A Better Way to Open Your Novel

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.

The Mistake

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.)

Click HERE for the $95 Concept/Premise level of analysis.

Click HERE for the $195 Full Story Plan level.

Email me (storyfixer@gmail.com) for a quote on evaluating and coaching your full manuscript.

17 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

17 Responses to A Better Way to Open Your Novel

  1. When I’m not Hooked from the first few pages, I usually put a book down, and unless it’s one of my favorite authors, I’m not likely to pick it up ever again. Hooking the reader is SO important. There’s an author, Lauren Weisberger (she wrote the Devil Wears Prada). Her stories are really, really great… BUT she’s not very good at Hooking you from page one, and I will admit that I’ve had to put her books down while reading them, and then force myself to pick them up again and keep reading. BUT, she can be flaky with her Hooks (and with keeping the story moving) because she’s a bestselling author and already has a following. An unknown writer cannot be. The unknown writer only has one shot at Hooking the reader–and keeping them.

    Thanks for this awesome reminder that we’ve gotta Hook the reader from the very beginning!

  2. A three minute pop song can build for 30 seconds, maybe even 45, before it really delivers during the chorus. When we know we’re only invest 2:36 or whatever, we’ll give it a chance.

    But hand me a book where nothing happens for the first 50 pages and I’m gone.

    Storytelling is such a part of me that I can’t imagine flailing that badly. Hook ’em on page one if I can.

  3. Hannah

    Thanks so much for addressing this issue! I see this type of backstory-opener all the time, even in published novels and it’s always, always a deal-killer for me.

    So often, that same chunk of backstory would have made for a jaw-dropping revelation or at least a satisfying deepening of character context if delivered much later in the story. And the writer could have built suspense by referencing the backstory without fully explaining it until later (though I think writers should be careful not to overuse this technique–the references and hints should be revealed organically, not tauntingly, as that gets tiresome)

    I’ve heard the advice to deliver your backstory way, way later than you think it’s needed, but are there any guidelines for when in the story to deliver it? I don’t mean percentage of the way through the story, but rather other markers? I’ve heard to deliver it right before your audience needs to know it to understand something, I that can come off as forced and reduces the reader’s pleasure at connecting the dots themselves…

  4. And then there are books (published) that deliver a great hook and then never follow through. I hate it when I read a book, great hook gets me into the story and interested in the characters, then the story side-rails, the characters I liked never arc or disappear completely. ARG! If it wasn’t on my Kindle I’d through it across the room.

  5. Dale Day

    Anyone who seeks $$$ for reviewing a work is nothing but a prostitute.

  6. @Dale – allow me to clarify. I don’t “review” books (as in, write book reviews for Amazon or elsewhere) for money. Never have, never will. For you to post this shows you’re really new, and/or ignorant about how this works, so let me explain.

    I provide a coaching service. Like a personal trainer or a nutrition specialist, a shrink or even a doctor. I help people make their novels better, applying 30 years of experience and a track record in doing so.

    Maybe you think I should provide this service for free, which, if that’s the case, you’re even more clueless than you appear. Or maybe you should hold your tongue and your off-the-mark commentary until you know what you’re talking about. Larry

  7. Pamela Moriarty

    Reviewing and coaching are two entirely different things, Dale. I have availed myself of Larry’s coaching services three times. I consider it the best value in town. What I learned from his guidance as I struggled with unwieldy manuscripts was worth five times what I paid. He is a born teacher as well as a successful author and is generous in sharing his enthusiasm for the craft of writing with us newbies. One of his stated goals is to give more than he takes. He does that and more. All I can say is I went to him in a moment of despair, about to pack it in, and now I can’t wait to get to my desk. That, my friend, is a gift beyond price!

  8. Dale, reviews are done after a book is published, for the purpose of affecting sales.

    Larry coaches on books before they’re published, for the purpose of helping the author write the best book possible.

    Do you see the difference?

