First Page Critique: The Mask

Greeting, TKZers!

Welcome to another installment of First Page Critiques. Today our brave submitter offers us the prologue to a monster story. I love monster stories, so let’s get to it.

This piece came in untitled, but had a chapter title of The Mask. We’ll use that.

THE MASK (Prologue)

A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

 Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

The door didn’t budge.

 The man backed away, his breathing frantic. They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. Now he’d never see her again. I told you so, she would have said angrily, even from her hospital bed. Now she truly was alone. After his father left–

 The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat. It wrapped around his neck, joined with its twin, and squeezed. The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks. The tears travelled more slowly than he thought they would. From the corners of his vision, he saw that the liquid streaming down his cheeks wasn’t clear. It was black. The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.

The man’s feet thrashed as he was lifted off the floor. The sounds of his kicking boots bounced off of the steel walls. The hands around his throat twitched like the severed fingers littered on the floor. The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch. The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera.

Let me summarize this opening as I understand it:

A man is locked in a steel-lined room with the remains of a dismembered corpse. He’s terrified, and reflects that he should never have taken the job that brought him there, and reveals that his mother thinks he’s lazy. Someone/something that is extremely strong strangles him, slowly and painfully, and he erupts in a burning black liquid and finally dies. Men operating cameras trained on the room see the murderer step into view.

This opening is described as a prologue, and I think it functions as a good illustration of how to set a mood. It’s dark and violent and spare. The scene is a fairly common science-fiction trope: a low-level employee/character is killed by (or sacrificed to) a monster. Tropes can be very useful, but can border on the cliché and should be used carefully.

I’m struggling with the voice. It feels…disembodied. (No pun intended.) It’s not that the voice is exactly passive, but it floats between omniscient (the opening and closing paragraphs) and a relatively close third (the victim). It lacks cohesion. Pick a POV. I would argue for using a close third so we see everything through the eyes of the victim during the prologue. Then jump to the POV of someone in the control room. Hopefully that will be a character critical to the telling of the story.

“A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

            Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

This first bit feels like screenplay talk. It’s all scene-setting. A hand twitches. Parts are strewn. A pool of (blood?) is disturbed by a frantic pair of feet(!). All I could think was that the feet of the dismembered corpse were still alive! That was a very weird moment. Then a disembodied voice shrieks, and hands pound on the door. Can you see where I’m going here? Because we started out with random body parts, when we read about other body parts it’s hard to think of them as being attached to a human.

We finally discover that the hands and feet belong to a man who is trapped inside the room with a corpse.

Let’s reimagine the scene as seen through the eyes of the man.

Bill “Red Shirt”* MacNeil stared at the pale hand lying on the blood-soaked steel floor. The corpse’s crushed torso and one twisted leg lay within sight, but it was the hand that struck him dumb. When its fingers arched and twitched, the spell was broken and he ran for the door. Panicked, he stumbled on the slickened floors as he ran, and each time he had to catch himself, his hands were smeared with more of the warm offal.

“Let me out! Open up!” he screamed. He pounded the door with his fists. Breathing heavily, he stepped back, waiting for the familiar sound of bolts thumping into place and the electronic hiss of the door’s seal.


“Dear God, please let me out of here. You can’t do this!”

But hadn’t he known he’d never get out again when he saw the blood everywhere? They couldn’t let him out. They weren’t going to put the entire facility at risk.

If we have some growing sense of the man, even if he is a red shirt, then the trip into his head is less of a surprise.

A couple notes on the murder bit. As you can imagine, I don’t mind seeing a character’s death close up.

Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder.”

This is a terrific image. But I’m still kind of stuck on the disembodied hand thing. And this hand has a twin! Suddenly I’m thinking that this room is full of body parts that act independently (or in pairs). It’s not until the end of this piece that we learn that the hands are attached to a whole murderer.

Please give us a sense much earlier that there’s an actual person or creature behind him.

Important: It’s physically impossible for humans to see what’s coming out of their eyes and running down their cheeks. He might be blinded by the stuff, but he couldn’t really see it unless he looks in a mirror.

You could easily do our red shirt’s death in his POV. It’s awkward that we’re suddenly outside of his head again. He could be struggling to continue kicking against the walls, then realize he can’t do it anymore. He could black out with his last thought being of his sled, Rosebud. You might even add just a single out-of-POV line about what his blank eyes can’t see. For example, the monster stepping over his body to stare into the eye of the camera.

It’s a good start. With some attention and cohesion, I think it could be a wonderful opening.

*”Red Shirt” is the name given to a stock character in a story who dies at the beginning. It comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the low level characters wore red shirts and were usually the first to die.

What say you, TKZers? Do you agree about the close third POV? Would you do it differently? What further advice do you have for our brave submitter?



