Ways to Beef Up Conflict & Mystery – First Page Critique – Whatever Tomorrow Brings

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400 words of an anonymous author’s work in progress. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide your constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Finding the door to Slate’s room closed, I took a moment to smooth my hair, powder a shiny nose, remove an errant eyelash threatening to slide under my blue contact lens. Then I knocked.

“Yeah.”

I peeked in. “Hi.”

Slate Garrett sat propped up in bed, two pillows behind his back. His velvet brown eyes were dark. “Did you hear?”

I nodded and walked towards him. Lindell High’s all-state linebacker would’ve looked ridiculous in his pale hospital gown under other circumstances; but his blackened left eye, busted lip, and the white bandage behind his left ear took all humor out of the situation.

“Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

I could almost hear his heart breaking. I blinked back tears.

His own eyes watering, Slate reached for the glass on his nightstand and drank from it.

I feigned interest in his room while we both tried to regain self-control. His gold wristwatch and an opened package of malted milk balls lay on the nightstand beside his bed. A chair stood in the corner, a football resting on its cushion.

I walked over and touched the stiff, stained laces. “What’s this doing here?”

“Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – Depending on what genre this novel will be, the opening could start earlier with the injury on the field and more action. Or it could start with the young woman narrator rushing to the hospital, leaving the reader to wonder what is happening and who will be there. I prefer more action than the way this story starts so the reader is drawn into the novel by elements of mystery and the emotions of something about to happen. Even in the case of a romance, mystery elements still have their place. Readers want to be sucked into a story with anticipation of what will happen. This particular story reads like a romance or maybe a Young Adult (YA)/New Adult with younger characters that could grow into their early twenties. Who doesn’t love a good sports story with the struggles of a romance mingled between the lines? Sign me up, but let’s take a look at where to begin.

Genre & Elements of Romance – If this is a romance or YA, don’t rush a scene between a girl and a boy. Add layers to their relationship. The sexual tension, even if it’s only one way, can pull a reader in.

Be sensitive to eye contact or touches or the hyper awareness of the girl who has feelings for a guy who may not notice her. Does she see his skin flushing with color? Does she have heat rising to her cheeks? Pay attention to the details and only put in enough to not slow the pace, but make everything count. She’s dying to get into the hospital room, but she takes the time to primp and fix her hair. Nice touch, author.

But I would recommend adding more awkward tension from her point of view. I can feel a good foundation of it here, but there can be more. She’s walking into his hospital room alone. How well do they know each other? Are they only friends? Does she want there to be more? Since she didn’t run into his arms, I’m assuming they aren’t boyfriend/girlfriend.

Milk the unrequited love aspect and have her tentatively walk into a dim room. Set the stage better by making the room dark with him brooding and her looking for his glances through shadows where he may not want to face her. Have patience when building layers into a scene. If this scene takes place at dusk (as mentioned in the first paragraph), why not change the time to add mood to this intro? It would add to the tension if she’s pressuring her father to drive faster. Make it start to rain. Readers will wonder why she’s pushing her dad. The lights and the darkness and the treacherous weather can add to the mystery of where they’re going.

If you have her eventually rushing into a hospital, stretch out the intro with the build up of tension without telling the reader what’s happening. You will have them hooked as she steps into a shadowy room with an injured guy unable to look her in the eye. Maybe he’s in a private room and staring out the window. Is it raining? Make it moody. Have the stage set for what’s happening from her side. A good setting can really add to a scene.

Where to Begin – The way this story begins, the author is “telling” the reader what is happening, rather than creating an opener with more action and tension and conflict. Conflict is KEY. Start with action and add mystery elements without explaining what is happening and why.

Conflict – Does the injured boy expect to see her? Does he want her to be there? Only the author can answer these questions, but the story is completely under the control of the writer. I would recommend more conflict as she steps into the hospital or into his room. Are his parents surprised she’s there, but don’t say anything? When she finally steps down the long corridor and pushes open his door, what would he say to add conflict and tension right away?

“I told you not to come. You never listen.”

OR

“Come to gloat? Get out.”

Opening – Below is the first 2 paragraphs. It “tells” where she and her dad are going. Although there is a sense of urgency, that tension could be better. Any tension is deflated when she brings up the color of the sunset and talks about the time of day and brings up the hue of her own hair. This is a short cut for new authors to tell the reader this is a girl and the color of her hair but there are better and more natural ways to do this. Have patience. Make this opening about the action and stick with it.

The tension in this opening feels contrived because the urgency is forced and watered down.

