First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

Let me apologize to the Brave Writer who submitted this first page. A mix-up in communication caused me to think Brian sent this to another TKZer. Sorry! And thank you for your patience. My comments will follow.


Title: The Puzzle Within

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. “I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin, and a vein in his neck bulged.

Reclining her head to make eye contact with a man nearly a foot taller than herself, Ari wrinkled her nose, crossed her arms, but refused to back down. “You can’t force me to do this. I’ll take it to the top.” All the way to the Director if necessary.

Matt’s energy deflated, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “This assignment came from the top. From the Director himself. The shrink doesn’t believe you’re ready,” he said, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. His expression softened. “Not yet.”

Ari shrugged, knocking his hand away, and stalked to the other side of the room. She rested her hands on a bookshelf, her eyes falling upon the photo of Matt’s smiling family taken at Disneyland last summer. The FBI was her family, and she didn’t need sympathy. She needed her job back. With a sigh, she rotated to face her boss. “But why me? Why isn’t DSS handling this?”

Shouldn’t the Diplomatic Secret Service be handling this problem? They’re responsible for Ambassador Van Sloan and his spoiled daughter, Bianca—the biggest brat in diplomatic circles. Growing up in the consulate with the world at her fingertips and a silver spoon in her mouth, the college student didn’t comprehend the word “no.”

I don’t have time for this. I’ve got cases to solve and missing children to find. A knot formed in her stomach.

Matt cleared his throat and returned to his seat.

Ari’s pulse flickered in her neck. “What aren’t you telling me?” Apprehension tinged her voice.

He swallowed. “DSS is handling it.” His eyes darted to a manila envelope on his desk. “You’re being ‘borrowed’ for the time being.”


Let’s first discuss all the things Brave Writer did right.

  • Good grasp of POV
  • Story starts with a goal: To get out of babysitting a diplomat’s daughter.
  • Includes a complication: The boss is forcing her to go.
  • Raises story questions: Why is Arizona not ready for FBI work? Why did the psychiatrist evaluate her?
  • Includes a subtle clue that tells us Arizona isn’t dressed for work—her hiking boot—which implies she’s on leave after an incident or came in on her day off.

If we put all these puzzle pieces together, the assumption is something bad happened to Arizona.

Kudos to you, Brave Writer. You’ve worked hard to hone your craft.

Now for some tough love.

The bones of intrigue are there, but it’s overshadowed by too many body cues and random details that add nothing of value. Here are the first two paragraphs with my comments in blue.

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. This first line has no context. It’s a reaction without a motivation, or an effect without a cause. If, say, a grizzly bear was advancing on our MC, we wouldn’t first show the MC’s reaction. We’d show the grizzly bear huff or stomp the ground. Then the MC could react. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe This body cue implies she’s changing directions to leave, yet the rest of the sentence implies she’s entering her boss’s office. When put together, these two body cues cancel each other out and cause confusion., locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. I realize some writers use “locking eyes” but I immediately envision floating eyeballs. “Locking gazes” avoids confusion. But again, without knowing if she’s leaving or entering the office, the scene remains scrambled in this reader’s mind. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. And now, she’s fidgeting, which implies nervousness. However, slamming a hand into a wall, locking gazes, and the inner monologue and dialogue all implies anger and/or defiance. Choose one emotion and stick with it. We haven’t even gotten to the second paragraph, and already the MC has experienced a plethora of conflicting emotions. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. Glass surface of what? “I’m not kidding. <- this adds nothing of value, nor does this -> You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows <- I have no idea what this means. Is he consciously angling his bushy eyebrows at something? Doubtful. And if he is, we’ve slipped out of Arizona’s POV. and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin Face? Nose? Be specific. ’Course, shoving his chair backward is all you need to portray anger. All these other emotional cues distract from the dialogue. It’s too much. A good exercise for you may be to limit one emotion per character per page. It’ll force you to focus on strengthening the dialogue, inner monologue, and the narrative., and a vein in his neck bulged.

