First Page Critique ‘The False Curtain’:
Alone Again…Unnaturally

By PJ Parrish

Why is January feeling like it’s lasting forever? And I don’t even have to deal with snow.  I just wanted to get that off my chest. Now, let’s have some fun and read a First Pager.  Thank you, dear submitting writer, for giving me some diversion this week as I fill out the scary questionaire in preparation for possible grand jury duty next week. If you don’t see me for a couple months, send out the search party to the Tallahassee courthouse.

THE FALSE CURTAIN

A suspense novel

The small, windowless room felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.

Although two plastic chairs sat side-by-side in the middle, I stood. Actually, I paced. It’s what I do whenever I’m uneasy. Mimi had said there was nothing to be nervous about. My appointment with Mr. Smith, the man she owed money to, should be simple and quick.

Finally I heard the doorknob turn. I watched as the door opened. It took a moment for me to realize who stood in the doorway.

I had no idea Mimi’s Mr. Smith was Davey Smith. I never would have put the two together.

I recognized Davey only because I saw him at our 25th high school reunion last year. Back in the day he’d been the quiet, studious kid who tutored math dummies, like me. Someone said he’d done well for himself and he looked it. Seeing him again—now—totally surprised me. He showed no indication of feeling the same.

He took a couple steps forward, stopping just inches away. He cupped my face with both hands and tilted it upward. I watched his face come close. His kiss was soft and persuasive.

After releasing me, he said, “Good to see you again, Lindsey. Sorry we didn’t get to talk at the reunion.”

“Davey, I—”

“I prefer my friends call me David.”

“David. I—.”

“…and my business associates call me Mr. Smith. I haven’t decided which category you’ll be in.” He smiled, just a little, then abruptly turned and walked to the door. “About that kiss. Don’t take it too seriously. You still have to do everything I say. If you don’t, you won’t like what happens to your cousin. You also won’t like what will happen to you.” With that, he left.

I stared at the closed door, stunned.

Davey was no longer the sweet boy I knew in high school.

His attitude….

His threats….

I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.

***

After a while, I sat. I don’t know how much time passed because I didn’t have my purse or phone. A man had taken them before I was shown into the room. That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.

My meeting with Mr. Smith was supposed to be a discussion of how I could pay back Mimi’s debt—

________________________

I’m back. Well, what do we think? I think there’s some good stuff here that, with a little tweaking, could be the beginnings of what the writer subtitles “A suspense novel.” (Which I think is superfluous, by the way. Your back copy can carry that load for a potential reader. But that’s a nit.)

What’s good here: We’re picking up the story in a good active moment — a somewhat mysterious meeting that has the protag on edge. There is just enough backstory hints to ground us but no info dumps. I like the way the writer told us who Mimi is — not through a narrative tag (“My cousin Mimi had told me…”) but letting the relationship emerge through dialogue a couple beats later. Smoothly done.  I think the dialogue itself is handled cleanly and reads as believable. David’s kiss is a big creepy surprise, especially when he backs it up with a threat. (More on that in a sec). So, all in all, not a bad opening at all. I would read on.

But…

And this is a caveat I often give. When the writing is solid, I want it to be better. Because good isn’t good enough in today’s market. When you’re as close as this submission is, you need to push yourself even harder to make your story stand out  from the madding crowd.

I try not to rethink a writer’s approach or question their style. But here’s a few suggestions, just one reader’s perspective.

The opening line isn’t bad. But it’s a good example of telling instead of showing. I think you could use a few more choice details to SHOW us this room rather than TELL us it “felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.”

Windowless, small, plastic chairs is not enough, imo. Use description to enhance the MOOD, the apprehension she feels. You won’t lose your momentum by slowing down just a little. How big is this room, exactly? (Calling a room small is like calling a man handsome — It has no currency in our imaginations). What’s the lighting — glaring fluorescent with maybe one bulb giving off that annoying buzzing just before it dies? Industrial carpeting with an odd stain? What color are the walls? Does it smell? It also might not be a bad idea to hint somewhere where we are exactly. Your description is so spare we could be in anything from downtown Houston skyscraper to an anteroom in a airplane hangar meth lab. Make your description make us FEEL something.

