Mastering the Four Modes of Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique gives us an opportunity to cover the most important large-scale issue every new writer needs to understand before setting out to write a novel. I’ll explain after we read our submission.

Appointment in Moscow

Chapter 1 – Covert Landing                   

Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House. It would have been a dangerous assignment for anyone, much less a neophyte with no formal training in espionage, but Mayflower’s handlers in Moscow had seen to it that she was briefed, photographed, fingerprinted, outfitted, inoculated, weighed, coiffed and for good measure given a palm reading by a politically reliable seer. All that aside, her late husband, Frederick, had been a career intelligence officer and she had picked up a good bit of tradecraft from him. Her confidence was high.  

Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia on a passenger liner out of neutral Norway, a voyage fraught with storms, U-boat scares and truly awful food at the captain’s table. She felt better now as she stepped down off the train into Union Station in Washington, a place that brought back fond memories of when she and Freddie had lived in the capital. This was the fourth year of what the press was calling the World War, and the platform was packed with military police and railroad officials frantically trying to maintain order. People were running, shoving, shouting, arguing, pleading. Names were called out over the loudspeakers as babies squalled, kids tap-danced for pennies, a Four-Minute Man gave a victory speech, and a man wearing a dusty black suit and a dirty white clerical collar staggered through the crowd warning that the end was near.

“Bible, lady?” he said, breathing whisky fumes on her. “It’s 1918 already and Armageddon is coming. Read all about it. Only six bits.”

Mayflower took a Bible from the box under his arm and handed him a dollar bill. “Come with me, I need your help,” she told him. “And please hold the sermon. I’m a deist.”  

“Disciples of Christ, myself,” he said. “At your service, ma’am.”

She took his arm and moved him in front of her as a shield and they started walking. When she was a young woman locked up in a Catholic boarding school she had learned a number of ways to sneak out late at night. She intended to use that experience and make a discreet exit here out a service door. But her plan was interrupted by two uniformed cops who directed the incoming passengers into a gauntlet of detectives and government agents holding wanted fliers. They looked everybody over, comparing faces with photos.

***

JSB: I’m not going to micro-critique this page, because there is one huge lesson the writer must take away from this, and that is how to distinguish between, and artfully use, the four modes of fiction. Once that is understood, the writer must then practice, practice. Indeed, this is going to be your task the rest of your writing life (as it is for all of us!)

What do I mean by the four modes of fiction? Just this: there are four ways to convey “story stuff” to the reader: scene, summary, exposition, and backstory. You need to know what each of these does, and when to use them.

Let’s define them first.

Scene is the action on the page. In movie terms, it would be what you see onscreen, and what you hear in dialogue. It’s the show part of show, don’t tell.

Summary is a narrative recounting of action in order to transition to another scene, or to cover a long period that would be too cumbersome to show. Thus, it’s the tell part of show, don’t tell. (There are other “tells” in fiction, but that’s another topic).

Exposition is story information delivered to the reader. Such information is usually about a setting (description, history, social life) or a character (description, skills, education).

Backstory is history relating to the characters or plot, something that happened before the novel begins. A flashback is all backstory, but sometimes backstory bits are dropped in as part of the narrative.

So here’s today’s question: Which mode should the novelist specialize in, especially in the opening pages?

**Jeopardy music**

If you said scene, you move on to the championship round. Readers want scenes. They will tolerate the other modes so long as they are in service to the scenes.

With that in mind, let’s unpack this page.

Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House. It would have been a dangerous assignment for anyone, much less a neophyte with no formal training in espionage, but Mayflower’s handlers in Moscow had seen to it that she was briefed, photographed, fingerprinted, outfitted, inoculated, weighed, coiffed and for good measure given a palm reading by a politically reliable seer. All that aside, her late husband, Frederick, had been a career intelligence officer and she had picked up a good bit of tradecraft from him. Her confidence was high.  

[This paragraph is not a scene. It is all exposition and backstory. You, the author, are simply telling us these things. There is nothing happening “onscreen.” It is essential that you understand this. Here’s a tip: If you use the word had you are indicating backstory.]

Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia on a passenger liner out of neutral Norway, a voyage fraught with storms, U-boat scares and truly awful food at the captain’s table.

[See that had? Backstory!]

She felt better now as she stepped down off the train into Union Station in Washington,

[This is the first bit of action, and the start of a scene]

a place that brought back fond memories of when she and Freddie had lived in the capital.

[Had! Backstory!]

This was the fourth year of what the press was calling the World War,

[Exposition. This is the author telling us the information.]

and the platform was packed with military police and railroad officials frantically trying to maintain order. People were running, shoving, shouting, arguing, pleading. Names were called out over the loudspeakers as babies squalled, kids tap-danced for pennies, a Four-Minute Man gave a victory speech, and a man wearing a dusty black suit and a dirty white clerical collar staggered through the crowd warning that the end was near.

[This is exposition in the form of description. Now, description is necessary to set a scene, but it’s more effective if you filter it through the point-of-view character. For example, have a running person bump into her. Have her ears hurt from the loudspeaker, etc.]

“Bible, lady?” he said, breathing whisky fumes on her. “It’s 1918 already and Armageddon is coming. Read all about it. Only six bits.”

[Scene! Dialogue between characters is always a scene. That’s why it’s perfectly acceptable to start a novel with dialogue. Indeed, this would be a good place to start this page. However, notice that exposition slipped into the dialogue. Would this guy really tell her it’s 1918? Everybody knows it’s 1918. Many new writers do this, especially in opening pages. They want the readers to know certain information, and try to “hide” it in the dialogue:

“Oh hello, Stan, my family doctor. Nice to see you.”

Here’s a simple solution. If, and only if, the exposition is essential, put it into more confrontational language:

“Bible, lady?”

“No, thank you.”

“Armageddon’s coming!”

“Excuse me.”

Mayflower tried to move past the man but he stepped in front of her.

“Save yourself,” he said. “The world ends before the year is out!”

“Tush.” She brushed past him, through the fog of his whiskey breath, and headed down the street.

“You’ll never see 1919!” he shouted. “And where will you spend eternity?”]

Mayflower took a Bible from the box under his arm and handed him a dollar bill. “Come with me, I need your help,” she told him. “And please hold the sermon. I’m a deist.”   

“Disciples of Christ, myself,” he said. “At your service, ma’am.”

She took his arm and moved him in front of her as a shield and they started walking.

[Scene. The expositional dialogue “I’m a deist” is at least in a bit of confrontation.]

When she was a young woman locked up in a Catholic boarding school she had learned a number of ways to sneak out late at night. 

[Had! Backstory.]

She intended to use that experience and make a discreet exit here out a service door. But her plan was interrupted by two uniformed cops who directed the incoming passengers into a gauntlet of detectives and government agents holding wanted fliers. They looked everybody over, comparing faces with photos.

