Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Crafting Great Story Openings (Story Hooks)


If most people could sum up their typical day in one word, overwhelming might be at the top of the list.

Think about your typical day. You have places to go, people to see, bills to pay, children to feed, spouses to listen to, bosses to deal with, appointments to make, and other unexpected diversions (some pleasant and some not-so-pleasant) coming at you from all sides. You really could use a break to relax and unwind, but it’s got to be a quick one because you don’t have much time. You have things to do!

What does the mad pace and constant rush of our current culture got to do with writing fiction? To put it succinctly—everything. A writer doesn’t have much time to get the twenty-first century reader hooked into a story before the reader realizes he/she has a million other things to do and puts the book (or Kindle) down to go tackle the to-do list. If you want to entice readers to pick up your book and keep turning pages—even when the kids are yelling for supper—then you’ve got to create a strong interest in your story and characters quickly using a bare minimum of words.

“But wait,” I hear some of you saying. “I have to tell the reader all about this wonderful world I’ve created first. I have to tell them about the planet’s terrain and the weather conditions, and the fantastic hairstyles they all have, and how the price of coffee affects who they vote for to become their supreme dictator…” 

I have just one word of advice about this sort of thing: Don’t.

The opening lines and pages of a story have one purpose only—to grab readers by the heartstrings and make them care about a character and the circumstances this character finds himself or herself in. If you’re using the opening pages to describe the weather, how are readers supposed to come to care for your character and his/her story? The reader wants to connect immediately with a character and experience his/her pain, joy, fear, or anxiety. The details of the setting can wait. Get us cheering for a character first.

One of the best ways to hook a reader is by starting in the middle of a scene that illustrates the character’s “journey”—a physical and/or emotional journey. In other words, the character from the very first line is about to take an action or make a decision that will change the course of his/her life. It can be as big as saving an entire star system or it can be more intimate like deciding whether or not to go on a blind date (the premise of one of my novels). Whatever the action, don’t start at the “absolute beginning” and list all the minute details, but rather start somewhere in the middle of the scene closer to the point when the character makes the decision that will propels him or her on a journey. 
What's missing from this pretty picture? Maybe it's a "who"? 
You need a character in your opening scene, not just scenery.

Let’s say your heroine has already decided to go on the blind date. The first scene could show her getting ready for the hero to arrive at her front door, and he’s more than an hour late. Think emotions. What is going through her head right now? Fear? Boredom? Frustration? Did he back out at the last minute? Was he killed in a car accident? There are many emotions your heroine could be feeling, so choose one and start with it. Here’s the first line I’d go with:

“Some blind date he is—how dare he keep me waiting!” 

There’s a hint of frustration there, isn’t there? And possibly a little fear or worry. But as you can tell, I didn’t describe what my heroine is wearing or how she fixed her hair or even give her name. All those things can wait. The first line doesn’t need details—it needs to help your reader identify with a character and feel his/her emotions as if they were the reader’s own. If you’ve ever felt stood up while waiting for your date to arrive, I bet you can relate.

My next paragraph might be:

Rachel stomped her foot and growled at the back of her front door. It had been at least six weeks since her co-worker caught her in the break room crying over Billy dumping her. Why had she allowed Maddie to set her up on this stupid blind date with her bumpkin cousin who didn’t seem to own a watch? Did she really seem all that desperate?  On Monday morning, Rachel vowed to give Maddie a piece of her mind!

You’ll notice that a first scene doesn’t need to tell the reader tons of background information. By showing the reader what is happening in the hearts and minds of your characters, the back story will come through. Keep in mind that fiction writers aren’t “storytellers”. In reality, writers are “story show-ers”.  If you show your characters living their lives through their words and actions, you will never need to tell how they feel or bore readers with dry details. Your readers will experience your story through the character’s emotions and reactions to the situation. Your readers will live the scene through your characters…

And then you’ll have hooked them into your fictional world and the fascinating characters who inhabit it and the relationships they experience. The soup may boil over and the boss may keep texting, but your readers won’t want to put your book down because they have been caught up in a whirlwind of emotions and feel as if they’ve truly come alive inside your story. Now, that’s a great hook.

For more easy-to-follow tips on how to impress an editor and get your manuscript published,  read Defeating the Slushpile Monster.
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A J said...

Excellent advice. I don't like 'weather reports' taking up the first paragraphs... or several pages... or chapters... Another thing I detest is the practice of using several paragraphs or one huge paragraph to describe an action which should take a split-second. To would-be writers who're tempted to do so - just don't.

Cindy said...

There's a great quote that goes something like, "The true art of writing is in the rewrite."

So many opening pages of your first draft could probably be edited out during revision, but why go through that much hassle? Start out with emotions and character. Keep it lean and clean and exciting. Less to edit out later. (And you could perhaps add some of those edited pages to a later part of your manuscript.)

Just sayin'!

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