How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has shared his/her first page for critique. Enjoy! My notes will follow.

Traders Market

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, Emelia Lopez watched through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno. She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Keep to the plan, Nick said.

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.

“It had to be a gas explosion…”

“Was it a house?”

Another boom, another explosion.

“Holy shit! What is it?”

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.

Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

The second explosion?

Couldn’t think about it now.

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned. She pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand. Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready. She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open, the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptying the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom, out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions. Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick.

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came.

Dear God. I’m a murderer.

This first page has so much promise. Anon did lose me a few times, though. So, let’s see if we can make things a bit clearer for the reader. Below is the first page with my notes.

Traders Market (I don’t have enough info. to comment on the title)

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed. (Awesome first line!)

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, (one clause too many) Emelia Lopez watched (use a stronger verb here: peered, stared, gaped?) through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno (Nice!). She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Any time you use words like thought, heard, saw, considered, etc., you’re telling the action rather than showing it. Rearrange the above sentence to avoid that.

Example: When the first siren squealed, a spike of adrenaline shot through Emelia and she shoved off the fencepost. Sprinting toward the bus station (added to show the reader a destination), Nick’s words echoed through her mind. Keep to the plan. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one out here in the dark (added to weave in some personality).

Keep to the plan, Nick said. 

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she [Emelia] moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar. Very good. Don’t believe the advice that all gerunds are bad. They can be effective tools. Here, you’ve created emotional rhythm, which works for this particular reader.

“It had to be a gas explosion…” Who’s speaking? If it’s a bar patron, then please briefly describe the character so we can visualize the scene. Even something simple like: a bleach-blonde cougar in a leopard-print blouse.

“Was it a house?” Here, too.

Another boom, another explosion. Meh. It’s a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. I’d rather see Emelia stop short when the earth shakes beneath her sensible shoes—in other words, show vs. tell.

“Holy shit! What is it?” I have no idea whose dialogue this is, either.

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.” Here, too. Show us who this is.

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round. Who are “they”? Show us! Also, since you’re not in their heads, you can’t know that they’re “untouched” by anything. You can show disinterest, but you cannot tell us they’re untouched. You also can’t know they’re going inside for another round. The protagonist can presume they are, but then you need to make that clear. For more on writing in deep POV, read this first page critique.

Emelia moved away (backed away? From what?), her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed (Here again, you’ve slipped out of Emelia’s POV. Emelia wouldn’t think of herself of having a lumpy figure, would she? Most women would never use that term to describe themselves. By choosing Emelia’s POV, you, the writer, have effectively slipped inside her skin. You are Emelia while writing this scene). one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

On my second read-through I discovered that you might be referring to padding inside her disguise. If that’s true, then show us how itchy the material is or the padding lumping together. But you need to clue in your reader to what’s going on. Most readers won’t take the time to go back and reread the first page. See what I’m saying? Nailing an effective POV is one of the more difficult craft elements to master, but it’s crucial that you do. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. 

The second explosion? Couldn’t think about it now. (Nice. I just moved her response up a line.)

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned (beckoned what? beckoned her closer?). She [Emelia] pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand (key? Where’d it come from?). Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion (don’t tell us; show us. Inside the station five fat guys guzzling Budweisers huddled around a black-and-white television with a tinfoil antenna. Monday night football—perfect timing). Too far away (Maybe the explosion was too far away? Not sure how they missed the sirens, though they weren’t uncommon around here). Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready (Head down, Emelia shuffled to a row of lockers, stacked two high).

Side note: show Emelia searching for the right locker number to drag out the suspense, show her excitement over finding the duffle bag (or her devastation when the locker’s empty), show her hand tremble as she drags the duffle bag off the metal shelf, careful not to make a sound. Or maybe the zipper scratches the metal and draws unwanted attention from a security guard. See all the ways to create conflict? The possibilities are endless. Don’t make things too easy for Emelia. Your protagonist needs to stumble, fall, get back up and move forward, stumble again…that’s how we humanize her into a flesh-and-blood character.

She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open (that’s convenient; maybe too convenient? Something to think about.), the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptied the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone (why is she certain she’s alone? Did she peek out a crack in the door? Did she press her ear to the door as footfalls trailed down the hall? Show us!), she came out, stuffed the refilled (refilled with what?) duffle into the trash can under the counter. [Emelia] slipped a carry-on bag (where did this come from?) over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Okay, so, I assume the duffel bag contained all these items. Show us the action as it happens. Don’t make us guess after the fact. Why risk confusing your reader? You did a terrific job of showing us Emelia’s transformation—bravo on that!—so I know you can do it. Yes, it takes more time to show an action, but the payoff is well worth the added work. Every time we draw the reader deeper into the scene they become more invested in the story.

[With her head held high,] Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom [and slipped right past the drunken footballers who failed to notice her departure. Go Pats! (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-)) At the door to an awaiting cab Emelia hip-checked some business-type dude out of the way and stole his ride. Sucker.]

“Corner of Howser and Jewel Street.” She flashed a fan of bills over the front seat. “There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there in ten minutes.” (Note: I added dialogue to show Emelia giving directions to the cabbie, rather than telling the reader about afterward.) out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions.Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick

[Glancing at her phone, Nick still hadn’t texted.]

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came. Dear God, I’m a murderer. (This makes me want to flip the page to find out what happens next. Nicely done!)

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. If I didn’t see so much promise in this first page, I might be reluctant to bathe your opener in red ink. I want you to succeed, and I know you can. With a little more knuckle grease, this opener could be amazing.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Be careful with run-on sentences. Same goes for staccato sentences. They’re most effective when used sparingly. If used too often, they become a writing tic. 🙂

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

3+

13 thoughts on “How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

  1. Thank you, Brave Writer, for giving us a look at your first page.

    The first sentence is clever.