[This is summary. You’re summarizing the action, not showing it to us on the page. Here’s the difference:

A cop put up his hand. “That’s far enough, lady.”

“Excuse me,” Mayflower said. “I’m not one of the—”

“We got orders,” the cop said.

He looked at some papers in his hand, one by one. Mayflower strained to see what they were. She caught a glimpse of face under big block lettering. A wanted poster?

The cop looked Mayflower in the eye. “Let’s see somethin’ with your name on it,” he said.]

From all this, draw the following lessons:

  1. Learn to identify in what mode of fiction you are writing at any given time. You can learn by analyzing other novels, page by page. Use four different colored highlighters. Teach yourself.
  2. Start your book with a scene.
  3. Filter exposition and description through the POV character. Here’s how Robert Crais opens Demolition Angel:

Charlie Riggio stared at the cardboard box sitting beside the Dumpster. It was a Jolly Green Giant box, with what appeared to be a crumpled brown paper bag sticking up through the top. The box was stamped Green Beans. Neither Riggio or the two uniformed officers with him approached closer than the corner of the strip mall there on Sunset Boulevard; they could see the box fine from where they were.

If you read on, you’ll see Crais majoring in scene (primarily through dialogue) with occasional exposition/description through Riggio’s eyes.

  1. Use backstory sparingly in the early pages. I have a little exercise I give new writers: three sentences of backstory in the first 2500 words, all together or spread out. Three paragraphs of backstory in the next 2500 words, all at once or spread out. This is not a “rule” but simply a way to practice and get disciplined about writing in scenes.

We are now open for comments.

11+

Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

Untitled

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

Over to you, TKZ family. What tips would you give this brave writer?

 

 

3+

Be Clear About WHO and WHERE in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Greetings, first-page-critique fans. We have another one for you today, with my comments following. Pick up your favorite blue pencil, but don’t do anything with it, as it might damage your screen. Here we go:

The two camouflaged motorcycles approached the intersection from the east in a bowl of dust, and the soldier in front raised his hand to signal a stop before skidding to a halt. The second biker pulled up next to him, and they carefully observed their surroundings before they cut the engines. They sat motionless for a few moments, and listened for any sounds from the dense vegetation and trees around them. The first rider pointed to the intersection and identified the four spots where the disturbances in the road indicated the presence of landmines. He took his binoculars from the bag strapped to his chest, and scanned the area before he zoomed in on the identified spots. The mines were strategically planted in the middle of the intersection, and he noticed a wire connecting the four mines, lightly covered with gravel. He knew they were booby-trapped and if one were triggered, all four would explode in a split second.

They felt the vibration before they heard the sound of the vehicle approaching at a very high speed. Charlie looked up from the map he was balancing on the handlebars of his bike. Keith lowered the binoculars and turned to Charlie with a frown.

“What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet?” Keith said as he got off his bike and reached for his rifle strapped to his back. He turned his head sideways to identify the direction of the sound and approaching vehicle. They both looked up and saw the dust rising above the trees to the south of the intersection as the sound became louder. They realized the danger at the same time and as Charlie grabbed his rifle from his back, he shouted to Keith.

“Hit the deck! They are not going to stop!”

They scrambled in opposite directions to the side of the road, slid underneath foliage to take cover, and rolled over to face the intersection. The black Mercedes Benz entered the intersection at high speed and detonated the first landmine with the left front wheel. The explosion of the first mine hit the rear end of the car, and the chain of explosions propelled the car forward in pieces of junk and parts that flew in all directions. The second mine struck directly under the engine which became airborne and landed a few hundred yards away from the rest of the car. It all happened in super slow motion.

***

JSB: We’ve got the raw material for a good opening page here. I like a thriller that begins with a Mercedes blowing up. But like all raw material it has to be refined. The first problem is, not surprisingly, Point of View. (I say this, author, so you’ll know it’s quite common. Once you get a real handle on POV your fiction will be 80% better.)

You start us out in Omniscient POV. There’s nothing technically wrong with this if you later drop us into Third Person. This move used to be done all the time, where the opening chapter would take a wide-angle view of a setting before focusing on a character. The famous opening of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place is like that:

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases …

The town lay still in the Indian summer sun. On Elm Street, the main thoroughfare, nothing moved. The shopkeepers, who had rolled protective canvas awnings down over their front windows, took the lack of trade philosophically and retired to the back rooms of their stores where they alternately dozed, glanced at the Peyton Place Times and listened to the broadcast of a baseball game.

This goes on for several pages before Metalious gives us the protagonist, Allison McKenzie.

Today’s page, however, doesn’t use omniscience for a wide-angle view of the setting or the circumstances. Instead, the focus is on two riders, who are given names in the second paragraph. Thus, there is no reason for the omniscient beginning. It merely operates to keep us at a distance from the people involved.

Further muddying the waters is something that should never be done—simultaneous POV. Whenever you have a collective “they” feeling or thinking or hearing the same thing, we’re in more than one head and our attention is split. It also violates common sense about life. No two people ever feel or think or perceive in exactly the same way.

they carefully observed their surroundings

They felt the vibration

They both looked up and saw

They realized the danger at the same time

This dilutes the scene and robs it of emotional impact. So my main piece of advice is to re-write the whole thing from either Charlie’s or Keith’s POV. Have all the observations filtered through one of them. This is how readers relate to story. The first thing they want to know about a scene is WHO it belongs to.

Now, regarding the setting. I have no idea WHERE we are. There’s dense vegetation, but also an intersection. There’s camouflaged motorcycles and a black Mercedes. You use the terms soldier, rider, and biker interchangeably.

Where are we? What are the circumstances? War zone? Drug zone? South America? Africa? Soldiers? Mercs?

You can easily use dialogue and interior thoughts to give us essential information. When I advise act first, explain later I’m referring primarily to backstory. That can wait. What we need up front are a few drops of context, which can be woven in with the action.

Here is how David Morrell begins his international thriller, Extreme Denial:

Decker told the Italian immigration official that he had come on business.

“What type?”

“Corporate real estate.”

“The length of your visit?”

“Two weeks.”

The official stamped Decker’s passport.

Grazie,” Decker said.

He carried his suitcase from Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and although it would have been simple to make arrangements for someone to meet him, he preferred to travel the twenty-six kilometers into Rome by bus.

Go thou and do likewise.

Now a technical question: Can you see landmines? I thought the point of landmines is that they’re hidden and finding them requires some kind of metal detector or radar or robot. If I’m wrong I’m still raising a question many readers will have, so you should clarify it, once again with a bit of dialogue or interior thought. Because this book seems intended for military-thriller fans, every detail of an operation has to be accurate and precise or you will surely hear about it from readers and reviewers.

Style note: When using a dialogue attribution, it goes after the first complete sentence or clause.

NO: “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet,” Keith said.

YES: “What are they doing on the road?” Keith said. “We have not cleared it yet.”

Or the attribution can be placed before the dialogue:

Keith said, “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet.”

