Saturday, June 16, 2012

Your Hook: Baiting It Properly

I know that earlier today the Boss Lady was having trouble getting a post up that she would like to have online here, and I hope she's making progress with correcting that. Feel free to pre-empt this post as soon as you get that cleared up.

Meanwhile, I thought I might toss in a post about the craft of writing. (I do these frequently on my blog, so I figured . . . why not?)

I'd like to blather on for a bit about your story "hook," which is basically your opening paragraph, especially your first line.

Common wisdom these days says that the first few words mean EVERYTHING. If you don't have a great, original, fascinating, shocking, HOOOKY hook, your story will be thrown away and not even scanned by readers, editors, and agents. To some extent (and unfortunately, I feel--but the truth is the truth and the market is the market, so anyway), this is the case.


You don't want to promise the reader something that you are not going to deliver. How often have you picked up a contest entry, piece of fan fiction, or novel and gotten pulled in by the Exciting Stuff that's happening, but then find that in a chapter or two, the author has had to back up and fill in a lot of blanks and/or go into flashback or backstory in order to explain? This is something authors got away with once upon a time, but no more. Your reader is going to judge the tone of your novel based on the tone of the opening sentences. If you promise an action story, then you can't deliver a story that turns slow and analytical and thoughtful. Readers will throw the book against the wall.

This is not to say that you should EVER begin a book with a character waking up, stretching, thinking about her day, getting into the shower, and so forth, even if your book is a character study and will not be all about "Die Hard" stuff. (I will note that many popular books DO begin this way, and I don't know how they got into print nor how their readers settled into it, but anyhow--doesn't matter what the rules say, if you can make it work, then you can make it work and all bets are off.) You should at least fascinate and intrigue the reader and raise a story question right up front. "What is she talking about, the 'wranc dolora'?" "Who is Arnie, the guy she's waiting impatiently for, tapping her foot and looking at her watch and staring up at the clouds?" "Will Joan be offered the job she is interviewing for?" Or whatever it is.

But you should not promise a pace that you will not sustain. In fact, if you start a book in the middle of an Exciting! Battle! and have everyone dropping like flies right and left and have Our Hero running panicked through the battle looking for his brother . . . well, what are you going to do to top that? Generally, the pace and the suspense have to increase as the story goes on, and you have already gone into overdrive. You don't want to have to interrupt the flow with a sudden ploy such as, "As he stood there staring at the carnage, his thoughts returned to last Wednesday, when the Dungeon Mistress had rolled a fumble on both dice and this awful conflict had begun. It was a sunny day and everyone was enjoying their tea when suddenly. . . ." Erg!

Even worse (to me) is when the author thinks, "Aha! We'll tell this with dialogue!"

"Will someone tell me just exactly what is going on here?" yelled Sergeant Exposition.

Lieutenant Backstory grinned ruefully. "Well, you see, sir." He cleared his throat. "As you know, we are all living in a giant jar of Tang. It's been terribly humid this past week, and we've been encountering lumps."

Sgt. Exposition rolled his hands to indicate "speed up."

"Yes, well. Um. So you've probably run into these lumps yourself, and you probably already know that the Mayor has read out a decree making them illegal. Unfortunately, the humidity thinks it is above the law."

"I already know all this"--

(And it goes on until the author has explained all this stuff to somebody who already KNOWS it. Even when you use a newcomer to tell this way, you have to be careful, because if you don't start showing and dramatizing, your readers may start skimming because "tl;dr" and all that.)

You know what I mean. You've read this type of book. You may even have written one.

Well, don't do it any more. There's a better way.

Okay, let's take a look at the evolution of one of my own openings. LOVE IS THE BRIDGE is a paranormal/ghost story involving technology. Paige Campbell is being pursued by a "ghost in the machine," and the machine belongs to Alan McConnell, who has no idea that the AI/expert system he is designing has been taken over by an entity from the past and now has a mind of its own--and an agenda driven by mistaken identity. (It believes Paige is the woman who spurned the man he used to be, and now that "he" has found her again, he's determined to get her to lift the curse she supposedly placed upon him.)

But we don't KNOW any of that as the story opens (unless we have read the blurb. But let's not get off track here.) All we have is the opening line. My opening used to be:

Paige Campbell was closing up shop when the phone rang.

"Hans' Music Haus. This is Paige. How may I help you?" She figured her Uncle Hans was calling to check up on her--he still didn't trust her to close the store alone, even though her three-month probationary period had gone off without a hitch--but what she heard was a steel-cranked synthesized voice.

The metallic tone rasped, "Stop asking questions or you're dead."

Now, a few years ago this would have probably passed muster. In fact, it worked for readers through several workshops. People were patient enough to read a bit in order to get oriented.

But last year I attended a workshop with accomplished romance author and teacher Alicia Rasley. She announced that it surprised her to find that the rest of the opening was so good, as the first line or so was so blah.

"What does 'closing up shop' bring to mind?" she asked. "This seems so flat."

At first I couldn't figure out what she meant. After all, I had a clear mental picture of what it took to close up a small store. But did everyone? Hmm.

Paige Campbell was closing up shop when the phone rang.

She'd expected Uncle Hans to check up on her, because even after three months he still didn't trust her to close the store alone. Amused, she lifted the receiver and recited the prescribed greeting. "Hans' Music Haus, this is Paige, how can I help you?"

A steel-cranked synthesized voice filled her ear. "Stop asking questions or you're dead."

This still didn't give the immediacy they longed for, although it did transmit Paige's mood a little better. (She isn't irritated that Uncle Hans still doesn't trust her, which is a data point for readers who'd default to "she is angry." "Amused" tells us this. Also, "the prescribed greeting" is a nice touch.)

After a few more iterations, I decided that what Alicia and the crew wanted was more specific detail in the opening so that readers were more grounded in the scene.

Ultimately, the opening turned into this:

Paige Campbell slammed the cash register drawer and grabbed for the store's incessantly ringing phone.

She'd been expecting Uncle Hans to check up on her, because even after three months he still didn't trust her to close the store alone. Amused, she lifted the receiver and recited the prescribed greeting. "Hans' Music Haus, this is Paige, how can I help you?"

A steel-cranked synthesized voice rasped, "Stop asking questions or you're dead."

This opening pleases more readers. It has more immediacy for readers who are accustomed to the instant sensory detail they get from watching video. We're not writing to Dickens' Victorian audience any more. Although old-school readers like me will still read the other kind of opening (because we fill in the details with our own inventive stuff as we read--which can cause a different sort of problem, the problem of a reader being unpleasantly surprised by your house actually being contemporary rather than the Queen Anne she's been envisioning--but that's another post), this sort of hooshing-up is well worth doing for today's market.

I still don't know whether the opening is yet in its final form, but the book has a better chance now that the opening promises the exciting ride that the book IS from the very first lines.

Readers can now rest assured that Paige is starting out with trouble that will only get worse. We didn't begin with the major haunting and then have to back up and explain. We started at the proper place (IMHO).

So you can have a hook that isn't in the middle of a forest fire. You can have a hook that intrigues and promises readers a wild ride. I truly believe that there are still readers who want stories that build emotional as well as physical tension, and we should deliver them.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good reminders and I like that you showed specific examples.

C.K.Crigger said...

Excellent, informative post with great advice. Thanks, Shalanna.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your revision process. The example was informative and the final version effective.
Sally Carpenter