It’s time to present another First Page critique of a Brave Writer’s work. (Updated to reflect title)
“Are you listening to me?” his dad asked him. He nodded, but he hadn’t been. He had been watching in wonder at the group of chanting demonstrators marching down the main street and the half a dozen or so cops standing by. He’d never seen such a commotion.
His father glared at him, his fearsome black eyes striking terror into David. He knew his father could tell when he lied and cringed as the expected hand struck him hard. Whack! on the cheek, his head jolting, ear ringing as the side of his face throbbed. His eyes opened wide in pain as his throat tightened, stopping him from breathing.
“Don’t miss,” Tracker said. “If you do, you owe me fifty bucks. You got it?”
David nodded, still facing the ground. Finally his throat loosened and he was able to suck in a breath, keeping his mouth open to avoid whimpering.
“Focus! I’ll meet you back in the park soon,” Tracker said, and walked away.
David composed himself, wiped his face and looked up. His father lurked at the back of the crowd, looking for a suitable victim. But most of the people around him were locals, David could tell by the way they were dressed. Locals were too much trouble. Tracker wanted a tourist and wandered off the path onto the long stretch of lawn that separated the street from the beach. Dozens of people lingered there, watching the demonstration. Many wore fashionable beachwear, definitely tourists, and David looked over them, trying to guess which unlucky mug Tracker was going to choose.
An attractive couple was canoodling on a bench, oblivious to their surroundings. Easy, but too young. Not cashed up. Then there was the group of young surfers. Too fit; probably fast runners. There was a young father and two young kids seated around a table having lunch. Perfect, the father won’t leave his kids. But he doesn’t look like the kind of fella to have a thick wallet. Then there was the grey-haired couple enjoying a glass of wine and packed lunch at a portable picnic table. Probably retired. Grey nomads. They’ll be loaded for sure.
David looked at Tracker, who was looking back at him and had been waiting for eye contact. Tracker gave a furtive look to the grey nomads, having already picked them out. David nodded and headed towards them.
Tracker walked behind the couple, reached down to the grass and appeared to pick up a fifty-dollar bill.
“Excuse me,” he said. The couple turned and saw him holding up the note. “I think you dropped this,” Tracker said.
“Oh, goodness,” the woman said. The man pulled his wallet from his pocket.
David took a deep breath.
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” the man said and took the fifty. That was David’s cue, and he bolted. The old guy stuffed the fifty inside his wallet, and before he could slide it back into his pocket, it was gone – snatched out of his hand, as David shot through.
Brave Author, you’ve got an interesting story here, and a very strong facility for clear, declarative prose. Let’s talk a few housekeeping details:
Don’t make your reader work too hard, especially at the beginning of your story. It’s okay and necessary to identify your characters by name.
So it could open: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father asked him.
Or: “Are you listening to me, son?” David’s father clamped a rough hand on his shoulder, jerking him away from the window.
(I had the sense David was looking out a window, but then I wasn’t sure when the father simply walked away. If they were in public, surely his father wouldn’t have whacked him on the head. Perhaps they were in an alley? Or in a copse in the park? Do establish the scene in a quick line or two.)
Though many writers discourage opening a story with dialogue, it’s a rule I break all the time, particularly at the beginning of a chapter. But you might consider another, non-dialogue opening for the beginning of a novel or story.
The sudden mention of the name, Tracker, jarred me out of the moment, and I had to read the beginning again to make sure there weren’t three people in the scene. You can correct that in the second paragraph with something like:
“His father–who was given the nickname Tracker by the uncle who’d started him in the pickpocketing game–glared at him, his black eyes filling David with terror.”
Since you’re telling this story from David’s close 3rd POV, “Tracker” should probably read as “his father” throughout the piece because he wouldn’t think about his father’s first name. It’s the safer approach. Others may disagree. But if you stick with Tracker, establish it quickly.
While “he said” and “she said” can disappear into the background, their overuse can be grating. The same with starting a long series of sentences with “He…” As you read (and you should be reading lots!) pay careful attention to the way writers use bits of action or description of the characters who are speaking to indicate that they are connected to the dialogue. (As above, with David’s father putting a hand on his shoulder, which connects the character and dialogue and also clues us in to his unpleasantness.)
I don’t understand how David could hear what his father and the old couple were saying. Surely he wasn’t standing just a few feet away. You can have him imagining the conversation or reading their lips or simply have him guess at it since he’s seen it happen before.
What are David’s feelings about what he’s seeing? Does it bother him that he’s ripping off old people?
Paragraphs 6 and 7 are outstanding. They beautifully illustrate the process the con men go through to choose their marks. Well done! The cool objectivity of the paragraphs does make David seem cynical and very involved in the game–and that’s not the impression I get from both the opening of the piece, and Tracker’s worry that David might screw up. David seems more sensitive and sheltered, i.e. he’s never seen a demonstration before and doesn’t think murderous thoughts about his father.
Keep at it Brave Writer. You are doing great!
TKZers, what’s your advice for our Brave Writer?