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

In this next paragraph, the author does more ‘telling” rather than “showing.” Again, the tension is soft and deflated when the author uses phrases like “after catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition.” The author launches into the sights and sounds of a hospital, which detracts from any emotion this girl is feeling. It’s too clinical and matter-of-fact. She would be more focused on counting the room numbers and looking for his room. She’d be thinking of what she would say. Will she be welcomed? Don’t tell the reader. Show her apprehension without answering any of the questions she raises in her worrying.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Suggested Start – I can’t know what the author’s intentions are for this story. I can only suggest ways to make this more of a page turner and pique the interest of an agent or editor. As I’ve stated under the Genre & Elements of Romance heading, I would start with more action. Regardless if this is romance or not, action will pique the reader’s interest more than this opening does. The elements of a good story are here, author. We just need to massage and tweak to add more action and conflict.

1.) Make the drive to the hospital more about the girl pressuring her father to drive faster. Don’t explain why she wants him to do it. Add tension with the darkness and rain coming down.

2.) Have her rushing into the building, not waiting for her father to park. She stops at a nurse’s station in the ER. Her stomach is doing flip flops. She looks for other familiar faces while the nurse asks questions she doesn’t want to answer. She’s not family.

3.) She sees Slate’s parents down the corridor and rushes to them, but stops when they stare at her without a greeting. If you want to add conflict, give them a reason to wonder why she’s there. Or if she’s a friend to their son, have them warn her that he doesn’t want to see anyone from school. “Not even you.”

Question to answer – You have to give the parents a reason why they are waiting in the hallway when their son is in a hospital room, alone. Why aren’t they in the room with him?

4.) Make the reader feel every step she takes toward his room. Take time to describe what she’s feeling without answering any questions. Don’t even talk about football until she sees him.

5.) Be patient with the body language, conflict and tension between them. He could be ashamed of something or feel like a failure because his future is shot. She could be wanting to hold him, but can’t. Make the reader feel every aspect of emotion in this opening scene.

Dialogue – Make every line of dialogue count. Below is the stripped out dialogue lines–isolated to highlight what is said without any description or movement. This is a good way to see if the lines sound chit chatty or if they carry enough weight that can add to the tension/conflict.

HIM: “Yeah.”

HER: “Hi.”

HIM: “Did you hear?”

HIM: “Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

HER: “What’s this doing here?”

HIM: “Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

I would recommend more substance be added. Give them a past that may set them at odds. Is she an old girlfriend? Is she dating someone else, but rushes to the hospital, unsure why she can’t get him out of her system? Is there relationship one-sided? Reflect that into the dialogue and make each line count.

“Why did you come? You made yourself perfectly clear where we stand. I don’t need your sympathy.”

Dialogue authenticity – The longest line of this conversation has him “telling” the reader that Slate is a high school senior and how many games he’s played. Both these characters would know that. Slate wouldn’t need to explain. It’s obvious the author is “telling” the reader what they should know, but it reads like a contrivance. Make this encounter about the emotion of what he’s feeling and her inability to comfort him. Is he angry and lashes out at her? If they used to date, is she now with the guy who injured him or the star quarterback of another team…someone with a future? Have patience with revealing the conflict but make the dialogue between them show the emotion of a troubled past or more of a conflict.

Characterization – I know this is only a short opening of 400 words, but what do we know of these two people? By not telling the reader about the narrator, the author could still show unique traits to pack this opening with a reason for the reader to care. Does she chew her nails when she’s tense? What is she wearing? Did she bother to change in her rush to get to the hospital? What does that say about her? Even little details sprinkled into these 400 words can add value into building who she is and why we should care. Maybe the author could clip out online images of what this character looks like. I love image boards to set the stage for the story and make the small details shine.

Housekeeping

What’s in a Name? – With the dialogue, there’s a good place to have Slate say her name – or maybe her father can share it when they’re weaving through traffic.

Gender – With this story being in first person POV, try to get the gender of the narrator into the first lines if possible. The reader wants to know.

Setting – In the action leading up to the hospital arrival, add landmarks or setting that allows the reader to get oriented into Houston, Texas. The author doesn’t have to provide the destination and the name of the hospital to set the location in Houston. As a Texan, I do love a good feeling of Texas in a story. Rush hour in Houston is a parking lot, for example. Depending on the time of year, the steamy heat could layer onto her skin as she races from the car into the hospital.

Summary – The author is very much aware of description for the sake of the reader’s senses. That’s good, but have patience with how to use that skill. Less can be more. Keep the character’s motivation and emotion real so the great descriptors don’t read as forced or contrived or piled on.

I focused on this being a romance, but if it’s not, my feedback is still worth considering. If this story is about head injuries in football, the additional conflict from the start would still work. Add more tension between these two people to allow the reader to develop a strong foundation in their relationship. If this is more about the drama of Slate’s recovery, I would recommend the author load up on the conflict to give this pair a journey that they may or may not survive in the end. Put them through the wringer.

There are good elements to this story and lots of potential with this premise and these characters. I want to know what happens and I would want to read more. Thanks for your submission, dear author.

