First Page Critique: They’re Gone

 

Greetings, writers.

Today, join us for a peek into the life of the cutest family ever! Take it away, Brave Author:

CHAPTER 1

We all have secrets. Josh prefers to keep his hidden, especially from his wife. Josh Benson is a 35 year old family man, devoted father, and loving husband. He has no idea his life will shatter in the next 24 hours.

Josh is scrolling through cell phone photos. He stops at one in particular. It’s from his first date with Lauren. He looks fit and his blue eyes are staring into Lauren’s without a hint of deception. Things change. This photo was taken nine years ago.

He hears little footsteps scurrying across the hardwood floor. Sean and Cooper come running into the living room and jump on the couch like it’s a trampoline.

“Mommy, Daddy, can we watch tv?” It’s a Saturday morning so this excitement is expected.

Lauren says, “Yes, but you need to quit breaking the couch. I’ve told you a hundred times.”

“Fine Mommy, we’ll stop.” The things kids say just to watch television.

Josh clicks a button on the remote control and asks the boys what show they want to watch.

They both respond at the exact same time as if they’re the Backstreet Boys. “Sesame Street!”

Josh looks at his two greatest accomplishments and just smiles. He loves them more than life itself.

After the kids find out the number of the day, they consume some snacks like Joey Chestnut in a hot dog eating competition.

Josh says, “Okay boys, guess what today is?”

“Family day!” Everyone cheers. Josh and Lauren are taking the boys to the Philadelphia Zoo for the first time.

“Who’s ready for the zoo? Who wants to see a lion?”

Cooper starts roaring as loudly as he can. He’s 3 years old so this is appropriate behavior.

The boys are adorable, as in they’re so perfectly good looking, you would think Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston had kids in their prime and out came Sean and Cooper.

Sean, their 5 year old, is full of life and never stops. He’s like the Energizer bunny. He says, “I’ll be right back, Daddy!”

He plays a quick game of frogger to avoid the never-ending amount of toys scattered across the living room floor. Once he finds the right bin, he puts on his favorite costume. He dresses up in a black mask, puffed out chest, gold utility belt, and a long black cape. He hustles to the kitchen table and taps Josh’s shoulder.

 

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Before rushing into the meat of this submission, let’s address the piece’s first word: We. “We” is a huge word, and its implications are several.

  1. “We” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator.
  2. Who is included in this we? Does it include all humans? Is it a Greek-style chorus of Josh’s friends and family? Perhaps an alien tribunal?
  3. Hearing this particular “we,” I’m immediately put in mind of Rod Serling’s opening and closing monologues on the original Twilight Zone television series. Serling’s monologues had an intimate, confidential, we’re all in this together, feel. He seemed to be addressing each listener across a table set with crystal ashtrays and chilled cocktails.
  4. A story with a first-person, plural narrator is definitely akin to second-person narration, which uses “you” handily. As in, “You may be reading this thinking, ‘Oh! The author is going to kill off that darling little puppy!’ But you would be wrong. We all know I’m way smarter than that.”

“We,” as intimate as it sounds, here leads us into a scene over which we hover as though we’re watching images sent back to us via drone. An opening scene sets the tone of the entire novel–and while there are plenty of clues that we’re dealing with a happy family and proud father, there is no other tension except Josh’s slight frustration with Elmo repeating himself.( My sympathies, I’ve been an Elmo prisoner.)

All this is to say, please give us some small, physical signs of John’s frustrations. Is he always the perfect, fun dad? Or is he occasionally grouchy and overly-protective.

Josh pulling out an old photo of him and his bride is a bit cliché.

Given the title, and the tale’s dire, first paragraph prediction, I’m going to assume that it’s the two adorable children who are the “They” who are soon gone? With those assumptions, the story will clearly be a thriller. Except…there’s a whole lot of cuteness to navigate that serves to make me wonder if that’s really going to be true.

Thinking about dialogue:

““Mommy, Daddy, can we watch tv?” It’s a Saturday morning so this excitement is expected.” –Who is talking here? Both of them? It would be weird and truly scary to have them say this simultaneously.

““Fine Mommy, we’ll stop.” The things kids say just to watch television.” –“Fine, Mommy, we’ll stop.” sounds a bit Stepford-child-ish. And, again, is it both children saying this?

“The things kids say just to watch television.” Is this Josh’s thought? Again, it feels like an intrusive narrator’s words, rather than those of a character.