You can also use an action beat before the dialogue:

Keith lowered the binoculars. “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet.”

One last note on dialogue (because it’s the fastest way to improve any manuscript). Make sure it’s true to the characters. Would Keith really speak without contractions? Probably not. Thus:

“What’re they doing on the road? We haven’t cleared it yet.”

Finally, as we’ve noted many times here at TKZ, white space is a reader’s friend. Your paragraphs are too “blocky.” Don’t be afraid to break them up into two or three.

So, author, I do want to know who was in that Mercedes, who Charlie and Keith are, and where they are operating. I also want to know whose scene this is. Clarify those things, and I will likely turn the page!

The floor is now open for further critique.

7+

Don’t Lose Your Head Over Point-of-View

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here is another first-page critique, with an opportunity to discuss some point-of-view issues. See you in a few:

The woods were dark. The thick leaves rustling overhead blazed with color during the day, but now, at dusk, they faded to shades of gray. The October breeze was crisp. The man moved quietly from tree to tree. He trampled a few mushrooms that looked like elongated little brains. He stopped behind a gnarled oak – just steps from the path that wound its way between the park and the tree line.  The park was where the neighborhood kids played after school.  

As the sun dropped, the man watched the children disburse, heading home for dinner and homework. From his left, voices were lifted in laughter, and three boys topped the rise from the direction of the monkey bars. 11-year-old Josiah and his 8-year-old brother Jacob said goodbye to 10-year-old Brandon, and turned away from the path and the woods toward their house. Brandon shouted a parting insult at one of them, and continued down the same path he travelled every afternoon.

The man tensed with anticipation as he watched and waited for Brandon to cross the small opening in the undergrowth, directly in front of the big oak. Sweat beaded on the man’s forehead as he thought about the delights the next few days would bring. A grim smile stretched his lips. It had been too long.

A stick snapped in the woods behind the man, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Somebody was behind him. Think!

The man bent down and pulled up a few mushrooms. “Nothing like a fresh Morel,” he said aloud. He pivoted slowly as he stood, and feigned surprise as he came face to face with another man standing uncomfortably close.  

Several impressions flashed through his mind in a split second: Tall. Muscular. Piercing blue eyes. Long black hair.

“Brandon is under my protection,” the big man said.  

The big man reached out and placed his hand against the man’s chest.  The man’s eyes widened in surprise and he let out a gasp. His body dropped to the ground.

Removing a sword from the scabbard on his back, the big man severed the man’s head with one swing, and left it on the ground among the mushrooms.

Seconds later, Brandon passed by on the trail, whistling contentedly as he made his way home.

***

JSB: Well, writer, you’ve obviously got a shocking opening moment here, and it certainly has page-turning potential. Who the heck is the tall guy wielding a sword in this day and age? I want to know.

Now it’s just a matter of getting from your opening line to this ending point in the most efficient way possible.

I’m not enamored of the first paragraph. The woods were dark is generic, and ultimately confusing. For in the next line we learn it’s dusk. So my image of nighttime has to be modified. Which means you’re making the reader do some cleanup work. You don’t want that. You want them on the roller coaster car, gripping the safety bar.

Which is why I like to see a POV established at the top, rather than weather or setting descriptions or a distant narrative voice. Not a hard and fast rule, but unless you have a very good reason not to, give us a character in motion as soon as you can.

Thus, one way to start is:

The man moved quietly from tree to tree.

Now, this is omniscient POV. You’re “outside” describing what’s happening “onscreen.” This has the feel of a prologue, and omni-POV is sometimes used in this fashion.

But things begin to get muddy in the second paragraph. By giving us the ages and names of the three children, we assume that this creep knows them. Was that your intent? If so, we need to have at least one line to indicate why this is so. And why Brandon is the target. I have a feeling you didn’t intend this, that this is a stranger, but we need to know one way or the other.

The third paragraph begins to take us inside the guy’s head. But once in there, I wouldn’t back out with A grim smile stretched his lips. The man is not looking at his own smile and describing it as “grim.”

This is why POV is crucial. I don’t want to get overly technical here, but will tell you that you have four basic modes to choose from, with two choices within each. Ack!

Let’s see if I can make it simple.

1. First Person (I was feeling lousy that morning…)
a. Limited (one character narrates throughout, e.g., The Big Sleep)
b. Open (switching between two or more first-person narrators, e.g., Framed)

2. Third Person (She was feeling lousy that morning…)
a. Limited (one character’s head)
b. Open (switching to another character’s head in another scene)

3. Omniscient, wherein the author can choose the level of intrusion, from participating as a commenter (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times) to keeping the author voice muted while allowing “big picture” descriptions (e.g., Lonesome Dove)
a. Limited (to keep focus on one character, e.g., Gone With the Wind)
b. Open (floats between various characters)

(Note: Some teachers peg omniscient a form of third-person. I don’t think that’s helpful, as the issue with omniscience is intrusion and scope. Third person, on the other hand, should not, in my humble opinion, stray from a character’s head.)

4. Cinematic (a form of omniscience), with a narration from “without,” describing only what can be seen, never going  into a character’s thoughts or emotions (e.g., The Maltese Falcon)
a. Limited
b. Open

I did not include the “Hey, look at me!” mode known as Second Person (You walk into the party and see your ex-wife) which is almost never used. I also didn’t mention the option of doing First Person in either past tense (the traditional method) or present tense (which is popular in Young Adult fiction these days). But I should also point out that many thriller authors mix First and Third POV, something James Patterson popularized.

Whew!

Is this stuff really important to know? Um, yeah. Mishandling POV jars readers at the subconscious level, makes them do unnecessary work, disrupts the “fictive dream,” lessens the impact of a scene.

So my advice to new writers is this: get a handle on Third Person, Limited as a default. Move on to Third Person, Open. You can then try First Person, Limited. For many successful authors, that’s all they ever use.

But once you make a POV choice, keep it consistent throughout. (For purposes of this prologue, it seems to me Third Person, Limited is the best bet.)

A stick snapped in the woods behind the man, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Somebody was behind him. Think!

I’d cut everything after the first comma. the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end is a cliché. And it’s quite obvious someone is behind him. We can infer that he’s thinking when he takes the next action, which is to bend down and pluck a mushroom called a Morel. I gotta tell you, I had no idea what that was. Had to Google it. Is this particular type of mushroom essential to the story? Maybe you can come up with some other excuse for the guy. Lost dog, maybe? (I don’t mind him stepping on the mushrooms, though, because I like where his head ends up. See below.)

Now, the sword guy. I’m confused about what happens. The sword guy touches the man’s chest and the guy drops. Is he dead? Is he stunned? If the former, then why chop off his head? If the latter, what caused it? Some sort of magical jolt?

Either one takes away from the impact of the sword. So I’d just have the big guy dispatch the stalker with one swipe, a la Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian.

