A young white woman with light hair stares dramatically on the cover of Maximum Ride

I got a request for Maximum Ride, so here we are with The Angel Experiment, the first book in this bestselling series by James Patterson. By the title and the cover, we can assume the main character is an angelic young white woman. The chapters are short on this one, so we spend some extra time comparing options for chapter 1. You can read almost all of the material I cover with Amazon’s Look Inside feature.

Also, thank you to everyone who leaves suggestions for books to critique in the comments; I look at all of them. To be selected, a book needs to be bestselling and have enough foibles in the opening chapter to make an interesting critique.

Without further ado, The Angel Experiment.

Don’t Hit Your Head on That Fourth Wall

It starts with a prologue, so, of course, we have to read that.

Congratulations. The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve taken one giant step closer to surviving till your next birthday. Yes, you, standing there leafing through these pages. Do not put this book down.
I’m dead serious—your life could depend on it.

This is my story, the story of my family, but it could just as easily be your story too.

Awkwaaaaard. I’ve seen these sorts of intros in YA before, and I can imagine some young people find it enjoyable to imagine themselves in the world of the story. If you don’t, it’s usually easy to think of that “you” as a fictional reader. But this intro is quite insistent that it is me, Chris Winkle, who might not make it to my 35th birthday.

That’s getting close now, so if you notice Mythcreants imploding in the next few weeks, you know the big bad of Maximum Ride got me. Yes, you, sitting there looking at your device screen.

Well, I guess telling your readers they’re in danger is one way of getting them invested in your opening conflict.

Okay. I’m Max. I’m fourteen. I live with my family, who are five kids not related to me by blood, but still totally my family.

We’re—well, we’re kind of amazing. Not to sound too full of myself, but we’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Basically, we’re pretty cool, nice, smart—but not “average” in any way. The six of us—me, Fang, Iggy, Nudge, the Gasman, and Angel—were made on purpose, by the sickest, most horrible “scientists” you could possibly imagine. They created us as an experiment.

So Max is like, “Not to sound full of myself, but… yeah, I’m totally full of myself. Also, our traits are pretty generic, but don’t you dare think of us as unexceptional in any way.”

I suspect Patterson made the strategic choice to coat Team Good in candy, offering wish-fulfillment to his young audience. However, I would have revealed their special talents without a bragging narrator. The last thing you want at this stage is for your main character to make a bad impression. Avoiding this kind of arrogance would have been a lot easier with a real scene where things are happening. Then Patterson could have shown the characters using their superpowers instead of talking about how awesome they are.

Choose Names That Characters Would Actually Use

Also in the above excerpt, we discover Max calls one of her family members the Gasman. I mean, just imagine:

  • “Hey, the Gasman, did we get a package in the mail today?”
  • “Iggy, help me with the dishes. The Gasman, please take out the trash.”
  • “I like olives on my pizza, but the Gasman won’t eat any vegetables on his.”

Sure, that’s how people refer to their siblings.

We grew up in a science lab/prison called the School, in cages, like lab rats. It’s pretty amazing we can think or speak at all. But we can—and so much more.

There was one other School experiment that made it past infancy. Part human, part wolf—all predator: They’re called Erasers. They’re tough, smart, and hard to control. They look human, but when they want to, they are capable of morphing into wolf men, complete with fur, fangs, and claws. The School uses them as guards, police—and executioners.

At this point, it’s clear that this prologue is nothing more than an exposition dump. Prologues are usually designed to hook readers, and exposition is known for just the opposite. To be fair, not all exposition is created equal. Exposition can be about anything, and I’m not opposed to using some exposition in the opening to better establish the conflict and the main character. If it strengthens your hook, use it.

But this reads like a full explainer on the book’s premise. It’s hard to imagine these notes on the Erasers or the School wouldn’t be better mixed into a scene where we’re watching the characters do something exciting. The prologue isn’t short and quippy enough to act like a teaser on the back of the book, and teen readers don’t need the premise explained at them. I don’t know what this exposition accomplishes that couldn’t be done better another way. Maybe readers found the first chapter confusing, and instead of fixing it, Patterson just dumped in a bunch of exposition in front to explain. Who knows?

