Stories Are Always Better When Something Happens

By John Gilstrap

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous has submitted a page for us to critique.  As always, the italics are mine, for the sake of clarity.  First the submission, and then I’ll see you on the flip.

Title:  Octobers Fire

The Dodge pulled up to the edge of the cliff. The man cut the engine, then the headlights. Stepping out of the car, he spent a few moments letting his eyes adjust, listening to the ticking of the hot engine block as it cooled. It was deep in the night, the hour when everyone and everything is slumbering, and the stillness was palpable. Even the crickets were asleep.

This hour was the sole domain of insomniacs.

The sliver of a crescent moon inched towards its zenith. To the west, lights from the boxy tract homes of San Amaro Hills spilled into the orange glow of the coastal cities, and to the south, a few twinkling lights peeked from the lush foliage protecting the old growth mansions of Rancho Alto. To the east, he gazed into the blackness of Fairy Glen. Its undulating hills were carpeted in shaggy chaparral, just a shade darker than the black velvet sky, freckled with stars, that hung above it. The perfect hunting grounds.

As the man’s eyes adapted, he could make out the depth of the quarry below him, the scarred surface of the granite torn away by machines and men. He pulled a half smoked cigar from the case in his pants pocket, stuck it in his mouth, but then decided against lighting it. He would savor it when the job was done.

He saw headlights approaching, bouncing and jarring up the hill.

He’d had a plan–make small talk, act jovial, share a few beers–but now found his patience was short. The thought of the whole charade seemed more distasteful than the job itself. The Rohypnol in his pocket could go to good use elsewhere, he wasn’t worried about that. He pictured a new, spectacular kind of death.

In his experience, investigations were clumsy. Police grasped at the first assumption and held on tight, like a dog with a bone. Nobody would miss this poor kid enough to investigate his death fully. It probably wouldn’t even make the local news.

He looked around his feet for the perfect rock, not too big, not too small. He remembered his boyhood in Bogota, pitching for his street gang’s stickball team. As the second car pulled up to his, he couldn’t help but smile. He still had a good arm.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.  Let’s start with the positives.  I think the writing here is very strong.  I like the details of the ticking engine and the stillness of the night.  The imagery of looking out over the sleeping town of boxy tract homes worked for me.  Kudos on that.  I have some niggling suggestions for strengthening the prose, which I’ll present below, but overall, the prose stitches together nicely.

All that’s missing is a sense of story.  And that brings us to the not-so-positives.  In these 400 words, we meet an insomniac with no name who for reasons unknown is preparing to do harm to someone else with no name.  From this sample, I could be equally convinced that the story is about either a serial killer or a werewolf.  (We learn that the remote outdoors are the “perfect hunting grounds,” yet we are also told that the hunter knows that the bouncing headlights are delivering a “poor kid” who is targeted for a “new, spectacular kind of death.”  Those are ominous phrases that ultimately have no meaning for the reader.)

I wonder more and more whether writers who submit their first-page samples have ever bothered to read the feedback given to their predecessors.  The problems that haunt this piece have mostly been discussed here on TKZ many times before.

Give us a name.  It’s impossible for a reader to bond with a pronoun or nameless entity.  The man, the boy, the woman, etc. have no humanity without a name attached. We don’t need much.  No backstory, no physical description.  Just a name will do to bring a spark of life to a character we’re meeting for the first time.

Give us action.  Lovely description is, well, lovely, but it’s not a story.  In this sample, I believe I would open with the approaching headlights.  Think of that as the framework to support the why of the story.  Consider:

Zachary Childress caressed the bottle of Rohypnol in his pocket as he watched the headlights approaching through the blackness.  They bounced and jarred up the rough hill, but they were still too far away for their engine noise to pierce the silence of the night.  Just a few feet away, the engine of his Dodge pickup ticked as it cooled.

Maybe that’s not where your story is going, but the point is that in just a few words, we know that a guy with an old-fashioned name means to make use of a date rape drug on the occupant of the approaching vehicle.  We also know that Zachary has only recently arrived.  From here, if you want to throw in a paragraph about the beauty of the night, that’s fine, but understand that that description stops the story.  (Your audience is not reading to find out what the evening looks like.  They’re reading to find out what he has in mind for his victim.)

Instead of transitioning to description, I would transition to his internal monologue.

Okay, enough of that.  Instead of rewriting your story, let me offer some suggestions on your story as it is.  The bold writing is mine.

Title:  Octobers Fire [Are we missing an apostrophe here?]

The Dodge [Give a little bit more here.  Pickup truck, maybe?] pulled up to the edge of the cliff. The man cut the engine, then the headlights. Stepping out of the car, he spent a few moments [This phrase makes me crazy.  A moment is an undefined unit of time, so a few is as long as only one.  If you mean seconds, say seconds.  Otherwise, one moment will do.] letting his eyes adjust, listening to the ticking of the hot engine block as it cooled. It was [Weak construction.  What was?  Better to say “This was the hour when everyone . . .]deep in the night, the hour when everyone and everything is slumbering, and the stillness was palpable. Even the crickets were asleep.

