A Powerhouse Secret for Point of View

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s post comes courtesy of a first-page critique. Here we go:

Tobias Martel walked from the sidewalk to the back door of an older, one-story house that screamed for basic repairs. One block east of South King Street in the historic district of Leesburg, Virginia, the run-down state of the property, which faced the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail, violated all the stereotypes of the richest county in the United States. Overgrown bushes and trees provided some needed cover for his operation, safe from the passing cyclists and runners on the W&OD trail.

The targets that lived in the house used the back door exclusively because the gravel driveway led right to it. The front and back doors were the newest parts of the house, along with the locks. Both were secured with Kwikset double cylinder locks, a grade 1 lock requiring a key to open from both inside and outside the home. It was designed to keep out a large majority of burglars, criminals, and thieves.

Martel was none of the above.

He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. His wrestling days in high school and college gave him a rugged physique that made it hard to shed any more weight. The gray hair, which had peeked through fifteen years ago, quickly accelerated because of the shock according to the doctors. It now covered his entire head, with just glimpses of his former color still visible. He kept his hair trimmed, never going more than four weeks between haircuts. Martel hated that shaggy look. Complimenting his mane of grey was a close beard. More like a five o’clock shadow. It made it easy to change up his looks or grow it back fast when needed.

Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Besides easy identification, he never saw anything socially redeeming about sticking ink under your skin. His only visible identifier was a four-inch scar on his left arm, starting below his thumb and working its way at a jagged angle towards his elbow. It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife. Martel had made sure the man had understood the consequences. He was dead certain this mistake wouldn’t happen again.

In three months, Martel would turn 48. He wondered if this was it—if this was how life would be until it was over. He had thought many times about taking the end date into his own hands. Stopping this perpetual madness before it overwhelmed his nightly thoughts. He argued with himself whether to stay in the game or not. The only issue would be how he exited —his terms or someone else’s.

***

JSB: Here’s what we have: the kernel of a good opening—an assassin about to do his thing. That would make a gripping scene. The problem is we don’t have a scene. We have description from a disembodied voice (i.e., the author’s).

So rather than going line by line, I’m first going to advise the author to re-write the entire opening chapter using no description at all. That’s what I said. Do this as a discipline to force yourself to write the action of the scene. Don’t put in any backstory, either (e.g., It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife…)

Once you’ve done the re-write, then you can go back and marble in some descriptive elements, but only what is necessary for the reader to envision the scene. I’ll also allow you three sentences of backstory, which you can use together or spread out over the first 10k words.

But the big issue I want to talk about is this pesky thing called “author voice.” It means that as we are reading, we get the vibe that the author is telling us things in his or her own words. (Note: obviously we are discussing Third Person POV.)

It’s often subtle, but the way to tell is when the narration doesn’t seem like anything the character himself would say. A few examples:

Martel was none of the above. That’s the author telling us something, because it’s not what Martel would ever think about himself—at least not in those words.

He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. Again, not how Martel would think of himself.

Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Would Martel ever use the word eschewed? I think not.

The reason this is so important is that readers crave intimacy with characters. When the author sticks his voice into the proceedings, that intimacy is diluted, if not lost altogether.

That’s why I advise a “powerhouse secret” that is simple to understand, but requires care and craft to pull off. Once you get it on the page, however, it will return massive dividends in reader engagement. Here it is:

Put all narrative in a form that sounds like the character would think or say it.

In other words, everything on the page should seem to be filtered through whoever the viewpoint character is. It should feel like this:

To illustrate, let’s compare a couple of passages.

Ernest Stickley put down his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing the men around him talking and trying to sound like they were from the mean streets. He also thought it was a mistake to have made that call to Rainy. If the call had been about having a drink sometime, that would have been fine. But he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

Stickley soaped his hands from the dispenser and washed up. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked pale and a bit solemn. In fact, he looked like someone else. He looked like the man he had been before that trouble in Jackson, Tennessee. Back then he had a hard look that helped him stand up to people.

There’s nothing distinctive in this narration. It’s a dry, objective recitation of facts.

