Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 23, 2018

First Page Critique

This month I chose an ‘en media res’ beginning. They can be fast-moving and titillating – but they're not easy! You need to clearly lay out the stakes, and since you don’t have time to flesh out a character, (and make us care about them) at least give us a rough idea of who the characters are, and lay the emotion!

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

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I crawled forward from the cargo hold after the plane stopped throwing us around, careful. I made sure to find handholds at each point in case the plane jolted again. Only when I reached the cockpit did I pull myself upright, grabbing the door frame for support.

Remember, the reader comes cold to the page. We need a bit more setting for us to settle into the story. Questions I have after reading this far: Is this WWII? Current day? Are they still flying, or have they crashed? It doesn’t sound like a commercial flight because ‘cargo hold’, so what is it? Fedex jet? Military plane? See how we don’t know?

Lieutenant Robert Jones, our pilot, smiled when he saw my reflection. Reflection in what? A mirror? The windshield? If they’ve been thrown around – I’m guessing due to a storm – would he be smiling? “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman. Sit there.” He motioned to make sure I heard him over the engine’s grating noise. A motion wouldn’t make him be heard – a motion would be to make his meaning clear in case he wasn’t heard. The engine must have swallowed a huge amount of sand as we went through the storm which would explained why it now sounded so Thanks to the sandstorm, it sounded much worse than it had when we left Malta.

Why are they going? On a mission? Is it critical they get there? That's important, because it goes to the stakes. Are they in danger of crashing? The readers don’t know how to gauge how dangerous this is unless they know what’s at stake.

I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel identical to his. like the one he gripped.

I find myself wondering why he doesn’t have a co-pilot, or a navigator. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think the government/a company would trust a big plane to one pilot, would they? Is anyone else on the plane? These are the only two people mentioned, so the reader will assume it's  just them if you don't tell us differently. Easy fix if there are - up in the top, 'I crawled forward from the airmen packed cargo hold'.

“Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you.”

A belt held him to his seat. Ah, 'seat-belt'. I found the ends of mine and fitted the prong into an eyelet.

We all know about the two parts of a seat belt, and how to use them. Unless this person doesn’t know what a seat belt is. Is that what you’re trying to tell us? Since we don’t know the time period, we can’t guess.

“Take the yoke.”


“That half-wheel in front of you.”

I threw up my left hand between us as if it could block his words. “But. But I can’t fly an airplane.” I shouted as loud as I could although he wasn’t much more than a foot away. I wanted to be sure he heard my objection. We know why.

The sound must be very loud – wouldn’t he think that his ears are hurting? Is it hard to think? Is he afraid? What’s missing here is the emotion (wait, is the POV character a woman or a man? You haven’t told us). You want the reader to feel like they’re in the cockpit, and experiencing this, firsthand. To do that, you have to use the senses (sound, sight, smell) and emotions. Is it day? Night?

“Can you drive a car?"

“Well…” I didn’t want to admit it, but I could hardly lie.  “Well…

For some reason, he took that as a yes, though few women had driven before the war. “The yoke moves in more directions than a steering wheel, but just keep it steady. you’ll just be keeping it steady. You just have to remember not to Be sure not to move it forward or back while you keep it steady side to side. I’ll be here to make slight adjustments.”

Ah, here we find it is a woman, and, I’m assuming, WWII? Why is he showing her how to fly the plane? Is he injured and incapable of doing it himself?  But he was smiling earlier, and seems nonplussed, so that doesn’t seem right, either.

I'm betting you had everything I've mentioned in that perfect scene in your head. We all do this...we're so busy getting the scene on paper, that we forget details. That's what critters (critique partners) will help you with.

This can be a tense, tension-filled scene that will launch the reader into the rest of the book, with a brush-up.  I’d fill in the blanks, and set the stakes early.  Take a line or two to set the stage – set the stakes, then give us the emotion of what it’s like to be in that cockpit! This has the bones to be a great first scene!

