Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hook, Line, and Sinker

If I had a nickel for everytime I've heard someone say "start your story with action," I wouldn't need to publish my books because I'd already be rich.

This was one of the first things I heard when I started writing my first novel. So, I dutifully wrote an action scene as an opening paragraph. Imagine my surprise when I went off to read books for the same age group and genre, and discovered that more than half of them didn't start with action. Some started with introspection, some with backstory, and some with dialog. And many of these were award winners! What gives?

Obviously these openings were working, even though they weren't following the supposed rules, so I laid them all out and looked for common threads, themes, or anything else that might clue me in as to what was going on.

I discovered this: each and every opening asked some sort of question. Not necessarily a straight-out question, but information was presented in such a way that the reader couldn't help but want to find out more. So he keeps reading, and, before you know it, he can't stop.

Character Voice played a part as well. If the main character isn't interesting, why would we read about him? But I've had so much to say on character lately that I think I will let my other blog posts speak for this one. :)

Another thing I discovered: the story's premise was introduced within the first few pages. This was also part of the hook. I've read stories with a zinger of a first paragraph, and then lost interest a page or so later. In those cases, the author didn't follow through with the promise he'd made in that first sentence, and just assumed I'd hang around to see if he'd get back to it. That's a big assumption to make.

Because of all of this, I think "opening hook" is bigger than most writers think. Much bigger than simply starting with action. It has more to do with giving your reader a glimse of what he can expect in your story as a whole. I.E. will it be funny? Serious? Romantic? Mysterious? Each of those award winners managed to present the heart of the story, at the same time hooking me with questions and teaser information. Keeping all that straight and coherent is mind-boggling, but I guess that's why they won awards. :)

Miss Snark's First Victim is hosting another "Are You Hooked" contest, this time with a real agent in the mix. So get your first page into shape and visit her site for submissions info on July 14th!

12 comments:

Jacqui said...

I think your point about a voice and a question are the keys for me. I need to feel like I can trust the narrator and will be entertained by his/her voice for however many pages, and I need to have a reason to keep reading, preferably something I want to know.

Good summary.

Tabitha said...

Thanks! :) "A reason to keep reading" is a good way to put it. :)

WordWrangler said...

OOOOH. GREAT POST! Your observations are right on target, IMO! So many of the suggestions we receive are fine - if used in context. Sounds like you did your homework and found the key. Nicely explained. Keep your posts coming. I'm inspired!

Mary Witzl said...

Sometimes I think I must have gotten up in the middle of the night and written a post of yours; you seem to capture the essence of what I've been thinking and feeling, and then our templates are exactly the same, so obviously our great minds think alike.

I don't need a book to start with action. I need it to start with a mystery that I want to see solved, a person that I feel an immediate sympathy with, particularly one who is in a difficult situation I want to see her get out of, or someone who is on a quest or having an adventure. I want to laugh and cry and visit a world I've never been to before. If I have any of those elements but not a single bit of 'action' per se, I'm happy.

Tabitha said...

Donna - Thanks! It's nice to hear I'm not the only one who thinks this way, and that I'm not crazy. :)

Mary - Great minds DO think alike! :) I look for those exact things when I first pick up a book. And most of my favorite openings don't begin with an action sequence.

Pema said...

I've heard that line so many times before - but you're right, a lot of books don't start with action.

I never thought of it that way... I knew you need to keep the reader going but I think of it as a question... Good detective skills! ;)

beth said...

Great post! It really is about hooking a reader...and action isn't the only hook. In my first novel, I started in media res with action. Several agents wrote in their rejections how they would _rather_ have had more background before the action--that starting with the action made them not really identify with the character (read: they didn't care about what happened to her). It's a fine line....

Tabitha said...

Pema - Thanks! I think a lot of the most common writer's advice is repeated way too often, and rarely expanded or investigated. This particular instance made me investigate other common pieces of advice, which either have become or will become blog posts. :)

Beth - It's a very fine line. The reader has to care, plus the reader has to be in a situation to keep them interested, plus the reader needs to know what kind of story this is. SO much to balance, and I think it's easy to trip up and fall flat on your face. :) But that's how we learn, right?

PJ Hoover said...

I've been starting with action a lot lately, and so far it seems to work really well (for me). But after writing the first draft, it helps me to go back and make sure it's not just all action but the underlying tones and motivations for the whole story moving forward.

Tabitha said...

Glad it's working for you! That's probably a part of your style, or the kind of books you write. Either way, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. :)

Simon Haynes said...

Good post! I'm here because Kerryn just commented on my blog for today, letting me know you'd covered the same topic a couple of days ago.

Tabitha said...

Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you found it helpful. I'll have to thank Kerryn for the plug. :)