Point of View
Hook Critique Series: Article 3, Part 1
By Angela Eschler & Heidi Brockbank
Welcome to our third article in our Hook Critique series, where we review authors’ opening pages to give them insight on whether they’re creating sufficient hooks for agents and/or readers. (To get the full scoop on what this series is all about, you can check out the series introduction here.)
This week we’re touching on several aspects of a good hook: point of view, streamlined prose, and stakes that interest the reader—not just your character. The sample page will be followed by an editorial critique of how to pull off those elements.
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Author: Julie Bellon
Context: The following is an early, prepublication draft of the first page of All Fall Down, published September 2012
Something was wrong. He could feel it. Rafe Kelly opened the door, but hesitated before going in. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up. With a cursory glance into the lobby of the building where his family company was housed on the eighth floor, he couldn’t see anything wrong. Chalking it up to being in Afghanistan too long, where he relied on his senses to stay alive, Rafe went in, tugging on his collar. Maybe that was it. He was reacting to civilian life of wearing a shirt and tie when he’d rather be in his Navy SEAL gear. It’s not like I could have shown up in desert cammies and boots. But it might have been worth it to see the look on his appearance-obsessed baby brother’s face if he’d walked into the meeting dressed like that.
With a grimace, he tried to loosen his tie, just a little. Dressing up in something more than jeans and a T-shirt had seemed like a good idea going into the meeting with Vince. This whole acting-president of the company thing had really gone to Vince’s head and he’d been making demands on everyone, so this one concession made sense since Rafe planned on saying no to anything else. Hopefully their dad would be back on his feet soon. And my knee will be healed and I’ll be back in the field where I belong. He pulled on his tie again, definitely regretting the choice of attire. He felt like he was choking. The things I do for my little brother.
Running a hand impatiently through his longer-than-normal hair, he took a deep breath and looked up at the pewter gray sky, the clouds gathering in the distance. We’ll have rain before the afternoon is out. And rain will make my knee ache.
Realizing how much his injury had taken over his thoughts, his actions—his life—he made a promise not to dwell on it any more today. Striding through the lobby, men wearing shirts and ties just like him were brushing by, getting to their jobs where they belonged. Rafe wondered if that would ever be him—if he could ever be happy having a job working inside all day. With how ugly the last mission in Afghanistan had been and how slow his knee had been to heal, he knew he might have to think about that in the near future. But not today.
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What caught my attention right off the bat was the character. There are lots of good details about him that readers will identify with, even those with no military background. The issues facing Rafe are universal: family, career, health, the uncertain future. On top of that, the reader finds out quickly that Rafe’s obviously been through some harrowing experiences during his tour of duty, and that he is a Navy SEAL, which tells us in two words quite a bit about his strength, courage, and discipline. In four short paragraphs, we get a really good picture of what this character is like, and that’s going to make a big difference in keeping the reader’s attention. It’s hard to get interested in the action of the story if we don’t know at least a little about the main character and find him likeable or intriguing. So the sooner you can establish some basic information, the better. Good job.
Delivering on What You Promise
Something was wrong. In those three words, you’ve made the reader a promise that you will tell/show them what’s wrong, and that you will do it in a timely way. If the reader gets to the end of the first paragraph, let alone the fourth, and still doesn’t know what’s wrong, something is wrong. Now obviously, this statement could be referring to Rafe’s family relations and business, or to his war injuries, or to his uncertain future. But the reader gets the sense that this is something else. And since Rafe is a highly-trained soldier, the reader assumes that his honed intuition is warning him about physical danger. Four paragraphs is a long time in the beginning of a story. If something really is wrong, it may be a good idea to get to it as soon as possible. At the very least, by the end of the page, bullets or earthquakes or asteroids or terrorists or bankruptcy or divorce papers should be happening, or the reader’s attention is going to be waning.
It All Depends on Your Point of View
This scene uses third-person limited, and appears to be aiming for deep penetration. Deep penetration lets you give third-person point of view the intimacy usually associated with first person. You can even slip from third to first person during sections of internal dialogue, although it’s not necessary. (If you’ve ever paid attention to your own thoughts, you’ll notice that you probably don’t consciously think in first person. The thoughts just happen. That’s why you can get away just using third person in describing them.) The reader experiences the thoughts as if they were his own. It is a very compelling way to pull the reader into the story.
However, it can be a little tricky to get this technique down, but it’s worth it for the emotional impact and depth it can bring to a story. In order to create a smooth transition from narrative to internal thoughts, you need to give a hint or clue that this shift is going to happen, but keep it subtle. In this current draft, the subtle hints aren’t quite there, so every time we read the internal thoughts, it’s a bit jarring, and we’re expecting to see them italicized at the very least. Right now it seems as if the narrator is going along telling us one thing, and the character jumps in with direct thoughts, almost more like they are having a dialogue rather than that we’re slipping from indirect thoughts to direct thoughts.
For further study of subtle ways of utilizing this technique, Orson Scott Card (OSC) is a master, and his book Characters and Viewpoint gives an overview of how to employ this method. Even better is to take one of his novels (or any other writer using this style) and analyze them scene by scene, paying particular attention to how the narration shifts smoothly into the characters’ thoughts and back again to narration without tagging each thought.