Let’s move on…

What if you started by showing Ari trying to control the diplomat’s reckless daughter (and failing)? Then this whole opener could be threaded through the narrative in a more organic way.


I didn’t become a federal agent to babysit a diplomat’s brat.

That one line of inner dialogue shows what you’ve conveyed in this first page. Please don’t get discouraged. We’ve all started novels too soon. And many of us continue to learn that lesson over and over and over. I wrote three different openers to my current WIP before I landed on one that worked, and it’ll be my 22nd book.

One last comment…

Because the out-of-control diplomat kid is a familiar trope, you need to work twice as hard to twist it in a way that’s fresh and new. It likens to the alcoholic cop or homicide detective who’s haunted by the cases he couldn’t solve. I can see that you have worked hard on your craft—otherwise I’d be handling you with kid gloves—so I’ll assume you have a fresh take. Which is great. I only bring it up to make you aware. Okay? Now, go write your bestseller. You’ve got the writing chops to do it. 😉

Over to you, TKZers. Please add your thoughtful suggestions for this Brave Writer.

23 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

  1. I’ll not add to Sue’s list of positives; she’s covered them well. I find myself puzzling over the scene’s “stage management” aspects. I assumed the woman is facing her boss across his desk, the usual set-up for a confrontation at work. This seems to be wrong, unless his “two steps” take him up and over the desk.
    Opening in action &/or conflict is good. But the action here doesn’t advance the story: Slapping the wall, angling bushy eyebrows, spinning, locking, fidgeting, returning, reclining?? Yes, conflict is there, the best thing about the piece, but the trivial details are reader-stoppers that impede the conflict: the hiking shoe, the coffee breath, warm hand, her eyes falling (plop-plop?) upon the photo of Matt’s smiling family (taken at Disneyland last summer!) etc.
    I think a fresh start is in order, as Sue suggests, with real action and/or unremitting conflict, depending on where you want to plunge into the story.
    –Ming the Merciless

  2. Excellent critique, Sue. I’ll add my two cents:

    I enjoyed this opening page. It’s tense, and I want to know why Ari isn’t allowed back on her job yet. I also want to know what Bianca is going to throw at her.

    I don’t think a woman as tough and irate as Ari would fiddle with a button on her shirt. Consider deleting that sentence.

    Her boss is upset. His initial reply would be more effective without the “I’m not kidding” sentence.

    If Ari isn’t going to back down, after crossing her arms, “AND refused to back down” makes more sense.

    “Flickered” is a visual word. If Ari’s pulse flickers in her neck, she wouldn’t be able to see it. Consider a different verb, one she can feel, or just delete it.

    It’s a tense opening scene, and I want to know why Ari isn’t allowed back on her job yet. I also want to know what Bianca is going to throw at her. I’d turn the page!

  3. It is a cliche. It makes it that much harder to pull off. But you are on a good path. Note Sue’s suggestions. They all are interfering with the story telling.

    For sure lost the fidgeting with the button. It is either flirtatious or timid. Neither normally used for female federal agents. Unless… The look to the family at Disneyland and the button are signs of a past romantic relationship. Another cliche and one that is much harder to pull off in 2023. The same with grabbing/holding a female subordinate in the workplace. Matt could end up spending the day with HR that way. You just don’t.

    A quibble. Ari is an odd nickname for Arizona. It is also Hebrew for lion. Ari is a common male name in Israel.

    A little clean up and I would be turning the page.

  4. Thanks for your entry, Brave Author. I like the premise of this story, and I’d like to read it when you’ve made the changes.

    Sue’s critique is excellent. I noted a couple of things:
    – Would an FBI agent slam her hand against a wall in her superior’s office?
    – I agree with JGuenther about the stage direction. Although action beats are good, there are more than necessary to get the point across in this piece.
    – “Matt’s energy deflated” – You’ve changed POVs here, and I think the scene would be better without this clause anyway.

    Btw, could you change the brat’s name to something other than Bianca? 🙂

    • Excellent advice, Kay. Thank you! The TKZ community is so generous with their time and experience, and the writer benefits from all the comments.