  9. Laureli

    Larry, this article is not only a nice way to present this problematic aspect of ‘starting a story’, but gave me an immediate lightbulb moment. Duh…. right? Well, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the importance of an immediate hook – but until TODAY, JUST NOW, BECAUSE OF YOU (and for Dale’s benefit to know: your never-ending efforts to HELP us)… I now know I need to completely delete my entire first chapter. LOL, I wanted to experience the opening scene vicariously, so that’s why I did it, to cement the character for myself. Now I see where to really let story begin, and I think the trick for people who feel a need to get that backstory in… just go ahead and write it, but then don’t include it!
    Thanks AGAIN, Larry!

  10. David

    * I hope I’m not double posting. It looked like it didn’t work the first time.*

    Good stuff. Personally, I feel very put off when a writer starts the story, either the Prologue or the first chapter (even if the book has both), with a character’s first and last names… UNLESS they are throwing me into the middle of some kind of action. That usually works.

    Even then, it’s not my favorite. This is because so many books seem to start with something like, “Trudy Valentine chomped on her gum as she finished up the last file of the day. She threw the file in her desk drawer and stared out the window. What a year it had been…” Dear Lord.

    I can even handle, “Biff Peterson chucked his last grenade into the bunker and hunkered down, covering his ears.” It kind of stinks, but at least something is happening. I think it’s fine to start most chapters with someone’s first and last name, just don’t care for it in the prologue or chapter one.

    In some cases, the full name might even be the best way to start, but since it reminds me of so many bad books, I can’t do it. I’d rather start with a line of dialogue or something, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Candice said. I couldn’t care less what her last name is, at least not yet. I just really want to know what she’s seeing. (A ghost in the woods maybe?) It could be anything, but at least I’m curious.

    Matter of fact, that brings up another thought and I’m curious how Larry and the rest of you feel about this. Many writing coaches push really hard for you to start out with action, action, action. I get that something needs to be happening, but as a reader I don’t love pistols blazing and bombs going off on page one.

    As a reader, I very much prefer an intriguing question. Especially if it’s so intriguing that the author can put off the answer for a long time, teasing out other strange elements along the way (which build on the original question), creating an emotional backdrop of a ‘what’s-going-on-here’ feel. I love that.

    If you go that route though, you gotta have a real payoff when the time comes. Nothing is worse than getting a reader all tingly for something delicious and then serving them a big plateful of fail. “Oh, it was a dream the whole time.” Boo.

    Anyway, I’m just wondering how others feel about action versus intriguing question at the beginning.

  11. Robert Jones

    @David–A lot of great stories have started with a character identifying themselves by name. So have a lot of bad stories–attempting to emulate the classics that have come before them, most likely. That doesn’t bother me so much if what happens to the character is handled well. You’re on the right track though with your notion of posing an intriguing question. Any monkey can write an opening with guns blazing and bombs detonating. Thanks to Hollywood, this has been set in the minds of many writers as the golden standard for grabbing someone’s attention. If the movies are making millions, so should I if I emulate what is essentially a proven commodity, right? However, 99 out of 100 writers could pen a novelization of a Hollywood summer blockbuster and it would read differently than the film is viewed by the masses. Provided the masses read the book.

    Let’s get back to beginnings, shall we?

    Simplified, the best beginnings usually ignite our sense of intrigue by showing us a character in trouble, or about to walk into it. In some cases, a very eccentric character’s behavior can spark curiosity. But the hook still has to emerge in the form of some type of challenge that makes the reader want to see how this oddball handles it, conquers whatever difficulty the villain of the piece decides to throw their way.

    In the case of the road-trip character Larry mentioned, we certainly don’t want the guy’s life story while on the road. Putting a character inside a car in order to give them time to think about things became a cliché before most people here ever started writing their name. Don’t do this without good reason. Is there a good reason? What if the FB showed the guy packing a bag in a hurry, sneaking out under cover of darkness? What if he stopped at a convenience store and hid under the hood of his jacket, or kept his gaze turned down to avoid security cameras? Or maybe the glimpse of him running away from something while stopped at that accident scene is what what gives him second thoughts about helping someone who is injured. Does he just drive on, or help them anyway, failing to give his name when the injured driver tries to identify the kind stranger? What if the injured person sees blood on the stranger’s shirt, but realizes when the police arrive that the blood was dried already when the stranger arrived? Does the driver tell the police because he feels the stranger is in trouble and needs their help? Or maybe he rats on the good samaritan anyway because the driver thinks it’s his moral duty. People never cease to amaze in their cretinism, their ignorance, greed, sense of right, wrong life as a whole…and neither should your characters. Everything good and bad in life is about people. If your characters aren’t taking advantage of the contradictions in human nature they aren’t going to come across as real to your readers.