This hour was the sole [Really? The sole domain? What about firefighters and shift workers? Beware the unnecessary modifier.] domain of insomniacs.

The sliver of a crescent moon [As opposed to a sliver of a full moon? I’d pick either crescent or sliver, but not both] inched towards its zenith. To the west, lights from the boxy tract homes of San Amaro Hills spilled into the orange glow of the coastal cities, and to the south, a few twinkling lights peeked from the lush foliage protecting the old growth mansions of Rancho Alto. To the east, he gazed into the blackness of Fairy Glen [Be careful not to confuse your reader. Fairy Glen may well be a real place, but I’ve never heard of it. To me, this implies that Unicorn Alley may be around the corner, and that this is a fantasy/SF story.]. Its undulating hills [Do hills undulate, absent an earthquake?] were carpeted in shaggy chaparral, just a shade darker than the black velvet sky, freckled with stars, that hung above it. The perfect hunting grounds.[Except he’s not really hunting here, is he? Again, in context, “hunting” makes me think that he has not yet chosen his prey, but I think he in fact has.]

As the man’s eyes adapted, he could make out the depth of the quarry [Quarry is a bad word in this context. In the previous paragraph, you speak of hunting, and now you speak of quarry.  Beware of homonyms.] below him, the scarred surface of the granite torn away by machines and men. He pulled a half smoked cigar from the case in his pants pocket, stuck it in his mouth, but then decided against lighting it. He would savor it when the job was done.

He saw headlights approaching, bouncing and jarring up the hill.

He’d had a plan–make small talk, act jovial, share a few beers–but now found his patience was short. The thought of the whole charade seemed more distasteful than the job itself. [Does he in fact find the job distasteful?] The Rohypnol in his pocket could go to good use elsewhere, he wasn’t worried about that. He pictured a new, spectacular kind of death. [Presumably for his victim? What does he envision here?]

In his experience, investigations were clumsy. [This is a weird, jarring pivot.  Is he a cop?  If not, this seems like a non-sequitur.] Police grasped at the first assumption and held on tight, like a dog with a bone. Nobody would miss this poor kid enough to investigate his death fully. It probably wouldn’t even make the local news.

He looked around his feet for the perfect rock, [I thought it was dark. How does he see?  Is the rock his murder weapon?] not too big, not too small. He remembered his boyhood in Bogota, pitching for his street gang’s stickball team. As the second car pulled up to his, he couldn’t help but smile. He still had a good arm. [When I first read this, I presumed that he had somehow injured his other arm. Now, I think you mean a good pitching arm.]

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

11 thoughts on “Stories Are Always Better When Something Happens

  1. Your comments are well taken. My overall feeling was that this is one of those “show the crime with the nameless villain” prologues, which I’m not fond of, and then the story will move to solving the crime (assuming the nameless hunter actually kills his target.)

    • That was my suspicion as well, Terry. Opening chapter (or often prologue) written from nameless killer’s POV). Very common. Almost so common to become cliche now.

  2. Brave writer, I liked your descriptions, but I thought there were too many for an opening, and they took up room for the important first-page stuff. I’d rather know who, where, when, and something that tells me the genre.

    The who: like JG said, a name.

    Where: with such specific place names, I thought this was a real place, but when I looked them up, I got Ireland, South Africa, Texas, and Spain, so I still don’t know where we are.

    When: nicely done. We know it’s the middle of the night, that it’s some season other than the chilly midst of winter, and we know it’s 1980 or later because of the Rohypnol.

    Genre: JG explained this well. Are we looking at a werewolf story? A science fiction thriller about insomniacs?

    Brave writer, I like the sound of this writing, literally. When I read it aloud it sounded lyrical. I just think that to get me to turn the page for more, I need a little more info so I can bond with this character and wonder plot-wise what happens next. Good luck in your continued writing journey.

  3. Excellent, flowing prose with only minor tripping points that are easily fixed per John’s great suggestions. I’d read on for sure.

    Sounds like southern CA to me, foreshadowing Santa Ana winds and scorching wildfires to come. But I don’t mind not knowing an exact location yet since the setting is otherwise solid.

    Maybe clarify it’s a gravel or rock “quarry” so the reader doesn’t confuse “quarry” as a location with “quarry” as prey.

    “Good arm” didn’t bother me b/c it’s baseball jargon but “pitching arm” would make it crystal clear to someone not familiar with sporting terms.

    Well done, Anonymous Author, and let us know when this is published.

    • I agree, Debbie. The writing has a nice flow to it that I really liked. Some good description here and a solid sense of mood. I don’t mind that the guy is nameless because I am assuming the writing is using the device of un-named killer. (But as I said above, this is getting over-used in crime fiction). And the fact he denigrates cops (and their clumsy investigations) makes me believe even more he’s a black hat. But if there is no reason to withhold this name, though, then use it.

      I, too, got the feeling we were in California, but maybe one concrete reference would have been useful. I Like the subtle slip-in of the character’s “backstory” (Bogota).

