First Page Critique: A Good Story
Is In Here Trying To Escape

By PJ Parrish

It’s Show and Tell Day here at TKZ school. Some of you might be old enough to remember Show and Tell Day.  (I’m told schools don’t do it much anymore, alas). Like all kids, I loved it because it was a break from the daily grind. You got to sit back and listen to your classmates tell tales and sometimes do tricks. I remember one kid who brought his pet salamander. Another girl showed off her Barbie collection. Then there was the kid who brought in a rock. There was a lot of giggling as he started. What the heck could you say about a rock? But then he told a great story about how he and his family had gone canoeing on the Platt River in northern Michigan on vacation and he had tipped over and almost drowned. He found the rock on the shore and brought it home as a souvenir of his big day. Needless to say, we were enthralled. He almost died! I never forgot him.

With that prelude, let’s take a look at today’s submission. Thank you, dear writer, for letting us learn from your work.

Nephilim of Flame

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery.

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

_______________________

As you might guess by now, I’m using this as a springboard to talk about showing versus telling in fiction. What we have here is an intriguing idea (a woman who harbors a dark secret about a murder). But the idea is obscured by two problems that are common to many openings — confusion and too much telling. Let’s tackle the confusing part first.

What’s happening on the surface isn’t the problem — Wren Wilson, the putative protagonist, is at a funeral thinking about the dead person, her own status in her community and the secret she carries.

But what’s below the surface is really confusing, especially about the relationship between Wren and the person being buried here. We get this line first:  The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. This implies Wren murdered someone, probably the person being buried? Which makes her a criminal. Then we get this line:  The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Which makes me think that Wren was abducted maybe and she killed him and escaped? So she’s not a criminal; she’s a victim. But if she was abducted, she killed in self-defense, no? So that’s not a murder. It’s a justifiable homicide. 

The town lauds her, “showering her” with “good will and sympathy.” So apparently, she did something really brave and positive? But she feels so guilty about it, she’s cried-out and can’t stand to look out at the cemetery but then she “picked irritably at her black dress.”  I don’t understand what is going on in this character’s head. I also don’t understand who is being buried — the “madman” or someone else who so far has no grounding in the story.  After I re-read this several times, I also wondering if maybe Wren was abducted (by the “madman”) and someone ELSE saved her (“the hero”) but he got killed in the process and now folks are mourning him?

Wren picked her way carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero would be interred.

Who is this “hero”? I thought she was the hero. We go on:

She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.

Other mourners? Why is this person being mourned? Again, I think the confusion is just because the initial implication here is that the “madman” who was “murdered” by Wren is now being buried. But that makes no sense given the use of “hero” and “mourners.”

I get that the writer is going for some misdirection here. Wren was some kind of victim at the hands of a madman but became a “hero” herself by escaping. But apparently, this is not true.  Wren herself tells us it is a lie. So that is a great source of tension and intrigue. But I think the writer needs to clarify the characters here — the “madman,” the “hero” and Wren’s relationship to them. And who is being buried? 

Now let’s talk about the showing versus telling.  There is minimal action here: Wren is driving up to a cemetery where a burial is taking place and walks to the grave site. That is all that happens. Everything else is thinking, remembering, regretting, thinking, sighing, thinking…

Everything is told to us. All the crucial information is conveyed through Wren’s thoughts. The first paragraph — that critical door into the reader’s imagination — is 99 percent backstory. Now, I don’t like trying to rewrite someone’s opening because we all tell our stories in our own voices, but I just want to suggest a different approach to make my point. What if this scene opened at the END of the grave site ceremony? We see Wren standing there, feeling exposed under the TV lights and cameras and the eyes of the people in her town. Maybe a pastor says a quick last word about the person being buried (so we know who it is) and Wren has a BRIEF thought about him. (No long backstory — you dribble that out artfully later!)

Then one by one, a few folks come up to talk to her. DIALOGUE IS ACTION! And this is how you begin to fill in the backstory. Let me take a stab at it:

Wren saw a woman in black moving slowly toward her but it was too late to dodge her. It was her old sixth grade teacher.

“Wren, you poor thing,” the woman said, embracing her. “I don’t know how you can come here today. Not after what that man did to you. You’re so pale. Are you okay?

Wren pulled away. “I’m fine, Mrs. Marsh.” But she wasn’t. She was downing Ambien every night and staring out the window of her florist shop every day, unable to fill the simplest order. (You slip in what she does for a living).

