Avoid the Bait-and-Switch Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first page is a thriller submission. Read it, then we’ll talk.

Out of the Cold

Cara Conroy sat straight up in bed. Sweat soaked both her and the bedding. Instinct drove her hand into the nightstand draw and around the grip of her Glock 26. Her eyes swept the haze of her moon-draped room.

Sampson perked his ears and padded to the bed, laying his muzzle next to Cara’s leg. His soulful eyes searched hers, hypervigilant and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

It had happened again. She was absolutely positive.

Cara fought the urge to run to the next room and check on her daughters. She knew they were fine, but so had all the mothers whose children hadn’t been. She heard it all the time—I looked away for just a second—and a second was all it took.

The urge won. She threw back the covers. Her feet barely touched the floor before she raced, heart pounding, Sampson on her heels.

She held her breath. The Glock shook ever so slightly as she toed the door open a crack. The light from the hallway sliced into the darkness, and illuminated the innocent faces of her daughters who lay sleeping, unaware of the dangers lurking for them in an evil world.

Sampson stealthed into the room and nosed each girl in turn. The ceiling fan thrummed its constant low thump like a tire out of round. Cara searched for Raina’s faint snore, an assurance the child was still breathing. After finding its reassuring cadence, she lowered her weapon and dragged back to her bedroom. Inside the sanctity of her own room, she closed the door and leaned her back against it, allowing it to support her controlled collapse.

Silent sobs wrenched her gut.

***

JSB: This author can write. The prose flows. Exposition and description are kept to a minimum, but with just enough to give us a feel for the setting and the setup.

All good. But I have an overarching critique, which I’ll attempt to explain.

What we have here is a type of opening that agents warn about, namely the “character alone” variety. I see two types of these. The first type is “character alone, thinking/feeling.” This is when the author gives us a character who is in the throes of some deep emotion or thinking about some terrible situation. The author believes this will immediately bond us to the character. It doesn’t, because we don’t know the character yet. The author is asking us to sympathize with a stranger.

But Jim, this is the first page! Of course the Lead is a stranger!

True that, but the better way to get to know a stranger is by observing what they do.

Which leads me to the second type of “character alone” opening, one that is functionally better: character alone, doing. When we see a character engaged in some sort of action that holds our interest, we’ll follow her for a long time before wanting more exposition.

JSB Axiom: Act first, explain later.

So why am I not giving full-throated approval to this opening, which is a clear case of character-doing, along with the elements of fear and child endangerment? Isn’t that the very essence of what I preach for the opening—a disturbance?

Stay with me on this.

You know how we’re warned about not opening with a dream? I agree with that. You read an incredibly gripping opening chapter, only to have the character wake up at the end. It feels like a big cheat, a bait-and-switch.

Because it is.

(Literary mavens may delight in reminding yours truly about one of the most famous openings of all time, from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Of course that is not a cheat because the narrator tells us up front that she’s describing a dream. But thanks for playing.)

This opening is not a dream, but it has a bit of bait-and-switch to it. It gives us a potential threat, but it turns out only to be in the Lead’s head.

We get this set up: It had happened again. She was absolutely positive.

Okay, we think, “What is it?” We read on.

In the next paragraph we get the answer: there have been kidnappings of small children! So Cara grabs her Glock and checks on her kids.

Is there a kidnapper in the house? Are her children gone?

Nope, all is well.

So there was never really an it. It feels a bit like waking from a dream, no?

One way out of this is to put an actual it in the scene—a real noise, a seen shadow, an open window. True, a disturbance that awakens the Lead is a bit of a cliché, but I don’t think readers care if the writing is taut and action-oriented (which this author is capable of).

There’s also disconnect here that lessens the tension. Look again at: It had happened again. She was absolutely positive. Okay, fine. That’s why she woke up in a sweat, right? And we’ll find out it’s because of the kidnappings that have happened.

But then we get: She knew they were fine.

Wait, what? A second ago she was absolutely positive it had happened again.

