It was the best of stories. It was the worst of stories. Or, dank chill basements, rich coffee, the grind of the carriages wooden wheels.
I love 18th century literature. It gives you an unmistakable point of view and rich, sensual imagery that puts you right in the story. Unfortunately, many people will not give a tale a chance if it starts slowly if the vocabulary demands a dictionary.
We live in the age of the ADD reader. They know new experience is always a click away.
So, I had mixed feelings as I read a contest entry recently that evoked the age of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe. Close to half of what I read is from that era, but I know I am not the typical reader. The careful development of setting and character in the contest entry delighted me, but I knew that this story would not be a winner. The other contest judges made sure of this, and their comments railed against the slow pacing and lack of conflict.
The score I gave was more encouraging, but the other judges may have been more helpful. Anyone seeking to have their fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) published should take a close look at how well they are engaging readers. This has long been true for short story writers, but today -- especially in popular genres -- novels require hooks, too.
There are many ways to create hooks. The title itself is an essential hook that immediately cues the audience to genre and assures them that the writer takes the work seriously. Misleading or boring titles give editors and agents a reason to pass on work. And, if they survive the editorial process, they reduce the chances of even a wonderful work reaching its potential.
Once the first hurdle of the title is cleared, the first few sentences of text must be negotiated. Amateur writers, if they consider a hook at all, are likely to begin with action. This is a good instinct—strong verbs make for powerful writing and action can create vivid images. The biggest problem they have is a tendency to begin with chase scenes, fights, and characters hanging on to ledges 47 stories up. After they finish those first pages of danger and jeopardy, everything else that follows can be a letdown. In addition, there is no complication to the excitement. We don't know the character yet, so how can we care?
Action that is unusual is a surer bet. The chemist preparing a sample that might prove his brother did not poison the investor. The hacker searching for the malware that could destroy a civil rights lawyer. The young woman macgyvering kitchen appliances and utensils to prepare a defense against the zombie apocalypse.
All of these actions have the potential to provide interesting details. They happen at times when the characters aren't running for their lives and so reflection (that reveals character) is reasonable. And each of these has stakes. The stakes can be raised even further if the protagonist faces a dilemma. For instance, if the chemist has a choice between implicating his brother and sending him to the gallows, or not doing the test and allowing the blame to fall upon himself. This makes it tough on our hero and delightfully agonizing for readers.
An action beginning can also raise a story question. Readers will happily work their way through hundreds or even thousands of pages to get a satisfying answer. Will Scarlett saved Tara? Will Dorothy find her way home? Well Robin Hood avoid capture? I’ll note that there may be other questions along the way. Dorothy's assassination of the Wicked Witch of the West is an urgent question for much of The Wizard of Oz. But raising questions is good, even if they are not “story” questions. And questions need not be raised by actions.
One powerful beginning to a story is one that presents a point of view, often a first person narration, that raises the question, “who is this guy?” In science fiction, an unusual setting—two moons rising in the night sky–can introduce questions and capture interest.
No matter which hooks a writer chooses to use, the beginning needs to be clear and succinct. An unclear beginning will stop a reader cold. In most cases, it breaks the contract between the writer and the reader. How can you be trusted to tell the story and provide a good experience if you begin with confusion? And, just as jokes are funnier when they have fewer words, hooks are more effective when all the excess verbiage is cleared away. Be brief and simple. Avoid compound, convoluted sentences and big words (at least at the beginning).
There was a time when I finish every book I started. But too many novels have taken me to unsatisfying destinations. Today, I only finish about three quarters of the novels I start. (I follow a rule my wife taught me—read 100 pages minus your age, and then decide to put the book down or read to the end.) Of course, this is for books that I've purchased. I read the first few pages of many more books and most of those don’t end up in my shopping cart. (Of course, there are those peculiar people who turn to the last pages. For those, you want to create Endings That Buzz).
Writers, you are facing writers who are likely to be less tolerant than I am, so hook them and hold them.