First Page Critique – Special Agent Jonas Stone

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


By Debbie Burke


Welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The story is untitled so I used the name of the likely main character.

Please read and enjoy then we’ll discuss.


2 years ago, Port of Chicago

“All positions report in,” Special Agent Jonas Stone released the transmission button on the communicator attached to his wrist.

“Sierra 6, good to go,” the team leader of the Special Weapons and Tactics Team sounded off from their tactical vehicle.

“Sierra 3, on station and sighted in,” the sniper team responded.

“Sierra 5, off the shore and set up in case they try to break out of the port,” the Marine Unit called in.

The rest of the perimeter posts completed their check in.

“That’s all of them,” Jonas looked over at his partner in the passenger seat of their SUV.  Special Agent Michael Lock had been with Jonas since the beginning of their time together with the Secret Service.  These last twelve years Mike had become like a brother, something Jonas missed from his time in the military.

“Let’s just hope everything is going as planned for Eddie,” Mike said, the worry etched on his face.  “I don’t want to face the wrath of Linda if something happens to him.”

Jonas shook his head thinking about the firecracker that was Eddie’s wife.  The old adage of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” reared its ugly head right from the beginning of the operation.  The transmission wire set up on their snitch, or confidential informant as Mike liked to correct Jonas when talking about Eddie, completely malfunctioned.  Mike had a soft spot for Eddie, more so than even Jonas.

“What time is it?” Jonas asked.

“2200 hours.”

Eddie has always been reliable.  When it came to snitching, he was the best Jonas’ had ever worked with, the gold standard.  Some of the biggest cases in the Chicago Field Office, dealing with everything from counterfeit U.S. currency to child pornography cases, were thanks to Eddie.  Jonas and Mike looked out for him and made sure he got paid handsomely for his contributions over the years.

“It’s been over an hour, and we haven’t heard any word from him,” Jonas pressed, knowing the success of the operation will come down to the signal from Eddie.

This wasn’t just another case for Jonas.  This was personal.

“It’ll work out, Jonas,” Mike seemed to pick up on his anxiety.  “Eddie will come through, he always does.  Today, we will take down the bastards that killed Jade.”

Jonas’ eyes misted over, and he couldn’t speak.  He had investigated this human smuggling ring for the last six months.  They had been responsible for his daughter’s disappearance and heinous death, but the evidence was lacking.  The case finally got a shot in the arm thanks to Eddie.  He had provided information that there was a vessel in one of the harbors of the Port of Chicago that was going to be loaded with two CONEX boxes containing local kidnapped girls bound for New York City.


Okay, let’s get started.

2 years ago, Port of Chicago – This is evidently a chapter heading for what appears to be a prologue. It suggests within a few pages the story will jump forward to present day.

Some readers love prologues, some hate ’em. I don’t care either way. But consider deleting “2 years ago” and just use “Port of Chicago.” Then, if the story does jump forward, the heading of the next section could be, “Two years later.”

This story is about human trafficking and features a Secret Service team poised to arrest perpetrators in the Port of Chicago. The subject is timely and compelling, making it a good choice for what sounds like a thriller or police procedural.

Featuring the Secret Service as the lead agency is another good choice because it hasn’t been used as frequently as the FBI and other police agencies. That makes it stand out among other books in the genre, especially if the Brave Author adds fresh insights to the Secret Service’s particular duties, like counterfeiting and child pornography, that are also mentioned.

The Port of Chicago is a dramatic setting because it offers plenty of dangerous backdrops for action to unfold.

I had to look up CONEX boxes but that’s okay because the use of a specific type of shipping container lends authenticity.

When balancing between too much description vs. not enough, I believe it’s better to err on the side of not enough, especially at the beginning of the story, to not slow the action. However, BA might consider adding more setting details a bit later to bring the locale to noisy, colorful, smelly, vivid life.

BA selected an effective point to begin the story. The agents are in the middle of a tense operation, in media res, and they have a problem—their most reliable snitch hasn’t been heard from. The success of the mission rests on him and his wire isn’t working. The stakes are upped even higher because the villains are responsible for the death of the daughter of the POV character, Special Agent Jonas Stone.

