Saturday, January 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Make Them Turn the Page: Adding Tension to Hook the Reader

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s question:

Is the first page interesting enough for the reader to turn to the next page?

Market/Genre: YA


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I make coffee, pour it into two paper cups and walk out onto the streets of Manhattan. I am excited to meet my friends, David and Alexis. They are my gang. We belong to the majority, the true Americans. We stroll along Park Avenue, the wind blowing in our faces. We take turns sipping the coffee and I sense danger in the air. We slow down when we see the blue sign with the white words of Citibank, protected by the red umbrella.

We stop at the entrance of the bank. David is stationed outside the door scanning the road to alert me if a police car is coming. Alexis protects me from inside, watching for anyone reaching for their cell phones. I wear blue Jeans and a black hoodie.

I take a deep breath and walk swiftly toward the middle aged bank teller sitting on the far left side. I can smell her perfume, wondering if it was made in France or here. It smells really nice with vanilla scent and I want to ask her for the perfume’s name … but not right now.

“How can I help you?” she asks with a faint smile, looking tired and bored.

Without saying a word, but with butterflies in my stomach, I hand her a note and an empty Macy’s red shopping bag.

“I have a gun,” the typed note says. “Please put all your cash in the bag. You don’t want to die for the bank that doesn’t care about you."

My Thoughts in Purple:

I make coffee, pour it into two paper cups and walk out onto the streets of Manhattan. [I am excited to meet my friends] Considering what she's about to do, is excited the right emotion? Why does she feel this way?, David and Alexis. [They are my gang. We belong to the majority, the true Americans.] Intriguing line. Ominous. We stroll along Park Avenue, the wind blowing in our faces. We take turns sipping the coffee and [I sense danger in the air.] Where? About what? We slow down when we see the blue sign with the white words of Citibank, protected by the red umbrella. There are some interesting things in this--sensing danger, being "true" Americans--but there's no sense of a character yet. It read very list like.

We stop at the entrance of the bank. David is stationed outside the door scanning the road to alert me if a police car is coming. Alexis protects me from inside, watching for anyone reaching for their cell phones. I wear blue Jeans and a black hoodie. Do they interact at all? Knowing stares, shifting bodies? Anything that hints as to their emotional states?

I take a deep breath and walk swiftly toward the middle aged bank teller sitting on the far left side. I [can smell] her perfume, [wondering if] These phrases pull me outside the narrator's head and lower the tension it was made in France or here. [It smells really nice with vanilla scent and I want to ask her for the perfume’s name … but not right now.] This is the first time I've gotten a sense of who this person is

“How can I help you?” she asks with a faint smile, [looking tired and bored.] Could flesh out here and be more specific. What does tied and bored look like? Does the narrator have any doubts about what she's about to do?

Without saying a word, [but with butterflies in my stomach,] This feels detached. Perhaps show her nervousness first? I hand her a note and an empty Macy’s red shopping bag.

“I have a gun,” the typed note says. “Please put all your cash in the bag. You don’t want to die for the bank that doesn’t care about you."

The question:

Is the first page interesting enough for the reader to turn to the next page?


Yes and no. I like situation of three teens robbing a bank, and I'm curious why they're doing it. I don't sense that they're desperate or doing this because they have no choice, and the "true Americans" line makes me suspect this is for a more political reason. So does the "they don't care about you" line in the note. This feels more like people making a statement than needing the money. That's intriguing.

I don't feel grounded in the character or the story yet though, and that's keeping me from being drawn in. There's almost nothing personal from the narrator as to how she feels or why she's doing this. I don't need to have the reasons revealed right now if that supposed to be a secret, but knowing if she's scared (more than just having butterflies), if she feels she's doing the right thing, if she has any last-minute doubts, if she needs encouragement from her friends. Or even if they feel contempt toward the bank employees, distaste for the people writing in line, an urge to blow them all away. Something that will clue me in on where these teens stand emotionally in this scene.

(More on bringing emotion to the scene)

Terrified teens who need money would elicit a much different response from me as a reader than angry teens trying to make a cultural point and looking to hurt people. I'd wonder and worry about different things. I'd also get a better sense of where the story was going.

I'd suggest a little more internalization and interaction from the characters. I don't think it needs much, but perhaps flesh out the opening paragraph more so it shows the mental and emotional state of this trio, a few lines here and there that hint at why they're doing this or at least how the narrator feels about it. Let readers get to know them a bit before they're in a situation that requires them to care about the outcome. How should readers be feeling? How do you as the author want them to feel?

(More on conveying character emotions)

If the narrator's scared, then perhaps flesh it out a bit so by the time she's in the bank, the reader is scared along with her, worried about what's going to happen. If she's angry, then have the reader concerned about what she and her friends and going to do. This is a great opportunity for tension, yet it doesn't feel tense yet. With a little emotional tweaking, it would really suck the reader in and keep things suspenseful.

(More on finding the right amount of internalization)

The scene doesn't feel far off. The protagonist has a goal (rob the bank) with high stakes (could get caught or killed). There's no sense of conflict yet, and that's likely why the tension feels low. I'd suggest some type of conflict here to help ramp that up. Either something unexpected they encounter, personal doubts about what they're doing, a risk they didn't think they'd have to take to make them second guess this. Even just small details and hints that make the reader feel that anything might happen would be enough to keep them on the edge of their seats. Things don't actually have to happen.

(More on adding tension)

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks, Janice, for your many comments on the first page of my YA fiction. The first page goes quickly for the action of robbing the bank, but I understand from your comments that I should slow it down to introduce better the main character, 17 yrs old girl, with her emotions and thoughts. In the next pages of the novel, after leaving the bank, the three teens chat about why they are robbing banks, so the reader get it. The teens are not angry and don't wish to harm the bank tellers and they don't need the money. Like you suspect they do it for political reasons and give the money to people in need. It's impressive how you gave so many good comments and good constructive suggestions based on one page. Thanks and best wishes, Giora.

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  2. Your blog is really educational. Thanks, Janice :)

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  3. Your blog is really educational. Thanks, Janice :)

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  4. I liked this first page, but I agree with Janice that it needs to be fleshed out a little more in terms of establishing the characters. Thanks for directing me here to read a sample of your work, Giora, and thanks to Janice for making some points on an opening page for me to keep in mind :)

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  5. Your situation is interesting. Openings need to hook the reader, but don't speed so quickly that we lose out on who the character is. Writers hear start with action, but that doesn't mean have high speed action. Often it is best to start with small problem that your character can solve. You might look at the book Hooked.

    Also, I would bring in dialogue sooner. I don't feel grounded as a reader, but with just a couple of changes this could work.

    In the next pages, make sure when they are talking that you aren't info-dumping to the reader.

    Take a look at Janice's links. I think they will really help.

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  6. Yes, Rubianna, you understood my dilemma. Many advise to have action in the first page, so I rushed to it quickly. But Janice's comments were terrific and I already made drastic changes, starting with the MC thoughts in the first sentence and introducing her name in the second paragraph. I also incorporated almost all of the constructive suggestions of Janice in the first page. I will look at her links. I'm grateful to her suggestions and also to yours.

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