Now let’s look at how Elmore Leonard did it in his novel Stick:

Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying man all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

Stick washed his hands with the fragrant pink soap that came out of the dispenser, washed them good and stared into the clear mirror at his features. Pale, solemn. Who was that? Like looking at someone else. Back in another life before Jackson he could narrow his eyes at his reflection––hard-boned but not bad looking––and say, “That’s it? That’s all you got?”

It’s obvious how much better this is. It is Stick’s voice we hear, his attitudes, his musings. It pulls us further into his character, rather than keeping us at arm’s length.

That’s what I want to see in this piece, author. So for your final exercise, after you’ve given us a scene with action, rewrite it in FIRST Person POV. This will force you to write in Martel’s voice.

Then…convert it back into Third Person!

Here’s what’s going to happen: when you re-read your chapter and compare it to what you have here, you will utter the word Wow.

You have the TKZ guarantee.

Two quick notes before I go. First (because this drives me bonkers) there is a difference between complimenting and complementing. You should have used the latter.

Second (from the shameless self-promotion dept.) I’ve written an entire book on the crucial subject of Voice

Comments are welcome.

11+

First Page Critique – Counting Mountains

Credit: Joshua Fuller, Unsplash

Good morning, TKZers, and let’s welcome the brave Anonymous Author of Counting Mountains. Please enjoy this first page submission then we’ll open the discussion.

~~~~~

Title- Counting Mountains

My name is Tessa Stynes, and I was witness to and involved in all the horrible things you’ve heard about the Australian Massacre in London. My name used to be associated with my family, my university, my friends, and if I’m being optimistic, maybe my photography, or my smile.People used to tell me I had a nice smile.

Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in thousands of people’s minds. People think of my name and they think of murder, fear, and death. This is hatefully unwanted- but not necessarily unwarranted. I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.

I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying. I dig a lot, trying to figure out which parts of me are gone forever, which parts I can resurrect with time, and which wounds deserve to lay open, festering. Even though it hurts, it’s cathartic, like pulling six-foot weeds out of the ground, or trying to reconstruct a broken clock.

I’m attempting to build my story – and the Ripper’s – from the ground up, pulling strands and dark clumps out of my head that are hiding and digging themselves in; picking out the broken parts, so that I can hope to build something new and shiny out of the rot.

Someone once said to me; there are mountains in everyone’s path. They are all different shapes and sizes, but they are all mountains, and they are all difficult to breach.

Right now, I’m counting mountains. Some I conquer, and some sit in front of me, daunting and ice covered, just like that winter.

In the beginning of our story, it was cold. I remember the cold being a constant reminder of how far I was from home. We were in the winter of 2010, the coldest winter on English record and in anyone’s memory. The feeling of cold in England seemed worse than the cold I had felt in actual cold countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold I felt that winter in England was harsh and bone deep, like a blow I wasn’t expecting.

~~~~~

Brave Author, I found a lot to like about this first page. It doesn’t start with action or in media res. It opens with the character alone thinking—a technique that we at TKZ often caution against. However, the voice is strong and the situation is compelling, making me want to know more.

In other words, even though you take a risk by ignoring conventional wisdom, your technique works. Well done.

Why does it work? I believe it’s because of the theme.

Tessa Stynes has been the victim of “the Ripper.” She also feels responsible for other deaths evidently caused by this serial killer. She survived where others didn’t. Her name is linked to horrific crimes—she is doomed to a haunted life of guilt by association.

The theme of guilt by association works because it’s a universal plight. Most people have suffered injustice where their proximity to a person, group, or incident taints their  reputation. There’s an immediate bond between the reader and a character who reminds us of the unfair shunning we’ve experienced ourselves.

Further, the Author has set high stakes. Tessa is not the victim of everyday petty injustice. The stakes of her suffering are life and death. Others have died in a “massacre.” Although this story is being told about events that already occurred, there is a suggestion Tessa herself might die in the future from repercussions of the tragedy.

James Scott Bell talks about death stakes that can be physical, professional, or psychological.

