write an opening that hooks your reader (or: how to raise hell and cause trouble)

 

 

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Rules, of course, are made to be broken.

Here are a few rules about how to open your novel:

DON’T open with description.

Description is static. Static means boring. It doesn’t matter what you’re describing: description is passive and inert and sits on the page.

You need to emotionally engage the reader and get them curious and worried. Description doesn’t do that.

DO trust your reader’s intelligence.

You don’t need to kill the reader with backstory in order to establish your characters, and you don’t need to spend a lot of time setting up whatever situation those characters happen to find themselves in.

DON’T get me wrong. Backstory is awesome. Description is awesome. They provide depth and texture and resonance. Just don’t open with them. Give your readers enough information to orient them in the story– and then get on with the story.

DO open with a scene.

A scene is the basic building block of fiction. It is fleshed-out and dramatic — which means it is also emotionally engaging in a way that summary is not. “Show don’t tell” is not true; you can’t show everything, or the story will never end. But you need to show all the important things.

DO open with your inciting incident.

Your inciting incident is the first event that destabilizes your character’s personal world order and kicks off the plot of your story. It’s what James Scott Bell refers to as “a disturbance” and what the Hero’s Journey monomyth refers to as “the call to adventure”. It’s the first surface problem your character needs to deal with and the first indication of the ‘real’ or ‘core’ problem that the character will eventually uncover.

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I say ‘surface’ because every story operates on two levels. The first is the surface story, which is the concrete, tangible chain of cause-and-effect events the character must navigate. But each problem the character attempts to solve only leads him into a deeper problem, and then a deeper problem….until he learns to recognize and resolve the core problem that forms the heart of the story and is buried underneath all that cause-and-effect.

Unless that core problem is revealed and confronted, the chain of cause-and-effect will go on and on and on.

I will borrow E.M. Forster’s king-and-queen example to try and illustrate:

The king died. And then the queen died.

This, while unfortunate, is not a plot. It’s a situation. The death of both monarchs could be the inciting event, kicking off an interesting chain of consequences, but so far we don’t have a plot yet.

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

This is a plot, because the two events are linked: the one directly caused the other. The king’s death is the inciting incident that upsets the queen’s personal world order. What does she do? She grieves. She dies.

The end.

Forster’s example stops there — so far as I know — but I’d like to add that this is the surface story. The king’s death is the superficial problem the queen must grapple with in order to resolve the core problem that is buried underneath and powering the story forward: her inability to live without a man in her life. She is unsuccessful, and dies. The end. Gloria Steinem would not be impressed.

The story could have gone in a different direction entirely. Let’s say:

The queen grieves, and then immediately starts searching for that next potential husband. She wants the still-single king of the neighboring country, but he has no interest in her, and in a particularly humiliating incident at a ball, rejects her. To cope with this, and try to make him jealous, she throws herself into a series of affairs. Perhaps she’s fortunate enough to find some great sex, but falls into greater and greater despair. She drinks increasing amounts of mead and experiments with opium. One night she nearly overdoses. This brush with death makes her realize — I want to live! — and she seeks out an excellent therapist. She begins to realize that as a child she was deprived of affection and taught to rely and depend on men, and that her value as a person was connected to her appearance and marital status. She decides to reject this. She confronts her parents. She goes on a search to ‘find herself’, takes up a hobby, inspires and empowers the handmaidens around her, starts a movement…Her new spirit and sense of independence attract the king of the neighboring country, who swings through town and decides he must have her. He is hot and rich and powerful and she’s always had a thing for him, even when she was married, and now at last she can have him. But he is also a dominating brute who wants to tame and conquer her (and has some nasty plans for her kingdom besides) and in order to be his wife she must sacrifice her emerging sense of self….Which she is no longer willing to do. So she rejects him, which enrages him, and he attacks her, but she’s taken all those self-defense courses and gotten her black belt in two different martial arts and so manages to fend him off. He falls out the window and dies. She rules her kingdom as a confident and independent woman who has finally learned to love herself (and can play with the men in her court without seeking to define herself through them).

The end.