Wren turned to get away, nearly bumping into the tall man. The WMRK emblem of his TV station was emblazoned on his blue blazer. Mark Standish…the reporter who had been there when the police first brought her out, clothes torn, face streaked with blood. She still wondered how he had heard about her escape.

“When you going to give me the story, Wren?” Standish asked.

“I told you all as much as I remember,” she said. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t told anyone what had really happened in that week she had been held captive in that basement. She had told just enough to be called a heroine, just enough to get the sympathy of everyone in town.

Wren pushed past him and went to stand under a tree. She pressed a hand to her chest and shut her eyes tight. FILL IN HER WITH SOME BRIEF FLASHBACKS TO WHAT HAPPENED.  Wren turned to look back at the grave site. The mourners were leaving, heading back to their cars, popping up umbrellas as a light rain began to fall.

Wren waited until they were all gone then walked slowly back through the rows of plastic chairs to the edge of the grave. She looked down at the black casket.

“We know,” she said.  “You and me. We are the only ones who know the truth.”

Well, you get the idea. What I am trying to do here is to convey the same backstory but through the actions and dialogue of the characters. You needn’t have slam-bam death and destruction in your opening. But you need tension and action. Dialogue is action. It is showing. Use it!

Okay, I know I am running long but I like this submission for its potential so let me  quickly go over a few more things in Track Change edits:

Wren Wilson held her face in her hands This is an odd image and sorta cliched. Can you find a more compelling first line? but she had no more tears left in her. Besides, tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty. The town had its first murder in more than forty years and Wren was responsible. The media had eaten up the story, a heroic sacrifice that led to Wren’s escape from a madman. Somehow it had made the horrible murder easier for the town to handle. They had put Wren on a pedestal like she had accomplished something. Wren was sick to her stomach thinking about it. Not because the tragedy of it all, but because it was a lie. The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero. This is an info-dump of backstory. This needs to come out slowly, gracefully, throughout the first chapter, not in the first graph. The first graph should be a tease not a tell-all confessional.

Wren took a deep breath and lowered her hands to stare? blankly out the car window. The sunny day was already beginning to become overcast as the funeral procession approached the cemetery. Wren watched the distant clouds, doing her best to ignore the sight of the hearse and flashing lights ahead. Wren daydreamed that she was out on a normal drive with her parents, unconcerned with big city problems like murder. For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window. I think this odd jump back to childhood clutters things up here. The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery. I think this whole graph could cut. It doesn’t add anything.

Wren picked her way watch your choreography here. Did she drive or was driven? She needs to get out of the car. carefully to the cemetery plot where the hero Huh? would be interred. She had been asked to say a few words today and she fretted over what to do. To her left she could see TV crews filming the mourners while reporters updated their viewers on the day’s events. Wren tried to keep a mournful look on her face. She knew cameras would be focusing on her. You already implied this. Wren plucked at her black dress irritably. whiplash change of mood She glanced up and met the eyes of some of the other mourners, lowering her head quickly. Their sympathy made it worse.

Wren Note that you started every graph with her name. You also could use some variation in your graph length. Dialogue would go a long way to breaking up how this gray mass looks on the page sighed and shook her head, they didn’t know the whole truth, that is why they gave her those looks. Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone. Nice intrigue being placed into the story but you must find a way to convey this through ACTION and dialogue instead of all thought. 

One last thing: I really don’t like the title. When I read this cold the first time, I thought, uh oh…they gave me a fantasy story and I am terrible at those. But this story appears to be contemporary (though we get no sense of time) and set in a big city or a town. (the writer uses both phrases and they imply different places). I had to Google Niphilim. Turns out it is the Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” before the deluge, according to Genesis in the Bible. That’s kinda sorta interesting but for a contemporary murder story? Not so sure. I also don’t get the “of Flame” unless it’s put there for alliteration.  I love biblical and literary allusions in novel titles, but if your reader is sent scurrying to Google to get it, you’re in trouble.  I think it might work for fantasy, or especially dystopian fiction. For this story, as we understand it in 400 words, I think it’s off tone.

Again, thank you writer for submitting and don’t give up.  I sense there is a good story and character here waiting to escape.

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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

28 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Good Story
Is In Here Trying To Escape

  1. If Wren killed the person whose funeral she’s attending, I don’t think she’d be welcome there. No showdown with a family member? Why would she even want to go?

