Kay: Close the Book or Turn the Page? Hooking Readers

Photo by AntanO

Photo by AntanO

The other day I got caught in a long wait without the new book I’d just started, so I pulled out my phone and started a book from my digital TBR pile. It was great! I liked the protagonist, a 20-year police veteran, now a PI, shattered from a tragic personal event, resisting the lure of paid clients. And then this dame walks through the door…

And I was off and running. I loved the PI, loved the dame, loved the premise. And then—on a stakeout, the PI leaves his gun on the passenger seat, his laptop on the back seat, his burglary tools and other equipment in an open bag on the floor…and doesn’t lock his car door.

Boom, just like that, I was done. What cop turned PI—anyone at all—wouldn’t lock their car with all that stuff visible? No one. Behavior like that is either a screaming Plot Device, or it foreshadows an investigator who’s too stupid to live. Either way, I didn’t read one more page.

Hooking the reader at the beginning of the story is difficult, but crucial for writers. My instant turnoff of this mystery reminded me of Nancy’s recent post, describing her many rewrites of her first chapter as she works to find the true starting point of her story. And Jenny Crusie, in a recent post of hers, wrote of her struggle to figure out who her hero is. A different character emerges with each draft, she says.

So—story, character, plot. You have to do it all, and you have to do it well, and you have to do it soon in your book, or the readers will just delete it and turn off their phones.

In my own case, my manuscript has been limping along. I go for a while thinking I’ve figured out what’s wrong with it, only to see 10 or 15 pages later that what I thought was right isn’t right after all. Now what I think is wrong is that my conflict isn’t sharp enough and isn’t embodied in one antagonist character clearly enough. And the stakes aren’t high enough for my protagonist, either.

Which means I have to go back to that beginning. See what I can do to sharpen everything so I can hope to hook that reader. At least by going back to the beginning, I’ll be in good company.

What about you? Does your first chapter work okay for you?


5 thoughts on “Kay: Close the Book or Turn the Page? Hooking Readers

  1. I’m happy my story starts in the right place. Unlike Nancy I only have one protagonist, which helps. The stakes are high, and the action kicks in quickly, so I’m doing a lot and doing it soon. I’m less confident I’m doing it well. Fantasies take a lot of world-building and the challenge is to offer enough to draw the reader in without bogging the story down or boring them. My opening scene shopping list includes: better establishment of place and time, stronger use of voice, and more sensory detail, all without dragging down the pacing. Other than that, it’s all good 😉 .

    • I’ve read that opening chapter, Jilly, and while you’ve probably made improvements since I saw it, it was spectacular. I’m sure hitting the right emphasis on world building will be tricky, but I’m confident you’ll get it right!

  2. I think this may be a place where several beta readers would have come to the rescue. Perhaps the writer was writing so fast that s/he forgot to establish why the PI would leave things unlocked? IDK, everyone has different trigger points. I would probably give something like that a pass and keep reading. But if someone wrote about a “full moon rising in the east at midnight” (on earth, of course), I’d totally be like, “OK, I’m going to give you a pass, but that’s Strike One, sucker. Any more sloppiness, and I’m out of here.”

    I note, too, that when I was a kid, I would finish just about anything, hoping it would get better. As I get older, I don’t have time for that. I’ve given up on more books in the last five years than I have in the previous 30 or so of my reading career.

    I re-wrote my chapter of my WIP about two months ago, and I’m happier with it in the new POV. I miss a few insights that came through in the old POV, but I think I’m better with the second version. The thing I do worry about, though, is that even though *I* know how both characters are seeing the scene, I might forget to make it explicit to the reader. We’ll see . . . I’m counting on the Beta Readers for this whenever I get this monstrosity done.

    • I know what you mean, Michaeline, but I guess I wasn’t in a forgiving mood. I thought (knew!) she was setting up a situation where the gun would be used in bad way, and the computer data would be used in a bad way, and I just didn’t buy it. The bad guys could have broken into the car, for heaven’s sake. He didn’t have to leave it unlocked.

      Speaking of the moon rising in the east, though, and similar geographical mistakes—I once picked up a book where the first sentence of the first chapter was “Their farm was located twenty miles east of Sheboygan, Wisconsin,” which would have placed that farm underwater in Lake Michigan. Ha! Where are the editors? I didn’t finish that one, either. 🙂

      • (-: You don’t owe an author anything, even the forgiving mood business. And authors have to remember that every reader or critiquer has quirks.

        LOL, I love that about Sheboygan. I never would have caught it . . . if I knew, I would definitely read further to see if it was about agricultural mermaids. Possibly, it could have been an attempt to totally fictionalize the place — “Oh, it can’t be Farm X, because as you know, Sheboygan people, MY farm is under water.”

        But now I’m making up stories (-:. Anyway, in the past I have been entirely too lenient on authors, and have finished far too many stinkers that I could have easily abandoned in chapter three.

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