Also, the most unbelievable part of this whole premise is that there are dudes who can turn into wolf men at will, and everyone is calling them Erasers instead of werewolves. Is this an alternate universe in which werewolf mythology doesn’t exist? I understand the desire to give your world its own theming apart from generic urban fantasy, but then maybe don’t plop werewolves in there? Plus, it looks like the people with wings are just called Angels.

Here’s the thing: if you call your creatures something like “werewolves” and readers find out your werewolves are unusual, they’ll be pleased with your innovative take on werewolves. If you introduce something called an Eraser, they’ll be disappointed to learn that they’re just werewolves. Use the normal name.

The prologue ends by looping back on the second-person opening. At least it’s consistent.

This story could be about you—or your children. If not today, then soon. So please, please take this seriously. I’m risking everything that matters by telling you—but you need to know.

Keep reading—don’t let anyone stop you.

—Max. And my family: Fang, Iggy, Nudge, the Gasman, and Angel.

Welcome to our nightmare.

I’m excited that every detail in this book is something I need to know to live through the next several weeks. Since I am publicly announcing that I am reading it, I can only assume that werewolves – I mean Erasers – will show up shortly.

Changes in Narration Must Be Clear

The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance.

Run! Come on, run! You know you can do it.

I gulped deep lungfuls of air. My brain was on hyperdrive; I was racing for my life. My one goal was to escape. Nothing else mattered.

Now we have an actual scene with a strong hook, but boy is it disorienting. This is how it goes down:

  1. First, the narrator makes a statement in present tense. This is a future Max talking to readers, but that’s not clear. This is the opening of the chapter; the entire story might be in present tense for all we know.
  2. We hear Max’s thoughts suddenly. The only thing to mark them as thoughts is the italics, which probably won’t be clear to everyone. We hear these thoughts without knowing where Max is or what’s happening.
  3. The narration jumps to past tense. This is extremely jarring: “Take right now for instance … I gulped deep lungfuls of air”? Ouch.

On top of all this confusion, Max is thinking about what she’s thinking about instead of being in the moment. We also learn she’s running for her life, which makes the idea that she’s contemplating her enlightening new perspective laughable.

Patterson seems so intent on his snappy first-person commentary that he’s not letting this scene unfold naturally.

My arms being scratched to ribbons by a briar I’d run through? No biggie.

My bare feet hitting every sharp rock, rough root, pointed stick? Not a problem.

My lungs aching for air? I could deal.

As long as I could put as much distance as possible between me and the Erasers.

I do like the cleverness of this sequence; it adds enough value to make up for taking the narration out of the moment. However, it would have worked better with a little scene setting first, so readers have the lay of the land before hearing about disjointed details like briars, rocks, and roots. Also, it would have worked better in one paragraph, because just… why?

In this excerpt it also becomes clear what Patterson is trying to do with the jump in tense. He’s writing in past continuous – was racing. This indicates an ongoing action in the past.

Even when your narration is technically consistent, if your opening sentences don’t make your narrative choices clear enough, it can still be jarring for readers. This implementation isn’t even consistent. Using “right now” in the chapter’s opening paragraph is certainly misleading, and “I gulped deep lungfuls of air” is not past continuous. Instead, I would have gone for something like, “I was racing through the pine trees, gulping deep lungfuls of air.”

Swapping out that one sentence and removing the thinking in italics would have gone a long way in making this opening less jarring. Though really, past continuous just isn’t a good choice for a tense moment.

Yeah, Erasers. Mutants: half-men, half-wolves, usually armed, always bloodthirsty. Right now they were after me.

I believe this line is here just to prove how unnecessary the prologue is. Also, “right now they were”? Yeesh. Even if it’s technically correct, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

Run. You’re faster than they are. You can outrun anyone.

I’d never been this far from the School before. I was totally lost. Still, my arms pumped by my sides, my feet crashed through the underbrush, my eyes scanned ahead anxiously through the half-light. I could outrun them. I could find a clearing with enough space for me to—

Oh, no. Oh, no. The unearthly baying of bloodhounds on the scent wailed through the trees, and I felt sick. I could outrun men—all of us could, even Angel, and she’s only six. But none of us could outrun a
big dog.

