a foreign locale? Are we in wartime? — I am confused about Brad’s role here and am not liking the fact he’s the cause of the carnage. Vehicles smoldered in front of the high-rise hotel. Arms, legs, heads, and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons. You need to tell us how high up he is. I know, it’s a stupid detail but important because he is about to recognize his wife’s face. You say only that vehicles are on fire “in front of the high-rise hotel.” Is Brad in this hotel or it is across the street? 

What blew up? Where was the bomb? (I assume it was a bomb). The Suburban is overturned, but if the bomb was under it, it would have been blown to bits like the other vehicles you mention. (You don’t tell us it’s armored until way too late). And you miss chances to enhance the mood here — where’s the acrid black smoke, which might partially obscure his view? What does this smell like? Screams? People running or staggering away? Why are there weapons laying about on the street? Again, because there is not even a HINT of place or context, this doesn’t add up. 

Flames licked up from the underside of the overturned Suburban, use of “the” implies specificity. So it was the target? Otherwise, it is merely a Suburban. Also, these cars are common in the U.S., the Mideast and only a few other countries, so make sure you’re right on it. It’s also the car of choice of secret service. its glossy black paint shimmered in the fiery reflection. Now here is where I think you’ve gone off-key.  This is a hell scape. Brad would not be noticing “glossy” paint “shimmering.”  Watch your tone. 

A hand appeared from inside the vehicle. More likely, a hand appeared out of a shattered driver’s side window? A person, struggling their way out. A head and shoulders raised from the open window. The person, a woman, pushed herself up until she was half out of the vehicle. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks. This construction implies Brad is thinking this, but again, its tone is off. Her face is simply covered in blood. 

She pushed her hair out of her eyes She wiped the blood from her eyes and looked up in Brad’s direction.

I think you need a physical beat here before her name. One, the odd name is not easily digested as name on first glance. Two, GET US IN BRAD”S HEAD FIRST.

Brad froze. Brad’s heart stopped. Brad grabbed the edge of the broken window and stared down. Something, anything.

Youngmi. Put this in itals. It’s a direct thought with no attribution. Plus, the stress is nice.

His wife.

His heart trembled in his chest, Another example of off-key tone. This word choice is too soft, too tender for the action. the sight filling him with horror. Show me, don’t tell me. 

He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. Problem with clarity here. We need a better transition. I didn’t get this the first time read it. Thinking I was dense, I tried it on two other people. They missed it too, asking me, “so she was already dead? Is she dead now?” When you’re doing a fake-out like this (nothing wrong with that!), you have to make it clear that’s what it is. Something needed here, like:

But it couldn’t be her. She had died two years ago. He had seen her body, seen her slumped behind the wheel of her new Mercedes SUV.  Seen her blood soaking the front of her favorite Bob Seger t-shirt. And when he had finally walked around to the window, he had seen her face — blown apart, opened and peeled back, like some grotesque flower.

He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell. This is you, the writer talking, not Brad thinking. Stay in his sensibility.

You’ve just been in a mini-flashback. You need a transition back: Now, he stared down at the woman in the Suburban. And she stared back at him. Or, the black smoke cleared and he stared down again at the woman in the Suburban.  

Another point: This is an armored SUV in some kind of war-zone place. Yet Brad doesn’t think, what the hell is she doing driving an armored car? 

This version of Youngmi stared at him, shock and recognition mingled with terror. Why would she look up to some random window in the high-rise? Makes no sense. She’s got other things to worry about. Also, the recognition thing has to be conveyed through Brad’s consciousness: 

What was it he saw in her face? Terror…but something more. Brad felt his gut clench. She was looking right at him. Jesus, did she recognize him? (You can do better, but you get the point).

The flames reached the fuel tank and erupted in a roaring blaze. The fire stretched its greedy fingers Get out of the way of your story! Too writerly. Stay in Brad’s senses. around the edge of the armored SUV THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DETAIL and this is much too late to toss it in. It implies war but you’ve given us nothing else to support that. and caught her clothes.

She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung open agape as she realized her own husband had killed her. You just shifted to her point of view. You must stay with Brad. You have to filter this revelation through him. Also, SHE’S NOT YET DEAD (at least this time), so the best she can think, “My husband is trying to kill me.”  But again, this doesn’t add up giving the scant info you’ve given us. This implies the Suburban was the bomb target. Was it? Now, because you belatedly mention it being armored, it could survive a bomb, but you must be clear on what is going on here. Maybe before the hand snaked out of the window, you can give Brad a thought about the mission of his team here?  

The flames erupted with new energy, enveloped her body. Her clothing lit like a human torch. Her face contorted in agony and the scream finally came.

“BRAAAAAAD!”

Her voice echoed his name across the city, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. There is chaos going on down in the street. Probably sirens by now and screaming. Nothing is going to echo here. 

In summary, we have a bang-up set-up here that needs some work. So what? All of our openings need work. So, dear writer, dig back in and you’ll be on the right track.