So if she knows they’re fine, why the sweats and the Glock?

Also, the it alluded to appears to be about children kidnapped in public. I looked away for just a second.

But this scene is taking place inside a home.

Further, if Cara is so concerned about a potential kidnapping, why isn’t she sleeping in the same room with her daughters? Why doesn’t she have a security system? Why doesn’t she station her hypervigilant dog near the front door?

So when at the end of the scene Cara collapses as silent sobs wrench her gut, I’m unmoved.

I’m also confused because a silent sob is an oxymoron. A sob is, by definition, a sound. You can have a loud sob, a weak sob, a low sob…but not a silent sob.

Yet, whatever it is, it is wrenching her gut.

But why such a reaction? Cara seems to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown because of some kids being snatched somewhere out there in an “evil world.” The collapse into gut wrenching sobs is meant to garner our sympathy. Instead, it causes me alarm about her mental state. What it doesn’t do is compel me to care about the character.

Here’s a suggestion that will help you here, dear writer. And also anyone writing a scene of heavy emotion.

Show us the character fighting against the emotion, not succumbing to it.

This has a two-fold benefit.

First, it give us an action rather than a reaction. The action can be internal (She told herself she would not cry! Her kids needed her…) or external (She took a deep breath and forced herself to stand…) or a combo of both.

Second, we are drawn to characters who, by strength of will, fight against obstacles in their way. We don’t have sympathy for characters who don’t fight.

The only thing Cara fights in this scene is the urge to run to the next room and check on her daughters. But why? She’s sweating, armed, worried about her children. Why would she fight against checking on them?

In sum, the actions taken and motivations for same confuse me.

So I offer these takeaways:

  • Re-think your opening to give us real action in response to real stimuli.
  • Show your character fighting, internally and/or externally, against breaking down. She has her kids to protect!

Notes:

the nightstand draw

Should be drawer.

Sampson stealthed into the room

Be very careful when stretching a word into a new meaning. I was pretty sure stealthed was not a word, so I looked it up. Ack! It apparently is a word, a slang term, and not one to be used in polite society.

nosed each girl in turn

I get a picture of the dog poking the girls with his nose, making me wonder why they didn’t wake up. I would think a mom wouldn’t want the dog to disturb her softly sleeping daughters. Did you mean sniffed?

Cara searched for Raina’s faint snore

I’m not sure you can search for a sound. You can certainly search for the source of a sound. But Cara knows the source. Use listened instead.

After finding its reassuring cadence

Again, finding is the wrong word in this context. Use hearing.

she lowered her weapon

Ack! She was pointing a loaded weapon into a dark room where her children are sleeping? The most basic of rule for loaded handguns is don’t point them in an unsafe direction. This is especially so if the gun is shaking in her hand! What if it goes off accidentally?

A Final Word

Don’t let any of this discourage you, writer friend. You’ve got what it takes to write good, gripping scenes. So go forth and write them. Get them critiqued, and write some more.

And never stop.

Carpe Typem.

Comments are welcome.

+17

20 thoughts on “Avoid the Bait-and-Switch Opening

  1. My first reaction is Cara needs psychiatric help, is in serious need of a gun safety class, and those kids should be living somewhere else.

    This would make more sense if the kidnapper is prowling outside the house, the dog growls to alert her and then she goes to check on the kids. Even better if she catches a glimpse of him through the window.

    I love thrillers and I am probably in your target audience. I would read this. It just needs to make sense and for me the character needs to be likeable.

    +4
  2. I really like this writer’s style! One item to add – maybe it will become clear later, but I didn’t understand why Cara would listen to make sure one daughter was “still breathing.” Does that child have a medical condition? Otherwise why would she check one was still breathing and not the other? Perhaps instead of listening for the breathing Cara could just hear it and that would be reassurance that all was okay.

    +4
  3. Good submission and, as always, excellent comments. I’d add that, already in paragraph 2, the dog’s reaction says there is no danger. Otherwise wouldn’t he pick up on his owner’s fear and at least growl?

