Hooking a reader

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Another first page critique and time to emphasize the importance of grabbing a reader from the very first sentence. Today’s first page illustrates this point nicely – for while the page is well-written, there isn’t enough of a hook to reel in this reader yet. The good news is that I can definitely hear a distinctive voice emerging, which is also critical. However, we need more action and suspense to capture our interest, and much of the information in this first page submission could wait for later and/or be introduced in a more dramatic fashion. Here is the submission – see if you agree…my more detailed critique follows:


It seemed like an average Thirsty Thursday at the Ohio State University. It was about ten o’clock, and I was finishing up enough homework to call it a night. My roommate had left already to spend the weekend at her boyfriend’s, so I sat alone in the main room of our dorm. My back was facing one of the two walls of cream-colored cinderblocks; the other two were made of burry plaster. The bedroom – a shoulder-width gap between a set of bunk beds and built-in shelving – was off to the left. At least we had our own bathroom.

I had left the door open, in case someone happened to notice the euchre tournament flyer I’d put up outside my room. I’m strong enough to admit that I was having a hard time fitting in with the alcoholic inhabitants of my building. Some people call those hang-ups; I blame and thank my detective father for having raised me to know that wasn’t the life I wanted.

I heard the guys from two doors down in the hallway on their way out to a party. I sat on my futon, waiting. I grabbed a mini-football and drew my hand back to my ear, watching for shadows as they approached. Patience, I told myself. Hairy knuckles swung in front of the doorway, and I was ready. Direct hit! I let out a chuckle at my newest manner of self-entertainment.

Burnt out on homework, I decided to switch to some paying work. I had a pretty good proofreading business going, and recently I had added Jordan Bale, Private Eye to my card. I say that I was a private investigator, but basically I took calls from worried parents and jealous girlfriends. Surprisingly, the latter was the more lucrative of my ventures, but I genuinely enjoyed mulling over grammar. Most mistakes were simple, the kind that simply required a fresh pair of eyes to notice, but there were some that made me question the education system.

I was proofing one of the latter when I heard someone timidly clear her throat behind me.

My critique:

First off, there simply isn’t enough suspense in this first page. All we learn is that this college girl (I am assuming this since she has a female roommate – but interestingly, the voice, didn’t necessarily ring female to me), is anti-alcohol, has a detective father, and who earns extra money by proof reading and working as a PI – oh, and throwing a mini-football at her neanderthal classmates is her latest evening entertainment.

Doesn’t really sound like the start to a mystery or a thriller does it? Where is the suspense? A timid throat-clearing at the end doesn’t really qualify…

Second, I can’t say the proof reading PI is quite juicy enough to raise a huge level of interest in me. I think I would need hints of a more interesting back story to start to feel more revved up about the protagonist. Perhaps her mother died as a result of a drunk-driving accident – that would make me a little more intrigued. There just wasn’t enough in terms of interesting back story that made me want to keep reading. In fact in some ways the back story sounded too familiar – daughter of a cop drawn to being a PI etc. – which leads to the third point.

Which is…there is far too much back story and exposition. In this first page we have no real dramatic tension, action or dialogue, and I think we need some of this to hook a reader. So my recommendation is to start the story at a different point – perhaps with the girl who arrives at the end of the page. What does she need? I’m assuming she is not here for proof reading so having her announce some juicy case for the protagonist to get involved in, would be a better place to start.

So what do you all think? How can we help guide the author to finding that necessary hook to reel in the reader?

PS: my apologies but I will probably not be able to comment much as I will be on a plane across the Pacific taking my boys to visit Nan and Grandpa for Easter! My next blog post will be from sunny Tucson. Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

13 thoughts on “Hooking a reader

  1. I agree with your assessment, Clare. This is not the place to start this story. Exposition can sometimes help an author develop a “voice” for their character, to discover their motivation. But it doesn’t usually end up completely in the story, and definitely not at the critical beginning.

    This has some really unnecessary ramblings in it too, like describing a dorm room in such detail or that football game (without hairy knuckle guy stealing her football or retaliating in any way). Most people know what a dorm room looks like, but if the story would begin with the girl coming to her door (hopefully with a PI case), the room could be adequately described by dumping clothes off a chair to let her sit or kicking stuff under one of the bunk beds as a quick cleanup.

    And why not describe something different that reflects on the character more–like how it smells, or if her roommate is a neat freak or a total slob.

