First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

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Seven Questions You Must Answer Before Your Thriller Will Work

The playing field upon which writers wrestle their stories to the ground is defined by genre, confined by boundaries, littered with principles disguised as rules and complicated by waves of conventional wisdom colliding in workshop conference halls like peals of ominous literary thunder.

Established pros regard these questions as pillars of the novel, internalizing them to the extent they become second nature. They know that until those questions have compelling answers, the writing process isn’t over.

How one pursues these answers is up for grabs.

Answers to these questions may come prior to a first draft, or somewhere along the drafting process itself. Both are simply different paths toward the same destination, one that doesn’t care how you get there but will shred your story if you stamp the word “FINAL” onto the cover page before you do.

Here, then, are those seven questions in an introductory context. I’ll dive deeper into each in future Kill Zone posts.

1. What is conceptual about my story?

Every novel has a premise, for better or worse. But every premise does not necessarily have something conceptual within it. They are separate essences, and both are essential.

The goal is to infuse your premise with a conceptual notion, a proposition or setting that fuels the premise and its narrative with compelling energy.

The hallmark of a concept is this: even before you add a premise (i.e., a hero and a plot), something about the setup makes one say, “Wow, now that sounds like a story I’d like to read!”

2. Do I have an effective hook?

A good hook puts the concept into play early, posing a question so intriguing that the reader must stick around for an answer. It provides a glimpse of the darkness and urgency to come. It makes us feel, even before we’ve met a hero or comprehend the impending darkness in full.

3. Do you fully understand the catalytic news, unexpected event or course change that launches the hero down the path of his/her core story quest?

Despite how a story is set up, there is always an inevitable something that shows up after the setup that shifts the story into a higher, more focused pace. In three-act structure this is the transition between Act 1 (setup) and Act II (response/confrontation), also known as the First Plot Point, which launches the dramatic spine of the story.

Once that point in the story is reached there is no turning back, either for the hero or the reader.

In any genre it is easily argued that this is the most important moment in a story, appearing at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark within the narrative.

4. What are the stakes of your story?

Thrillers especially are almost entirely stakes-driven. If the hero succeeds then lives are saved and villains with dire agendas are thwarted. Good triumphs over evil and disaster. If the hero fails people die, countries crumble and evil wins.

The more dire the impending darkness, the higher the stakes.

5. What is your reader rooting for, rather than simply observing?

In any good novel the hero needs something to do – a goal – which can be expressed as an outcome (stop the villain, save the world) and a game plan (what must be done to get to that outcome).

A novel is always about the game plan, the hero’s journey.  The outcome of the quest is context for the journey.

Great thrillers invest the reader in the path toward that outcome by infusing each and every step along the way with stakes, threat, danger and obstacles the hero must overcome.

It is the degree of reader empathy and gripping intrigue at any given moment in the story that explains a bestseller versus an also-ran.

6. How does your story shift into a higher gear at the Midpoint?

In a novel, pace is synonymous with change, unexpected twists that the hero must confront. I’ve mentioned the First Plot Point already, but nearly as critical is the Midpoint context shift, which as the name implies occurs squarely in the middle of your narrative.

Here the astute author pulls back the curtain of the hero’s awareness, or if not, then at least the reader’s comprehension of what is really going on. It is a reveal, a true twist, because now we know that things weren’t quite what they seemed.

From here the hero proceeds with more proactive intention, rather than the previous phase of stumbling through the weeds of not knowing.

7. Do you have an ending?

Many organic (pantser) writers claim to not know how their novels will end as they begin to write. Fair enough, that’s a process, one that works for many who use their drafts to discover and vet possible ideas and outcomes.

But before a draft will work at a publishable level, the author must know how the story will resolve, which leads to yet another draft once the best possible ending becomes clear.

If the writer does not do that next draft, and if they stamp FINAL onto the draft that finally nails an ending… well, this explains a great many of the rejections that befall otherwise excellent authors.

Because the ending becomes context for a draft that works, beginning at page one.  Foreshadowing, setup and pace become impossible to optimize without knowing how it all ends.

Story planners develop an ending before they start, allowing them to pepper the narrative with foreshadowing and on-point exposition that avoids side trips and pace-strangling narrative lulls, as well as fewer exploratory drafts. Drafters use their story sense to discover their end game, then go back in and cut out the fat, adding tasty bits of foreshadowing and necessary setup as required.

Seven questions… leading to a novel that works.

When you read about an author who went though 22 drafts to finish (sometimes bragging about it), know that, for 21 of those drafts, having less-than-stellar answers to one or more of these questions is the reason.

Just as amazing are authors who, armed with a keen understanding of these questions and an even keener sense of what works and what doesn’t, nail their novel in two or three drafts.

Your process is your process.  When these questions drive the criteria you apply, how you get to “final” no longer matters.

Now your process, whatever it is, has a checklist to work from in this regard.

__________

This is Larry Brooks’ first Kill Zone post.  He’ll be posting here every other Monday.  See the About TKZ page for some backstory on his writing books and his novels.

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