Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

17 thoughts on “Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

  1. Excellent job. Sue’s suggestions raise this page from very good to great.

    The line that made me sit up and take notice: “This guy can erase lives with a click.” It hints at not only the plot problem but the theme.

    BTW, “primo” is “cousin” in Spanish, which adds information about the relationship between Carlos and Eduardo. This author is skillful enough to slip in a translation for non-Spanish speakers that doesn’t slow the momentum.

    I would definitely turn the page.

    • I agree, Debbie. The skill of the writer shines through. But I still think using “primo” and “cousin” and “Carlos” is too much for the first page.

    • “primo” is also urban Spanish slang for “close friend”. As in “Yo, primo, whassup?” It’s a subtle point but makes the dialogue even more real.

  2. This was excellent.

    As Sue said, Riker’s isn’t possessive. Made me stop reading and wonder how many people think it is? But hey, it got caught, will be corrected and that’s over with.

    I do think the first and second paragraphs should be one, but not because it will tell the reader who ‘he’ is – I was not confused. However, the first line seems disconnected from the rest of the story the way it is written.

    I had to read it a second time after the review, and then give it a quick glance. I disagree that the first paragraph is out of POV. Yes, if the POV is Eduardo’s then true he wouldn’t see his gun glisten. However, there is nothing to indicate it Eduardo’s POV. Isn’t the narrator omnipotent? Did I miss something?

    Thanks fior giving me a good read to start my day.

    • No, the POV isn’t omniscient, Michelle. The writer grounds us in Eduardo’s POV with the first line (even though it needs improvement). We’re viewing the scene through his eyes, evident by what the writer shows us. The skill of the writer is on display, because s/he doesn’t need to make it obvious. A bigger hint is this line: The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

      We would have to be in his POV in order to “feel” the weight. We also have no idea what Carlos is thinking or feeling internally. If the POV was omniscient, we would. Make sense?

      The gun glistening in the sun was not a POV slip. That’s not the problem. My point is, would Eduardo notice the gun glistening in the sunlight? He’s a tough guy. I doubt very much he’d take the time to think how the sun kisses his gun. So, if he wouldn’t think it, then the reader shouldn’t either.

      Hope this helps. 🙂

  3. I agree with Sue’s critique. BA has a great start to the story. One thing wasn’t sure of was the POV. It wasn’t until paragraph 6 and 10 that it was clear to me.

    One other thing: I’m not sure it’s all that easy to switch evidence “in the cop’s database” and frame someone else with just “a click”. There’d have to be more to the story to be believable, IMHO, but maybe the more is forthcoming farther into the book.

    The character I like best in this submission is Ti-the “kid who scored you your shipment”. Shows some cahonies. (I have no idea how to spell that, BTW…)

    • Good point about switching evidence with one click, Deb. I’m hoping the writer did his/her homework and has invented a really creative way of making this story not only possible but plausible.

      Ha! Right? Love that kid.

  4. Hey, thanks for the nice mention, Sue! A cheery way to start the week.

    The dialogue here is quite good, better than most first pages we’ve seen. That earns reader trust that the author knows what he/she is doing. With some suggested tweaks, this is a page we will turn.

  5. I agree that this is good, but I have to offer a contrasting viewpoint on Sue’s comment no. 3 — the one about how the dialogue “… tells us … about the location ….”

    As the piece starts, we’ve got 2 cops named Eduardo and Carlos, riding in a battered Ford Bronco over a pothole-ridden street, and talking about a guy named Hector Flores and a gang called the “Familia Michoacana.” So I assumed that this story was taking place in Mexico, Central America or South America.

    So when they mentioned “Rikers Island,” I was surprised and it stopped me. (By the way, another quick item … Rikers is a holding location for people who have been arrested and/or are awaiting trial. Once convicted, they are sent to one of the NY State prisons (e.g., Dannemora, or Sing Sing, etc.). My suggestion is that the author needs to establish that the potholed street is in the Bronx, Brooklyn, etc.

    • Great advice regarding the prison, Chuck. Are you sure Rikers is a holding station? I thought Harvey Weinstein is doing his time there.

      Your comment about Eduardo and Carlos being cops surprised me. I didn’t read it that way at all. Brave Writer, see how each reader can envision a scene differently? Something to keep in mind during the next draft. Thanks, Chuck!

      • Rikers is definitely a holding station, Sue.

        In fact, per my extensive research (i.e., a Wikipedia search), Rikers is described as “… The Rikers Island complex, which consists of ten jails, holds local offenders who are awaiting trial, serving sentences of one year or less, or are temporarily placed there pending transfer to another facility. Rikers Island is therefore not a prison by US terminology, which typically holds offenders serving longer-term sentences.”

        Perhaps Eduardo and Carlos aren’t cops? As they were talking about the guy hacking into the cops’ data system, for some reason I thought they were … but I may have been reading more into the dialogue than was there or intended.

        • I thought this was a very good start to a book I’d keep reading. IN the discussion about Rikers not housing long term offenders, I’m only familiar with the Texas prison system, but it’s normal for a recently sentenced individual to spend time in a transfer unit before being sent to their “long term residency.” Not sure why I felt compelled to share other than, that fact didn’t throw me since it sounds like he was only recently convicted and it’s still new news.

      • Pretty sure they aren’t cops. 1) They talk about cops in the third person, like they themselves aren’t cops. And, 2) if they knew this guy had hacked into the police database and supposedly framed Hector, wouldn’t they be all over that? Report to the higher ups? Hope so…

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