Give us a little bit more info about where we are and the context. Are we at war? Is this a terrorist hit by Brad and his men? What are they doing here? What is the mission — we need a hint at least. I really have a problem with a hero-protag being willing to sacrifice innocent lives on a crowded street like this, no matter who he thought was in the Suburban. Clean up the imagery and make this scene feel more visceral. Thanks for submitting and good luck.

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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

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Opening
With A Big Bang…In Theory

  1. An exciting opening, to be sure. And excellent, helpful comments. I was thrown by the double death. Youngmi’s first death is so similar to her second one that I worried I might be in a dream sequence.

    And I was really thrown by “the mess his men had created on the street below.” The reference to “his men” suggests a formal organization of some sort, a militia or terrorist group, one uncaring of inflicting civilian casualties. I don’t need to like my protagonist, but I do want him to be competent. Brad doesn’t seem to have known how big a boom his men going to make, and he put his team directly in harm’s way.

    • Good point, Doug, about the two deaths being too similar…I should have picked up on that because it only adds to the confusion. And I agree about the protag. I don’t have to *like* a protag either. In fact, a deeply flawed one is far more interesting in these days of cellophane heroes. But, as I said, I question Brad’s “men” (with no context) inflicting such carnage. If the mission/attack had been sharply targeted to a bad guy, yeah, I’d buy it. But the writer might have a hard climb after this opening to explain Brad and make him sympathetic.

  2. I was totally into it, but when I got to the end I had the terrible feeling this is a dream and our Lead is about to wake up. Please, no! (The beginning-with-a-dream move always feels like a cheat to me. Patterson can do it because he can publish his parking tickets. But not the rest of us.)

    Quick style note, as Kris already touched upon: His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.

    I would call the second part of this sentence RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). We KNOW from the image what he’s feeling. The explanation just slows us down and removes the immediacy of it.

  3. You definitely started off with a bang. 😎

    I got confused very early in the reading. As the scene opened, from the physical backlash of the explosion, I thought the explosion was happening TO Brad, etc. Then a little further down I read they caused it. Therefore, similar to what Doug mentioned above, I was wondering why they were in such dangerous proximity to the blast. But then I’m a desk jockey and don’t know how such things work.

    I definitely didn’t think it rang true that amidst all that chaos and destruction the woman could pick out and look directly at Brad, especially when it read as if he were a fairly considerable distance away and ostensibly someplace high up. But action scenes are hard to write. Once you bring clarity to a few things it will be much smoother.

    • Action scenes are like sex scenes…hard to do well. Less is always more and the choreography has to be clear. ie: Which body part is going in what place or direction? (Who is punching who, or…well, you fill in the blank).

  4. I hope this isn’t a dream sequence, so, for the purposes of my comments, I’ll assume it isn’t.

    I agree that we need more context and clarity, and that we’ve got some overwriting here, but I think this writer has talent.

    The main thing that saves this opening from being too much bang and not enough character, in my view, is the situation: guy thinks his wife is already dead, and then realizes that his actions have now killed her for real. Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough, but did he actually mourn her loss the first time? The situation would be even more poignant (in the midst of all the bang) if we get a better idea about his feelings for her at the time of the original “loss.” But it’s an intriguing situation, so I would read more.

    I’d still like a few hints about what type of person our MC is, however. If the writer eliminates the overwriting mentioned by PJ, s/he’d have room to give us some intriguing aspects of the MC’s character.

    • I agree, Sheryl, this writer has talent. Should have said that. 🙂
      Just needs to refine the technique to make a dent in today’s competitive market. As Stella Adler told her acting students: Technique makes talent possible.

  5. Full disclosure: I know who wrote this piece. I should probably recuse myself–and for the most part, I will–but I wanted to clarify a point. If this is a first page of a book, I believe it would be of at least the second book of a trilogy. (I read the first book.) Thus, for most readers, the characters and backstory would already be well-known.

    • But doesn’t that bring up the whole question about how to best handle backstory, John? I don’t think a writer of a series can count on a reader knowing the characters well enough to find their way into a story without some minimal guidance. Even if it is a second book with an established character — Brad Stone — I still think we need to be grounded in some context. Unless, as a writer, you never want to attract a new audience.

      • I don’t disagree at all, Kris. And that brings up an even bigger question: is a trilogy the same thing as a series? I really don’t know. I’m writing #11 in my Jonathan Grave series, but each of the books is essentially a standalone. Isn’t a trilogy (or quintilogy, if there is such a thing) one continuous story? I’m not a Tolkien fan so I’ve never read Ring books, but could a reader drop into the trilogy at Book 2 or 3 and still understand what was happening? As above, I just don’t know.

        • Somebody should probably write a post about how to re-introduce a series character with each book. I know I struggle with it, even 13 books into my series. You have to lay in some very quick sketches to give new readers enough info yet not bore longtime readers, who often know your character as well as you do. It’s one of the pitfalls of series vs stand alone!