  5. Brave writer, good job starting with action and conflict. TKZ first pages often begin with a character ruminating or backstory. You avoided those two common traps. You plunge us right into the action. But, as Sue points out, the action isn’t clear and the emotions are jumbled.

    Conflicting emotions are difficult to show but can be tremendously effective when done well. Arizona (great name, BTW) is angry, frustrated, insulted, and maybe a little scared that the psychiatrist is right that she’s not ready to go back to work. You might consider going deeper into her POV, having the above thoughts zing through her mind like bullets as she argues with her boss.

    The Puzzle Within indicates an important theme may be Ari’s inner struggle. If so, a deeper POV might work better.

    “Matt’s energy deflated, a muscle twitching in his cheek.” This line was confusing. Deflation suggests he’d giving up and giving in. That’s not the case. Twitching muscle indicates continued tension. I think you mean to show he feels sympathy for Ari’s plight but has to stand firm. Those body signals are different.

    Sue makes a great point that we sometimes have to try several openers before hitting on the right one. Don’t discard this. Just add it to a backup file. Write a few different beginnings, then compare. You may decide this is the best place to start but needs tweaking.

    As Sue says, you have the writing chops to pull this off. Best of luck!!!

    • Excellent advice, Debbie. Good point about deflation. I also agree about using conflicting emotions to increase tension. Still, more than one emotion per paragraph is risky for a newer writer. Too often it comes across as jumbled. Thank you for adding your suggestions!

  6. I agree with the above comments. My problem is that Ari’s reaction to a crap assignment seems to be greatly over the top. Slamming her hand into the wall of her SAICs office seems to support the idea that she isn’t ready for duty. It is an out of control response. These assignments probably comes up a lot, not every case is a juicy bank robbery. She seems to be out of control. A special agent takes the assignment given and can’t shove off the crap ones to other Agents because she is “too. good” for it.
    Sadly, this behavior could end her career if the SAIC isn’t the most understanding person.
    Action and reaction need to have some relevance not only to each other but to the gravity of the situation.
    Also, coming into the office for a meeting with the SAIC in hiking boots shows that she didn’t take this meeting seriously.
    A small point. When I read her name I thought the writer was referring to electric companies in the State of Arizona.
    She comes off as an unlikeable character and a spoiled brat.

  7. Good advice, Sue, and excellent suggestions, Brian and Alan. The set-up is a standard movie trope — I just saw a version in an excellent movie called “To Catch a Killer,” when the young female cop is handed a crying baby, and the FBI agent says, “You don’t mind watching the baby, do you?”
    Her response is to say nothing and take the baby, because she wants to work for the FBI. It’s a more realistic response. Brian is right. Ari would be fired for insubordination, or at least chewed out, even if the SAIC is a friend.
    I would tone down her verbal response. Some of it can be furious internal dialogue.
    Also, the phrase, “reclining her head” seems off. Reclining implies “resting.” Wouldn’t she be “twisting her neck” or something similar?

  8. Not a bad submission, but as you note Sue, it needs some tweaking. I think this could be improved with more attention paid to better paragraphing. If you look at the original submission, almost all the graphs are the same length. That gets tedious to the eye, which translates in the reader’s brain to boredom. Dear writer, consider varying your paragraph lengths. Play around with it a little.

    Also, don’t italicized thoughts or lines of dialogue within narrative. This shows up most in your opening paragraph (which should be clean, sharp and enticing.)

    Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance.

    Consider a rewrite along these lines:

    Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, then winced in pain. But it nothing compared to the sting she felt in her mind right now.

    She spun, resisting the urge to rub her hand and stared hard at her boss. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing it. I’m a federal agent not a baby sitter.”

    (This submission has inspired me to blog about effective paragraphing tomorrow, so thanks, writer and Sue).

    But I have another issue with this. The opening paragraph set-up gets its tension from the fact that Ari doesn’t want this assignment. But there is no explanation, or even a hint, of what the assignment is and why she’s so angry about it. I assume it has something to do with a diplomat’s daughter, hence the babysitting comment. But I think you need to be clear about it sooner. Have Matt come back with a comment right away to clarify. Something like:

    “Bianca Van Sloan isn’t a baby,” Matt said. “She’s eighteen. But her father is convinced she’s a kidnapping target.”