The last line is jarring to me. I know what you’re going for, but it pulls me out of the moment. It’s just not needed. Leave us with the head in the ’shrooms.

Speaking of which, you know what would be fun? Re-write this piece staying in the stalker’s POV. When he loses his head, stay in his POV, as he ponders for a few seconds his cranium’s fate among the mushrooms.

Another benefit of doing this in close third person is that you could lengthen the scene a bit, which, if this is a prologue, you ought to do. The “prologue issue” has been discussed before, but for our purposes it would make sense to stretch out the tension, keep us wondering what’s going to happen, up until that shocking conclusion.

Style notes:

Never begin a sentence with a numeral. Thus: Eleven-year-old Josiah, etc.

In fiction, the best practice is to spell out ages: He was only elevenHe lived to be eighty-eight. (Unless the age is 100 or more: He died at the ripe old age of 101).

Any further comments for our anonymous writer?

6+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

Pack More Punch in Your Prose

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We talk a lot about the big stuff here at TKZ—plot, structure, characters, scenes, and so on.

Today, I want to discuss the small stuff: words and sentences. But though they are small in stature, they are monumental in effect. It’s our sentences that create the pictures which deliver the stories to our readers.

If they’re flabby (the sentences, not the readers) the book won’t have nearly the effect it should.

So let’s get serious about sentences. The jumping-off point for our discussion is another of our first-page critiques. See you on the other side:

Lies on the Seine

Chapter One

There were three people in line in front of her. Danny Sullivan didn’t recognize the man behind the cart. Having to deal with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it always made her throat dry and she had to force herself not to swallow. She was on high alert whenever it happened.

Danny surveyed the area around her for anyone who looked suspicious. A woman sitting on a wooden bench had a stroller and a book, but she didn’t seem to be reading or paying any attention to her child. A man in a fully buttoned suit was leaning on a tree talking on his phone. He wouldn’t stand out if he loosened his tie, she’d keep him in her sight. She noticed a group of teenagers over her left shoulder, the one in the baseball cap and sunglasses seemed to be looking directly at her, she couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t paranoid, suspicious people could be extremely dangerous.

There were two people in line in front of her. Danny turned her attention to the sandbox. Jacob and Jason were playing their favorite game, burying their cars then needing help to find them. Being that it was rare for their father to get a few minutes off in the middle of the day to meet his family at the park, Mark was unaware that the four-year-olds were conning him. She watched as he desperately looked for cars where the twins pointed even though they each knew he was excavating in the wrong location. To him, ruining his suit was a small price to pay if it meant he could play with his sons. Her family was a distraction.

There was one person in line in front of her. Her hand shook as she reached into her bag preparing for the worst. Meetings like this always put her on edge. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran when the only thing she accomplished was getting out alive. Danny had been with the CIA for almost fifteen years, danger came with the job. Now, as an operative assigned to bring down a black market arms dealer, she expected to find herself in situations that put her life at risk. However, being in such close proximity to her family was a whole different kind of scared.

***

JSB: Author, you’ve got the makings of a good scene here. CIA, something big about to go down, kids and husband close by. So let’s see if we can’t render this with more vigorous prose, more action, and less telling.

There were three people in line in front of her.

I want you to be on the lookout for sentences that begin with the There were… construction. It’s not ungrammatical, and I use it myself sometimes. But there are (!) other ways to deliver the same information. I mention it because you use this construction in three of the four paragraphs. I get that you’re showing the line getting shorter, but variety in the language would make this more inviting.

Also, while it’s often done, beware of beginning a story with a pronoun (her) instead of a name. Yes, a writer could have a valid reason for doing so, but be darn sure about that reason.

Why not this for the opening line:

Danny Sullivan didn’t recognize the man behind the cart.

Now we have a name, which gets us closer to the character from the jump. We have action—she’s looking and not recognizing. And we have a specific image—the man behind the cart. This opening line put us right into an actual scene. In medias res, as they say.

I like the mystery that’s dropped in about the woman in Berlin. I think we can also make this crisper, not only by cutting flab (there’s that word again) but by making this two or three sentences:

OLD: Having to deal with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it always made her throat dry and she had to force herself not to swallow.

NEW: Dealing with a stranger wasn’t unheard of, but ever since the woman in Berlin it made her throat dry. She had to force herself not to swallow.

OR: Dealing with a stranger wasn’t unheard of. But ever since the woman in Berlin it made her throat dry. She had to force herself not to swallow.

In general, compact sentences increase tension.

The second paragraph gives us Danny’s observations. We can do some more cutting:

OLD: A man in a fully buttoned suit was leaning on a tree…

NEW: A man in a fully buttoned suit leaned on a tree… 

Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with the first version. But when you can cut words and still convey the same information, try it. Especially if you’re writing a thriller.

He wouldn’t stand out if he loosened his tie, she’d keep him in her sight. She noticed a group of teenagers over her left shoulder, the one in the baseball cap and sunglasses seemed to be looking directly at her, she couldn’t be sure.

Odd use of commas. Change each comma to a period and I think you’ll see it reads better.

Third paragraph: As I’ve already mentioned, There were… should go. Also, we can cut some more flab. Try it this way: Two people to go. Danny looked at the sandbox.

I’d also cut the last line: Her family was a distraction. I’m not sure what it means. What kind of distraction—one that gives her pleasure, or makes her nervous? If you want this information in the scene, show us how Danny’s feeling by way of something physical—a smile, a twitch, inner warmth, inner trembling, a deep breath—or perhaps a thought beat (e.g., Mark, why’d you pick today?) 

In fact, you should cut the last line of each paragraph. There’s a little guideline called RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Each of your last lines is an author explanation of what we’ve just read. Let the action speak for itself.

The fourth paragraph begins: Her hand shook as she reached into her bag preparing for the worst. Meetings like this always put her on edge. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran when the only thing she accomplished was getting out alive.

I like this because it’s active and has a bit of backstory is woven in naturally. Notice how the effect can be enhanced by leaving some things out:

Her hand shook as she reached into her bag. At least she was out in the open, unlike the time inside the rubbled hospital remains in Iran.

Now we have micro-mysteries. What is she reaching for? Why was she in Iran? Micro-mysteries are great in opening pages. They compel the reader to read on.

So cut the rest of the paragraph, which is plain exposition—CIA, fifteen years, black market. Instead, let us see by Danny’s subsequent actions what her skills are.

Act first, explain later.

I recall an action movie, The Long Kiss Goodnight starring Geena Davis. She’s this nice, prim wife in a small town. But when she’s viciously attacked in her home, she suddenly has this amazing skill with a knife, and dispatches her attacker with lethal force.

WHU?

We have to wait a long time to find out the backstory. That’s okay. We’re hooked. (Oddly, I can’t remember the rest of the movie. But the opening remains vivid.)

Author, you’ve got the stuff here for a tense opening page. Rework it. Cut and shape those words so they punch us in the heart.