Notice how, in this little narrative, the death of the king is the inciting incident. It might seem to be what the story is going to be about, but is actually the ‘disturbance’ that begins a chain of cause-and-effect that reveals the story’s real problem: the queen’s desperate need for a man in order to feel that life is worth living.

If she was a confident and empowered woman to begin with, the death of the king would be terrible, yes, but she would cope and carry on. There would be no real story.

The deep problem, the core problem, has to involve a direct threat to the protagonist, has to shake up and endanger the protagonist’s psychological state of being. The inciting incident connects to the core problem, and disturbs the protagonist’s world in a way that starts to bring the core problem to the surface.

The inciting incident doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a death, by the way. It doesn’t have to be ‘dramatic’ at all. It can be low and subtle as a whisper. But it’s the first hint of unrest, the first sign that the protagonist’s world as he or she knows it is coming to an end. It’s also the first clue that will lead the protagonist to the deep, core problem that he or she must resolve in order to establish a new sense of balance and order. The protagonist — and the reader — won’t start off the story knowing what the ‘core problem’ actually is. The core problem surfaces and reveals itself in time. But you, the author, should know what’s going on underneath your story as well as on the surface of your story. When you figure this out, the ‘inciting incident’ becomes apparent, and gives you a place to begin.

with thanks to the excellent HOOKED: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers and Never Lets Them Go (Les Edgerton)

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Feb 12, 2010
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22 comments · Add Yours

This post is as entertaining as it is smart and savvy. Writing a gripping opener is no small feat. Your discussion of the “core problem” actually helped me with a couple of narrative issues I’ve been grappling with lately, so thanks for both your advice and your great timing! :-)

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Excellent advice. I have to admit to being such a spoiled reader that as I wander through the library stacks looking for the next novel to borrow, I open each book and read only the first sentence. If you can’t grab me with the first sentence, you haven’t done your job well. “This book was born as I was hungry.” – Yann Martell, The Life of Pi. Or, “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

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Lovely post, that really got me thinking, because I’m in the revisions of my novel and currently rewriting my beginning. Thanks for the advice! =)

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damn you…every time you post one of these ‘opening’ type blog posts it makes me change Chapter 1- lol. Can’t you do endings?

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Oh I will, I will…I’m just still dealing with the opening & middle sections of my own novel…

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Fantastic article. You just saved us from taking a $200 online workshop on hooks & openings. And Hooked is my 2nd favorite writing book of all time!

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What’s your first favorite?

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Duh. I meant to write it, but figured you’d already know…I’m nothing if not predictable:
On Writing by Stephen King.

I actually “sold” a copy of it a couple weeks ago in Borders. I overheard a lady asking the worker there about King’s books on writing (which of course the Borders worker didn’t know). I said, “He only wrote that one and it’s *fantastic*.”

She bought it. Now I figure King owes me…big time.

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On Writing by Stephen King. I’m nothing if not predictable, eh?
:-)

First Five Pages by Lukeman? is right up there too.

I was stoked Les Edgerton is part of that facebook group we’re in. I friended him and exchanged some emails. A very nice guy.

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Oops. I thought it deleted my first reply. Now I look like a double answerer when I’m merely an obsessive compulsive.

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I read another interesting take on the inciting incident by… I *think* it was Robert Olen Butler… where he talks about how the inciting incident doesn’t have to occur within the story itself. Following the inciting incident is the ‘point of attack’ which introduces the conflict.

So, thinking off the top of my head, a basic example would be:

Inciting Incident = a teenager is murdered. (BEFORE the novel opens.)
Point of Attack = a detective examines the murder scene & recognizes the signature of a serial killer who was never caught.

It’s quite interesting to think of ‘inciting incident’ as something crucial that sparks things off, but it’s NOT presented in the opening scene of the novel.

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The picture at the beginning made me laugh so hard that I had a hard time reading the post. But when I finally calmed down, I was glad I did. You have a great knack for making potentially complicated and paralyzing concepts sounds simple and common sensy.

Great post. Hopefully we all think, act, reevaluate, and keep marching forward.

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Yeah, I would think most murder mysteries, police procedurals start *after* the inciting incident.