    +5
  4. Congratulations, writer, on submitting! I hadn’t thought about JSB’s “bait and switch” reference when I read this piece, but I did stumble from the beginning only because some version of “sat straight up in bed” is used a lot as an opener so my reaction to that opening line is “been there, done that.” But you definitely conveyed Cara’s nerves/fear in this piece.

    This phrase briefly threw me off: “like a tire ‘out of round’ ” Not a big deal. The context is clear. I just had never heard that phrase before. And I noted a few other tweaks that were already mentioned.

    One other thought that goes back to getting to know the character. As written, the “evil world” reference is too much of a generalization. But if we knew the character a little better before this phrase, we’d be less likely to view it as cliche.

    +3
    • “Straight up in bed” is a cliche in real life. A first responder told me that they often find fire victims straight up in bed, their lungs destroyed. If you notice strange noises or smells, or other sign of a fire, do 𝐧𝐨𝐭 sit up. Roll carefully out of bed and stay near the floor until you’ve determined the nature of the disturbance.

      +2
  5. Great job, Brave Author! I enjoyed your writing style. Incorporating changes based on JSB’s critique should make this an amazing first page.

    Two things bumped me out of the story as I was reading:
    1. Why aren’t the children sleeping in the same room with the mother if she’s that concerned?
    2. The dog’s name is Sampson. Although you can name a person or animal anything, I immediately wondered if you meant it to be “Samson” since it seems to be a big, strong dog.

    You’ve piqued my interest, and I look forward to reading your competed book. Good luck!

    +4
  6. I agree, Jim. This writer can write. I moved right along with far fewer speed bumps than many first pages. It would be even stronger if you tweak it a bit, Brave Writer. Personally, I don’t like “listening” or “hearing” because it lessens the deep POV, but I may be a bit obsessive with deep POV slips. “Waiting” could work, but as another commenter mentioned, why would she be more concerned with one child over another?

    Brave Writer, use the dog’s abilities to raise the conflict. Even if he’s wrong about the low rumble of a car outside or the silhouette streaking by the window, you’ve used the character to enhance the scene. Thus, the MC won’t be “alone” after all. Pets should become characters in their own right, or there’s no reason to include them. Pets should never be merely someone to talk to. They need a greater purpose, like increasing the conflict that drives the scene. Use the weather, too. Think about this scene set during a thunderstorm. Better yet, a blackout.

    +5
  7. I agree, this author can write. A couple of things, though…

    For home defense, those middle-of-the-night frights, it makes more sense IMHO to have a revolver close by. No fiddling with mags or wondering if you’ve chambered a round.

    Also, if I was awakened in the middle of the night by a sound, a shadow, or even a nightmare, and I felt compelled to get up and check on things (which has happened numerous times), I wouldn’t “race” anywhere, in the dark with a weapon in my hand. And especially if there were children in the house. Stealth is called for here. (Not stealthed…I had to go look that up-wish I hadn’t.)

    And lastly, already mentioned but bears repeating, never never never point your weapon at any target you don’t wish to destroy. First rule of weapons training. Of course, at this first page juncture, we don’t know if Cara is a professional or not…but just guessing, I’d say not. In that case, yes, she needs to get herself into a class at her local range.

    Thank you, BA, for this submission. I’d definitely read this story…right up my reader alley.

    +4
    • Many good points, but twerps in the house is a major problem: Revolver is easier to use, yes, but also easy for kids to shoot. Revolver or pistol, lock it up.

      +2
  8. You’ve got a good start here, Brave Author. I agree with all the excellent comments and suggested changes already shared.

    The feeling of immediate danger disappeared as soon as Sampson entered the scene. Animals are often the first to sense danger, and he seemed comfortable about the security of Cara’s home. Which made her mad dash to the girls’ room seem over the top.

    I worried about how she handled the gun in the dark and in a place where children live. If she and her children lived under a threat serious enough to require a weapon within reach, I would expect her to have trained extensively on the use and safety practices of that Glock. But her actions made that questionable.

