From Fiction University: We're aware of the recent commenting issues and are working to resolve them. We apologize for any inconvenience and annoyance this has caused. Hopefully we'll have it fixed soon, and we appreciate your patience while we get this straightened out. ETA: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, September 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This (Graphic) Opening Paragraph Hook You?

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 it on the site. 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: Three 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 17.

This week’s questions: Is the character interesting? Is the monologue well done? Does this opening grip you and pull you into the story?

Market/Genre: Psychological Thriller 

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Note: This week’s RLD is a little different. The submitted wants to know how the opening paragraph hooks. Just one single paragraph. The short story follows Mr. Goldburn. He likes to torture and kill people for fun. He also likes to drink blood and eat hearts.

"I've tasted the blood of many people, I bet your blood taste delicious. I think I'll drink it while it spills out your throat, how's that sound? Nice! Give me a second to grab my favorite knife." Mr. Goldburn went to one of the many shiny silver tables and grabbed a cut-throat razor. "Calm down there buddy," he smiled from ear to ear. "It will only hurt a bit," and with that he cut the woman's throat open.

My Thoughts in Purple:

"I've tasted the blood of many people, I bet your blood taste delicious. I think I'll drink it while it spills out your throat, how's that sound? Nice! Give me a second to grab my favorite knife." Mr. Goldburn went to one of the many shiny silver tables and grabbed a cut-throat razor. "Calm down there buddy," [he smiled from ear to ear.] I like the contrast between smiling from ear to ear and a throat cutting, which is often “ear to ear” "It will only hurt a bit," and with that he cut the woman's throat open.

The questions:

1. Is the character interesting?

Not yet, because all he’s doing is being monstrous, with a little bit of “nice” thrown in. That’s not enough set to set him apart and make him someone I’d like to read about.

The challenge here will be making him compelling even though he’s not likable. Readers will need to want to see what he does even though he’s doing despicable things. I’d suggest finding something interesting about him that transcends above the terrible things he does. Is he funny? Does he have an intriguing manner about him? Is his killing for a fascinating reason? Why should readers want to live in his world for a while?

You said this was psychological thriller, but this opening suggests horror to me. You might look for ways to add more psychological thrill to this and less horror at the start to hook readers and make them intrigued by this person before things get truly dark.

(Here’s more on compelling, but not likable characters)

2. Is the monologue well done?

Not yet, because it doesn’t feel like a monologue to me. There’s no greater meaning to what he says, there’s no enlightenment for the reader to better understand him. He’s explaining himself to a faceless victim, so there’s no sense of who either of these characters are. He’s a sadistic killer and she’s a nobody.

You might look for things he can say that share some insight into why he’s doing these things and what he hopes to gain from them. Right now, I feel like this is more “as you know, Bob” dialog to tell readers what kind of person he is, not him actually talking to his victim. I’d imagine there’s a certain bond between hunter and prey here (otherwise why kill people and eat hearts?).

Many serial killers have a ritual to their killings, so a sense of what his is could help make him more intriguing. Dexter is a great example of this type of character. Sure, he kills people, but he only kills bad people to keep himself from killing innocents. As terrible as he is, there’s a nobility to his actions. Serge Storm is another example. He’s funny and actually does a lot of nice things, even though he kills people for sometimes wacky reasons.You can't help but like him even though he's a bit of a monster.

(Here’s more on infodumps through dialog)

3. Does this opening grip you and pull you into the story?

Not yet, because I don’t see anything that suggests this won't just be a guy torturing and killing people. I’m a fan of the serial killer genre, and I enjoy fascinating killers, but a story needs to offer me more than violence and gore. Based on this one paragraph, it’s not doing that yet. I don’t see anything about this person to compel me to read on about him and what he does (readers chime in here). It may appear after this opening, but it’s not visible yet.

From a purely story structure standpoint, there’s also no conflict for the story to work through, and no goal for the protagonist that I see. It’s a killer who says “I’m going to kill you” and then does. There’s a small “who is this guy and why is he doing this?” story question, but it’s not enough to make me care to read on because there’s no sense of a bigger, more interesting character with a problem to solve.

If this story just follows Goldburn as he tortures and kills people, it’s going to be a challenge to make him someone readers will want to spend time with. Readers will have to like or or least be fascinated by him to want to read on.

(Here’s more on hooks)

Overall, I think this single paragraph jumps in a little too fast and doesn’t give readers a chance to be hooked by this difficult-to-connect-to type character before things get dark. I’d suggest showing more of who he is and why he’s doing this to pique reader interest, then showing the nastier aspects of his personality. It would also help to add a bigger story goal and problem to draw readers in. What is this story about? What puzzle is there to solve?

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.


  1. Agreed, as an opening paragraph it doesn't do the whole job of showing how the killer is unusual as well as scary. That might come more from the contrast between this paragraph and whatever the second one is-- and it might be worth moving some of this content down into that second paragraph (or the third one) so the reader can see that contrast is.

    One other thought: he says "buddy" and then reveals that he's killing a woman. Not that the word can't be used for women, but it's more often for men, and since we're just trying to get our bearings any confusion is a problem.

    For itself, it really is a strong, intimidating paragraph, and what it says about your style makes me want to read more. It's the equivalent of an explosive action scene in a movie. But as Janice has pointed out in the past, opening with just energy doesn't work as well as Hollywood thinks.

  2. In the realm of question #1, for me the "buddy" reference was at first confusing but then actually became a point of interest. Why does a man address the woman he's about to murder as "buddy"? It could be just a speech mannerism, but it could be an insight. Does this character believe he's actually killing a man? Could he be so misogynistic that he can't even see a female victim? Or is he a real-world Mr. Magoo who can't tell a coat rack from a real person, a dog from a child, or a man from a woman? More story would be needed, but I would give it another paragraph or two just to answer that question.

  3. It doesn't sound like monologue to is the protagonist speaking to someone. I think it needs more showing...perhaps intersperce the talking with some actions. Show us how he picks up,the knife while talking to his victim. Why does he call her buddy when she is a woman? Why is it his favourite blade? Does he run his finger along the blade? Lick It in anticipation? Grinning from ear to ear is effective.