Oh, and one more thing—don’t ever start a sentence with However. That’s for academic papers and stuffy speeches to the Rotary Club, not fiction! [UPDATE: Unless it’s in the mouth of a prim character who would begin a sentence with However!]

All right, kids. Your turn.

8+

Setting Can Add Tension – Use it – First Page Critique: Dancing with the Well-Bred Devil

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

By Usien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22220725

I will be traveling today for a bit of sun and fun. I’ll try to pop back when I can…IF I CAN. For my post, I offer the work of a gutsy anonymous submitter for a first page critique. I’ll have my feedback below. Please add to the conversation with your constructive comments so we can help this author with suggestions for him or her to consider.

The submitter added this insight into their work:

This is a murder mystery set in the early 1990s that digs into the dark, unseemly corners of academia where moral corruption and the abuse of power hide.

***

Club Orleans,
Sayreville, NJ
As Megan completed her sinuous corkscrew down the pole she saw him—Professor D.B., the last person she ever hoped to encounter here.

Holy. Fricking. Hell. She released the pole and strutted across the stage away from him, forced on her most seductive stage face, and hoped it hid the rush of fear that filled her stomach to overflowing. She managed to resist covering her all-but-naked breasts.

Her mind flooded with the image of the Psych Department chair dressing her down before sliding the letter across his pompous desk, the letter that would explain that she’d been kicked out of the grad program, and that she might as well pack up her apartment and move back to Gump-ville, Indiana, to the welcoming jeers of everyone who’d ever warned that she was too big for her britches. But it was the thought that followed that made her shudder—the thought of what good old D.B. might propose to keep his silence.

He couldn’t have recognized me. When she started dancing again, she’d gone to great lengths to morph her appearance—heavy make-up, huge eighties hair, costuming—and to transform her persona from Miss Quiet-Studious. Considering she only worked at clubs at least a half-hour from campus (and avoided the elite establishments altogether), she was certain she’d never see anyone from the program. Her transformation was good insurance nonetheless.

As she latched onto the life-preserver thought that D.B. couldn’t have recognized her, the fear dissipated. But what was he doing here? Look, make a last round and call it a night. Stay in persona and treat him like any other customer.

She worked her way around the rectangular bar that surrounded the stage, her nerves increasing proportionally as the number of bills in the elastic of her G-string grew. The whole time, she felt D.B.’s eyes crawling over her body. She suppressed another shudder.

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.

FEEDBACK

There is definitely a disturbance happening for Megan. Nothing like an unexpected visitor to your place of employment to rattle you, especially when you are half-naked and plying your best moves on a stripper pole. It’s hard to imagine why a graduate student would be stripping. The money must be good or she must be desperate for funds.

To have a professor be the one to find her is a solid set up. I don’t know why Megan calls him Professor D.B. by his initials for the reader. Why not just say his name since she’s in her head? I had to reread to see if DB is the chair of the Psych department and assumed DB wasn’t the big kahuna. I liked that the author didn’t drift into back story and stay there until the face off when Megan sees in his eyes that he recognizes her, but there is enough back story and “slow the pace” explanations that divert the reader’s attention from Megan’s mortifying moment of being recognized by someone from her graduate program.

This is definitely a page turner, but I would like to offer a few tidbits for the author to consider, to add layers to this intro. The writing is a little sparse and more can be woven into this intro to give a feel for how much Megan has at stake.

GENRE – If I only had this intro as a peek at the genre, I would’ve thought it to be a Harlequin Romance. There’s a hint of humor to Megan as a feisty heroine working her way through her graduate program. Is DB a soon-to-be love interest or a dastardly villain will to blackmail her into his sexual demands? What conflict would they have to sustain a whole novel? From this set up, I don’t know.

From the set up the anonymous author sent with the submission, we see that this is a murder mystery set in the 1990s and it’s about moral corruption and abuse of power in the academic world, but that’s not the feel of this intro. If Megan will be blackmailed by DB to keep her secret in exchange for sexual favors that will grow into a murder, then I would suggest the author layer in more mystery and the threat of coercion to this piece. The reader needs to see Megan’s fear and vulnerability at getting caught and her willingness to do anything to keep her secret. Beyond this short intro, the reader would need to feel her shame if her mother found out, or how her career plans would be dashed.

Words like “Gump-ville Indiana” and “too big for her britches” and “eighties hair” are meant for cliched humor. If this is not the intention with the rest of the story line, then why begin the book with implied humor?

SETTING – I like the world building of a good setting. It doesn’t have to be drawn out or slow the pace, but an effective setting can add to the emotional aspects of the scene. In this intro, I wonder if the setting can be an element of mystery to draw the reader into the scene, where it’s not completely clear where Megan is. The phrase “sinuous corkscrew down the pole” is a dead giveaway where she is and what she’s doing, but what if the description is vague and develops into something more as a tease. (The sample rewrite below was written hastily by me to illustrate the point of focusing on Megan, avoiding back story and adding more of a threat from DB. I’m sure the anonymous author could do better.)

SAMPLE REWRITE WITH MORE SETTING AND LESS BACK STORY

Through the blinding lights of the small stage, Megan caught a familiar silhouette—a tall man standing in the shadows apart from the rest. Something triggered a memory and made her think of him, but he vanished as soon as his face came into her mind. Spirals of smoke clouded the air as she moved and the music built to a crescendo. Her big finish would be next. Her fake eyelashes made it harder to search the crowd for the last person she expected to see.

Please…it can’t be him.

She strayed from her usual routine to stay in the murky corners near the velvet curtain and worked the edge of the stage until she felt the heat off the horde of faceless patrons and heard the low grumbles from her regulars. Megan couldn’t avoid her big finale. She had a reputation to uphold, but as she strutted across the stage and into the spotlight toward the shiny brass stripper pole, she sensed the laser heat off his eyes—Professor D.B. from her Psych department graduate program.

He’d stepped closer to the stage—and her.

After she turned her back on him and reached for the brass pole, she hoisted her body into her signature spiral that had the men hollering for more. With every turn and every impossible stretch of her limber body, she searched the shadows and hoped the professor hadn’t recognized her. She had troweled on enough makeup where her own sweet mother wouldn’t recognize her.

Her future, everything she had worked for, would be riding on whether she had only imagined Professor D. B. in the front row. Adrenaline raged through her body as heat flushed to her cheeks. Oh, God, please no.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS THAT MIGHT ENHANCE INTRO – Here are a few questions that came to my mind that may keep the focus on Megan and the tension, rather than dipping a toe into back story. The back story is sparingly used, but it’s there. It starts in the 3rd paragraph and is threaded through as Megan thinks of the ramifications of getting caught because D.B. might recognize her.

With open-ended, the author can put his or her take on the answers that might make it into a rewrite, to put their own spin on the story. I’ve found that by offering open-ended questions, the author usually comes back with something far better than my rewrite. It’s their story and their characters.