    And once Cara verified the children were safe, if she were that shaken, wouldn’t she feel a need to clear the rest of the house to ensure it’s secure? Maybe looking out the windows for shadows or cars she doesn’t recognize?

    There is a good idea here, just waiting to be carved into detail, Brave Author. I want to like Cara, but I need to know why she’s in such agony of spirit. If she is so close to collapse over an imagined terror, how will she find the strength to defend herself or her daughters in the face of actual danger?

    I’m your target audience, Brave Author, and there is a good idea here, just waiting for you to carve in the details.

    +2
  9. I agree this is a clever, competent writer who gives us a sense of danger, the prime objective here. So the scene is mostly successful, though with problems as listed above. For me, however, the use of so many clever, OTT words took me out of the scene. I, too, was tempted to look up ‘stealthed.’ (I didn’t, because there were an excess of similar terms.)

    But, IMHO, this is an action scene, as well as an opening. Action scenes require a tight rein: leaving out anything that slows the reader, especially similes or anything that invites analysis. Yeah, the flat tire is apposite, but doesn’t advance the story, and it stopped me. Maybe emphasize tension in the first part, action in the last part.

    +2
  10. Educational critique JSB. Thank you and thank you author.

    Thoughts while reading:

    If Clara bolted up soaked in sweat, I assume she woke from a nightmare, not a menacing noise. Which makes JSB’s caution against opening with a bait and switch good advice. (Authors are cautioned against opening with an MC awakening, or describing a nightmare/dream as if it actually happened).

    Rather than body parts acting independently (her hand, her eyes), how about something like: “instinctively she reached for the…” and “she stared into the haze…”. Disembodied body parts can read comedic.

    The dog doesn’t appear to be hypervigilant, ready to pounce (on what?) or at all agitated.

    “It had happened again. She was absolutely positive. What’s “it”? After reading further, I can only imagine “it” means another child had been snatched while Clara slept. Is she clairvoyant?

    “Inside the sanctity of her own room, she closed the door and leaned her back against it, allowing it to support her controlled collapse”. That’s a lot of words, and the word “sanctity” stands out here for me. It reads as if Clara feels safer after barricading herself away from her children, while clearly that’s not the intent. And “controlled” collapse is the opposite of what I’d expect.

    Despite the nitpicks, I’d love to read the new and improved version of this story! Good luck author.

    +2
  11. I agree with Jim’s assessment full-heartedly. This is such a common opening, it’s almost cliche in our genre — lead character, tormented by something (often a cop bedeviled by a case) is roused from a sleep to “check on something.” Unless you can make this kind of opening feel fresh, I don’t know if I would read on. This, despite, as Jim says, that the submission is well-written. Good writing doesn’t always translate into compelling openings.

    I, too, got hung up on the dog and the Glock. The fact that the gun is in a nightstand unlocked with children in the house bothered me. Even cops are careful about this. And given that my dogs will bark at the wail of wind in the trees at night makes me agree that the dog is a mere prop here. Might be more interesting if she was awakened by the dog’s growl. At least that suggests a tangible reason for her wanting to check on the kiddos.

    The idea behind the set-up is good — a mother (I get the feeling she’s a LEO?) is worried about kidnappings. But because there is no impetus for her waking in soak-drenched fear. (the dog is quiet!), and we get that non sequitur line “It has happened again,” I feel more confused than intrigued by Cara’s emotions.

    But keep going writer. You’ve got the chops.

    +2
  12. Excellent critique Jim and terrific input from all our TKZers. This first page totally fits the issue that agents were talking about in that workshop a few weeks ago so I think it’s important to heed much of what has already been said:)

    +2
  13. I, too, thought that this was an excellent first page.
    I, too, would have kept reading, despite thoughts like those of Deb and others about gun saftey. All of that is fixable. More importantly, the author’s voice and delivery is excellent.
    And I personally love unusual, clever descriptive words and phrases. The bit about the fan being “out of round” instantly brought to my mind the soft yet irritating sound of an unbalanced fan blade.