Discussion

What other changes would you recommend, TKZers?

3+

How to Mess Up Your Lead Character’s Ordinary Day

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On the first page (preferably in the first paragraph or even first line) of a novel, I want to see a disturbance to a character’s ordinary world. It can be subtle, like a midnight knock on the door (The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve). Or extreme, like a ticking bomb (Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August).

What I don’t want is “Happy People in Happy Land” (HPHL). I’ve seen a few of these openings in my time, mainly in domestic settings. The happy family getting ready for the day, etc. The author thinks: If I show these really nice people being really nice, the reader will care about them when the trouble starts.

But we don’t. We start to care about characters when trouble—or the hint of it—comes along, which is why, whenever I sign a copy of Conflict & Suspense, I always write, Make trouble!

Now, there are two ways to disturb HPHL in the opening. One is something happening that is not normal, as I mentioned above. It’s an “outside” disturbance, if you will.

But there’s another way, from the “inside.” You can give us a character’s ordinary day as it unfolds—while finding a way to mess it up.

That’s the strategy Michael Crichton uses in his 1994 novel, Disclosure (made into a movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore).

The plot centers around Tom Sanders, an mid-level executive at a thriving digital company in Seattle. He’s married to a successful lawyer named Susan. They live in a nice house on Bainbridge Island, with their four-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son.

As the book opens, we learn that Sanders expects this to be a good day. He’s sure he’s going to be promoted to head of his division, which will set him up for a windfall of millions after an expected merger and IPO. So it’s essential he get to the office on time.

Crichton is not going to let that happen. Here’s the first paragraph:

Tom Sanders never intended to be late for work on Monday, June 15. At 7:30 in the morning, he stepped into the shower at his home on Bainbridge Island. He knew he had to shave, dress, and leave the house in ten minutes if he was to make the 7:50 ferry and arrive at work by 8:30, in time to go over the remaining points with Stephanie Kaplan before they went into the meeting with the lawyers from Conley-White.

So Tom is in the shower when—

“Tom? Where are you? Tom?”

His wife, Susan, was calling from the bedroom. He ducked his head out of the spray.

“I’m in the shower!”

She said something in reply, but he didn’t hear it. He stepped out, reaching for a towel. “What?”

“I said, Can you feed the kids?”

His wife was an attorney who worked four days a week at a downtown firm.

So now he’s got to feed the kids? He hasn’t got time! But that’s life with two working parents, so he quickly begins to shave. Outside the bathroom, he hears his kids starting to cry because Mom can’t attend their every need. Crichton stretches out this sequence. Even something as innocuous as shaving can be tense when the kids are wailing.

Tom finally emerges from the bathroom, with only a towel around him, as he scoops up the kids to feed them.

Susan called after him: “Don’t forget Matt needs vitamins in his cereal. One dropperful. And don’t give him any more of the rice cereal, he spits it out. He likes wheat now.”

She went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

His daughter looked at him with serious eyes. “Is this going to be one of those days, Daddy?”

“Yeah, it looks like it.”

Exactly!

He mixed the wheat cereal for Matt, and put it in front of his son. Then he set Eliza’s bowl on the table, poured in the Chex, glanced at her.

“Enough?”

“Yes.”

He poured the milk for her.

“No, Dad!” his daughter howled, bursting into tears. “I wanted to pour the milk!”

“Sorry, Lize—”

“Take it out— take the milk out—” She was shrieking, completely hysterical.
“I’m sorry, Lize, but this is—”

I wanted to pour the milk!” She slid off her seat to the ground, where she lay kicking her heels on the floor. “Take it out, take the milk out!”

Every parent knows how true to life this is. A four-year old has definite ideas on their routine, and what they want to control!

“I’m sorry,” Sanders said. “You’ll just have to eat it, Lize.”

He sat down at the table beside Matt to feed him. Matt stuck his hand in his cereal and smeared it across his eyes. He, too, began to cry.

Can’t you just picture this?

Sanders got a dish towel to wipe Matt’s face. He noticed that the kitchen clock now said five to eight. He thought that he’d better call the office, to warn them he would be late. But he’d have to quiet Eliza first: she was still on the floor, kicking and screaming about the milk.

“All right, Eliza, take it easy. Take it easy.” He got a fresh bowl, poured more cereal, and gave her the carton of milk to pour herself. “Here.”

She crossed her arms and pouted. “I don’t want it.”

“Eliza, you pour that milk this minute.”

Throughout the scene he’s looking at the clock, trying to gauge how late he will be. At the end of the chapter, Susan has finally come to Tom’s rescue, and says—

“I’ll take over now. You don’t want to be late. Isn’t today the big day? When they announce your promotion?”

“I hope so.”

“Call me as soon as you hear.”

“I will.” Sanders got up, cinched the towel around his waist, and headed upstairs to get dressed. There was always traffic before the 8:20 ferry. He would have to hurry to make it.