A little personal BSP: I have a new book out this week! SMALL TOWN TROUBLE is a cozy mystery. (I love any kind of mystery.) And it’s not just a cozy, it’s a cat detective book! Light and fun. Plus, there are four other books in the series, all written by different authors, with more to come. Read all about it.






First-page Critique: THINGS NOT FORGOTTEN

Today we’re critiquing the first page of a story called THINGS NOT FORGOTTEN. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then I invite you all to add your thoughts in the Comments.


normanbates_thumb2Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.

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

James 3:8

Keep running. Don’t stop until you know the madman is gone. But he was still alive.

Jason smelled his own sweat…pungent and sour. And vomit. He’d thrown up, splattering the front of his plaid flannel shirt, the taste still in his mouth. Urine soaked the front of his jeans. He couldn’t believe he’d pissed himself.

How could he run away and leave his best friend?

Eric’s screams still echoed inside his head.

His feet pounded the earth. He glimpsed over his shoulder to see if the maniac chased after him. His heart pulsed in his ears.

When he turned back, his forehead slammed into a branch. Jason staggered but stayed on his feet. Eyes watered from the pain.

Got to keep running. Don’t look back.      

His feet obeyed despite the dizziness swimming in his head. Moonlight flickered patches of light through the trees. Instead of providing a path, it only contributed to the vertigo. It had been two years since he and Eric came to the cabin to hunt. If only he somehow had grabbed his rifle when he escaped, but there was no going back.

As he ran, he used his hands as battering rams to clear a path. Knock down any low hanging branches. Twigs and brush slashed at him but he refused to stop. Blood trickled down his face and arms. It mixed with sweat and stung his eyes. He swallowed. His stomach lurched, threatening to spew whatever contents remained.

His mind replayed the events in short, choppy segments. Eric and he had been drinking beer, swapping sea stories in the navy when someone knocked on the front door. If only they had never opened it.

Now his best friend was dead, or soon would be. He didn’t know for certain. As the psychopath tortured Eric, Jason worked his hands and feet out of the rope binding him to a chair.

The nearest neighbor was five miles away, but he didn’t know in what direction. In his haste, he rushed into the thicket of trees and brush, running as fast as he could. Nothing else mattered.

But he must be far away from the cabin by now. Rare streaks of moonlight revealed glimpses of the ground. He tripped over a fallen tree. He tried to catch himself, arms flailing to catch anything his hands could grasp. He went down hard, his body spiraling across leaves like a helicopter until it crashed into a tree.

Pain shot through his ankle.

Get up!

His leaden legs wouldn’t obey. A twig snapped, then a rustle, soft and subtle. Then the crunch of leaves and footsteps like someone closing in on him.

It’s not possible. How could he have found me?

My comments:

I have to say my stomach tightened as I read this page, which is good news for the writer. The use of short sentences and strong verbs (pounded, slammed, staggered, flickered) are appropriate for an action scene. The punchy verbs and short sentences used in this example help underscore the sense of urgency and panic that is being experienced by the character. (An aside: this scene reminded me of a newspaper story I once read about a mass shooting that took place in Australia. The story included an unforgettable description of a mother and her two young girls fleeing into the brush, trying to escape from the shooter.)

I did get distracted by a couple of things in the writing. As I first read the third sentence, “But he was still alive,” I wasn’t sure if “he” referred to to the victim or killer. That unclear pronoun reference should be fixed to avoid causing potential confusion.

I found the references to the actual encounter with the killer to be generic, and therefore a bit of a let-down. Imagine that a maniacal killer has suddenly appeared at the door of your remote cabin in the woods, tied you up, and tortured your best friend. Wouldn’t you have a vivid impression of the experience as you attempt to flee? Each moment spent with such a  monster would be burned into into your brain cells. I think the writer could improve the scene by finding a stronger way to convey that experience to the reader.

The sentence, “It had been two years since Eric and he came to the cabin to hunt” was confusing. Had they been living in the woods for two years? The writer needs to rework that section, or simply edit out that line.

The phrase “dizziness swimming in his head” struck me as a bit off the mark. Same comment applies for the image of the body spiraling like a helicopter. That sentence  comes off as a bit of overreach. (Also, I think one tends to think of a person’s arms flailing in space in a circular pattern like a helicopter, not the entire body.)

This comment is a really tiny nit: I stumbled on “rare streaks of moonlight”, probably because I initially misread it as “rare steaks.” (Silly, I know, but you don’t want to lose any reader for a reason that can easily be avoided.)

Overall, I think this page is in promising first-draft condition. The writer just needs to sharpen the language here and there, and do some polishing with an edit.

Now I’d like to hear from the rest of you. How do you like this first page? Please add your comments and suggestions. And thank you to the brave writer who submitted this work!