First Page Critique:
Shadows And Suggestion

By PJ Parrish

We’re heading into dark territory with today’ s First Page Critique. Literally. This submission gives us an object lesson on spare writing technique — when to leave things out to rev up suspense but also when to ask yourself if you’ve left the reader too much in the dark. Thanks, writer, for submitting your baby for scrutiny. We all learn when you do.

 

Absence Of Light

Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. Not this place per se, but rather the circumstance I now find myself in.

I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.”

After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it.

Then, clanging of metal upon metal. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously.

“No worries,” I reply.

“You’re not gonna cry, are you?”

His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.”

“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands.

“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”

“No. Just. Tell me your name?”

“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”

“On.”

______________________________

There is much to like about this submission.  We are thrust right into what appears to be a dangerous situation for the protagonist. (I assume Dr, Davids is such).  Which is always a good thing. The writer has the basics down (how to structure dialogue, establish point of view). There is some deft “showing” rather than “telling,” but maybe a couple lapses in the other direction.  There is a voice at work here in that this writer has a definite narrative style.

First, let’s talk about the entry moment. In yesterday’s First Page Critique by Sue, I wondered if the writer could have found a more compelling point for starting the story. We don’t have that issue here.  This writer has chosen a dramatic moment — a bound man is being marched into a cell (or worse!). He is apprehensive but stoic. There is a suggestion he himself is dangerous, crazy, or at least canny enough to escape. I was intrigued. I want to know more. So kudos, writer, on finding a good door into your story.

Now let’s consider the tone and voice. The protagonist’s thoughts and dialogue have a cool, almost academic tone. We are firmly in the protag’s point of view, but it has a vaguely old-school feel to it, like something out of a Graham Greene opening  –detached, erudite, self-aware. It reminded me a little of Eric Ambler or maybe Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books. I don’t dislike this. I think it’s a nice change from much of today’s choppy neo-noir with their monosyllabic heroes.  I wonder if this “reads” a tad old-fashioned for today’s market.  I think goes more to the issue of taste.

I also like the way the writer imparts important information about the prisoner and the surroundings. He/she does not TELL us the prisoner is a doctor or even his name; it is dropped in the dialogue: “You’ve been processed, Dr. Davids.”

We also get this intriguing detail about the doctor’s character: “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.” The writer could have given us a narrative graph like:  I knew what the guard was thinking, that he had heard the talk about me being homicidal, maybe even possessed. But what he didn’t know was that I myself didn’t know what was wrong with me.  No, the writer relates this in DIALOGUE not thoughts — which is a type of action.

Other details that are tossed in deftly:  The guard identified himself as MP Jones. Which I think means we’re dealing with military police? Not sure. The place is described in spare but vivid detail — the heavy clanging door, the fact that light here is a luxury. I often take writers to task for not giving enough sense of place. Although I think we could use a little more description here — it would enhance the horror of the place — I get that the writer is going for a spare style. Is this too spare? You all can weigh in.

Another thing to note: I applaud the fact the writer did not feel compelled to tack some lazy place/time tag atop the chapter, like:  Abu Ghraib, April 2015. The locale and time period will emerge soon in the narrative, I trust.

A few miscellaneous observations: The guard’s dialogue — the ums…dropped G’s, gonna, kinda, sounds country-hickish.  He sounds like a cliche of a small-town jailer. The protag is getting locked in solitary, a place that seems to have experience with terrorists, so I think it would enhance the suspense if the guard was more military in demeanor, as crisp in his speech as his uniform. He can still tell the prisoner what he thinks, but perhaps in a less cliched way. Remember the Nazi guard who kept locking up Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? He never said a word, but he had a memorably stern, don’t-mess-with-me, slightly bemused countenance. Creating something idiosyncratic about this guard would really add a nice side character if the guard comes and goes through the story. Even if he doesn’t, don’t make even your minor spear-carriers cliches.

I’m going to go to blue-line edits for the rest of my comments:

Absence Of Light  decent title. It’s a riff on the myriad quotes about absence of light being the definition of evil but it works on a second level for the literal situation the protag finds himself in. All good titles work on multiple levels.

Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension. I have no idea how I have arrived here. I think we are missing a comma here? Writer: Be careful to proof your work. Not this place per se, this might annoy some but I think it helps establishes the narrator’s tone but rather the circumstance I now find myself in. I like the restraint of this opening graph.

I am told “you’ve been processed, Dr. Davids, I’ll escort you from this point. We’re goin’ straight through those doors.” Not sure I like the passive “I am told…” Why not just have the guard say it? And maybe Dr. Davids has a thought about that chilling phrase “processed” in reaction, some details about what that was like? You could do more with that to amp up the tension.

After shuffling a short way down the corridor with my hands bound, Here’s a spot where we need more detail. Bound by what? Rope suggests something different than handcuffs. Why is he shuffling? Is he shackled? I assumed he was. You might be missing small chances to increase the drama. the young man in a neatly pressed uniform then announces from behind me, “Here.” In front of me is an impossibly heavy, steel door. It suggests something dangerous has been secured behind it. This line feels portentous at first but it’s really just obtuse. He is obviously going into a cell of some kind. Every prison has a heavy metal door so what it is about this that signifies “something dangerous” behind it? And why the verb “secured?” Not sure that makes sense. Because I like this submission, I am asking that the writer work harder at being precise. I think you can do better. 

Then, clanging of metal upon metal. Good use of deep POV here. The writer could have said, “I heard the clanging of the door opening”  but did not. The door opens. I am prompted to enter by polite but clumsy commentary from my escort, Again, this stilted construction goes to the cerebral tone of the narrator/prisoner. I don’t dislike it. “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Nice way of dropping some intriguing detail in dialogue. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.” He laughs nervously. Now, the writer is being purposely vague about what KIND of facility we are in here, maybe to be point of being coy. But why withhold clarity? Why would the guard be nervous? Can’t the reader be given a little more detail? Are we in an Alabama jailhouse or a military prison? We need a little more grounding, I think.

“No worries,” I reply.

“You’re not gonna cry, are you?” I like this line but I think it could be more precise. It suggests that the guard has seen others before him break down. But I wonder if “cry” is the right word. If Dr. Davids is about to enter a really bad place and he knows it, would he cry? I doubt it. What kind of reaction would this place elicit from a “stoic” man?

His question surprises me because I feel absolutely stoic. At first, I thought this was at odds with the “apprehension” remark of the first graph but it’s correct usage. Stoic means the ability to withstand or hide pain. “No. I’m not. I’m not sad. Why would he be sad? Terrified maybe, but sad? I’m in agreement with the commander. This is where I should be.” Another good tidbit!

“Really?” he asks. I study his facial expressions as he frees my hands. of what?

“Yea. Really.” I try to gently feign a slight, cordial, smile and then offer a plausible explanation since I’m still processing this myself, “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Proof your work! Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person Again, less is more. The use of pass tense here is a choice by the writer. It implies this man has a bad past without spilling the beans too early about what happened. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

Silent awkwardness hangs in the air for a moment as he considers my response. He then says, “Look, uh, I’m not involved with the investigation or anything, so I’m not acquainted with all the details, but I think you’re probably being too hard on yourself. You know, things can happen. Anything you need before I leave?”

“No. Just. Just…tell me your name?”

“MP Jones. Oh and, um, do you want the light on or off? I liked this line on first reading because it is, on its face, intriguing. But when you think about it, does it make sense? Does any prisoner in such a dire place want the lights out? I’m just askin’ because most people who’ve never experienced a solitary type situation – well, having the light on sorta helps’em adjust- you know, to the space and all.”

“On.” There is something anemic, almost puny, about this response. Given the title, we’re entering a world of light/dark, goodness/evil. Light, I think, stands for something in this story. So some kind of thought, however brief, from Dr. Davids about the importance of light might really add some meat here. Especially since the writer has given us very little emotional meat from the character himself. UNLESS…Dr. David is the bad guy and we won’t meet our true hero until chapter 2 or later.  Hard to tell in 400 words. If Dr. Davids is a black hat, a thought about the absence of light is almost essential. We need to start knowing who — or what — we are dealing with here. A villain would have a different thought about an absence of light than a hero might. Think about that…exploit it.