    Anyway, we don’t see enough here to help with a better start, other than hope the girl at the end will be a new client. And the character voice needs to be much more unique and interesting to hold my attention. The character MUST have a reason for being the star of this story. She can’t be an average student or boring. She has to stand out to earn a lead role. And right now, I’m not reading that.

  2. Good points Jordan – and on the setting/physical description, it’s always good to use it as a vehicle to explore character rather than mere description for descriptions sake (unless the writer is really eloquent:)!) A lead character has to grab a reader and this protagonist isn’t quite there yet – perhaps throwing her into a really bizarre/intriguing case will help flesh this out but I sense the author might need to do a detailed character bio to really think through all the facets that will make this character fascinating to readers.

  3. Clare, you’ve correctly pointed out the flaws here. We’ve said it many times before, but it’s worth mentioning again: when agents are asked what is the number one reason most manuscripts fail to grab their attention, it’s because they start in the wrong place. Even though we don’t know what happens next in this story, I have to believe that whatever it is, it’s probably where the story should start.

    Jim Bell summed it all up in a masterful way: act first, explain later. Now, everybody write that on the blackboard a hundred times.

  4. Glad to make it to the blackboard, Joe.

    To the writer: As Jordan notes, the First Person POV detective voice has to REALLY rock in some distinctive way. That’s the key to Raymond Chandler and Janet Evanovich and everyone in between who’s had success in this genre. See this recent post on the subject.

    And as the others have noted, this is all set up and backstory, which you don’t need up front. The last line, if you took out “timidly” is a better place to start, sort of like when a PI has a client come through the door. It’s also better because now you have the chance for dialogue, which is where the voice can really shine.

  5. I agree with all the comments. I think this section is “warming up” to the point where the real action kicks in. I’d suggest locating that more dramatic moment, and start there. Example: In the first draft of one of my Fat City Mysteries, my original first chapter showed my protagonist getting laid off from her job in Boston. At the suggestion of my agent, I nixed that chapter and opened with her arriving at the clinic where the mystery would take place. I didn’t need to show all that backstory.

  6. Most times I pick a moment where the main character’s life will change forever. And I certainly would pick an action scene or something more compelling than two people talking in a dorm room.

    Even if you start with the client, everything has to be razor sharp and the characters have to be real standouts engaged in an enticing dialogue with a mystery worth pursuing to capture the interest of a publishing industry professional.

    There’s a lot of competition with the PI story. You have to make yours really stand out to get noticed.

  7. Funny, I had to go back and reread to see the part about the female roomate. Because all of the other identifiers made me feel as if this were a male, not quite nerd, not quite jock.

    The only female I know who has a habit of pegging hairy knuckled guys with a football as a past time is a women’s team rugby player who definitely isn’t the proofreading type… PI type, possibly, night club enforcer probably.

  8. The only thing I can add is that most detective stories start with the client showing up at the detective’s door and asking for help. Which is how this one appears to start.

    Might there be another way the client and detective could meet? A more interesting way?

  9. I’ve found out that a lot of comments by various readers are being deleted, apparently arbitrarily. This renders this blog pretty much useless for the writers who are trying to get feedback. I’m dropping it from my blogroll.

  10. I agree that there is nothing here to grab my interest. Why should I care about this character? The story should start with the initiating incident or crisis that launches her on an adventure. The dorm scene would only be interesting if it included a hint of forewarning, some indication that things were about to go severely downhill. Every scene must have a purpose and this one is obscure.

  11. I think the story starts in the wrong place but I’d certainly read on. Could be a great set-up, entrepreneurial student makes money by using Dad’s PI methods. And no telling what might come across her desk for proofing. We’re not into meat yet but the writer seems to have a handle on this character and might take her surprising places. Tighten this up and put some zing factor in it, and you won’t lose readers.

  12. I agree with most of the comments here–I think the writer should start with a much more dramatic moment in the narrative. All that background stuff can be worked in along the way, as the story progresses. I could feel myself losing interest by the end of the first paragraph. There are a lot of paragraphs there and very little actual action. I think the reader should be dropped right into the action. Even some dialogue would have livened it up a bit. Also I felt like the protagonist was male. What bothered me most is I had no sense of what kind of story I was about to read. I’m thinking of Mr. Bell’s Try Dying–that first page is so direct, with a staccato rhythm, it puts you right into the thick of things and you definitely have a sense of what type of book you’re about to read.

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