There’s always two ways to put something out there. The room divides in terms of which hits hardest… the in-your-face “don’t make this mistake!” approach… or the more positive, “here’s a better way you can do it.”
Frankly, I can lean either way. I mention this because today’s headline cuts both ways. I came to it from the dark side — I read a lot of story plans in my work as a writing coach, and this one is a common problem area: people are opening their novels with the wrong (less effective) strategy. Instead of starting it with a bang, they open with a.. “meh.”
The awareness of which, with a light shining on this subtle little story killer, opens the door to a better, more effective way to craft an opening scene, or scenes.
They call it a hook. And most hooks work best when they display a sharp point, and perhaps a barb.
It has to do with the way you introduce your protagonist.
Which doesn’t have to happen in the first chapter, but more often that not, that’s when we do it.
As context, let’s acknowledge that all of us start the drafting process with something in mind. Often that thing — our initial clarity — is a pretty solid notion of who your protagonist is, as a person, as a hero, as a flawed subject of our (reader) empathy. We’re excited about that… and so, we begin with that.
Right there is where temptation — and risk — awaits.
Every scene in your novel should, exposition wise, present something that is happening. Something that is unfolding for the reader and the character.
Keep this in mind: A good story isn’t just about your protagonist. Rather, it is about something happening to your protagonist. Something that puts them on a path, gives them a quest (the pursuit of the solution to a problem or the filling of a need), against clear opposition, with something at stake.
That path doesn’t manifest in your opening hook scene, at least not in a fully formed way (that moment happens at the First Plot Point, about 60 to 80 pages down the road).
The mistake in question here happens when, rather than offering up something happening right out of the gate, instead you introduce your character… and just that. Sometimes using a lot of backstory at this point, usually too much.
As in… too much, too soon.
I just read a story in which the first 15 pages was all about the character taking a solo road trip. As the trip progresses, mile after lonely mile, the character reflects on his life. All those mistakes. Lost loves. Dead dreams.
And absolutely nothing else. Nothing at all happens.
Meanwhile, the reader has no idea why this guy is on a road trip, where he’s going, and why we should care… about him or the road trip, or anything else. It’s about as compelling as the grocery check out guy launching into an auto-biographical litany about their childhood.
Because there is no context for it.
Because there is no sense of anything happening.
Instead, this writer’s hook is all about what has already happened. Past tense. Backstory.
It is all about the hero. Long before that character has a shot at becoming a hero.
Which only really works when the hero is engaged with a story.
It didn’t work. It rarely does.
Why? Because I didn’t care.
Not yet, at least.
The Higher Road
The better hook, almost always, is to find a way to make the reader care about your protagonist… and do it before you give us their life story.
Conquer the urge to tell us who your protagonist is, based on who they were. Tell us less, not more.
Then, open with a situation in which your protagonist has to react, make decisions, take action. Have something at stake in the scene. Show us who they are via those decisions and actions, and thus make us care about who they were, as well as who they will become.
Tease us with possibilities.
Foreshadow the story to come. Give us a sense of purpose and stakes, even before we know precisely what they are within the framework of your story. Create context for what the story will eventually be.
In the story I just mentioned, it would have worked better if we’d have seen our hero stopping at an accident scene to help someone before the ambulance arrives. Taking action. Or not. Either way, the character realizes this is a microcosm of who they are, and acknowledges that it has been a long road to get to this point. Within that narrative you could tease at where he’s going, and why it matters.
Just don’t tell us what that road was. Not yet, anyway.
The art of the hook…
… is to pose a question to the reader, to which they will enthusiastically continue in a search for the answer. Make us care about that answer, because your protagonist just might be worth the time.
Easy? Not at all. This is a key moment in the story, and as such, requires a deft and artful touch. The touch of a pro, rather than a well-meaning rookie storyteller. Many of whom are guilty of this backstory-lead misstep.
It is the sum of those artful touches that make a story work, and will give your story the shot it deserves at landing an agent, getting published, and/or finding readers.
Interested in seeing how your story is working?
Consider choosing in for either of the two levels of story analysis I offer, at a ridiculously affordable fee (especially relative to long-run value — because it can save your story, even before you’ve finished it — and compared to the orders-of-magnitude more costly full manuscript evaluation approach… which I also offer.)
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