Okay, so in conclusion, I think we are off to a good start here. I want to know more about Dr. Davids and why he has been brought here. (although I do hope we aren’t getting a Hannibal Lecter clone here — cultured homicidal maniac). And because the writing is solid, I am trusting the writer will soon begin fleshing this out so we know where we are, what time period we are in, and what is happening.  This is, as the title suggests, all shadows and suggestion right now.  Good stuff. But the ultra-spare style of the opening can test the reader’s patience and it can’t sustain an entire story. We need some illumination soon.  Good work, writer.

4+
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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

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique:
Shadows And Suggestion

  1. Good critique, PJ. Thanks especiallly for your reminder that “Dialogue equals action” (my way of saying it). Good dialogue, like a good action scene, reveals the character of the character and makes the reader “lean in” to the book.

    An accomplished screenwriter and friend decided to sit in when I was teaching a writing seminar on dialogue one day. When I made that statement, he raised his hand. I nodded at him, and he grinned and said, “Not in screenwriting.”

    I laughed. “That class is down the hall.” Then I went back to my discussion.

    Afterward, outside, my friend said, “I agree. Dialogue is a kind of action. I never thought of it like that before.”

    • Ha! I took a screenwriting class once. But I was so immersed in learning about good novel-writing technique back then that all it did was confuse me. Now, I learn from good screenwriting. But the nuances of the “rules” can mess with your head until you get your feet under you. (is that a mixed metaphor?)

  2. I loved this first page. Although, like you, Kris, I expected him to say, “Off.” I think he almost has to … the continuation of light vs. dark, good vs. evil. I also prefer sparse writing, if done well, so that didn’t bother me a bit. But I agree that the guard is a little too Andy Griffith for the environment. I like the contrast between his naïveté and Dr. David’s stoic demeanor, though. Maybe just toning it down would be enough? Hmm, tough call.

    • Thanks Sue! Cable outage here so can’t type much for a while since I am all fat thumbs on phone.

  3. I really enjoy the first page critiques. I applaud an author who is willing to take a day of constructive criticism. Dear author, take a good look at the blue edits. I think an interesting story could be a ‘can’t put down’ book.

    A couple of things to add: “Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension.” I am not positive this is a correct sentence. But my grammar isn’t perfect, so maybe it just looks funny. In my eye, there should be a coma and then added to the next sentence.

    “To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists.” Shouldn’t this be the commander or Commander? Or perhaps Commander Smith?

    PJ, you commented that Dr. Davids is a male. I don’t see that in print. “You’re not gonna cry, are you?” takes on a more sinister meaning if Dr. Davids is female.

    • Excellent point on my assumption about gender. Even an old female crime dog like me can default to “male” on occasion. Maybe because I started seeing Hannibal Lecter in my head? But yes, if the doctor is a woman, the cry comment takes on logical meaning because this guard would default to an assumption that a woman prisoner would cry. Good point!

      • Given Alan’s observation about gender, do we need to know from the get-go that Dr. Davids is male or female? Does this fall into the play-fair-with-reader category? Just asking…

    • It is a woman! I had a hard time cutting the scene to be within the 400 word limit, so a few pertinent details were dropped from it.

      Please know that I so appreciate the critique and comments from everyone. I had no idea how it would read. This is my first time writing a novel and to be quite honest I wasn’t sure that the story that seems so interesting in my own head would be interesting to anyone else (outside of my family members :). ). I am so grateful for the detailed critique that I was provided. I am taking it all to heart. Thank you again Kristy and fellow writers.

      Also, I am truly thrilled to have found this blog site. I have learned so much just from reading through all of the other first page critiques and blog posts.

      • Thanks for speaking up, writer! We like it when you guys show up here after because we never truly know if we’ve helped or made you despair. Good luck with your first effort. It’s a good one.

        • One more comment: I recognized that you felt you had to trim this to fit our word limit. It allowed you to get to an interesting break point. But I think in the real manuscript you can afford to slow down just a tad for a little more description. Also, it will be interesting to see how you tell us the doctor is a woman. You can play the reader on a little — that’s interesting — but if you hold this back too long it will feel false. Maybe after the “cry” comment from the guard, the doctor has a thought akin to, well, what would he expect from a woman? Then do something cool with the thought that further illuminates her character? Just a thought…

  4. The first line captured my attention (corrected with a comma). By the end of this first page, I wanted more!

    The typos distracted me. As PJ said, please proofread. If you did proofread, try putting the manuscript away for awhile (like 2 weeks or more) then looking at it with fresh eyes. If you’re like a lot of writers, it’s hard to see the errors when you’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript.