It feels like Patterson is trying to use these thoughts to increase the immediacy of this scene. But the scene only lacks immediacy because he put everything in one generalized moment instead of showing what’s happening in sequence. For instance, he could narrate how she climbs a fence, then trips over a root, and then takes a wrong turn and has to push painfully through a briar. At some point she can hear shouts and look back. This will prompt her to think about how the Erasers are after her, giving Patterson an opening to work in a little exposition about them.

These notes about running fast also feel pretty contrived. If she’s thinking about how she can outrun her pursuers in a moment like this, it can only be because she’s not sure she can, and telling herself she can is therefore motivating. But if all the kids can do it, that doesn’t seem likely. Then Patterson says the kids can outrun all of these wolf men no problem, but a big dog is too fast. That felt off to me, so I looked up some numbers. While it depends on the breed of dog and the fitness of the human, it looks like humans and dogs have somewhat comparable top speeds. The narrator only mentions a generic big dog, and the men involved are enhanced. So unless these bloodhounds are actually greyhounds, a dog shouldn’t be much harder to outrun.

At least by the end of this except, the narration is a little more grounded in time and place. It’s dawn or dusk, and she’s crashing through the brush looking for a clearing.

Stay True to Your Character

Dogs, dogs, go away, let me live another day.

They were getting closer. Dim light filtered in through the woods in front of me—a clearing? Please, please … a clearing could save me.

I burst through the trees, chest heaving, a thin sheen of cold sweat on my skin.


No—oh, no!

I skidded to a halt, my arms waving, my feet backpedaling in the rocky dirt.

It wasn’t a clearing. In front of me was a cliff, a sheer face of rock that dropped to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below.

In back of me were woods filled with drooling bloodhounds and psycho Erasers with guns.

Both options stank.

We can finally sink our teeth into a tense, real-time moment. Once again, this has a lot of one-line paragraphs. This is a habit I’ve seen in YA novels when the writer wants to emphasize everything, particularly when the narration is tense. To me, it comes off as melodramatic and heavy-handed, like in a TV show where the scene ends with the notes dum dum dum!

The excerpt starts as Max recites a child’s rhyme in her head. I have to admit I kind of like it, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. It feels out of place, even comical, in a life-or-death sequence like this one. I can believe she might think this during her frightened run if it’s something she and her friends recite together a lot, but that would suggest their lives are threatened by these dogs all the time. If that’s true, it would certainly be interesting.

Then, we have a sequence where Max bursts through the trees hoping to find a clearing, and then she skids to a halt because there’s actually a cliff in front of her. Notice that Max reacts a couple lines before readers know what she’s reacting to. While this sets the stage for something dramatic to appear, it also takes readers out of Max’s head. We can’t react to the cliff with her.

Let me show you how this except looks with a little rearrangement of the sentences and a few added words as necessary.


Chest heaving, a thin sheen of cold sweat on my skin, I burst through the trees. Yes!

But instead of a clearing, there was only air. A sheer face of rock dropped to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below. No—oh, no!

I skidded to a halt, my arms waving, my feet backpedaling in the rocky dirt.

So in front of me was a cliff, and in back of me were drooling bloodhounds and psycho Erasers. Both options stank.

Now Max’s “yes” and “no” are both placed immediately after the description of what makes her think that. The text about Max’s options is also placed together. This version still has a lot of paragraph breaks, but about half as many as before.

With her reaction placed after the description of the cliff, we spend that moment worried about her falling instead of wondering why Max is upset. It’s scarier.

I looked over the deadly drop.

There was no choice, really. If you were me, you’d have done the same thing.

I closed my eyes, held out my arms … and let myself fall over the edge of the cliff.

The Erasers screamed angrily, the dogs barked hysterically, and then all I could hear was the sound of air rushing past me.

It was so dang peaceful, for a second. I smiled.

Then, taking a deep breath, I unfurled my wings as hard and fast as I could.

So Max has wings. Why did she frantically back away from the cliff then? If she wanted a clearing so she could take off, this is even better. Not only does she have plenty of room, but she can take off much faster, and her pursuers can’t tackle her while she’s trying to get up in the air.

