Tuesday, May 14, 2013

First-Page Critique - Historical Thriller

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor and craft-of-fiction writer

Today I'm continuing my Wednesday feature in which I critique all or part of the first page of a novel, anonymously. You may also want to check out my first and second critiques, of the first pages of two different novels.

If you'd like me to critique the first page of your novel or short story, please send the first 400-500 words to me at j.renner.editing(at)hotmail(dot)com, and I'll critique the first 150-300 words here. If you have a prologue, don't send that - send the beginning of Chapter 1 instead.

Also, include the genre, setting (time and place), and a few sentences about the story and main character. Thanks.

The author who sent this to me called it a historical thriller, and it seems to be a travel adventure, too.

Here's the first page of the novel: (I've changed the name of the protagonist.)

Paris, December 1888 

Strolling down the leafy Boulevard des Italiens, a patch of glittery snow on the cobblestones reminded Francois Beauchemin of the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush. The muddy sidewalk became the wind-swept valleys of Fergana, and the frozen puddles beneath the horses' hooves shimmered like the pristine blue lakes of Turkestan.

To Beauchemin, France's most famous traveler, exploring the four corners of the globe was his life's obsession. When he wasn't out trekking on some windswept mountain trail high up in the Karakorum range, he was thinking of ingenious ways of getting there. Even sickness and ill health couldn't stop his fertile imagination from wandering to exotic, far-flung lands.

While he was laid up with a rheumatic fever that he'd picked up on his latest expedition to the Pamirs, Beauchemin would spend hours in bed leafing through his trusty Schrader Atlas, watching as the pages sprang to life.

Before his eyes, a map of Central Asia became a living, moving world. Snow-capped mountains burst from the pages flanked by murmuring forests of emerald and jade, bowing and swaying under a gust of Siberian wind, while dashing waterfalls and streams of glacial water erupted from the heights and snaked down to the ice-covered plateaus of pristine land where no man had ever stepped foot before. And just as his eyelids grew too heavy and sleep was about to overtake him, a gentle layer of snow fell across his bed quilt, carpeting the old volume with a fine layer of Himalayan snow, prompting Beauchemin to pull up the blanket before closing his eyes and falling into a deep sleep.
Jodie's critique:
Although these descriptions are well-written and kind of interesting, especially to people who love to travel, this first page reads more like a travelogue than the opening of a novel. And for a thriller, you really need to grab the readers from the first paragraph, with a gripping, dynamic scene in real time, with lots of tension, conflict, attitude and intrigue.
This first page is all telling, when we need showing. Show this character, Beauchemin, in an animated, tense scene with others, with conflict, dialogue, actions, and reactions. Make something happen on the first page, preferably within the first two paragraphs, that shakes up this guy's world. Don’t spend a whole page describing and reminiscing. That’s too slow-moving for today’s fiction, and way too slow-moving for a thriller!
Also, the style and tone here are too leisurely, too dreamlike for a thriller, or for any popular contemporary fast-paced fiction. I realize the author is trying to capture the feel of 1888, but this lyrical style risks lulling today's readers to sleep right from page one, or even putting down the book, which you definitely don't want to do! Think about the latest Sherlock Holmes movie – set way in the past, but fast-moving, with lots of conflict, intrigue and suspense.
Also, for the most part, this seems to be told in omniscient point of view, the author talking to the readers. To engage readers quickly and keep them turning the pages, you need to get into the point of view of your main character immediately, right from the first sentence. Get into his head and body and show his inner fears, hopes, and insecurities, as well as his physical sensations and his attitudes and reactions to people and the world around him. That will bring him to life on the page and start the readers bonding with him and rooting for him, right from the opening paragraphs, which is what you need to do.
Overall, although a pleasant leisurely read, this first page lacks purpose, drive, tension and conflict, which are absolutely essential to engage readers and make them want to keep turning the pages. It also needs some hints of worse trouble to come, to add suspense and intrigue.
What is the character’s main goal here? And how does it get thwarted quickly? Who is in danger, and how is he going to deal with it?
Especially for a thriller, be sure to shake up the hero’s world right away, in the first page, and introduce the villain or villains and even bigger problems by the end of chapter one at the latest. And keep piling the problems on and raising the stakes for the hero! Challenge him at every turn, and keep the readers rooting for him in his fight to conquer evil.
For more tips on writing a riveting thriller, see my e-book, Writing a Killer Thriller, which I am in the process of expanding in order to publish it in paperback soon. I'll add the new chapter on thriller openings by early next week.

Thanks for submitting this first page for a critique! I hope you find my comments and suggestions helpful. Who's up next?

Or, if you're tired of waiting for your first page to be critiqued here or you prefer to see the results in private, please contact me about critiquing your first page for $12. (PayPal takes $2, so that leaves me with $10.) Thanks! Alternatively, if you write a positive review on Amazon for one of my books below (please read the book first!), I'll put your name in a much smaller draw, so your chance of getting a free critique of your first page will be about 50%.

Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor
www.JodieRennerEditing.com; www.JodieRenner.com
Twitter: @JodieRennerEd

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her editing website.

Jodie has published two An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing and Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.
For more info on Jodie's books and workshops, please visit her author website



  1. All of your points are great ones. I felt the same way while reading this first page. I felt like I was trying to visualize this mountain area, rather than being intrigued by this character, whomever he might be.

  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Diane.