    The guard sounded too young or inexperienced to be working with such a dangerous criminal. I like PJ’s suggestion of giving the guard a more military demeanor, but the country-ish word choices didn’t bother me at all.

    What did bother me was: “I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.” I thought for the stoic Dr. Davids this came across as worried and chatty. And if you leave it off, then the paragraph ends with the lovely-creepy word “possessed,” especially if you end it with a period instead of a question mark.

    I enjoyed this, Anon. Best of luck in your continued writing journey!

  5. Thank you Priscilla. The word “hormicidal” was intentional. It is a word that she will later makeup as part of description to explain her reaction to the crime that she committed. Is this allowable? I’m wondering how I should handle it in the story? Maybe it’s to early to use that word? I’ll try to work on my grammar! Thank you again for your comments. It all helps!

      • Oh man, this totally flew over my head. I suspect it will be seen by most as a typo. But if you can somehow put it in a context — esp if you reveal soon she is a woman — it will work. It makes perfect sense when you EXPLAIN it to us here, but you don’t have the luxury of “what I really meant was…” in a novel. 🙂

        • Thank y’all! I can’t wait to employ your suggestions! This is exciting for me to explore with all of you.

  6. Thanks for sharing you work with us, brave writer. Kris gave a wonderful critique. Here are a few more comments to throw into the mix.

    Opening

    “Even as I stand here, drawing in the shallow breaths of apprehension.”

    I don’t agree with the punctuation used here. The period seems to be in the wrong place. In any case, I’d begin with:

    “I have no idea how I arrived here.”

    I’d get rid of the “I am told” part, as Kris suggested. Attribute the dialogue to the speaker.

    Dialogue

    You write:

    “I just want you to know that I think placing you in here is a bit overkill. Unfortunately, those decisions are well beyond my paygrade. To be honest, I think commander worries you have the capacity to be some kinda escape artist maybe like special forces agents or terrorists. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t ‘ve said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right? Of course not.”

    It’s good to have dialogue, but this is more like a soliloquy. I’d condense here. Also, I’d use “pay grade” (two words). Maybe shorten to something like this:

    “Putting you in here is overkill, but the decision is beyond my pay grade. The commander worries you’re an escape artist, maybe like those special forces agents or terrorists. Probably shouldn’t have said that. You’re not, like, a terrorist, right?”

    That’s still a lot of words. It’s possible to have a long-winded character, but then your other character does the same thing here:

    “Among all of my finer traits that you’ve been informed of, apparently, I’m also hormicidal. Maybe possessed? I don’t know. I became another person. It definitely wasn’t me. I mean it was me, but it wasn’t.”

    One way to differentiate characters is to make one character more terse than another. Even if a character is chatty, I’d still condense the dialogue to the extent possible. Check out James Scott Bell’s wonderful book about dialogue. There’s another one by Turco. I also like to recommend that writers check out the dialogue for the television series The Gilmore Girls. Scripts are posted online. You’ll notice that the exchanges between the characters convey a lot of information without a lot of words. Think subtext. Sometimes less is more.

    Also, in real life people may use a lot of “ums” and such; however, in fiction, I’d keep those to a minimum.

    Anyway, good job, brave writer. Enjoy working on your revisions. That’s the fun part. Best of luck, and keep writing!

  7. Excellent suggestions! Thank you! I’ll definitely order James Scott Bell’s book on dialogue. I had been thinking about it already! :).

    Please know how much I appreciate you taking the time to analyze my submission and offer such wonderful comments. I’m intrigued to take a closer look at dialogue in the “The Gilmore Girls” too. Many thanks to you, Joanne!

    • I think it is especially helpful when the writer chimes in because we often make assumptions on such a short sample. But Mel coming here to tell us what was in her writer’s head is equally helpful, I think. Because we have all been there — the movie we see so clearly playing in our imagination often gets short-circuited in its journey to the page.

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