Tessa states: I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

She has faced all three forms of death that Jim describes. First, she almost died from knife wounds (physical). Second, she apparently once had a good name as a photographer that’s now tarnished (professional). Third, her musings show an ongoing emotional struggle that prevent her from living a normal life (psychological).

The Brave Author takes another chance by addressing the reader directly. In theatre or film, this is called breaking the fourth wall when a character speaks to the audience.

This technique momentarily disrupts the fictive dream the author wants to create, which can have negative results if the reader is pulled out of the story.

However, it can also promote the sense that the author is sharing an intimate secret with the reader. This character who witnessed terrible crimes is willing to reveal knowledge no one else has. The reader wants to learn the inside truth of what really happened.

For those reasons, I believe breaking the fourth wall works here. 

The setting is London in winter of 2010. Tessa is evidently a visitor to England, a stranger in a cold, forbidding land. The mood is chilling, physically as well as emotionally. Nice job of making the setting and weather reflect the plot.

Now to the aspects that tripped me up:

The Australian Massacre in London is treated like a news event that everyone’s heard about. I googled it and didn’t find a corresponding real-life occurrence. Not a problem but it momentarily sidetracked me.

By using “the Ripper,” readers have certain automatic, ingrained reactions to Jack the Ripper, who killed victims during the 1880s. That reference started me down a historical path. However, you then say the story begins in 2010, leading to other questions: Will this be a time-travel fantasy? Or is there a new Ripper in contemporary London?

These are not necessarily problems but merely things to consider as you draw readers into the story. You want to be mindful not to lead them off onto false trails.

You write strong, active sentences but the order in which you present them could be rearranged for more dramatic effect. What do you think of this:

People used to tell me I had a nice smile.

My name used to be associated with my smile, my family, my university, my friends, and my photography.

Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in the minds of thousands of people. People think of my name and they think of murder, fear, and death. This is hatefully unwanted—but not necessarily unwarranted. I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.

I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

My name is Tessa Stynes, and I was witness to and involved in all the horrible things you’ve heard about the Australian Massacre in London in 2010.

If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying. I dig a lot, trying to figure out which parts of me are gone forever, which parts I can resurrect with time, and which wounds deserve to lay open, festering.

Next, you go into a mashup of similes and metaphors about pulling weeds, repairing a broken clock, strands of hair, clumps, digging, shiny objects, and mountains. Because these figures of speech are not obviously related to each other, they got distracting. Suggest you stick with the mountain motif, since that’s your title, and delete the rest of the debris.

Regarding semicolons: I fall into the camp of never in fiction. If you do use them, use them correctly.

Delete the semicolon in: Someone once said to me; there are mountains in everyone’s path.

The sentence could be rewritten in two ways:

1. Someone once said to me: there are mountains in everyone’s path.

2. Someone once said to me there are mountains in everyone’s path.

The second option (without punctuation) is my preference since it’s not a direct quote.

The following is a nice segue from Tessa’s thoughts into the story:

Right now, I’m counting mountains. Some I conquer, and some sit in front of me, daunting and ice covered, just like that winter.

In the paragraph that follows, you use a variation of cold seven times. Even if you intentionally repeated the word for effect, it wore thin.

The line like a blow I wasn’t expecting didn’t work for me because blow is a sudden, abrupt action whereas bone-deep cold creeps in more gradually, like gangrene.

There is additional repetition and overwriting in that paragraph you might condense. How about this:

The winter of 2010 was the coldest season on English record and in anyone’s memory. I remember the harsh, bone-deep chill that felt worse than the cold I’d experienced in actual frigid countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold was a constant reminder of how far I was from home.

Brave Author, you took risks with this opener and they paid off. Your voice, theme, and premise are all compelling and make me want to read more. Good job!

 

How about you, TKZers?

Did this opening draw you in?

What suggestions do you have for our Brave Author?

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for 99 cents from July 7-14. Here’s the link.

4+

First Page Critique: Go

By Sue Coletta

Today, we have another brave writer who submitted their first page. My comments will follow.