Good job setting up the story problem and stakes!

A small aside: names that end with “s” can be inconvenient. You have to decide if the possessive is Jonas’s or Jonas’ (either is correct) then remain consistent. Also, it can lead to unneeded apostrophes such as the best Jonas’ had ever…

One last consideration: this might eventually become an audiobook. Jonas Stone is a mouthful for the narrator.

This doesn’t mean BA shouldn’t use the name, simply to consider it can add small problems.

Let’s look at characterization. Jonas Stone has been partnered for 12 years with Mike Lock and they are like brothers. Jonas was formerly in the military. Jonas cares about his “snitch” Eddie but not as much as Mike does. Jonas lost his daughter Jade to the traffickers they are now targeting.

This is all good background information, but it is TOLD to the reader, rather than SHOWN. Showing engages the reader more with Jonas.

Use the first eight lines then try reworking their conversation. Here’s a sample of SHOWING (in blue) more than TELLING.

“Everyone’s checked in.” Jonas glanced at Mike Lock, his partner of twelve years, sitting in the passenger seat of their unmarked Secret Service SUV. Jonas gnashed his chewing gum. “Still, this operation has Murphy’s Law written all over it.

“Tell me about it,” Mike answered. “If something goes wrong, I don’t want to be the one to explain to Eddie’s wife that his wire didn’t work.”

“Yeah, he’s helped us close a lot of cases. Best snitch I ever worked with.”

Mike looked down his nose. “That’s confidential informant.”

“All right, all right, I get it,” Jonas snapped then regretted his sharpness.

Mike was right—some of the biggest cases in the Chicago Field Office, everything from counterfeit U.S. currency to child pornography cases, were thanks to Eddie. Jonas and Mike made sure he was paid well, and he always delivered.

After a few seconds of silence, Mike’s elbow nudged Jonas’s shoulder. “You OK, buddy?”

“Yeah.” No, Jonas wasn’t OK. This case was personal. These same traffickers had murdered his daughter, Jade.

“Eddie will come through for us. He always does.” Mike cuffed Jonas’s arm. “Today we’re gonna get the evidence to take the bastards down. For Jade.”

Same info but it’s SHOWN with dialogue, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and internal monologue.

To ramp up an already-tense situation, consider adding a ticking clock. For instance:

Jonas asked, “What time is it?” 

“Twenty-two hundred hours.” 

“Wonder how long those kidnapped girls can survive in CONEX containers. Aren’t they air-tight?” 

A few typos and minor nits:

“2200 hours.” – Spell out numbers in dialogue: “Twenty-two hundred hours.”

Eddie has always been reliable. – Change of tense. Eddie had always been reliable.

…the best Jonashad ever worked with – delete apostrophe.

…word from him,” Jonas pressed, – pressed isn’t a normal verb to describe speech. Maybe stick with said but add a physical gesture like: Jonas clutched the steering wheel. 

…the operation will come down to the signal from Eddie. – change to the operation would come down.

Brave Author, you chose a timely crime with high stakes. The story starts with action, tension, and suspense. Putting your characters in the Secret Service offers a chance to explore their special duties that aren’t widely known to the public—a value-added bonus for the reader.

The main character has an urgent, driving need to put his daughter’s killers behind bars. If BA moves a little deeper into Jonas’s head and heart, the reader feels his loss more intensely and roots harder for his success.

This is a strong start that can be improved with minor tweaking. Good work and good luck with this, Brave Author!


TKZers: What suggestions do you have for the Brave Author? Would you turn the page?



Deep Fakes are illusion but death is real.

Debbie Burke’s new thriller Deep Fake Double Down launches on April 25, 2023. Available for pre-order now at Amazon.

21 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Special Agent Jonas Stone

  1. Well done. I like the opening in action/tension, citing the stakes, and the terseness of the dialogue! Stick with it. But some of this passage consists of Person A telling Person B stuff that Person B already knows. This is exposition in disguise and it sounds like exposition. Minimize it.

