First Page Critique: Pick A Tense
And Then Make Things Tense

By PJ Parrish

A good Tuesday morning to you all out there. Hope you are well and sane. Hope you are getting some writing done. Me, I’ve managed to grow a couple tomatoes. So it was fun to see someone else’s creative juices are flowing nicely. I’m referring to today’s First Page Critique. Let’s give it a read together and then we’ll discuss. Thanks, writer, for submitting.

Carrie’s Secret

I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. WHERE I WORK!!! I knew she might talk and that would be a problem, a big problem.

But I am systematic. I am in control. And I will deal with it.

When she was admitted to Danton, Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk so that day she was taken directly to the locked ward on the first floor. I had just stepped into the lobby as she came through the front door. She was flanked by an ambulance attendant on one side and a woman from the admitting office on the other, each holding an arm. Her parents, Noah and Marlene Genesen, followed close behind her. Carrie was older surely, about fifteen now, and a little taller with longer hair, but it was her. There was no doubt. I watched as the group turned to my left and entered the locked ward. None of them noticed me then, but I stopped cold.

The situation was urgent. Critical. Carrie would soon be in therapy and she could reveal the truth any time in the course of treatment. I could not let her say anything. Louise Ponte would probably be her therapist. She works with most of the kids. How long could Carrie keep the secret bottled up inside her here? It will tear her apart, I’m sure. A good shrink like Ponte will pull it out of her. And if Carrie said what she knows, would that fucking bitch of a psychiatrist believe her? Yes. Would her parents believe it? Definitely. I cannot take the risk.

So I had to adjust quickly and as soon as I had the opportunity that first afternoon, I confronted Carrie. Change-of-shift had just started so most of the staff were meeting behind the closed door to the nursing office. I went right to her room.

There wasn’t much time. I stood in her doorway, blocking her exit. She was sitting on her bed and she looked up at me. Her big brown eyes were unfocused. She was holding her bandaged arm and dressed in a tight red tank top and extremely short cut-off jeans. I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant. Then I looked up to her face.

___________________________

There’s some nice things going on here. As we often say here at TKZ, it’s always good to start with a nifty action scene. As James always says, do first and explain later. In other words, show something intriguing going on and then, later, tell us what it meant. Notice that I put two words in red there?

Show, don’t tell.

I love the fact this writer opened with something happening. A person (unnamed and no gender identified…more on that later) is confronted in the hospital where they work by an old “friend.” Or maybe a foe. But at the very least, this person from the past has a secret that our narrator does not wish to be known. Nice set up!

But I think the writer missed a chance to ramp up the tension factor by telling us too much when, with a little restructuring, it could be shown and thus have more dramatic impact.

Plus, we have here a problem with tense. It wavers between past and present, and the overall style is an odd hybrid of action and reminiscence.

The first paragraph, for instance, is refracted through the narrator’s thoughts rather than pure action, and thus feels more like a memory. “I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work.”  And with the capitalization and punctuation of the next line — WHERE I WORK!!! — it’s almost as if the writer subconsciously understood the first line was weak and she or he had to add caps and three exclamation marks to hit us over the head with the narrator’s intensity of emotion.

Might it not have been more effective to go right with action? I don’t know if Carrie, as she is being brought in, is fighting or half-comatose. So I am guessing here when I offer this suggested approach. I give it not as an attempt to rewrite this person’s style but to make a point about how, as an alternative, narration can be reshaped into a pure action scene.

The girl was screaming and kicking, her long dark hair flying around her face. The ambulance attendant had a hard grip on her right arm and a nurse jumped up from the desk to grab the girl’s right arm.  I was standing by the admitting desk, and as they lurched past, the girl’s head shot up.

Her wild brown eyes locked on mine. It was only for a second, but in that moment, I saw her.  

Carrie…

The only person in the world who knew what I had done.

Carrie’s head swung back and she gave me a questioning look that darkened into a glare. Then, with the wheeze of the ward’s door, she was gone.

Seconds later, a man and woman hurried in, not giving me a glance. Carrie’s parents. They didn’t recognize me, thank God.

My heart had stopped but now it was pounding. I took three deep breaths.

I am systematic. I am in control. And  damn it, I will deal with this.

See the difference? Get the action moving first and then start explaining things. And when you do go into the character’s thoughts, make it powerful, pithy and put it in italics.

