Saturday, February 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Have a Sufficient Hook?

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.

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Submissions currently in the queue: Eight 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 8.

This week’s question:

Does this opening have a sufficient hook?


Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Get that stone out of his hoof, will you?” I said. We were nearly there, and out of water. Only three more miles, but still a big highway tunnel to get over. Map says it’s the old PA turnpike extension, I-476. I don’t care. Carbon fiber fencing is nearly impenetrable, and even without the barbed wire, horses can’t climb. We threw rocks to try and set off any explosive charges. No blasts meant we just hadn’t found them yet. Frustrating.

Jonas responded to my request by collapsing, shaking his head, and snuffling. Performance art, as if the rest of us weren’t also lightheaded and hoarse from thirst. We still had food left when we got to that fence, remarkably, but no one could swallow it without water. You get people on a crazy trek like this who make it through everything else without a peep and then give up just when the goal is in sight. I have no patience for that. He can die right here.

I grabbed the horse’s hoof, lifted it with a grunt, dislodged the stone with a sharp piece of shale, and then gagged and shook for awhile. Plenty of shale around here. Coal in places, too. I started to drift, thinking about whether water might be found with either shale or coal. At least horses can get water from grass, but even they weren’t pissing enough for us to drink.

One step after another. Months. It took us four and a half months to walk 1200 miles, mostly tracking I-81. If you ever have to do something like this, just keep going.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Get that stone out of his hoof, will you?” I said. We were nearly there, and out of water. Only three more miles, but still a big highway tunnel to get over. Map says it’s the old PA turnpike extension, I-476. I don’t care. Carbon fiber fencing is nearly impenetrable, and even without the barbed wire, horses can’t climb. We threw rocks to try and set off any explosive charges. No blasts meant we just hadn’t found them yet. Frustrating. I like what’s going on here, but it took me two reads to make sense of it

Jonas responded to my request by collapsing, shaking his head, and snuffling. [Performance art] Nice, as if the rest of us weren’t also lightheaded and hoarse from thirst. We still had food left when we got to that fence, remarkably, but no one could swallow it without water. You get people on a crazy trek like this who make it through everything else without a peep and then give up just when the goal is in sight. I have no patience for that. He can die right here.

I grabbed the horse’s hoof, lifted it with a grunt, dislodged the stone with a sharp piece of shale, and then [gagged and shook for awhile.] why? From lack of water? This feels weaker than the internal voice suggests Plenty of shale around here. Coal in places, too. I started to drift, thinking about whether water might be found with either shale or coal. At least horses can get water from grass, but even they weren’t pissing enough for us to drink.

One step after another. Months. It took us four and a half months to walk 1200 miles, mostly tracking I-81. If you ever have to do something like this, just keep going.

The question:

1. Does this opening have a sufficient hook?


Yes and no (readers chime in here). I like the situation and the voice, but I’m feeling ungrounded, so it’s hard to connect with the narrator. This is another good example of where cover copy would help provide context going into the first page, but we can’t always really on readers having just read that (as ebooks don’t have cover copy).

(Here’s more on the pressure a lack of cover copy puts on an opening scene)

What hooks me is a band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world trying to get somewhere, and they’re out of water and facing a problem. They’ve reached a barrier they might not be able to overcome and will likely die right here. The narrator is tough, and harsh, but the “performance art” line won me over. I’m on his/her side for now.

What isn’t working for me yet, is just enough vagueness in the text to make it hard to understand what’s going on. I feel like I have to work at it, and if that keeps up for a few pages I’d set it down.

Let’s look at the opening paragraph a little closer to show what I mean here:
“Get that stone out of his hoof, will you?” I said. I gather this is a horse (which proves right later), but I don’t know who the narrator is talking to or whose horse it is. The question is forcing me to try to figure this out, which immediately stops me.

We were nearly there, and out of water. “There” doesn’t tell me anything or help me figure out where this takes place, and it doesn’t connect to the horse comment at all.

Only three more miles, but still a big highway tunnel to get over. Map says it’s the old PA turnpike extension, I-476. I don’t care. “Tunnel” makes me think something underground, yet that’s not what this tunnel looks like. The narrator is looking at a fence, but I’m thinking concrete or rock.

Carbon fiber fencing is nearly impenetrable, and even without the barbed wire, horses can’t climb. I have no context for this, so it takes me another read to figure out this is in reference to the “tunnel” and it’s not what I first imagined. But I’m still not sure if the tunnel through rock is fenced off or if the tunnel is actual fence over the road.