    I do agree about subbing “sniffed” for “nosed.”

    What caught me, however, was a grammarly trigger that I’ve seen time and time again, and yet it’s not one that anyone has ever mentioned in review.
    Spoiler alert: Grammar Police I might be, but it’s all self-taught. I am not an English teacher and my mental database fails me tonight. I can only point it out and let more astute readers take it from there.

    I believe this is case of a Dangling Modifier:
    “His soulful eyes searched hers, hypervigilant and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.”
    I’m certain Brave Author meant that Sampson the dog is “hypervigilant and ready to pounce”, not his soulful eyes. But it doesn’t read that way.

    And this is slightly different but also needs addressing:
    “Her feet barely touched the floor before she raced, heart pounding, Sampson on her heels.”
    Does it seem that there needs to be a destination added in? Yes, we know she’s likely headed for the children’s room, but the sentence feels like three incomplete sentences mashed together.

    Brave Author, please forgive my triggers and my inadequacy in defining them. I hope this helps rather than hinders!

    +3
  14. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with what JSB said and many of the other comments made by reviewers. Sorry I’m late to the party.

    I only have a few minutes right now; so I’ll focus on a couple of things. The biggest problem your first page has (imho) is that you haven’t properly introduced your protagonist. Your protagonist is coming across as an irrational psycho who has no business owning a gun. There is nothing redeeming about her that would compel me care enough to follow her through the length of a book. You began with the protagonist alone (with the exception of a dog and sleeping children), and as JSB pointed out, that’s usually not a good idea.

    A great deal has been written on how to create compelling characters. Certainly giving a character a “fear” is one of them, but the problem with your opening is that the reader doesn’t have any frame of reference about why the character is behaving like such a basket case or why she has a gun. Also, readers are attracted to strong characters, not wimps. A character can have a weakness, but you have to balance it with a strength.

    Therefore, if there is a kidnapper or some evil villain at large that would explain the character’s bizarro behavior, perhaps you want to begin the story at a place where your protagonist learns about this villain. If your protagonist is a single mother, she must have a job. Perhaps show her doing something well at her job to gain the reader’s admiration and create a small disturbance at work to introduce the existence of a villain. Maybe something happens to a coworker’s child. Then perhaps her regular babysitter becomes ill unexpectedly and she needs to find a replacement. Or maybe the babysitter resigns. (This is just a quick example.) Then the reader will worry along with her as she goes through this experience. You must give the reader enough information to get inside of the character’s skin a bit. Give the reader as reason to care.

    To make her more interesting, perhaps there is some past trauma in her life that still haunts her and guides some of her actions. There are so many things you can do to manipulate the reader into wanting to follow your character. Here’s a link that I hope you’ll find helpful:

    https://www.ian-irvine.com/for-writers/article-3-create-great-characters/

    As you revise your opening, think about which of these techniques you can best use to compel the reader to follow your character. Obviously, you don’t have to do everything on the list, but introducing your protagonist is the most important thing that a writer must do. It can make or break your story. Barbara Kyle, also wrote a great article called “Making an Entrance” that I’ve mentioned here before that you can find with a search engine.

    Secondly, pay attention to the grammar:

    “His soulful eyes searched hers, hypervigilant and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.”

    This sentence makes it seem like her eyes were ready to pounce (instead of the dog).

    Also, there’s a lot of “overwriting” going on here that needs editing. Examples:

    “Her eyes swept the haze of her moon-draped room.”

    For me, this sentence is overkill.

    “The Glock shook ever so slightly…”

    Get rid of the “ever so” – it’s not needed. in general, look for ways like this to tighten the writing. Fewer words often have a bigger impact.

    I have an article on “overwriting” and how to correct it on my blog that you may find useful.

    I didn’t have a problem with the “Sampson stealthed” sentence, but maybe my mind is too innocent. See:

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/stealth

    “Verb

    stealth (third-person singular simple present stealths, present participle stealthing, simple past and past participle stealthed)

    1. (military, computing) To conceal or infiltrate through the use of stealth.