Clearly, Patterson wanted this wing unfurling to be a dramatic reveal. Generally, it’s dangerous to hide any information from readers that the protagonist knows. It creates a degree of separation between the audience and the protagonist that can really damage engagement. However, I would have actually approved of this if Patterson had just done it right. We’re only about a page into the first chapter, and because Max has been running for her life, she naturally wouldn’t be stopping to think about her wings. That makes them a lot easier to hide from the readers without the narration coming across as disingenuous.

But then Patterson had to milk this cliff scene for all it was worth, and now we’ve got a reveal that makes what we’ve just read into contrived nonsense. Instead, I would have had Max burst through the trees and fall right over the cliff.


Chest heaving, a thin sheen of cold sweat on my skin, I burst through the trees. Yes!

But instead of a clearing, the ground fell away, dropping to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below. I yelped and grabbed a branch, but it broke off in my hand. I went tumbling over the edge, speeding past the sheer rock face toward my death.

As I whirled in the torrent of air, I took deep breaths, forcing myself to calm down. I twisted to halt my spin, and then I was ready.

I unfurled my wings.

This way Max is unprepared for the fall, so at first she would react similarly to someone without wings. The scene is still dramatic, and she stays in character. Notice I left the last statement simple and unadorned. That gives it more punch than the original “Then, taking a deep breath, I unfurled my wings as hard and fast as I could.”

Thirteen feet across, pale tan with white streaks and some freckly looking brown spots, they caught the air, and I was suddenly yanked upward, hard, as if a parachute had just opened. Yow!

Note to self: No sudden unfurling.

Wincing, I pushed downward with all my strength, then pulled my wings up, then pushed downward again.

Oh, my god, I was flying—just like I’d always dreamed.

That first sentence is pretty hard to understand. Patterson probably assumed that since the wings were just mentioned, readers would know that’s what he’s describing. But I was confused even when I was just reading the chapter through. This is one of those times when emphasis and placement of a word matters. I think it would have been fine if Patterson had said: “My wings were beautiful. Thirteen feet across, pale tan with white streaks and some freckly looking brown spots, they caught the air…”

By the “Oh, my god, I was flying,” we can assume Max has never flown before. That’s certainly interesting, as it suggests in captivity she was never allowed to fly. And if she’s never flown, she wouldn’t be sure that she can fly. Max doesn’t act like this though. If she wasn’t sure she could fly, she wouldn’t have smiled when she was falling through the air. Also, you’d think she’d want to unfurl her wings before jumping to give herself the best chance of success.

Let’s suppose Max really isn’t sure she can fly.


I raced through the dense trees, my wings snagging on the branches. There was no room to spread them here. They only slowed me down as the Erasers and their bloodhounds closed in.

I would never escape on foot. My only chance was to find someplace to spread my wings and maybe, just maybe, fly away before they caught me. The School never let me fly. What if my wings were too weak? What if I couldn’t figure out how to use them?

Dim light filtered in through the woods in front of me—a clearing? Please, please … a clearing could save me.

Chest heaving, a thin sheen of cold sweat on my skin, I burst through the trees. Yes!

But instead of a clearing, there was only air. A sheer face of rock dropped to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below. No—oh, no!

I skidded to a halt, my arms waving, my feet backpedaling in the rocky dirt. If I tried to fly here, I might just fall to my death.

I looked back toward the growling bloodhounds and frenzied Erasers. Soon the hounds’ teeth would sink into my ankles, and if I was lucky, I’d wake up back at the School, where they would never give me another chance to escape. I would be drugged and caged for the rest of my life.

It was either that or bet my life that I could fly on my first try.

I couldn’t give the Erasers the satisfaction of claiming me. I would take the leap of faith. I closed my eyes, spread out my wings … and let myself fall over the edge of the cliff.

In this scenario, her choice to jump off the cliff is more powerful than the wing reveal could have been. This only works because we understand Max’s reasoning – we have to know she has wings and they might not work. I also highlighted the stakes involved in her decision, and I toned down the snark. Saying “both options stank” makes the moment more remote and less tense. On the other hand, if you want to reduce tension during an otherwise unpleasant scene, that’s not a bad way to do it.

Don’t Undo All of Your Hard Work

Onto the end of chapter 1. It emphasizes the joy of flying and how it enables Max’s escape.

The cliff floor, draped in shadow, receded beneath me. I laughed and surged upward, feeling the pull of my muscles, the air whistling through my secondary feathers, the breeze drying the sweat on my face.