    “So why doesn’t the ambassador get the diplomatic secret service guys to watch her? Why do they need the FBI? What aren’t you telling me, Matt?”

    Matt fell silent and took his time going back to his desk. “DSS is handling it. But you’re going on loan to them.”

    “What? That’s crazy. I won’t do it,” Ari said sharply.

    “You have no choice. This came down from the top.” He sat down and fingered a manila envelopement on his desk. “The shrink doesn’t think you’re ready. I don’t either.”

    Ari felt a throbbing in her right hand and looked down. Her hand was right and swollen. [italics]I don’t have time for this. I’ve got missing children to find.

    Now, I don’t know the WHY behind the babysitting assignment (I made up the kidnapping angle). But I think you need to tell us up front what’s going on to up the tension. It’s confusing as is.

    As Sue noted, cut down on the physical description stuff like pulses flickering in necks, knots forming in stomach — that’s cliched and it’s telling us the emotions here. Convey their emotions through more muscular and specific dialogue. That’s the difference between telling and showing.

  9. Sue, I really liked your suggestion of opening with “I didn’t become a federal agent to babysit a diplomat’s brat.” That’s a better suggestion than what I was thinking–condense the earlier paragraphs and move up the “The shrink doesn’t believe you’re ready…” much earlier in the page. But starting off the way you suggest is much more succinct and jumps right to the heart of things. It’s a grabber.

    I, too, noted the confusing way the dialogue was angry but the nervous gesture of fiddling with buttons. Plus I think it’s a bit confusing-the part about “I deserve a second chance” because clearly that requires even more explanation than the issue of why the shrink thinks she’s not ready yet.

    Also another minor thing–reclining the head implies relaxing, which doesn’t fit with her attempt to glare down her boss.

    And one final note–and take it with a grain of salt because I’m probably the one oddball who has the reaction–but a character named Arizona didn’t strike me quite right. I don’t know if this character is Native American and playing off the ‘little spring’ meaning of the word; and I didn’t go searching baby name usage. I’m just saying it strikes oddly when you read it on the page–just as if I read the opening line for a character named Minnesota. But again, I’m sure that’s just me. On the other hand, reading “Ari” came across perfectly natural on the page.

    But I concur with Sue–move the key elements of this page up sooner in the story and limiting the use of emotions will help draw the reader in more quickly (and clearly).

    Thanks for submitting, Brave Author!

  10. Brave writer, I missed yesterday, so I’m late to the party on this. I agree with Sue and all the insightful comments here. I just wanted to weigh in and echo Sue–you have the writing skills and also a flair for “narrative drive.” The scene moves forward, narratively speaking and, despite the issues, which are readily fixable, there’s dramatic energy.

    Also, as Sue noted, it’s common to start novels too soon, before the plot really kicks into gear. I took a two week novel outlining workshop once where nearly all eight of us started our novels too soon, before things really got interesting. I think we tend to do that to get things lined up in our own minds and set for the surge into story. But that one like of interior dialogue Sue suggested is the important thing here. Start with that for the scene where the story begins in earnest.

    You’ve got this!

  11. Congrats, brave writer. There were many nice things about your first page. You’ve gotten a lot of great advice, and I’m going to throw something new into the mix. The most important thing you need to do imho is introduce your protagonist. Read Making an Entrance by Barbara Kyle, which is available online here.

    Basically, you want to reveal your protagonist’s defining character trait and show that trait in action. I suggest watching the opening of the movie Erin Brockovich. The viewer learns a lot about Erin’s character in that scene. As you revise your first page, ask yourself what your reader will learn about your protagonist on the first page. Will your readers like your protagonist enough to follow her for the length of a book? Find a clever way to introduce your protagonist so that the reader can see/relate to what she’s all about. Make the reader feel something for your character. It’s a crucial first step. Best of luck, brave writer. I look forward to reading your book.

Comments are closed.