Ditto when you get to Davey/David. I like this line: “Someone said he’d done well for himself and he looked it.” But again, that’s telling instead of showing. Does this mean he has money? Is he wearing a Brioni suit and silk tie? Again, you’re missing an opportunity to not only ground your reader in detail but to reveal something about your protagonist by filtering description through her PERCEPTIONS and BACKGROUND. You can tell us a lot about your protag (and help us bond with her) at the same time you tell us something about David. Don’t let these opportunities go by.

Because…right now Lindsey is sort of a cipher. Granted, it is hard for you the writer to give us a sense of her physically when you’re in the first person. But a simple line like “I watched his face come close” gives you a chance to add detail — a small shaving nick on his chin? The smell of clove after-shave? Are his hands, cupping her face, rough or smooth?

One thing that kind of doesn’t make sense. She seems to be surprised by his appearance (ie, the line, someone had said he had made good for himself…). But she saw him herself just a year ago at a reunion. So she would already know he was successful and/or handsome? People at reunions talk about who made it, who failed, who died, etc. You say they didn’t talk at the reunion but did she see him from afar? You say he is NOT surprised to see her. You need to reconcile this.

The kiss is interesting. But the fact she has no reaction or thought (other than saying it was “soft and persuasive”) struck me as odd. Unless these two have a romantic past, it comes across as somewhat unrealistic and weirdly submissive on her part. What is “persuasive” about it? It made me flash back to the dynamic between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Ickiness. Lindsey is, given the 25th reunion time line, about 43 years old and there on some kind of financial mission (ex math dummie or not). Do you really want to paint her as so passive?

That passivity is echoed, too, in these lines after David leaves:

Davey was no longer the sweet boy I knew in high school.

His attitude….

His threats….

I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.

The guy just planted a predatory kiss on her, threatened her and her cousin, and left the room with nothing resolved. And this is all she feels and thinks? Now, maybe this is a calculated character arc for Lindsey on your part. Mousy CPA encounters a mystery man from her past and she eventually grows and rises to some challenge? (You titled this a suspense novel, not a romance).  But Lindsey, in this opening at least, doesn’t strike me as a woman who will take her destiny into her own hands. She recalls all the tropes of a bad 1950s bodice ripper).

Which leads me to the last paragraph. (By the way, you don’t need the * * * designation. It is used only when you have a legitimate scene break, not when you don’t know how to transition from one moment in your story to another)

After a while, I sat. I don’t know how much time passed because I didn’t have my purse or phone. A man had taken them before I was shown into the room. That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.

Why did she just sit there? Again, this is passive and not very interesting. And the fact that someone took her phone and purse when she came in should have been in the first graph — it ups the stakes immediately. But unless you set this up better, it isn’t believable. Maybe if you had described this place better in her thoughts — that when she entered the building, she went through a metal detector or given us details about the circumstances of surrendering her purse and phone, I might buy it. But again, she does this without question or even a thought — which makes her passive and almost juvenile.

So, there we are, alone in a windowless room, with a faceless protagonist. Where does Lindsey — and this story — go from here? As I said, I think this set-up has potential and the writer has a decent grasp of craft.  But it doesn’t read real and it feels unnatural, like the weird kiss and threat came out of nowhere, not organically from the situation. Also, we need some flesh on these bones. Create a mood. Give us some details to fire up our imaginations. And most important, give us good reason to want to follow Lindsey for 300 suspenseful pages.

Thank you, dear writer, for letting us see your work. I hope you find this one person’s opinion this helpful. And others here, as always, might have different takes. What say you all?

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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

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique ‘The False Curtain’:
Alone Again…Unnaturally

  1. Brave author, thank you for sharing! I hope it’s okay I throw some comments your way. I’m by no means an expert critiquer/writer…yet, but I do love to read.