I soared up past the cliff edge, past the startled hounds and the furious Erasers.

One of them, hairy-faced, fangs dripping, raised his gun. A red dot of light appeared on my torn nightgown. Not today, you jerk, I thought, veering sharply west so the sun would be in his hate-crazed

I’m not going to die today.

It’s not a typical tense ending hook, but the chapter has established the main conflict well enough. Plus, the nice description of flying offers readers some wish-fulfillment in following chapters. I mean, who doesn’t want to fly?

I’m not digging the furious Erasers with their hate-crazed eyes, though. That doesn’t make them scary, just a dull caricature. And if Max is a valuable experiment, the outright hate doesn’t feel appropriate. Instead, they’d probably think of her as a possession.

This is the end of the chapter. But before we finish our examination of Maximum Ride, we need to read the beginning of chapter 2.

I jolted upright in bed, gasping, my hand over my heart.

I couldn’t help checking my nightgown. No red laser dot. No bullet holes. I fell back on my bed, limp with relief.

Geez, I hated that dream. It was always the same: running away from the School, being chased by Erasers and dogs, me falling off a cliff, then suddenly whoosh, wings, flying, escaping. I always woke up
feeling a second away from death.

So chapter 1 was a dream. And despite how it ended, Patterson wants us to believe it’s a bad dream.

Now the exposition prologue is extra weird. This dream sequence would normally be labeled as a prologue, but there are two layers of random stuff to get through before the story starts. So it’s chapter 1.

Dreams rarely make good opening hooks. That’s because in most cases, they don’t impact the rest of the story. This makes them really unsatisfying, and for many readers, presenting a dream as reality feels like a cheap trick. In this case, it’s also pretty confusing. We don’t know if Max really has wings or if she just dreams about them a lot. Spoiler: She has wings, and so do all the other kids, but we don’t know that until chapter 7 – because why not do a disingenuous wing reveal again?

Since we now know the escape sequence was just a dream, does that change any of my critiques about the immediacy of the moment, the coherency around what was happening, the appearance of the wings, or the contrived narration? After all, it was just a dream, and dreams are naturally jumbled and nonsensical.

Nope. It changes nothing about any criticism I made.

Remember: stories are an experience. Readers won’t know chapter 1 is a dream when they read it, so they’ll experience it as though it isn’t one. Once they have that experience, nothing the book does later will change that. Reveals might make them look more or less favorably on what they read after the fact, but their enjoyment – or frustration – was what it was. This is why, despite what every fan-rager in the comments would like to us to believe, I don’t need to read the entire book to critique the beginning.

For the sake of creating one more wing-reveal scenario, let’s pretend that Max is supposed to have spontaneous dream wings. They don’t make logical sense because it’s a dream, but we don’t want readers to have a bad experience. This can be pulled off with something I call sanctioning uncertainty.


So in front of me was a cliff, and in back of me were drooling bloodhounds and psycho Erasers. Both options stank.

I looked over the deadly drop. And then for some inexplicable reason, I closed my eyes, held out my arms … and let myself fall over the edge of the cliff.

The Erasers screamed angrily, the dogs barked hysterically, and then all I could hear was the sound of air rushing past me. Even though I was speeding toward my death, I felt peaceful. I even smiled.

Then I took a deep breath and unfurled a pair of wings – my wings – that I’d never known were there.

In the above example, Max states her behavior is “inexplicable,” recognizes the contradiction between falling to her death and smiling, and then states she didn’t know she had wings. This recognizes the mystery that’s unfolding instead of leaving readers to wonder.

Of all of these different examples, which would I choose to put in the story? Judging from what I know so far, I would replace the dream with a flashback of Max’s actual escape from the School years ago, using the first-try flying scenario.

However, even though problems can’t be erased by later chapters, my suggestions for fixing those problems do change depending on the rest of the story. This is why when Mythcreants does content editing, we don’t accept just the first three chapters of a draft. We’ll take an unfinished draft, the first three chapters with an outline of the rest, or the full story. We can’t do our jobs without seeing the full picture.

In a critique like this, the edits I present aren’t for the writer to implement, they’re for your benefit. Yes, you, sitting there looking at your device screen.

Do you want us to look at your story? Our content editors are at your service.

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