Monday, 25 February 2013

Baiting Your Hook

As a crime reader, writer and reviewer one of the things that interests me most is that all important first paragraph. A good one grabs me straight away while a bad one turns the air a kind of sweary blue colour. 

A good opening paragraph draws the reader into the book and immerses them in the story from the get go. Small errors later in the novel are forgiven or ignored because the reader is so engrossed in the story. Beware though, when it’s bad the reader may never make it far enough to read all the really good bits of your novel or story. 

Mundane everyday routine is a serious no no in any part of a novel and doubly so in the opening chapter let alone that all important first paragraph. What the reader wants is for something to happen and it’s gotta be exciting. We want a kidnap, violence or the discovery of a body to get our pulses racing. Introspection, routine and banality are not what crime readers want to start off with. Sure, use them as character displaying tools later on to round out your novel but wait until the reader cares about the characters. 

Take for example these two opening lines I’ve just made up. One should tickle your interesting bits while the other is blander than white fish with plain rice. 

·         Detective John Harrison washed the plate, returned it to the cupboard and trudged exhausted up the stairs. Creeping into his children’s bedrooms he kissed them both goodnight before undressing in the master bedroom. The hall light shone onto his wife’s beautiful face and he was tempted to wake her, to tell her of his long boring day shuffling endless forms. Deciding against it he slipped beneath the quilt and fell asleep in seconds.

·         The severed head of a child bounced off my windscreen as I pursued the Corvette. Blood splattered the now starred glass. Two months I had been chasing the McAvoy brothers. Their paedophile ring was going to get shut down. Today! Reaching beneath my jacket I un-holstered the Sig Sauer I always carried.

The first instance is to my mind bland and dull. It shows Harrison as being mostly desk bound and any cop who lives at home with a wife and kids is unlikely to be interesting to a reader unless he has a double life. This could only be used as an opening paragraph if the next paragraph was the one where the action kicked off.

The second instance starts you right in the action with a car chase, murder and paedophilia (surely the most despicable crime) there is also the prospect of revenge or vigilante action and the pulling of the gun announces its imminent arrival.

Get it right and you’re onto a winner right away. Get it wrong and you are struggling to retain your reader’s interest.

Please share your thoughts as to the opening lines that have grabbed you by the throat and forced you to keep reading or the ones which have repelled you.
PS Don't forget about Crime and Publishment. A three day series of writing classes culminating in the chance to pitch your novel to an agent. More info can be found at

Monday, 11 February 2013

Describing a Lead Character

I went to the pub the other night and ended up being asked by two different reader friends, about a certain vertically challenged actor playing the role of a six foot five character. Both conversations got me thinking about how characters are described to readers.

Where do you start and stop when describing your lead character? Do you give a comprehensive description that is practically a photofit, do you circle round the lead darting in with the odd detail or do you say nothing?

Take the aforementioned character – Jack Reacher. We know he’s a big guy, Lee Child tells us that in every book. But what colour are his eyes? Has he a square jaw like Dolph Lundgren or is he a pretty boy like Johnny Depp? Has he scars? I guess his teeth are in good nick due to his one possession – the folding toothbrush – but other than that I don’t know what he looks like other than my own mental image. His age is never given out, although you can work it out from the clues Lee Child leaves.

I like this style of description or rather lack of it. It gives me some ownership of the character. A lot of my favourite authors employ this kind of faceless lead where the reader is given broad details but only enough to form an outline. Then the reader can colour in the character as they see them.

Fleming never gave Bond a face in the books, although we all now picture Connery, Brosnan, Moore, Craig or God forbid Lazenby. Billingham’s Tom Thorne, MacBride’s Logan McRae, Sharp’s Charlie Fox and Hilton’s Joe Hunter are also faceless characters who we the readers give faces to.

Lee Child has openly said that whoever got the part of Reacher would be wrong for the majority (can’t remember the percentage and I’m too busy to do research for such a minor point) of fans and I agree with this sentiment. Just look at any discussion as to which actor or actress would play which character or other. What you end up with is a whole host of names thrown into the hat which some agree with and others don’t.

What makes my teeth itch are massively detailed drawings of characters which are unnecessary. Sure tell me the lead’s eye colour if you want. But I don’t care about the colour of the newsagents eyes if it has no relevance to the story. Don’t waste half a page telling me shit I don’t need to know about someone I don’t care about. Be warned if you do the faceless masses will take me away with them and I won’t return to your novel.  

Johnathan Kellerman gives such detailed description of clothes and perfume that I have taken my readership elsewhere due to physically feeling the tension being stolen from the story. What makes this such a shame is the fact he writes otherwise brilliant novels.

Stuart MacBride once described a character as “a baldy wee fuck of a man”. To my mind you don’t need any more than that to give the reader a snapshot of the character and in MacBride’s example the character’s character.

Please drop a comment below about how you deal with character description.