All that said, I love the children’s presence, and the intense family feeling here.

Please keep in mind that an opening scene needn’t be saccharine to imply general happiness. If this is, indeed, a thriller, put in more tension, less Elmo.

Set to, dear readers! I’ve left plenty of open territory for other criticismsl

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: They’re Gone

  1. “The author thinks: If I show these really nice people being really nice, the reader will care about them when the trouble starts.

    “But we don’t. We start to care about characters when trouble—or the hint of it—comes along.”

    Not long ago, Jim Bell posted put up a Kill Zone post on the DOA nature of “Happy People In Happy Land” beginnings. Refer to that here, or better yet, get his “Conflict & Suspense” book on writing craft for a deep explication on the topic. https://killzoneblog.com/2018/10/how-to-mess-up-your-lead-characters-ordinary-day.html

  2. Yikes. Not sure what to make of this. The title is great and seems to point to a domestic or psychological thriller. I’m intrigued. I love them.
    Then we’re parachuted into the Brady Bunch or in this case the Benson Bunch.
    If it is a psychological thriller we need a captivating first paragraph and the foreshadowing of the main character tossed into unexplained danger.
    Maybe this scene would be better placed in Chapter 2?
    If this isn’t a psychological thriller, then never mind.

    • Hard to say, Brian. Mixed messages.
      One could easily move the opening to the actual zoo. Frightening animals, the unease of being in a crowd with children…

  3. It seems – thin, sorry. Josh has a secret, but there is no hint to what it is about, or if it even worries him. Based on this, his secret could just as easily be free passes to the zoo or a meth lab in the garage. He went on a first date, got married and had two kids. If his secret needs to be in the first paragraph, I need to hear more about it. Was it the creepy guy in the background of the picture?

    Shouldn’t his kids have his dark, wavy hair and Lauren’s blue eyes? Looking like a movie star doesn’t say much. Unless of course people mistake Lauren for Jenn all the time. Actually, “the kids” really seem to be one four legged character. Maybe their individuality comes out in chapter two, but for now Stepford children (child) is a good description.

  4. Excellent point about “we,” Laura. This entire first page felt distant, like your apt comparison of a Twilight Zone episode. Then there’s this line which reinforces the distant narrator: He has no idea his life will shatter in the next 24 hours. Because if we’re supposed to be in Josh’s POV, then how would he know this?

    From the title, I assume this family will disappear somehow (murder? aliens? witness protection?), but Anon needs to hint at the trouble to come to make the “happy family” scene mean something.

    • I vote for Josh being in witness protection from before he got married. But I could go the aliens direction too.

      My favorite thrillers are those in which ordinary people are thrown into extraordinary, terrifying situations. Lots of potential for that here.

  5. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page.

    My fave line: “Lauren says, ‘Yes, but you need to quit breaking the couch.'” It’s SO realistic and shows us Lauren’s patience as a mother plus her children’s healthy, Saturday morning excitement.

    Laura gave you a lot of things to consider. I especially agree with the Stepford bit.

    I’m not totally opposed to a plural first person narrator, at least as an opening. I assume the narrator is going to circle a bit, narrow in, and land us inside Josh’s head. But OMGosh, what a difficult thing to pull off well. It might be easier to start and stay in Josh’s head.

    I know from the first two sentences that there will be a disturbance, and I’m willing to wait a little bit for it, but I was getting impatient by the end. Nothing upsetting or caterwampy has happened yet, nor has the atmosphere suggested something WILL happen. (Like in a haunted house story, you might read about a creepy, dark, Gothic setting before ever having seen a ghost, but the setting tells you the ghost is hovering just around the corner.)

    Putting celeb names in a novel is risky. Public personas go astray. People pass away. And unless competitive eating is part of the story later on, it’s probably smart to leave Joey Chestnut’s name off the first page. (Confession: I didn’t know who he was and had to look him up.)

    It sounds like you have a good story in the making with Josh’s secret and the kids (probably) getting kidnapped. Good luck, Brave Author, with this novel and in your future writing endeavors!

    • I agree 100% that Brave Author should not try to take on a too-complex voice at this point. Point of view is perhaps the toughest craft skill a writer has to learn. It takes years to develop and longer to exercise it confidently. After 30 years, I still occasionally slip.

      Excellent points, especially about the celebs, Priscilla!

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