Title:  Go

Ch 1 Go, Said the Bird

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath.They scrambled into coats and jackets.

“…tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside, food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said.

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s store.

A grin lit his broad ochre-colored face, and dissolved into drawn brows. “Long face, Nettie. ”

I leaned on the counter. He whipped out two pineapple popsicles and handed me one. Too sweet, the sour taste of lying to my mother, of seeing her killer, thick in my throat.

“You visit your parents today?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

A smile tugged at my mouth.

“Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

“And here I thought I didn’t have a mother.” Thrusting Redmann out of my thoughts–I had to–I bought tomato soup, Swiss cheese, and bread while we made plans for dinner and checkers later in the week.

Across the street, Redmanm hauled the woman toward his car.

***

This is a tough opener for me to critique, because I get the feeling Anon is early in his/her writing journey. When we begin our writing journey, magic surrounds us. We can’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a magical beauty in that simplicity. A harsh critique at this writing stage could do more harm than good. It’s in this vein that I offer a few suggestions to help nudge this brave writer forward.

First lines

Your first sentence should entice the reader to continue on to the next sentence and the sentence after that. “I twirled a pencil.” Doesn’t accomplish that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sentence, except that it’s generic. Meaning, it delivers no punch, nor does it hint at the genre, nor does it promise an intriguing storyline to come. It just sort of sits there.

We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Back in 2010, Joe Moore described a first line this way:

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Joe nailed it! See how important your first line is, Anon? For further study, type “first line” in the search box and you’ll find numerous articles on this subject.

Point of View

Nailing Point of View is one of the hardest elements to grasp. It’s also imperative to learn, because readers connect with our main characters through the proper use of POV. 

The third sentence We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.” is a point of view slip. As Laura mentioned in a recent first page critique, “we” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator. If we’re inside the teacher’s head, then we can’t know what the students are thinking i.e. “how slow its hands moved.”

You could show their boredom through the teacher’s perspective …

Carlton’s chin slipped off a half-curled palm, his elbow unable to hold the weight of his head till the bell rang. (then add a line or two of internal dialogue to show us the MC’s reaction –>) Why he insisted on sitting in the front row still baffled me.

Clarity

We never want to confuse the reader or make them re-read previous paragraphs in order to know what we’re talking about. My remarks are in red.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

With this sentence structure, the reader has no idea what the narrator means by “I couldn’t” until the end of the sentence. That’s too late. Easy fix, but it’s something you’ll want to look for in your writing.

Rewrite option: After years of avoiding my parents’ grave, I made it a point to swing by the cemetery once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother (mother’s gravestone?). “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

Here again, you’ve given us context too late. “Someday, I’d mean those words” should come before “I kicked at the slush of the last snow.” Which I love, btw. Great visual.

Dialogue

If you haven’t read How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by TKZ’s own, James Scott Bell, do it. The book’s a game-changer.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned (<- is it your intention to show Redmann as a racist? If so, just tell us she’s Hispanic. Also “small” and “tall” are generic terms. “Petite” implies small in stature, though) woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said. Dialogue should sound natural. This woman sounds stiff and unconcerned. If she’s being unfairly accused of stealing, make us feel her frustration.

He leaned forward (why would he lean forward? Did you mean Redmann invaded the Hispanic woman’s personal space? Towered over her?) She retreated and bowed her head. Try to be as clear as possible. “She coward” or “quailed back” works.

Possible rewrite: Redmann invaded the petite woman’s personal space, and she coward.

“Look at me, bitch.”  Add body cue so we know who’s speaking. Perhaps something like, his spittle flew in her face.

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I don’t understand this body cue. Do you mean, my hand balled into a fist? Which implies anger.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-sixyearold the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. Delete the MC’s age. Or make it less obvious that you’re sneaking in information. Something like: For twenty years, I’d avoided him. Little did he know, I wasn’t the same terrified six-year-old who huddled in the closet while he murdered my family. Soon, he and I would reconnect.

Good luck dragging me out of the closet by my hair now, asshole. (Please excuse the foul language. I’m trying to show Anon how to use inner dialogue to portray rage, and the nickname works to prove my point.)