1.) When Megan spots D.B., is she upside down or spinning on a pole with stage lights? This would make it harder for her to see him clearly. She’d have to change her routine to peer through the silhouettes of men and hands touching her costume. It could add to the tension if she catches a glimpse of him, but he disappears–or build up her stress as she sees a familiar face without letting the reader know who she spots until the last minute.

2.) Does she change her routine because she’s afraid of taking off everything if it’s him? Or maybe she does awkward poses to get a better look at the crowd, like looking between her legs upside down. How do patrons of the club react as she changes her routine?

3.) What does the club look like, smell like? Setting might add to her stress if it’s the same “grind” – pardon the pun.

HOUSEKEEPING

In the sentences below, there are words to clean up. I’m not trying to offer different writing. I’d like to use the author’s words to start and clean up from there. I don’t begin sentences with “And,” don’t embed dialogue lines within a paragraph, and try to build stronger sentences and delete uses of “was.”

BEFORE

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.

AFTER

“I hope you enjoyed the show.” She fought to sound sultry as she came face-to-face with him.

“Oh, it was…eye opening, despite how much I missed.” DB’s eyes drilled into her as he dangled a ten. “Miss…?”

In his eyes were the damning truth. He recognized her.

Thanks to the author for their submission. I wish you luck on your project. For discussion, please comment with your feedback. Thank you.

1.) Is this a page turning submission for you?

2.) What suggestions would you make for this author?

3.) Bonus points for PUNS in your comments.

4+

1st Page Critique: Pinprick

By SUE COLETTA 

We have another brave writer who submitted their 1st page for critique. My suggestions will follow. 

Title: Pinprick 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch.  She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.   Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.   Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire.  They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tribute.   

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador.    It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.   

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.   

 

I like where you’re going with this, Anon. If done well, this could be a compelling storyline about a world many people don’t know a lot about. One word of caution: please portray the inner-workings of gang life and those affected by it in an accurate way, rather than basing your research on the stereotypes fueled by the media. I’m not saying you’ve done that here, just something to think about.  

Big Picture  

Why not show Rosa’s reaction when she first sees the tattoo? This is a big deal. Her nephew just joined a ruthless street gang, the same gang that’s harassed the neighborhood for years. SHOW us how he first told his aunt he’d jumped in. Did she see the tattoo by accident when he stripped off his shirt? Did he flaunt the tattoo in her face? Had he been covered in welts, cuts, and bruises days before this tattoo appeared? There’s your opening. Save what you have here for page 3 or 4. 

First Lines 

I’m a sucker for a great first line. It often takes me several rewrites till I’m satisfied, so I understand the struggle. A great first line accomplishes many things.

A first line should …

  • Hook the reader 
  • Establish mood  
  • Give a sense of foreboding 
  • Reveal character and voice 
  • Hint at, or outright show, an obstacle 

If the first line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention – Think: “Hey, pay attention!” — they may not read the sentence that follows. For writers who choose the traditional publishing model, here’s a hard truth. Agents and acquisition editors give each query 8 seconds, max. If the first line doesn’t grab them, you could drown in that slush pile. 

Links for further study … 

Jerry Jenkins broke down opening lines into four categories: surprise, dramatic statement, philosophical, and poetic. Find the post HERE. 

Writer’s Digest gave us 7 Ways to Create a Killer First Line. 

One of my favorite features on Writer Unboxed is Flog a Pro. Here, you can read numerous 1st pages from books that sit on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. Skim 58 opening lines, and you’ll see why they’re so important. It’ll also help spark ideas for your story. 

Point of View 

You’re using a limited 3rd POV, which is fine if that’s your intention. However, deep POV has the ability to more closely bond the reader to the main character. Whether you write in 3rd or 1st doesn’t matter. The technique is the same. I hate to keep beating this particular drum, so for an in-depth look at deep POV read this 1st Page Critique 

Nitpicks 

We use one space after a period, not two (or three, like you’ve done in a few places). This may seem petty, but details matter. You also have your tab set to an awkward spacing, which justified when I copied to the blog. The norm is .5.  

Nitty Gritty  

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch. (Strong action verbs form an excellent mental picture. Very good. However, try using a first line that delivers more of a punch.) She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret. “Seen” and “knew” are telling words. Anytime you tell the reader what’s happened you rob them of the experience. The same sentence rewritten to show the action would look like this: After glimpsing the tattoo on her nephew’s neck (we don’t need to know his name yet)Rosa stormed out of the house before she crucified him. Sixteen years old and he’s marked for life.

Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back (isn’t the tattoo on his neck? Or do you mean the back of his neck? Be clear and concise. I had to scroll to the top to make sure I’d read “neck” the first time) of his sixteen-year-old skin. Too on-the-nose. See how I slipped in his age earlier? That’s one option. Another is to show through dialogue.  

For example, when she confronts Bernardo, he could say, “I’m an adult. I can do what I want with my body.”  

“But you’re only sixteen, Meho.” 

Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas. The explanation of MS-13 I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, America has no “s.” Perhaps you meant “United States”.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her most evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire (the wording could be tighter, but I like that this shows Rosa doesn’t take any crap. She’ll make a fine hero for this story.) They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tributeTribute’s an odd word choice. More importantly, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to sneak in a tidbit about Rosa’s background and/or show her personality. Example: She hadn’t scrubbed bedpans for forty years to fork over the cash to a bunch of gang-bangers. They’d have to kill her first. 

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  Nicely done. 

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros. The title of a street gang should be capitalized. “Knowing” is a telling word. You started to SHOW us the action, then pulled back. Rosa glared into the darkness with her lower lip thrust forward. Any minute now, the Mareros would catch wind of her defiance. She tapped her signet ring against the cool steel of her shotgun. Let them come.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body. The last two sentences are unnecessary backstory and all telling. SHOW these details later through dialogue and action. 

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El SalvadorIt wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.  This paragraph slips into present tense … “shouts” should be “shouted”, etc. But it also raises a bigger, more important issue — the use of a foreign language. On one hand, we want to be authentic in our writing. On the other, we don’t want to have to explain. Or worse, risk confusing our reader. Some writing advice says to stick with English. Period. Or only throw in a foreign word (always italicized, btw) if the meaning is clear.  

I like to take chances in my writing, so I didn’t heed this warning. In SCATHED, I included an old-school Italian grandmother, Mrs. Falanga. Like many Italian grandmothers (and I’m no exception), she’s very excitable and enthusiastic around children. Problem is, when she gets rolling she slides into mixing both dialects together. It’s also part of her charm, along with hand motions to accent her words. These mannerisms and speech enhance Mrs. Falanga’s character. To avoid her native tongue would destroy some of her endearing qualities. That said, she wasn’t an easy character to write. I can tell you how I handled using a foreign language, but we don’t have room for that today. I will, however, write a post about it in the near future. To be continued …  

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees. I like the mental image. Rosa reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. We don’t necessarily need to know about Rosa’s arthritic knees, but if you choose to include it, then SHOW her knees aching. With the shotgun leveled in her lap, does she take a moment to massage one knee?