    I agree with the critique. I wanted a little more description, to know where this scene is happening, and I’d really like to know why he kissed her. And why she didn’t slap him. But it’s definitely a story I’d want to read.

    One thing, purely as a reader, that occurred to me is that Mimi seems to have set her cousin up. She must’ve known what Lindsey was getting into. How dangerous the situation was. Why would she do that? To save her own life? Or, perhaps Mimi was forced somehow into throwing her cousin into David’s clutches. I’m sure it comes out later, but for me, a hint in this first scene would’ve been nice. “The man my rotten cousin owed money to” would give a clue as to the relationship between the two cousins. As it is, Mimi told her “there was nothing to be nervous about”.

    Just my two cents. Or maybe one. I’ll be interested to read what all y’all think.

  2. Excellent notes by Kris.

    On the bit about being “surprised” by Davey, I think the author may have meant the he looked it part to be AT the reunion. But the way it’s written could cause confusion. You could add something after he looked it like, But he said not a word to me that night.

    I do like this set-up. With revision, it will be a good first page.

  3. Thank you, Brave Writer, for showing us your first page. My favorite sentence is when David says, “I haven’t decided which category you’ll be in.” I got scared for Lindsey at that point.

    I was disappointed with these two lines:
    His attitude . . .
    His threats . . .
    because you just showed us his creepy attitude and his threats. As a reader I’d rather see the scene and know that EEK, THAT’S A CREEPY ATTITUDE rather than have it spelled out. It loses the umph when it’s spelled out.

    I thought PJ gave you an excellent critique. I agree that Lindsey seems too passive during/after the kiss. Maybe if all those years ago (or at the reunion) David was a chick magnet, and she’d always had a crush on him, then we wouldn’t be surprised that she didn’t slap him.

    Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Writer!

    • Yeah, I liked that line as well. As I said, the dialogue is well done. We just need a bit more here and there.

  4. First off, great job, brave writer, for sharing your work!
    I’m afraid Mimi would have had to find someone else to carry out her supposedly simple, quick appointment because the minute a man tried to take “my purse and phone” I would have noped the heck out!

    “That was my first clue the meeting wasn’t going to be simple or quick.”
    That line makes me agree very much with PJ’s content about how passive & juvenile Lindsey appears to be. No woman in her right mind would willingly put herself in that kind of situation in this day and age.
    Unfortunately, armed with only a few hundred words, we readers are working at a disadvantage. Maybe PJs right, and Mimi set up her cousin. That would be a fantastic hook! But right now I’m afraid most readers would yell “she walked right into it!”…you know, the way we all yell at books and movie screens?
    It just needs some tweaking.

    And do follow the “show don’t tell” advice very closely. Its a hard lesson to learn (I know personally!) but it will tighten your writing and your word count.
    Best of luck in your writing!

  5. Thank you for sharing this. You are off to a great start, and I can’t wait to read the rest and find out where Lindsay goes from here.
    Keep it up and take Pricilla’s advice on the two lines. I prefer to feel it rather than read about it.

    Awesome work

  6. Anon Writer here. Thank you to everyone for the comments. Now that my short-comings have been highlighted, I know how I’ll be reworking the opening page to make it stronger, and the rest of the story, too. I learn so much from this blog. Thank you again.

    • Laura,
      Please don’t think of them as shortcomings so much as opportunities to make your story shine brighter. We all go through the same process as you are right now. With each draft, your story becomes stronger. You’ve got a good setup and you’re good at basic craft. Keep us posted on your progress. Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is the isolation. 🙂

  7. Agree w/critique & wanted to add one small thing: When I read the opening 2 paragraphs, my mind instantly assumed that the “I” point of view belonged to a man who was waiting to see someone on behalf of whom I assumed was his girlfriend or wife (Mimi). Yes, a few paragraphs down, you give the character’s name as Lindsay, & a bit later we find out Mimi is the cousin, but it just goes to show that without a little more clarity of identification in the opening lines, it’s easy for the reader to get off on the wrong track.