    Subtlety, and the unexpected, can be much more effective than bullet holes and dismemberment.

    The notion that people have been dumbed down to the point of loosing their attention span if a car chase or battle isn’t going down every 10-15 minutes may not entirely be a hoax. It’s certainly a problem that’s perpetuated by folks who would rather watch a movie than read. There is a certainly a problem when it comes to illiteracy and the very notion of reading in a large segment of the population. But are you writing for those people? And if so, are guns and bombs in the opening scene going to entice them to read your book? I think writers write for writers–or for themselves as a writer first. And if weapons excite the hell out of you, who am I to tell you what you should write about? On the other hand, how do your guns and bombs differ from all the other monkeys populating the jungle? Why should I find your situation more intriguing than theirs?

    I think it comes down to caring about the hero. If you turn on the six o’clock “Hope is Dead” report, and you see footage of a person who had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting, it’s disturbing, certainly. How many time can you say, “Oh, gosh…that’s just terrible!” But if the person turns out to be your neighbor, best friend, or spouse who is late arriving home from work, it’s a whole different ball game. And those things require skills as a writer. How do you make an audience care for a character before tragedy strikes them three pages into your story?

    You might show a mother kissing a small child goodbye before leaving for work at the local bank that gets held up–a situation where guns can start blazing…HOOHAH! You might show a very lonely guy professing his love to the woman he’s waited a lifetime to meet…and the next minute he walks into a jewelry store and there’s a bomb under the counter where the engagement rings are displayed…KERBLOOEY!

    The point is, no matter how bombastic you play up the situation, if there’s no empathy for the hero, the stakes fall flat. And without steaks…I mean stakes…there’s no meal. Just cole slaw and a pickle. And even if you throw in a side order of fries, the audience who paid–who expected a meal–are going to be yelling, “Where’s the beef?”

    See, the meal is based on intrigue. That’s the atom, the basic building blocks from which each and every story is created. However, the shape those atoms take–the beef–that’s the protein called emotion. But you got that, right? Because no one here is impaired.

  12. Kerry Boytzun

    @Dale: Dude–we are ALL prostitutes in that we accept payment for a service. However, in our not very enlightened interactions with other people that others call “society”, we turn our nose up at some activities that involve enjoyment with the human body. Oh we are all FOR misery with the human body (hard labor, military-police engagements) but if it gives pleasure–well hell that’s just not cool.

    Dale, you have no guts. You toss a comment out the window like a newbie driving through a rough neighborhood he doesn’t like, flipping the locals the rod as you leave. Me thinks you can’t back up your writing with more detail. However, ironic as it may be, you have made Larry’s point in that your single sentence grabbed my attention much more than the usual openers for a story. Too bad you didn’t continue as I’m sure what you have in your head is interesting.

    As for what Larry wrote–the article–it made me immediately think about what you say when you approach your boss telling him why you were late, or why you need the day off…something that you need. You know the part where your boss says, “Get to the point” with his eyes, or maybe has to even say it verbally?

    Don’t know about you, but if I’m going to the boss asking for a favor, I am NOT going blah blah blah blah blah and then today, I blah blah blah blah blah, but what I really need to do is be able to leave an hour early to pickup my car that has had its water damage repaired (does he give a crap that your son left the windows down last night and the storm filled the car up with rain)?

    I sum all of this up as the art of “relevance”. Lawyers in trial are supposed to stay relevant with their “story” (testifying through questioning). Same goes for investigative journalism. Only tell what’s relevant in the story. BTW that’s the job of editing but it’s helped out greatly by the writer who knows how to write what’s relevant vs. what’s just plain boring.