    I like the bar patrons’ street chatter. My favorite line is “Your wife blew up your boat.” It made me chuckle (and it’s so realistic).

    I stumbled in a few places. The last sentence of the second paragraph uses “pushed” twice. It “sounded” off in my head. Another place that sounded off was the staccato sentences. I love them when used for dramatic effect, but when there are too many, especially when they’re close together, they lose their potency.

    Sue’s critique is fabulous. Like her, I think this first page shows a lot of promise. Good luck on your continued writing journey.

    • Thank you, Priscilla! I really enjoyed this first page, too. With a little work, Brave Writer could have an intriguing opening to what sounds like an exciting storyline.

  2. Sue,
    Thank you, thank you for taking the time to read and critique my first-page submission. You did what I’d hoped, which was to see the whole picture. I appreciate your comments and suggestions, as well as Pricilla’s. The double use of “pushed” was supposed to be epizeuxis, but I can certainly use another word. Again, thank you.
    Becky.

  3. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Certain comments below may touch upon things that Sue and Priscilla have already noted, but sometimes it’s important to reinforce ideas. Here are my notes:

    Title

    Consider a title with a little more punch.

    Opening Line

    Your line: “Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.”

    I like the concept of your first line. I think it would have more staying power if you trimmed it.

    Edited line: “Blowing up a house wasn’t the best way to slip out of town.”

    Don’t use “unnoticed” with “slip out of” (redundant). Lose the “with five people inside” and your sentence will pack more punch, unless there is a compelling reason to mention the exact number of people that were inside.

    Eliminate Confusion

    The character has an internal thought about someone named Nick in the opening, and it’s jarring to the reader.

    Confusing sentence: ” She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.” To add to the confusion, you use “pushed” twice.

    Also, while it’s not necessary to use names for each of the people who made comments at the bar, it would be less confusing if there were some sort of attribution.

    Confusing line: “Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

    The line is cute, but does the setting indicate anywhere that they are near water? Why mention a boat? Perhaps provide a few more setting details to ground the reader.

    Also, this sentence:

    “Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.”

    Unclear pronoun reference: “they”
    I can guess who “they” refers to, but the writing should make it clear.

    POV

    “Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common.”

    If you’re telling the story from Emelia’s POV, she would not know what other people were doing or thinking. She could speculate in her inner thoughts, of course, but the first page is not the place. The “sirens were common” line sounds like something a narrator would say.

    “Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.”

    If you’re telling the story from Emelia’s POV, she would not describe herself or know if her actions were unnoticed.

    Be careful.

    Overwriting

    I’m intrigued by your opening, but it would be even better if you would make your sentences a little leaner. I agree with Sue about this sentence:

    “Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone…”

    Lose the “knowing she should be gone” here.

    Condense this sentence: “Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.”

    Try something like:

    Moving through shadows cast by the fire, she plodded down the alley, turned a corner, and merged into the crowd spilling out of a bar.

    Consolidate this sentence: “Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors.”

    Instead of “came out,” use “emerged.”
    Readers don’t need to know that the trash can was “under the counter.”
    You don’t need to describe every micro action of the character. Do your best to summarize to the extent possible. I could rewrite this sentence for you, but instead, I’ll challenge you to rewrite it to make it leaner and meaner. As it stands, it’s clunky.

    Overall

    No more time to comment, brave writer, but you’re off to a great start. You have my attention. If you tighten up the writing and make a few small changes to eliminate sources of confusion, I would definitely turn the page. Best of luck, and keep writing!

  4. Author –
    Solid bones and effective hook imo. I’d definitely read on.
    Some good feedback. I feel contrary to a couple of the suggestions shared. I think it’s OK, in fact desirable, to avoid providing explanation or description of too much (including both big aspects and non-significant details). A classic TKZ adage is “resist the urge to explain“.
    I found some style, voice, and fun in elements in the original that I think might be lessened by spelling everything out.
    The boat line is humorous to me. If spelled out likely less so.
    It seems to me it’s easy for us as writers to try and please everyone… perhaps in that effort we risk losing elements of unique story and voice. Recommend consider all the thoughtful suggestion shared and process them through your internal editor self.
    Best of luck!

    • Less is more is solid advice, Tom, unless the writing is so sparse that it causes confusion in the reader. Thanks for your input. As with all advice, it’s best for Anon to use the advice that resonates with her.

  5. Wonderful critique, Sue!
    Anon, I loved this first page. There is action, intrigue and an interesting character. I would definitely read on.
    As others have pointed out, I also noticed the word “pushed” used twice in one sentence, but the phrase “She pushed the other thought away…” really tripped me up. What was the “other thought”?
    Unlike Sue, I didn’t mind the dialogue from the people from the bar without identification of those characters. It gave me a sense of a crowd with comments going everywhere, not clear who is saying what. “They began drifting back…” can just be “They drifted back…” This line bothered me: “A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned.” It might just be me, but I’d prefer something like, “Sprinting a few blocks, Emilia could see the lights from the bus station.”
    Thankyou for a really good submission and thanks Sue for a critique that teaches a lot.

  6. Tom,
    Thank you, especially for the message that we can’t please everyone. I feel that some of the suggested changes are great, some are contradictory, and some I can ignore because I know what is in my longer version. What I appreciate is busy writers taking the time to read and give thoughtful feedback. I’ve been playing with this idea for a long time, wondering if it had merit. The encouragement I’ve received here makes me believe I can do this. Thank you.
    Becky

      • Thank you, Sue, and thanks to all who posted. Most of the time I feel all alone out there among people whose minds are not always swimming with characters, and stories, and words, so this is like dropping into a room full of people who get it. My gratitude to all of you.
        Becky

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