May 11, 2010

Hook Line or Sinker?

We stared in horror, our feet stuck to the pavement, too shocked to move while the man we nicknamed Jesus climbed over the railing, turned and lifted his hand in a twist of a wave, and tilted his body forward until he fell into the raging water below.

OK. I just made that line up. The question is does it intrigue you? Would you want to read more?

Writers need to ask these kinds of questions every day, especially about the first sentence of any story. Gone are the days when a writer devotes several pages to creating the setting of a story and to bringing you up to speed on the main character’s past. Writers must start with a bang and move quickly into action.

This is nothing new in the world of media and entertainment. Journalism 101 instructed us to get as much of the crucial facts in that first sentence. Readers of newspapers don’t typically stick around for the whole article, so that first sentence better wow them. The internet makes this truth even stronger today.

Movies and TV shows employ this method too. Think about the first few minutes of any James Bond movie. Bond meets the bad guys in a one-on-many battle that no one can or should survive, but with pizzazz, a cool head, and a little luck, he manages to escape in ways that force us to laugh because it should not be possible. Never once do you see him sweat. Of course you hang around for the rest of the story! You have to learn how he does it.

Today’s readers expect that same excitement and intrigue from the first sentence of a book. This is not easy to do. As writers we know our story, we know what’s happening, and we love words. Ahh, and there’s the catch—we love words, so we write beautiful sentences and paragraphs developing a world that the reader eases into slowly like slipping into a hot, luxurious bath. Wrong!!  The beauty in our words goes unread, because our readers want to cannonball into the middle of the pool.

I’m currently reading Hooked by Les Edgerton. This book on writing uses simple clarification and humor to teach writers how to grab the reader in that first sentence, first paragraph, and first scene. No matter how beautiful your writing, if you don’t create that perfect hook, that inciting incident that plunges us into the story or intrigues us to read more, than your beautiful story and writing won’t make it beyond an agent’s first glance.

The process makes sense and Edgerton creates a convincing argument.  So, yes, for those of you with inquiring minds, Edgerton’s book convinced me to revisit my novel’s beginning and rework that first crucial scene, striving for that jump start that draws you in and keeps you turning pages.

I recommend Hooked for all aspiring writers.  Don't let your stories go down without a fight.

3 comments:

Valerie Norris said...

I've been going over my opening for several days, analyzing every word. Does it do what it's supposed to? Is it strong enough? Is it interesting? Does it hook the reader?

Some days I want to put the re-writing aside and jump into something new. New is so easy--you just put the pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and write. Let it pour out in an undisciplined, heady rush.

Then I get back to work.

Thanks, Barbara!

Carole St-Laurent said...

Coincidence: I'm presenting (yes, again) at my CRW group in Charlotte next June 5th. The title of the workshop: The First Paragraph. We'll review NYT best sellers openings, and we'll critique our members' as well. Should be fun!

Barbara V. Evers said...

Good for you Carole! Sounds like an interesting workshop.