Sparse Writing

There’s a big difference between writing tight and writing that’s too sparse.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

Here again, my initial reaction was, paid what? Sure, you cleared up the confusion in the second sentence, but that’s too late. Be concise. Don’t let your writing get in the way. “Redmann never paid the price for killing my parents” works just fine.  

I’m going to stop there. All in all, I like where the story is headed. A schoolteacher runs into the killer who murdered her family. Intriguing premise!

Favorite line: I kicked at the slush of the last snow. 

TKZ family, please add your thoughtful and gentle suggestions for this brave writer.

 

5+

Write Tight

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a first page. You know the drill. We’ll talk on the other side.

The Reaper’s Scythe

The jungle had already started to darken around them when Lucas spoke up.

“We need to head back,” he urged, even as they continued down the barely-there dirt trail. “Even if the pigs really are there, I doubt they’re safe to eat.”

Imro let out a grunt. He shifted the grip on his 12-gauge as he pushed through a tangle of vines. The man’s knuckles were as dark and worn as the fiddleback myrtle that made up his shotgun’s stock.

“My brother says he saw them,” Imro finally said. His Sranan accent smoothed brother into brudda. “That damn good enough for me. ‘Sides, say we come back to camp empty-handed, you t’ink anyone going to be happy about their empty bellies?”

“That’s right,” Maikel called back from up ahead. “Maybe if they hungry enough, they gobble you up instead!”

Maikel made a wet smacking sound with his lips and laughed at his own joke.

Lucas rolled his eyes but said nothing. He’d arrived in Suriname as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Over time, he’d picked up the country’s English-based creole language.

He’d also picked up a bad case of gold fever.

The rumors spoke of a place downriver that glittered with bright golden flakes. The location was achingly remote. But Lucas and a dozen others had gone in and reached the place, panning the sandbars from sunrise to sunset.

Eventually the stores of beans and tinned meat ran low. Lots were drawn, so the three least lucky were sent off to forage for bush meat. Pickings had been sparse. Then Maikel had climbed a tree and spotted them with his binoculars.

A group of dead peccaries lying like tusked gray stones in the clearing up ahead.

Lucas didn’t like it. The jungle’s ‘skunk pig’ was good eating. Up to sixty pounds of meat lay under a peccary’s collar of bristly hair.

But something must have killed those animals.

Worse, the rain forest made sure that every free scrap of flesh, skin or bone got recycled by a thousand tiny mouths. That nothing had yet come to touch these pigs did not make sense to Lucas. That sense turned into an uneasy feeling that settled into an ache at his temples.

Maikel froze. He pointed up ahead, his index finger quivering in disbelief.

“What you doing?” Imro hissed. “Stop playin’ at sticks, or I’ll–”

“The pigs…” Maikel gasped. “They gone.”

***

JSB: There’s a lot to like about the content. It’s action—characters in motion toward a goal—in a fraught-with-danger location (the jungle). And there’s a disturbance: all those dead pigs suddenly … gone! Plus, it’s a unique setting (Suriname).

So what I have to say here has to do with making the writing tighter. In a thriller, that’s always the better way to go. Heck, in any kind of writing it’s better. Note: I’m not talking about pace. That’s an entirely different subject. I’m not talking about scenes or scene length. I’m talking about the sentence level, so the words you use (your stock-in-trade, after all) can be most effective.

Let’s start with the opening line.

The jungle had already started to darken around them when Lucas spoke up.

This is a bit too sloggy, because of: had already started to darken. Whenever you write the word had, train yourself to pause and see if there is a crisper way of putting it. (I’ll have more on this in a moment.) Here, a tighter line would grab faster and better:

The jungle was starting to darken when Lucas spoke up.

Boom. We’re there without superfluous verbiage. The them isn’t needed because the scene reveals the trio as we go along.

“We need to head back,” he urged

As most of you know, I’m of the said school of attribution, unless another word is absolutely necessary for clarity. Here, urged is superfluous. The line itself is urging. And we don’t need he, because you just told us it was Lucas. Try something like this:

The jungle was starting to darken when Lucas spoke up. “We need to head back.”