  6. Great opening for a thriller. PJ comments were very helpful. I would definitely turn the page and read on. This sting opening promises interesting twists and turns and a great ending.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Kris already gave a thoughtful critique. Here are my comments:

    Overwriting

    One of the first thing I noticed about this piece is the use of too many metaphors on a page. Examples (and there may be more):

    1. Light so bright it seemed like it had physical texture
    2. Shards of window glass sprayed their faces and hands like hundreds of flying razor blades
    3. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks
    4. like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell
    5. Her clothing lit like a human torch

    Too many metaphors can be jarring. They often appear in first drafts, but as you go through your manuscript, I’d recommend some pruning. Five metaphors on a page is too many. This kind of thing falls under the category of overwriting. Kris also gave some other examples of overwriting in your work. There are more than I have time to mention here. However, if you put the manuscript away for a few days and then come back and look at it again, you’ll start to see these kinds of things.

    Repetition

    Try to avoid word repetition to the extent possible. Often writers will have certain words in mind when they sit down to write. It can be helpful to use a software program to identify repetition in your own work. Examples:

    The word “across” is used at least 5 times:

    1. A blinding white light exploded across his senses
    2. burning white trenches across the inside of his eyeballs
    3. and torsos lay scattered across the pavement amidst pieces of vehicles and weapons
    4. What looked like tears of blood streamed across her cheeks
    5. Her voice echoed his name across the city

    Opening Line

    “A blinding white light exploded across his senses.”

    I don’t like the “across his senses” (along with most of the other phrases that include “across” in this piece). Rather than use “his” in the first sentence, I’d use the character’s name, as Michael Hauge recommends. I’ve provided a link in one of my other critiques here. I also recommend tightening the first paragraph.

    Try something like:

    Brad Stone watched the explosion, a blinding white light so bright that it had a physical texture. A deafening sound with the force of a hammer blow struck a second later, knocking everyone in the room off of their feet. Hundreds of razor-sharp shard of window glass sprayed in all directions, lacerating faces and hands.

    Emotional Impact

    There’s certainly lots of shock and awe your opening. However, I didn’t feel much emotion when reading it. Actually, I felt no more emotion reading this than I would, say, watching a news report about some terrorist action in a foreign country.Yes, our brave writer did throw Brad Stone into jeopardy. Is he the protagonist? However, I don’t quite care about him enough to feel much emotion the way this particular snippet is written. I think what I’m looking for is a stronger voice (which might be accomplished partially by eliminating the overwriting in this sample). For me, the writing is too bogged down with hyperbole and such. However, this is just a first draft, and this stuff can be fixed. Btw, I agree with everything JSB said, as well. Please don’t make this a dream. Without knowing if Brad is the protagonist, it’s hard to give advice. However, if he is, I’d try to make his account a little more personal by getting rid of the excess words and trying to make the first page sound more like what your character would sound like if he were telling his story to a friend in a bar. Let the writing flow naturally. You’re trying too hard.

    Point of View

    It you’re going to use third-person limited POV with Brad as a POV character, this sentence doesn’t fly:

    “She did not scream, not at first. Her mouth hung agape as she realized her own husband had killed her.”

    Brad cannot know what another character realizes. He can only know what he realizes. Stay in Brad’s head.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    “His heart trembled in his chest, the sight filling him with horror.”

    The “filling him with horror” part is telling. Just say his heart trembled in his chest. The reader can assume that such a thing would fill him with horror.

    Backstory

    This is all backstory:

    “He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier. He’d been certain it was her. She was in her new Mercedes SUV with the custom license plates. She was wearing her favorite t-shirt. And she was definitely dead. Her face had been blown apart, opened up and peeled back, like a rose blossom from the gardens of hell.”

    You can easily tighten this section without losing any meaning.

    Overall Impression

    Brave writer, don’t be concerned with the number of comments. This is a just a first draft. Most writing goes through lots of revisions, particularly the first page. Take some time to think about the kind advice the nice folks here have given you, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work. Nice job! Carry on.

    • I found a typo in the suggested rewrite:

      “Hundreds of razor-sharp shard of window glass sprayed in all directions, lacerating faces and hands.”

      “shard” should read “shards”

  8. Of course, Ms. Parrish’s advice is sound. But problems or no, I felt compelled to continue reading until it was done. Nice job.

  9. How strange. This critique posted twice. Is it just me? I can see my comment on the previous post, but not on this one. Maybe my ghost is in my computer now. Eeek!

    • Appeared twice in my email too, Sue. I was late reading the post yesterday and found only one comment–yours–which seemed strange. However, when I clicked on the second post, this version with many comments, appeared.

      Same ghost haunting both our computers?

      I would definitely read on, esp. if Anon makes the great changes Kris and others suggest. Compelling premise. Well done!

        • I figured out why this happened guys. For some reason, my posts have stopped posting automatically with the schedule feature. So I have to get up early and post it by hand. Then sometimes, the original timed post appears, so it’s there twice. And depending on which one you got as a reader, you might not see the other post’s comment feed. I cannot figure out how to fix this. It’s driving me nuts.

          • The scheduler drives me crazy, too, Kris. I’ve stopped using it. Instead, like you, I just push publish on my Monday morning. Less headaches that way.

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