We threw rocks to try and set off any explosive charges. No blasts meant we just hadn’t found them yet. Frustrating. I’m not sure where they’re throwing rocks or what they expect to explode, so all I can do is assume they’re throwing them through the fence? But why would the highway be mined?
There’s a lot of good worldbuilding here though, so I think just adding a few words to clarify the details would clear this right up. I suspect it’s more a matter of the author seeing more than the reader. For example:
“Get that stone out of his hoof, will you?” I said. Perhaps add who he/she speaks to and a suggestions of what’s happening. Such as, I told Jonas, spotting the limp on his mare. We couldn’t afford to have her go lame.

We were nearly there, and out of water. Just stating where “there” is would provide some context. Is it a town? Person’s house? Safe haven for refugees? A suggestion of the goal and destination would add a lot of drive to this, as I’d know what they were trying to do and how this obstacle stops them/

Only three more miles, but still a big highway tunnel to get over. Map says it’s the old PA turnpike extension, I-476. I don’t care. Carbon fiber fencing is nearly impenetrable, and even without the barbed wire, horses can’t climb. Perhaps reorder some of these details so readers can see the fencing and understand how the fence and tunnel actually look.

We threw rocks to try and set off any explosive charges. No blasts meant we just hadn’t found them yet. Frustrating. Just adding “along the highway” after charges would help clarify this (if that’s accurate).
There’s a fine line between adding clarity and explaining too much, and it’s easy to lean too far in either direction. I think your instincts are on target here, but just let your narrator explain a little more so readers can see what he/she does. Even a line that describes what he/she is looking at before the comments and observations would help set the scene better.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

Overall, I think this is close, and a few tweaks for clarity would get this where you want it. It has all the right pieces, it’s just a matter of showing them to the reader the way the author sees them.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. What hooked me was the contrast in the very first lines, of using horses but moving on a modern turnpike-- that's the whole post-apocalypse mythos right there, even before you build on it with mines and such. I agree with the clarifications Janice asks for (fences over a tunnel does need some explaining), but I also wonder if part of the refining you do could take that horse/pavement contrast and isolate it in a smaller first paragraph, just to give the reader that image right from the start.

    Otherwise, this is one of the better cases I've seen of creating a challenging narrator right in the middle of strong action. "Performance art" is a keeper, and so is "he can die right here" (and I'm glad you didn't say "could die," which might get confused with just the possibility of him dying-- "can die" keeps it clearer). This narrator is no standard hero, but likable anyway, and that's just the genre calls for. You really know your tone here.

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  2. I agree with all of the above. There's so much that's strong here that it's a shame it's undermined by vague references and withheld information. It wouldn't take much to capture the reader and avoid an opening that, instead of having a strong hook slips into playing coy. Let this story take off. It's strong enough to run right out of the gate. A few choice tweaks (listed above) and it's there. Well done.

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  3. Agree with the strength of the example alone; that in and of itself IS the hook, and I agree with most of the points Janice made. One thing that jumped at me:

    "I grabbed the horse’s hoof, lifted it with a grunt, dislodged the stone with a sharp piece of shale, and then gagged and shook for awhile."

    You've much going on in this one sentence, but HOOF and I are both the subjects. HOOF is closer to the action than I is, so when I read this, it came off as the HOOF is grunting, the HOOF found a piece of shale to dislodge the stone, and the HOOF gagged and shook for a while. That sort of grammatical bonk would keep from from reading an otherwise strong piece; the author should know better than that. Anyways, like others said before me, but for literary chuckholes like these and others marring an otherwise great piece, it's thisclose to being awesome.

    In another writing reference--I won't list it here, lest I'm not supposed to with a competing author--to first ground the reader(s). Think of them (and you, drafting the story), like you're suddenly snatched off the street, your handlers having thrown a blackout hood over your head and into a van, driven Heaven knows where--meanwhile, you're scared to the back teeth, especially with your questions going unanswered--and finally, released to destination: unknown. And you're expected to find your way back. That sort of open you have, but give one or two more GROUNDING landmarks--time of day, maybe, where that "there" is, what breed of horse you're working with, what's her name, who Jonas is to the narrator, if there's a nearby watering hole but undrinkable for wild reasons, what town or city in PA you're close to, etc.--in this. You know what they are, but we don't. That sort of withholding information, while cute once upon a time, isn't anymore. All I know from reading this: the PA turnpike. Now residing in PA, that could be ANYWHERE: Lancaster, outside of Philly, even to a degree, Gettysburg. See what I mean? Ground me to keep me reading.

    Anyway, hope this helps. Great read otherwise with a few tune-up touches. Good luck!

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  4. I agree with all of Janice's comments and suggestions. Great world building. The reason behind the narrative switching repeatedly from past to present tense is lost on me though.

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