Boom again.

Imro let out a grunt. He shifted the grip on his 12-gauge as he pushed through a tangle of vines. The man’s knuckles were as dark and worn as the fiddleback myrtle that made up his shotgun’s stock.

I have no idea what fiddleback myrtle is, or why it’s important here. I believe a majority of readers would get tripped up by this. Since the point is to describe Imro’s skin, the shotgun’s stock would do on its own.

“My brother says he saw them,” Imro finally said. His Sranan accent smoothed brother into brudda.

This is fine. You don’t want to overload dialect-dialogue with odd spellings. The occasional use of a phonetic spelling is fine, too. This is a judgment call. You could also do it this way:

“My brudda say he saw them,” Imro said in his Sranan accent.

I like this better, since (again) fewer words. The only “rule” is to get the sound of the dialect into a reader’s head as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Maikel made a wet smacking sound with his lips and laughed at his own joke.

This is close to the line of POV violation. While Lucas (the POV character in this scene) might surmise Maikel is laughing at his own joke, it feels like we’ve slipped into Maikel’s head. So why leave in this possible “speed bump”? Since Maikel just made a joke, we don’t need to be told why he laughed. Just end the sentence at and laughed.

Lucas rolled his eyes but said nothing. He’d arrived in Suriname as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Over time, he’d picked up the country’s English-based creole language.

He’d also picked up a bad case of gold fever.

Okay, let’s talk about that pesky little word had again. When you are dipping into the past, one had is enough to get you there. You don’t need it after that. Take a look at my rewrite:

Lucas rolled his eyes but said nothing. He’d arrived in Suriname as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Over time, he picked up the country’s English-based creole language.

He also picked up a bad case of gold fever.

See how much more immediate that reads? (Note also that Creole should be capitalized.)

The rumors spoke of a place downriver that glittered with bright golden flakes. The location was achingly remote. But Lucas and a dozen others had gone in and reached the place, panning the sandbars from sunrise to sunset.

Note the strikethrough, getting rid of had again.

I touched up the following:

Eventually the stores of beans and tinned meat ran low. Lots were drawn, so the three least lucky were sent off to forage for bush meat. Pickings had been [were] sparse. Then Maikel had climbed a tree and spotted them with his binoculars—a group of dead peccaries lying like tusked gray stones in the clearing up ahead.

We have a POV issue again. Who would describe these pigs as tusked gray stones? Certainly not Lucas, because he hasn’t seen them. And would Maikel describe them this way? I think not. This is one of those instances where “kill your darlings” applies. Please note that I like the description. It just doesn’t fit here.

Maikel froze. He pointed up ahead, his index finger quivering in disbelief.

A POV bump again. Only Maikel would know why his finger is quivering. But the main thing is we don’t need the modifier to prop up his index finger quivering. That is great images, so tighter writing keeps it from being diluted with unnecessary verbiage.

“What you doing?” Imro hissed. “Stop playin’ at sticks, or I’ll–”

I find hissed to be another speed bump. Outside of Kaa in The Jungle Book, who ever hisses anything?

“The pigs…” Maikel gasped. “They gone.”

It’s always the better choice, in my view, to let the dialogue itself and the surrounding action do the work, making the extraordinary attribution unnecessary:

“The pigs…They gone.”

We know from the exchange that Maikel is the one speaking, and the ellipses indicate the gasp. Tight!

Just one more thing. I’m not wild about the title. It’s hard to pronounce. How many people know what a scythe is anymore? Or that it is associated with The Grim Reaper? The author says this a “pandemic medical thriller.” Maybe there’s a one-word title somewhere out there, like Outbreak (the Dustin Hoffman movie based on The Hot Zone). But do some more thinking on this. Come up with several titles and test them on your friends.

Again, I like the potential here. With a bit of trimming, this is one where I’d definitely turn to page two!

We now turn matters over to the comments. Good luck, author!

12+

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?

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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?

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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.

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