Shedding Light on Your Audience
“Hook Critique” Series: Article 1, Part 1
By Angela Eschler
When you hear industry professionals talk about your “hook,” it can be many things: the core external plot quandary that makes its way onto the back cover of a book to snag the reader, the key unique idea/element of your story that you’d use in an “elevator pitch,” or the opening couple pages of your book—about how many pages readers, agents, and editors are going to peruse before making a decision on whether to buy it, read further, or pass.
Now, there are some kind-hearted (and in the case of publishing professionals—thusly overworked) souls out there who will give the author the benefit of the doubt and read past that point, but if you have no relationship with the reader, that’s not very likely. When I worked in-house at a publisher, we were under pressure to produce amazing back cover copy, and the top managers had attended a conference to learn how to make the spine of their books stand out against the competitor’s. Why that much fuss? Because the average time buyers give a book before moving on is about 18 seconds. What does that mean, exactly? Cover (or super nifty spine) catches their eye, back cover sounds interesting, skim the first page or so to decide. It means the opening pages of your story really need to sing.
So we’re starting a series of first-page critiques in which you can read the rough-draft opening of a novel, and then get a sneak peek at the advice a professional editor would offer, assuming your goal is to be published—and sold—successfully.
Without further ado, let’s jump into this review. Key points will follow the sample in no particular order of importance (other than the general categories).
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Author: Rebecca Talley
Context: Working first page for an earlier draft of Aura, her YA urban fantasy
The sudden bright light chased all traces of darkness away while I waited, muscles tensed, for his judgment. Perspiration collected at the base of my neck.
“What was that?” Mr. Jordan’s voice boomed through the room.
I knew better than to say anything when he was agitated, especially if I was the cause.
“Run this part of the scene again.” He glared at me. “This time let’s try some acting, if it isn’t too much to ask.”
He switched the house lights off and only the hot spotlights shone on Cole and me.
Cole delivered his lines. He strode toward me, anger painted on his face, and pushed me. I fell to the ground, hard, pain shooting through my elbow. I instinctively pawed at my arm, trying not to let the grimace cross my face. I hoped it was enough.
Cole reached his hand down and mouthed, “Sorry.”
I took a deep breath and latched onto his hand. He pulled me to my feet.
“Mildly better,” Mr. Jordan said. “But, don’t anticipate it. Be surprised. We want the audience to be shocked at his display of anger.” He peered at me. “Do you understand?”
I rubbed my elbow, the floor burn tingling and pulsating along my arm. “Yes, sir.” I knew Mr. Jordan would keep after me until I got this scene right, even if I fractured my elbow in the process.
The door at the back of the theater opened and light from the hallway backlit a familiar form. I smiled slightly. Nate. I glanced at my watch—he was early.
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- The opening sentence-hook is intriguing. It could be any setting in any world. Where are we and what’s going on? Just a little, brief confusion on our part, the feeling of darkness, etc.—all draws us in.
- The opening few paragraphs of the hook are a good follow-up. There’s something at stake in them—conflict. The main character is being judged, is worried about his/her performance and possibly getting injured, and there’s a mean/sarcastic/judgmental antagonist in our Mr. Jordan (which riles our blood and gets our emotions involved right off). All good things to keep us interested.
- Just as the initial tension/conflict is resolved, we are intrigued by the next possible source of tension—who is Nate? Oooh….And he’s early. What does that mean—early for what/early how?? (Heart pumping faster.)
- This is all good. Keep the tension going with each breath in and out of the story. Especially in the opening couple of pages, you need a reason for the reader to keep turning pages. Great job on this so far. (Maybe you’ve read some good materials on the subject already, but if not, the book Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham, is a great little read on keeping that tension going throughout your story. And when you’re in the mood to read through a tome on the subject, the bible for the topic is Story, by Robert McKee.)
Let’s pretend I’m the agent/editor you are submitting to:
- I need to know the genre. What age are the characters? The fact that the antagonist is “Mr. Jordan” made me think high school or junior high for the setting, as adult actors would probably call the instructor “Professor,” or just by his/her last name, or “the director” maybe. But on the other hand they are in a theater, not an assembly hall (as at a school). Some schools have theaters, but it does make me unsure of my setting. You’ll definitely want to clarify the world/age of the main character pretty quickly after this opening hook and/or be slightly less subtle—either overtly (but subtly phrased/placed please), or through character voice, or through setting, etc.