Some OSC scenes to check out: Enchantment, pp. 302–3 (hardback); Ender’s Game, pp. 1–2; Homebody, pp. 183–85; Empire, pp. 12–15. In these examples, Card deftly moves the reader into the viewpoint character’s mind, occasionally showing a thought in first person, often in third, but all the time the reader is right there, going through the thought process as if they were the person having those thoughts.
Another thing to note is that moving into first-person internal dialogue in this manner sometimes works best for longer sections—several sentences rather than just single sentences, although there’s no hard and fast rule on this.
Odds and Ends
He could feel it. Rafe Kelly opened the door … Try instead: “Rafe could feel it. He opened the door …” This avoids potential confusion as to who is thinking and if it’s the same person acting. While you could use both names, the first name is fine for the time being, and you can introduce the surname later. Either works.
The hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up. Try instead: “The hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up.” There is a bit of wordiness going on in this draft due to collections of longer words filling up sentences when shorter ones/variations might work better, your using many adjectives within a short distance of each other, and/or trying to fit a lot of information into one sentence. Try breaking up sentences or trimming scene descriptions so that we only get four or so words describing a space, emotion, or relationship, rather than seven or more. Ask yourself if the information you are sharing in a sentence is actually going to be critical for the reader within the next few paragraphs. If not, you’re probably including it in the wrong place, or we don’t need it at all, or it needs to be emphasized differently so that when it is relevant several paragraphs, pages, or scenes later, we actually remember that you shared it. See the next sentence for an example:
With a cursory glance into the lobby of the building where his family company was housed on the eighth floor, he couldn’t see anything wrong. This is a bit awkward. You’re trying to condense a lot of info in a short space, but this may work better if you spread it over a few sentences or, more preferably, trimmed for word economy: “A glance at the lobby suggested nothing was wrong at the family company.” There’s no need to mention the building, as that’s assumed by the reader, and rearranging the words to cut out unnecessary “bridge words” like “where his” and “of the,” etc., is the primary goal of word economy. One can almost always convey what’s important with fewer words. I would exclude the information about the eighth floor, as that doesn’t seem relevant to the scene goal here, and the character wouldn’t be thinking about that fact while surveying the lobby. If it’s important information because someone will soon fall out of a window or something, then give us a sentence that includes his walking to the window and looking down, but give us a reason for your inclusion of this information—a reason the character/narrator would note it for the reader. Why does this information come to the mind of the character/narrator at this moment? And make sure that it’s actually important to know for the immediate scene at hand. “Throwaway” sentences that writers use to later justify plot twists, etc., still have emotional emphasis in a scene—they aren’t usually completely forgettable, or the reader would have to reread the book to find all the justifications that allow the twist to make sense. So even throwaway lines need to feel important enough to be memorable to the reader at the time such information is critical to the story. (Obviously you don’t want flashing-red-light levels of emphasis, but you also don’t want placement within other information that practically obscures the actual existence of the line.)
Dressing up in something more than jeans and a T-shirt had seemed like a good idea going into the meeting with Vince. From the context, I would guess that Vince is Rafe’s younger brother, although it isn’t entirely clear. Tag the brother with his name as soon as he’s mentioned in the first paragraph—that will clear up any confusion later on. Cut out “baby brother” to avoid wordiness. It’s nonessential info anyway, because the next paragraph mentions this relationship again.
Here’s what the first paragraph might look like with the suggested changes:
Something was wrong. Rafe could feel it. He’d opened the door that declared his family’s business, but hesitated before going in. The hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. But a cursory glance into the lobby now revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Chalking it up to being in Afghanistan too long, where he’d relied on his senses to stay alive, Rafe went in, tugging on his collar. Maybe that was it. He was reacting to the civilian uniform of shirt and tie when he’d rather be in his Navy SEAL gear. It wasn’t like he would have shown up in desert cammies and boots. But it might have been worth it to see the look on his brother’s face if he’d walked into the meeting dressed like that. Vince was always a little obsessive about appearances.
You’ve laid the foundation for an engaging main character, and you’ve got good “voice” potential with a little fine-tuning. You also have the right idea about using third-person limited point of view. You just want to tweak it a little bit as well. Also, you want to look for a way to put something at stake in the story pretty quickly. Either something personal needs to be at stake for him as he goes into this meeting, or figure out how to get from Rafe sensing something wrong to the actual event as quickly as you can (the most relevant suggestion), and you’ll have the start of an exciting page turner.
Best of luck on revisions!
Angela Eschler and Heidi Brockbank
NOTE: This critique was originally posted on author Julie Bellon’s First-Page Friday blog. Every Friday, Julie posts an author’s first page, which is critiqued by “Ms. Shreditor” (a senior editor in the New York area) or Eschler Editing. If you’d like a critique, submit your first page, double-spaced in 12 pt. font, to firstname.lastname@example.org with “First-Page Friday” in the subject line. Then watch her blog and await your place in the queue.
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Stay Tuned …
We’ll be posting Julie’s final draft later this week and hearing from her on what she learned in the process. In the meantime, you can check out what she writes here:
Let’s hear from you. Was there something from this critique you were able to apply to your own opening pages? Share your wisdom below!