    I’m more interested in the kidnapping, the escape, etc.

    All the interesting parts seem to have happened before the story starts. This is thinking and thinking about thinking.

    Let’s have some action.

    • That’s a good point, Cynthia, that all the good stuff has already happened and we missed it. We can’t even tell if Wren’s abductor is dead or alive so we don’t even know if there is still a threat to her or a possibility that she will go in pursuit of him in retaliation. The set up conflict is fuzzy and the thus “promise” of a juicy story to come just isn’t clear.

  2. Beware the “character alone, thinking” opening.

    Kris’s reminder that “dialogue is action” is apt. I’m constantly taking a new writer to the point in their MS where dialogue begins. That gets us into an actual scene. And it always works.

    And as Kris points out, you need to give the reader more “white space,” and vary how you open paragraphs.

    • And the thing about starting every graph with the character’s name or the pronouns (I or he or she) is a common mistake. I do it myself. In rewrites, I have to go back and look for the string of “He did, he said…”

  3. Kris, total agreement with your comments. Nephilim also stopped me. If readers have to look up a word in the title before they even start to read the story, they may never read further.

    However, this excerpt has provocative nuggets that caught my attention. Unfortunately they are buried in non-productive thoughts and meaningless actions (face in hands, staring out window, sighing and head-shaking). The below sentences jumped out:

    “tears belonged to the grieving, not the guilty.”

    “The lie came easily to her lips after so many re-telling’s [no apostrophe b/c it’s plural, not possessive]. Wren knew she didn’t deserve the sympathy and good will showered on her. She was no damsel in distress and certainly no hero.”

    “Wren had lied to the police, to the media and to her family. She had conspired to keep the truth from everyone.”

    Brave author, those intriguing sentences make me want to learn more. Why is Wren guilty? Why is she lying? Why do people think she is something she is not? Great dramatic tension.

    Suggest you strip away everything else and concentrate on how to bring these lines to life with meaningful action and dialogue. Kris’s suggestion of a confrontation with the reporter is a perfect opportunity to show the dichotomy between the perceived truth and the actual truth, which we don’t know yet but want to find out.

    Please don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. This idea shows a lot of promise. You just need to mine the nuggets and discard the tailings. Best of luck.

  4. With the hero thing, I figured she had killed someone close to her (husband?) who was a pillar in the community, and she had to make up a story about how he’d had a psychotic break, and then she roughed herself up to fit with the story she was going to give the press. If I have to work that hard to make the story plausible, I wouldn’t turn the page. Brave writer, if my supposition is correct, you could still put intriguing questions in the readers mind, like why’d she kill him, at the same time you clear up the confusion.

    The sound of the sentences got in the way of my reading enjoyment in that over forty percent of the sentences start with Wren. It helps me in my own writing to read out loud. Then I can usually hear when I need to vary the sentence structure.

    I think you have an interesting story to tell, brave author. It just needs clearing up. Good luck in your continued writing!

  5. If I were Anon, I would send PJ Parrish a Grandma’s coffee cake because of all the tremendous effort PJ put into this opening. It’s an intriguing setup that would work better for me as a reader if I didn’t know why she felt the way she does as she mingles.Just show her feeling like a fraud. If she had a sense of humor it would help us root for her (check out Harlan Coben) but there are other ways. She could be a nervous wreck, worrying the xanax is wearing off too soon or whatever. The reader would understand she is still reeling from what she went through, and it would make a great red herring. Her secret is too big to reveal on the first page, IMO. Good luck.

    • That’s a good point — the secret is too important to reveal so quickly. Thanks.

  6. This opening confused me, as well, and I agree that there’s a good story here struggling to get out.

    This feels like the work of a relative novice, and in one place (“they had arrived to the cemetery”) perhaps even the work of someone for whom English is a second language.

    A book that I found extremely helpful at the beginning of my writing journey is SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King (https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_1_12?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=self-editing+for+fiction+writers+by+renni+browne+and+dave+king&sprefix=self-editing%2Caps%2C206&crid=EPZC7KIYHFT0)

    That book helped me to eliminate naming issues (e.g., unnecessary repetition of a character’s name can distance the reader), sentence structure issues (e.g., how to vary your sentence structure without making grammar mistakes) and many other traps for relatively new writers of fiction.