End of chapter. We want to read on. After what this guy’s been through just to get ready for work, we hope he’s day’s going to get better.

It’s not, of course. This is Michael Crichton. Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Mr. Tom Sanders.

This strategy will work whether you open in a home or office; in a car or on a boat; in a coffee house or Waffle House.

Just decide to be mean. Mess up your character’s day.

Do you have happy people at the beginning of your manuscript? What can you do on page one to make sure they don’t stay happy?

12+

First-Page Critique – The Pink Motorcycle

by Jodie Renner

Here’s our first-page submission for today, with my comments at the end.

The title is The Pink Motorcycle.

Why did they hurt me? What? Pavement. Rough and warm, I know this, the heat feels good against my aching body.
 
“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes she was surprised to see her brother standing over her. “Billy, I’m-I’m so sorry. I must have…” She set the screw driver down sucking in a deep breath. Her hands shaking. Sweat dampened her shirt, she shivered, chilled and frightened she swallowed the rising bile. The nightmare lingered, leaving her off balanced. She breathed through it the way the psychiatrists had told her. 

“They took him away.”

Staring at the ceiling she blinked dry eyes, gritty with the need for tears. She did not cry. She couldn’t allow it. Taking a deep shivery breath she returned her attention to the motorcycle.

“Rae, did you hear me. I said they took his body away.”

“I heard you.” She rummaged through her tool box. Sucking her lips between her teeth. She kept her head down forcing the grief away.

“Come on Rae, I’ll take you home.” He knelt beside her crowding her with his need to comfort her.

HERE’S THIS SHORT EXCERPT AGAIN, WITH JODIE’S COMMENTS & EDITS INTERSPERSED, PLUS GENERAL IMPRESSIONS AT THE END: [,* = added a comma]

Why did they hurt me? What? [I don’t really get the “What?” Maybe “What did I do?” or “What happened?” or …?] Pavement. Rough and warm, [I’d make it a period here: “…warm.” or “Pavement under me, rough and warm.”] I know this, [or maybe “At least…”] the heat feels good against my aching body.

“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey,* watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes,* she was [the switch from first person to third seems a bit jarring to me… Maybe stick with first person? (e.g., …from my eyes, I was…) Or put the first-person, present tense thoughts above in italics to indicate direct thoughts.] surprised to see her brother standing over her.

“Billy, I’m-I’m so sorry. I must have…”

She set the screwdriver [one word] down,* sucking in a deep breath. Her hands shaking. [“Her hands shook” or “Her hands were shaking.” Or: Sucking in a deep breath, she set the screwdriver down, hands shaking.”] Sweat dampened her shirt, [I’d put a period and cap here.] she shivered, [and period and cap here] chilled and frightened,* she swallowed the rising bile. The nightmare lingered, leaving her off balanced [feeling off-balance]. She breathed through it the way the psychiatrists had told her.

“They took him away.” [Who’s talking here?]

Staring at the ceiling [ceiling? I thought she was lying on pavement…? If she’s in bed or on the couch or whatever, would it feel rough and warm under her? And why would she be holding a screwdriver in her house?] she blinked dry eyes, gritty with the need for tears. She did not cry. She couldn’t allow it. [Maybe say why not?] Taking a deep shivery breath,* she returned her attention to the motorcycle.

“Rae, did you hear me? I said they took his body away.”

“I heard you.” She rummaged through her tool box [Okay, so she’s in her (or a) garage? I’d make that clear as soon as she wakes up, where she is. And if she’s in her/a garage, would the floor feel warm under her?]. Sucking her lips between her teeth. [Attach this fragment to the one before (or after) it with a comma.] She kept her head down,* forcing the grief away.

“Come on,* Rae, I’ll take you home.” He knelt beside her,* crowding her with his need to comfort her.

COMMENTS: This short opening definitely incites my curiosity! If you can clear up some of the confusions, I think it will make a gripping opening. I’m intrigued by the references to hurting her and the psychiatrist and taking the body away and her grief about that. I’m already empathizing with Rae Lynne and starting to worry about her – an excellent sign!

I definitely want to read more, to find out about Rae Lynne and Billy, and what’s going on with them.

Maybe keep brainstorming to see if you can come up with a more compelling title?

Thanks for submitting this first page for a critique. I look forward to seeing this book in print! Good luck with your revisions!

P.S. One alternate possibility for the beginning, just to give you some ideas:

Why did they hurt me? What did I do? Where am I?

She was lying on pavement. Rough and warm, the heat felt good against her aching body.
 
“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she was surprised to see her brother standing over her.

Related links:

Those Critical First Five Pages

Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs

Open Your Novel in Your Protagonist’s Head

12 Do’s and Don’ts for an Amazing First Page

More first-page critiques by Jodie

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