I think you could start the story anywhere…so long as it’s the right place in that particular story…

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Yeah, that was probably a bit of a lame example, but I liked the difference between the two terms, II and PoA. I remember when I first read that it made me look more closely at the opening of all my manuscripts.

And yes, definitely re. “so long as it’s the right place in that particular story…” Sometimes it takes me a LONG time to figure out exactly what that is. Or I’ll write it one way, and then discover later on that I have to change it.

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Great post! One of the better writing advice pieces I’ve seen in awhile – and it was fun to read!

Not to be lame and just quote you in my comment but this paragraph is perfect. It very clearly lays out what I, as the writer, am trying to do. It is something I am not good at putting into words or even being that conscious about so your description is incredibly helpful.

The first is the surface story, which is the concrete, tangible chain of cause-and-effect events the character must navigate. But each problem the character attempts to solve only leads him into a deeper problem, and then a deeper problem….until he learns to recognize and resolve the core problem that forms the heart of the story and is buried underneath all that cause-and-effect.

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I’m a spoiled reader as well — when a book loses me, it really loses me. I feel no obligation to finish it. I’m outta there. This could happen on page 153 or page 3 or the third paragraph.

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I’m glad it got you thinking! Thinking and reading about these issues helped me a lot as well. Good luck with your revisions (I wish I was revising, but I’m still slugging through a first draft)!

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I got a huge kick out of using that picture. :)

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Thanks. Thinking about this & reading Edgerton’s book brought a revelation about my own novel (in progress) — how the ’cause and effect’ surface is one story (a troubled love triangle) and the core problem another story (how secrets in the past can contaminate the present). I’m still working it out, but writing this post was helpful.

I love this stuff.

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Hi Justine,
Just wanted to thank you for the shout-out you gave my book, Hooked. I really appreciate and am extremely gratified that you found it helpful in your own writing. One caveat I’d always try to provide: As you know, writing is a fluid enterprise and the environment is always changing, particularly since we write in “living” languages, i.e., English, French, German, et al, and have the ever-changing landscape of cultural influences such as TV and movies. That means, nothing is carved in marble and things in writing change all the time. As John Gardner told his prize pupil, Ray Carver, shortly before Gardner’s death, at a lunch meeting: “Forget everything I told you in school. It’s all changed.” People sometimes forget this and fail to realize that a book is frozen in the time it was written in. If Gardner were alive today, odds are pretty good he’d be giving different advice; unfortunately, he’s room temperature, so can’t. Just providing this caveat so that people don’t blindly follow me or anyone else, but keep in mind that writing and taste in books evolves. Thank God! That means I can write another one in a few years overriding what I said in past ones…

When push comes to shove (to use a cliche, that I, for one, never get tired of hearing…), I always advise writers to follow their own instincts. We become writers because we’ve read exhaustively, which means we’ve taught ourselves to write fairly well.

I’m bookmarking your site–looks like a great source of info.

Laissez les bon temps rouler,
Les Edgerton

P.S. Hey, Stephen P. Thanks for the props!

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Hi Les! I was kind of hoping you’d drop by. :)

I hear you re: the fluidity of storytelling. Which is why it always irks me a little when people complain how so-and-so (Charles Dickens or whomever) would never get published *now*, due to the evil corrupt soulless stupid marketplace, etc. It’s a moot point, and in any case, if Dickens was writing now he’d be writing *differently* (while remaining just as gifted). Storytelling changes with culture, with technology, not to mention it’s in the nature of things to evolve along one endless continuing conversation with itself. “Rules” are best understood as a kind of external scaffolding that the writer eventually absorbs and internalizes, until he or she sees through the “rules” to the principles behind them and doesn’t need them anymore (and breaks them happily and at will and in powerful ways).

I loved HOOKED, as you know. Also loved the introduction. You remind me a bit of my highly notorious neighbor (the culture both idolizes and loathes him) who will casually start off sentences with, “When I was kidnapped….” or “When I was in jail…”

Good to meet you.

Lache pas la patate
Justine

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This is awesome, I wrote a story following these directions, And I got an A+

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