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Marginal Notes

Editor's Clinic: Hooking your Readers with Character

For the last couple of clinics, we’ve been looking at opening scenes that successfully introduced intriguing characters in a dramatic situation. This morning, we’re looking at a less successful example. I’ve included my comments at the bottom, so read the edited piece over and see what you think.

Incidentally, if you would like to submit your work to the clinic (and I hope you do – submission guidelines are here), you might consider sending in a key dramatic scene from the middle of the work. Please include a quick paragraph explaining who’s who, what they’re doing, and why it matters. It’s natural to submit the opening of your WIP, and hook is important. But the importance of the hook can be overrated, and it’s worth looking at other aspects of writing.


Dusty would be mad,. Jaelle was sure of it. She hadn’t told him of her plans because she knew that, and she wasn’t even sure Bianca would show up. Besides, she instinctively knew he wouldn’t have let her go. [1]

Those first months in Houston, after she came to live with him he wanted to know where she was and who she was talking to every minute of her day. She had to give up the few friends from school that she’d kept in touch with. It had been okay then, even though she’d lost her few friends, because she was crazy about Dusty and excited at the prospect of being part of a family. He was just very She just figured real families were protective, she had told herself. That’s how real families are, she thought, since she had never been part of a real family before. Yes, she thought, Dusty will be mad when he finds out I’ve left the ranch with the cop. For now, she just looked out the car window and tried not to think about what would happen when she got home.

“You’ve never been to Jasper?” Bianca asked. Pat didn’t take you there?” asked Bianca.

Jaelle shook her head. “Pat pretty much just wanted to stay at the ranch. He said he had enough of restaurants and crowds when he was at work in Edmonton, and when he came to the ranch, he was right where he wanted to be. Most days he wanted to go riding to the lake or to check on the cattle, sometimes he went hunting with Dusty. A few times we went into Valemount or Prince George but there’s not much to do in Valemount and Prince George was just for shopping.” [2]

“And your brother? He never took you for a day trip?”

“Not to Jasper. If he had to go pick up stuff in to Valemount or Prince George, he’d take me, but that was just for shopping. Usually after shopping Sometimes we’d have lunch at McDonald’s or somewhere fast.”

“Jasper’s a neat place to visit. You’ll enjoy it.” Bianca offered her a friendly smile, then turned her eyes back to the road. “I’d go stir crazy being stuck on the ranch without a job. You must be a very strong person to have stood it for so long.”

Strong? Jaelle had never thought of it that way, and she didn’t consider herself a strong person. [3] She wanted to become a strong person, and she thought she could, maybe. become one, b Bbut she also thought that living on the ranch for a year without making a single peep rebelling in some way was a sign that she was weak. All those hours alone in her room, she dreamed of breaking out, being free, but she‘d turned over had given up control of her own life to a man. Not to Pat;, although Pat had wanted to turn her into someone that she wasn’t and didn’t want to be., But he was so seldom [4]at the ranch so little that she didn’t have to be afraid of him. No, it that it wasn’t oppressive. She hadn’t felt afraid of Pat. The man who controlled her was Dusty.

Dusty had played her. We are family, he’d said. I will look after you. We’ll be a team. Life will be wonderful if you stick with me. But life wasn’t wonderful and they weren’t equal players on the teammates. She was a player. He was the coach.

“Have you ever been to California?” she asked. They had just passed the turn-off that went south to Valemount and were heading east toward the Alberta border. It was the furthest she’d ever been from the ranch since she arrived. “Have you ever been to California?”

Bianca stole another look at her. “No. I grew up in Quebec. Easterners go to Florida, not California.”

“Me neither.” She sighed. “What’s in Jasper?”

“I thought we’d go to the Lodge, have some lunch, maybe do a short hike.”

“Hike?” Jaelle was glad she’d worn her Reeboks. [5] She felt stupid. What had she imagined doing on a day trip in the Rocky Mountains with a female Canadian cop? Going out with her friends in This wasn’t Houston, where going out with friends usually meant going to a movie or hanging out at the mall, maybe seeing a band if there was one they could afford. This wasn’t Houston. Jasper wasn’t a city. It wasn’t even America. Things were different here.

“Is that okay?” The cop obviously had sensed her Jaelle’s lack of enthusiasm.

“Sure.” She smiled weakly, then to make sure she wasn’t offending Bianca, she nodded so she wouldn’t sound ungrateful and said energetically and added, “Sounds great.even though it didn’t. But it didn’t sound great. For the past year, she’d seen almost nothing but mountains and trees, and she’d often seen deer and moose and bears crossing the fields at the ranch. Now here they were, going to a park that was famous for its views of mountains and trees and deer and moose and bearswildlife. She honestly was ready for some high rises, concrete and city lights. B but Bianca had been kind to her and that was more important to her right now so she wasn’t about determined not to show her disappointment.