    Rather than have an exposition dump in what should be an action scene, extend the terseness to the narration. Dump the “snitch” vs CI banter, too, and shoot for a little over a half page it it’s to be a prologue.You don’t have to tell all. Anything the reader doesn’t understand will raise a question, which is another hook if you don’t get too cryptic. You can move some of the exposition and character details to the next Chapter.

    This is a full page of text, a bit long for a prologue, a bit short for Chapter 1. I like prologues, but they should be as short as possible. Prologues are often set in an earlier time, but would the victim still be alive two years later?

    There are 10 Federal agencies or departments that handle human trafficking cases. The Secret Service is just about the only one not among them.

    I’d revise the first paragraph to read: “All teams report in꘎ Sierra SIx?” Special Agent Jonas Stone released the transmit button on his wrist communicator.

    As originally phrased, all positions could jump on the air at the same time. You prevent that and show coordination by the MC explicitly starting with Six. You could add a little tension by a pause before one team goes on air.

    The soul of drama is conflict. There’s too much nicety here. Add some conflict. Federal agents are not saints. Let one or two be a bit gritty. Show us the MC’s nature with a lump in his throat, if you want, but not to the weepy point.

    That’s enough from Ming the Merciless.

    • Good thoughts, J.

      One clarification: there is a limit of 400 words for TKZ first page critiques. Introducing characters, setting, a problem, and stakes in one page is difficult, as we’ve all experienced.

      I found this article about a partnership between Secret Service and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
      Partnerships among government agencies are too Byzantine to include on any first page! But this might explain their presence.

      Thanks for your always helpful comments, J.

      • It’s easy to use the Secret Service, if it’s explained briefly that Jonah (sic) Stone’s men are helping DHS.
        Yes, the 400 word limit makes the prologue vs chapter problem much harder.
        Prologues often have a different POV, and I’m wondering why we’re not in the mind of Eddie, who seems to be wearing the red Trek tunic.

        • J, another intriguing idea to use Eddie’s POV. Although if he’s sacrificed in the prologue, some readers don’t like becoming interested in a character only to see him immediately get killed off. Then they have to start over with another character. No easy answers.

    • I too looked up who handles human trafficking. It is DHS. Aside from Executive protection, the Secret Service primarily deals with financial crimes.

      About all of DHS in one way or another deals with trafficking.

    • The Secret Service works all kinds of cases to include Human Trafficking. They are a component of Homeland Security. They also participate in task forces such as ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) and violent crimes task forces working with state, federal and local agencies.

  2. I’d like to see some action. It just seems like all backstory and thinking. I found myself skipping, trying to get to something happening.

    Crime. Agents. A good recipe for action. Let’s see it.

    • Good point, Cynthia. It’s a difficult balancing act to catch readers’ attention at the same time as introducing enough background so they’re not lost. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Great submission, BA! I enjoyed reading and would want to read along further to find out what’s up with Eddie and if Jonas will get some resolution. A few thoughts:

    My first reaction when I saw “2 years ago, Port of Chicago” was to think “own it–give us a date or don’t mention timeline at all.” To me 2 years ago is just too vague. And we’re dealing with an operation that has been planned down to the letter, so a vague scene header date doesn’t seem to fit.

    I didn’t understand this line “These last twelve years Mike had become like a brother, something Jonas missed from his time in the military.” I’m not sure what author is trying to imply here. Do you mean that while Jonas was in the military he did not feel camaraderie with his fellow military men and women? When we think of military we think “band of brothers”. So if the intention is to imply discord during military service, it doesn’t really come through. Or are you implying that Jonas & Mike were friends but that a military service stint interrupted that?

    The sample rewrite that Debbie gave took care of the other issues I had–like dialoguing some of the scene instead of it all being Jonas’ thoughts; or condensing the comment about Eddie’s wife into fewer words. The other thing that Debbie’s sample gave was to indicate one thing that seemed missing from the first page–evidence of Jonas’ tension due to the highly personal stakes of the case. If I was an agent whose daughter was killed by the people I’m conducting an op against, I’m going to be tense, maybe snappish because I want this thing to go without a hitch and get the one(s) I’m after. Let us feel that tension in the opening page.