    But I do love an important element of the concept here: a woman who is lying to everyone. I see tons of opportunities to explore themes such as perception/reality, why people lie, etc., all in the context of a mystery/thriller. Go for it, brave writer.

    • Re Wren being a liar — I wonder if we are in unreliable narrator territory here? Which is not easy to pull off if you are just starting out trying to master fiction technique.

  7. I have something else besides all that’s been mentioned above that got in my way. As others have said, a lot of sentences start with the name Wren. And almost every time I initially read that word as “when” because that’s generally where that word would appear (as the first word in a sentence). If you are like most of us writers, you don’t want to change your POV’s name, you love your POV’s name, but it might be something to consider.

    • Huh…never considered that. The naming of characters is a difficult matter….it isn’t just one of your holiday games. (Apologies to TS Eliot). Maybe we should do a post on it some time.

      Happy Fourth to all, by the way!

    • Maggie, I had the exact same reaction to “Wren” placed at the beginning of each paragraph; it kept throwing me off. Good advice for Anon.

    • I had the same reaction. Instead of changing the POV’s name, change the story’s POV. It could be a powerful statement in her own words.

  8. Kris, you do an incredible job on this. Anon is a lucky writer today, even if s/he may not realize it yet. Agree on all counts. Wishing you a happy 4th!

    • 🙂 I enjoy doing these. It’s the failed teacher in me. (Have an ed degree but couldn’t find a teaching job when I got out of school).

  9. Great job on the feedback, Kris. I agree with all of it.

    This seemed to me a lost opportunity to start with a twist. If Wren is there being hero worshipped for surviving a madman, and the hero who rescued her died during the rescue, then perhaps it would be useful to see her struggling through the funeral and not reveal her feelings of guilt or her thoughts of being a murderer until the very end of the opening. She’d need to exhibit nervousness, which others she talks to misinterpret as her reaction to being abducted and the hero’s death. That would nicely mislead readers. Only at the end would we discover the real reason for her discomfort. It would come as a surprise, a nice peeling back of a layer of character. We think she’s one thing, but we learn she’s another.

    • “We think she’s one thing but we learn she’s another.”

      Yes! That would be another way to approach this.

  10. The title alone would turn me away from this book. I don’t know what (or who) a Nephilim is, and I suspect very few others actually do know. Then, the first paragraph is all backstory, not action. In this paragraph, the word “had” is used six times and “was” is used four times. Finally, every paragraph begins with the word “Wren”, which leads me to believe there will be many, many such paragraphs to come.

  11. Lots of great points here. What struck me beyond what’s already been pointed out was the lack of a disturbance in the opening lines, as Jim Bell often talks about. Reflecting on a past disturbance is not the same as an actual disturbance. This creates the effect of watching the first few minutes of a movie with a single camera above the action, drifting around, but never meeting the characters at eye level. I like PJ’s approach of using dialogue to create not just action, but disturbance. Dialogue in this scenario could expose some interesting fault lines between characters.

    All else aside, this feels like a story that opens at the wrong time and place. I’ve edited a number of manuscripts that open with as many as 30-40 pages of establishing exposition before they find their traction on the ground and get moving. The good news: it’s fixable if the story itself is solid. Finding a better way to tell a solid three-act story is one of the easier structural-edit tasks I’ve taken on over the years for clients. Usually once the writer gets the drift — and they should after this constructive spanking — they are able to do the heavy revision lifting on their own.

  12. Good points all, Jim, esp the part about the story actually beginning far beyond the exposition. And yes, it is fixable. That is the beauty of what we all try to do here at the First Page Critique — provide a discussion rather than one critique’s view. Thanks for all who weighed in today. Hope the writer found this useful.

  13. I’ve mentioned this before. Your first paragraphs gives up too much too early and destroys some of the mystery available to dazzle the reader with. Introduce us to the character. In this case, a woman has a big problem. Show us the way she behaves and have that reflect the fact that she has a problem, but don’t tell us what it is — yet. Give us a question. Why are people congratulating her and she’s not enjoying it.
    Mystery is the main character knowing more than the reader. Suspense is the reader knows more than the main character. Use both. The master of manipulating the audience (in a good way) is Alfred Hitchcock. Watch several of his movies like Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest, and Shadow of a Doubt. Note how often there is a mismatch between what the viewer knows and the main character knows. That creates tension.
    The emotional dump at the beginning is like a young man meeting a young woman for the first time and he says, “Hi, I’m Joe Jones. I’ve been convicted of two counts of rape, grave robbing, and kidnapping. What’s your name? YUCK.
    Two smaller things. First, Wren as a name makes this sound like a1980s romance novel. Amanda or Carol or ____ would be better. And, move the third sentence so it is the first.
    Remember, the only way to fail is to quit. Writing isn’t easy and it is punishing to learn. Write because you must.

