An analysis by Larry Brooks
As usual with these First Page Critiques, here is the untouched submission, followed by a hands-on analysis. Also as usual, caveats apply.
First page critiques provide a valid quick first look at a writer’s narrative skills, and perhaps, how they launch a scene. And in a rarer instance, some visibility as to how that opening scene launches a story. That said, first pages – and first scenes, for that matter – are unique among all the pages and scenes that appear in a finished novel. The criteria is different. The context and the mission is different. And because it doesn’t demand either a payoff within the confines of a “first page,” nor does it need to be completely clear (often the comments offered on a first page, perhaps because so little else is contextually available, seems to criticize a lack of a sense of what the story will end up being about), any input to it beyond the writing itself, at a story level, should come with an asterisk.
Heck, we don’t even know the genre yet, something virtually every reader of every published novel knows before they even pick it up from a bookshelf, or click the BUY NOW button on Amazon or elsewhere online.
Here is today’s first page, asterisks and caveats implied, as submitted:
Charlotte clutched the armrest with a vice-like grip. The plane pitched. Black clouds loomed outside the window.
I’m going to die!
A chime sounded. The seatbelt sign lit up.
I knew this would happen.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
Think of something nice. Freshly shaved truffles–Domingo singing O Sole Mio–Rosy waiting for me at the airport.
Reaching up with a trembling hand, she twisted the air vent nozzle to full. A baby screamed in the row behind.
Shit! – Another frigging bump. I don’t like this. Get me off this plane!
The wine in her glass sloshed from side to side. She gulped it down.
I need another drink.
Thoughts flashed through her brain so fast, everything blurred. She’d been impulsive, booking this trip. And she desperately needed a change. But this? Going half-way around the world? Perhaps she be running away from her problems. Perhaps she should have done something safe and boring, like she’d always done.
She jumped when she felt a gentle touch on her arm.
“About a million people travel safely by plane every day,” said an accented voice in her ear. “Statistically speaking, you’d have to fly every day for nearly two hundred years to experience a problem.”
Was it that obvious she was scared? Could the stranger hear her heart hammering?
She looked into the rheumy eyes of the man in the aisle seat. An elderly gentleman swathed in an immaculate pinstripe suit two sizes too big leaned toward her.
Ravi Shankar!—Is Ravi Shankar still alive?
Enormous eyebrows sat like whiskery caterpillars on the stranger’s broad forehead, tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears. A spotless white handkerchief peeked from his lapel, and the Band Aid on his chin showed evidence of a tour of his facial terrain by an unsteady hand.
He patted Charlotte’s arm with a sinewy hand.
“I think of turbulence as bumps on a road. Does it bother you when you’re in a car and go over a few potholes?”
“Then imagine the sky as a big road and the plane as a car. A couple of bumps won’t make a difference to a safe journey. Besides, there’s less traffic up here.”
He let out a high-pitched chuckle, covering his mouth as a cough caught in his throat. Pulling out the handkerchief, he dabbed beneath his eyes. A piece of paper floated from his lap beneath his seat.
“Oh! My landing form. I didn’t fill it out yet since my eyesight’s not too good these days. I’m a bit concerned I may do something wrong. Would you mind helping me please, young lady?”
Charlotte unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned down to retrieve the form from below his seat. The stranger handed her a sterling silver fountain pen with the initials “RCF” engraved into the cap.
“Use this. It’s my lucky pen. Perhaps it will make the flight smoother.”
A Few Comments
First impressions: I like this. It has a sense of being in the moment, and it is something to which we can relate. It also has a dash of wit, countering a hint of fear. And a final line that leaves a question mark – perhaps compelling, perhaps not – that may be addressed on the next line page… or not.
Short of a few comments on specific lines – the low hanging fruit of editing – I don’t have much beyond this positive overall take away. And yet, in many first page panels I’ve seen (at workshops) and read (here, and elsewhere), there seems to be an obligation to find something to criticize, all of it, of course, within the context of trying to find something to help.
But in this piece… honestly, I think it works. Do I know what the story is yet? Not at all. Unless accompanied by a short synopsis that includes, at a minimum, the target genre, it’s impossible to tell. Are we reading the first plucked strings of a love story? A setup for a seduction, perhaps one with nefarious intentions? Will the plane crash land and strand these two on an island?
We don’t know. Should we criticize it because we don’t know? Absolutely not. Full disclosure is not the mission, or even the expectation, of a functional first page. Rather, highest mission is simple and clear, beyond delivering narrative that makes sense either in or out of context.
That mission is simply this: does the page make the reader want more?
My answer here is hell yes. Not so much because of the story – there’s not a lot of story here yet – but because of the writing. I think this writer has some chops, and this story may have legs. Chops and legs combine tend to become a sum that exceeds either part.
So, not to short-change this writer, here are a few little nits. There aren’t many.
When you say, “Perhaps she be running away from her problems,” I’m not sure if you’re trying to be colloquial or if it’s an outright omission of a word or two. Either way, it doesn’t seem to fit the tone. The italicized inner thoughts you offer don’t sound like someone quoting from Shakespeare or Eminem, which this particular line does.
Your narrator poses the rhetorical question: “Was it that obvious she was scared?” and does so in an odd way… because this isn’t an inner thought, which you show in italicized first person. And yet, by definition it is an inner thought, a musing, because an omniscient narrator wouldn’t pose the question, while she absolutely would. And yet, it’s clunky, because it’s pretty darn obvious – to the reader and to the guy sitting next to her – that she actually is scared out of her mind. He notices, which is why he reaches out to her. So posing the question makes her seem a little dim, a little less than self-aware.
The initial description of the Ravi Shankar-esque seat mate… wonderfully done. But you can do better than a “sinewy” hand. You’re being sarcastic in describing him, be sarcastic in describing his hand, too. Like, “his hand looked like it belonged to Keith Richards.”
For a moment, after that paper slips from his lap, we don’t know who is speaking the next line of dialogue. ‘ “Oh! My landing form,” he said’… might work better.
And a landing form – whatever that is… I’m not sure, do we need a slip to land? If you’re suggesting a customs slip to land in another country, say that instead. Otherwise, this sounds like the author has never been on an airplane before.
See, I’m having to work hard to find something to help here.
If there is one thing that might make it stronger, I’d say to give us some stronger hint of what’s coming in a dramatic/story arc sense. A bit more of a hook. A little nub of foreshadowing. Remember, in virtually any genre that isn’t “literary fiction,” it isn’t a story until something goes wrong. And while it doesn’t have to go wrong on the first page (in fact, it really shouldn’t), it helps if we get a sense of something that will be happening, even if it is barely discernable, which is a bit light here. Short of that paper drop, which doesn’t really qualify as a hook, and the assumption that the airplane isn’t about to crash, there’s not much of a sense of what that might be.
A nice start, me thinks. Says the guy who doesn’t recommend trying to sound Shakespearean, ever.
What are your thoughts on this first page submission?
This is my last Killzone post.
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