Because this is a mixture of direct action scene and remembered narration, there are other problems. The narrator, upon merely seeing Carrie come into the hospital, cannot possibly know — yet — that she is suicidal and a flight risk. She cannot know either that a certain doctor Louise Ponte will be assigned to her case.  But these issues are easily resolved by continuing the action forward logically. For instance, the narrator, who apparently works at this facility, can immediately begin inquiries, maybe talk to the EMT when he comes back out? He could relate that she tried to kill herself.  Show us, via action and dialogue, don’t tell us.

Suggestion: Use the first scene — maybe the whole first chapter — to flesh out your great set-up. Play up the narrator’s shock and the fear of what this might bring (why is Carrie here? What happened? Will she tell someone our terrible secret?) You’ve done a good job of creating a sense of peril, so why rush it? Build your tension! Then you move on, logically, to the narrator going to Carrie’s room and confronting her.  That is probably worth a chapter all by itself. A third chapter could be a meeting with Dr. Ponte, wherein you can add some more background on why Carrie is there and why the narrator hates Ponte so much. Layers…it’s all about creating layers.

One problem many writers have is trying to figure out where to begin a chapter. This writer picked a great moment. But an equally vexing problem is figuring out where to END a scene or chapter. This is something this writer needs to work on. End one scene (in the lobby of hospital) and transition to the next scene (Carrie’s room).

Each scene and/or chapter needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. And you must DECIDE what the dramatic point of each individual scene is.  For this story, the point of the first scene is to introduce the protagonist via their shock at seeing someone who harbors a bad secret. This opening scene must also have an ending that then connects (via a smooth transition) to the next scene.

A small thing but important: Don’t bother to introduce character names until it is important. We don’t need to clutter up this great action moment with Carrie’s parents’ names.

Ditto the shrink.  Don’t give us Dr. Ponte’s name until she becomes an actual character in the action rather than in the narrator’s thoughts. Show us Dr. Ponte’s entrance, don’t tell us. I could see a great scene later, maybe chapter 3 or 4, where the narrator reads Carrie’s chart and finds out Dr. Ponte has been assigned to the case. Then maybe she goes and talks to the doctor? Show us, don’t tell us that Ponte is, ahem, a “fucking bitch.”  Remember the great movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? We didn’t “meet” Nurse Ratched through Randall McMurphy’s thoughts. We met her on the ward, in all her terrible glory, interacting with the patients. Action is showing.

That’s my main points. I’d like to do a line edit to bring things into sharper focus.

I thought I would never see Carrie Genesen again and then she gets admitted to this hospital, where I work. WHERE I WORK!!! I knew she might talk and that would be a problem, a big problem.

But I am systematic. I am in control. And I will deal with it. This submission came to me with a couple graphs in italics, so that’s how I left it. But I see no need for it.

When she was admitted to Danton, This lapses into past tense and sounds like the narrator is remembering this. It disrupts the tension. Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk The narrator has no way to know this. And “flight risk” is a legal term meaning a person is thought likely to leave the country before a trial or bail hearing. so that day she was taken directly to the locked ward on the first floor. I had just stepped into the lobby as she came through the front door. Again, the past tense construction “I had just” sounds like she’s recounting something that happened a while ago. She was flanked by an ambulance attendant on one side and a woman from the admitting office on the other, each holding an arm. Her parents, Noah and Marlene Genesen, followed close behind her. Carrie was older surely, about fifteen now, and a little taller with longer hair, but it was her. There was no doubt. I watched as the group turned to my left and entered the locked ward. None of them noticed me then, but I stopped cold.

The situation was urgent. Critical. This is a classic example of the writer TELLING us what the character feels rather than letting the emotions emerge through SHOWING the urgency. Carrie would soon be in therapy and she could reveal the truth any time in the course of treatment. I could not let her say anything. Louise Ponte would probably be her therapist. She works with most of the kids. How long could Carrie keep the secret bottled up inside her here? It will tear her apart, I’m sure. A good shrink like Ponte will pull it out of her. And if Carrie said what she knows, would that fucking bitch of a psychiatrist believe her? Yes. Would her parents believe it? Definitely. I cannot Again, we are shifting between past and present tense. Doesn’t work. take the risk.

So I had to adjust quickly and as soon as I had the opportunity that first afternoon, This is so confusing. Are we in the present day or is this character relating something that happened in the past? This construction suggests the latter. Which is not where we want to be opening a story. I confronted Carrie. Again, you’re telling us; show us. Change-of-shift had just started so most of the staff were meeting behind the closed door to the nursing office. I went right to her room.

