Hook me, baby!

Oof.  Writing the beginning of a novel is hard, isn’t it?  I mean, everyone always complains about the dreaded middle or the trouble of nailing the ending, but let’s be honest:  if you don’t hook the reader with your opener, it doesn’t matter what you do with the middle or the end.

Authors, agents, and publishers are perennially asking for hooks:  “Hook me on the first page.  Hook me with the first paragraph.  Hook me in the first line.”  For short stories, this is (slightly) easier to do, but with novels it sometimes feels impossible to strike the proper balance between giving your reader a sense of the characters and grabbing them by the lapels and shrieking YOU WILL BE AMAZED BY THE SKIN-SINGEING THRILLS AHEAD.

This problem has been on my mind of late.  I just finished a submission for a writing workshop I’ll be attending this coming May.  We were allowed to send only 5K in for review and at first I felt very stymied by this.  I’m a novel writer.  How the heck am I supposed to get meaningful feedback on 5K words?  Then I realized if my first 5K doesn’t grab readers at this workshop, it sure as hell isn’t going to pass muster with agents and editors.  This was (gulp) the perfect opportunity to find out if I’d written a good hook.

Problem is, once I really zoomed in on the first 5K in isolation, I began to fret.  The opener was not particularly dramatic and the story has something of a slow reveal.  It’s good stuff (it really is, I swear!), but it isn’t action-packed.  It’s more “strange events unsettle the heroine’s life” than “ghostpigs attack the space station with lasers”.  In the end, I decided that despite being well written and characterized, the opening wasn’t enough of a hook.  I made a late night, last minute change (I mean, those are ALWAYS a good idea, right?) and started with a scene swiped from near the end of the climax, one chocked full of ghostpigs and lasers.  Now I’m biting my nails that this’ll feel like a gimmick or a cheat rather than a clever way to make the reader go: “WHOA! How do we wind up here??”.

I’ll guess I’ll find out if the change worked when I show up for my ritual evisceration at the workshop in a few months.

In the meantime, I continue to ponder the difficulty with novel openings.

How important is it to put your explosions and sparkly vampires in the first paragraph?  How much leeway will your reader allow you to set the scene for what is to follow?  How many pages or paragraphs will really good characters buy you?  Can you start with a few pages of “normal life” before you rip it all out from under the readers’ feet or must you seed all that in as backstory after the king has executed your heroine’s lover in the first paragraph?

Obviously the answers to these questions shift like dandelion seeds in the wind.  How good of a writer are you?  What are the preferences of the agent, editor, or reader who picks up what you’ve written?  Is your book a stand-alone, the first in a series, or the fifteenth?  What phase of the moon is it?

I just don’t know.

All I know is my instincts were telling me my opening was too slow.  I attempted to fix it.  It may turn out my instincts were wrong, or that they were right but my solution was wrong.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Anyone else out there struggle with openings?  Should we always lead with change that transforms the protagonist’s life or can we buy a few pages to establish “normal life” before the change comes?  Maybe there’s a happy middle ground I haven’t found yet.  What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Hook me, baby!

  1. Stephen Buchheit

    Openings are hard. I don’t think you need to open with an explosion, but getting the flavor and the theme or the conflict early on is good. I do think the hook is important. If you don’t grab them in the first paragraph or two, it’s been my impression people will put the story down at that point.

    One of the rejection letters I keep running around in my head had the hand written line, “Took too long to get to the weird.”

  2. Stephen Buchheit

    I forgot to say that the hook doesn’t need to be the main conflict or theme, but it should keep the reader interested until those do show up. Or go from one hook to the next hook, to the next.

  3. Stephen Buchheit

    Damn, and I’m just not in a “writer mind” mode these days. All of these ideas about hooks and opening lines, they are NOT about the first draft. Try not to think about these things in the first draft. All of this is what rewrite is about. Once you have the whole story out you can start work on setting the hooks and making the transitions smooth. If you try to do these in the first draft you can bind yourself up but real good.

  4. mirandasuri

    Hi Steve – thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    It’s sort of interesting to me how I think about openings when I’m writing vs. when I’m reading for pleasure. Generally, as a reader, I’m pretty forgiving about a slower opening — especially if the character interests me. But when I’m writing and critiquing, it’s exactly the opposite.

    I agree about first drafts (what I’m working on right now is not a first draft but a revision); getting hung up on the beginning in a first draft is a huge waste of time. Usually you can’t even know how something needs to begin until you’ve gotten all the way to the end. Even if you’re a big time plotter, things are going to change and the opening you’ve devised may become obsolete, irrelevant, or inappropriate.

    I like your point about stringing hooks together. I’ll think about whether something like that might work for me.

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