Hook Me Early or Don’t Bother

I’ve just had a rather frustrating experience with a book sample. I was looking forward to this book. It’s SF from an award-winning author who I have previously read and enjoyed. The overall themes of the book are ones that interest me: Fermi’s paradox and first contact. It promised to be a good, intellectual story. The problem was that when I got to the end of the sample, the story had not yet begun.

The e-book samples for the Kindle are typically about 10% of the book. If it’s overloaded with front-end material, you might not get much of the narrative text, but most fiction books keep that relatively short. The paper version of this book is listed at about 800 pages, and the sample felt pretty long, though perhaps closer to 50 pages than 80. Still, it was a fair amount of text.

And yet, all of those pages were spent on introducing various characters going about their lives and showing off all the cool technology the author had imagined for this world. By the end of the sample, I had met seven or eight characters and also had some background text on the Fermi paradox, some poetry, and some of the recent history of this particular future Earth.

But I didn’t feel like the story had actually started. Instead, I had half a dozen story lines that did not seem to connect at all except that the character in scene fourteen was apparently the mother of the guy in scene nine. In fact, the only character I saw twice was really just one scene broken into two pieces a mere fifteen minutes apart.

In short, the author spent all those pages, and he never hooked me. I had not had enough time with any single character to develop a connection. In fact, the only character that had summoned any emotion from me was a spoiled brat who looked like he was about to die. My emotional reaction? “Good riddance!”

So when I reached the decision point for my purchase, I had not developed any connection with any character, had no desire to see what happened to anyone, and I still had no idea what the book was going to be about. The only reason I know that it’s going to be about Fermi and first contact is because the author has been promoting it like a broken record.

I think this has always been true, but it’s true now more than ever: You need to hook the reader early. How?

  • Give me a few characters to care about. There can be others, but focus on just a few.
  • Show how these characters are going to interact with each other. If they’re not obviously connected, give me some hints on how they will eventually connect.
  • Make it clear what the inciting incident is and that it’s happening right now. Yank these characters out of their ordinary world in the first few pages.
  • Show me a source of conflict early on. It doesn’t have to be THE conflict for the whole book, but at least put something or someone in jeopardy to keep me turning pages.

That’s about it. If you can hit those four things, I’ll keep going past the sample without even looking at the price tag. Miss all of them, and I’m going to go write about it on my blog instead.

And it’s a shame, too, because I was really looking forward to see what this author had to say on the Fermi Paradox. Maybe I should see if he wrote an essay on it.

The Most Annoying of Conflicts

Conflict is at the root of storytelling, and there have been some great ones over the years: stalwart good vs. primal evil, innocence vs. corruption, the power-mad vs. the freedom fighters, and so on. But today I’m going to complain about what I find to be the most annoying conflict of all: not talking. I see this conflict show up a lot between people who should be allies, but because they won’t talk to each other, they end up screwing each other over through pointless infighting.

Let me give you a couple of examples from a book I recently threw across the room. The two main characters are a femme fatale bodyguard and the man she’s protecting. At one point, she tells him to go while he insists on staying. This results in a willful battle between the two as he insists on engaging in some unannounced ritual, leaving them open to attack by a pair of opposition agents. Then afterwards, the bodyguard is laid up in the hospital while the protectee heads off to where the bodyguard wanted him to go in the first place.

Sure, we get a chapter or two of action and introspection out of it, but couldn’t we instead have had some more intelligent characters who actually talked about their opposing desires?

“It’s time for us to go.”
“Actually, I need to stay for a while.”
“Well, I need to engage in this little ritual. It’s important for my health. Let me explain it to you so that you can best protect me while I’m performing it, ok?”
“Sure, I’ll tell the rest of the team to wait for us.”

Admittedly, it’s not nearly as exciting, but it doesn’t make me want to smack the characters around for being stubborn idiots.

The next example from that same book involves those opposition agents who had attacked during the ritual. Our heroine managed to fight them off the first time, but they certainly make another appearance later on. We get, of course, another battle between our bodyguard and the opposition agents. The bodyguard wins, but in her weakened state another bad guy shows up to kidnap the protectee away from her. Only then did these opposing agents tell our heroine that they’re trying to protect the same guy she is and that the real bad buy is the one who just now showed up to kidnap him.

Again, we get another chapter or two of action and discussion, but couldn’t we instead have had some sane decisions by these other agents, like maybe warning the bodyguard early on?

“I know you don’t want to trust us, but we want to keep your guy alive too. Our intelligence tells us that the threats have been coming from Big Bad Jones. We’ll be working that angle, but you should be on the lookout for magical eagles in case we fail. Here’s my number if you have more questions.”

Yeah… that would have pulled the conflict out of maybe the first half of the book, so again, it’s not nearly so exciting. However, as it is, I got so annoyed with the stupidity of these heroes that I stopped having any real sympathy for them. Without that sympathy, I stopped caring whether or not they succeeded in their goals, so I would have been perfectly happy to see Big Bad Jones succeed in his poorly explained plan to destroy the world. At least Big Bad Jones had thus far been acting like a reasonable man. Plus he had the magical eagle thing going for him – how cool is that?

And so I stopped reading the book. There are something like four sequels to this book, but I won’t be buying them. Sorry, author, but you shouldn’t have made your heroes act like such pigheaded dolts in the first book.

Yes, I understand that not all characters are perfect. Yes, I understand the appeal of flawed heroes. And yes, I understand that things going wrong prevent the stories from becoming exercises in wish fulfillment. But I just can’t sympathize with a hero who withholds vital information for no good reason. Maybe I’m just being picky, but as your potential reader, that’s my right.

So, what character flaw/mistake/action will you not put up with in a protagonist?