  14. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Hopefully, many people will learn from Kris’ fabulous critique. I’m late to the party, and you’ve already gotten tons of feedback. However, sometimes it can help to have someone tell you something in slightly different way. I don’t have a lot of time tonight, but I’ll throw a few comments into the mix.

    Title/Genre

    The title you choose should fit the genre of your book. As several reviewers already noted, odd titles deter some readers. What kind of feeling do you want to evoke when the reader picks up your book?

    Begin With a Scene
    I often mention not to start with a character thinking about her situation, and I’ll give you that same advice. Try to imagine the first scene of your story if it were a movie. Assume no voiceovers or captions are allowed. Because nearly everything takes place in Wren’s head, a video of the first scene wouldn’t be entertaining to watch. The viewer wants to see interesting action (more than daydreaming and cloud watching) and hear dialogue. Write the scene like it were in a movie. So the first scene should include mostly action and dialogue (the kind that develops character and advances the plot), with a sprinkling of the other story elements woven into the mix. Writers do a lot of planning when it comes to the backstories of their characters and are often anxious to spill the beans to the reader right away, but resist the urge to tell too much too soon.

    Also see “All 9 Story Openings to Avoid In One Handy Post” by Kristin Nelson. (Use a search engine to find the article. Yes, Kristin has two i’s.) To learn more about scene structure, read Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. You may be able to find it at the library.

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    See “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle. It’s available online, and you should be able to find it with a search engine. You need to properly introduce your protagonist. What does the protagonist want? What’s standing in her way? What are the stakes if she doesn’t get it? Clarity is king. Readers want to know what the story is about. Right now, what I know about the protagonist is that she is a liar. Does she have any redeeming qualities? What reasons have you given the reader to want to continue to read about this person?

    Emotional Impact

    It’s important to make sure that your reader feels some kind of emotion while reading your first scene. Beth Hill offers some excellent tips in her article entitled “Get Pushy—Push Character Conflict and Reader Emotion,” which is available online.

    Narrative Thrust

    The protagonist needs to be proactive. He/she should not wait for things to happen to him/her. See “The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading” by Paula Munier, available online (Jane Friedman’s blog).

    Voice

    The voice needs work, but voice is something that takes time to develop. Here are some books to help in that area, brave writer:

    Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell
    Finding Your Voice: How To Put Personality In Your Writing by Les Edgerton

    Showing and Telling

    In Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts, she writes: “To be truly engaged in the lives of characters, events must be dramatized, rather than simply reported; for dramatic impact we must be grounded in place and experience the illusion of real time passing, which only occurs in scenes. We must live the moment along with the character, especially moments of change.” Check out the book for more great information.

    Make the Setting Unique and Memorable

    No setting should be generic. The setting in each scene should have something memorable about it. Remember that in third-person limited POV, the POV character will be more likely to notice things that have changed about places that he sees every day, though.

    Punctuation/Grammar

    This sample needs editing. I don’t have time to go through it, but some of the others have pointed out some of the issues. Here’s an example of one problematic sentence:

    “The illusion shattered when the car pulled to a stop and Wren glanced forward, they had arrived to the cemetery.”

    This sentence is awkward (and the punctuation isn’t correct.) Be sure to use a good editor to fix things like this. Also, vary sentence structure more.

    Overwriting

    Watch out for bloated sentences like this one:

    “For a few minutes, she managed to become lost in the tranquility represented by the car window.”

    I’ll leave it to you to rewrite this sentence and use fewer words. See if you can eliminate the “managed to” phrase and use fewer words.

    Overall

    You’ve gotten a boatload of great advice from everyone, and that’s a positive thing. The folks here are eager to help you bring your writing to the next level. If you have questions, just yelp.

  15. Thanks, Joanne. Great advice as always. Thanks to all others who showed up today to comment. Show and Tell Day is officially over.

  16. Everything mentioned as ‘confusing’ are the things that make the story compelling

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