    There is a slang definition, but I had no reason to think about the “slang” when reading this passage since the passage is in reference to a dog (and I wasn’t familiar with the slang definition). *blush*

    After reading some first pages, I feel like telling many unfortunate writers to get a new hobby. That wasn’t the case here. You can easily use your writing skills to manipulate the reader so they can’t do anything but turn that page. Best of luck and keep writing. I’d love to see your revisions.

    0
  15. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with what JSB said and many of the other comments made by reviewers. Sorry I’m late to the party.

    I only have a few minutes right now; so I’ll focus on a couple of things. The biggest problem your first page has (imho) is that you haven’t properly introduced your protagonist. Your protagonist is coming across as an irrational psycho who has no business owning a gun. There is nothing redeeming about her that would compel me care enough to follow her through the length of a book. You began with the protagonist alone (with the exception of a dog and sleeping children), and as JSB pointed out, that’s usually not a good idea.

    A great deal has been written on how to create compelling characters. Certainly giving a character a “fear” is one of them, but the problem with your opening is that the reader doesn’t have any frame of reference about why the character is behaving like such a basket case or why she has a gun. Also, readers are attracted to strong characters, not wimps. A character can have a weakness, but you have to balance it with a strength.

    Therefore, if there is a kidnapper or some evil villain at large that would explain the character’s bizarro behavior, perhaps you want to begin the story at a place where your protagonist learns about this villain. If your protagonist is a single mother, she must have a job. Perhaps show her doing something well at her job to gain the reader’s admiration and create a small disturbance at work to introduce the existence of a villain. Maybe something happens to a coworker’s child. Then perhaps her regular babysitter becomes ill unexpectedly and she needs to find a replacement. Or maybe the babysitter resigns. (This is just a quick example.) Then the reader will worry along with her as she goes through this experience. You must give the reader enough information to get inside of the character’s skin a bit. Give the reader as reason to care.

    To make her more interesting, perhaps there is some past trauma in her life that still haunts her and guides some of her actions. There are so many things you can do to manipulate the reader into wanting to follow your character. Here’s a link that I hope you’ll find helpful:

    https://www.ian-irvine.com/for-writers/article-3-create-great-characters/

    As you revise your opening, think about which of these techniques you can best use to compel the reader to follow your character. Obviously, you don’t have to do everything on the list, but introducing your protagonist is the most important thing that a writer must do. It can make or break your story. Barbara Kyle, also wrote a great article called “Making an Entrance” that I’ve mentioned here before that you can find with a search engine.

    Secondly, pay attention to the grammar:

    “His soulful eyes searched hers, hypervigilant and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.”

    This sentence makes it seem like her eyes were ready to pounce (instead of the dog).

    Also, there’s a lot of “overwriting” going on here that needs editing. Examples:

    “Her eyes swept the haze of her moon-draped room.”

    For me, this sentence is overkill.

    “The Glock shook ever so slightly…”

    Get rid of the “ever so” – it’s not needed. in general, look for ways like this to tighten the writing. Fewer words often have a bigger impact.

    I have an article on “overwriting” and how to correct it on my blog that you may find useful.

    I didn’t have a problem with the “Sampson stealthed” sentence, but maybe my mind is too innocent. See the Wiktionary definition of stealth as a verb:

    “Verb

    stealth (third-person singular simple present stealths, present participle stealthing, simple past and past participle stealthed)

    1. (military, computing) To conceal or infiltrate through the use of stealth.

    There is a slang definition, but I had no reason to think about the “slang” when reading this passage since the passage is in reference to a dog (and I wasn’t familiar with the slang definition). *blush*

    After reading some first pages, I feel like telling many unfortunate writers to get a new hobby. That wasn’t the case here. You can easily use your writing skills to manipulate the reader so they can’t do anything but turn that page. Best of luck and keep writing. I’d love to see your revisions.

    0

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