- I also need to know the gender of the main character pretty quickly, which isn’t clear in this hook. Mainly we just need to know how the POV character relates to the world around him/her, and gender is a very clear starting point for that. I am assuming “her” just because the violence visited upon her is a push rather than a punch, and because the person who enters at the end of the scene is a boy that she smiles when thinking of, and there consequently seems to be a mild undercurrent of excitement from the POV character at his arrival (though this may be due to the simple fact that the scene ends there, so the reader automatically gives that moment more emphasis/emotional significance, and thus we assume the significance comes from how teen boys and girls feel about each other); but it would definitely be good to know if the main character is not a girl, and to clearly establish it immediately or before the time Nate arrives. If the POV character is a girl, she could be wearing a dress when she’s pushed, or “voice” could be more obvious, or you could include any other cue to help us immediately assess her gender.
- The only case in which you wouldn’t want to clarify her gender and/or age, etc., soon, is if you were deliberately trying to write some sort of deconstructionist/post-modern YA novel where you were messing with the reader’s preconceived notions (like my assumptions above) and intending to produce social commentary with your novel.
- I’m not sure how to interpret Mr. Jordan’s words in the opening lines. “What was that?” With a little sarcasm? Otherwise, given that we don’t know quite what’s going on yet when he says it, we read it as if the main character had said something to Mr. Jordan (that we didn’t see) and was being asked to repeat it or speak up, or was in big trouble for it, etc. Maybe you want it to be vague to keep up the suspense about where we are and what’s going on, but at the same time, since there was no dialogue before this point, we are likely to be more confused than you intend (you want the initial reader confusion resolved pretty fast), and are likely to misinterpret it as our having missed some dialogue previously. The result is that it takes a minute for us to figure out she’s being asked to fix an acting scene. So we waste time getting our bearings, which can slow down the page-turning pace you might want to supply us.
- After the main character is pushed down, it’s momentarily unclear if the acting scene has ended, or if the following behavior is part of it. Again, we lose our bearings in the story. A transition would help: “The scene over, Cole reached his hand down …”
- A little word economy could make the opening lines more powerful: “Sudden bright light purged the darkness while I waited, muscles tensed, for judgment. Perspiration collected at the base of my neck.” The original diction was fine, but it was a tad wordy, so the reader loses the immediacy of the image while they slog through the words. Another option, if you love the opening description of darkness, is to break up the sentences so the opening line isn’t so long.
This could easily shape up to be a good and interesting hook (or partial hook). However, if I were an agent, I’d need to know a few more things pretty quickly (within a page-ish) in order to decide if the book was something I should spend more time reading (whether it’s a genre/sub-genre I represent): I think you’ll want to move pretty quickly after Nate’s arrival in clarifying what kind of world we’re in—futuristic, current, magical (unless the magic comes later and is a surprise to the characters), or historical, whether this is YA or something else (characters’ ages, world views, establishing strong POV character voice), and you’ll want to present us with the inciting incident (the dramatic thing that occurs that puts our POV character on the path to the journey and lets us know what’s at stake so that we—gasp—can’t stop reading).
A full hook offers all of that within a couple of pages (or at least hints to all that so we’re turning pages to get to it). Obviously this is just the first page, but a lot of your competing authors are trying to fit the inciting incident onto the first page, so you’ll want to be aware of that. (And no, that doesn’t mean you should worry there’s not room for your voice or story—there always is—but when the tools are before you, there’s no reason to take longer to find your fan base than is necessary.) Not all agents (or readers, in the world of self-publishing) insist on the biggest, flashiest, oh-my-gosh hook on the very first page, but many do. So just be aware of to whom you’ll want to pitch this book and study the pattern of hooks for the books they represent or frequently read. Again, if you don’t want/need an agent, the same goes for readers. What crowd do you want to draw in? What are they reading, and how (and how quickly, in terms of the inciting incident) do many of those books start?
Best of luck on revisions!
Angela EschlerNOTE: This critique was originally posted on author Julie Bellon’s First-Page Friday blog (which was at ldswritermom.blogspot.com).
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Rebecca went on to successfully self-publish Aura, but decided to start the story in a different place to capitalize on the hook appeal. We’ll be posting her 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:
Fiction Inspired by Life
Let’s hear from you. Was there something from this critique you were able to apply to your own opening pages? What writing tip has lit you on fire and turned your opening pages into a bonfire of intensity and intrigue? We’d love to know, so comment below!