There wasn’t much time. I stood in her doorway, blocking her exit. She is on suicide watch. Her door would be locked. She was sitting on her bed and she looked up at me. Her big brown eyes were unfocused. She was holding her bandaged arm and dressed in a tight red tank top and extremely short cut-off jeans. I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant. Then I looked up to her face. She already looked at her face, her unfocused brown eyes specifically.

Okay, this is important. Whenever you describe something, be it a room as a character enters, or seeing a person, always start with what is first-impression logical and move on to other details from there. What you would logically see — IN ORDER OF YOUR SENSES PROCESSING THINGS?

Carrie was slumped on her bed. Her lank hair covered her face, and she was rubbing her bandaged wrist. For the first time, I noticed what she was wearing — a tight red tank top and short cut-off jeans. I was staring at her long legs when Carrie looked up. 

See the difference in the order of the description? It has to be logical. And use it to up the tension. Also: Never let a chance go by in your description to make it specific and thus salient to character. You said she was “sitting on the bed.” Is she slumped? Curled in a fetal ball? Sprawled? Each suggests something specific about character and mood. And the bandage on her arm. What kind of bandage and where it is? A wrist gauze suggests a slit wrist and is a way for the narrator to get this knowledge of a suicide attempt via showing instead of telling. 

One last thing. We don’t known a thing about the narrator and presumptive protagonist of this story. When working in first person, it’s hard to get in names and such. (Forget description in the early going!).  But it becomes annoying, the longer your scene goes on, for the reader not to have a clue who they are listening to.  We don’t even know the sex of our narrator.  Such “busy work” can be dropped easily in dialogue, maybe as the narrator stands there in shock at seeing Carrie, someone calls out, “Dr. Rogers, are you okay? Jane? Jane, did you hear me?”  A simple “trick” like this would give us A.) the protag’s sex B.) name  C.) profession.

Okay, that’s about it.  Again, I want to give kudos to the writer for picking a good dramatic moment to drop us into the story. I really like the set-up, a teenager from the protag’s past harbors a bad secret that terrifies the protag enough to make them spring into action.

But, dear writer, you need to slow down a tad and give more thought to the structure of each individual scene and/or chapter and to hone in on the dramatic point of each. Good luck and thanks for letting us share your work.

 

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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

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Pick A Tense
And Then Make Things Tense

  1. What a great premise and an excellent point to begin a story. Well done, Brave Author.

    Great critique, Kris. I learned a lot and I’m sure the author will also.

    A secret is a terrific device b/c the reader is propelled into the story to find out what the secret is, nosy creatures that we humans are.

    One small detail–this scene would more likely take place at the emergency entrance to the hospital, where ambulances arrive, rather than in the lobby.

    “I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant.” This line suggests the POV character has a creepy male vibe. Is he a rapist?

    Would I read on? Oh yeah. Good job of hooking the reader, Brave Author.

    +4
    • Yeah, I agree that the glimpse at legs suggests a male. Which is why, when I got to that line at the end, I was taken aback because for some reason I was picturing a female narrator, who had a bad past with a girlfriend. But yes, as you say, with some work, I think this is a good hook and I would read on.

      +1
  2. I think there is a good story hiding in here as well. The first paragraph didn’t draw me in at all. I think cutting the whole thing be OK. As you pointed out, there are several continuity issues, like the unlocked secure ward.

    I thought the narrator was female. Yes, noticing the legs and “working up” is certainly a guy thing. Girls do cause other girls trauma.

    Overall, cleaned up I would like to see it again.

    +1
  3. Thank you, Brave Writer, for letting us take a gander at your first page. After the first paragraph, I was drawn right in.

    I hear the emotion in the narrator’s voice in that first paragraph, but the capital letters and exclamation points feel like a “tell” instead of a “show.” It also gives off a YA vibe. If this is not a YA story, you might want to alter or delete those first two paragraphs.

    The action is nice. I was drawn right in. If the hospital setting isn’t crucial to the story, maybe you could place this opening scene somewhere else to avoid the technical issues that PJ Parris pointed out (the locked ward, security, etc.).

    My favorite line is “I could not help looking at her naked legs for an instant” because it tells the reader that the narrator is a creepy guy or a jealous woman (maybe a creepy ex-lesbian lover?).

    It’s a good first page, but I think it could be great with another editing pass. Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Writer!

    +1
  4. I agree, Kris. Brave Writer started in a good spot. Not a lot of throat-clearing either, which is super. If s/he slows down a bit, it’ll make this opener even more compelling. I’d turn the page.

    Good job, Brave Writer!

