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

One thought on “First Page Critique: Opening
With a Big Bang…In Theory

  1. “He had seen his wife’s dead body only a few days after the war had started, two years earlier.” I missed that same line, Kris. It also confused me. The mini-flashback you wrote in the critique makes what happened clear to the reader.

    Anon, great start to an intriguing premise. I wish you’d let us deeper into Brad’s head. The first page lacks emotion. If Brad is struggling with the past while watching this woman die a horrible death, the reader needs to feel it. We also need a darn good reason for why he detonated a bomb. As written, I got the impression Brad’s a terrorist. If he’s our hero, I’d put the book down. If, on the other hand, you opened with the antagonist, then you need to make that clear without “telling” us. It’s a tricky technique to pull off. I know, because I use that technique in one of my series, and I rewrite those opening pages a gazillion times. It’s easier to open with the hero, which is what I suggest you do if Brad is the antagonist.

    Wishing you the best of luck, Anon!

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