      I’d definitely read on because I am thankful for any story that is rolled out smoothly these days. Just started a new book that isn’t so graceful…tons of repetition and backstory that’s driving me nuts. And this one’s another Edgar nominee. So go figure.

      P.S. To Terry: I finished Ragged Lake and liked it a lot. But I now agree with your comment about Lucy’s diary. Given her background, the diary is far too sophisticated in its style. The writer missed a chance to make Lucy “come alive” in that sense for me because the her own words were so out of tune with the narrative about her.

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kris. (And I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.) Deep POV is my preference, and that diary was clearly not in Lucy’s head. We all have our own preferences and different things that push our buttons, but at least there are enough books out there so we can choose the ones that resonate.

  4. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. John already gave you a thoughtful critique. Here are some additional comments:

    Don’t Start Your Story With a Character Alone Thinking

    I’ll begin with a quote by Josip Novokovich that appeared in a chapter of The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing on page 230:

    “A strong swimmer jumps far into the pool rather than swim from the very edge of it; the better you write, the further into the story you’ll be able to jump.”

    After reading your opening, I want to nudge you to “jump far into the pool.” Of course, one of the rules I have is to never start with a character alone thinking. See Kristin Nelson’s article (http://nelsonagency.com/2017/08/all-9-story-openings-to-avoid-in-one-handy-post/).

    Limit Description in Your Opening

    Some writing teachers advise you to make your setting like a character, and I like that advice. However, don’t do it on page one. What should be on page one of your novel? Mostly action and dialogue (unless you’re already a published author with a huge following). Read “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” by Paula Munier (on Jane Friedman’s blog). You can put the title into a search engine. Do the exercise described where you mark up your opening in colors. Of course, you may say that gazing out into the darkness is an action. This is not the kind of action you want on the first page. Readers do not want to hear about every micro action or nose scratch of a character they haven’t bonded with yet. I don’t know if this character is your protagonist. If he is, name him and introduce him properly. See Barbara Kyle’s article “Making an Entrance.”

    Start With a Scene

    Successful stories should begin with a scene experienced through a main character’s perspective. The scene should focus on meaningful conflict that advances the story. The scene should be entertaining.

    You Need a Hook

    See “How to Write a Strong Opening Hook [Novel Boot Camp #16]” by Ellen Brock and watch her YouTube video. Check out James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure if you haven’t already. Also check out the Save the Cat series. You need to get the plot and structure right, not just on your opening page.

    Don’t Reuse Verbs

    For example, the verb “pulled”:

    The Dodge pulled up to the edge of the cliff
    He pulled a half smoked cigar from the case in his pants pocket
    As the second car pulled up to his

    This is just one example. However, there are many other repeated words that leap off the page.

    Too Much Use of “Was”

    It was deep in the night
    and the stillness was palpable
    This hour was the sole domain of insomniacs
    He would savor it when the job was done
    share a few beers–but now found his patience was short

    It’s easy to rewrite these sentences. For example:

    Instead of “now found his patience was short”

    Instead, try:

    “he had no patience”

    The other way is too many words. Never take six words when you can do it just as effectively in four.

    Overwriting

    Watch out for overwriting.

    Example:

    “Its undulating hills were carpeted in shaggy chaparral, just a shade darker than the black velvet sky, freckled with stars, that hung above it.”

    Try to write it more in the voice of the way your character would say it. If he is a thug, for example, he’s not going to be saying things like “carpeted in shaggy chaparral” or “black velvet sky, freckled with stars.” That is more author intrusion. Try to write this in third-person limited POV. Say it how your character would say it.

    That’s all I have time to write now, brave writer. Don’t worry about the number of comments. All first pages need lots of revisions. It’s a process. Keep going, and best of luck.

  5. My fellow responders have given you good information on what needs improvement. I’d like offer some how to do, to tell you how I go about constructing a scene. We all do it differently, but this might inspire you to think about how you could go about it.
    For each scene (definition: http://www.aliventures.com/what-is-a-scene/) I ask these four question in this order:
    1. Why does this scene need to exist?
    2 Where does it begin?’
    3. Where will it end?
    4. How do I build tension in the scene?

    I have one of two REASONS for a scene. It moves the action of the story along or it moves the character arc forward. My best scenes do both in as few words a possible.
    START exactly one second before the real story begins. Here is an example for you story: The man that some call Little Jimmy Wales, checked his watch. The bastards were late. That pissed him off. He touched the Ruger .22 caliber pistol in in overcoat pocket. From out of the dark, headlights bobbed into view. Little Jimmy’s heart rate went up. Bastards. He’d make this hurt.
    SCENES HAVE TO END. I like to end with a bang, either an open question, a quip, or a twist. Example: Little Jimmy looked down at the body. He felt nothing.
    BUILDING TENSION In my Little Jimmy example, the watch and his anger builds tension. The ending sentence is another example of tension. We know Little Jimmy feels emotion, but not about killing. Why? (Open question)
    I hope this helps. Being a fiction writer is an insane choice in life. Its only redeeming quality is that you get to write stories. Keep writing, it is the only cure.

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