Overall, I like Rosa enough to turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? What advice would you give to strengthen this 1st page? Thanks to Anon for sharing his/her work. A public critique takes courage. Best of luck to you!

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Don’t Let Your Dialogue Stray From Your Characters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Our first-page submission today is an opportunity to discuss one of the more common errors I see in beginning fiction. We’ll talk about it on the flip side.

JOE’S STORY

Chapter One

On a sunny October morning, Attorney Joe Morales parked his Lexus, carried his brown leather briefcase past a sweetgum tree sporting red, yellow, and orange leaves, and headed to his Dallas office. Inside the red brick building, he walked across the pink and gray granite floor, caught a whiff of the scents from a tasteful arrangement of marigolds and chrysanthemums on the counter, and waved to the clerk behind it. The smell of coffee wafted from the little restaurant down the hall.

Moving here to help his mom with his ailing father had its good points. Something interesting was always going on in Dallas. The energy-sapping summer heat didn’t last as long as it did in San Antonio.

His phone rang. Satisfied all the arrangements had been made for the deposition this morning, he answered. “Hello.”

“Joe Morales, this is Cash Carter, your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.”

“I know who you are.” His face and voice were all over billboards and TV ads. What did the guy want now? He’d certainly paid for several erroneous ads against Joe and kept him busy denying them.

“We need to meet to talk about the issues,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“Why? I have discussed them with voters in several town meetings.”

“Actually, I believe the main issue is your running for office.”

Man, the guy had nerve. “Why? I gathered over 5,000 signatures and paid the $750 filing fee.”

“You have no legislative experience, and you haven’t lived in the county much longer than the required one year. As a candidate for the more popular party, I have an excellent chance of winning, but you running against me is an embarrassment. You’re a pitiful excuse for a candidate. You should withdraw so you won’t suffer an ignominious defeat.”

Joe laughed. “I can’t believe you have the gall to suggest that. You must be scared you’ll be the one to suffer defeat at the polls. I intend to run and make things better for my future constituents, many of whom are Hispanic like me, so if you have nothing better to say, I’m going to hang up.”

“I suggest you rethink your position.” His opponent’s voice was now disturbingly quiet, but Joe heard every word. He frowned, searching for a good reply, then heard Cash say, “Things might get ugly. Goodbye.”

# # #

JSB: Since this scene is mostly dialogue, I’m going to concentrate on that aspect. But let me make a couple of comments about the first two paragraphs.

The opening graph is overloaded with description. There’s too much of it, so instead of creating a vivid picture it just all blends together. Do we need to know the briefcase is brown, or the floor pink and gray? I like that the author employs the underused sense of smell, but there are two smells here and they cancel each other out. Choose one. The coffee smell, probably, because it’s in line with the character at this moment. Please see my post on describing a setting.

The second paragraph is backstory/exposition. I’m not opposed to bits of backstory in opening pages, and for practice’s sake I advise beginners to stick to three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, all together or spaced out. This one has all three together. But they occur too early in my view, and do nothing to get me interested in the character. The first line is a too overt in trying to get us to like Joe. The second line is there only to tell us we’re in Dallas. The third only to tell us where Joe had come from.

All that information can wait. Act first, explain later. Let’s get Joe right into the phone call, and take a look at the dialogue.

First off, an attorney in a fancy office is not going to just pick up the phone and say, “Hello.” He will either be alerted to the call by a receptionist, or in some cases may take a direct call, but then would answer by saying his name.

“Joe Morales, this is Cash Carter, your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.”

“I know who you are.” 

One of the “speed bumps” I see often in beginning fiction is dialogue that does not sound natural because the author is using it to feed information to the reader. Most of the time it manifests itself by having characters tell each other things they already both know.

And that’s what’s happened here.

Cash Carter and Joe Morales know each other well. They’re political opponents and Joe’s been the subject of many Cash Carter ads already. So there is no reason for Cash to explain that he is “your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.” Joe knows that! And Cash knows Joe knows! The author is feeding us, the readers, the information, thinking we need to know it right now. We don’t. It can come in later and in a much more natural way.

“We need to meet to talk about the issues,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“Why? I have discussed them with voters in several town meetings.”

“Actually, I believe the main issue is your running for office.”

Good dialogue is compressed (unless there’s a reason for the character to be prolix). Three ways to do that are to eliminate fluff, cut words, and use contractions.

I define fluff as a needless word or two at the beginning of a sentence. Here, Why and Actually don’t do anything for us. See how much crisper this dialogue is without the fluff, with a couple of words dropped, and with contractions:

“We need talk about an issue,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“I’ve discussed the issues at the town meetings.”

“The issue is you running for office, sport.”

I added sport as an example of a simple way to add tension, another mark of excellent dialogue.

Man, the guy had nerve. “Why? I gathered over 5,000 signatures and paid the $750 filing fee.”

Again, Why is unneeded fluff. And once more the line smacks of exposition. Carter would know all this, and why would Joe bother to cite the filing fee?

Also, as much as possible, let the dialogue do the work of revealing the characters’ feelings. The line Man, the guy had nerve wouldn’t be needed if you had Joe say something like, “You gotta be kidding.”

“You have no legislative experience, and you haven’t lived in the county much longer than the required one year. As a candidate for the more popular party, I have an excellent chance of winning, but you running against me is an embarrassment. You’re a pitiful excuse for a candidate. You should withdraw so you won’t suffer an ignominious defeat.”

This doesn’t sound real to me. Would Cash really say “ the required one year” (something they both know!) or “the more popular party” or “I have an excellent chance” or “ignominious defeat”? If he’s trying to scare off Joe, wouldn’t he use more colloquial and colorful language?

Here’s a dialogue tip: Read it out loud, with feeling (like an actor). The sound will smack you in a whole new way.

“I can’t believe you have the gall to suggest that. You must be scared you’ll be the one to suffer defeat at the polls. I intend to run and make things better for my future constituents, many of whom are Hispanic like me, so if you have nothing better to say, I’m going to hang up.”

I hope you can see it by now that …many of whom are Hispanic like me … is a line for the readers.

Here’s another tip: when you catch yourself giving expositional dialogue to a character, see if you can put it in the other character’s mouth as part of tense exchange. For example, you could have Cash say something like, “You may think you got the Hispanic vote, Morales, but your skin ain’t gonna win this thing.”

“I suggest you rethink your position.” His opponent’s voice was now disturbingly quiet, but Joe heard every word. He frowned, searching for a good reply, then heard Cash say, “Things might get ugly. Goodbye.”

