The opening to your story demands supreme craftsmanship. If you fail here, you’ve lost the sale.
I started my novel before I had learned anything about how to start a novel. As expected from a novice writer, I got it all wrong. Everyone will tell you, hooking the reader with your first lines is vital. A good hook can happen in the first paragraph, ideally in the first sentence.
A murder mystery invites a hook. It begs for one. A body falls from a high-rise, the victim’s hands tied behind their backs, a scrap of paper tucked into the band of their wristwatch. You’ve got yourself some instant intrigue. But what if you’re writing a love story where no one is killed? Jump to the drama.
I’m writing a historical fiction that takes place during the War of 1812. Naturally, you’d assume I would begin the book with a battle, cannons roaring and men charging into the field, but my MC is no soldier. He’s a farmer. I tried beginning the novel soft, working my way into the drama. With that notion, my first draft had my MC out in the fields, tending to his crops. SNORE.
The only way that becomes a hook is if he digs up a hidden treasure under his corn or if an alien lands on his prized pumpkin, but neither of those events are in this tale. Starting with mundane chores and everyday activity provides no hook. Even if the reader always had an interest in farming, they aren’t likely to be captured by my beautiful descriptions of a dude in the dirt.
Next draft I started with my MC waking to the day. NOPE. There’s no drama in someone getting out of bed, even if he stubs his toe. He is awoken because of a loud noise downstairs, and he has to go investigate. While this has us approaching drama, we really don’t need the lead-up. Any information I have about the fact that he was asleep can be told through a description of his pajamas or the dim light outside, but the drama is in the cause of the disturbance.
My new beginning is here, right when he confronts the person who has woken him, and the two argue over the urgent need for early-hour racket. This may not be a brutal, desperate combat over land or freedom. It may not be a murder itching to be solved. It’s drama though, and drama is what hooks us all.
I’ve not chiseled this marble into a Romanesque statue quite yet, but I can be sure these first words will be ones of action, conflict, and interest. He’s a farmer. Great. His day has just begun. Okay. He’s fighting with a woman over stolen curtains and whiskey, telling her not to run away again, while a large indigenous man stands in the doorway. Hmmm? Go on.
Do you have your hook yet? Does your current opening fall flat? Look at your story. Where does the first drama begin? You don’t have to rush to the inciting event of the story arc, but certainly some conflict happens before then, something far more interesting than the MC going grocery shopping, or driving to work, or realizing they’ve run out of floss.
Don’t be afraid to cut pages of introduction, exposition, and familiarization with your MC’s world. That can all come out later. If you want to hook readers, ask yourself honestly, where does the drama really begin? Start there.
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Matt, I enjoyed your discussion of hooking the reader early in the story. While I haven’t written a novel yet, I have written three short stories. My fourth story is in process, but your thoughts have encouraged me to look at the beginning again.
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