    • So true BK. Been there, done that. Made that mistake. Luckily, I have a co-author’s eyes behind every word I write.

  8. I really enjoyed the intro, I thought the suspense was really well done and the fact that he went from kissing her to threatening her completely threw me and made me want to keep reading. I do think there needed to be more description of the surrounding, I couldn’t get a firm grasp on the office space.

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us, Laurie. You’ve already gotten a thorough critique from Kris and some wonderful comments from the others. Here are a few of my notes to throw into the mix:

    Opening Line

    “The small, windowless room felt more like a place for an interrogation than a meeting.”

    Use a first line that has a little more staying power. Also, as Jake Vander Ark likes to say: “Put the cat in the oven before you describe the kitchen.” (No, don’t harm any cats. This is a play on the “save the cat” writing book titles.) Check out Jake’s book. What’s the most interesting thing that happens on your first page? Begin there. Then weave in the backstory and setting details.

    Don’t withhold important information.

    It’s good to keep readers asking questions, but do fill in a little bit more information about why “Davey” thinks it’s appropriate to kiss Lindsey and why Lindsey didn’t resist or have any kind of meaningful reaction when he did. Why would her former math tutor kiss her that way? Perhaps you can fill in more details so that the actions are more believable.

    Don’t describe every micro action.

    Example:

    “Finally I heard the doorknob turn. I watched as the door opened. It took a moment for me to realize who stood in the doorway.”

    Is there a reason the reader needs to know that she heard the doorknob turn. The reader will expect something more to happen with all of that intro. Consolidate here.

    Another example:

    “He took a couple steps forward, stopping just inches away.”

    It’s sufficient to say:

    He stepped forward, stopping just inches away.

    Avoid Word Repetition

    Examples:

    “I watched as the door opened…”
    “I watched his face…”

    See if you can avoid using “watched” twice on the same page. This is just one example.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    “Seeing him again—now—totally surprised me. He showed no indication of feeling the same.”

    The punctuation here seems excessive. Also, it’s better to show her surprise by her actions rather than tell the reader that she was surprised.

    Another example:

    “I wanted to start pacing again, but I was too scared to move.”

    Show the reader her fear by her actions. There are ways to keep her from moving but still show that she is scared. The goal is to make your reader feel what your protagonist is feeling. While I did feel a little curious after reading this page, I didn’t feel scared. If your character was too scared to move, you want the reader to feel that way, too. When that doesn’t happen, it’s probably because you are telling instead of showing. Avoid using words like afraid, scared, frightened, horrified, or terrified. Even if your protagonist is too scared to move, write what her body is doing. What is she hearing? What is she smelling? Is her heart pounding? You get the idea.

    Setup info.

    Most people aren’t close enough to their cousins to be involved in their financial business. Often people don’t connect with their cousins except for weddings and funerals, with some exceptions. Maybe fill in the blanks, at least a little bit, and let the reader know what Lindsey is so involved in her cousin’s financial affairs.

    Overall Impression

    Good job. Writing is process. Enjoy working on your revisions. You’ve given the reader reasons to be curious. Now put the reader inside of your protagonist’s skin, and let the reader feel what she’s feeling. This is so important. Best of luck, and keep writing.

  10. Good tips all, Joanne. Esp like the cat metaphor. Descriptive openings CAN work but it takes a powerful writer to really pull it off. Your advice to craft a more active opening line and then go into description is well taken.

    • I agree. I’ve read some beautiful descriptive opening lines. For example, I love this one:

      “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, Neuromancer

      I’ve also read some wonderful openings that are long and descriptive that work.

      Some people may not worry too much about first lines, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to wait for the perfect line to come to mind and hold up writing until the perfect line presents itself. However, in the absence of an idea for a gripping first line, it never hurts to begin with a more active opening line. Anyway, Laurie can put the idea in her bonnet and think upon it.

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