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Saturday, August 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Mystery Opening 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 August 26.

This week’s question:

I am having great difficulty with my beginning. I'm getting to hate the word "hook". Will this do?


Market/Genre: Historical mystery, set on the home-front WWI UK.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Alberta bent over Vicar Holdaway's lightly snoring form and was assailed by the acrid fumes of unwashed body blended with Napoleon brandy. She turned her face away, quickly gulped in some air and then held her breath. Alberta bent closer to the massive mahogany desk her father was using as a pillow and retrieved a crumpled paper from underneath his right arm. The letter, written in a fine hand on linen stationary, was from the Bishop of the Anglican Church. Father's request had met with refusal again.

This was his third refusal. The previous letters and been vague and kind, but in this reply the Bishop was painfully clear; "too old, too infirm, too unstable to withstand the rigors of the front or the chaplaincy in any capacity." The letter went on to say that the Vicar was to be sent to the country to recuperate.

Tears welled up in Alberta's eyes, she walked slowly across to the window seat to get the plaid wool blanket Mrs. Pewter always kept there. She stood still for a moment clutching the itchy cloth to her chest. Alberta feared the results of having to leave this church. She walked back over to her father's unconscious form, lay the blanket gently upon him and touched his shoulder lightly for comfort. Then Alberta turned around and quietly left the Vicar of St. Hugh snoring in peace.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Alberta bent over Vicar Holdaway's lightly snoring form and was assailed by the acrid fumes of unwashed body blended with Napoleon brandy. She turned her face away, quickly gulped in some air and then held her breath. Alberta bent closer to the massive mahogany desk her father was using as a pillow and retrieved a crumpled paper from underneath his right arm. The letter, written in a fine hand on linen stationary, was from the Bishop of the Anglican Church. [Father's request had met with refusal again.] This has a small hook, as I’m curious about what he’s requesting. And the suggestion that he’s a bit of a drunkard probably is the reason he’s getting turned down

This was his third refusal. The previous letters and been vague and kind, but in this reply the Bishop was painfully clear; "too old, too infirm, too unstable to withstand the rigors of the front or the chaplaincy in any capacity." The letter went on to say that the Vicar was to be sent to the country to recuperate.

Tears welled up in Alberta's eyes, she walked slowly across to the window seat to get the plaid wool blanket Mrs. Pewter always kept there. She stood still for a moment clutching the itchy cloth to her chest. [Alberta feared the results of having to leave this church] perhaps a little more here so we know the stakes. She walked back over to her father's unconscious form, lay the blanket gently upon him and touched his shoulder lightly for comfort. [Then Alberta turned around and quietly left the Vicar of St. Hugh snoring in peace.] this is where you’d likely lose readers, as it tells them “this is nothing you need to worry about” and there’s no sense of Alberta going to do anything about this (though that could come in the next line)

The question:

1. I am having great difficulty with my beginning. I'm getting to hate the word "hook". Will this do?


Not yet (readers chime in). There’s a small hook here with Alberta’s father’s request to go to the front being denied, but that’s mentioned and resolved right away, so it doesn’t work as a hook for very long. And this snippet ends with Alberta leaving her father in peace with no thought about what she plans to do or any problem, so there’s nowhere for the story to go. He wants to go to the front, but from a reader’s perspective, so what? How is this a problem or situation that will make them want to read on?

(Here’s more on hooking readers in three easy steps)

It’s quite possible that the next line in this scene shows Alberta deciding to do something to help her father, and that goal drives the story forward, but I’m not getting that sense from what’s here so far. She doesn’t come across as someone with a plan, just a daughter taking care of her father after a difficult day. She seems nice enough, but there’s nothing about her personally that makes me intrigued about what she’ll do next or want to spend more time with her.

Three things typically grab a reader’s attention in the opening of a novel:

1. A story question they want answered (puzzle or mystery)

2. An interesting situation they want to see unfold (interesting plot)

3. A character they want to spend more time with (great voice)

Often, all three of these exist at the same time, though they don’t have to. But an opening needs at least one of these to make readers curious about what happens next. The more of these you hit, the stronger the opening tends to be.

Right now, there’s no story question I want to see answered, though the father going to the front has potential. I don’t see an interesting situation in the works, so there’s no hint of the plot yet. There’s no real voice or sense of personality from Alberta to make me like her and want to hang out with her yet.

(Here’s more on crafting story questions to hook readers)

I don’t know enough about this story to know where the mystery appears or what form it takes (murder, crime, or puzzle), but if there’s a way to get a hint of that into this opening, that could help hook readers. You might also try giving Alberta a stronger voice or some internalization to show her personality and what she intends to do to help her father with this problem. If him going to the front is not the novel’s problem (or connected to it in some way), that’s a big red flag that this isn’t your opening. Right now, I assume since the story started here, this is part of the overall plot or bears on it somehow.

