Tag Archives: beginnings

Who Hooked You And How?

466523_jamaican_fisher_manLast week we looked at the opening paragraphs of ten novels to see which hooked readers most often. I find these exercise informative. What was it that grabbed readers’ attention and why?

The poll results are in. Only one vote separated our top two entries.

In the top slot was Choice B
I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

In second place was Choice C:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

And now the big reveal: who are these authors and from what books did these openings come?

Choice A Storm by Evan Angler
Choice B Fathom by Merrie Destefano
Choice C Prophet by R. J. Larson
Choice D Cracks in the Ice by Deanna Klingel
Choice E Crosswind by Steve Rzasa
Choice F Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard
Choice G The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell
Choice H Soul’s Gate by James Rubart
Choice I The New Recruit by Jill Williamson
Choice J Beckon by Tom Pawlik

Here are my general observations about openings that hook:

The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected–warm snow, seeing a ghost.

They also created tension. The middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, and the protagonist starts awake. The tension is palatable. Perhaps less so, but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash “like menacing shadows.”

The openings that hook also created a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?

Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: “… the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away.” And “some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.”

In Prophet: “Tarnished snow” and “mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square.”

The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.

Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She’s observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.

I think it’s fair to say that the other openings shared some of these same elements–but perhaps not all. They may have included things these top two did not.

In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but I don’t think you can go wrong if you surprise your audience, create tension and questions with evocative language while introducing them to an interesting character.

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Where To Start

812863_pink_fitness_center
At the beginning of a new year, thoughts turn to fresh starts. More people create bucket lists, start exercise programs or new diets, and make promises to stop smoking or staying up too late.

For writers, the new year is a good time to do a re-evaluation, too, or to start a new project. If you’re in the latter category and are planning to write that book you’ve been thinking about, I suggest keeping in mind a couple basic points.

  • Avoid jumping on bandwagons. If you’ve read a really good story about a boy wizard, a vampire, or a mermaid, I suggest you look for a different concept and avoid joining in with any number of others who might think they want to write about about those characters after reading the same books. If you’ve seen a successful movie about a hobbit, it’s not the best idea to write a book about a hobbit. If you’ve watched a cool TV program about fairytales, it’s not the best idea to write a retake of a fairytale. Why?

    For one thing, agents and editors will not look at your work as if it is fresh and original. For another, it is harder to make your work stand out above others trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do.

  • Avoid copying trends. This is a correlation to the first point. Because a certain genre is hot or because editors or agents say they are looking for this or that kind of book, this is not the time to start writing those books. For one thing, you well may be starting out when other writers who aren’t chasing trends but are writing to their natural bent, are finishing up. In other word, by the time you read that something is the new “in” genre, it’s probably too late to start a project in that genre.

    For another, by chasing trends, you may well write something that you aren’t particularly qualified to write. For example, if you hear that middle grade boy fantasies are the next hot thing, replacing young adult dystopian fantasy, you may not be well versed in what the differences are between middle grade and young adult books. You may also have a sharp learning curve to write straight fantasy as opposed to dystopian fantasy.

    None of these are impossible, of course. But if a writer is chasing a trend instead of trying to start one, he’s behind the pack at the start.

  • running marathonDon’t sign up to run a marathon simply because you’ve started walking the track. In other words, don’t set your sights too high too soon. Nothing can discourage a writer more than getting into a project only to find out that it is much more demanding than what he anticipated.

    The cure for this, of course, is to do your homework. If you decide you want to self-publish a book, then do the research to learn what all is involved–both in time, expertise, and money. Can you afford this project? Do you know enough about book covers and editing and promotion to make this work? Or can you afford to hire professionals to do what you cannot? With your other responsibilities, will you have the time to complete the project?

  • Study writing. Too often those who wish to write don’t realize that different types of writing require different skills. One of the best writers of non-fiction I know decided to write fiction. Unfortunately this author did not take the time to study fiction technique and the result is … less than successful.

    The point is, success in one area should not blind a writer to the need to do the hard work to learn the components of a new type of writing. For most of us, fiction is a new type of writing. We may have read stories all our lives, but we haven’t written fiction. We may have written blogs, articles, reports, letters, and emails all our lives, but those are not stories. Hence, we need to study what makes good fiction if we want to write a novel.

  • Continue to learn no matter how much success you have. One of the best professional basketball players in history used to spend his summer working on a new shot or move so that he would have something new in his arsenal for the new season. No matter how many championships he won, he continued that approach. The man was a millionaire, and he had wide acclaim from his peers and fans, yet he was not satisfied with what he’d accomplished in the past and knew that he had to master greater skills if he wanted to stay at the top.

    Unfortunately, it seems too many writers make getting published their goal, and once they have published, even if they self-publish, they relax. They no longer work to improve because they are satisfied. They make no effort to expand their audience or win others over by their improving writing skills.

  • Think past the obvious. Rather than settling for the first story idea that comes to you, push yourself to think of other possibilities. Rather than using the first descriptive word that comes to mind, look for something more interesting, specific, or unique.

