Another January day, another mystery!
As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.
Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES
Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?
Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:
A Ghost of Caribou by Alice Henderson
Once again, we have a prologue, and once again, this is where the action happens.
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On a technical level, the writing itself is fine: the pacing of the action is clear. The details help us see the woman being chased by a “thing.” Yet this prologue also feels very distant; we’re not really feeling things as the character feels, but merely stand as witness as this old woman runs and is eventually captured. And that’s something that snapped me back to reality, too: a seventy-two-year-old is outrunning what sounds like a drone through dangerous terrain in the dark. Whaaat?! It reminds me of the opening sequence to a tv episode like X-Files, where we’ve got to see someone in danger so we can be motivated to keep watching and see that person be saved.
But this is not TV. This is a book. And so we have the words and ability to gather the words that could help readers feel what someone in danger is feeling.
The first chapter’s opening pages continue to give me those “TV vibes.” After writing the characters’ full names for the reader, Henderson then has the characters say their names as if they’ve not seen one other in twenty years. “Alex Carter!” “Ben Hathaway!” But they did see each other only a year ago. Why this double-dump of information? It happens again when Ben asks if Alex wants to get something from the coffee shop. We get double-details that the shop is decorated with local art on the walls and has an “artistic” vibe. This kind of repetitive description simply isn’t necessary, especially since such an environment has become quite common in the western world and therefore is easy for readers to picture. Again, it feels like these details are there as if a script needs a quick setting description before the dialogue starts.
But this is not TV. This is a book, where every word counts. And when one’s writing a mystery, those words should always propel us toward the mystery’s heart rather than its “artistic” walls of generic detail.
No matter what the season brings, keep reading!
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!