Just showing that Alberta plans to do something to help her father get to the front could be enough of a hook. It would provide a goal for her and show where the story was going. I’m not sure if readers would care about that (there isn’t time to get to know the father enough to like him), but if it was clear this was leading to the mystery part, it could be enough.

Openings are challenging, because a good opening does more than set the scene and describe the basic situation and how the characters get to the plot of the book. It offers something readers want to see more of and makes them care enough to stick around. So think about why readers should care about Alberta and her father. What is Alberta going to do that is worth a reader’s time? What interesting dilemma is going to entice them to keep reading? Do you have a scene or situation like that in the first few chapters of the book? Maybe this scene isn’t your opening and the real opening is farther in.

(Here’s more on writing a strong opening scene)

Overall, I think this just isn’t giving readers a good enough reason to keep reading yet, though I suspect you could tweak it without much trouble. There is a potentially interesting and story-driving situation here with the father, so perhaps look for ways to develop that, and to give Alberta a bit more drive and voice to make readers care about her and what she does.

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. Beginnings *are* hard-- I tell people they're three times as difficult and four times as important as any other section, total 12x the stress, and most writers agree I'm understating it.

    Janice has a lot of great advice there, and her references really nail the fundamentals for this. But I'd like to add one thing she didn't mention much about:

    "Story question" aka "hook" is easy to think of in plot terms, but it should also have a character element. We want what Larry Brooks calls not only the Concept but the Premise: to go from interesting that this is happening to interesting-squared that this is happening to *this* person.

    So as you work on setting up the mystery, can you quickly get it in terms of what kind of person Alberta is (I'm assuming she's the protagonist) and what spin that puts on how she deals with it? Right now her father has a bit of that, as a man with what seems like a failed ambition and an obvious reason for the failing; how does this or anything else make Alberta as conflicted and compelling as he is? Try to pick a starting moment and an approach that lets us see the first signs of the mystery *through* Alberta's unique eyes and show that she's the worst or best person around to solve it.

    (Again, I'm making a leap that she's the protagonist. But if she isn't, it's a risk starting the story with anyone else's eyes.)

    Beginnings are a unique challenge, but I think it's mostly about zeroing in on the core of your story. You seem to have a vivid understanding of your world and how to present it, so this might be as much about deciding what *not* to show yet, and finding an angle on this scene that lets that core make its point cleanly.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In response to his third application for front line duty, Vicar Holdaway received a note from the Bishop telling him that he was being put out to pasture.

    or

    In response to his third application for front line duty, Vicar Holdaway received notice that he was being put out to pasture.

    I like the second sentence: there's conflict and I want to know why the Vicar wanted front line duty and why was his request rejected. Was he too old, had he done something in the past, etc.

    Both of them get rid of a lot of muck that I didn't want to read. I'd move quickly to reader engaging dialogue with his daughter. Start her out with her not wanting him to go. Just some thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Greetings brave, anonymous writer--

    My first impression of this opening was that I could hear the 'pencil' screaming for mercy, as you squeezed the life out of it. :o) Meaning, it sounds forced and uncomfortable -- melodramatic.

    I like the opening line, and am prepared to think poorly of this stinking drunk, and am equally prepared to feel sympathy for Alberta, who must get this close to the clod.

    Then suddenly, the clod is her father! Adjusting my views, opening my mind for more info, I find out he's at the infamous third strike. We don't know why he wants to go to the 'front' (wherever that is in whatever war-which is where most fronts are) in the first place, so offering some hint about that question would help (is he demented? is he in danger here? etc).

    Alberta doesn't seem upset that he's passed out on his desk, so we assume this is a regular thing.

    So, then we reach the only big question the scene offered me: why is Alberta afraid to leave that church? She's enduring the itch of wool and crying -- something is really bothering her! :o)

    Will the Vicar go berserk? Will she never again see her sweetheart, who is unknown to the Vicar, her father? Does Mrs. Pewter act as a buffer between Alberta and her drunken father? How old is Alberta?

    There are other questions -- but, if you simply point her fear toward something, then you have a hook. You don't have to say exactly what she fears, just to what is her fear attached.

    This is a tiny, tiny scene. Daughter finds father passed out on his desk, sees a rejection letter from Bishop, experiences fear, tearful daughter puts itchy blanket on dad and leaves.

    Your opening sentence sounds like you, the writer -- you like that sentence, the feel, the sound of it. So! Write the rest from that same gritty POV! What reality does the rejection letter create for Alberta? What threat does she see associated with leaving this church? How does she feel about anything?

    Stop trying so hard -- think about the scene and what you want the reader to wonder about. Then, use some of your 'hook' frustration and write without reservation... You can do it! Your first sentence shows it!

    [pom poms flying into the air]

    Good luck and thanks for playing. :o)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sometimes if you write the prior scene you might find your true beginning. What was she doing. Where was she before finding her dad? Good luck!

    ReplyDelete