That first time, sitting outside the ranch house in Bianca’s car, they had talked more about Pat. Now, on the road, Bianca started asking her questions about her past. What classes did you like in school? Why didn’t you graduate? Did you ever think about going to college? Jaelle kept her first few answers short and vague. Was this an interrogation? But Bianca seemed sincerely interested in her, suggested she was selling herself short, that she had a lot more potential than she gave herself credit for. It felt good.

“You and your brother didn’t grow up together?” Bianca said. “How did that happen?”

Dunno. I was a baby when I was put in foster care. I haven’t a clue what happened.” [6]

“Does Dusty remember you?”

“He’s only four years older than me, so no. He says nodoesn’t really remember either.”

“He must have known he had a little sister. Did he search for you? How did you manage to connect?”

Jaelle told her about them “He was sitting beside me each other in the probation office and . “He thought there was something familiar about me. Y , you know, we’ve both got dark hair and eyes. He was sure we had the same background.”

“Background? You mean, parents.”

Jaelle hestitated. Shit. How could she answer so it wouldn’t sound stupid, so Bianca would stop asking questions about it. “No. Yes. Sort of. He’s pretty sure we had the same parents but we don’t have it in writing, exactly.if you know what I mean.

“But you have the same last name, right?”

“Well, sort of. The DFPS — that’s the so-called Protective Services — their documents said my last name was Amante.”

Amante. That’s a pretty name. The way you say it, it sounds Italian. In French, amante — the e at the end is silent — means lover. A female lover.” Bianca was quiet a moment, busy concentrating passing on the road as she pulled out to pass a semi that had slowed down on a hill. “But his last name is Freeman. And you told the Sergeant your last name is Freeman, too. Didn’t he ask to see your ID?”

Jaelle looked out her window. Another mountain. More trees. “I’m pretty sure Dusty showed him my ID. It says Freeman.”

“So you changed your name to Freeman?”

It was too complicated for me. Dusty helped.” She could tell Bianca was looking at her, so she looked the other way, out her side window, until Bianca’s eyes were back on the road.

“So why were you on probation?”

Jaelle sighed. “Shoplifting, . It was a teenage thing,. Aall my friends were doing it.”

“And Dusty?”

“He stole something from a parked car.”

“Another teenage thing?”

“Sort of. He had this friend who was Romani. Gypsy, you know? They hung out together. D, did stuff, you know? This friend told him that it was okay for Romani to steal. God gave them the right, because a Romani blacksmith made the nails when Jesus was crucified, but he didn’t give them the nail that was supposed to go through Jesus’s heart.”

Bianca just nodded, looking ahead, her face serious. It made Jaelle was feel uncomfortable. She cursed herself for talking too much. “I don’t believe it myself, because I didn’t grow up that way, bin that culture. But Dusty is sure we’re Romani, both of us.”

Both of you? I’m confused. He thinks your parents were Romani but that he might not really be your brother?”

“He is my brother, okay? I just didn’t grow up with the same last name. I don’t know. Anyway, about the Jesus thing., I guess it made them feel better about stealing stuff. The Romani people, I mean.” Jaelle needed to shut up nowdecided she’d said enough. “Okay, now you tell me something about you. You grew up in Quebec. Don’t they all speak French there?”



1. I’ve changed the rhythm of her dialogue a bit and added a little repetition to try to give her a more vulnerable voice.

2. I don’t think we need to hear about Valemont and Prince George twice.

3. Note that you can capture that whole observation with a single word.

4. The “so seldom” construction seemed a little too formal, given her background and education.

5. You’re having her feel glad and stupid at the same time. That does happen, but it’s not necessary and is likely to confuse readers. I’d forget the Reeboks to keep it simple.

6. Again, “I haven’t a clue” is a bit sophisticated.

This opening isn’t quite as dramatic as the last two we’ve looked at. There are some hints that Dusty is dangerous, and that his past with Jaelle is sketchy enough that a policewoman is asking about it. We don’t know just what the relationship is between Jaelle and Pat, so there’s room for something sinister there, as well. But Jaelle doesn’t seem overly frightened of either one of them, and Bianca doesn’t seem ready to perform an intervention, so there’s no sense of urgency about the situation.

Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. Some stories naturally grow slowly. But even so, you want to give readers as much reason to keep going as possible. That’s why I’ve concentrated my editing on giving Jaelle’s dialogue a more individual voice, making her speech a bit less formal and more rambling. I’m hoping this gives the impression that she’s less confident and more vulnerable to whatever manipulations Dusty and Pat might be up to. And if she’s less well equipped to stand up to the situation, then the tension is greater, even though it isn’t clear what the situation might be.

Of course, I’m working in the dark, here. I haven’t read the rest of the manuscript and don’t know what Laelle’s situation is, who she turns out to be, or even who she really is at the moment. But however she turns out, making readers care more about her is a way to hook them without feeding them any more information.