    In the third point above, I originally wrote “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” It’s a familiar phrase–a cliché actually–but it communicates the thought I wanted. However, its very familiarity would most likely make it forgettable. Creating a new comparison has a greater chance of not only showing the principle, but of becoming memorable.

What tips do you have for writers who might be thinking of starting a new project?

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Filed under Concept And Development, Writing Process

Hooks Versus Openings

Recently the Writer’s Digest published an article that compiled the views of writing professionals on opposing sides of certain writing “rules” issues. One of the topics dealt with the novel opening, or hook.

How exactly should a novel begin? Should the author rope you in with intrigue and suspense, then never let you go? (The hook).

This is the view author and writing instructor Jerry B. Jenkins took:

I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …” Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?

Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an “inciting incident,” or at least something that implies that a main character’s status quo has been interrupted.

You tell me. Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, “When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye”?

It’s not gunfire, not murder, not mayhem. But I’m betting you want to know what’s going on and will stick with me until you find out.

The opposing view (the opening) was given by writing professional Steve Almond:

The single most common problem I see in student manuscripts is that they are incredibly confusing. They are incredibly confusing because student authors often refuse to orient the reader by providing basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are, and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead, we’re plunged into a kind of ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.

The central reason student writers succumb to this is because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” They assume that the best way to do this is to dispense with all the “boring background” and get us right to the fancy prose.

Well, what’s an unpublished writer to do (or even a published one seeking to improve)? These two experienced, qualified, successful published writers, who teach the craft, do not agree.

Or … is it that they are emphasizing different things about how a novel should begin? I doubt very much if Mr. Jenkins is advocating confusion:

    Never mind if readers understand what’s happening, just get your character in danger; create suspense and readers will be with you.

No, I don’t think so.

At the same time, I don’t think Mr. Almond is advocating an opening that is void of tension:

    The facts, that’s what readers need. Tell them who is in the scene, where this takes place, how they’re all dressed, and everyone’s hair and eye color.

Uh, that’s unlikely, too.

In actuality, though they seem to be saying contradictory things, they are both right. In the list I posted last week of the things readers at Spec Faith did not like in the brief novel openings they examined, you’ll find “confusing” and “no action”; “disjointed” and “no urgency (importance).”

On the flip side, in stating what they did like in an opening, these readers mentioned “clear” (more than once) but also “created curiosity,” “tension,” and “intrigue.”

Quite obviously, the novel openings that work the best do both — they orient readers and they engage them from the start. How is this possible?

I’ll admit, I’m still learning this skill. I know it when I see it, but it’s hard to spell out. I will say this. One element should not be sacrificed for the other. In other words, a writer shouldn’t seek clarity to the point of omitting intrigue. Neither should a writer swing for the opening-hook fences by trying to be so clever that readers can’t figure out what in the world (or out of it) is happening.

I’ll add this. A few novels end up with the kinds of opening lines that are truly memorable, but a lot of great ones that are on many people’s favorite lists have much quieter beginnings. Not boring, though. Just not of the quotable variety.

Perhaps too many writers, in an effort to find the quotable, are forgetting to create a memorable character and scene. After all, readers also remarked that they liked an opening that suggested a larger world or created an interesting voice.

In short, hooks work only if they open a story readers care about, and openings work only if they hook the reader into the story.

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Story Beginnings – A Look at The Enclave by Karen Hancock

The CSFF Blog Tour is featuring Karen Hancock’s latest release, a science fiction/suspense entitled The Enclave. As I’ve visited other blogs and read reviews, I’ve seen a couple things that stand out to me as a writer, but for now I want to focus on the beginning of the story.

A number of people thought the novel started slowly, but some, like me, were hooked from the beginning. What is it about a book that pulls some readers in right away while leaving others out in the cold? Here are the opening lines of The Enclave:

    Cameron Reinhardt is an idiot!
    Yes, he had a PhD from Stanford. Yes, he was widely acknowledged as a brilliant geneticist. Yes, Director Swain called him the field’s brightest rising star, the Institute’s greatest asset, and a fabulous hiring coup. But this wasn’t the first time Lacey McHenry wondered how the man managed to get up in the morning and make it to his office fully clothed.

As I examine these lines several things draw me in.

1) A strong opinion. Granted, I don’t know the characters yet, so I don’t know if the point of view character is right and this geneticist is an idiot, or not. But it creates a question in my mind. Is he an idiot?

2) Conflict. The POV character is obviously at odds with the geneticist, but also with Director Swain, and perhaps the entire institute. While all these others think Reinhardt is wonderful, she alone thinks he’s an idiot.

3) The question of an internal struggle. What could motivate someone to go against a leader and an institution? One possibility is that the POV character is truthful and sees things others do not see. Another possibility is professional jealousy. If the latter, then the seeds of an internal struggle have been sown.

For me, these three elements were enough to capture my attention, and the rest of the page and chapter held it firmly.

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