    Like food–if the apple is poisoned, then I want to know if it’s being served, sold, created for later use, and finally eaten. Otherwise save it for Restaurant Digest Magazine.

    What if the opening story scene has a woman in her home picking up laundry off the bedroom floor. Such as a white négligée. That has blood on the front near the left breast cover. The breast cover with the ragged hole in it. Oh, and that’s not her size either…and she doesn’t wear these garments. Maybe her husband knows who wears them as she just got home from a business trip for the week. Did I mention the color of the carpet? No…who cares? If this were gossip and you were telling your friends at work about the boss coming home to find out her husband might be screwing around on her–would you stop the story for the carpet color, wall paper, or if they have dish vs. cable tv? Nah…I didn’t think you did

    I been on a novel reading kick as of late and have noted that a lot of new books published out there have decent story IDEAS–the idea that was described on the book jacket that caused me to get the book, but I soon discover that the author can’t write to save their life from a swinging axe (I’m holding it). There is a difference between editing prose and grammar, vs. editing for story EFFECT. Larry teaches story EFFECT among other things. Lots of things. The point here is that most editors SUCK at story editing. It’s like spell check has replaced the story editors, and it shows with the lousy books out there. Yeah I’m on a rant but it’s Sunday, and I have to go to work tomorrow for the job I hate that sucks the life outta my soul, but due to the lovely outsourcing and offshoring of everything–I have no choice. Or to take up crime or become a politician but I repeat myself.

    But alas–I am a prostitute–for my paycheck. Like everyone else.

  13. Robert Jones

    Ah, yes, Dale. I purposely skipped that subject for several reasons. Either he’s just passing through and found SF as part of an internet search, but has no clue what was going on here. Lord knows there are enough people jumping on the writing bandwagon who are charging up-and-coming writers a fee for services they are not yet qualified to give. Like those who offer editing services without a clue that Kerry mentioned.

    But I decided not to point out what so many already have. I can only say to Dale–if he’s still reading–that he should check out Larry’s books on writing, his novels, and read the posts here…and learn. I can promise that he will learn something he didn’t know before…and will not learn elsewhere. What Larry offers is a blessing to those who avail themselves of his knowledge and services. And I believe we should all be so lucky to make money from our experiences and understanding of craft. Isn’t it all our goals to earn our living at something we enjoy, rather than prostitute ourselves out to the doldrums of a routine we despise?

    Even the less than proficient editors are attempting to branch out on their own and break the chains that bind so many. The world is in flux. The doors have opened to allow people to make new and different choices for themselves. We can hope that we will all learn to become better at the tasks of our own choosing over time. Meanwhile, it’s time for thinking outside the box, for re-inventing ourselves. And those who have mastered certain aspects of craft–like Larry–are carrying the torch for those still not in the know.

    That’s why you’ll find SF linked through many other author’s blogs who care about craft. And why several have been contributors here. I would welcome dale to join in these discussions and see that there is a difference to whatever negative hype he’s been subjected to elsewhere.

  14. MikeR

    Here’s one way to think about it:

    “A work of Fiction is . . . A – R – T – I – F – I – C – I – A – L !!”

    Is it “realistic?” Well, not really … Quite frankly, it’s a whole lot more like High-Fructose Corn Syrup than boring-old Sucrose. It’s “reality, but EverSoMuchMoreSo.”

    Point is, it’s not “reality” at all. “Reality” is what awaits me in the hot summer day outside this nice, cool theater … which is precisely WHY I am here, munching this half-stale popcorn and this peculiar sort of candy that I would never imagine consuming anywhere else but here.

    (Mind you, I’m in a mega-plex, and I know that I can slip out of this theater and walk into the one next door, where maybe the story is better, and no one will know or care.)