    I assume we’ll learn a little more about how Jonas & Mike came to work with Eddie as the story goes on. Sounds like it will be interesting. Thanks for submitting!

    • Brenda, I too was distracted by the mention of Jonas’s military service. It takes up several lines w/o moving the action forward. That backstory can be saved until later.

      Playing up Jonas’s personal stake in the operation will raise the tension significantly.

      BA will appreciate your encouraging words.

  4. I must have missed the opening tension and action. I saw a check in of people who were really teams of people, and a location that was just a signpost. The opening check in reminded me of the Rebel attack on the Death Star only written longer and slower.

    You covered the telling and showing. There was a lot of telling on this page. It could be me, but I am just seeing the action.

    Oh, from Chicago to New York by water is a week. The same load by truck is two to three days.

    • Thanks for adding to the discussion, Alan. To me, the tension was implied but needed to be spelled out more.

      I really like the Chicago waterfront location and want to see more of that world.

      • I Googled the Port of Chicago (great website)! You could have a whole mystery series there and just scratch the surface. Maybe more is made later in the book.

  5. This sounds like a start to an interesting story. I agree with losing the Two Years Ago heading, and show the action as if happening now. Then, if it all goes sideways, if Eddie and Mike are both killed, and the first chapter ends with Jonas kneeling on the street next to his dead partner, and Jonas is still dealing with the aftermath two years later, show that.

    Also, a little nitpicking. Old adage is redundant. It’s like PIN number, or ATM machine. Even though it’s used a lot, as writers, we shouldn’t perpetuate the misuse.

    • Becky, I figured Eddie was probably going to get killed but your mention of adding Mike’s death would really raise the stakes for Jonas.

      If that’s the direction BA is taking the story, this scene should foreshadow those deaths, which increases the tension.

      Thanks for these additional thoughts, Becky.

  6. Thanks, BA, for your submission, and thanks to Debbie for the critique. Debbie gave some great examples of showing rather than telling that make a big difference in the reader’s experience. I think this can be a great opening.

    I like the idea of an extremely tense prologue that ends in sudden, violent action. I think the piece would be better if it was honed to focus on the tension. Maybe drop the info about the wife and any other backstory about people’s feelings. Make it all about the moment. I’d start the piece with

    This wasn’t just another case for Jonas. This was personal.
    “It’ll work out, Jonas,” Mike seemed to pick up on his anxiety. “Eddie will come through, he always does. Today, we will take down the bastards that killed Jade.”

    You know how it is in an extremely tense moment. People have little tics like snapping gum or cracking their knuckles. Maybe one of the positions doesn’t report in on time. A vehicle rumbles by. that could spoil the whole operation. etc etc

    One sentence I didn’t understand: Some of the biggest cases in the Chicago Field Office, dealing with everything from counterfeit U.S. currency to child pornography cases, were thanks to Eddie. I think there’s a word missing.

    But the bottom line is this could be the beginning of a great thriller. Thanks again, BA, and good luck!

    • Excellent suggestions, Kay. A position that doesn’t report in and a passing vehicle are great ideas to increase tension.

      The story has good potential and the tweaks to improve it are easy to do.

  7. Good start, BA, and good critique, Debbie. Comments were right on, also.

    One tiny thing I wondered about: how likely is it that a LE officer would be allowed to work on a case involving the murder of his own child? I know it happens in Hollywood, but in real life? Not so sure . . . maybe some TKZers with LE experience would care to weigh in on it.

    And, BA, can’t wait for the movie! 🙂

    • Deb, good point that Jonas working his daughter’s murder is unlikely in real life. But it’s probably been done often enough in fiction and films that authors can get away with it. Readers can be willing to suspend disbelief if the story is engaging.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Good point, Deb. I think this twist is an example of what Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat calls “Too Much Marzipan.” It would also rule out Jonah Stone’s working on Eddie’s murder, soon to follow.

    • Yes, I wondered if personal interest conflict would allow him to work on the case as well.

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