It's a delicate balance, telling the reader what they need to know, in a compelling way, without an info dump. Trust your critters (critique partners) to tell you when you have the right mix.

Hope you find this helpful!

What say you, WITS readers? Have you begun a story 'en media res'? Did you struggle with it? Why and how?

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Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women’s Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Laura began a video blog for writers, answering their burning questions. You can watch all the episodes HERE. If you have a question you’d like her to address in a future episode, leave her a comment!

Did you know Laura teaches craft classes? Check out her upcoming ones, both online and in person, HERE.

30 comments on “First Page Critique”

  1. Great advice, Laura. You know how Keeping Athena starts—in the middle of a full-blown military space battle. The scene is only two pages but it's one of my favorites. Jump-starting the action and keeping the stakes high while making the reader care about your character is key to pulling the reader into the story.

    1. I love it too - and I know how many times it was edited to get it JUST right! And you had the compounded problem of world-building on another planet as well!

  2. Your advice is a continuous reminder to make me ask questions of myself as I develop a scene. Is my head scenario what my reader sees? Thanks.

    1. It's a goal for us all, Sherry. Do your best and know you'll never catch them all....but that's what critters are for (along with talking you off the ledge when you want to jump).

  3. Great critique. Very helpful. Thanks. All your edits and comments made total sense, and this first scene powerful, clear. Changes, like the ones you made, seem obvious to me, but only after you put them out there, in plain sight. Working on that. Still looking for critters.

    1. I take the names off the submissions, so I don't know - was this yours, cricketrohman? Do you have a local writer's group? If not, there are several places online to find one, just Google it! Be forewarned though, it may take several until you find a good fit.

      I'd be lost without my critters! Thank you for submitting! Write on.

  4. Like you point out so well here, Laura, I've read a few contest entries where the in media res left me with too many questions. The scene was certainly not boring, but I wanted to know WHO these people are and why I care what happens to them. Setting that up can make a big difference in how we feel about the action that unfolds. Great breakdown! I'm sure your advice will help.

    1. '...and why I care what happens to them' <--- this! Exactly, Julie. Watching a disaster with strangers is a different experience than if we know a friend who is there, right?

  5. So many articles I've read stated to make the reader question so that they read on to find the answers. I gather what your explaining here is to ground the reader as to who, what, where, when, and why? Then make the reader question what will happen when the situation is over?

    1. I'm so glad you asked this, Alice, because it's a very important point! There are good reader questions...'OMG, what happens next?' 'Oooooh, what's that about? I need to read on to find out!'

      But the basics, of where we are, who the protagonist is, the time period, and a visual are not 'good' reader questions. Especially in the critical beginning!

  6. What a great feature this is, Laura--it's so hard to be this objective about what's on the page and what isn't in your own writing--the author is often too close to it, knows too much to "see" clearly--but I thought these observations and questions were spot-on. Love this article! Really helpful.

      1. The good news is, Jenny, you are in the company of every writer, ever! Well, maybe not if your name is Hemingway . . . but then, he drank a lot. So there's that...

    1. Thank you Tiffany - as an author, I know I'm so wrapped up in getting the scene down, I can miss things that seem so obvious when someone points it out. Happens to us all!

  7. Laura, I'm always amazed when I read first pages that are smooth and welcoming, that ask the right questions and give good answers. It's so hard. I'm so glad you are doing this feature!

  8. No doubt all the questions are answered in later pages. Page one can only contain so many words and I was happy with the author's choices and willing to read on for more. I like suspense. The proposed cuts would leave space for some of the questions to be addressed on page one, but not all of them.

    1. Johntshea - I think the critical ones could - most only take a couple words - like ‘I crawled forward from the airmen packed cargo hold’ to show us there are more men on the plane. Or, ...'our pilot, smiled when he saw my reflection.' - in the storm-darkened windshield.

      Almost all the suggestions I made are small tweaks only.

  9. Love this! We all learn by example, and openings have so many jobs to do; your comments not only show how to clear up the example, they remind us of those jobs and our obligation to approach the word as readers. Thank you.

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