    So … “hook me. Hook me now.” Grab me and take me for a ride. That’s all I ask, really … and you should know perfectly well what I ask for. After all, when YOU pick up a book at the Hudson’s store next to Gate C-27, are your expectations actually any different? . . . (Hint: I can tell you the answer.) 🙂

  15. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–Agreed. Writing is not real life. It’s a semblance of life. Even the great writers of yesteryear who based their novels on life (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) had to condense events, skewed them through the lens of their personal perceptions, and crafted them in a dramatic light. Most of us just don’t live lives that interesting. And those of us that do have events strung out over a lifetime. Writing a biography of the most interesting of lives, we would still have to find a place of high drama to begin in order to capture the reader’s attention.

    Here’s one example I love to quote from–a biography that uses fiction techniques. It’s the opening paragraph from “No Ordinary Time,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Franklin Roosevelt:

    On nights filled with tension and concern, Franklin Roosevelt performed a ritual that helped him to fall asleep. He would close his eyes and imagine himself at Hyde park as a boy, standing with his sled in the snow atop the steep hill that stretched from the south porch of his home to the wooded bluffs of the Hudson River far below. As he accelerated down the hill, he maneuvered each familiar curve with perfect skill until he reached the bottom, whereupon, pulling his sled behind him, he started slowly back up until he reached the top, where he would once more begin his descent. Again and again he replayed this remembered scene in his mind, obliterating his awareness of the shrunken legs inert beneath the sheets, undoing the knowledge that he would never climb a hill or even walk on his own power again. Thus liberating himself from his paralysis through an act of imaginative will, the president of the United States would fall asleep.

    The second paragraph (which I won’t copy) goes on to explain that this is one of those nights filled with tension. The president can’t sleep because he’s awaiting a phone call that tells him Hitler’s armies were simultaneously attacking Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. You could hardly ask for a more dramatic point in anyone’s life.

    Now, this is not an action yarn. No guns are blazing, or bombs exploding. There isn’t even a car chase in sight. But examine that opening and you’ll see Story Physics applied quite liberally. The author introduced the character essentially in a FB, but also the present, juxtaposing the boy who could climb a hill with his sled with the “shrunken legs inert beneath the sheets” in the present. Empathy is immediately created between the reader and this man replaying a scene from his childhood to escape the fact he will never walk again. If this were a work of fiction and we had no clue who this character was, would we be curious to know what happened to him? Would we feel something for him imediately?

    And when we learn the villain strikes, attacking four different places at once through the dreaded phone call, the hook is set. All done in two paragraphs. And look at all those concrete visuals.

    Did everything happen exactly as the writer describes, however? Was Roosevelt replaying those images trying to fall asleep on that particular night, or was his mind too busy with other things? Who knows? But it’s a very effective opening of a Pulitzer Prize winning book. And we could all learn a few things in terms of generating empathy and tension very quickly in an opening. And it only took two short paragraphs for the author to do this.

  16. Jason Waskiewicz

    The beginning of my novel is one of the areas I’ve struggled with. In fact, my initial struggles with the beginning were what saved the novel. I realized it needed to start when the hero was old enough to do something. However, I have still been fighting to make it work.

    The hero ends up starting a revolution. But I can’t start the story in the heat of the war. I have also never liked those movies or books that start with a great big action scene to throw you into the action. I always like to know who is fighting or why. So, I couldn’t start in a battle, and I don’t want to play the game of starting with the battle and then jumping back in time.

    But, the trick I’ve seen in some books has been a layered story. The civil war is the exciting part of the story. However, there are two other stories for the hero. One is the alcoholic man who adopted and raised him starting at age 9. Beyond that, there is also the question of who his real father is. What I did was to bookend the book with this story.

    The main thing is to hook the reader. Action can work as a hook, but it’s not the only way to hook the reader. We need to be given a reason to care about the hero and the story. I like it when books start with a hook, and start hinting at the bigger story right away. I made sure to put the hero into action early in a scene that hints at the evil of the existing government without laying out the full scale of the story. But, I think most readers would recognize by then that the hero will be doing something about this government (even though he doesn’t know it yet).

    But Larry Brooks is totally right. The story has to start with actual story. The background and backstory can all be fit in where it’s needed. Too much in one place will be forgotten anyway.

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