    +1
  5. Great input, Kris. Excellent.
    Suspenseful, engaging start Author. Lots of unanswered questions I want to know the answer to…
    One request to all – the Ife-saving, brave ninjas who respond via ambulance are medics (either EMTs/emergency medical technicians or paramedics).
    “ambulance attendants” or “ambulance drivers” are terms best discarded.
    Great edits Kris and best of luck author!

    +1
  6. Hi everyone. I’m the “Brave Author.” I am staggered by the time and thought Kris (I gather Kris is one-half of “PJ Parrish”) put into this critique and by the fact that so many others responded as well. Carrie’s Secret is only my second novel (Development was my first). Needless to say, I am a beginner with a lot to learn. And so I am very grateful for your help.

    I have many thoughts about this critique. I will start with what I learned.

    The rapid shifts in point of view are confusing and disorienting. I was trying to stay in first person for the mysterious protagonist and I deliberately placed his (yes, it is a man) thoughts in italics. I did that throughout the book. When other characters appear, they are in the third person, but their also thoughts appear in italics.

    I like the point that action is showing. I never heard it put so succinctly and I definitely get it more clearly than I ever did. The rewrite Kris did illustrated beautifully how well action can carry the story forward yet still contains the same information that “telling” would have conveyed.

    Someone mentioned that “flight risk” was the wrong term. Now I realize that is absolutely true. I should have used “escape risk.” Also, I did not do a good job when I wrote “Carrie was considered both a flight risk and a suicide risk…” You’re right; the protagonist could not have known that. The admitting staff would know it, so I should have written that differently.

    I think my biggest problem, and Kris identified it immediately, is with tense. I really need to work on that. (I’m even having trouble with it here, in my reply.) It is a huge challenge, in part because I like to reveal people’s thoughts (in italics, as I said), but those thoughts are typically in the present, while the incidents being described are often told in past tense. I’ll leave it that tense is a hard one for me.

    Several points of clarification:

    The reader finds out later into the book this story takes place in the early 1980s. Should I have put a date right at the beginning under the Chapter number on page one? At any rate, set in that era, some things are true. For example, ambulance attendants were in fact called “ambulance attendants,” in that locale.

    Second, a suicidal patient would not be locked in her room, at least in the psych hospitals where I worked. Those doors to the individual rooms did not lock, only the entrance to the whole ward was locked. However, a patient at risk for suicide would have been watched by staff members 24/7.

    I purposely did not want to reveal much about the protagonist (he’s really the antagonist), so the mystery of who he is can play out in the story. I sympathize with the reader’s frustration, but it seemed important to keep that as vague as possible early on.

    This chapter does not end with the final words above. It goes on for another page and actually ends with “But I had no illusions. Sooner or later, she would talk. I had bought myself some time, time that I needed to make a plan to silence Carrie permanently.” I believe that was a fitting end and leads logically to the next chapter.

    If you waded through this long-winded response, thank you. I look forward to any more feedback, thoughts or questions you may have.

    All my best,
    Paul Backalenick

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    • Hey there Paul! Thanks for chiming in. We greatly appreciate it when the writer comes back and add to the commentary. I trust you didn’t mind me doing that small rewrite. Wasn’t trying to tell you how to write your scene. Just wanted to try to SHOW what show-not-tell means instead of TELLING about it. 🙂

      Regarding revealing your protag: I get that you want to keep him somewhat mysterious but if he’s too mystery-man he lapses in a cipher or worse, and confuses the reader. So you have to give us a couple details to hang onto: ie we need to know he’s a man (and I love that detail with the legs!). Also, the longer you withhold his name, the more obvious your attempt to do so becomes so it can become annoying and almost cutesy. Know what I mean? The lure of good fiction is wanting to join the hero’s journey. But we have to identify and emotionally bond with the hero for that to happen.

      Your set-up creates the beginnings of that bond by you telling us he’s in peril if the secret gets out. But you have to make him feel like a real person to us or the bond won’t grow. Which is not to say the protag MUST be perfect (quite the opposite) or even likable. But we have to be invested in him enough emotionally to want to follow the path you, the writer, are laying out.

      Now, the fact that your mystery man is the VILLAIN! Well, that’s a whole nother can of worms, as they say. It’s okay to open with a bad guy. (Search our archives for posts on this). But you do have to introduce the protagonist very soon after this — or you risk readers bonding with the wrong character. If you are writing a story wherein the villain IS the protag, well, that’s a tough thing to pull off. (See Darkly Dreaming Dexter). I’m not sure I recommend it for writers just starting out. But that’s a post for another time. Maybe I will try to write about that anon.

      Again, thanks for responding and submitting! Onward…

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