I have a hard time believing a candidate would think such a vague threat over the phone would be enough to get his opponent to drop out. (Another needless word is Goodbye. Especially after a threat. Just have the guy hang up.) Because of that, I have no feeling of threat here, and thus am not worried about Joe. And a major goal of the first page is to start the reader worrying!

Whew! Listen, writer, don’t be discouraged. I went into detail because dialogue is the fastest way to improve—or sink—a manuscript. Editors, agents, and readers all make judgments based in large part on how the author handles dialogue. The good news is there are some basic dialogue techniques that are simple to understand and employ. If you wish to dig deeper, let me modestly suggest a book on the subject.

Bottom line: It’s crucial to know your characters inside and out, and know what they would say in a given situation. Don’t ever let them get caught slipping information to the reader.

One last item: the title. Perhaps this one is temporary for purposes of the WIP. I hope that’s the case, because you can and should come up with a much better title. On that matter, see this helpful post by our own P. J. Parrish (Kris).

All right, Zoners, add your helpful comments for our brave writer!

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1st Page Critique: Across the Road

By SUE COLETTA

We have another brave writer who submitted a First Page for critique. My comments will follow.

ACROSS THE ROAD

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required. On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.

It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.

It was a stupid thing to do. The pain in his head only worsened. He looked at his watch to ensure it wasn’t already mid-day. Even at 7:45 in the morning, the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat. If he kept driving, he’d be in his office in fifteen minutes waiting on an aspirin from his secretary. He squinted in the direction of the helpless young woman, and marched towards her.

Every step he took increased the throbbing in his head. He’d stopped his car only a couple of metres away. Amidst her gasping and choking, Edward heard the woman say, “Let…go of me.” Her small hands slipped and slapped against the man’s vice-like grip.

“Give me my money or else…” The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four, threw up a big, veiny left hand, palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target on the side of her face.

Edward reached it in time. He caught the weapon in his left hand before it reached its target. His fingers barely closed around the thick wrist. “Easy, my friend,” he said.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand from his left hand to his right. With his left hand he grabbed the choking hazard and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off. Edward fixed his gaze. Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes.

* * *

The writer has given us a peek into Edward’s character and we’re thrown into an action scene. Yet the writer didn’t hook me enough to turn the page. Why? Because when we don’t resist the urge to explain every movement in detail, it ruins the suspense. Readers are smart. Trust us to fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a quick example.

He reached for the bloody rag. By two fingers he pulled it from the stranger’s grasp, then retracted his arm.

See how overly descriptive that is? Remember, every word counts.

He snatched the bloody rag.

Same action. Same visualization. Four words instead of 19. We know what it looks like to snatch a rag from someone’s hand. Too many body movements slow (or stop) the suspense rather than enhance it.

The Headache

Throughout the first page we learn about Edward’s headache. I’m guessing these episodes play a key role in the story. In which case, the writer has done a good job of showing us how migraines start as a dull ache and little by little build into mind-numbing pain.

A word of caution here. Headaches aren’t all that interesting, nor are migraines. They help gain empathy for the MC, but they’re not enough to carry an entire story. Unless— and this is key—these migraines are a symptom of something larger. Jason Borne had migraines after the CIA erased his identity. If Edward went through a similar procedure, then you need to drop a few clues. As it stands now, Edward’s an average Joe who makes his secretary bring him aspirin. Speaking of, unless the story takes place before the 1970’s, this tidbit makes Edward look like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to turn your female readers against Edward?

Word Choices

Throughout the first page the writer chose odd wording. For clarity, the brave writer’s questionable word choices are in red, my remarks in blue. Please add your own helpful suggestions in the comments.

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. “Brought” is generic. The edge of the road makes me think Edward stopped at the edge of a steep cliff. Breakdown lane or dirt shoulder may work better. 

It hit him like a falling object. What hit him? “It” tells us nothing.

The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four (don’t confuse the reader with odd wording. If he’s the size of a Patriot’s linebacker, say so), threw up a big, veiny left hand (first, gross; second, unless Edward is inches away he wouldn’t be able to see the dude’s veins), palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target (what target? Did a bullseye suddenly appear on her cheek?) on the side of her face.

Edward reached it (reached what?) in time. He caught the weapon (there’s a weapon now?) in his left hand before it reached its target (I still don’t see a target).

Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked (did he look a first time?) to make certain his intervention (intervention reminds me of an alcoholic who needs to get sober) was indeed required.

Also, the first line is nowhere near strong enough for an opener. Rather than rehash TKZ’s sound advice on first lines, I’ve linked a few posts that may help HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Always try to use strong action verbs. You can find an active verb pdf HERE.

On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. The first half of the sentence shows us that Accra isn’t a safe place. Bravo! After the comma, however, is called over-writing. Most people don’t like others prying into their business. Because it’s common sense and it doesn’t help to clarify, well, anything, we can (and should) delete.  

But the man still held the young woman by her throat (still? This is the 1st time you’ve shown us), and she squirmed in vain (meh. You can do better) to break free. 

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car. 

Unless men have a habit of strangling women on the side of the roads in Accra, the terror should be palpable. He’s killing her! Yet Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car? No, no, no.

Edward slammed the shifter into park and leaped out the driver’s door. “Let go of her, you bastard!”

Force us into that fight! Let us feel Edward’s face flush with rage as he witnesses a man beat on a woman half his size.

Let’s jump ahead.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. His head exploded? What a mess! I understand what the writer is trying to convey here, but I can’t help but giggle every time I read that line. Migraines are no joke, though. Please choose words that best describe how painful they are.

Example:

A volcanic blast exploded within Edward’s head. Vision blurred. Words jumbled. With a flat hand, he latched on to the hood to steady his gait. The goon dragged the woman by the hair, but Edward couldn’t react. The migraine held him hostage.

Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. How does one turn their eyes? I’m able to “shift” my eyes, but alas, I cannot turn them. I’m also a stickler for “eyes” that shoot across a room. “Gazes” can shoot to and fro. They can also roam, wander, and dance.  Eyeballs, to my knowledge, remain in their sockets at all times. Unless, or until, someone pries them out.

Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. Simple, clear, paints an image in the reader’s mind. Well done!

 In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand (Seized? Money and property can be seized, hands cannot) from his left hand to his right. With his left hand (avoid repetition. In less than two sentences the word “hand” is used three times. Too many details confuse the reader. Which hand did what now?) he grabbed the choking hazard (I must admit, I’ve reread this first page umpteenth times and am still unsuccessful in finding “the choking hazard.” To me, a choking hazard is a small toy or toy part that we keep away from babies and toddlers) and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men (we’re not in Edward’s head anymore) glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off (cliché). Edward fixed his gaze (this works better than the preceding sentence; good job here!). Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes (delete this line. Not only is it irrelevant, but it makes no sense in this context).

To review

  • Resist the urge to explain every single body movement.
  • Choose words carefully.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Trust the reader to fill in the blanks, but give us enough information to do so.
  • Know your audience.

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give this brave writer?

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